Ed West Ed West

The New Theists

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One of Professor Richard Dawkins’s most influential ideas was the concept of the ‘meme’, which he coined in The Selfish Gene. A meme is an idea or form of behaviour that spreads by imitation from person to person. Memes can be beneficial or harmful to the individual and the wider community. The most successful have some great psychological appeal.

Memes are a form of contagion, and with 21st-century technology, the power of that contagion has grown. Yet people are not merely passive recipients of ideas. Indeed, one aspect of human psychology clearly visible on social media is the willingness of people to meme themselves into belief. Being around a community who express the same beliefs, repeating mantras and declarations of faith, regarding non-believers as a threat in order to solidify group cohesion – yes, you can fake it until you make it.

The argument is not that religion is true, but that it is useful, and that Christianity made the West successful

All this might provide some thought for church leaders as they contemplate the still-falling numbers of people who identify as Christian, and perhaps wonder: can Christianity meme itself back into relevance? Can people not blessed with faith talk themselves into it? Religion comes in degrees, often differentiated by identification, practice and belief. Many who identify as ‘Christian’ don’t practise, and many who practise don’t believe (including some clergymen). But putting your foot on the first step hugely increases the probability of reaching the second. It is the same with all beliefs.

Perhaps the most obvious example of memed belief is transgenderism, the very recent idea that people are born in the wrong body and can somehow change sex. Many men have memed themselves into believing they are women, in part because where once it would have been regarded as a fetish it is now seen as a sacred identity.

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