by Sue Blackmore
I’m still shaken by yesterday’s lecture and its aftermath. Oxford in the 21st century was, I’d fondly assumed, the epitome of somewhere I could speak freely and fully, and expect people to listen and then argue and disagree if they wished to. Apparently not.
I was invited to give a lecture on memes by the “Oxford Royale Academy”, an institution that has nothing to do with the University of Oxford but hosts groups of several hundred 17-18 year-olds for two weeks of classes and, I guess, some kind of simulation of an ‘Oxford experience’. I was told they were of 45 nationalities and I assumed many different religions. So I prepared my lecture carefully. I tried it out the day before on my husband’s grandson, a bright mixed-race 16 year-old from Paris, and added pictures of the latest craze for ‘Fatkini posts’ and more videos, including my favourite Gangnam Style parody (Python style), but I wasn’t going to avoid the topic of religious memes – religions are an example, par excellence, of memeplexes that use wicked tricks to ensure their own survival. I simply made sure that my slides included many religions and didn’t single one out.
Looking back I should have seen trouble coming early on. I began with a pile of stuffed animals on the desk that I use to illustrate natural selection. Many laughed at my ‘dangerous predator’ eating them but at the word ‘evolution’ a young man in the second row began swaying side to side and vigorously shaking his head. I persevered, trying to put over the idea that evolution is inevitable – if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Dan Dennett p50 puts it) ‘Design out of chaos without the aid of mind’. It is this inevitability that I find so delightful – the evolutionary algorithm just must produce design, and once you understand that you have no need to believe or not believe in evolution. You see how it works. So I persevered.
Introducing memes, I asked for volunteers to come up on the stage and invent a new meme. This same young man, called Moritz, was up in a flash, followed by four others. I asked him, at the word ‘go’, to make some simple movements and sounds. ‘One, two, three, Go,’ I said, and he waved one hand around in a circle, chanting ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word ….’. The others then imitated him and that was fun. Three obediently began reciting from the Bible but the fourth threw both arms in the air and declared ‘There’s a big old man in the sky’ and raised a huge laugh and cheer from (some of) the audience. This seemed an opportunity not to be missed so I asked the whole audience, at the word ‘go’, to imitate either of these two new memes, whereupon a great cry burst out of, ‘In the beg…’, ‘There’s an old man …’. Great, I said, we’ve now got two memes, you have just seen meme creation and selection at work.
Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.
I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out. By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.
The cartoon was worse. As I have often done before, I suggested that one final trick of a desperate religion (I didn’t say quite that this time) is to forbid laughter. I warned any devout Muslims in the audience to look away as I showed one of the Danish cartoons. It’s so simple – just a bunch of terrorists arriving in heaven to be told, “Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins’. That normally gets a good laugh – along with sympathy for the cartoonists threatened with death for something so innocuous. Not this time. More walked out.
I called out to some as they left, ‘Can’t you even listen to ideas you disagree with? In Oxford, of all places, you should be open-minded enough to hear alternative views’. But no. They said I needed an open mind. This really got to me, raising painful memories of my early research on psychics and clairvoyants who said, ‘You just don’t have an open mind,’ when my careful experiments showed no psychic powers. By the time I moved on to showing Internet memes and viral videos more than half the audience was gone.
There were good questions from those who remained and even more from a little group who gathered round afterwards, a few sceptical ones challenging some brave believers who had dared remain. Then I looked for the chairman who had introduced me. I felt shaken and exhausted and hoped for support. After all, he must have known when I was invited that I was a vociferous atheist, and since I was invited to talk about memes he must have expected me to mention religions. But his face was like thunder. As we left the building, discussing what had happened, I asked him if he was religious. ‘I am a Christian,’ he said, darkly. No comfort there!
Outside, some young Muslims were waiting for me. I was angrily told that I’d made them feel ignorant. They asked whether I’ve read the Koran – at least I could say that I’ve read an English translation (of the whole horrible book). I was asked whether a leech looks like an embryo. (What ???) ‘A little bit,’ I agreed, ‘and there are good biological reasons why animal shapes are … ‘There you are then, that’s why I believe the Koran is the word of God. This is true, like everything in the Koran’.
I staggered up the High Street confused and upset – both at what had happened and at what I had said, and not said. What should I have done? They are ignorant aren’t they? Isn’t that why they’ve come to this city of learning, even if not Oxford University itself – to learn? Was I a coward to apologise? Were my attempts to be reasonable the best way of engaging them or just plain cowardice? Should I have said that the Koran, like the Old Testament, is a foul book full of hatred and violence; that they hold the beliefs they do only because they were infected with this horrible religion when they were too young to object? That they could escape … ?
Walking miserably up the High Street I felt profoundly depressed at the state of the world. I could cheer myself with the thought that I’d learned something. I learned that Islam has yet another nasty meme-trick to offer – when you are offended put your hands over your ears and run away. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These bright, but ignorant, young people must be among the more enlightened of their contemporaries since their parents have been able and willing to send them on this course to learn something new. If even they cannot face dissent, or think for themselves, what hope is there for the rest? And what can I do?
Susan Blackmore is a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She is the author of several books including The Meme Machine.