Another argument that is made to demonstrate the Bible’s divine inspiration is the argument from consistency, which goes something like this:
It [the Bible] is truly an amazingly consistent document. The messages of approximately 40 different writers of the 66 books of the Bible, written over 1,500 years, in three different languages, all fit together like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. There is one continual theme throughout—God’s plan of salvation from sin won for the whole world by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This consistency itself attests to the miracle of this book.
But is a miracle the only possible explanation for this consistency? Or is it possible that such a story could develop over time?
While it’s probably ill-advised to tell a creationist that evolution also explains the origin of his religion, evolution provides us with one of the best metaphors for explaining how complex religious stories might arise over time.
In his 1979 book The Selfish Gene, the infamous Richard Dawkins coins the (now famous) term “meme,” which is just an idea or concept that gets passed around and becomes subject to evolutionary forces. (His original intent was to show that genes are not the only things that evolve. But the meme, ironically, became a meme unto itself, evolving into internet memes and the new science of memetics).
In short, if an idea or concept is useful (like language, or instructions for catching food), or interesting (like a funny story), or has some explanatory value (like how the world came to be), it tends to get repeated. When these ideas are repeated, they are like living organisms making copies of themselves.
Memes are similar to genes in that the most useful ones will generally get copied more often. As they are copied, their content is inherited, they face competition, and they may adapt to changing conditions. When a gene or meme reproduces more rapidly than others, it is considered more fit.
However, unlike biological evolution, memes do not derive their adaptations from small random changes, their changes are usually intentional.
The Gospel of James (T. Kirk)
Let’s use Star Trek as a modern example of how a cultural meme might evolve.
The “Star Trek meme” began in the 1960s inside the head of Gene Roddenberry. His idea for the teleplay faced competition from other shows, but was selected because it was believed it would have more mass appeal. This new meme quickly copied itself with the help of the story-retelling medium of television.
Over the years, the story has evolved in the minds of many writers, artists, directors, and fans. The core themes remain the same, and the characters, philosophies, and technologies became more flushed out. Gene Roddenberry’s idea has spawned over 726 episodes, a dozen movies, hundreds of characters, and thousands of books.
We might even go so far as to say that:
Star Trek is truly an amazingly consistent story. The messages of hundreds of different writers, writing over 50 years, in many different languages, all fit together like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. There is one continual theme throughout—exploring strange new worlds, going where no one has gone before, while adhering to Federation law and the prime directive. This consistency itself attests to the miracle of Star Trek.
Well… obviously Star Trek is no miracle, nor is it divinely inspired, but it does show how one simple idea can grow into a highly complex story with consistent themes. Is it possible that religious stories might also do likewise?
[Note: Some non-Trekkies have argued that Star Trek contains contradictions, errors, and inconsistencies, but I can assure you that all of these issues have been explained away by faithful Trekkie apologists.]
The Evolution of Religion
Like Star Trek, Christianity also began with a small cult following. But let’s go all the way back to the beginning and consider the possible evolution of God himself.
From its earliest days, “The God meme” (if you will) has been under attack, not only from other religions, but also the idea of God in general. And in nature, when an organism faces threats, it must adapt or risk extinction. The God meme may have undergone a similar process of refinement and adaptation.
While the idea of God provided an explanation for how everything came to be, the idea wasn’t without its problems.
For example, when the idea of God was first suggested, people may have asked, “Why can’t we see God?” There may have been many answers, but the most effective explanations — those that worked well enough to get repeated — were naturally selected out. In this case, the best defensive answers were: “Because he’s invisible,” and “If you saw him, it would kill you.”
Satisfied with these answers, people went on to ask, “Well… if we can’t see him, can you have him lift that rock? Or do something else to prove he’s really here?” And again, the best defensive answer became, “God’s creation should be enough evidence, and God desires that you believe with no more evidence than this.”
After following God for some time, people noticed another problem, and asked: “Why does God treat us the same as the non-believers? We both suffer and prosper equally.” The story of Job answers this question, essentially saying: “Never question the meme! It knows better than you, so just believe.”
When it came to competition, the meme said: “You should kill anyone who tries to introduce foreign memes. If you continue to believe in this meme, good things will happen, but if you believe in other memes, horrific things will happen!”
And so the meme gradually increased its fitness, by: 1) providing unfalsifiable answers, 2) discouraging questions, 3) eliminating the competition, and 4) offering a slew of promises and threats.
By far, the greatest adaptation to the God meme was Jesus, who took a primarily Jewish religion and made it accessible and applicable to everyone. Christianity also brought with it powerful new threats and promises, and commandments to spread this updated meme:
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
~ Mark 16:15
For mellina, the authors of the Bible built upon the foundations others had laid. They were able to do this because they all spoke the same language (mostly Hebrew and later Greek), lived in the same vicinity, and shared the same stories, culture, and history.
The Evolution of Biblical Themes
When we look at the Bible, it does appear as if many of its core themes have evolved.
- The character of God evolves. The God of the Old Testament is strikingly different from the God of the New. The God of the Old is primarily interested in the Jewish people and the state of Israel. He is jealous and angry; he wipes out sinful cities, floods the world, sends plagues, and kills millions; and he repeats ad nauseam that he is one God. The God of the New Testament is three Gods in one! He extends love to everyone, Jew or gentile. He preaches forgiveness instead of vengeance, and sends healing instead of plagues or floods.
- The character of Satan evolves. He begins as a very literal snake (Gen. 3:1-14), but is eventually replaced by a fallen angel.
- The role of the messiah evolves. We go from a literal king who will save the Jews and restore Israel, to a metaphorical king who doesn’t save Israel, but saves the world by being executed.
- God’s salvation plan — the most commonly cited example of Biblical consistency — also evolves. In Noah’s day, God’s plan wasn’t to save the world, but to flood it. Much later, God makes a covenant with Abraham, but it wasn’t for salvation, it was for land and offspring in exchange for ongoing loyalty and penile mutilation (Gen. 17:1-14). Under Moses, this covenant was extended to include a torrent of new rules, and the people did begin offering sacrifices for forgiveness, but this wasn’t done for salvation from hell, but for the ongoing safety and prosperity of Israel. In fact, God even plays down the importance of sacrifices, and says that they are not a prerequisite for obtaining forgiveness (more on this later). It’s only after Jesus arrives that the importance of sacrifice is played up again, and the nearly heretofore unmentioned idea of hell comes to the forefront, along with a new requirement to believe that God has a son in order to escape torment.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
The character of Jesus has continued to evolve over the centuries, as thousands of denominations experiment with new twists on an already successful meme.
[Note: Apologists have spent centuries reconciling these inconsistencies, but are these accurate and fair explanations? Or do they represent new adaptations evolved by the meme in order to protect itself?]
The Exponential Power of Memes
Perhaps the most profound aspect of this evolutionary metaphor is this: if tenacious extremophiles (like those that can survive in acidic waters, or under Arctic ice, or at the bottom of the ocean, or miles below the earth’s surface) can randomly adapt their way into the most inhospitable environments, then how much more should intelligently designed memes be able to adapt to the eager environment of the human mind? And have we grossly underestimated this potential?
If we assume for a moment that God is not real, and is just a meme that we ourselves have created, then consider how our minds have turned absolutely nothing into everything we need. We have convinced ourselves that God is invisible, and does not need to be tested, and that it is wise to believe without any evidence. We’ve managed to excuse God’s indifference towards his followers, and we’ve promised ourselves everything we could ever want… in the afterlife.
Through centuries of trial and error, the God meme has developed both offensively and defensively. It has learned how to provide its host with what it needs, in order to get repeated, and how to protect itself from attack. The meme “knows” what works, because what works gets repeated. The meme knows the mind, because it is born of the mind. It knows what we hope for and what we fear, and it uses these things to its advantage.
It’s as if the meme enters the mind and asks: “What does it take to survive here? I see this environment has hopes and fears; if I can provide solutions to these things, I can make a home for myself here, and make copies of myself into other minds that need the same things.”
Our meme supplies us with interesting stories to tell and “good news” to share. It provides us with hope, reassuring answers, explanations, and a feeling of certainty. It gives us a way to cheat death. It promises to protect us from our enemies and to heal our bodies. It gives us purpose and makes us feel loved. It gives us a community — one we can trust, and a social safety-net. It allows us to believe we are behaving as we ought, and it allows us to relinquish our guilt. It gives us a father-figure to cry out to in times of need, and a feeling that everything will be okay, and that someone is in control.
But reject this meme, or refuse to spread it, and it threatens us with eternal suffering.
But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
~ Matthew 10:33
And so, when we’re born into this world, this highly evolved meme stands ready to be poured out onto our brain, filling in all its cracks. “Ahhhhhh,” sighs the brain, “That’s exactly what I needed!” And it is! Because it has evolved to be. And from that point on, the brain and the meme share a kind of symbiotic relationship: the meme reassuring the brain, and the brain protecting the meme (regardless of which religious meme it may be). The religious meme has become like the Borg in Star Trek, warning us: “Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.”
It’s possible that the Bible was divinely inspired, but it’s also possible that religious memes have evolved to meet our needs.
If God is just a highly evolved meme, then the only thing that can stop it is competition, competition from another meme whose fitness exceeds that of the meme currently occupying the same space in our brain. However, I’m doubtful that any natural view will ever trump religion’s ability to fill the desires of our heart, for the same reason that eternal life will always be more appealing than eternal death. Religion has evolved to meet our needs, atheism has not.