Faced with the spectacle of the cruelties perpetrated in the name of faith, Voltaire famously cried ‘Ecrasez l’infâme!’ Scores of enlightened thinkers have followed him, declaring organised religion to be the enemy of mankind, the force that divides the believer from the infidel and thereby both excites and authorises murder. Richard Dawkins, whose TV series The Root of all Evil? concludes next Monday, is the most influential living example of this tradition. And he has embellished it with a striking theory of his own — the theory of the religious ‘meme’. A meme is a mental entity that colonises the brains of people, much as a virus colonises a cell. The meme exploits its host in order to reproduce itself, spreading from brain to brain like meningitis, and killing off the competing powers of rational argument. Like genes and species, memes are Darwinian individuals, whose success or failure depends upon their ability to find the ecological niche that enables reproduction. Such is the nature of ‘gerin oil’, as Dawkins contemptuously describes religion.
This analogical extension of the theory of biological reproduction has a startling quality. It seems to explain the extraordinary survival power of nonsense, and the constant ‘sleep of reason’ that, in Goya’s engraving, ‘calls forth monsters’. Faced with a page of Derrida and knowing that this drivel is being read and reproduced in a thousand American campuses, I have often found myself tempted by the theory of the meme. The page in my hand is clearly the product of a diseased brain, and the disease is massively infectious: Derrida admitted as much when he referred to the ‘deconstructive virus’.
All the same, I am not entirely persuaded by this extension by analogy of genetics. The theory that ideas have a disposition to propagate themselves by appropriating energy from the brains that harbour them recalls Molière’s medical expert (Le Malade imaginaire) who explained the fact that opium induces sleep by referring to its virtus dormitiva (the ability to cause sleep). It only begins to look like an explanation when we read back into the alleged cause the distinguishing features of the effect, by imagining ideas as entities whose existence depends, as genes and species do, on reproduction.
Nevertheless, let us grant Dawkins his stab at a theory. We should still remember that not every dependent organism destroys its host. In addition to parasites there are symbionts and mutualists — invaders that either do not impede or positively amplify their host’s reproductive chances. And which is religion? Why has religion survived, if it has conferred no benefit on its adepts? And what happens to societies that have been vaccinated against the infection — Soviet society, for instance, or Nazi Germany — do they experience a gain in reproductive potential? Clearly, a lot more research is needed if we are to come down firmly on the side of mass vaccination rather than (my preferred option) lending support to the religion that seems most suited to temper our belligerent instincts, and which, in doing so, asks us to forgive those who trespass against us and humbly atone for our faults.
So there are bad memes and good memes. Consider mathematics. This propagates itself through human brains because it is true; people entirely without maths — who cannot count, subtract or multiply — don’t have children, for the simple reason that they make fatal mistakes before they get there. Maths is a real mutualist. Of course the same is not true of bad maths; but bad maths doesn’t survive, precisely because it destroys the brains in which it takes up residence.
Maybe religion is to this extent like maths: that its survival has something to do with its truth. Of course it is not the literal truth, nor the whole truth. Indeed, the truth of a religion lies less in what is revealed in its doctrines than in what is concealed in its mysteries. Religions do not reveal their meaning directly because they cannot do so; their meaning has to be earned by worship and prayer, and by a life of quiet obedience. Nevertheless truths that are hidden are still truths; and maybe we can be guided by them only if they are hidden, just as we are guided by the sun only if we do not look at it. The direct encounter with religious truth would be like Semele’s encounter with Zeus, a sudden conflagration.
To Dawkins that idea of a purely religious truth is hogwash. The mysteries of religion, he will say, exist in order to forbid all questioning, so giving religion the edge over science in the struggle for survival. In any case, why are there so many competitors among religions, if they are competing for the truth? Shouldn’t the false ones have fallen by the wayside, like refuted theories in science? And how does religion improve the human spirit, when it seems to authorise the crimes now committed each day by Islamists, and which are in turn no more than a shadow of the crimes that were spread across Europe by the Thirty Years War?
Those are big questions, not to be solved by a TV programme, so here in outline are my answers. Religions survive and flourish because they are a call to membership — they provide customs, beliefs and rituals that unite the generations in a shared way of life, and implant the seeds of mutual respect. Like every form of social life, they are inflamed at the edges, where they compete for territory with other faiths. To blame religion for the wars conducted in its name, however, is like blaming love for the Trojan war. All human motives, even the most noble, will feed the flames of conflict when subsumed by the ‘territorial imperative’ — this too Darwin teaches us, and Dawkins surely must have noticed it. Take religion away, as the Nazis and the communists did, and you do nothing to suppress the pursuit of Lebensraum. You simply remove the principal source of mercy in the ordinary human heart and so make war pitiless; atheism found its proof at Stalingrad.
There is a tendency, fed by the sensationalism of television, to judge all human institutions by their behaviour in times of conflict. Religion, like patriotism, gets a bad press among those for whom war is the one human reality, the one occasion when the Other in all of us is noticeable. But the real test of a human institution is in peacetime. Peace is boring, quotidian, and also rotten television. But you can learn about it from books. Those nurtured in the Christian faith know that Christianity’s ability to maintain peace in the world around us reflects its gift of peace to the world within. In a Christian society there is no need for Asbos, and in the world after religion those Asbos will do no good — they are a last desperate attempt to save us from the effects of godlessness, and the attempt is doomed.
Muslims say similar things, and so do Jews. So who possesses the truth, and how would you know? Well, we don’t know, nor do we need to know. All faith depends on revelation, and the proof of the revelation is in the peace that it brings. Rational argument can get us just so far, in raising the monotheistic faiths above the muddled world of superstition. It can help us to understand the real difference between a faith that commands us to forgive our enemies, and one that commands us to slaughter them. But the leap of faith itself — this placing of your life at God’s service — is a leap over reason’s edge. This does not make it irrational, any more than falling in love is irrational. On the contrary, it is the heart’s submission to an ideal, and a bid for the love, peace and forgiveness that Dawkins too is seeking, since he, like the rest of us, was made in just that way.