The Religion Virus
TL;DR I potentially piss off a lot of my friends, family, and strangers because I tell them that I think their minds are infected with highly-evolved ancient self-replicating mind-viruses.
Some prominent Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher, endorse mockery of silly religious beliefs. While these beliefs are certainly deserving of mockery, and they have an absolute right to do so, I think it frames the problem poorly. Religion is a public health issue. It is an infectious disease. We don’t mock people with the Flu, HIV, Ebola, or Polio. We treat them — with quarantines, vaccines, and other therapies.
A biological virus is a small capsule of DNA (information) that infects a cell and hijacks it’s internal machinery to churn out trillions of copies of itself which can then be spread to other hosts. They self-perpetuate themselves and have evolved mechanisms to do so with extreme efficiency.
Religions are mental viruses. They attack their hosts minds, inserting their ideas. Successful religions are fine tuned with adaptations that have helped them survive and spread through human minds.
- They disable critical and skeptical thinking, and make a virtue of accepting things on blind faith.
- They are are aggressive towards other competing religions or belief systems.
- They have mechanisms to spread through preaching, missionaries, churches, and community social pressures.
- They provide satisfyingly easy answers to alleviate existential angst
None of these traits are an accident. The world’s religions have survived and evolved, in the darwinian survival of the fittest sense, over thousands of years. They are enormously successful at spreading — most of humanity is infected with some strain of the Religion Virus. Like biological viruses, there can be different strains of each type. Some types of flu are extremely deadly (Spanish Flu, Bird Flu), others more benign. Likewise, we have plenty of benign, peaceful Muslims in the world, but also radical extremist strains experiencing a huge surge. Christianity had a pretty destructive strain for a while as well (Crusades, Inquisition). There are other strains of mental viruses that aren’t quite religions, but are similar. Nationalism can be considered a weak strain, as can political ideologies and conspiracy theories.
They infect people with weak or undeveloped mental immune systems — In particular, children. As a child your brain is still learning how the world works and developing a framework for understanding it. All religions are full of whacky unsubstantiated crazy ideas from ancient texts. It’s hard to understand why anyone would believe such nonsense, unless authority figures have been telling you it’s true since childhood. This is clearly evident from the fact that most people share the religion of their parents, not as an inherited trait, but through childhood infection.
Due to the mental infection, their entire way of processing the world has been framed by these religious ideas, and it creates a stunning blind spot in the mind, which is well defended by adaptations such as blind faith and social pressure.
A religious mind has never had to deal with true, deep, existential dread. If you’ve spent your life ignoring these issues because your religion gave you a candy-coated heavenly afterlife, it can be too painful and overwhelming to accept anything else.
Adults, especially young adults suffering from heavy existential angst and/or a mental illness are also vulnerable to religious infections. This is how a lot of extremist terrorists are first radicalized. Desperate for meaning and purpose in life, martyrdom can offer them a quick answer. These viruses have evolved amazing mental tricks to spread and perpetuate. There are probably millions of people on the planet right now, who actually believe that I should be beheaded simply for writing this essay, and they even believe they will be rewarded with virgins in heaven for doing so.
RELIGION – Together we can find the cure
— Richard Dawkins
If one accepts the thesis that religions are a public health issue, then what is the solution? Richard Dawkins has gone as far to suggest that indoctrinating children in a religion (for example, telling children they’ll burn in hell for eternity, etc..) should be considered child abuse.
As mentioned earlier, It’s very difficult to remove religious infections from adult minds. It’s too deeply rooted at that point and has aggressive self-defense countermeasures. Clearly, preventing new infections in children could break the cycle. However, any effective means of doing this by force would tread on our deeply important freedoms.
The only reasonable solution I can see is deploying the equivalent of a childhood vaccine. We need to teach young children critical thinking skills so that their minds have some defence against infections. They may still grow up religious, but will likely carry a more moderate strain, and have a better chance of shedding the virus as an adult.
Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings
— Victor J. Stenger
In this age of rocket-ships, nuclear weapons, genome sequencing, robots, self-driving cars you can talk to, It’s getting tiresome sharing the planet with people who are making major decisions — political, life & death decisions, based on ancient texts full of irrational self-replicating belief systems. The human race needs to evolve beyond this global mental maddness.
Posting this essay is very difficult for me. Many people I know and love — good friends and family — were infected with religious memes at a young age, through no fault of their own. Because of these beliefs, simply reading this may cause them pain or anger — their belief systems will aggressively fight these ideas and any cognitive dissonance it creates. Please know I still love & respect you, and this is not meant to be an attack. I’m just laying out the facts and how I see the world through the lens of my own belief system.
I’m 100% certain it won’t take long for the comments section below to become full to the brim with angry comments defending religion because, well, that’s part of their evolved defence strategy.