Is Religion a Virus?
Robert M. Price
Recently I was invited to write a blurb on behalf of a new book that takes off from Richard Dawkins’s comparison of religion to a virus that spreads insidiously, infecting the weak-minded and producing aberrant behavior. Its goal is simply to perpetuate itself, which it does by hook and by crook, any path that affords itself. Religious believers, probably because they encountered religion when their defenses were down, have fallen victim to this virus, and it is this infection that accounts for many strange, violent, and dangerous behaviors, such as terrorism in the name of God. What the hell was wrong with the 9/11 hijackers? They carried a virulent strain of religion.
I decided I couldn’t write the blurb. I reject the demeaning character of the analogy between religious commitment and a virus. And not for the reasons you might think. For one thing, I believe it is a case of the hypostatization fallacy, the fallacious concretizing of a mere description into an apparent cause. “Lady, I’ll tell you why your son is slashing tires and setting fires! He’s got juvenile delinquency!” Uh, no he doesn’t. “Juvenile delinquency” is just a description of the kind of behavior the little moron is engaging in. You’d have to look a lot deeper in order to find out the real cause for the bad behavior. It’s like saying the cause of all those robberies and murders is a surge in crime.
The charge of religion being viral in character reminds me, ironically, of a religious doctrine. Aren’t Dawkins and other anti-religious virologists really talking about demons possessing the hapless victims of religion? The whole analogy, or metaphor, or whatever it is, demands that we understand religious believers as purely passive victims, as of an air-borne disease. Bad ideas are floating around and latch onto some poor schlemiel, just like the demons in Matthew 12:43-45: “But when the unclean spirit exits from a human host, he wanders through arid places seeking respite and finds none. Then he reasons, ‘Why not return to enter the dwelling I left?’ And he arrives to find it untenanted, swept, and furnished! Then he goes and recruits seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and entering, he dwells there happily ever after. And the last condition of the wretch is worse than the first!”
Sorry, but I fear and think there is more to it than that. I want to hold people responsible for their destructive beliefs. Even if they were indoctrinated with religion as children, it is their responsibility to reexamine their inherited faith to decide whether to embrace it for themselves, once they can. That is the whole premise of Confirmation: today you decide whether you choose the faith delivered to you by your family and community. It is like an evangelistic invitation, because it assumes a personal stand is called for. You have to decide. I realize that in practice catechists simply take it for granted that young people will sign on the dotted line, and that catechumens just sit placidly on the assembly line. But this is supposed to be the time when they decide.
Believing what he apparently does about the haphazard circling of viral religion till it attaches itself in the idle brain of the poor sap who becomes a religious zombie, it becomes understandable how Dawkins could flirt (for a while) with advocating that the State take children out of religious homes to protect them from a religious upbringing.
This dismissive talk of religious belief as an epidemic virus recalls the anti-intellectual fears of the fundamentalists I used to count as my pals, who piously warned one another not to read this book or entertain that theory for fear that Satan might use it to destroy one’s faith. It was presumably like hypnosis. There was no question of an intellectual challenge to be met, and of whether one were sufficiently prepared to evaluate the unfamiliar thought. No, better just to keep one’s vulnerable butt out of the hot zone. This is all intellectually deplorable, naturally, and Dawkins cannot believe this, but the metaphor of a cognitive virus surely suggests it.
Richard Dawkins is a very intelligent man whose advanced mind is overflowing with ideas. Another famous one is the meme. A meme is any sort of an idea, a theory, a belief, a joke, a bit of cognitive currency that makes the rounds, transferring itself from mind to mind, spreading itself and using minds as its breeding ground. In short, a meme is pretty much the same as a cognitive virus. I guess the difference is that Dawkins calls a meme a virus if he doesn’t like it, if he is immune to it. I certainly don’t see much difference between a meme and a virus. And I don’t much care for either. I don’t think either conception is helpful, because both presuppose the same personal passivity.
Come to think of it, he says the same thing about DNA. To hear him tell it, the king of the universe is DNA, and we are all its fumbling lackeys, mere containers and conveyors of these molecule chains which ride us like a strongbox of gold aboard a wagon crossing the Old West. It is part of his astonishing brilliance that Dawkins thus discerns what it is that makes the world go round. He is right. Once there were probably creatures with a reproductive capability but without a reproductive urge. Their lives were about other concerns, and they never got around to having sex. They were genetic dead ends, not the types to contribute their proclivities to future generations because they neglected to have any future generations. I think he is right. Reproduction is Job One. That is why all stories are ultimately love stories All songs are ultimately love songs, or darn near. Love makes the world go round.
Romantic love, a recent invention, is icing on the cake, making the prospect of reproduction, repopulating the species, seem sweeter for hidden and adjacent reasons. But an even more recent invention, birth control, changed everything in that respect, divorcing sex not so much from love as from reproduction. The happy couple Romance and Sex could live for today and leave tomorrow unto itself. We suddenly had the luxury to live life purely for personal self-satisfaction, without, that is, the long-term investment of time and trouble that children entail. Satisfying, yes, but carrying too big a price-tag for many of us. The result is a kind of decadent cultural impotence as the vital force of such a culture declines, and it looks to others, outsiders, to do the work and inherit the future its own offspring would have done and inherited.
But this is not because we have defied the commands of reproduction, thwarted the superhuman mandate of Dioxyribonucleic acid. That is to get the cart before the horse. It seems to me that the reason to propagate our family, our culture, our species, is to provide the medium in which our cultural values and achievements may be preserved to ennoble and entertain and edify more people, more minds. It would not be worth living if simple propagation were the only goal. It may be all that DNA can see (as if it could be conscious of anything), but we know better. I used to notice how the TV evangelists would use all their air-time begging for more money so they could stay on the air—for what? To beg for more bucks to remain on the air, to… We must justify our continued existence by new accomplishments, the creation of new beauty and meaning, as we have in the past, as a visit to any library or museum will tell you.
We are not mere passive vehicles for DNA, genetic crop dusters without a pilot. But, once again, Dawkins’s metaphors are implicitly dehumanizing in suggesting that we are. The trouble with Richard Dawkins is not that he doesn’t believe in God. The problem is that he doesn’t believe in Man.
So says Zarathustra.