Book Review: The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture by Darrel W. Ray
Perfect Paperback: 241 pages
Publisher: IPC Press; First edition (December 5, 2009)
The virus metaphor has been extremely useful in computing. The parallel with biological viruses is close so the word provides an accurate but succinct description of the phenomena of, and problems created by, computer viruses. And this particular metaphor offends no one.
The idea of a “god virus”, which treats religious ideas in a similar way, also has some traction. Darrel Ray shows in “The God Virus” that this particular metaphor can be an accurate description of the problem. The metaphor is useful. But in this case some people do get offended.
Maybe they overreact? (Religious people often do). Ray does make clear the metaphor applies to other ideological viewpoints besides the religious ones. That it is more general. For instance, he includes communism and Marxism in some of the discussions. He also points out that, just as with ideologies, biological “viruses can be benign, even beneficial in some cases.” Although “parasite” may be a more suitable description of how ideas sometimes work – he wanted “to avoid the negative connotations” of that word.
Not a new idea
Application of the virus metaphor to ideas is not Ray’s invention. The philosopher Daniel C. Dennett promoted the metaphor in his book “Breaking the Spell” and in some of his lectures. He describes how ideas, like viruses, can take over people’s brains (hosts) to advance their own purposes, rather than those of the host. The host can be sacrificed to perpetuate the idea. People will die for democracy, communism, freedom, etc. Just as they will for “God, King and country.” He is clear the virus metaphor applies to non-relgious as well as relgious ideas.
However, in this book Ray further develops the metaphor. He persists with it throughout the 230 pages and explores the metaphor thoroughly. I found this helps immensely in understanding the role of various religious behaviours, traditions and rituals.
And the metaphor is accurate. Just as biological viruses can strike when the host’s immune system is compromised the god virus can strike at times of personal crisis. In fact, religion recognises this and tries to take advantage of personal crises and susceptible stages of development. Some obvious examples are in children’s education and “love bombing” of new students at universities. People experiencing personal bereavements, illness and periods in hospital, divorces, counseling, etc., are also vulnerable to infection.
The god virus has effects on the host which are not immediately obvious to them. It disables critical thinking skills and sets up defenses against other infections (competing religions and ideologies). The host can see faults in these other religions but is unable to see them in their own.
The virus will sacrifice the host
The god virus clearly operates in its own interests, not the hosts. It will encourage celibacy, genetic sacrifice for the sake of the advancing the relgion. Priests and similar hosts can more efficiently act as vectors for infecting others. The churches see these vectors as valuable, will invest time and resources in them, and will do everything to protect them. Religious organisations will protect paedophile priests and ministers, even to the extent of slandering their victims. Protection and advancement of the religion (the infection) is more important than the individual.
Religious organisations often mouth fine words about compassion etc., but they act for the interests of the infection, promoting and defending the religion, rather than the host. Religious organisations like “Focus on the Family” really focus on the virus. The religious infection is advanced even while the victims are sacrificed.
Religions promote programmes aimed at imposing their ideas of morality and behaviour – which prove not to solve the problems they claim to be aimed at. Abstinence programmes do not prevent teenage pregnancies – they promote guilt, which has a religious purpose.
Fundamentalism is an extreme virus reaction, an antibody, to fight off other viruses. To protect the host and to disarm or isolate alternative infections. We have seen this also with fundamentalist secular cults like Maoism (remember the “Red Guards” in Maoist China’s “Cultural revolution”).
Sometimes these “antibodies” take an organisational form – such as the Inquisition of the Catholic Church, or the Control Commissions in Communist Parties.
I found Ray’s discussion of the psychological role of religious ceremony and routines fascinating. This is an area where he has professional expertise having been trained in psychology, anthropology and sociology of religion. He works as an organisational psychologist. Ray describes how religious services and rituals act to create emotions which strengthen infection. These help bind the host to the religion. Rituals, songs and sermons can manipulate members of a congregation to feel guilt, pride, self-doubt, a chance for resolution or redemption (usually involving a collection plate) and finishing with a sense of joy and hope. The larger the congregation the more powerful the emotional manipulations. Modern religious leaders in the supermarket churches have to be experts at group dynamics and mass psychology
The book has an interesting discussion on the modern phenomenon of civil religions. These are less concerned about creeds but more aimed at winning political power and influence for religion in general. So they promote ideas that we live in a “Christian country” or that our country is “chosen” or “blessed” We can see this in the USA where religious groups work hard to demonise the non-religious.
Ray recognises the influence of the god virus is not restricted to the religious. He provides examples of religious ideas and morality being imposed on society in general by social rules and laws, or just by influencing the minds of others. Concepts of sexuality and sexual taboos and promotion of guilt, especially in sexual areas, influence more people than just the religious themselves.
Living with the “god virus”
A section of the book aims to help the non-religious live alongside the religious, alongside the infection. It gives helpful advice on how to deal with attempts to proselytise and how to avoid falling into a parallel trap of a non-secular virus in our reactions. He describes the viral role of anger and why we should avoid its influence. The book also deals with defensiveness and our own secular conversion programmes.
Ray advises against sectarian reactions to the “god virus.” And, in a twist, points out that telling the religious person they are infected with a “god virus” is the worst possible thing to do. He recommends that in our interactions with religious people we should be respectful, avoid lecturing and being judgemental, be an active listener, avoid leading them on and “remember that you have no interest in converting them to anything. They are the ones with the virus.”
I found the book to be easy to read and well organised. I like the brief “overview” and “summary” at the beginning and end of each chapter. An excellent way of quickly going back to check on the content covered – and useful for reviewers. However, while the index is satisfactory I found it was inadequate for easy reference.
There are relevant quotes from freethinkers, etc., throughout the book. They themselves are a useful resource.
Dr. Ray was raised in a fundamentalist home with first-hand exposure to all the ideas and practices of that group. He relates some of his own life experiences as a Christian, his study in a Methodist Seminary and as a Christian youth worker but the book is in no way biographical. Ray recently founded the organisation Recovering from Religion (www.recoveringreligionists.com). This helps people get out of religion or to deal with the negative effects of religious upbringing. The group currently works in several locations (see for example http://www.meetup.com/The-Atlanta-Recovering-Religionists/ and http://www.meetup.com/Johnson-County-Recovering-from-Religion/)
This is a book about religion – not about the metaphor itself. But clearly the use of the metaphor helps to clarify how religion and similar ideologies operate. The clear description of this operation makes this a useful book.