Richard Dawkins and the meming of life

Come January, London
buses will be emblazoned with the slogan “There’s probably no
God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This new form of
atheist evangelisation has received public support from Richard
Dawkins, Oxford University's Professor of the Public Understanding of
Science, and the renowned author of The God Delusion. He has
put his money where his mouth is and agreed to match all donations to
the cause (up to a maximum of £5,500)

Dawkins is backing the campaign because it "will make people
think – and thinking is anathema to religion." But has he
thought enough about his own missionary zeal? The ever increasing
urgency with which Dawkins now fights the monsters of ignorance and
superstition has even led him to abandon his Oxford chair in order to
do battle with fairies. He plans to write a children's book warning
them against believing in "anti-scientific" fairytales.

Quixotic nature of a man who tilts at windmills is not lost on
Chris Hedges, author of I Don’t Believe in Atheists (Free
Press, 2008). He sees Dawkins as a mirror image of the
fundamentalists he is writing against: intolerant, chauvinistic,
utopian, dogmatic. That old atheist campaigner Friedrich
Nietzsche had some sage advice: whoever fights monsters should see to
it that he does not become a monster.

does Dawkins’ fundamentalist dogmatism show itself more clearly
than in his continued support for the theory that religion is just a
virus in the brain. An extract from his 1976 hit The Selfish Gene is indicative of how Dawkins turns cultural and religious
transmission into something that has as much scientific proof as,
well, ahem, a fairy.

as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body
to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme
pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad
sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about,
a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He
mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on,
it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.”

For the author of The God Delusion, religion is just one more meme, albeit a
pernicious one. Dawkins equates it with child abuse. In response he
has sought to drown evil in an abundance of good and spends his
energies passing on healthier memes. A pity that he stops short with
mere bus slogans. To really get the word out he should rewrite the
Bible. To get the ball rolling, I leave Richard Dawkins with a draft of the first

narration from the Book of

In the beginning the
laws of physics created the heavens and the earth. Quarks moved in
waves and the transfer of energy into mass hovered over the dark

And the laws of
physics determined that there would be light. And so there was! An
incredible explosion of ever-accelerating hot light. To have squeezed
a whole universe out of an atom may have seemed to be a marvel of
efficiency. This was not so. For the maintenance of biological life,
our universe is an overstatement. Science proceeded, religion
receded. The first stage.

Then the laws of
physics achieved a most improbable combination of finely tuned
constants throughout the universe. This was so at a very big level
and at a very small level. The laws of physics seemed to be
constructing the universe according to a genethropic
principle. Science proceeded, religion re-heeded. The second stage.

And the laws of
physics concocted a gene out of the sunlight and seawater. It was a
very, very selfish gene. It wanted to replicate itself but, vanity of
vanities, it was subject to mutation. The laws of physics bid it to
fill the seas and the land with clusters of itself. The better
mutations prospered. And it was seen to be good. Science proceeded,
religion conceded. The third stage.

And the laws of
physics generated memes, which were parasites on men’s brains. Gene
clusters could replicate memes in wholly new and cunning ways.
Catholic memes and Muslim memes swept the world encouraging large
family sizes and wiping out rival religious memes. No matter how
unselfish and sacrificial the memes of individual priests, imams,
nursing sisters or soldiers might seem to be, they were actually part
of a greater replicating plan that was dictated by memes. Science
proceeded, religion pleaded. The fourth stage.

Some memes turned
cancerous. The illusion of human freedom spread through women’s
groups and gene replication was sorely reduced through abortion,
contraception, homosexuality and an unwillingness to adopt out one’s
children to others. Was this bad? Nay, not at all. The other side of
the coin to success is failure. Mutations are blind, the laws of
physics have no real driving purpose. Genetic metaphysics is
inherently unfalsifiable anyway. Blessed be ambivalence. Science
proceeded, religion not needed. The fifth stage.

Then the laws of
physics decided on paradox. Let us make memes in our own image. And
it was so. The evolution of man’s thought threw up from Richard
Dawkins the meme of ‘the meme’. And this was very good. “The
meme” replicated itself through book sales, conventions and Youtube as fast as any religious meme. The belief rapidly took hold that,
rational or not, our beliefs are merely illusions created by
virus-like memes. Science proceeded, religion re-creeded. The sixth

And so
the laws of physics came to rest. They, too, are no more than a virus
in the mind. Some men resisted this and said that it spelled the end
of rational progress. These fools said in their heart “there is no
meme”. Yea, though we alone among the genes’ creations rebel
against our “self-replicating” creators, this proves the reality
of the meme “that we have no memes”.

By the
seventh stage Richard Dawkins had finished the work he had been
doing; in this seventh stage he rested from his work. He looked back
upon all his genius and blessed it and made it accessible on the web.
Then he retired from the Simonyi Professor of the Public
Understanding of Science Chair and set about writing books for
children to warn them off Harry Potter. Thus the heavens and the
earth were completed in all their vast array.

Dr Richard Umbers is a Catholic priest. He lectures in philosophy in Sydney. 


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