The best way we have found to examine the psychology and sociology of religion is to examine it from the viewpoint of Darrel W. Ray, Ed.D., author of “The God Virus”. This page will be a summary of his lecture on the subject with some re-creations of slides and charts he uses. We will post a video of this lecture soon.
It’s very possible (and probable) to look at religion as a virus. Why? Well, the way religion takes over your body is very similar to the way a virus does.
The idea of ideas or systems of ideas as “viruses” was first described by Richard Dawkins, who coined the term “meme” to mean a “postulated unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, gets transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena”. They are analogous to genes (hence the similarity in spelling and pronunciation), in that they are said to self-replicate and respond to selective pressures. In this book, Darrel explains religion through this viral/meme metaphor.
Darrel first explains exactly how religion can be appropriately viewed using the viral metaphor, and then uses this metaphor throughout the book, explaining how different religions survive and dominate others, and how some of the strategies religion uses to survive and propagate are very similar to actual, biological viruses. He explains that religious conversion can affect individuals on the personality level, taking over critical thinking and causing an individual to be “immune” to other religions by being able to point out the flaws in other religions while simultaneously being unable to see the flaws in their own religion. Darrel speaks of the importance of “vectors” (priests, ministers, etc) in propagating religious ideas and how religious people and organizations will protect those “vectors” even in the case of abuse or other crimes.
Darrel then explains the types of strategies the “god virus” uses to survive and spread, and how advanced religions are more effective than other religions, which is why they continue to survive and replicate. Darrel says that one of the tools to fight the “god virus” is science and critical thinking education, which is something that religion tends to rally against, especially if the science concerns ideas that seem counter to religious belief, I.E. Evolution.
He then deals with how religion infects and persuades groups and political structures as well as individuals, and underlines religion’s influence on public and civil culture. Religion is always about guilt and shame and it uses mixed messages to create a cycle of guilt in which the religion reduces feelings of guilt by promising an elimination of it, yet individuals continue to feel guilty and return to religion to have their guilt temporarily suppressed. Darrel gives a long list of some of the conflicting messages in religion, such as:
God loves you, but he will send you to hell if you do not do exactly what he says.
God loves you, but you were born unclean and can never be clean without god.
Allah loves you and created women as beautiful creatures that you are forbidden to enjoy, except in marriage and behind closed doors.
He also deals with sex, and religion’s attempt to control sex by creating a sex-negative environment. He mentions that even though religion uses positive terminology such as “focus on the family” really the message of “focus on the family” is a message of focusing on the rules and tenets of religion, which cause feelings of guilt and negativity towards sex. The function of this is not to create happy, dynamic family structures, but to propagate religion.
His take on morality is particularly interesting – how even though religionists insist that morality is objective and defined in concrete terms by their god, morality is an ever-changing product of culture in which the only way a given religion can survive is by adopting and changing its morality to fit in with the culture enough to continue to propagate. People who are religionists find it difficult to see this changing morality and believe they are more moral than others, and this blinds them to real-world data which shows that religionists are nor more or less moral than atheists. Darrel specifically shows how various studies such as studies on divorce and prison populations how that religion has little effect on morality and even that non-theists may be slightly more moral.
American Evangelism has spread to the point where mega-churches are dotting the US landscape. Darrel explains why some people are drawn into religion and others are not, and the role that intelligence and personality plays in religiosity. He then deals with unbinding oneself from religion and breaking free of “the virus”, especially in deprogramming ourselves of the ideas that have been taught to us since an early age.
Darrel also explains the difference between science and religion: in short, science has error-correction mechanisms and thus builds up a continuity of knowledge based on previous work, and this knowledge can be objectively tested. Religion, on the other hand, does not have these errors and instead has built-in mechanisms to change with the cultural climate. Because science is so powerful, many religions have adopted scientific language while simultaneously decrying scientific methods.
I found the structure of his analysis to be well-organized and accessible to individuals who are not well-voiced in formal argumentation. Rather than approach the god problem from a logical or hypothesis perspective A la Victor Stenger’s God: the Failed Hypothesis, it approaches the problem of religion’s impact on the individual and society.
The most important thing to consider is once we accept that it is indeed the same as a virus, what do we do to stop it… and should we. Let’s answer the second question first. I asked Darrel where he stood on the subject. He agreed with me. We try and eradicate virus like the yellow fever by spraying and killing all the vectors (in this case, mosquitoes). I’m NOT saying KILL MINISTERS! Please don’t. But, can we be aggressive in spreading truth and helping people away from religion or should we just make it available as a pill at the Atheist Pharmacy?
Well, both, actually. Sites like this one are here to serve as the anti-body to the God Virus. We need to gently help people learn this info. I was only able to escape religion by stopping going to church regularly and by educating myself on science and religious history. it is possible to cure the god virus. Stay away from church and get educated. Sounds simple… but it took me ten years (and I was still scared to blaspheme for years). We can’t shove the medicine down peoples’ throats or they will regurgitate the pill – part of the defense mechanism of the virus. They have to willingly take the course of treatment, slowly, one pill at a time. You can help. Be smart. Be non-combative. Be cool. If you arm yourself with the knowledge on this site, you can be a dose of reason for the religiously sick all around you. Remember, the countries with the least religious people tend to be the best socially (look at Sweden). It would do us all well to eradicate the god virus from our lives.
If you want further reading, and some different perspectives on the “Psychology of Religion” and the modern fanaticism surrounding it, CHECK THIS SITE OUT. In modern religion these considerations have a most important part. The church is a club. The minister caters to every interest, from dancing to matrimony, from vanity to sheer gregariousness and one’s commercial interests. It pays a doctor to go to church, a lawyer to be a Catholic, a grocer to be religious, a professor to be on the side of the angels, a politician to rebuke infidelity…. The Almighty alone knows today how many of his worshipers believe in him. He could give us an entertaining volume on the psychology of religion. But, I don’t think he is going to be publishing any new works any time soon!
For another interesting take on the origin of religion, check out this lecture by Dr. Andy Thompson, author of Why We Believe in Gods.
And here is a fantastic Youtube series, laying out the many psychological mechanisms that keep people religious: Psychology of Belief
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