Author: Jim Etchison
Published: May 14, 2010 at 5:29pm UTC
Memetics in action. The latest decal to festoon the windows of cars all over the country is the edgy ?NotW? sticker. You may have seen it. It bears the tough-looking lines of any other clothing or car accessory logo.
The latest decal to festoon the windows of cars all over the country is the edgy “NotW” sticker. You may have seen it. It bears the tough-looking lines of any other clothing or car accessory logo. There are versions that have a more feminine appeal. There are also versions that have contextually inappropriate flames emanating from either side. Yet another version betrays the secret-code represented in this otherwise enigmatic graphic and spells it out: Not of this world.

If you want one, the stickers can be purchased online for $5. (The one with flames is $20 for inexplicable reasons.) Why shouldn’t you buy one? The money you have in your wallet is mammon, and definitely “of this world.”

But I’m not here to lambaste a sticker. Stickers don’t hurt anyone; ideas do.

As you may have guessed, I’m grossly offended by the idea presented in these stickers. The stickers are marketed to young people who are trying to be true to the religion they’ve been brainwashed to believe--even though the dictates of society and their own good sense might indicate that it’s a bad idea. What soothes their cognitive dissonance is to feel “cool” about being a Christian. These stickers provide that service.

On a deeper level, however, the idea that Christians are “not of the world” poses a very difficult problem for the rest of us who are of this world.

The most offensive thing about it is how effective it is.

A Lesson in Memetics

Over thirty years ago, Richard Dawkins coined a term called a “meme.” A meme is like a gene in the world of ideas. It represents a single concept that may or may not be a part of a larger set of concepts. The term “meme” was later extended to “memetics,” that is, the study of how memes survive and replicate in their culture.

Cultures are like organisms--replete with memes that are constantly being created, replaced, modified, and exchanged. One example of a meme is: “In hell, there are demons who poke you with pitchforks.” This idea certainly doesn’t originate in the Bible, but the idea manages to crop up in people’s heads when they imagine what hell must be like. Why? Because it’s catchy, that’s why. It’s also scary, and becomes a concrete reminder for why we should be “good.”

The pitchfork meme is part of a larger set of memes that comprise the entire hell myth. The hell myth has been heavily modified over the centuries through the process of memetics. Where the original Hebrews in the Old Testament merely referred to “the pit" (literally, the grave) as the afterlife, the mythos behind the afterlife grew like a Dr. Suess book with each subsequent culture that the Hebrews came in contact with. They borrowed the catchiest and most effective memes from the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, and the Babylonians. By the end of the Bible, the Jews have an elaborate, complicated myth of Hell. An excellent recounting of this process can be read in Alice K. Turner’s “The History of Hell.”

Memes catch on for positive reasons as well. The entire idea of redemption offered by Christ helps alleviate our guilty conscience. Heaven is a meme whose popularity grew for the opposite reason of hell. It served as a reward for all the labor you provided to whoever was oppressing you.

The “Not of this World” Meme

This bumper sticker represents a meme that is catching on for some very compelling reasons. These reasons also indicate why Christianity as a memetic organism has become grafted to the conservative, pro-capitalist organisms of the political spectrum.

A Christian who is not of this world does not need to bother himself with the resource issues that are vexing a consuming planet. The Christian believes that Jesus is going to come back and take his believers to the real world anyway. So while they’re here, they might as well enjoy god’s earth without a care for our impact upon it.

- A Christian who is not of this world does not need to be concerned about the fact that he is against abortion and birth control when human population on earth has quadrupled in the last century.

- A Christian who is not of this world does not need to save money for their children. In fact, they might as well run up the credit cards--Jesus is coming soon to take us to the world we are really of.

- A Christian who is not of this world need not be concerned about suffering going on elsewhere in the world. Their pain is regrettable, yes, but the important thing is their eternal souls.

Being “Not of this world” excuses reprehensible behavior. It provides an ethical loophole for Christians who proliferate wrong ideas, hateful legislation, and outright nonsense. It confabulates a fairy-tale, non-causal universe where miracles happen, facts are fiction, and science is just science fiction.

*"notW" and the notW logo are trademarks of C2:8, Inc in the United States and/or other countries. All trademarks, trade names or company names referenced herein are used for identification purposes only and are the property of their respective owners.

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