Religion as a mental parasite

Look at this picture for a moment — click to enlarge. Kinda stomach-churning, huh? Looks a lot like an alien chest-burster in fact. It’s a rare isopod discovered off the Jersey coast that eats, then replaces, the tongue of a fish. Interestingly, outside the eating of the tongue, the fish doesn’t suffer terribly much in the way of ill effects from this disgusting, horrific, and horribly effective parasitic behaviour. Also interestingly, neither do people whose reason has been eaten and replaced by religious faith.

A number of people have suggested on a number of occasions that I read two particular books — Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Both of these books evidently deal heavily with the concept of religion as a mental “virus”, a concept I’ve expounded upon elsewhere.

You see, every person is born with no intrinsic ideas about a god or gods. There are no “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Jewish babies”. There are, however, babies whose parents subscribe to any number of religions. I understand Dawkins makes an assertion that people are much more likely to become members of a faith if their parents are also members — I suspect this is absolutely true, though certainly not the whole picture. I was, as I’ve discussed before, raised Catholic. I was circumcised, sent to Sunday school, told to say my prayers, and confirmed before I ever thought to question why I was doing all those things. I was made to feel guilty when I skipped my prayers, so I instead assumed the position and pondered why it was so important that I think at someone that supposedly knew everything I thought about anyway, and why I would even pray to someone that already had a life planned out for me in some effort to alter his plan. The fact that I was a thoughtful person, a rational person, someone that wanted to know the naturalistic explanations behind volcanoes and the moon’s existence and why chemicals acted the way they did, rather than just accepting it all as “how God wants it to be”, was my path out of religion. I was lucky in that it happened at an early age, but I was so introverted as to have hardly any friends, much less any I could talk about my beliefs with, and I was so frightened about discussing any of my feelings with my parents, that I had no outlets for my frustration. It was horrible having to live with the fact that I thought everything my parents believed, was utter crap.

However, it was also liberating, knowing that they were not necessarily right about everything, and I was well advised to consider everything they said with the same skepticism as I considered everything that everyone else said. I’d do what I was told, of course, but it was about then that I realized mom and dad didn’t know everything about the world. It was also about then that I started reading the old encyclopedia set they kept at the bottom of the bookshelf. I would pick random subjects at first, then I moved up into reading them practically cover to cover, skipping some of the drier historical figures but getting a pretty good overview of the world in the process.

Over the years, in fighting with theists on the internet, I’ve discovered a few things, especially since I haven’t limited my skirmishes to any particular religion. Firstly, something that seems to come up in pretty well every religion is a proscription against all other religions. Also, the majority of theists are satisfied in their faiths and see no reason to examine them, nor do they see any reason to proselytize, so the ones who engage are a different breed from the majority. Those that were brought up in the faith have a chance of becoming so wrapped up in the verity of their beliefs that they become the “street preachers” that most often go door-to-door or otherwise seek out potential convertees, but this role is much more often filled by the recently converted, those that are still coming off the high of “finally figuring it all out” and still have a lot of zeal to expend. Most theistic arguments come in the form of setting up a false dichotomy (their specific religion, OR the scientific method), then suggesting that if the present understanding of science (the only alternative in their world view) is wrong or inaccurate in any way, then the whole thing must be scrapped and replaced with religion. And finally, there are very few new arguments for religion; most are rearrangings of old saws, no matter how spiffy they happen to be, and those that aren’t entirely rearrangings of this kind are co-optings of the other side’s strengths — for instance, the “intelligent design” movement which claims to be a scientific hypothesis, despite being unfalsifiable and making no predictions.

Each of these properties resembles strongly the functionality of a parasite. Imagine a healthy human mind — not the brain, but that thing that the theists commonly call the soul, the consciousness that is contingent on the proper functioning of that brain. That mind has several properties built up by the structure of the brain over long aeons of evolution: the capacity for rational thought, a sympathy for other like minds that sometimes extends beyond our species by process of anthropomorphism, an ability to create mental images of people based on mere descriptions of them, a willingness to accept authority, an ability to detect (or, more often, suspect) agency behind something that may have no agency at all. Like all other evolved traits, what might be useful in one respect can also be detrimental in another. In other words, because we were not immaculately designed, our minds, the product of the physical brain, has vulnerabilities. Our mental programming has, shall we say, bugs.

Bugs that, like in computers, can be exploited by viruses. Detecting agency where there is none might save us from predators when wind rustles bushes, but it also allows for people to assume this universe must have had a personal creator. Sympathy for other humans helps glue society together, but it allows us to feel for perceived injustices whether these injustices ever happened. Mental images formed from descriptions helps with communication, and allows for fiction and fantasy, but it also allows for complete fabrication to be plausible and ultimately believed.

Since our brains are capable of processing and long-term storage of information, and there are ideas that seem to self-propagate (what Dawkins named “memes”), viuses can get in and stick around and alter our perception of reality, sometimes permanently. And since we’re specialized in communication, one attack vector for such mental parasites is that very communication. An otherwise immaculate mind — by which I mean, one that has not been exposed to any religion, nor has been exposed to any particular piece of knowledge that could contradict that religion — can read a Jack Chick tract, or listen to a Sunday sermon on TV, and internalize its message. If not adequately defended against, it’s easy for us to fall prey to such a message as “believe in this guy who created the universe and loves you and died for you or else you’ll burn in eternal torment” because of the very mental vulnerabilities I mentioned above. Once that acceptance of the message occurs, then the installation process (or infection process) begins — you’re told to read the Bible, to go to sermons, to learn the proper ways to behave, and the proper ways to incubate your newfound faith. And you’re also told that other faiths are evil, or at the very least false and misleading.

A computer virus can disable antivirus capabilities, install itself in the boot sector, and prevent other viruses or even legitimate programs (ones that might *accidentally* wipe it out) from ever installing on the system. Likewise, a faith is capable of providing your mind with defenses against other faiths, and can even extend this defense mechanism against other perceived threats, like the scientific method that’s done so much to inoculate humans against the nonsense contained within most doctrines. Forewarned is forearmed, so understanding ahead of time that snakes can’t talk or that the evidence shows life on Earth to have evolved via common descent as opposed to being created ex nihilo can seriously undermine the install process of the faith virus. That is why the faithful mount such an attack against science — not because science is directly opposed to it (until the first salvos are launched), but because science’s very existence and the knowledge it imparts becomes a threat to those parasites that fight to survive.

Like many successful real-world parasites, religion is capable of altering the behaviour of its host in a manner that protects the parasite from outside influences. It also conflates the good of the parasite with the good of the host. Many religious folks have so integrated the religion into their personhood that they consider any assault on their belief systems to be an assault on them personally. I have had a number of conversations in which the zealot thinks that undermining their argument is an assault on their right to believe whatever they want — it’s assuredly not. Nor do we directly intend to threaten your right to believe whatever you want merely by showing children the scientific method — that is merely a side-effect of exposing them to the facts about this universe and instilling in them the capacity for reason to be able to make determinations about how those facts fit together, with only a minimal guiding hand.

However, no person has the right to have any facts that run counter to their beliefs blocked from being mentioned. This is exactly what religions do when they try to rehabilitate science classrooms — it’s an attempt at preventing reason, the antivirus to religion’s virus, from being installed in kids’ minds, not because there is anything intrinsically anti-religion about reason, but because reason is anathema to dogma. Theists believe that, because “our religion” is being taught in schools, as though science were a dogmatic faith, that their belief systems should also be taught as an equal or alternative “theory”. This is an attempt at changing the biosphere to accommodate the parasite; as with bacteria that can alter their environment to improve reproduction or food gathering, so too does religion attempt to inculcate more beneficial conditions in it surroundings.

Of course, in the examples we have most recently and closest to home with regard to trying to change the scholastic system, the religion in question is evangelical Christianity. Like viruses of both the real and computer variety, slight alterations can change the attack vectors, the survivability, the inheritability, the reproduction and the spread of a particular religion. We can even trace the geneology of most religions — for instance, we can easily reckon that forms of Christianity like “Protestant” or “Baptist” are as nearly related to one another, as Homo sapiens are to other species of the genus Homo; and we can trace the lineages of Christianity, Islam and Judaism (the “Abrahamic religions”) to one another, akin to how closely related as we are to other Great Apes like chimpanzees. We can classify religions by major identifying features (like mono- or polytheism), and we can impartially examine their spread and reproduction in much the same way that we can trace the spread of particular animal species through the world.

With regard to reproduction, once the parasite has reached a level of maturity in the thought processes of a particular person, they then take it upon themselves to “spread the word” or otherwise infect other potential hosts. Depending on the particular religion, this might involve going door-to-door and proselytizing, or “witnessing” to people who seem open to the concept of religion, or going out of their way to spread lies about other faiths or other perceived threats like science (think Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum”). In some cases, people might become ministers or rabbis, or otherwise join the ecclesiasty of their particular faith. Most parents will indoctrinate their children, as mine did with me. And even if the kids are not indoctrinated as such, they will quickly learn what is considered “normal” in their region, by what the majority of everyone else believes.

And people who have this parasite consider themselves normal, and those that are not of their faith are abnormal — either they merely haven’t been given the “good news” because they have been sheltered from it (and are therefore ripe for conversion), or they have been through the conversion process but have come out unconverted (and thus need to have the installer program run repeatedly until it finally “takes”), or they’ve been fooled by some other faith and must be prioritized for conversion. They have allowed their ability to employ reason as a “bullshit detector” be compromised, and have allowed it to be replaced with a self-propagating and external source of influence that modifies behaviour — and definitely not for the better. This replacement can be a wholesale one, as with fundamentalists, or in part only, as with those who can still thereafter reconcile science with faith.

Religions have infection methods, survival mechanisms, self-defense, mutation, and self-propagation. They replace a part of your normal mental functioning and leave you vulnerable to other forms of magical thinking, because your reason has been compromised. I honestly can’t think of what else is required to prove that religions are anything but a mental parasite, but you’re welcome to improve or otherwise refine my argument (especially if you pick at the loose threads around the edges).

And I’m definitely going to read Snow Crash and Selfish Gene ASAP.

Religion as a mental parasite

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