Many know of arch-militant atheist Richard Dawkins. But what he’s really (originally) famous for is being one of the important biologists to ever live. In fact, he’s the one that coined the term “meme” for what I feel is one of the most important new scientific concepts needed to make sense of our world.
What is a meme? He describes it like this:
The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. … But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. …I abbreviate mimeme to meme. …It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’ (The Selfish Gene, p. 192)
Now of course Dawkins can’t let a great new concept like this go without making sure he takes potshots at religion. Sure enough, just a few pages later, he invokes his new “meme” concept to attack religion.
The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to the deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. (p. 193)
Oh, but he’s just getting started. For he later adds that religious people are (or can be) “memeoids.” Isn’t that just the right sort of ridiculous name to make religious people seem a little more scary and a little less human?
Faith cannot move mountains…. But it is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness. It leads people to believe in whatever it is so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and to die for it without the need for further justification. Keith Henson has coined the name ‘memeoids’ for victims that have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential… You see lots of these people on the evening news from such places as Belfast or Beirut.’ Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings. It even immunizes them against fear, if they honest believe that a martyr’s death will send them straight to heaven. What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb. (The Selfish Gene, p. 330)
As Theists we are uncomfortable with how one-sided, and thus unfair and intolerant, Dawkins is here. But I also hope you’ll see that he’s correct in every detail and that he’s onto something quite profound.
The simple truth is that he’s right – religions are indeed memes! This is a very useful way to look at religions.
The main complaint I hear about these words from Dawkins is that he concentrates solely on the extremes of religion — here specifically Islamic fundamentalism — while ignoring all the good it does in the world. This is, of course, a correct complaint. But I don’t think it’s the biggest problem with Dawkins’ assessment. I think the real problem with Dawkins words is that he’s merely putting it in a negative way that which can also be quite positive.
Consider that Gandhi and Martin Luther King both also fit the given definition of ‘memeoid’ because both of them could be accurately viewed as ‘[people] that have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential.’ Indeed, this is literally true of anyone worth looking up to. It’s virtually the definition of Hero. ‘Hero’ implies ‘memeoid.’
So what’s the difference between Gandhi and an Islamic suicide bomber? Well, obviously one thing is that one was a pacifist that gave up only his own life and the suicide bomber included others in their willingness to die. But I’m uncomfortable saying that this is the dividing line between hero and villain memeoids. Could we not say that a virtuous war hero like George Washington was also a memeoid wiling (but was not required to) give up his life for his beliefs – that is to say, for a meme? And was George Washington a pacifist that killed no one else?
Now obviously there are also differences between George Washington and a suicide bomber. For example one followed the rules of war as much as was possible, including not killing civilians (which isn’t hard when you’re being invaded by a foreign power) and the suicide bombers do not. But perhaps we should admit that even this line is fuzzier than it first appears. Killing innocent civilians is, after all, an unavoidable part of war. If your family dies, you don’t really care if the reason was because they had been targeted by the Unabomber or because the US military killed them as collateral damage trying to get Bin Laden. And is there really some sort of easy technical difference between “solider” and “terrorists” other than whether or not the ‘group’ you ‘fight for’ is officially accepted as a country by their enemy?
I do not wish to suggest that somehow Islamic suicide bombers are equivalent to George Washington. On the contrary, my point is merely that if you seek a definitive logical definition that is air tight, it’s not an easily defined line at times. Yet despite this ‘technical difficulty’, we generally have no problem at all determining a hero memeoid from a villain memeoid without having to resort to such technical definitions. Why?
Morality and Memes
We seem to be able to assess such things very quickly based on our moral intuitions, of course. We do not sit down and look up technical definitions and draw lines in the sand using those. Does this not suggest that at least part of our judgment of whether or memeoid is a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain’ is based on assessment of whether or not we morally agree with the meme they are willing to die for?
In any case, merely calling someone a ridiculous name like ‘memeoid’ isn’t enough. We do not universally look down upon a person for being willing to die for an ideological meme, especially if we agree with the moral worldview of that meme. Is this not why to other Islamic fundamentalists a suicide bomber is a hero and George Washington or Gandhi might be perceived as the villain?
And Dawkins is dead on right that ‘memeoids’ are the great ‘weapon’ humankind has ever seen. But again, whether or not this is bad or good depends on whether or not you agree with the morality of the meme in question. Dawkins could just have easily have said that courage and heroism for one’s ideals “deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology.” Is there any doubt this is true also?
So let’s call a spade a spade. Dawkins uses the word ‘memeoid’ and positions it to sound scary because of his own bigotry against religion. The real truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong or scary about becoming a memeoid. Most of us wish that, if the situation arose, that we’d have the courage and moral fortitude to have live and die for our beliefs – that is to say, for our ideological morality memes.
Religion and Suicide Bombings
Another point that Dawkins doesn’t consider is that the majority of suicide bombers have been secular atheists. Professor Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: the The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism has spent his career collecting all instances of suicide killings back to 1980 and then statistically correlating it. To most people’s surprise, the majority of suicide bombing was done by secular atheists.
Now if we were to fall into the same sort of bigotry Richard Dawkins falls into, we might add up the number of atheist suicide bombers in history and divide it by the number of atheists that have lived since 1980 and then do the same thing with believers. Because there have been far fewer atheists in the world than believers, the case looks grim for atheism and probably by an order of magnitude or more. Perhaps it’s actually atheism that causes suicide bombers, right?
But Pape actually found that the real correlation between ideology memes and suicide bombers wasn’t religious views at all but, as Wikipedia quotes him “to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from the terrorists’ national homeland.” In fact, Pape found that suicide terrorism’s main personal motivation is actually personal altruism – a willingness to give up their life to exert pressure on the foreign occupiers of their homeland. If we were to assess what type of ‘ideological meme’ they were willing to die for, it would be simple ‘nationalism’ rather than religion. 
So what are the key points so far?
- Religions are memes and believers willing to die for their religion are indeed memeoids, just like Dawkins claims.
- But this is also true for all ideological worldviews, not just religious ones.
- And it is not necessarily evil or bad. If it’s an ideological worldview that we consider to be moral (and the means used we consider to be moral) we would call such a memeoid a hero, not a villain.
 Of course this is just one study and the results will be debated and reconsidered for years to come. But the fact that the worldwide expert in suicide bombings has found that most suicide bombers were atheists and secularists and that most were connected to nationalism rather than religion should give us serious pause when we make up narrative fallacies in our minds as to what sort of ‘memeoid’ would become a suicide bomber. And judge for yourself if Richard Dawkins used correct scientific judgments here or if he abandoned science when his personal prejudices against religion came into play.