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Religion and Rationality - Religion and Rationality

Comment 18

 The God Virus: How Religion Infects our Lives and Culture
January 26, 2009

It is a common phenomenon that when developments within a free society move too far in an extreme direction, a counter reaction is produced. In the last quarter century, the evangelical religious movement in America has grown so intrusive and highly politicized, seeking to impose its fundamentalist agenda in all areas of society, government and education, it was inevitable that more reasonable forces would arise to challenge it.

Authors such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have undertaken the task of defending rationality, science and secularism against an increasingly threatening and powerful movement. That threat has extended even to the integrity of the U.S. Constitution and its foundational principle of the separation of church and state.

In their recent books, part of the challenge has been devoted to an ‘exposé’ of religion itself, its ideas and behavior, at both the personal and cultural level. Now, Dr. Darrel Ray, a psychologist who has spent much of his career dealing with the effects of religion on the lives of individuals, and observing at close hand the functioning of religion within society as a whole, has written a new book which is both startling and illuminating.

The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture presents the reader with a telling analysis of religious belief as a memetic force that behaves in a manner similar to a biological virus, working within the infected host, individual and collective, to further its own survival and propagation, often to the detriment of that host. This metaphor is uncannily apt and illuminating. It illustrates that, no matter what its genesis in human evolutionary development or the reasons for it, religion has become a force inimical to the best interests of modern cultural cohesion, scientific and ethical enlightenment, and individual human happiness. Alienation, guilt, fear, social and sexual dysfunction, moral extremism and bigotry, personality disorders, divisiveness within family and nations, are only some of the adverse symptoms produced by infection with the religious virus.

Dr. Ray’s approach to the subject is non-confrontational. On the personal level he advocates understanding and tolerance. While his study is professionally founded, it is not overly technical. His writing is jargon-free, lucid and accessible. Interesting quotes from historical figures, founding Fathers, modern philosophers and writers sprinkle the text. He gets inside the American fundamentalist movement in ways which show that such entities have a collective life of their own, functioning as large-scale organisms according to mechanisms which their individual members may not themselves understand or be aware of.

If today religion has become a virus operating within the human species to the detriment of the latter’s health and indeed its very survival, there can be few issues on which it is more important to focus. Dr. Ray has made a significant new contribution to an understanding of the nature of religious belief and its effects. The success of other books in this field, extending even to bestseller lists, is an indicator that the general public is not only open to such analysis, but has become aware of the need to bring the role of religion in society and our individual lives into the light, to examine it fearlessly, and to consider whether it has become a harmful and counter-productive malady within the human condition which urgently requires a “cure.”

The God Virus is available from

Earl Doherty