Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Evangelism (Part 1): The Nihilistic Meme

If you have visited youtube in the past year, you will have probably noticed two varieties of posts commonly left underneath the videos there.

The first is spam for Ron Paul's quixotic tilt at the presidency. While there is probably much that can be said about the psychology of those who are moved to advertise their allegiance to Dr. Paul on that site, it is not a phenomena that I wish to explore here. The phenomena that I do wish to explore here is the psychology of people who leave a different sort of comment: the internet chain-letter. I'm sure you're all familiar with the idea of a chain-letter, so I'll skip the definition. The question is, why are they so common?

Put simply, chain-letters are prevalent because they are designed to be prevalent. Some ideas lend themselves more naturally to fruitful replication than others, so it should come as no surprise that those ideas created solely for the purpose of self-replication should, in a short space of time, find themselves spread far and wide.

In his book "The Selfish Gene", Richard Dawkins notes similarities between the transmission of ideas in such a manner and the transmission of genes. He coined the term "meme" to describe this phenomena: that ideas, like genes, are subject to fitness and selection pressures that impact on their capacity for self-replication. The test for genes is environmental adaptation (genes that create organisms well suited to the natural environment are more likely to be replicated than those that aren't) and it's no different for memes. Put simply, those memes best suited to their environment (for memes, the environment is our brains) are more likely to be remembered and passed on (either orally or textually) to other people.

In the case of internet chain-letters, we can see clearly how these memes exploit the architecture of the brain to replicate themselves. They make claims that are likely to stimulate the emotional centers of brain, impressing themselves more forcefully onto our consciousness than the other ideas we encounter and discard without giving second thought to. They may, for instance, play upon our hopes ("If you forward this to 10 people you will feel happier!"), our fears ("If you don't forward this to 10 people you will be murdered!"), our compassions ("Every time you forward this, Microsoft will donate 10c to a little girl with cancer!"), our greed ("If you forward this to 10 people you will win $1000!") and our loves ("If you forward this to 10 people you will be kissed by you crush tomorrow!"). Having gained access to our brain through its emotional centers, the meme must then use this foothold to copy itself.

As obvious as it may seem, the successful chain-letter will therefore need to contain an imperative for the reader to forward it onto other people before the promise it makes is fulfilled. A chain-letter that makes an emotion-laden promise without a command for replication - or a chain-letter that contains a command for replication without an emotional-laden promise - will not be as successful as a chain-letter that has both. (For more ideas on the sorts of qualities that may make a successful chain-letter, see bottom of this page.)

While chain-letters are in themselves generally quite harmless, there are other examples of memes out there - with similarly prodigious rates of replication - that are not quite so harmless for the brains that harbour and transmit them. It was this post on the TA political forums that got me thinking about such memes.

The thread itself was nothing unusual: a fairly typical attempt at hit-and-run witnessing, one that we have seen many times before. The method, on this occasion, was to link us to a website about a man who claims to have spent 23 minutes in hell. Initially notable only for its atrocious design, a quick glance of this page makes the site notably atrocious for a completely different reason. After going into grating detail about the horrors he claims to have witnessed in hell, Wiese (the speaker and man in question) makes the following observation:

"The Bible is real plain, we are all sinners, and whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved."

Note the emotional hook here. Note how it plays both on the fear of hell (built up from the graphic descriptions over the preceding thousands of words) and our desire for salvation. It then makes a promise: believe in Jesus and salvation from hell is yours. A similar claim built on a different emotion (guilt) is made just a bit further down:

"... remember Jesus hung naked on a cross, in a market place, he hung there for you, He endured your shame."

The correlation between these claims (emotion-laden promises) and those of the chain-letters should be clear. But the similarities become even more striking later in that same paragraph:

"Jesus said if you will confess me before men, publicly, then I will in turn confess your name before my heavenly Father and the Holy angels."

The structure of this meme should look familiar to you by now: forward this message to others and the promise within it shall be fulfilled. The "announcer", at the conclusion of the text, puts it even more explicitly:

"I'm going to issue a challenge to you... and here's what it is. It's got two parts. One, I will no longer fear the face of man. The biggest single inhibitor to us acting like you really know there's a Heaven and there's a Hell. I will no longer fear the face of man. Two, I will talk to everyone I know, the rest of my life about Jesus, and Heaven, and Hell. That is a huge commitment. Every person I know who reached people for Christ came to these two points of commitment. Why else have a relationship with anyone, if not to share with them the glorious good news that saves their soul from Hell? It's a felony in the Spirit to know someone, to converse with them, to entertain yourselves with them, to enjoy their presence, and never tell them that, without Christ, they are going to Hell. Every relationship is to be a doorway to communicate the truth that you've witnessed today."

So there you have it. Evangelism: the ultimate chain-letter. If you want to know why Evangelical faith (or should I say "meme"?) is one of the fastest growing in the world today, this may well be the answer. But that's not the end of the story.

If Evangelism were nothing more than a memetic compulsion to talk about Jesus, then we probably wouldn't have anything to worry about - save, perhaps, for the occasional loss of time incurred from being accosted by zealots (interestingly, Wiese earlier describes the "theft of time" as a sin. Why do I get the feeling that the irony here would be lost on him?). Evangelism, however, is more than that. It comes bundled with its own unique theological baggage that makes it - in my opinion at least - far more dangerous than your average theological meme.

For me, the danger is summed up in this single sentence:
"I believe I'm saved. Not by good works, but by faith, by trusting in [Jesus]."

For Evangelicals, simply believing in Jesus marks the path to righteousness (and therefore - more importantly, from their perspective - heaven). Good works - which have an admittedly ambiguous definition in Christian theology - are no longer necessary. In theory (and I stress the word "theory", here) one could live a life defined by commitment to an endless series of unspeakable acts of horror, buttressed by the occasional invocation of Jesus' name, and still make it into heaven. This is - for anyone who abides by it - a valueless, selfish doctrine. Taken to its natural conclusions, it is a doctrine that confers no moral responsibilities or obligations upon anyone: by any definition, this is a distinctly nihilistic doctrine.

It is this nihilism - and the departure it represents from the impulsion of Jesus' teachings - that I'll explore when I next post on this subject.

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