Religion in a Pandemic: Humanist Society
By Robert Bernstein
"Ministers are dying to get people into church. Literally. They are dying." So began Darrel Ray's talk to the Humanist Society on how the pandemic is affecting religion and vice versa.
In 2010 he gave a talk here on his just-published book "The God Virus".
Here he posed with then-president of the Humanist Society Roger Schleuter:
Here was his chart comparing biological and religious viruses:
He predicted a lot, but things turned out to be orders of magnitude worse! He didn't specifically predict Trump or the pandemic.
The God Virus idea is based on biologist Richard Dawkins' idea of memes back in the 1970s. An analogy to genes. A meme is a unit of culture propagated from one head to another.
A virus has one purpose: To get into the body, reproduce and infect more bodies.
This Darryl Cagle cartoon appeared in "Freethought Today" showing the direct connection between churches opening their doors and the spreading of COVID:
"Have you ever been taken over by another organism?" Darrel Ray asked. Humanist President Judy Flattery replied, "Not that I am aware of." Ray said that means the takeover was successful!
Rhinoviruses are cold viruses. You can't stop sneezing. That is what the virus does to you to get to the next person. Rabies is less trivial. The rabid animal goes crazy and bites its victims, spreading the disease to the next host.
Parasites care about infecting the next host. They don't care if the host dies. Think of malaria or the bubonic plague. The God Virus or God Parasite is just the same.
Brains are repositories of religion. The religion is parasitic on those brains. It doesn't do the host any good. Mormons give away 10% of their money and spend time helping their church.
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic protozoan usually carried between rats and cats, but it can infect humans, too. When it infects a rat, it changes the brain of the rat to change its behavior. They lose their natural fear of cats.
This makes it easy for them to get eaten by cats. And the disease organism can only reproduce in cats. Rats go on to get infected from cat feces to complete the cycle.
The virus actually makes the rats suicidal. The God Virus can have similar effects. He has often heard that atheists are perverts. But what could be more perverted than nuns or priests renouncing sex? In this case it is a form of genetic suicide as those infected with the God Virus fail to reproduce.
Now think of the relationship between pandemics and religion. During the time of the bubonic plague, religion encouraged self-flagellation, burning of imagined witches and persecution of Jews. Religiosity increased.
But religion also spread disease. Religious conquistadors came to North America with guns, steel and germs. The germs killed many more natives than the guns did. The natives were told they were dying because they were not following the correct religion. So the disease in turn spread the religion.
It is notable that the natives who are infected with the God Virus often become more religious than the conquerors.
Religions also build hospitals. They get people during times of stress. Think of the Salvation Army, which targets homeless people.
This doesn't just apply to Western religions. The Ghost Dance culture peaked in the early 1890s among Native Americans who had been decimated by disease. They thought they were protected by their new god and they would be able to take back their land and culture. It did not work.
Ministers are saying this now: Come to their church and God will protect you from COVID. There are videos of priests berating members who died because they did not have enough faith.
One participant in the talk asked about the plague 700 years before the bubonic plague. Ray called it the Theodosian plague. He said it likely contributed to the fall of Rome as their Roman gods could not protect them. And this also led to the rise of Christianity.
Unfortunately, there are no easy remedies. Just as some people are more susceptible to COVID than others, some are more susceptible to the God Virus and other memes than others.
When a Jehovah's Witness knocks on your door, it is as if they are "sneezing on you" to spread their God Virus.
Fox News has been perfecting this for 20 years. They do it by stimulating the amygdala which is the emotion and fear center of the brain. People who watch Fox every day are getting that "be afraid" signal constantly. This is not how we evolved to deal with the normally transient fight or flight situations in nature.
He was actually glad last year not to have had Thanksgiving with his Fox-viewing relatives!
Once one is infected with a meme, it leads to "social signaling". If all the signs in your neighborhood are Trump signs you get the tribal message.
Ray claimed that the terrorist attack on the US Capitol was probably facilitated by the pandemic. Many ministers have talked of the "End Times" for decades and the pandemic was validating their talk. He noted that many signs at the Capitol were Jesus signs.
Conservatives also use disgust as a powerful motivator. The amygdala and insula respond to this signal. Religionists use these terms of filth and disgust as well. They use it to describe gays, immigrants and those of other religions or cultures. Once a group is associated with that feeling it is hard to get rid of that.
The religion will promote the idea that only their religion can cleanse you. And that the "others" need to be killed off.
Leon Festinger developed the idea of "cognitive dissonance" in the 1950s. He studied a group that was dealing with an End Times prophesy that failed. You might think the people would abandon such a group when the End Times failed to occur. Instead, they said that their merciful God spared the world.
The same is happening with Trump, Ray explained. Now that he is a failure for them, they are on to the next variant of the meme: "Take the country back"
I asked if there is any way to reach these people. He said the technique is called "Street Epistemology". Anthony Magnabosco has a YouTube channel of videos of practicing these techniques. And there is even a web site https://streetepistemology.com/
The idea is to avoid getting into a fight. It is about listening and asking questions without trying to convert them.
He said that the right plays hardball while liberals play softball. Liberals need to learn to play hardball while keeping their values. And liberals have to stop arguing with each other and offer a unified message. If we can agree 90%, stop arguing and put out the message we can agree on.
You also have to be sensitive to the "bandwidth" of the other person. Some people have very low bandwidth for politics. If you overload that, the person will get angry and shut you out.
Personalities are strong things and don't easily change. You have to be kind. But you have to be persistent in questioning. But do it gently.