Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The God Virus: A book review

Just finished reading The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture by Dr. Darrel W. Ray. In addition to my review, I interviewed Dr. Ray (see below).

In case you didn't receive the memo, I'm atheist. So this book, describing the ways in which religion behaves like a virus of the mind, was "preaching to the choir".

Indeed, I have often thought about how religions have built-in features that promote their own propagation. The metaphor is deep. In fact, it's not just a metaphor at all. If a virus is something that evolves by mutating and multiplying within a population of hosts, then religion IS A VIRUS. And that's Dr. Ray's thesis.

One continuing theme in the book is that religions deactivate the critical-thinking capacities of the infected. Religions frown upon objective questioning of the dogma, and instead insist that faith is a moral virtue.

He also points out the guilt cycle. Religion places unrealistic expectations on us, which makes us feel guilty. Naturally, those same religions also offer a way to relive that guilt. It's one-stop shopping for the gullible.

As I stated in a previous post, Dr. Ray uses the term "genetic suicide" to describe priests that take an oath of celibacy; it's the end of the line for those genes. And why would they do that? The same reason people commit suicide by flying planes into buildings... religion. The point that Dr. Ray makes is that religions hijack the rational brain and cause the infected to behave in a way that is good for the virus, even if it's bad for the host. A great biological example:
The lancet fluke (Dicrocoelium) infects the brain of ants by taking control and driving them to climb to the top of a blade of grass where they can be eaten by a cow. The ingested fluke then lays eggs in the cow gut. Eventually, the eggs exit the cow, and hungry snails eat the dung (and fluke eggs). The fluke enters the snail's digestive gland and gets excreted in stidky slime full of a seething mass of flukes to be drunk by ants as a source of moisture. [p. 22]

Religion does the same thing. It is not designed for the best interests of the organism. It's designed to look after its own interests, to create as many copies as possible (how the hosts fare is of no direct consequence).

One of the most striking examples of religion's selfish promotion:
By actively attacking condom use and birth control [in Africa], the god virus facilitates the HIV virus. The result is a conversion to Catholic sexual practices or death from HIV. [p. 55]

Dr. Ray also discusses crime and religion. As an atheist, I feel good about the fact that atheists comprise about 0.5% of prison inmates, even though we are between 6 and 10% of the population. [p. 121]

There is a chapter on science, and how religions simultaneously use it and contradict it. Dr. Ray points out that many religious proponents "rail against science even as they use the tools that science gave them" [p. 228]. And that "religion uses the fruits of science to make the world far more dangerous". "Those who are waiting for heaven don't focus well on the problems of today." [p. 226, his italics]

My only ciriticism of the book is that I didn't really get a feel for its organization. The chapter headings divvy up the topics, but I didn't get the sense that each section belonged only in its chapter. But this could be more to do with me than the book.

Final analysis, I really liked the book. Every biologist, evolution enthusiast, and theologian should read it. "Religion is a virus" is not just a metaphor, it's reality.

Here is my interview of Dr. Darrel Ray.

Download MP3. Music by DASJAMBO.

Link: Recovering Religionists


  1. Good review. While I haven't given myself a label regarding my non-religious stance, I'm with you.

  2. Yours is the second review and recomendation I get. I just ordered the book from Amazon, along with The Dreaming Universe and The yoga of Time. I think I'll just let my psique deal with the book content, not the intelectual mind. The thing is, once we read it, what can we do? Where does this ends? In my heart I know what religions are, what they do. I just hope I live enough to see the vatican fall, all of this pseudo religions and sects to crumble and fall, Judaism, Islam, and others. The Sun is raising.