God is an Infectious Disease

Last night I went up to the Inland Empire Atheists MeetUp, to see Darrel Ray talk about his book “The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture.” It was actually part of a normal meeting, (held in a nice and cozy Unitarian Universalist church) so it started off with introductions by newcomers, and included beverages and desserts with the book signing. Darrel is also the founder of Recovering from Religion and is actively trying to grow the organization so that people who formerly relied on the social support of their religion, can still get it as they transition to non-belief. It’s a cool organization, and I’m hoping to see one pop up in the Long Beach area.

Ray began his talk with a really rousing and impassioned speech about being touched by the Holy Spirit; this got quite a few laughs, and is a very effective attention grabber at an atheist gathering. As a sample of religious behavior it demonstrates a few effective communication mechanisms. After studying psychology and religion (used to be a minister) he tried answer a few questions: “Why do religious people behave the way they do? Why is it so powerful and persuading?”

His theory is this: Religion is a virus. It has strategic pattern of spreading and uses vectors of infection. It reinforces itself with a guilt cycle, sexual control, and mass hypnosis. This makes people who have the infection behave in certain, identifiable patterns. The reinforcement also makes it difficult for a person to leave their religion.

Ray first got the viral analogy from Richard Dawkin’s essay Viruses of the Mind and used it to explain the biggest memetic virus around. From here on I’m going to outline the big ideas from the talk, if you want details get the book.

Religious fundamentalists (regardless of their particular flavor) all behave the same way, talk the same way, etc. The ministers preach, gesture, dramatic pause, pace, etc. in a way that encourages mass hypnosis and trance (same thing is done by big successful politicians, e.g. Hitler’s rallies). This pattern also discourages critical thinking. Many ministers use trigger phrases (‘just’ used 20 times in 2 minutes).

Because believers have been infected by a virus, you cannot talk them out of it with logic. It would be akin to curing the flu with argument. Also, depending on how you argue, esp. if you’re assertive, you can easily raise their religious defense system, which will cause them to stop listening. So more successful persuasion uses compassionate outreach, and dances around the religion virus. It’s more important to relate as human beings than to disinfect.

Many viruses participate in brain control. Dennett points an the lancet fluke, but there are many others. Part of the mind control is to spread the infection. This can happen horizontally (mormons do missionary work) or vertically (through the parents, catholics encourage breeding). Not too many are purely vertical (Amish, and Druze).

Most people are infected when they are young and have no rational immune system, you get infected socially (through friends, family) and you are more susceptible when under stress (immune system weakens). Many religions popularize converts (St. Paul), and they have a behavior that helps to spread the infection: proselytize, money donation, break ties with former family/friends. Many are also relapsing into the religion that they grew up with (chicken pox -> shingles).

Churches form the epicenter of infection and use many techniques: Hypnotic sermons, emphasize guilt and stress in daily life, provide social needs, control sexual behavior, indoctrinating music, and childhood intimidation. This can be seen in the video of Sarah Palin getting cured by a witch-hunter in Kenya.

Often relaxation is paired with a guilt message. A different church will usually set of defense mechanisms. The minister speaking style and cadence is targeted for emotional appeal, and induces a trance in the audience. This can be seen in cult leaders, dictators, and videos of John Piper (a popular minister). The guilt message is reinforced in lyrics (Amazing Grace, what a wretch I am) and sermons (not worthy without God’s guidance).

A typical church program is geared to provide a weekly booster shot, and puts its victims on an emotional rollercoaster:

  • quiet music as walk in, encourage peace
  • open with song about triumph and hope
  • then a song with sin and guilt, to make you feel unworthy
  • another song about salvation
  • followed by a song about rising up and promises of hope
  • a sermon about dealing with guilt and self-doubt
  • a song about commitment or self-sacrifice before the collection plate is passed
  • finally end with a song about joy, happiness or redemption to leave you feeling great

Churches also offer their members a sense of community, but only one if you share their form of the infection (otherwise you’ll be very uncomfortable). Vectors are used: Rick Warren, Ted Haggard, The Pope. Sometimes the message is coded: when the pope says that europe is immoral, it really means: Catholics breed faster, we’re falling behind!. Getting more Holy Spirit translates to “stop questioning everything”.

Many times you’re put on a guilt cycle, where you commit a sin (sex before marriage) and then get forgiven (confession). But forgiveness is more difficult each time, so it reinforces negative patterns of behavior that get a person hooked on the redemption. Often the punishment is more severe (increasing the number of Hail Mary’s). Esp. for sex, religion often takes a thing you’re prone to do anyway, condemns it and then offers you the cure. But constantly the message is: you’re never good enough, and you’re incomplete without the virus.

One of the more interesting conclusions that Ray came to was that religions have a difficult time propagating in a sex positive culture. Their first move into a new culture is often to make sex a taboo. We have the power to combat this situation by talking openly and willingly about sex. Sex is used as part of the guilt cycle, because it’s something humans will do regardless of their belief system.

Then there are statistical revelations: If Jesus (and religion) are supposed to help your marriage…

  • Then why are the most religious segment also the least married? (black women)
  • Why is the highest divorce rate among evangelicals and fundamentalists?
  • Why does MS, one of the most secular states, have such a low divorce rate?

So, when dealing with a religious person, remember that the virus is in control. Don’t raise their defense mechanisms by attacking their religion. Remember that their under the influence, and cut them some slack in matters of logic. Promote humanistic relationships, and express your concerns without mentioning religion. Read between the lines and respond in a positive manner. You can actually see that their entire personality will change.