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 behavior 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 twenty-first-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 practice, and many who practice 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. The idea is strengthened by the mimetic support of a community and the threat of punishment to people who oppose it. Just last month in Brighton a talk held by the “Skeptics” had to be canceled because of objections by trans activists to one of the speakers, who was “skeptical” of some of their claims.
The Skeptics were part of the New Atheist movement of the 2000s. If ever an idea was pushing at an open door, it was the New Atheist idea, in which Professor Dawkins was a leading figure. Framed as opposition to religion in public affairs, it gathered much of its energy from fear of Islam following 9/11, although it was impolite to make that explicit.
In some senses, the New Atheist movement was hugely successful. The United States, once seen as bucking the trend of western secularization, has been rapidly losing its faith so far this century. Today Americans under forty are the first generation to have a Christian minority. New Atheists got what they asked for, but as with so many revolutionaries of the past, they are despairing of the results.
The atomizing effect of secularism has become extreme. While America’s poor filled their God-shaped hole with drugs and alcohol, its rich did so with politics. Rather than ushering in a golden Age of Enlightenment, the collapse of American Christianity gave rise to a new intolerance towards anybody who diverged from progressive opinion.
Yet this period has also coincided with a proliferation of social science studies pointing to the benefits of religion — both belief and practice — on child welfare, social capital, individual happiness and most of all the suppression of anxiety, the cause of that modern-day “mental health epidemic.”
As religious belief plummeted in the West, so a new intellectual movement sprang up in the 2010s. Like New Atheism, it largely involved unbelievers, and argued for the same western liberal tradition. Their argument is not that religion is true, but that it is useful, and that Christianity has made the West unusually successful. It is not a revolutionary idea — as far back as the 18th century skeptical philosophers accepted that humans were by nature religious — but the New Theists, as you might call them, have social sciences to back them up.
One of the earliest proponents was, like the leading New Atheist Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist. In his 2011 book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argued that religion has a powerful role in promoting social cohesion. Following the line of David Hume, Haidt argued that humans are essentially irrational, and the increasingly shrill political ideology of his countrymen on both left and right comes from the same part of the brain as religion. Contrary to Christopher Hitchens’s catchy line that “religion poisons everything,” the demonstrable reality is that it is the glue that binds a species of ape together — what Ibn Khaldun referred to as “fictive kinship.”
Perhaps the most influential of the New Theists is the historian Tom Holland, whose hugely influential book Dominion drew on a tradition going back to 19th-century French historians by arguing that liberalism and individualism were not eighteenth-century reactions to Christianity but its products.
The New Atheist icon Ayaan Hirsi Ali cited Holland in her recent declaration of the Christian faith, which sparked a great deal of controversy, not because she had adopted irrational beliefs, but because of the almost calculating reasons for which she said she was embracing religion. Arguing that western civilization is under threat from Putinism, the rise of radical Islam and “the viral spread of woke ideology, which is eating into the moral fibre of the next generation,” Hirsi Ali wrote that an atheistic West lacks the tools to fight: “The only credible answer, I believe, lies in our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
A community of belief, in other words. Indeed, the very word religio is Latin for “to bind.” It’s why Christianity can never really be a private matter, and nor can its secular offshoots. All religions stem from community and depend on memetic support, and with enough of that support most people can probably meme themselves into it.
The issue is not whether the social benefits of Christianity are real, but whether these can be won without genuine belief, or whether it’s even right to fake it until you make it. If millions of people were to return to churchgoing, whatever they felt inside, there would almost certainly be enormous social benefits. At the very least, the act of being involved in the community and ingesting a message of forgiveness would act as social Valium. Would some people then go on to develop genuine religious belief? Probably.
But Christianity is not some meditation method or get-happy-quick guide. It is a deeply strange idea. Which makes its triumph over the West all the more unlikely — dare one say, miraculous.