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1/19/2004                                                                                       View Comments

Viruses of the Mind

by John J. Palazzini

In his essay, "Viruses of the Mind", biologist Richard Dawkins described religion as a virus. A traditional virus is a sequence of genetic information that invades an organism and uses the resources of that organism to further replicate itself; likewise, a memetic virus is a sequence of information, an idea, that invades a human's brain and replicates itself via that brain's communication with other brains. In order to be successful, a memetic virus must readily copy itself and resist removal from its host. The idea of God, an omnipotent, eternal being who demands worship from humans, is the shining example of such a virus. This viral nature of God ensures that the idea will continue to cripple mankind and prevent progress for as long as we exist.

Religions, which can be thought of as variations of the God virus, command their hosts to "spread the good news" to other brains. While it is true that there can be religions that do not seek to spread themselves to other brains, these religions, like those that command their hosts to commit suicide, quickly oust themselves from the meme pool and are of no further consequence; most religions do seek their own perpetuation and these are the ones that demand our attention.

Religions employ a variety of methods to win converts. As a byproduct of the natural desire to self-preservation, humans crave immortality. God promises even more than this: an immortality filled with bliss in Heaven for you and those you love, and an immortality filled with pain in Hell for those you hate. Another favorite method is physical violence. History is filled with religious advocates killing and torturing those who refused to accept their god. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and the many religious wars described in the Old Testament and perpetuated today in the Middle East are a few examples. The most insidious method of conversion is that employed against the helpless young. The very moment a toddler can mouth the words, infected parents teach her to sing catchy religious jingles and to pray before she sleeps at night. Indoctrination is thus set into motion before the child even learns arithmetic or the art of reading. When she does begin to read, she is given childish (read more childish) versions of the same myths that infect her parents.

Converts are easy to win, but are they easy to keep? God is an even wilier foe in this arena. The first line of defense is simple ease of habit. It is far easier not to think than to think. Making life-changing decisions requires enough intellectual energy to discourage most curious individuals from the effort. But if some impetus overcomes this energy, God is already prepared. Religions come with built-in guilt mechanisms should the host begin to question the religion, something like a computer's discouraging statements when you try to delete some file necessary for its operating system. When guilt is conquered, fear still remains. Immortality in Heaven is double-edged: even after the host has realized that his god's existence is logically impossible, he clings to belief because if in the infinitely improbable event his god does exist, then he will face hellfire for eternity. Finally, even if the host is courageous enough to accept what his own reason tells him, he had better be quiet about it. Violence is still allowed in much of the world, and it is as effective for keeping converts as for winning them.

Unlike physical viruses, memetic viruses offer no hope for physical remedy. Any physical remedy devised for believing in God would violate the rights of the host, because she obviously would not consent to the treatment. The means would be worse than the end. The only hope for curing the believer lies in rational persuasion. But reason too, that precious prerequisite to progress beyond hunting with sharp rocks, is ineffective against the God virus. When the concerned atheist uses reason to prove that her god cannot logically exist, she abandons reason. She claims "God is beyond reason, for he created reason." Like Monty Python's literally disarmed and "dislegged" knight, the host will not admit defeat and accept reality, despite the utter annihilation of any meaningful defense. Yet, apostates exist, so rational persuasion must work some of the time.

The difference between those who accept reason in the question of theism and those who do not is neither one of intelligence nor education. Geniuses and PhDs (including scientists) have been theists, and even a child can understand why God cannot exist (and why, if God cannot exist, then he does not exist). The difference is strength of will. Strong-willed individuals have the courage to accept life without God; weak-willed individuals psychologically need something outside their own selves, so they remain hosts to the virus. If this is the case, then there might still be hope. We just need to redouble our efforts at persuading the strong-willed individuals we find, and, as they reproduce, eventually strong wills will outnumber the weak.

Unfortunately, this has been our default strategy from the beginning, and we are no closer to success than ever before. Even otherwise irreligious individuals now look to pseudo sciences like psychics and Tarot cards and place a theism-like faith in them. And traditional religion is far, far from faltering. This seemingly sound strategy is doomed to failure because a population of strong wills is not stable. In primitive societies, strong wills (capable of hard work, innovation, free thought, and scientific inquiry) will begin to spread among weak wills, because strength of will is necessary for life. But as these strong wills take over, the free rider problem arises, as relatively few strong wills are needed to provide for a much larger society. It becomes advantageous to be weak-willed. Weak wills will therefore always outnumber strong wills. Individuals psychologically incapable of accepting life without God will always outnumber the individuals capable of breaking free.

Sadly, we cannot hope to free mankind, for God is too strong a foe. If God actually existed, perhaps in the form of some super villain from the pages of a comic book, we in all our human ingenuity could surely have toppled him. But how can we defeat a pattern of electrical signals in the brains of billions of human beings? We cannot. Does this mean we should give up? God, no! Just because there is no life after death does not mean we should not live life to the fullest, and just because we cannot ultimately end the tyrannical reign of religion over mankind does not mean we should meekly offer up the white flag. We can save some, and we owe it to them and to ourselves to save as many as we can from the clutches of God.

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