Friday, December 28, 2007

Religion is a Mind Virus

Suppose that through some series of quirks and kludgey combinations of features, evolution left the human organism with a set of cognitive flaws that some religious ideas exploit. Suppose that evolution left us with predispositions towards spiritual/supernatural explanations for phenomena where the natural cause isn’t immediately obvious. Imagine that it gave us a powerful set of tools for problem solving in many practical circumstances—gathering food, evading threats, finding and building shelter. But the limited scope of those tools makes it very hard for us to ponder very large systems of causes and effects, or think in terms of processes that endure for millions of years. Maybe that feeling that lots of people get when they try to imagine events receding back into history forever is a by-product of this aspect of the way our minds developed. It just seems so wrong, so counter-intuitive to so many people that there could be no first cause. It just doesn’t feel right that the world could be just physical matter with no higher being.

We have other neurological glitches that could give us some insight here. Claustrophobia affects a significant portion of the population. It could be part of the outcome of our evolution. Lots of people have an obsessive/compulsive disorder—no matter how many times they wash their hands, it still doesn’t feel like they are clean. Or they keep checking and rechecking all the locks on all the doors before they can leave the house. Something keeps nagging at the backs of their minds, no matter how carefully they try to reason through it.

So let’s entertain the hypothetical that part of the legacy that evolution left us with is a strong disposition towards religiousness. It feels like there’s a presence there listening to our innermost thoughts. It seems like some greater power is watching over us. No matter what the empirical evidence is right in front of us, we just can’t shake the feeling that there’s got to be a God up there.

One would expect, in general, that if an evolutionary process produces social creatures with sophisticated cognitive and communication skills, then a culture will spring up around them. And as that culture varies over time and different ideas, institutions, and concepts are explored, the aspects of culture that fit well with the creatures’ cognitive abilities and impairments will stick. Some ideas or patterns of information will get traction in the minds of those beings and spread through time and space. (Bans on birth control, evangelism, and pressure for large families are great ways for a set of religious ideas like Catholicism or Mormonism to rapidly spread across a population. For a very sharp blog entry about religious memes see: ) We might expect that something like religion would develop. No matter how we are cognitively configured, with enough time and enough variations on theme, human social institutions will probably stumble upon some ideas, themes, or patterns of information that will exploit whatever flaws or weaknesses there are in the human mind. It would not be surprising to find a secondary evolution of culture that produces institutions and ideas that have a powerful and deep hold on the hearts and minds of the creatures. Gambling seems to work kind of like this. The Gambler’s Fallacy is such a powerful and seductive idea that lots of people just can’t be talked out of it.

Now if religious ideas functioned like a mind virus, and you were fortunate enough to be in an era of history where we had begun to figure out what’s really going on with belief in God, how would you want to react? How would you want to spend your 74.5 years of life in the evolutionary saga? What relationship would you want to have to this set of parasitic ideas? Would you be happy to subjugate yourself to them as billions of other humans have done? Would you be content to let so many people around you continued to be hijacked? Even if this set of ideas were symbiotic in many ways and provided some emotional, psychological, or social benefits while being propagated to each new generation of humans, would you want to sustain them in your head, or would you want them out now that you know their origin?

Now we’re really turning the believer’s classic picture of the world on its head. We’re trying to propagate the atheism meme so its spreads through the population to supplant the religious ones. They say that you’re corrupted by sin when doubts about God creep in and threaten to destroy your faith. The priests, rabbis, preachers, and evangelical believers want you to surround yourself with believers, to only read their religious texts, and to purge all non-religious thoughts and activities from your life. That’s all necessary to optimize the growing conditions for the parasite in the Petri dish of your mind. If it’s dark, ignorant, intolerant, and fearful in there, it’ll take over and infect your children, your neighbors, and your politicians (shit, it’s too late already!) But it’s not really your corrupt nature and sin that’s keeping you from unity with God, it’s seductive religious ideas that have been selected through cultural evolution for maximal effectiveness, or rather, maximal infectiousness. The religious ideas would co-opt your ability to employ your powers of reason, they encourage you to doubt your own abilities. They have wound their way so deeply into the minds of its hosts, they can no longer even imagine life without believing. Imagine that those billions of years of evolution produced this human organism with so much potential to do so many remarkable things, but the vulnerability of their minds to religious infections derailed them and took over the whole race. The real sin would be to recognize what’s going on and to not say anything. The best thing you could do for humanity would be to try to reason them back to intellectual liberation.


Explicit Atheist said...

By Jonathan Haidt? He argues "Yet even if belief in gods was initially a byproduct, as long as such beliefs had consequences for behavior then it seems likely that natural selection operated upon phenotypic variation and favored the success of individuals and groups that found ways (genetic or cultural or both) to use these gods to their advantage, for example as commitment devices that enhanced cooperation, trust, and mutual aid." So while "belief in supernatural entities may indeed be an accidental output of cognitive systems that otherwise do a good job of identifying objects and agents", that isn't the whole story. The rest of the story is that evolutionary group selection has probably been favoring religious beliefs.

Timothy said...

>"Bans on birth control, evangelism, and pressure for large families are great ways for a set of religious ideas like Catholicism or Mormonism to rapidly spread across a population"

Don't know why you threw Catholicism in here. The Catholic Church opposes only artificial birth control. Natural birth control is fine and aceptable. There are numerous systems for natural birth control and family planning available to Catholics.

Catholicism is also not known for its evangelism. Catholic youth do not have missionary periods. Most Catholics have little idea how to engage a non-believer.

Also, there is no pressure for Catholics to have large families. Large Catholic families were the result of economic pressure from an agricultural based society versus religious pressure.
Current research shows that "White Protestants have 1.91 lifetime births, while white Catholics have 1.64 lifetime births, Jews 1.54, and women with no religious affiliation 1.12". []

While the myth sounds good, the facts are much different.

"I could not understand why these romancers never took the trouble to find out a few elementary facts about the thing they denounced. The facts might easily have helped the denunciation, where the fictions discredited it. There were any number of real Catholic doctrines I should then have thought disgraceful to the Church . . . But the enemies of the Church never found these real rocks of offence. They never looked for them. They never looked for anything . . . Boundless freedom reigned; it was not treated as if it were a question of fact at all . . . It puzzled me very much, even at that early stage, to imagine why people bringing controversial charges against a powerful and prominent institution should thus neglect to test their own case, and should draw in this random way on their own imagination . . . I never dreamed that the Roman religion was true; but I knew that its accusers, for some reason or other, were curiously inaccurate."
(G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion, NY: Macmillan, 1926, 36-38)

Anonymous said...

Natural birth control? You mean BC that doesn't really work? Pulling out before letting the spunk fly? Thanks Pope, not only are the huge catholic populations of the third world naturally "pulling out" large families and contributing to global overpopulation, but also spreading the AIDS virus.

You dirty "healthy" catholics!

Please, Timothy, perhaps your propaganda should consider global populations as well...wait, then it wouldn't be propaganda.

PhillyChief said...

I can't help but think of smoking. Honestly, you can't not know at this point that it's harmful yet new smokers appear every year. With a culture that mostly vilifies such activity, it still exists. Now compare that to religious belief which only a minority accept as something detrimental like a mind virus and a huge cultural support and respect for. It's necessary of course to educate and try to help the masses, but it's a big job with a lot of odds against us and seeing how even with the odds in your favor it's difficult to dissuade people from smoking, to dissuade people from religious submission seems very daunting.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the link to Haidt, Explicit Atheist. I'm going to check into him--looks like he's making a very similar argument.

Phillychief: Great point about smoking. Another analogy might be how feminists are often in the unfortunate position of having to argue that women who have had their consciousness co-opted and corrupted by misogynistic perspectives like fundamentalist Christianity or Islam actually don't know what's good for themselves. Many of these women will insist that it is their own free choice to wear a burka, accept sharia law, or be banned from speaking in church because God has created them as inferior. Feminists and atheists then struggle between promoting women's autonomy and freedom and trying to convince them to no squander their freedom and potential by accepting such oppressive ideas.

Believers will object to the smoking metaphor because they will insist that religious belief just isn't harmful to people like that.

I confess I'm not too optimistic about winning that debate. We'd be better off taking a different tack.


PhillyChief said...

Then what about alcohol. There are both benefits and hazards to alcohol use, so in that respect it matches the argument of whether or not religion is good for you; however, it is understood that there is a time and a place for it. Example - driving. Likewise, when thinking under the influence of religion in cases like abstinence programs, denying sex education, birth control and contraceptives, denying homosexuals equal rights, denying your child medical care or potentially life saving vaccines for example, it's no different than when people drive while intoxicated. Indeed, just one prayer = impairment. ;)

Matt McCormick said...

The alcohol analogy is another great point, Phillychief. It's more apt. Ironically, I'm really liberal about alcohol use, recreational drug use, and people's engaging in harmful and wreckless activities. That's their business, and unless they are endangering or hurting others, the government has no business restricting them.

Similarly, I would never suggest legally restricting people's pursuit of religion. But I have other worries about its effects because of some disanalogies. Religious culture actively seeks to indoctrinate people as early as possible, when they are children, when their abilities to reason and form ideas about what's true, evidence, and justification are most vulnerable. Also the vast majority of people on the planet have been co-opted by religious memes. And with religious ideas, no one really sobers up the next morning after a hard night of indulging. That shit gets into people's heads and it stays there. It corrupts their entire capacity to form accurate ideas about the world. And the religious memes themselves have features that encourage their own protection, propagation, and preservation. It's pretty transparent when a drunk tries to rationalize his drinking by arguing that it's not really bad for you, or that he's different because he really can drive drunk safely. But when so many people offer those rationalizations for religion, and we've all gotten so complacent and accepting about those flimsy excuses, there's a more serious and deep problem. Interesting: I'm starting to think now that there's a case to be made for religiousness being worse than drinking or doing drugs.


Central Content Publisher said...

On Haidt and the Mind Virus:

There's some strange vague ground being covered. I just want to make a couple points toward clarity.

The greatest misunderstanding regarding religion seems to be an understanding of what it actually is. There are eight characteristics generally agreed to differentiate religions from non-religions. Unfortunately, not all belief systems that self-identity as religions meet all these characteristics, while many self-identified non-religions meet many or even all of the criteria. At best, religion is a vague syndrome. At worst, the concept of a religion is a rhetorical affectation with disproportionate ramifications. Talking about "religion" as a group trait (as Haidt does) that has survived an evolutionary process takes little notice of the vast discrepancies between religions, ignores the stunning frequency with which religions seem to emerge and then die off, and pays little heed to what exactly is and what exactly isn't a religion. This is complicated even further by the problem of characterizing a system as a trait, especially when those systems are themselves are evolving. Is 5th century Christianity the same trait (or organ for that matter) as 21st century Christianity, and what does it mean that 21st century Christians have more in common with 21st century atheists than with 5th century Christians? There doesn't seem to me to be a lot of evidence that religions survive longer than a few decades and are fairly regionalized, however rhetorically persistent they may be.

One of those often cited characteristics of religion is the belief in the supernatural. Unlike the syndrome-like nature of religion it's a far more discreet phenomenon. I think this is more precisely what Matt is aiming for? While Haidt seems to be a little confused about what religion even is.

It's worth mentioning too that many who believe in the supernatural don't see the object of their belief as supernatural. How would a brain that can't recognize something as supernatural be fulfilling an evolutionary need to believe in the supernatural?

Not a completely bad general list of the characteristics of religions -

Anonymous said...

This is of course conjecture, that religion is a mind virus or meme and that religion is an extremely dangerous one at that. As a conjecture it is not better or worse than the conjecture say that Jews, or Gypsies carry a harmful gene that weakens the human race, and is slowyly taking over the genome. The problem is sometimes we don't take the trouble to identify the gene, or we assume that it is only one gene and other races don't carry it, or we don't bother to prove that it is as dangerous as claimed. Is all religion the same meme or virus? Is it actually a different virus than virulent nationalism. Is fanaticism a separate virus, that religious people are slightly more suceptible to. Does soft religion lead to hard religion (Do soft drugs lead to hard drugs). So much conjecture, but so little data. If we claim to respect science, then we need tests that can identify religion (and memes} reliably, otherwise it is just a label that we can use pejoratively to our advantage. It is not science or reason. It is politics, and has some use in driving the agenda where we want it to go, but it is a belief we have not bothered to prove.

My holiday reading includes theories that the 3D universe is really just an illusion. The real universe is perhaps more like a 2D hologram. The respect we show for religions, may be more an acknowledgement that we really don't know the universe we live in, so there is not much point ridiculing others beliefs since on the holo-deck, its hard to say which illusion is closer to the underlying reality.

It has been popular to think of where we would be without religion (Neil deGrasse-Tyson essays come to mind), or what heights we could acheive if religion (or Jews) were not dragging us down. I think it is good to dream, but if the influence of religion (or the Jews in Nazi Germany) has declined significantly from its peak, then if we continue to hold it responsible for the ills of the world, we will have to exaggerate its importance and its detrimental effects to maintain the fiction.

If it is a virus, it is not one that has prevented the development of democracy or western science. So it is unlikely (in my view) to destroy them. That is not to say that some religious beliefs (or viruses) or some non-religious belief, are not dangerous. There idea that all religion arises from the same source, and is equally dangerous seems too simple to be true. I like Occam's razor, but with the caveat that we reject what is too simple to be true.

I, and most of your readers, are not in a position to do the research to add data. So we can sit on the sidelines and guess which way the data will ultimately go, and pick our heros and cheer them on. Science and philosophy as team sport, each side waiting for the its next great white hope.

My new years resolution is to stop commenting in blogs. Should I slip up, please remind me to persevere.

Anonymous said...

Who is Jesus?












The Greatest Man in History
Jesus had no servants, yet they called Him Master.
Had no degree, yet they called Him Teacher.
Had no medicines, yet they called Him Healer.
He had no army, yet kings feared Him..
He won no military battles, yet He conquered the
He committed no crime, yet they crucified Him.
He was buried in a tomb, yet He lives today.
I feel honored to serve such a Leader who loves us!
If you believe in God and in Jesus
Christ His Son .. send this to all on
your buddy list.
If not just ignore it.
If you ignore it, just remember that
Jesus said .
'If you deny me before man, I will deny you before my
Father in Heaven

Matt McCormick said...

I hope that all my readers will take a minute to read through the comment from "Jesus Is Lord. . . " to the Religion is a Mind Virus post. I didn't make that up. I just can't imagine a better illustration of my point that when the religious memes infect a person's mind, their autonomy and their rational functions get compromised. Does anyone doubt my point now?


PhillyChief said...

I know, it's sad of course but also frightening.

Anonymous said...

Jesus is Lord: And to think many U.S. voters look to a type of person that believes as “Jesus is Lord. I too think that religion can in fact be a virus that controls the minds and thus actions of millions of people. The virus in fact can be faith—in that there is no cure for it because there is no sound reason to have it, it just grows without justification for having it. I think that as we, as a nation, are more engaged by other nations hostile to us, we will in fact turn to our leaders—with the virus—and our actions will be based on the faith/teaching of our defined supernatural entity of focus. It is clear that our present administration has basically declared war against those with a different type of virus, which in turn can lead us down a dark and destructive path. What we see every day in the news is in some way, battling viruses. (Dean)

Jon said...

With more globalization there probably will be more cognitive dissonance. Some may become more extreme in defence, while others may become more nebulous with their views on faith. It's a trip looking back to a time when I went to church, trying to rationalize science and the Bible in my mind.

Anonymous said...

"when the religious memes infect a person's mind, their autonomy and their rational functions get compromised. Does anyone doubt my point now?"

The problem I have with memes vs genes, is not that I don't think ideas are important, or have not shaped human history, but rather how do you know which meme is bad and likely to infect, and even more important which meme is actually present in an individual

With genes we cannot definitively say which gene is better (only better in certain conditions) but we can at least say which gene is present. So there is a test in principle one could do that would falsify the premise that "Jews uniquely, carry a dangerous gene"

We know that the same form arises often in the biological world, but that those sharing the form are not always related. That is, no genes in common are responsible for the same form. Each form evolved to exploit a niche.

I find it dangerous to infer that peoples reasoning is undermined by a supposed entity, and yet have no test to detect that entity, or test that entity to determine if it causes the effects attributed to it. Peoples reasoning can be disrupted for all kinds of reasons. Does religion infect a mind, or does a weak mind latch on to religion? Are only religious people ever mad? If not then we should not use a few mad religious people, to infer on religion, what a few mad scientists should not cause us to infer upon science.

PhillyChief said...

I agree paulv. Are only religious people ever kind? If not then we should not use a few kind religious people, to infer on religion, what a few kind scientists should not cause us to infer on science.

Anonymous said...

A great line, I am going to use it, when I can.

bonez001 said...

let us fight religion with greater intensity!


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Anonymous said...

"Suppose that through some series of quirks and kludgey combinations of features, evolution left the human organism with a set of cognitive flaws that some religious ideas exploit. "
You have packed so many question-begging materialist presuppositions into this opening sentence that the steaming pile of neck bearded blather that follows is exactly what we should expect see. Apparently anyone who announces that they see "no evidence of any god(s)" is now able to prance and preen around, calling themselves a philosopher.
I think the lesson to be learned here is that if you take an angst-ridden, basement dwelling teenage, jam him through a secular university system for 8 years, and award him what is basically a PhD i atheism, he will still be an angst-ridden, basement dwelling teenager.
Dr. McCormick, if you believe in the existence of objective truth - indeed, if you believed in anything beyond your own solipsistic hedonism - you would immediately resign from any university position you currently hold, return all of the funds you have stolen form the taxpayers and/or students by passing off your musings as 'philosophy,' delete every entry on this website, find a quiet place, and rethink your life.