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do memes exist?

So Alister McGrath stopped over at Issues Etc. a couple of weeks ago to push his book The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Amazon); audio from his visit is available via the Issues Etc. archive (MP3). The title of McGrath’s book is of course a riff on Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, about which I have little to say except this: I’m greatly troubled that so much of contemporary Christian culture is derivative in this way; there are apparently no living idea leaders within conservative Christianity (because Calvin, Luther, Schaeffer, and maybe Rushdoony are dead and none of their intellectual descendants have anything to say) so conservative Christians are left writing lowbrow books (and occasionally movies) that, rather than stimulating thought in the reader, misrepresent the position of the work to which it is a response with the goal of presenting the reader simple answers to simple questions.

I haven’t read McGrath’s book, so I can’t be 100% certain it fits the description I’ve given above; nor can I say with confidence why I wouldn’t read it, or say David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Amazon).

But I did hear two things that troubled me in McGrath’s segment on Issues Etc.:

  1. McGrath’s characterization of the New Atheists as “atheist fundamentalists”
  2. McGrath’s claim that memes do not exist

First of all, calling Dawkins a fundamentalist is a cheap shot and McGrath as a gentleman should know better. When asked for a definition of “fundamentalist” he says that a fundamentalist is someone who claims a non-negotiable distinctive and says “you’re either for us or against us.” While there are shades of truth to this (a fundamentalist is among other things militant, and claims a non-negotiable fundamental distinctive), it’s hardly an adequate definition; it isn’t useful without naming the particular non-negotiables, and McGrath never does that. I can’t tell if McGrath is just being lazy here, or if he thinks because Richard Dawkins is a jerk he’s allowed to be a jerk too.

As a former fundamentalist I find this use of terminology about as grating as Calvinists must find terms like (“Calvinist typeface”) [1, 2].

But I could barely believe my ears when McGrath claimed that memes do not exist. I went back and listened to his talking points (I don’t know what else to call them) when he said that. My first thought (well, one of the first) was that McGrath’s insight must be news to the folks at Know Your Meme (site).

I understand what McGrath is doing here: Dawkins made much of his early career talking about “selfish genes” and the transmission of ideas as “memes,” and McGrath is suggesting that by believing in and talking about memes Dawkins is engaging in something tantamount to believing in God: meme’s can’t be localized in a believer’s brain, don’t apparently leave any physical evidence in their primary domain, etc. but yet they’re a powerful notion, lots of reasonable people believe in them, etc.

McGrath makes this argument in several places; he mostly relies on a quote by Simon Conway Morris:

Memes are trivial, to be banished by simple mental exercises. In any wider context, they are hopelessly, if not hilariously, simplistic.

This isn’t really an argument, but McGrath cites Morris as if his statement above were an established fact (PDF).

I’m embarrassed for McGrath; he’s an Oxford PhD and DD and I don’t understand why he can’t see that this is a poor argument.

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