Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Theism (and religion): "mind virus" or "mind cancer"?

This post is a modification of a comment I left on John Loftus's blog, Debunking Christianity. You can read the original post and the comments here. The discussion I engaged in actually meets a commenter that is expressing frustration at attempting to reason with religious believers, feeling it is a lost cause and that they are better ignored. I don't totally disagree with this notion in principle, but at present, they have too much momentum behind them to be able to do it and to promote the freedom from religion that we're really looking to help people achieve.

The comment here, as follows, has been edited from the original. I really intend to develop the idea with which I have titled this post: is religion more of a "mind cancer" than a "mind virus"?



We often hear the analogy that religion is like a "mind virus," but I think this is at best partially right. Religion is communicable like one, but the "disease," if you will, of theism manifests more like cancer than a virus. Cancer isn't a disease. It's a whole bunch of diseases, and it doesn't just make you sick--it literally is a corruption of how your tissue is supposed to grow and manage itself. Often it entails tissue growing unchecked by the body's normal regulatory processes and thus causing major problems as a result. Here, the analogy would be that cancers literally corrupt the mental processes once an infection happens, and they can happen in a number of ways and in a number of venues within the mind, eventually metastasizing into other aspects of thought and changing their growth as well, almost always into something unhealthy. Note that these two metaphors are not mutually contradictory--many cancers can be triggered by genetic damage caused by viruses in the first place. The damage here, of course, is memetic instead of genetic, but the parallels are in some ways quite striking.

Note also that we, in the laity, usually label cancers by the tissues they corrupt, say breast or colon or prostate or liver, but this isn't sufficient--or even correct. There are many kinds of each of those cancers, and each represents a strikingly different disease process. "Breast cancer," for instance, far from a monolithic illness, is an umbrella term for many different kinds of cancer that have entirely separate prognoses, manifestations, threats, and treatments. With religion, we could talk about different religions being different kinds of cancers, but it is probably more accurate to talk about different ways of thinking about the world becoming corrupted. We see different believers, even different kinds of believers, manifesting modifications in different regions of their worldview: moral/ethical, intellectual, and emotional, at the surface level. There will be different ways to twist evidence to support different classes of belief, for instance, from confirmation bias to outright science denialism, and this is just within the intellectual category.

In medicine, each type of cancer might require a completely different treatment protocol down to different chemotherapy drugs. Each may well have ways to reverse it via other means as well, but for the purposes of the analogy, we'll assume that there is a relatively small number of ways to reverse the disease process and achieve successful treatment. Medically, chemo and radiation are kind of like a carpet-bombing approach used alongside surgery to get rid of most cancers, and the patient really suffers from the treatment almost more than the cancer (at least in the short term, if not in the long). The hope is to hit the cancer with something that will arrest it, and even if this process is getting better and better at targeting the cancer itself, it's still an apt metaphor to call it "carpet bombing." In the case of dealing with theism, rational and ethical appeals are the main tools, the chemo and radiation of dealing with mutated and dangerous mental processes.

Likewise, when anti-theistic writers and activists like John Loftus (or Dawkins, Harris, etc.) employ reason- and evidence-based arguments, often in hammers of books that cover many, many topics (here's a shameless plug to my own, which you should check out!), it's rather like chemo and radiation against a cancer. The hope is that something in the cocktail (often as much of it being moral appeal as intellectual, actually) will be the thing that knocks the crack in the wall of belief.

For me personally, it was the David Koresh incident in the 1990s. It suddenly struck me listening to the news about it that David Koresh was plainly crazy, and yet we have no good evidence that Jesus wasn't the David Koresh of his day. "What if Jesus was just a David Koresh of 2000 years ago?" was the question that cracked the shell, even if it took a while for me to hatch all the way. For my friend, it was the death of his dad. For another, it was how patently absurd the idea of praying proves (prayer, if you haven't noticed, doesn't work). For another, it struck him that religion was more about controlling people's thoughts and behaviors than about providing them with anything. For another, it was the seriousness of Muslims at worship in a contradictory tradition. For another, it was a disgustingly brutal murder near where we live. Countless others have named books like John's or those of the "horsemen" and others: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, etc.

In each of those cases, the evidence of the world (and voices within it) carpet-bombed the "diseased" mind until a weak point was found, a spot where the cognitive dissonance of maintaining beliefs against the evidence became unsustainable. Carpet-bombing isn't the best way, but it might be the only really good way to go about it in broad publications rather than targeted ones (i.e. individual conversations, a tactic which I have used but which can take literally many months per already interested person). Still, cancer teaches us that even in highly individualistic cases, it is still very difficult to find the right combination of techniques and drugs to be effective, and we're also still prohibitively limited by what we are actually able to know. (For example, I'd bet that abiogenesis, which we're close to figuring out now, will drive younger, relatively scientifically literate people out in a significant exodus.)

I think most religious believers, though perhaps not the superstars of theology, have breaking points where they can no longer support the cognitive dissonance, and then the house of cards can start to fall. As a matter of fact, it seems almost every "I used to be a believer" has one of those moments where suddenly the entire "epistemology" supporting their beliefs starts to deflate from a single hole knocked in it by a single academic or moral fact. It turns out to be very, very difficult to know (or even find out) where that hole is or will be, and as I noted, perhaps the superstars are those without those holes (or best able to patch any breaches to their hulls).

What do you think? Can we think of theism as a memetic virus that causes a mental cancer?

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1 comment:

  1. I was lucky enough to take a seminary level course on New Testament as a freshman in college (way back in 73). That certainly put a hole in my epistemology. After a few weeks of the class, I just realized I didn't believe any of it.

    That was Tulsa University which was generally very secular, so I just drifted off to being an apa-theist at the time. I finally ran across Sam Harris' End of Faith while looking into Islam by accident on Amazon. The sample chapter online made my redefine as atheist right then.

    Interesting analogy cancer vs. virus

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