Religion: a virus of the mind

There is a striking parallel between belief in a personal god and belief in Santa. As Richard Dawkins argues, these beliefs (or memes) are viruses of the mind. The two beliefs are of the same type, differing only in particulars:

  • Both beliefs infect young minds incapable of critical thought and lacking the knowledge to properly judge the validity of those beliefs.
  • The disinfection process is identical for most people: critical thinking develops and knowledge about reality increases until the superstition is seen for what it is.
  • Both depend on mass support: children believe in Santa because everyone else appears to. But when the appearance of mass support vanishes as children get older, the belief gets wiped out. If someone maintained the belief into adulthood, he would be considered mentally immature. Likewise, religions get their strength from mass support. The religion of culture A is considered ridiculous by those of culture B—culture B is highly resistant to religion A simply because mass support is missing. Religious belief is considered childish and ridiculous where it is rare.

Growing up involves learning about reality and discarding falsehoods. Everybody drops the superstitions that don’t have mass support among adults. But many who were infected by religion as young children aren’t able to shake the virus as adults—because the mass support among adults prevents it from being exposed as a superstition. They go on to spread the virus to their children—that’s how the virus propagates itself.

It’s telling that nearly all religious people were indoctrinated into their particular religion as children. Those who are infected as adults are usually of questionable psychological integrity, or are simply unaware of the scientific evidence. After all, atheism correlates with intelligence and education. Consider this: a person may have complete faith in religion A, but had they grown up in a different culture they would have complete faith in religion B, even though the two are mutually contradictory. It comes down to sheer luck whether one is born at the right time and place to be infected with the ‘correct’ religion, although such a person will always believe that his is the ‘correct’ religion, while the other is false. Take a moment and think through the implications of this.

Now, religious people are not all stupid. In fact, many are very smart. For example, several Mises Institute scholars are religious, despite being very sharp thinkers in economics. This strikes me as a huge disconnect, a double standard—intellectual dishonesty, but probably not intentional. It’s as though religious belief is kept in its own compartment in the mind, sealed off from the rigors of evidence and logic that rule everywhere else. I find it absurd that one can be committed to the high standards of logic and evidence while also believing the superstitions of Bronze Age tribesmen.

Belief in a personal god is childish, just like belief in Santa. Both beliefs have zero scientific evidence to support them, and are opposed by overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If one must believe in a god, then deism (the belief in a non-personal god) is best—it doesn’t contradict the facts so blatantly. But it’s best to ditch deism and even agnosticism and be a full-blown atheist. Reject the existence of god(s) in the same way that you reject the existence of Santa.

Religion is an affront to reason and human dignity. It represents a complete rejection of reason and it lowers humans to the level of pawns in some divine game. Religion spreads by infecting innocent children, before they can critically assess what they’re being taught. Leave the children alone and let them decide what they’ll believe when they grow up. But if that were done, I reckon that religion would completely evaporate in a few generations.

About Autor

I’m an undergrad student ultimately aiming for an economics PhD. In a nutshell, I’m an atheist, market anarchist, and paleo health enthusiast. In other words, I reject God, Government, and Grain.
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19 Responses to Religion: a virus of the mind

  1. Mike says:

    Toban,

    Phenomenally concise and accurate post; I've seen your name pop up on my reader list previous, (thanks again for the GCBC notes!) but until now I didn't know this was your blog.

    Love the topics, and the parallel of religion and Santa is just perfect.

    Mike

  2. You should check out Gerard Casey's ASC 2009 lecture. It makes a better case than you do for why intelligent Austrians are interested in or have religious beliefs.

  3. iamse7en says:

    Saw the link to your website after seeing your article at LRC. I think your subscription to atheism is naive and quite common among boys your age, and I think that you'll feel differently after more years living and experiencing things that can only be explained by your and the earth's creation by an Eternal Father.

  4. Chris G says:

    Toban:

    Your opening line in this entry reminds me of PJ O'Rourke's classic essay on "Why God is a Republican and Santa Clause is a Democrat". It's from his book "Parliament of Whores" & I highly recommend it.

  5. Travis Steward says:

    It comes from a rabid skepticism of the ability to discern truth that we, as Paleo-Austrians, move towards a priori explanations of our reality, seeing empiricism as an approach to science that is wholly frought with peril.

    But one should not have complete faith that all questions can be answered. Science has tremendous limitation, in fact, we can only rely on a small portion of it (a priori) to provide us some certain guidance in this world.

    To hold the view that all knowledge is currently discernable by humans is the height of naivete. Science provides us no real tools to disprove God. All it provides is a likeliness that this *might* be the case, given we assume all things can be observed by our 5 senses. Faith in the 5 senses is absurd, and so is flat out claiming a certain aspect of knowledge is wrong by depending on tools that are inherently limited.

    I say this to you being an Atheist myself. The difference between you and I is that I have understanding and believe there are things that I do not and cannot understand.

    I am a mere human with some pretty flawed tools. So are you.

    • Omega64 says:

      "Science provides us no real tools to disprove God."

      How do you prove a negative? Or rather, to be able to disprove God, you first must have proof of God. The Book, some stories and a lack of explanation does not prove there is a God. Now all we need is a coherent definition of "God" and then we can prove or disprove, right?

    • Toban says:

      I don't go overboard with the skepticism. Even though I can't disprove the existence of unicorns with logical certainty, I still hold that unicorns don't exist. By the same token, I hold that personal gods don't exist. Only a deist conception of god is compatible with the lack of evidence for the supernatural.

  6. Eric says:

    Travis, the problem here is that if we can't sense it, it's relatively useless to us. It has no bearing on our life, which is why deism or pantheism is kind of like a form of atheism, because recognition of God is pointless at that juncture.

    A better question is why would a God of some sort expect us to follow him when we don't have the physical tools to sense his presence? We have to take it on a report from 2,000 years ago. Naturalistic explanations are always better to go on than supernatural ones, for the sake of probability. We all make naturalistic assumptions about everyday life. The voice I hear in my head when I pray is probably myself, not God.

  7. Travis Steward says:

    That's all fine and dandy – what you're talking about is the "likeliness" that God doesn't exist. I agree with you.

    But I'm not going to be arrogant and say that its impossible. I have firm faith that things exist that I do not understand.

    You may feel God is useless, but your life is likely straightforward and predictable. A life of great concern about what is coming next is typically quite difficult for hte human mind to handle. The stress is overwhelming. Having faith that things are following a plan and that everything will work out is tool for some people to allow them to mitigate the stress in their lives.

    This is all about predicting what will happen in the future. Fortune telling is the greatest power on earth. God is the layman's stress reliever.

    Let them have it, Eric.

    • Toban says:

      Think about the children! I don't mind so much that adults believe in superstitions. What really bothers me is that they spread their mind viruses to defenseless and innocent children. They aren't even given a chance.

  8. John says:

    The problem that I find with this argument is that I don't believe everything can be explained in terms of pure logic and reason. Religious belief is not purely logical in nature, but intuitive. Do you believe in human intuition?

    As I observe the complex nature of life and the universe, I conclude that it must be planned and created. The reason this conclusion becomes a strong belief is because it agrees with my own intuition based on what

    I've experienced. Not everyone's experiences are the same, which is why belief is foreign to some people, some of whom become atheists.

    To compare a belief in Santa to a belief in God is itself an indication of what I'm talking about. People are willing to die for their religious beliefs. When was the last time you heard of a kid who was willing to

    die for Santa?

    Belief is a gamble. In fact, life is a gamble. This is because humans always make decisions based upon incomplete information. Try sitting down at a poker table and using pure logic to make every decision. It's impossible. You don't have all the information. Every gambler knows that sometimes, you've got to go with your gut. It can't be explained in simple terms, but it still works. It works because humans can add past experience, instinct and intuition (some call this the human "heart" or "soul") to cold, hard facts to make the right decision. We're never limited to logic alone.

    Some humans are willing to gamble everything on a belief that they might not be able to fully explain. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Isn't that what people call "hope?" Isn't hope noble? Isn't hope what drives men to better themselves and the world around them?

    • Toban says:

      Your position is "Cosmic Socialism"—that the natural world was centrally planned by a supernatural agent. On the contrary, scientists have shown that the natural world is a spontaneous order (big bang event > formation of stars, galaxies > formation of heavy elements and planets > evolution of living organisms). No need for a planner.

      What you call hope, I call superstition. I prefer to face reality head on, without illusions.

  9. "Scientists have shown"?

    Oh, Scientism. Not at all like religion. ;)

  10. Don says:

    Toban,

    I know that God exists and that he cares for us.

    Don

  11. Jim says:

    In the beginning there was nothing… and then it exploded.

  12. Larry says:

    in the beginning there was a god that was itself not created…therefore, does not exist. the universe always was and alwasys will be…energy becomes matter and viceversa to infinity…expansion and contraction…big bang follwoed by big contraction…followed by big bang which is followed by big contraction *lay the numeral 8 on it's side…everybody understands infinity…energy and matter make up the universe…we are fortunate to be living organic *stardust" matter at this time in space…:)

    smile..:) nothing was created out of nothing because nothing always existed…that's just how the universe is and it is hard for us to understand because we are not wired to understand something that had no beginning or end…end of story…

  13. That is ultimately the actual central source of the conflict how are you going to figure out how the world works from inquiry into natural causes or from metaphysics superstition and evidence-free revelation? That is a significant piece even the central piece of this long-running argument in our culture…….In addition to and probably largely because of this conflict of principles increasing education in science apparently leads to a loss of faith in general and is particularly destructive to literalist religions. The scientific community does the exact opposite it assumes that its conclusions will be ruthlessly questioned and declines to accept any that isnt backed up by large amounts of mutually-consistent observations..Science is also often criticized or dismissed by religiously-inclined people on the following premises ..

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