The God Viruses

From N.O., December 2010


I never saw a purple meme
I never saw a brown one.
Maybe they’re polyethylene
Maybe you could drown one.

Here is some practical advice to readers: When an author claims that he (or she) has a PhD, beg to discover where he acquired it.

Obviously this is not necessary if the author isn’t using his credentials to support an otherwise half-cooked hypothesis, but if the hypothesis appears to be half- cooked, it’s important to know how it passed muster: what peers reviewed it, what graduate committee passed it, or snickered behind their hands when they turned it down as a thesis. It is also useful to know if the person signing copies of his latest oeuvre on alien plant life at Borders has a PhD in Renaissance literature from Temple, or something more….germane.

I was recently and justly upbraided by a reader when I stated that Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins were “mediocre scholars,” and (suitably contrite) amended my comment to say “in religion.” I could as easily have said “have no credentials in the study of religion that would lend authority to their work.” Anymore than I would have if I developed a learned but totally flawed and useless hypothesis about evolutionary biology. –Or wrote a book tantalizingly called The Religion Virus: Why We Believe in God (2010, by a systems engineer named Craig A. James) or its twin, The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture (2009 by a school psychologist, Darrel Ray.)

Yes, I know these have been around for awhile. Yes, it is shameful that I’m just getting around to reading them. Finally I was suckered by the promo on that said those of us who were feeling peckish after the dinner provided by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens could find a repast in these authors. Niggardly though my esteem for the “New Atheists,” I was feeling a bit hungry. But what a bad meal.

The new genre of opportunists is proving the axiom correct: “In the beginning was the word. At the end, just the cliché.” They are also proving that there is a reason why, no matter how intellectually omnivorous a specialist in dairy science (for example) may personally feel, he shouldn’t do knee surgery. Likewise, the benefit of having grown up in a church-going family with a Bible in the top drawer of the sideboard doesn’t make an engineer or educationist a religious studies scholar.

Both James and Ray pump their books by saying that their “groundbreaking studies” (naturally) go beyond analogy. In other words, the fact that viruses make you sick and can kill you and the idea that religions can make you mentally sick or sexually dysfunctional is not a comparison but a correlation. Except, in both cases, there is no correlation; there is only analogy. In the case of The Religion Virus, spread out over ten sermonic and loosely organized chapters that read like a sophomore research paper—the kind where the thesis is so starved for persuasive sources that it eventually dies of exertion—the writer moves freely from a discussion of the “general all-purpose God meme” which he associates with animism and some discredited research on Papua New Guinea to a discussion of seven other memes which he claims are “synergistic” and can be compared to the mutation of genes in biological evolution. These trends, he thinks, coalesce in Yahweh (never mind that no one really calls him that but scholars), the “meme that we in the western world call God.”

Craig A. James

Reading the dissociated conjectures of James’s book, interrupted by dubious data, surveys, informal interviews and too many personal recollections and reminiscences (called “interludes” here) about his leaving the God-meme behind, reminds me of some of the reconstructionist history I’ve had to read over the years, the kind of thing that argues that Columbus was a Jew or (long before Dan Brown) that Jesus’ DNA survives in the bloodline established for his caliphate through Mary Magdalene. Yet another case of the facts not fitting the theory and changing the facts, except even more wildly careless about what a “fact” is and who decides.

Take this evocative paragraph:

“By the time Jesus was born polytheism was still widespread but monotheism had a solid stronghold among the Jews. In spite of being a minority view the Yahweh meme had developed all of the critical features that made Yahweh into a viable monotheistic deity….Yahweh was no longer a specialist God of war. Now he could answer all prayers. Instead of merely demanding loyalty he now claimed to be the only God. He had shed his jealousy of other Gods and instead simply denied they existed. Yahweh claimed to be the only God, a much more sophisticated meme than mere jealousy. He began actively to destroy other religions. He told the Jews to vandalize or destroy their temples. Violence against other religions was a virtue not a sin. He shed his regional association[s] and could be worshiped anywhere. He had changed from an earthly corporeal god to an ethereal overpowering figure whose very presence could overwhelm a human. He was no longer subject to the moral judgment of mere humans through natural philosophy and logic. And was instead transformed into the fundamental source of all morality….”

The book ranges on like this for 200 colloquial and illucid pages, reaching its sort-of climax in the following mission statement:

“…If we step back and look at all this activity [religion] through the looking glass [sic] of cultural evolution science, that is, memetics, we see that each person and each house of worship is just one more step in the hundred-thousand-year evolution of religion viruses that infect our brains” (194).

But no matter how far back I stand, I still can’t forget what I see up close. For starters: (a) Polytheism is not a precursor of monotheism and cultural historians have by and large rejected the teleological views of eighteenth century philosophy and nineteenth century anthropology that this error propagated, especially among philosophers who teethed on Hume; (b) It is internally inconsistent to his own case, and violates everything scholars know about the history of the biblical text and its development, to argue that Yahweh, having forsaken his role as a god of war then moved on to command violence against other religions and their destruction; (c) If anything, the God of Palestinian Jews becomes more isolated and regionally specific, not less, and the Hellenistic transmission of the God-idea (not meme) through Christianity fissiparates into the trinity to becomes less restrictive and virtually polytheistic, restoring particular specialized facets to God through a compartmentalization of his “revealed” activities. (d) The God of the Hebrew Bible was never “subject to the moral judgment of human beings through natural philosophy and logic” (what civilization is he trekking through?) and was regarded, anachronistically, as the source of right conduct (morality is not a good word in this context; wrongdoing and law-breaking are) even before the law was given on Sinai. What Exodus and Deuteronomy spell out in laws, Genesis collapses into an unmistakable poetic introduction on the price of disobedience.

Religion Memes (1,000,000 X magnification)

For the alleged memes or memeplexes to operate in anything approaching an evolutionary way, it would be important to get the chronology right, the data right, the lines of transmission right, the cultural syncretism right, none of which are right in this book. A “viable monotheistic deity,” you say? There is no historical or textual support for this view: But for the rise of the Christian movement, which wasn’t exactly servile to Hebrew monotheism anyway, the religion of the Jews was about an inch away from being discarded or subsumed by those “still-widespread polytheists” called Romans and it was not the tenacity of the Jewish God idea that saved it.

Politically unpopular, demographically Judaism was virtually untenable. There is nothing inherent in the nature of a “monotheistic” religion that guarantees its survival or explains its adaptation, anymore than the fact that Mediterranean and bedouin-desert cultures got more sun explains the fall of multi-god religion. Yes, that has been seriously argued.

Apparently historical fact makes no claim against a “memeplex,” especially when the architecture of the memeplex can be changed, like Playdoh, by the “scientist” to suit his private theories of how it all happened. It also shows that while writers like Mr. Ray (The God Virus) can invoke “cultural evolution science” against religion, their simplistic Evangelical understanding of history has not changed since their church-going days. It seems to me that if a meme is going to be described, you at least need to know where to findit. Ray seems to have found his in his Church of Christ heritage, and in beliefs about the Bible that originate with pastors who hadn’t read any other books. It permits him to expound on the God-meme without taking into account the billion religious people across the globe who aren’t monotheists and hundreds of thousands more who seem to have developed an immunity to the infection. When he talks about religion, like Parson Thwackum, he means Christianity—the one he knows best and in a disquieting kind of way seems to think is a suitable paradigm for explaining other aspects of the memetic theory.

In fact, Ray’s own peculiar paradigm of Christianity could not even be used to explain Presbyterianism or Roman Catholicism. But that doesn’t prevent him talking about the “Roman Catholic virus” in pseudoscientific language derived from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and “Viruses of the Mind,” both of which have achieved not just celebrity but canonical status among meme-believers:

“Christianity uses guilt to ensure sexual and marital fidelity as well as fidelity to the Church. Guilt is an important cause of sexual dysfunction in males and females. Sex for pleasure, from religion’s point of view, is a waste of energy, especially if it detracts from propagation of the God virus. For that reason, sexual pleasure is seen as suspect in Catholicism.” (103).

No, he said staring down the passage in front of him, this is not why sexual pleasure is “suspect” in Catholicism. The Church fathers (some anyway) endorsed celibacy and prized virginity above marriage and sexual encounter because they were saturated with Plato’s notions of greater and lesser good. Human appetite being what it is, such dissuasion against pleasure was never a powerful incentive to holiness except among the monastic minority, who were notoriously slipshod about the purity-meme. By the twelfth century it–the rhetoric–had failed. Especially among the higher clergy who were not known for sexual dysfunction, or moderation, and the peasantry, who could not read. By the fifteenth century Christian art was sensuous and erotic and the church was in the marriage business for good. In the sixteenth, Catholicism was in an isolated position with regard to the pleasure-principle, and still is.

The hop-scotching between premises is bad enough from a logical point of view, but it is also deplorable in personifying “religion” as a complex of ideas interested in its own viral propagation.

Even if memes had an existence any more substantial than the reality proposed for them by Dawkins and, until 2010 by Susan Blackmore (before her very sensible recantation of her view of memes as “real replicators” and thus equatable to biological viruses), their development, adaptation, selection and exportation from culture to culture would still be fraught with inexactness. The cultural equivalent of a genome project would not only involve what is but the multiple variants of what has been and what might have been if an opposing army had won (as in the example of Judaism above) or a particular emperor had ordered a religious genocide. The invention of an ever-more complex algebra to explain the anomalies involved in this new hieropany is not impressive even when done by people who think they know what they’re doing. But when done by people who simply believe the people who think they know what they’re doing, it is simply a case of quoting the bishop, a form of scholasticism in which quibbles and variant data that would be vitally important in real science are smoothed over and discarded in the interest of a master-hypothesis. At a certain point in building a meme-complex, the variants overpower the thesis: science becomes science fiction. The memeplex is no longer an explanatory entity but a blob that swallows data for its supper.

It is a fact, for example, that grasshoppers infected with the hairworm (spinochordodes tellinnii) are more likely to jump into ponds where the hairworm propagates itself. But it is only analogous that “all kinds of infectious memes thrive in religions, in spite of being false, such as the idea of a creator god, virgin births, the subservience of women, transubstantiation and many more” and that people infected with such ideas hop into the congenial atmosphere of churches where the infectious memes thrive (Blackmore in 2002). Let’s not forget war, male impotence, and the near recession of 2008.

Let me repeat: the problem is not with theorizing about memes and memeplexes, non-existent as Dawkins’s God as they may be. They have a use as analogues and modes of comparison, like Jung’s archetypes (the theory they most closely resemble). It is the easy abuse to which memes can be put, like Filipino workers in the Arab world, that troubles me—the cult following that’s always the signal of bad science. Atheists who profess to believe only what can be seen under a microscope or otherwise detected by observable effects have accepted the jargon and complexity of meme theory in the same way that Romans turned on to the salvation theologies of the mystery religions. This is just an analogy of course: I would not suggest for a moment a correlation between ancient Romans and modern pseudoscience, as though a jargon-loving-oversimplification meme could be replicated.

Memes are not snake oil. But they are not needed to understand the transmission, tenacity, adaptation, recombination and endurance of the symbols and practices we associate with the religious life.

They are probably not even the best agents for developing a “new paradigm” for understanding religion, judging from recent attempts to cut templates to fit all possible data. The greatest hazard they pose is reductivism in the assessment of religion, because science is necessarily a reduction to simplest elements and processes. A true memetic theory of religion, for example would be indifferent to the effects of replication. It would be neutral, [perhaps even admiring?) of religion’s awesome adaptive abilities (which I do not believe exist). But a true memetic theory does not exist, which is why depending on your orientation towards religion, you may see the meme as contagion or simply as adaptation. Not, however, as the cultural equivalent of HIV-AIDS or a Doomsday virus.

2 thoughts on “The God Viruses

  1. Joe, you should make a pair of reviews out of this article and post them at on the respective books’ pages. If your charges are just (I haven’t seen the books, but I have read much writing in their vein), prospective buyers should at least have the chance to hear from a professional scholar of religion about how poorly informed the books are. Many writers seem to be convinced that religion is so inherently stupid that it can’t even *be* a subject of genuine scholarly study, or at least that it doesn’t deserve to be.

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