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A great deal of the silliness surrounding the idea of memes is very closely tied to religion. Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and their friend the psychologist and militant atheist Nick Humphrey talk about the "memes" they disapprove of in exactly the same way that fundamentalists talk about "demons". In both cases, the ideas of their opponents are dismissed as the result, quite literally, of possession. If this is your point of entry into their ideas it makes it hard to take seriously anything else they have to say, which is unfortunate.

"When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell." Humphrey wrote to Dawkins — and of course the example he used of this sinister process was religious: "And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realised physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over."

The use of "parasite" here runs into immediate difficulties. One is that there is no easy answer to the question "what is being parasitised?" It can’t be brains, unless you are prepared to say that plants "parasitise" the earth. Dennett gets round this by talking instead about memes "infesting" brains, which preserves the strangeness of the idea, and the delicious tinge of horror without being specific about the relationship between ideas and brains. But of course the real point of "parasite" language is that it enables them to be nasty about ideas they disapprove of. In theory, Humphrey’s and Dawkins’s ideas about memes are just as much parasites as are the ideas they oppose. In practice they use this abusive language only to characterise ideas they disapprove of. They spread their memes: their religious opponents are infected by "viruses of the mind."

This is held to justify any amount of persecution. After all, what is being persecuted is not human, but some kind of virus. One culmination of the process was reached in 1997, when Nick Humphrey argued that parents should be forbidden by the state from transmitting beliefs he finds obnoxious. "Children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon. "

What makes this suggestion truly extraordinary is that it was delivered as a contribution to human rights, as part of an Amnesty lecture, and the programme of censorship he was advocating was justified on the grounds that teaching children falsehoods is a wrong as great as mutilating them physically. Something has gone very badly wrong when the pieties of atheism are so stifling that no one notices anything odd in the proposal take into care children who are allowed to read an astrology column (or perhaps merely to jail or fine their parents) simply because it is justified by appeals to scientific knowledge and human rights.

If nothing else, this shows that the attitudes which made the inquisition obnoxious are able to survive and flourish in an atmosphere untainted by Christian orthodoxy and that the problematic consequences of religion cannot be abolished merely by abolishing religious belief. Humphrey is able, in the course of one and the same lecture, to argue that religious belief or superstition must necessarily crumple into dust at the touch of science, and that it is such a cruel and irreversible mutilation of a child’s minds to teach that the Bible is literally true that it must be banned by law.

And these are the people who disparage theology as intellectual tennis played without a net.

How else are we to describe their kind of atheism? Perhaps as a sort of intellectual fox-hunting: a socially reassuring canter across agreeable countryside, in pursuit of a quarry that cannot bite back.



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