Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 5 of 6

By Valerie Tarico

How Viral Ideas Hook Us

Did you know that Temple Baptist Church was built on land that sold for 57 cents, the amount saved by a little girl that had been turned away from their Sunday school? Did you hear about the guy who died in his sleep, killed by his own farts? Can you believe it?! Elvis Presley said, "The only thing a nigger can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes." And,guess what--scholars at the Smithsonian Institution have uncovered new interpretations of Nostradamus that relate to Barack Obama.

The above statements are false. But that hasn’t kept them from circulating the internet for years. Each of them is the heart of a viral email, which means that each has some quality that makes people forward it, over and over and over. The first is a kind of message commonly known as “glurge,” too-sweet-to-be-true stories that nevertheless give people a warm feeling or even chills. The second makes us laugh and piques our sense of curiosity. The third plays with our contradictory fascination with celebrities, which includes a desire to tear them down. The fourth appeals to our yearning for magic. These stories all are drawn from the urban legends fact-finding site, What is the common theme? Emotional arousal.

Comparing religion to chain mail seems crass, but the kinship is real. And as Francis Bacon said, “The eye of the understanding is like the eye of the sense; for as you may see great objects through small crannies or holes, so you may see great axioms of nature through small and contemptible instances.”

Viral email has a variety of reproductive strategies. Like computer viruses, many chain mail messages contain explicit “copy-me commands.” Some promise us good luck if we forward the message to ten people before the day is up – or a week of happiness, or even prosperity. Some threatens us with bad luck if we don’t. Some tries to shame us: “If you care about your friends, you’ll send this information about cervical cancer/visa fraud/brown recluse spiders . . .” But most viral emails simply contain something that makes us want to pass them on. They may make us laugh or feel validated and righteous. Many delight us. A few tap our sense of magic or mystery or transcendence.

The term “viral marketing” has itself gone viral recently, popularized by books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, or Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. Corporations have discovered that their best sales staff are satisfied customers, and they’ve been experimenting. Can we figure out the formula for starting a fad? Can we seed the virus with a few hired hands who create buzz? The Heath brothers offer communications professionals a simple formula which they call the “Six Principles for SUCCESs:” SIMPLE UNEXPECTED CONCRETE CREDIBLE EMOTIONAL STORIES. Look at the formula. Now think back about what I said regarding the boundaries of supernaturalism and the born again experience. The fit is remarkably tight.

In the field of medicine, epidemiologists study patterns of contagion. They might track, for example, how an influenza virus spread across one region and how it jumped from country to country in the bodies of specific carriers. Based on the way infections fan out, they may even be able to identify the “epicenter” of a disease. Some of the tools of epidemiology are now being applied to study the spread of viral ideas. But whereas diseases spread passively, meaning people rarely try to infect each other, viral ideas, also known as “memes” spread by harnessing the human desire to share what we know and to learn from each other. Memes get transmitted through established social networks. They spread horizontally within a generation, and vertically from generation to generation. That is why specific religions are concentrated in one part of the world or another and children tend to have the same religion as their parents.

For developmental reasons, children are particularly susceptible to simply accepting the ideas of their parents and community. If a parent says stoves burn you, cars can squish you, and bathing keeps you from getting itchy, kids tend to do best if they simply trust what their parents say. Nature has designed children to be “credulous.” This allows them to learn from the mistakes of their elders. It makes them more efficient in acquiring valuable information and adapting to cultural norms. It is also why evangelical parents are encouraged to convert their children. Research on identity development shows that if children can be contained within an enveloping religious community through their transition into young adulthood, few will ever leave. Bring up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

A successful religion needs to have the qualities of a successful virus. In a changing environment, this means it must have the ability to mutate and adapt. In the past, religions were spread largely by edict and conquest. Today, though, religion is perceived as an individual choice and religions must gain share by attracting adherents. This is why, today, the religions that are gaining mindshare are those that have good marketing, high birthrates, and what economists call “appealing club goods”. In the current environment, Christianity has been able to produce offshoots that need no edict or conquest.

Significantly, the religions that are growing right now are ones with strong copy-me commands. Evangelical Christianity is centered on what Christians call the Great Commission: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost.” In addition, just as the Roman church latched onto the strategy of competitive breeding (keep women home, sanctify a high birth rate), so Evangelicals have begun to explicitly add this form of copy-me command to the mix. By contrast, modernist Christianity is more often centered on what Christians call the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your god with all your heart, soul and mind, and . . . love your neighbor as yourself.” In a straight up competition, the copy-me command wins out, and in fact, evangelicals are gaining mindshare, while modernists are losing it.

One of the fastest changing aspects of our world is the growth of information. As knowledge grows, some varieties Christianity accept new scientific or historical findings and reinterpret their sacred texts and traditions in light of our best understanding of the world around us. Tangentially, this is the approach taken by Tibetan Buddhism. The 14th Dalai Lama has said, "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.” This kind of adaptation is common for forms of Christianity that, like Buddhism, are more centered in praxis (practice) than belief. For those that are centered in belief, adapting to new knowledge is more difficult, and the survival strategy more often is a sort of fundamentalist retrenchment. Karen Armstrong’s book, The Battle for God, describes this retrenchment in the Abrahamic religions.

The need to adapt may seem at odds with the recent success of fundamentalism, but in actual fact, fundamentalism is an adaptation to a changing world. Rather than revising dogmas, fundamentalists develop stronger defenses against external threats to a traditional homeostasis. An extreme example of this can be seen in the case of the Amish or Hassidic Jews: the belief system sustains itself relatively unchanged by engaging people to re-create an ancestral environment in which the belief system emerged.

But most theological fundamentalists have a more hybrid approach. They protect their children from external influence by home schooling or parochial schools but don’t mind accessing creationist materials from interactive websites. They offer in-house social services that include pop psychology. They promote hierarchy and sexism but are willing to have women and children as spokespersons for these views. They play up the risks of inquiry and doubt and yet use scientific findings to make their arguments convincing. Fundamentalist populations resist ideological change, but they have learned to exploit popular culture, best business practices, new technologies, and even scholarship itself to maintain the survival of their beliefs.

Since a virus and host fit together like a lock and key, understanding viral ideas helps us to understand the human mind, and vice versa. Retro-viruses and influenza mutate rapidly, which makes it hard to develop immunizations against them. On the spectrum of religions, Christianity shows a similar flexibility, regularly spinning off new sects, denominations, and even non-denominational renegades. And yet each of these taps a familiar range of emotions and social mechanisms and is constrained by the cognitive structures that place bounds on human supernaturalism. Christianity has adapted to a broad range of human minds and cultures, a strategy that has resulted in success beyond the wildest visions of the patriarchs.

Learn More:
Memetic Lexicon
Richard Brodie - Virus of the Mind
Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Made to Stick:Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die(New York: Random House, 2007), 253-257.

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