Question: "Is belief in God a virus?"
Answer: Among the ranks of evolutionary scientists are those who teach the idea of “evolutionary psychology,” an attempt to explain all of life through the Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest.” One of the more interesting metaphors to come out of this endeavor is an analogy comparing the transfer of information and the spread of ideas to genetic code. Unlike the "nature" of the inherited gene, the “meme*,” or idea, is acquired by nurture—by exposure to the thoughts and beliefs of others. The transfer of ideas has little to do with truth or reality or benefit, but with how well the ideas survive in the given environment. Which ideas “stick” depends on how easily understandable and accepted they are by the receiver. Memes also cluster, manifesting as such things as a worldview, a political leaning, a religion, or devotion to a particular sport.
The “virus of the mind” is an off-shoot of the meme concept used by evolutionary psychologists to represent particularly dangerous ideas. Unlike a meme (or a gene), a virus is not an inherent part of the original organism. It is a foreign object which invades, uses the organism’s innate features to replicate, and spreads, causing harm wherever it goes. It then infects others while continuing to inflict considerable damage, or even death, on its host. In the minds of the most adamant, oppositional atheists, belief in God and participation in any religion is such a virus. People who believe in God are “infected” and coerced by the virus to spread the infection to others. Because of the malleability of a developing brain, children are the most susceptible to being influenced by memes; that is, they are likely to believe what their parents tell them. Which, considering the atheistic rejection of God, is considered to be child abuse. The virus also alters the believers’ minds so they are unable to think clearly about life. Atheists, who claim to have no preconceived ideas about the nature of the universe and rely solely on science, are seen as the only hope for humanity.
The argument is interesting and creative, but academic. And very emotional. The language is threatening and frightening—characteristics of the “fittest” memes [see: any political debate]. The idea of the meme itself, developed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, is a metaphor, a useful illustration, but not a reflection of truth. Expanding the idea and claiming religion and belief in God are “viruses,” an assertion developed by Dawkins in his essay “Viruses of the Mind” and expounded upon in Darrel W. Ray’s The God Virus, are merely emotional manipulation.
Why the vitriol? Ironically, for similar reasons adamant atheists give for the propagation of religion. Claiming believers are infected with a metaphysical virus provides comfort for those who don’t believe in God, especially those who have been hurt by religion. It “explains” that believers are ill, that their normal thinking skills have been taken over by a malevolent force. And it provides a unifying political cause—if religion is designed to spread easily, it must be kept out of schools, science, and, as far as possible, all human interactions.
Religious adherents will readily concede some of the “proofs” atheists give of the invalidity of religion. Belief in one faith system does tend to discourage belief in others. That is not proof that religion is invalid, however. It is a sign that believers believe their particular faith. Faith systems do tend to make training their children a priority (Proverbs 22:6), not because a virus incites them to, but because parents are designed to share their particular worldview with their kids. And faith systems do emphasize certain habits designed to encourage belief in an individual. It could be continual exposure to the teachings of that faith (Psalm 1:2), consistently meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), or eating together (Acts 2:46). But these are deliberately chosen practices, not unwitting influences of an invasive pathogen. Finally, most religions do encourage evangelism (Matthew 28:19–20). In its most sincere form, evangelism is driven by the adherents’ belief that their faith is true and should be shared. Some motivations are more malicious; some religious leaders want more people to manipulate, abuse, and take advantage of. But, whatever the reason, evangelism is not because an anthropomorphized cluster of ideas is fighting for propagation.
Those are a few of the minor discussions, and they don’t really resolve anything. Adamant atheists have other standard arguments they use to attempt to illustrate the idea of the God virus. One is that religion was developed by fearful, ignorant people who merely wanted comfort in a dangerous world. The Bible says that God is a comfort in a dangerous world (Psalm 23; 119:76; Isaiah 51:12; 61:1–2; Matthew 5:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3–4). Many evolutionary scientists believe God doesn’t exist because their model of the creation of the universe proves He doesn’t have to exist. But even if their models were complete and accurate, proof of un-necessity isn’t proof of non-existence—or there would be no Starbucks. The Bible provides its own scientific model: God created the world (Genesis 1). And, despite their existence, He didn’t need scientists to do it.
One of the most common arguments that belief in God is a mind virus is also one of the most emotionally charged: religion encourages people to do bad things, and atheistic humanism encourages people to do good things. The ongoing conversation between believers and atheists covers such ground as the Crusades vs. Stalin, medicine vs. orphanages, Jihad vs. the A-bomb. But, as “proof,” atheists tend to point out the most malicious, least godly examples of religion-affiliated incidents. And God is perfectly clear about how He views abusive religious leaders (Ezekiel 34), opportunistic religious practices (2 Peter 2:2–3), and even those undiscerning enough to follow (2 Timothy 4:3).
But this argument should catch the believers’ attention for one simple reason: sometimes it’s true. Religious leaders are occasionally caught in sex scandals—and others often look the other way. Unbiblical views of God and the church have been used as justification for war. And sometimes, out of fatigue, frustration, or misunderstanding of God’s grace, believers are unkind or even abusive. The Bible teaches that, if we are persecuted for no reason, then we follow the example of Christ (John 15:18). But, if we live in a manner that misrepresents the gospel, we get what we deserve (1 Peter 2:19–20).
Calling belief in God a “virus” is a pseudo-scientific metaphor, powered by hate of God and deep-seated wounds born of the misunderstanding of the gospel—of both perpetrators and victims. Religion as a virus is not science; it is emotional rhetoric. For believers, the Bible explains what our response should be: know what we believe and why (1 Peter 3:15), be kind (1 Corinthians 13), examine our own behavior (2 Corinthians 13:5; James 1:22–25), and remember that the “enemy” is not the angry, hurt, or rebellious people who spend their lives rejecting God (Ephesians 6:12). The battle is spiritual, and our greatest weapon is the prayer that the Holy Spirit would soften the hearts of those who are hardened against Him (1 John 4:4).
*Note: Meme is being used as the biological term indicating non-genetic trait-sharing, not the various internet phenomenon that borrowed the term.