Author Darrel Ray, presenting his latest book, The God Virus

San Francisco, 2009-Oct-31

This Halloween, I had the pleasure of attending Dr. Darrel Ray's (website, YouTube channel) insightful presentation of his latest book, The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture.

The first time I encountered the idea that religion was a virus of the mind was in the excellent article Thoughts in Captivity - Religion as a memetic virus. Dr. Ray's book and presentation go into details about the similarities between religion as a meme (a piece of information that is transmitted from one mind to another) and biological viruses: immune systems, infection channels, vectors and implications.

One of the elements that sets the book apart from the classic new atheism books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens is that the other authors “don't tell you how to interact with religious people in a way that respects them but doesn't cave in to their beliefs”. This is of particular interest to me, because so far I have rarely seen direct debate succeeding in deconverting believers. The gist of why this happens can be summed up in one question: "Would you argue logically with the flu virus?"

Below is my summary of Dr. Ray's presentation.

More or less serious similarities between the god virus and biological viruses

  • the infection is both from parents to offspring (vertical; childhood indoctrination) and among people in a group (horizontal; religious proselytism)
  • like AIDS, the god virus evolves keys for infection
  • you get religion when the rational immune system is young or under stress
    • "give us a child until he is seven and he is ours for life", the Jesuits decreed
    • many people otherwise indifferent to religion turn to God in moments of emotional stress and life crises
  • the virus hides from the immune system, like in many diseases of which the carrier is not aware. The religious conversion syndrome is a significant change in behavior, and the conversion is most often to the religion that the person was born with
  • the vector has to die in some diseases; a fate shared by Jesus or martyrs
  • vectors sometimes have protection:
    • (former) homosexual preacher Ted Haggard allowed to come back to the church, and many cases of child abuse by preachers being kept under silence for long periods of time
    • Sarah Palin got blessed with protection against witchcraft (video 1, video 2)

Infection channels for the god virus

The god virus spreads with the help of:

  • hypnosis
    • sermon techniques, praying techniques: long, rhythmic, repetitive
    • voice tone modulation
    • silence used to increase curiosity
    • the word "just" used apparently gratuitously, but associated by repetition with bringing the listener (back) into a trance-like state, and subsequently used as a trigger
    • instructions to change position repeatedly (stand, sit, kneel)
  • guilt
  • stress
  • sex
  • social needs
  • inspirational music with a careful sequence of guilt-laden and hopeful stages, creating an emotional roller-coaster
  • childhood intimidation

A shocking example of hypnosis and music combined are the Battle Cry rallies organized by fundamentalist anti-gay and anti-choice Evangelical Christian mission Teen Mania Ministries, during which teens are lured in to rock concerts; shamelessly indoctrinated with the righteousness of Jesus contrasted with the perils of pop culture, advertising and corporate greed; then sold CDs and t-shirts produced by Teen Mania Ministries.

Battle Cry rally, San Francisco 2007-Mar-28


Guilt drives behavior: gilt -> tension -> behavior. 80% of church songs are guilt-laden.

Originally, Hawaiian culture had lots of taboos about food, but none about sex. Married individuals could have sex outside marriage without much fuss. When religion came along, it invented and taught sex guilt: it became suddenly forbidden to walk around naked, and God would punish those who did not listen. Of course, the missionaries brought with them smallpox and other diseases, which did kill numerous natives.


Most god viruses are obsessed with sex. Take masturbation, the most prevalent form of sex. Dr Ray quoted psychologist Albert Ellis as saying "97 percent of all men admit to masturbation, and the other 3 percent are lying". By prohibiting something virtually inevitable, the virus creates a huge cognitive dissonance in the victim, which religion conveniently and temporarily solves, until the behavior happens again.

Miscellaneous thoughts

On religion and relationships: black women are the most religious group in the US and at the same time, the least married. Highest divorce rate: Baptists.

The Invention of Lying - best atheist movie of the year

Buddhism is very different where practiced from our image of it. In the US, Buddhism is considered a peaceful spiritual practice. In Asia, among those who actually practiced it, Buddhism is a religion like any other, with worshiping and rituals.


Ask a person about something normal and watch their reaction, then ask them about religion. You will notice a marked difference: their eyes will light up, they will become enthusiastic (even consumed), their voices will become more intense etc. One needs to realized that those infected with the god virus are just that - infected - and their organism is impaired, particularly in the areas of reason and communication. Logic is NOT the answer - why would you argue with a cold virus?

To have a chance at talking sanity into a believer, realize that defensive people do not learn because defensive people do not listen. Pissing people off is not a good strategy. Ignore the god virus personality, and focus instead on the emotion of the person, and take it from there. For example, if a believer says "my daughter was sick, I prayed and God cured her", answer "I hear you are concerned about your daughter's health", and speak to the human, leaving religion entirely aside.

How to inoculate kids against religion: similarly to the pre-vaccine era practice of taking kids to groups of other kids who were infected, expose children to many god viruses. This will help them realize the nonsense that each virus preaches, and how many contradict each other in flagrant ways.

My question to Dr. Ray - how can highly rational people be religious?

This question has bugged me for a really long time. Back in high-school, I was a highly rational student, excelling at computer programming, and at the same time, I had never questioned religion for at least 5 years, while quite fervently practicing it (that's how I managed to read the entire Bible).

Thus, I asked Dr. Ray to explain, as a psychotherapist, how come that highly rational individuals, such as famous programmers or engineers, can be religious. His explanation was, paraphrased, that

programmers or engineers have technical, mechanical minds. They need answers to how things work, and god is such an answer. They don't have scientific minds, though. They don't apply critical thinking principles.

In retrospect, my deconversion coincided with the time I was learning about logical fallacies, critical thinking, and FiLCHeRS - the mnemonic for the criteria a claim must satisfy in order to be evaluated as true: Falsifiability, Logic, Comprehensiveness, Honesty, Replicability, Sufficiency.

Now, I can't explain how in the world I could ever not had thought critically, at least after 14, when I became serious about computer programming. But I had. Which goes to show that believers are not to be condemned, but understood, and helped.

See also

Author Darrel Ray Lectures on “God Virus”, by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine

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