Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: The Religion Virus

The "New Atheists" have described religion as a delusion, a poison, and now apparently a virus.  The author says at the end that he hoped people would view their religions differently, but I doubt many religionists could get past the title of this book:  The Religion Virus: Why We Believe in God, An Evolutionist Explains Religion's Incredible Hold on Humanity.

Craig James applies Dawkins' theory of memes to the main concepts of religion.  In many ways I found this convincing, but he tries a little too hard to force the meme concept onto the book.

The concept in this book that has stuck with me most of all is the transition from pantheons of single-function gods to almighty, multi-dimensional single gods.  The All-Powerful god meme, which replaces the Warrior God Meme, the Protector God Meme, and the Loving Father God Meme, or rather conflates them all into one god-meme.  This transition wasn't ever complete with Catholics, at least.  They continue to pray to patron saints for help with their specialties. 

Still, it's a powerful idea.  It explains how God could be so contradictory, taking both sides of a football game for instance.  It also explains how the various stories and phases of the Old Testament portray different concepts of God.

The memeplex lost me a bit, but I get the concept of multiple memes sticking together and supporting each other.  I imagine a herd of gazellish ideas sticking together, which would be very adaptive.

Essentially, the analogy states that ideas that are advantageous to themselves will survive.  The most obvious is missionary work, of course.  Religions that prosletyze survive and those that don't, won't.  Christianity & Islam prosletyze and they number in the billions.  Judaism doesn't, and hence comprises a tiny minority in the world.

The virus analogy enters only at the end: religion is a parasite on society, needing to be passed from person to person to survive and yet destroying some of them.  It survives for its own purposes more than for the benefit to society... or something.  I found this part a little bit of a stretch.  A virus spreads through unconscious mechanisms, and religion spreads through prosletyzing, brainwashing, and "educating" young children.  Some of the memes seem to infect other memeplexes a.k.a. religions, though.

Some of the book oversimplifies, especially the virus analogy.  Religion has helped or hurt its societies to varying degrees.  Of course you can claim that there are beneficial parasites as well as destructive ones, and some that are only destructive under the right circumstances.

It's definitely a thought-provoking book.  Anyone who has read the Bible knows that the "unchanging" God has changed quite a bit from the beginning to the end.  Even the commandment "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" implies that at one time Judaism was not monotheistic.  "The" God just wanted to be Numero Uno.  The warrior god seems to have softened his approach.  He wiped out the world, then he wiped out entire peoples or countries in genocidal rampages, then honed in on cities and eventually individuals.  "An eye for an eye" was a big moral improvement over genocide.  Then later there's no payment at all thanks to penal substitution.  God went from destroying the whole world to saying "fuhgeddaboudit."  This book frames a theory that explains these changes.

4 comments:

B.R. said...

Great post. It's always been interesting to observe the evolution of the Christian sky god from a bloodthirsty monster who demanded human sacrifice to the psychotic egomaniac he is today.

LadyAtheist said...

And yet he's unchanging when it's convenient!

Gary Colville said...

It's interesting when people make clay statues of what we as Christians believe then proceed to knock them down. The god of these ideas is not recognizable to the God I have come to know love and whose power has touched and moved through my life. I hope you have the courage to allow this up on your site as I have found some people to prove their narrow mindedness by excluding opposing comments. Shalom

jere said...


A great violence was coming that none could have foreseen.
At stake for the church-state empire was control.
At stake for villeins
was nothing less than the birth of human rights.
At stake for the little band of Brethren was life itself.