The rise of the New Theists
Can you fake it until you make it?
Man is a memetic animal. He lives and dies by ideas, and achieves a certain immortality by transmitting them. This was one of Professor Richard Dawkins’s most influential ideas, through his coinage of the word ‘meme’ in The Selfish Gene.
A meme is an idea or form of behaviour, often carrying some meaning, that spreads by imitation from person to person. Memes can be beneficial or harmful, to the individual and the wider community, but the most successful have some great psychological appeal.
Memes are units of cultural transmission in a species which is highly imitative; they are a form of contagion, and with 21st century communications technology, so the power of that social contagion has grown, spreading through naïve human populations on Twitter and TikTok, like smallpox or alcohol in an indigenous community.
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 an actual physical threat in order to solidify group cohesion – yes, you can fake it until you make it.
All this might provide some thought for Church leaders as they contemplate still-falling numbers in a country in which a minority now identify as Christian: can Christianity meme itself back into relevance? Can people not blessed with faith – which, after all, is highly dependent on childhood instruction and probably has a genetic component – talk themselves into it? I think, almost certainly, yes.
Religion comes in degrees, often differentiated by identification, practise 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.