This post by David K. Clarke originally appeared at The Ramblings of a Bush Philosopher.
There are similarities between religion and a contagious disease such as those caused by viruses.
- A virus is forced by its genes to reproduce. If a religion is to be successful it too must reproduce (spread).
- People can ‘catch’ a religion from those around them and then pass it on to others; the similarity to a virus here is obvious. A successful religion is highly contagious. Its adherents actively try to convert others. It has a message that is appealing and often gives hope for a better life (quite probably after death). The adherents of several religions have actively forced people to convert a number of times in history.
- The most successful religions get a strong grip on their adherents from several angles: fear of punishment, hope for reward, and the provision of a father figure. Those who have long belonged to a religion are terrified when they begin to doubt because they are threatened with damnation (or other punishment in the afterlife or later incarnations). The most successful viruses use various means to avoid being overrun by the body’s defences, they might periodically change features of their outer coating so that they are difficult to recognize, they might mutate frequently (the common cold, for example), so that immunity to one cold doesn’t stop you catching the next version. Both viruses and religions have developed ways to stop people from defending themselves against infection.
- The most successful religions, like the most successful diseases, don’t do their hosts a lot of harm. A disease that quickly kills its victims is not likely to be passed on. Similarly, a religion that required all children to be sacrificed, or universal celibacy, could not last. The most successful religions allow most of their adherents to live a pretty ‘normal’ life. Again, the common cold is a good example of a virus that behaves similarly, it thrives in its numerous hosts, but kills very few.
- Computer viruses are not so clever as religions. There is obviously no advantage in having a virus in your computer. If someone created a virus that did come with advantages, then it would be much more likely to spread. If a virus has only disadvantages and can be recognised then we can crush it. If a religion had only disadvantages we would not adopt it.
- Viruses must breed to be successful. Religions often encourage their adherents to have many children and discourage abortion and family planning.
Memes are ideas, methods, or skills that we learn from each other; most of them are useful, even valuable. In a sense they are heritable, like genes, we discover them and pass them on to acquaintances and to later generations. Religion is a parasitic meme, a meme that uses the gullibility of humans to hold onto its adherents and to spread to others.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Animated map shows how religion spread around the world
Stephen Fry on God
David Fitzgerald – The Weird-Ass Morality of the Bible (2015 American Atheists National Convention)
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