Echo Chambers

Richard Dawkins is like Marmite – you either love him or hate him, but it is impossible to ignore him. His The Selfish Gene was a scientific landmark in its compelling synthesis of Darwin and DNA, and his tentative proposition that ideas – memes – seek selfish reproduction just like genes, has opened up new ways of thinking about the spread of cultural concepts. His latest incarnation as the champion of atheism derives directly from this. He sees religions as culturally negative memes that must be resisted, never more so than now, when social media provide the means by which such dangerous memes, like viruses, spread even more easily – notably in the case of fundamentalist Islam. There is much talk today of the way in which the internet endangers the free exchange of ideas – the precise reverse of its founders’ dreams. People increasingly live in virtual echo chambers where all their thoughts , ideas and beliefs are reinforced in feedback loops by peer echoing, through the influence of new social media. Other memes have no chance of breaking into these closed circles. Corbyn’s brand of neo-Trotskyism would not be where it is today without this phenomenon. But virtual echo chambers are just doing online what the Christian Church has done very successfully for two thousand years. Christianity is itself a meme and it reproduces itself through religious gatherings that facilitate its infection and spread. What after all is the function of the Church Service? Christianity’s core belief is individual not congregational: surely what matters is the relationship between an individual and his God; personal faith rather than group ritual? The celebration of Mass (or ‘Lord’s Supper’, or ‘Holy Communion’ or whatever) is a communal act as well as an intensely personal one. But this is only a small part of Christian church service. What is the function of all the rest - the psalms, hymns, prayers and sermons - every Sunday? To reinforce belief. 

The common form of Christian service has its roots in the Jewish Synagogue – a clever development in Judaism that enabled Diaspora Jews to maintain their racial and religious identity in foreign lands. It was a place where Jews could congregate together around their holy scriptures and reaffirm their faith together. As Christianity developed as an offshoot of Judaism, the Synagogue became the model for the Christian Church too: communal reassurance and reinforcement of common beliefs, based on common exegesis of commonly reverenced texts, reaffirmed by hymns and prayers based on the agreed creed, and sermons to reinforce commitment. And that, in modern times is how the absurdity that is Christian belief manages to sustain itself in the face of all science, rationality and common sense. Fundamentalist sects carry it still further – through prayer meetings, bible study groups, ‘charismatic’ group hugs, and all the other mind control techniques employed by cults throughout the ages. The most extreme of such sects deliberately cut their adherents off from family, friends and the wider community in carefully constructed echo chambers. But do not think for a moment that the good old Anglican church is immune from all this. As traditional, wishy-washy, liberal Anglicanism withers away, the established church is being infiltrated by cult-like, fundamentalist movements. In the Anglican church and the Labour Party alike, old and new echo chambers are allowing extremists to push out the voices of liberal toleration. We need to resist the infiltration of extremism and intolerance in religion and state alike, or we shall awake to find the future belongs to the Trotskyists, and the Fundamentalists.