The “god virus” and American Culture

In the environment where I grew up, ideas of patriotism were mixed in closely with those of Christianity. It was “one nation under God” and after I came to disbelieve in God it took me a while to stop seeing the American Flag as a Christian symbol.
American flag

Not a Christian symbol.

In the book The God Virus, Darrel Ray use a model of a “virus” to describe how religious ideas “infect” people and attempt to gain control and then spread to others. In case you are unfamiliar with the concept of the meme you can think of it this way: Meme theory compares ideas (or pop song hooks, or jingles, etc) with viruses that infect the mind, duplicate themselves and then try to spread to other minds. For instance, when you get a song stuck in your head, you might start singing it out loud within the hearing of others who might get the tune stuck in their heads. If you have ever heard of a YouTube video going “viral,” you have seen this metaphor at work.

Like a biological virus, a meme does not have thought or intention of its own. It’s almost a tautology that the better the idea is at spreading in a population of minds, the more successful it will be. The “virus” only “cares” about replicating itself and staying around as long as possible–it does not necessarily care about the happiness or well-being of the host mind. How often has your mind been infected with a pop tune that you absolutely despise?

English: A simplified diagram of the Hepatitis...

In Chapter 3 of The God Virus, Ray talks about the ways that “god viruses” try to gain a safe and secure place in society by integrating themselves with the broader culture. I have long thought that religion and culture were inseparable, but this book has caused me to question that notion. If a religion can so integrate itself with a culture, to the point where it is impossible to live in that culture without being affected and controlled by it, an environment can be developed where few people would be willing to question that virus for fear of repercussions both external and internal. For a contemporary example of this, take a look at Saudi Arabia, and some other Muslim nations, where violation of religious rules comes with strict civil penalties.

For the past few decades, the Christian virus has worked really hard to get itself inseparably coupled to the American culture and way of life. Hence the difficulty I had in my earliest years as an atheist with decoupling Christian ideals from the meme of the American Flag, as I had seen the two memes meshed together so much that I had come to associate them. Even today, there are powerful forces trying to equate Christian religion with American life, from attempts to place Ten Commandments plaques and statues in courthouses, to GOP presidential candidates practically falling over each other to prove their Christian credentials. In recent news, the Catholic Church is attempting to enforce its religious directives on the lives of the employees of Catholic-affiliated hospitals, schools, and charities, under the guise of the American ideal of religious freedom. (I doubt that the Catholic hierarchy cares nearly as much about religious freedom in the countries in which it is fully entrenched, but fitting right in the metaphor, the virus will make concessions in specific environments if that is what it takes to survive.)

Ever since Europeans landed on the American continents, the god virus tried to mesh itself with the newly developing cultures, and with some success. In various colonies, religious tests for office or even for full citizenry were established. Baptist minister Roger Williams, the originator of the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” and founder of the state of Rhode Island, recognized that there were serious problems with meshing civil law and religious life. And for this, he was banished from the Puritan colony of Massachusetts. I was told repeatedly as a child that the Puritans and other non-Anglican groups came to America for religious freedom, but in large part it looks like they came to try and do the same thing to other religions that the Anglican Church had done to them in England. After all the worst enemy of a god virus is a competing god virus, and no virus is totally secure in an environment where all virus can compete freely.

Roger Williams statue in visitor center of Rog...

A civil sword (as woeful experience in all ages has proved) is so far from bringing or helping forward an opposite in religion to repentance that magistrates sin grievously against the work of God and blood of souls by such proceedings… Religion cannot be true which needs such instruments of violence to uphold it so. -Roger Williams (source)

We should not be surprised that religious groups are jockeying for control of the American political system, nor that religious groups that were once vicious enemies due to theological differences are now banding together to reach for power. And it is not only legislative and judicial power that are being targeted. Recent claims that America is a “Christian Nation” imply that one cannot fully participate in American life unless one accepts and acknowledges a particular Christian version of the god virus. Difficulties and dangers faced by people who dare to be openly atheistic in certain regions of the country (see Atheism in America for examples) testify to the non-official power that religion can get in a culture. Religious freedom is a beautiful ideal that allows everyone to follow and be influenced by a religion if they wish, or also to avoid religious influence if they do not wish. But an environment of full religious freedom hinders the efforts of individual god viruses to gain dominance and maximum conversion of a population. Therefore we should expect these grabs at power by religous groups that perceive themselves to be in a place to obtain it.
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2 thoughts on “The “god virus” and American Culture

  1. “I have long thought that religion and culture were inseparable, but this book has caused me to question that notion.”

    Certainly it is possible for religion and culture to be separated. Ideally, a culture which does not depend on religion for cohesion would allow for the same diversity of beliefs, not just in religion but in all areas, without basing decisions on issues that effect the entire culture on any particular religious belief. Understand this and you understand what I wanted to build with the atheist meetup all along.

  2. Right on Joe. Such a culture would be one with real religious freedom, where full participation in the culture does not depend on any religious belief or disbelief.

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