Artillery Row

Cultural Christianity and the vulgar wisdom of memes

Dawkins is caught between the pure idea of rationalism, and the messy meme of cultural Christianity

Richard Dawkins has gone viral following revelations that he considers himself a “cultural Christian”. Of course this is not really news — he has been on record with this as far back as 2007. But the strength with which he expressed it, and the direct contrast to Islam, caught people’s imagination: he would choose Christianity over Islam “every single time”.

The statement, and the reaction to it, could find some interesting analysis in the work of the evolutionary biologist himself. Dawkins is, after all, the inventor of the term “meme”. In The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, he argued that just as biological entities exist to the extent to which they reproduce themselves, so concepts and cultures work on the basis of replication: ideas that make you want to share them, that are so compelling, useful, or simply catchy, that they persist for centuries or millennia. 

Humans are biologically and culturally evolved beings, physically and mimetically adapted to family, tribe and ritual

The significance of this is clear — an idea need not be good, important or rationally coherent in order to thrive: it need only be highly shareable. Whether or not this theory fully explained the traditional spread of cultures and concepts, it proved an eerily prescient account of how ideas would be exchanged in digital spaces. 

An important insight of evolutionary psychology has been to see human behaviour as driven by deep biological impulses, rather than rational calculation. Whatever our rationalisations, the spread of ideas is, on this reading, better explained by instincts born of the pressures of millions of years of Darwinian selection. 

Cultural Christianity, and Dawkins’ account of it, takes on a different character when seen from this perspective. Even though, like Dawkins, an ever-growing proportion of Britons lacks a supernatural faith, the “meme” of Christianity, its ethics and aesthetics, are inescapable. Dawkins’ own comments reflect this sort of power of unconscious and not fully rational ideas — Christianity here provides a binding tribal logic, distinct from the truth of its beliefs. When confronted with the cultural “otherness” of Islam, Dawkins instinctively reaches for the familiar identity of Christianity. He is not a believer, but he is a self-confessed member of the Christian “tribe”. 

His declaration of cultural Christianity did not go “viral” in the same way 15 years ago, in part because of the changing significance of ideas — or if you prefer, cultural memes. New Atheism itself was a “meme” in the 2000s that spread online and fed upon the frustrations of modern individuals living alongside sometimes strident traditional religious communities, and mobilised over disputes in America about school prayer, evolution and the place of religion in politics. 

As I wrote in 2022, the cultural ground has shifted under them, with progressive liberalism increasingly hostile to “Eurocentric” rationalism, and many onetime New Atheists finding common cause with Christian conservatives in opposition to “wokeness”, and the growth of Islam in the West. Dawkins himself has shifted from being a darling of the centre left, to being dismissed as divisive, politically incorrect, and Islamophobic. Older and more potent tribal identities have overridden the culture wars of yesterday, and liberal ideologies have struggled to bridge these divides. 

Critics are not wrong to identify a blatant contradiction between Dawkins’s affection for a tribal Christian cultural identity, and his advocation of a secular humanist universalism that sweeps away all irrational hate, prejudice and arbitrary divisions between human beings. But this inconsistency is more than just a passing political or personal hypocrisy; it is an inherent fault line in his philosophy. There is a basic tension between his strident, idealistic and almost evangelical atheism, and the scepticism and empiricism of his work as a biologist. 

This is a problem for many evolutionary psychologists. They rightly see that human behaviour is governed by drives that are not fully rational, but then imagine that by identifying these “irrationalities” we can somehow eliminate or bypass them. As good children of the Enlightenment, they want to master nature, including human nature, and rationalise it. But the English empirical tradition, well-embodied by Hume, has always been sceptical of this enterprise. As Hume, who suggests that morality is rooted in sentiment, not rationalism, argues: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. 

If humans are biologically and culturally evolved beings, physically and mimetically adapted to family, tribe and ritual, it seems to follow that we are ill-adapted to ways of life and thinking rooted sheerly in abstract universalism. Yet setting up a harsh opposition between our intuition and reason might be part of why those like Dawkins end up contradicting themselves. Our inherited customs and desires may make us tribal, but they also seem to embody an urge for the transcendent, the universal and the rightly ordered. We thrive on a certain messiness, but wither without the light of perfection. 

Language is necessarily prior to rational systems of thought, and bodies are necessarily prior to language

Dawkins has ended up in a Kantian trap — caught between rationalism and empiricism, noumena and phenomena, idea and meme. But what if our tribal urges and inherited institutions have a deep logic all their own? This was the contention of Giambattista Vico, Neapolitan philosopher, humanist, and critic of Enlightenment. Vico, in his Scienza Nuova, anticipated an evolutionary account of human culture, in which our human nature develops in dialectical relation to different cultural epochs. But underlying this developmental view is a perennial, cyclical account of history, in which we are motivated not by a “progressive” march towards an inhuman ideal, but rather a constant adaptation that provokes change in order to sustain what is most essential to our nature — a “counter cycle”, the ricorso

Reversing Descartes, Vico suggests that humans are, and so they think — “The human mind is naturally inclined by the senses to see itself externally in the body, and only with great difficulty does it come to attend to itself by means of reflection.” Like Hume, priority is given to the senses and sentiments, but Vico suggests that far from being irrational, these ideas form a sort of “vulgar wisdom”, upon which later philosophy relied as a foundation:

Only so much as the poets had first sensed of vulgar wisdom did the philosophers later understand of esoteric wisdom; so that the former may be said to have been the sense and the latter the intellect of the human race. What Aristotle said of the individual man is therefore true of the race in general: Nihil cst in intcllectu quin prius juerit in sensu. That is, the human mind does not understand anything of which it has had no previous impression (which our modern metaphysicians call ‘occasion’) from the senses.

As Vico expounds, language is necessarily prior to rational systems of thought, and bodies are necessarily prior to language: “words are carried over from bodies and from the properties of bodies to express the things of the mind and spirit.” 

A popular target of evolutionary psychology and New Atheist attacks on human intuition is “apophenia” — the human tendency to discover patterns in everything, even when no pattern actually exists. Vico is sharply aware of this, saying of the beliefs of ancient pagans about nature that “they gave the things they wondered at substantial being after their own ideas, just as children do, whom we see take inanimate things in their hands and play with them and talk to them as though they were living persons.” 

Yet this mythological way of thinking, far from being a predator detection mechanism in overdrive, precisely allows human beings to intuit the concepts that go on to form the basis of a rational philosophy. From superstition, argues Vico, we arrive at a rational natural theology: 

Thus, through the thick clouds of those first tempests, intermittently lit by those flashes, they made out this great truth: that divine providence watches over the welfare of all mankind. So that this Science becomes, in this principal aspect a rational civil theology of divine providence, which began in the vulgar wisdom of the lawgivers who founded the nations by contemplating God under the attribute of providence, and which is completed by the esoteric wisdom of the philosophers who give a rational demonstration of it in their natural theology.

From the poetic impulse, which gave to every lightning flash divine significance, comes a sense of a world governed by an invisible moral order, in which effect implies cause, even when the cause is unknowable. This then forms, for Vico, the basis of political authority, politics, natural law and ethics. We are, in other words, not only cultural Christians, but also cultural pagans and animists, and each child must make the same evolutionary ascent from body, to language, to rational reflection, by way of poetic and mimetic processes. 

We can’t escape this pre-rational foundation of our rational faculties. This way of thinking, which Vico names, variously, “vulgar” or “poetic”, is a form of understanding that belongs to our bodies, and is the necessary mediator between abstract and sensory reasoning. It can be purified and clarified by the “esoteric” wisdom of philosophy, natural and metaphysical, but it cannot be disposed of. 

As society secularises and the religion of rationalism takes hold, the vulgar wisdom doesn’t go away; rather it and the philosophical thought that disdains it, become dangerously unmoored. When placed at odds, says Vico, we “go mad with the rules of reason”, and language itself decays and we lose the poetic foundations that sustain it. 

The explosion of crazes of reason that seem self-contradictory, and at odds with empirical observation, from transgender ideology to the perpetually masked advocates of Zero Covid, stems from exactly this alienation of bodily and abstract reason. At the same time, the reduction of Christianity to a tribal identity, divorced from its universalistic and transcendent mission, is a sign of vulgar wisdom running riot in the other direction. 

Dawkins, and all other confused moderns, should take heed of Vico. We need cultural Christianity and philosophical Christianity together — the vulgar and the esoteric wisdoms — if we want to restore our broken culture and discourse.

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