Saturday, May 1, 2010

The God Virus at Purdue

Thursday the local Non-Theists Society here at Purdue sponsored a lecture by Dr. Darrel Ray, author of The God Virus. He is also the founder of Recovering from Religion. The lecture was a condensed summary of the ideas he puts forth in his book. Those ideas being that religion is comparable to a virus in how it spreads through a society and how it causes people to react to it.

Dr. Ray used many different examples throughout his talk such as comparing viral vectors to how different religions spread or how people easily get sick when their immune system is low is comparable to how some people “get religion” when their “rational immune system” is low. It was clear he has put a lot of work into this hypothesis that religion can be metaphorically compared to a virus. But I left with the feeling of “So What?”, but I will come back to this later.

He began his talk with one of things that atheists do that really annoys me, he implied “atheism” = “free thinking” when he mentioned bringing theists into the freethinking community.* Nothing like going to a talk to only have the first thing said imply your reasoning skills are handicapped. In fact, he implied theists are stupid quite a bit (at least in comparison to atheists, yes he whipped out the “atheists have higher IQs than theists” mantra). He also brought up that a person’s intelligence is negatively related to their religiosity. This one especially amused me as the exact opposite is true for LDS members. It has been shown that Mormons tend to be more highly educated than other Christians. It has also been shown that the more highly educated LDS members are, the more likely they are involved in Church.

He was also fond of talking about theist’s “invisible friends”. I generally will instantly tune out an atheist talking about religion when they bring up this phrase or any of its variations (e.g. Pink Unicorn, or FSM). But since I knew this talk was geared towards atheists, and not theists, I kept listening. Although I did not miss the irony in how he kept insisting that his fellow atheists not intentionally piss off theists when talking to one.

With a little audience participation Dr. Ray gave us an experiment to try on someone (or I should say he gave the atheists an experiment to try on theists as he claims it will not work on atheists). He told them that should they randomly meet a religious person, such as on a plane, this is something they should try. It is supposed to illuminate the inner “demon” that is caused by religion within a religious person. First, you talk with them about something they like and pay attention to how they physically respond. They will most likely make lots of eye contact and have generally relaxed posture. Then you bring up their faith. They should instantly tense up as they are unsure if you are a friend or enemy. Then, after getting a confirmation of their faith, bring up one challenge to it. The person should get defensive. Then go back to talking about something they like. This should cause the person to go back to a relaxed state. Now, I do not doubt that the reactions that Dr. Ray described in the person who is unknowingly undergoing a physiological experiment are true. I am believed him that what he described is most likely what would happen. What I do doubt, however, are the reasons for the reactions he gives, and his claim that the more secular a person is, the less this experiment will work.

He claims that the change in demeanor in the person when their faith is brought up is due to some kind of religious demon, he compared it to the demon that possessed the girl in The Exorcism, that the person has been conditioned to respond this way by religion. I think there is a much simpler and much more logical explanation; people are sensitive about things which others may have a tendency to ridicule. It is not because of some kind of complex conditioning, the person is just not sure if they are going to be made fun of or attacked. I bet if you were to tell that person you shared their faith they would instantly go back to their relaxed state. And this is not something that is unique to theists; atheists would react in the same way to this experiment. I have read comments from many different atheists talking about how they are hesitant to share their atheism for fear of ridicule.

A persons “rational immune system” is another thing he kept hitting on. He claimed that when under stress a person is more likely to “get religion” because their “rational immune system” is lowered. He compared it to when a person is more likely to get sick under stress because of a lowered immune system. I noticed how he was implying that the choice to become religious is a negative one by setting up the initial condition to be negative. Negative cause A will lead to a negative choice B. But he gave no actual evidence that the cause he gave, lowered “rational immune system”, is true. All he did was compare it to someone getting physically sick which he himself claimed was metaphorical only. He also said nothing of religious people who lose their religion during times of stress. Are their choices to become atheists also negative and a result of a lowered “rational immune system”? Somehow I think he would try and cast their choice to lose religion as somehow positive despite the fact that it occurred in identical conditions.

He also brought up Mormonism several times throughout his talk. One thing he brought up was something called the “Fear of Mormonism” being used to keep people in the Church. Unfortunately, being Mormon, I have no clue what he was talking about. Yes, we would like to have people stay in our Church but I have yet to hear of anything called the “Fear of Mormonism”. Such a thing is especially strange when you consider that the LDS faith is one of the most, if not the most, universal faiths in Christendom when it comes to salvation. We do not believe in Hell. According to us, nearly everyone will end up in Heaven regardless of their religion or lack thereof. Now, he did bring up another point about Mormonism that I have heard and do know about. He claimed drinking caffeine is considered a sin. It is not. It is true some Mormons will abstain from all caffeinated drinks but that is a personal choice. Just about every Church function I have gone to has had Mountain Dew.

Another point he mentioned was about Catholic priests and their choice to become celibate and never have children. He compared this to a kind of genetic suicide. He then said that should we ever have a disease spread through America making people infertile we would attempt to eradicate it. This struck me as very strange considering I have been reading several atheist blogs lately talking about their choice to become childless and how it is a good thing.

Now back to my reaction to his talk that I mentioned earlier. Near the end of the lecture I was thinking “So what?”. Yes, religion may be comparable to a virus in a metaphorical sense but what is the point of the comparison? It cannot be that it somehow proves religion false for that would need to assume that anything that can be explained cannot be religious, which is false in and of itself (Read Finding Darwin’s God for more on that). It was at this point that I thought he was trying to take this metaphor of religion being comparable to a virus farther than it should be. In fact, if you think about it, religion having similar characteristics to viral behavior should not be all that surprising. Just apply a little logic to the situation. Nearly all religions believe there is a genuine reason for a person to hold their beliefs, whether it is to get to Heaven or something else. So if a person truly believes in their religion then they should truly wish for others to join them. In doing so the techniques that religions come up with would logically have become perfectly suited for this purpose over time. A virus’ goal is to spread itself as well. Over time its techniques should, logically, also become perfectly suited for this purpose. Thus, it is not religion having something in common with a virus, but religion and the virus having the same underlying goal.

There are several more points I would want to address about his talk but I think this post is getting long enough already. Overall I did enjoy Dr. Ray’s talk and he did seem like a genuinely nice guy. He also had a very good point at the end of his talk, “don’t confuse the personal with the political”. I just think his metaphor of the God Virus, while having some points, tries to take things farther than there is reason to.

* I have talked about the issue of atheists implying that to be a “free thinker” or “skeptic” one must reject religion before.


  1. I appreciate the recap. I thought about going, but a friend in the Non-Theists warned it wasn't going to be the most enlightening of lectures. I do like the experiment he puts forth, but like you, I think it would be pretty easy to get a rise out of anyone, theistic or not. Ask someone about gay marriage, health care, immigration, etc. and he could very reasonably tense up.
    The IQ stats also amuse me. There's a quote by Bertrand Russell that goes something like "There is not one word in the Gospels that is in praise of intelligence." He has a point, which is also my point... The Gospels and (if I may generalize) most world religions aren't about being intelligent (whatever that means), but instead being compassionate, faithful, sincere, and so on. Russell, Dr. Ray, and many other atheists who will throw these statistics out there are merely replacing these "religious" virtues with the equally subjective virtue of intelligence. There are smart theists. There are compassionate atheists. So I have a hard time being convinced by these IQ studies or by the fears of many theists at the "godless" depravity of an atheist.

  2. The one thing I don't agree with in this lecture was that he really shied away from the political aspect of this concept. I really think there's more of a political motivation that he completely dismissed. It very well could be in the book.

  3. Could you elaborate more on what you mean by a political aspect?