Friday, October 09, 2009

The God Virus

The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture” is a book by psychologist Darrel Ray (the introduction and first two chapters of this work are available for PDF download here), and one of the most powerful concepts in atheology. It is not just a metaphor; it is a real phenomenon.

The God Virus is a species of “mind virus”, the term coined by Dawkins in his 1991 (15 years before “The God Delusion”) essay “Viruses of the Mind”. He also uses it in his 1991 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture “The Genesis of Purpose” (45:00). Much more recently, he used it again, very powerfully, in his superb Deschner Preis – acceptance speech.

While the gene is the replicator of the biological virus, the replicator of the mind virus is the “meme”, another term coined by Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” (1976). He didn’t set out to found a new science of “Memetics” but to promote the idea of “Universal Darwinism”, which has been developed by others, notably Dennett in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”.

But Memetics has become a science. Susan Blackmore, in “The Meme Machine”, who pushed memetic theory further than anyone.

Mind viruses are living things in a very real sense. They behave, in many ways like biological viruses. They replicate, they evolve, they invade and consume hosts (people’s minds), they propagate from host to host, they occur in epidemics. They also die out, given the right conditions.

The God Virus behaves like this. As Ray says in the book:-
It infects the brain and alters critical thinking skills. It leaves the skill intact for other religions but disables critical thinking about one’s own religion.
The God Virus, in one strain or another, has infected the minds of the vast majority of human beings today and throughout history. Perhaps atheists are somehow endowed with “immunity”.

How can the active atheist stop it? Rational argument, with the possessor of an infected mind, is hopeless by definition; critical thinking (vis-à-vis that religion) is disabled. While the God Virus resides in its host, this defence mechanism renders it unassailable. However, it has two areas of vulnerability:-

  1. The God Virus has evolved highly effective methods of propagating itself from mind to mind. It doesn’t just disable the critical thinking of an infected mind; it makes that mind spread the word. But, in the outside environment, the word can face competition. Typically, that competition comes from other strains of the God Virus, but it could come from Atheism. The more Atheism is advanced in this environment, the more difficult becomes the spread of the God Virus.

  2. Not only that, the God Virus will gradually weaken over time in the infected mind. It needs constant reinforcement. That’s one of the functions of collective worship. Infected minds keep each other topped-up. This is essentially the same as propagation and the God Virus is vulnerable in the same way.

So, the advancement of Atheism is an effective antidote to the God Virus. Over time, it can – properly organised – wipe it out. No wonder religious leaders are worried!


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