For me, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is the most readable of the Four Horsemen. Then again, this isn’t his first book. Dawkins became known to the general public with that other bestseller The Selfish Gene, a book famous for popularizing the term “meme” — a unit that carries ideas which are transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech and even ritual. Memes are the cultural equivalent of genes, which are transmitted biologically.
Memes, says Dawkins, evolve through natural selection pretty much like genes do. They spread through the behaviour they generate in their hosts and if they contribute to their hosts’ welfare, they proliferate and get more and more successful. Survival of the fittest all over again. But not always. Because some of these memes may “mutate” and keep on replicating profusely even when they become harmful to their carriers.
This happened to the meme(s) that form religion. The “believe-in-God”-meme was an “accidental by-product” of evolution that “accidentally” developed out of something useful and backfired into something harmful. Totally “unintended”, a kind of “virus of the mind”. A virus that spread through the population like a disease and infected even the most brilliant minds. Dreadful isn’t it?
But wait a moment! By-product? Accidental? Unintended? Isn’t that just the point of biological evolution? Since there is no God, no grand design, indeed no Designer — just blind chance and sheer luck — is not everything evolution produces “accidental”, “unintended” and a mere “by-product”? We can talk about genes as if they have some overall plan, but that’s just metaphorical talk, evolutionary biologists assure us. It’s all just reproducing and exposing the product to the blind force of natural selection that does the trick. It's not for the good of anybody, or even anything. And there is no malice somewhere hidden. It just... IS. It just happens, period.
And what’s true for genes is true for memes. Memes are not “good” or “bad”. They are successful in reproducing themselves or they are not. If they are, they will multiply and keep on doing so. If not, they will be pruned away by the force of natural selection. So why complain? Let evolution sort it out. It’s evolution that started it.
In fact, Dawkins' quarrel is not with this “God of the Old Testament [that] is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction”. How can it be? He doesn’t even exist. It would be most Don Quichotish. Dawkins' quarrel is with this MEME of the “God of the Old Testament…” (or any other religious idea) that has contaminated the minds of billions throughout all history. And who (or rather, what) is responsible for that meme? The Pope? The Dalai Lama? The Grand Mufti? Why, they are victims themselves. Arguably, the most pitiable of them all in fact. No, it’s that great all-powerful evolutionary force, natural selection, that is the real culprit!
Now you can complain about this (but why should you, if it proves to be such a successful evolutionary stratagem). But who will listen? Certainly not that “petty, unjust, unforgiving (and so on)… bully” (SO NOT) in the skies. For as I read on one of these Skeptic blogs: “We are alone in an uncaring universe. There is no consciousness hiding behind the cosmos, no greater being to love us. The universe had no purpose in mind when it created us, indeed it has no mind at all.”
Compared with the “God-meme”, the “Atheist-meme” seems to do about as good as the albino-gene. Hanging on, but only just. Not really up to it in this jungle that is called life. Which of the two will eventually go the way of the dinosaur, I cannot tell. It’s all a question of evolutionary chance, isn’t it? And survival of the fittest. Maybe Darwin’s was a very dangerous idea after all.