Friday, 16 November 2012

Is Religion A Mind Virus?

Look at the lovely viruses!
Ever since Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of memes in The Selfish Gene people have speculated on the nature of religion when seen as a memeplex. There are two ways to view the religion memeplex:
  1. Is it a meme which has evolved within the human cultural memome (the memetic equivalent of the genetic genome) because it conveys benefits to the carrier and is thus differentially selected for in the evolution of cultures
  2. It like a virus in that it conveys no benefit to the carrier and may even be harmful but it subverts the replication mechanism and converts the host to a machine for producing viruses.

Of course, these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive since there are examples of viruses eventually being incorporated into the normal genome because they have evolved from being parasites to being symbionts. One such example may be a retrovirus which suppressed immune responses and which is now essential in mammals to prevent the developing foetus from being rejected. The presence of this virus in the genome may have allowed placental mammals to evolve.

Religion. It's given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.

Jon Stewart
The standard counter to the Atheist argument that religions are harmful is to ask why, if cultures evolve and religions are harmful, they haven't gone extinct?

The purpose of this blog isn't to list the many ways in which religions are harmful so I will only deal with that briefly in a moment. The answer the the question however, is that religions maybe haven't gone extinct because they are memetic viruses.

The Harm Religions Do To Society.

No one can take an objective view of the world today and conclude that religions are not responsible for almost all conflicts. With the cold war over (and how much of that was at least in part due to religion?) religion is now the major cause of tension both between and within countries.

We have just witnessed a presidential election if the USA in which a lying, tax-evading, misogynist with some truly astonishing, even, when viewed from most of the rest of the world, dangerously deranged, religious beliefs, was only narrowly beaten in the popular vote because he was perceived by many as more suitable because he was more religious than the other candidate.

In the USA, in the twenty-first century, anyone seeking elected office has to be overtly religious. The religious right have created a political climate whereby anyone with a science education and displaying critical thinking skills, which includes the cleverest and best educated Americans, is effectively disbarred from holding elected office in the USA. This is despite the overwhelming evidence that those professing the more fundamentalist religious views are those most likely to be found in prison whilst those professing Atheist or Humanist views or identifying as having no religion, are highly under-represented in the prison population compared to their representation in the national demographic profile. On a world scale, countries such as Sweden where Atheists are in the majority tend to be the most peaceful, stable and law-abiding.

I have previously blogged about a relative few of the very many religion-inspired massacres and genocides in Religion Kills. I have also shown the effects religious cults can have on individuals in Top Five Christian Cults and More Loopy Religious Cults.

In Why Creationists Lie To Us I explained how fundamentalist Christians are attempting to subvert the US Constitution and establish an extreme Christian theocracy which would require the death penalty for adulterers, homosexuals, witches, incorrigible children, and those who spread “false” religions. It's not too hard to work out what an extreme fundamentalist Christian would deem to be a false religion nor how this death penalty would be carried out by people in control of a nuclear arsenal.

A Prayer

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells;

help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead;

help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the wounded, writhing in pain;

help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;

help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief;

help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended through wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sport of the sun-flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it --

for our sakes, who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask of one who is the Spirit of love and who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset, and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts.

Grant our prayer, O Lord, and Thine shall be the praise and honor and glory now and ever,


Mark Twain (1835-1910) - War Prayer
As an aside, it's interesting to note how the Christians of the Discovery Institute, which was established with this objective, make no pretence that Christianity has nothing to do with all those brutal Mosaic Laws from the Old Testament and that Jesus somehow changed all that. Their laws would be straight out of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, reflecting Bronze Age tribal values of desert-dwelling nomads.

Does anyone in their right mind, not imbued with primitive Christianity, think this would be a good thing, highly beneficial to human culture?

The last brief point to make here is that countries where two or more religions are represented by significant sections of the population tend to be unstable with a high level of social disorder and conflict. Religions very rarely peacefully co-exist, least of all the exclusive Abrahamic religions.

Religion As A Virus.

Daniel Dennett has suggested that religions can exercise behavioural control much like some viruses, and other parasites can, and provide:
...deleterious replicators that we would be better off without… but that are hard to eliminate, since they have evolved so well to counter our defenses and enhance their own propagation.”

Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), p. 84.

(See It Could Never Happen To Us - Zombies Controlled By A Parasite.)

Psychologist Darryl W. Ray has identified five characteristics viruses have in common with religions:

  1. Infect people.
  2. Create antibodies or defenses against other viruses.
  3. Take over certain mental and physical functions and hide within the individual in such a way that they are not detectable by the individual.
  4. Use specific methods for spreading the virus.
  5. Program the host to replicate the virus.

  1. Infect people by childhood indoctrination and proselytizing.
  2. Creates defenses by justifying their rightness and the wrongness of other religions.
  3. Take over mental functions by establishing rules such as abstinence and dietary restrictions and inducing guilt.
  4. Have “vectors” such as priests and ministers that spread the virus.
  5. Program their hosts with rituals such as baptism, first communion, Bar Mitzvah, confession, confirmation, and Bible reading and immunize them against other viruses by preventing them from learning objectively about other religions.

Darrel W. Ray, The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture (Bonner Springs, KS: IPC Press, 2009), p. 23.

The evolutionist, Craig A. James, has identified a series of eight mutations the monotheist religion meme would have gone through as it evolved out of primitive polytheism:

  1. Specialist god to general-purpose god.
  2. Polytheism to monotheism.
  3. Tolerance of other gods to intolerance.
  4. Local gods to global gods.
  5. Physical (“ same stuff as us”) to abstract.
  6. Pragmatic/natural ethics to god-given rules.
  7. Unlikable to kind.
  8. Sexual to asexual.

In primitive animism, each spirit has a very specific ecological niche — the bear spirit does bear stuff, and the cloud spirit does weather stuff, and the two don't compete for survival. They “live” in separate ecological niches. But… as time passed, the multitude of spirits narrowed down to fewer gods, and then to just a few gods. At the same time, these gods became more general, and therein lies the problem: At some point, their “ecological niches” started to overlap, and they started competing with one another for attention. Just as in nature, if two gods serve the same purpose, it's unlikely that both will survive.”

Craig A. James, Op.Cit. p. 25.

How well that explains so much history, and how well it explains the major social and international tensions in today's world.

So we can see how evolution provided an explanation not only for the diversity of life on earth but how myths and religions developed within our cultures, and how closely religions resemble a memetic analog of genetic viruses.

However, there is one important difference between the way we inherit our genes and how we inherit our memes, including religion. We inherit our genes by Darwinian Evolution whereby we inherit characteristic over which we have no control because our parents had no control over which they passed on to us. By contrast, memes are inherited by Lamarckian Evolution. We can change them after birth and we can choose which to pass on to our children. Unlike our genes which (notwithstanding genetic engineering) we cannot change, we can change our memes.

My parents chose to baptise me as a Christian before I was old enough to have any say in the matter. From my mother I inherited a love of nature, of reading and learning. At the age of nine I dispensed with the religion meme I had inherited and stopped believing in gods. I and my atheist partner chose not to baptize our three children and instead to pass on the memes for critical thinking, rational analysis and a love of truth, learning, nature and science, and to allow them to make up their own minds about religion. None of them are religious and all of them have passed on the memes they inherited from us to their children.

We can chose to disinfect ourselves of the religion parasite and we can choose not to pass it on to the next generation. It will not be easy because of the time religion has had to evolve it's defence and mind control mechanisms, and the brutality it can evoke in it's hosts when it's under threat, as witnessed by the brutally psychopathic policies of the Taliban and the US Discovery Institute, but it can be done.

It must be done if humans, and life on earth in general, are to have much of a future.

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1 comment :

  1. Very well done! It makes a perfect analogy for discussion purposes. I will try to use it whenever possible. Thanks for the hard work! auldShaman


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