My wife and I went to go see Dr. Darrel Ray, psychologist and author of the best-selling book The God Virus, speak yesterday in Memphis. His talk was a very thought-provoking and provocative look at how religion continues to spread despite the fact that logically, most religious belief makes very little logical sense. Ray compares the effects and propogation of religion to those a virus.
In addition to Ray giving a very enjoyable talk, I was pleasantly surprised at just how well the analogy holds up. I had read and heard about Dr. Ray prior to the talk and knew the general premise of his book, but Ray went into detail about a number of ways religion acts like a virus. Here are just a couple examples of many he gave (he spoke for almost 2 hours, not including the Q&A!).
* Religion “infects” its hosts through vertical and horizontal transmission. Just as a disease like HIV can be passed from mother to child (vertical) or from one adult to another (horizontal, religion can be spread through childhood indoctrination (vertical) or through adult conversion (horizontal). This explains his claim that “Religion is a sexually-transmitted disease.”
* The religion “virus” negatively affects its hosts’ behavior. Ray said that you can often see a visible change in a person when you switch from daily topics such as the weather, family, work, etc. to religion: their facial expression and look changes, and sometimes the way they speak does as well. Ray says this is because believers are reverting to back to a time in childhood when they were “infected” with the religion virus (such as 5-7 years old) when logical thinking had not fully developed. Ray argues that religious people can’t be convinced logically of the problems with their religion because the “virus” effectively stopped their logical development on religious topics at a young age. People may be geniuses at logic in other areas, but are stuck at a childhood level when it comes to their religion (but often can objectively consider others’ religions).
I have actually noticed people’s expressions change when the topic switches to religion, so I can subscribe to this part of the analogy as well. He also spoke about techniques that, wittingly or not, preachers use to make people more susceptible to and dependent on religion, such as the emotional ups and downs of a typical religious service (making you feel guilty [e.g. for sins you have committed] only to make you feel better at the end [e.g. for forgiveness of your sins), the cadence of prayers and other liturgical elements, the music and its lyrics (such as the saved wretch in “Amazing Grace”).
My wife, despite being a believer, said the Ray presented arguments well and that they made sense. Not that she agrees with them, of course, but she understands his arguments and thought overall he seemed fair and friendly. I was a little worried what her reaction would be to a talk about a “God virus”, but I think Ray overall did an excellent job of presenting his points in an interesting, matter-of-fact way that didn’t sound overly anti-religious.
The one part my wife reacted negatively to (which made me a little uncomfortable as well), was his statement that non-believers on average have a 5-point higher IQ than believers. Ray made sure to point out that it was a correlation and not a causation. But I think even this may not hold up necessarily. IQ tests have a margin of error, and my wife and I have read that they may be dependent on many other factors as well (for example, poorer students may not have been taught proper test-taking skills and so many perform more poorly on IQ tests even if their actual intelligence is higher). Even if there is a negative correlation between religion and intelligence, I don’t think it’s helpful to think in those terms; I think it could lead to further claims by religionists that atheists are being insulting or condescending to believers.
In his defense, this was a very small portion (perhaps 30 seconds) of his talk. Ray made it clear at several points that he’s not trying to demonize or insult religion or its promoters, going as far as to say that he thinks the Pat Robertsons of the world truly believe they are doing what is best even when it seems ridiculous to outsiders. He thinks that believers are just blinded by the religion virus and are doing what they think is best. Ray has also set up a foundation, Recovering from Religion, which he says aims to help people who would like to be cured of the God virus, which I think furthers the impression that I had for 99.9% of the talk: that Ray is a once-religious man who wants to explain to others why he left religion, show the world his observations as a psychologist about religion’s effects on people, and help those who wish to leave their religion. I thought the talk overall was very enjoyable and informative. I bought the book on Kindle and look forward to reading more.