Review by Dom Nozzi
I was raised a Catholic. Religion was essential for moral behavior. And perpetuity in paradise was to be my reward for “accepting Jesus as my lord and savior” (as my church and parents defined it). An eternity in hell’s lake of fire was to be my punishment if I strayed.
Powerful motivation to remain a Catholic, to say the least.
In my 20s in college, however, I read books by Thomas Paine (mainly his classic, The Age of Reason) and Bertrand Russell, soon after having caught a glimpse of Madalyn Murray O’Hair on a TV talk show. As a result of this fateful and fortunate exposure, all of my childhood teachings about the unquestioned goodness of my religion were revealed to be lies.
Instead, I learned of a tidal wave of religious atrocities that had been hidden from me. The immense cruelty, stupidity, greed, authoritarianism, ignorance, childishness, sexual and physical abuse, anti-intellectualism, bloodshed, and utter heinousness.
My biggest puzzle since then: Why are there people far more intelligent than I who are firmly committed, passionate, zealous religionists, given the moronic and cruel nature of the religious beliefs? Certainly some of it has to do with “confirmation bias” (the well-known phenomenon in which individuals only remember information that confirms their beliefs, and disregard conflicting information).
And some of it was that religious teachings make most all of us impervious to any form of reason, logic or evidence.
The Religion Virus enhances and further elaborates and extends these explanations in an illuminating way. The book provides a powerfully lucid, easy-to-understand explanation for how religious beliefs have evolved over the course of human history as a “survival of the fittest” virus (or “meme”), and strongly supplements my own explanations above about why religious views are so tenacious – even for the handful who are otherwise intellectually brilliant.
James shows how religious ideas effectively replicate from individual to individual in the same way that a biological virus spreads itself.
To successfully self-replicate, the religion virus must provide those who are “infected” with a powerful motivation to spread the virus to others. Since children are so impressionable and usually retain lessons learned for a lifetime, the successful religion virus has evolved in such a way as to motivate those infected with the religion virus to carefully and aggressively educate their children at a young age — to “inoculate” them from foreign ideas that may “cure” the children from being afflicted by the virus.
James points out that because self-replicating ideas (such as a religion or a popular, long-lasting joke) are very much like genes, Richard Dawkins pioneered the term “meme” to describe such a mind virus.
Over the centuries of human existence, those religious ideas that most successfully survived and thrived have been those which found ideas that most aggressively and tenaciously reproduce from person to person.
A meme is most effective, according to James, when it has the following elements:
• It is believable (slightly outrageous but not blatantly so).
• It is relevant (something we care about and need to know).
• It is scary.
• It is easy to pass on to others.
James shows how the religion virus excels in each of these categories.
As in biological evolution, the religion virus must evolve to be able to adapt to a changing world. The religion virus (of the major religions) has shown the following changes over time:
• Going from the specialist gods of polytheism to an all-purpose god of monotheism (it is much easier to pray to one god for rain, victory, food, and health than to pray to several gods).
• Tolerating other gods to being intolerant of other gods (the religion is more likely to spread and survive if it is hostile to other religious ideas).
• Local gods to global gods (again, a religion spreads more successfully if it is relevant regardless of geography).
• Physical (god is like us) to abstract (religious mysteries make more sense if the creator of the universe is NOT like us, and is both incomprehensible and unknowable).
• Pragmatic/natural ethics to god-given ethics (god becomes essential for a civil society, which makes the religion more essential).
• Unlikeable, angry god to a kind god (a god you can love and respect rather than a bratty child).
• A sexual god prone to temptation, to an asexual god (the god therefore is beyond reproach).
Another essential evolution of the Christian religion message was the emergence of the intolerance meme. Previously, most religions were openly tolerant of other religions (partly as a way to get along with, and be polite, to others). But Christians began to be intolerant of other religions – even those which held “wrong” views about Christianity (Christians killed more Christians than the Roman Empire did). Indeed, the persecution of Galileo Galilei was a harbinger to a growing intolerance of knowledge and much of science. And the Christian Crusades were so murderously intolerant that “historically, Muslims were much more often the victims of Christian intolerance than the perpetrators.”
The Christian message also evolved to one which thoroughly attacks the concept of human pleasure, and this is done through the “guilt” meme, which vilifies all natural human desires – particularly sexual desires. Instead, abstinence is exalted and pleasure is to be postponed until the Christian reaches heaven (via strict adherence to Christian tenants). For Augustine, “merely being good and moral isn’t enough. You HAD to accept Christianity or face grave consequences.”
The result, points out the author, is that…
• You’re guilty no matter what.
• Only the Christian church can fix your problem.
• If you don’t accept the Christian dogma, the punishment is unimaginably severe. You must therefore dedicate your life to being a “good Christian.”
This framework, of course, is a powerful way for the Christian meme to thrive and self-perpetuate.
Because so much of theology, and Christianity in particular, are so irrational and therefore impossible to explain, it was essential, for the survival of Christianity, to develop an anti-rationality meme. Logic and science are to be distrusted. Only reliance on faith is the true path to knowledge and heavenly salvation. This irrationality concept provides powerful protection against Christian believers straying from Christianity if and when conflicts and the frequent “inexplicables” arise. So much of what our god does seems irrational or evil or impossible to explain? “Have FAITH,” shouts the priest or minister. Human knowledge is insufficient to understand all of the nonsensical elements of Christianity, so we must have FAITH that it DOES make sense (if we had the infinite wisdom of our god – there is a logic that is higher than human logic).
Indeed, one is a better Christian more worthy of god’s approval if one has faith DESPITE logic and evidence¬ – a perfect strategy for warding off doubts that might lead one away from the religious belief system.
James shows us that the Christian religion is defended against attack, therefore, because “no amount of human reasoning can disprove anything about religion that might appear to be irrational.”
And we see this anti-intellectualism today in the Republican Party (now a political party that is importantly captured and shaped by proud, crusading, conservatively religious, know-nothing factions). A manifestation of this is the spectacle of leading Republican presidential candidates openly expressing opposition to concerns about environmental pollution, evolution, stem-cell research, and global warming — in part because their religious beliefs are inconsistent with such knowledge, and in part because their religious meme instructs them to be distrustful of science and scientists by default.
It is a meme that informs the religious that “ignorance is bliss” (and godly).
Is it any wonder that in the US, where religious belief is much higher than in any other developed nation on earth, our school-aged population ranks so low in comparison to other developed nations when we look at educational achievement?