Regarding linguistic evolution, in a recent post, I noted that “On the existence of Zeus, people may wish to look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyaus_Pita
to see that Zeus is actually exactly the same as Jehovah. Both derive etymologically from the Indian Dyaus Pita, the sky father of the Vedic Pantheon. Greek Zeus Patera = Roman Ju Piter = Christian Deus Pater. None are entities, but rather human efforts to explain the meaning of life.”
I commented earlier here that God is a meme, and the quoted text explains how the God meme has evolved. The etymology of the Latin for “God the Father” can be traced very clearly to pagan roots, also showing the old cultural link between India and Europe. We also see here the stability (copy fidelity) of the main Western term for the sky father, stretching back in time to the Vedic term Pita.
In looking at how religious belief evolves, one way in which the meme differs strongly from the gene is in the stability of the transmission. Genes have strong copy fidelity, only mutating very rarely, with most mutations causing death. By contrast, the mutation of memes is far faster and more various than is generally acknowledged.
Consider the origins of Christianity. The mythicist view is that the Gospels are a fiction that was written in Alexandria with the conscious express purpose of establishing a new religion by inventing a mythical saviour who would press all the buttons needed for mass appeal. Christians maintain that the gospels were written between 70 and 100 AD, but there is no real evidence that they existed before the second or perhaps even the third century.
It is easy to imagine an evolutionary memetic process akin to ‘Chinese whispers’ which turned an original work of fiction into a dogma. A good example of Chinese whispers is the story from the First World War, where an order from the front was passed by word of mouth to the rear, and “We’re going to advance, send us reinforcements” was eventually transmitted as “We’re going to a dance, send us three and fourpence.” People’s hearing and memory and desires are flawed, giving great potential for hearing whatever you want to hear, rather than what is actually said.
In the Christian example, we have to look to the psychology of belief to explain how the Christ meme became the Christian dogma. This psychology is well captured in one of the famous “proofs” of the existence of God – that if we can imagine a perfect being, then a real one is better than an imaginary one so a real one must exist. (I kid you not, this is one of the main pieces of “logic” of Anselm). Anyway, exactly the same psychological logic applies to Jesus, that if we can imagine a perfect messiah, then a real messiah is so much better and therefore exists.
Trying to recreate how this meme may have evolved, the religious scholars of Alexandria had a strong agenda to imagine a better world than the Roman Empire. We can imagine their original thought processes, building on the prophecies of the Old Testament. Starting from ‘if only we had a messiah, this is what he would have been like’, the oral transmission of these messianic stories occurred over centuries before they found their final form. Conceivably, the first tellers meant the stories as myth. However, it is well known that a tale improves in the telling. As hearers tell a good story to others, they steadily embroider it. A very useful first embroidery, when you have a political agenda, is that the fantasy you heard is an actual story of events. If, as stated in John 20:31 the agenda is that “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” then clearly the agenda is not to provide an accurate record of events, but rather whatever will be most conducive to spreading belief.
So the idea of the meme as an evolving and mutating idea is very helpful to interpret the origins of Christianity. A key point is that in an oral culture, the weight of moral stories is increased by falsely claiming that invented fictions are historically based. This would go through several stages, each of which could last decades as the view of a community –
1. I know its false;
2. I heard that it is false;
3. I don’t know if its true or false;
4. It may be true;
5. It is probably true
6. It is definitely true
7. If you so much as ask if it is true you are a heretic and blasphemer and will go to hell.
This last dogmatic imperial phase is expressed in the Bible, with the statement at 1 John 4:2 “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. Every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God but is the spirit of the antichrist.”
So the Christian meme became that belief in the story of the incarnation was a test of faith. Pagans such as Celsus regarded this Christian method with contempt, as there was no historical evidence that Jesus lived. However, history shows that this meme of the Word made Flesh proved more powerful than pagan logic, and produced the Dark Ages. This meme of blind faith is only now unravelling at the popular level.