Renowned psychologist Darrel Ray likens religion to a virus in this complex yet accessible tome. One of his first examples is the Toxoplasma Gandii parasite, which will override a mouse's instinctive fear of all things feline and seek out their natural enemy (the parasite can only reproduce inside cats). Likewise with the god virus, religion can cause humans to commit genetic suicide (think terrorist bombers, priests and nuns) in the service of their religion. The overreaching theme of the book is that religion (and those most heavily infected with the virus) do not care about their flock. All they care about is spreading their religion, and damn the consequences. As a fundamentalist Baptist for two decades, Ray is perfectly placed to examine and dissect the flawed arguments and effective tactics of religion. And, as a psychologist, he is able to give an objective, scientific illustration of why religions act in the way they do, how they have become so extravagantly successful, and what can be done to combat it.
Darrel Ray opens his book (written for non-believers) with a suggestion: talk to a Christian friend and ask their permission to record and/or transcribe the conversation. Ask them to explain their theistic beliefs in detail. Then, a few days or weeks later, repeat their statement of faith to them after replacing Jesus with Mohammed. The inescapable conclusion is that while religious individuals can see through the gimmicks and nonsensical arguments of every other religion (and schisms within their own, such as Mormonism). These schisms and inconsistent beliefs are not only powerful evidence against the truth of any one religion, but have also led to countless intra-faith and inter-faith conflicts throughout human history.
Chapter One details the spread of viruses in the natural world and through cultures. Viruses are spread by vectors (mosquitoes for malaria, priests, imams and rabbis for religion). Because of the enormous investment of time and money that training these individuals require, the virus will instinctively protect its vectors in the face of scandals. The recent surfeit of child rape atrocities in the Catholic church is a contemporary case study here. Religions will frequently use meaningless rituals to reinforce their beliefs in the mind of their believers. Why would Islam require five daily prayers (facing Mecca, no less) if their deity was actually real? Why the cultural and social practice of weekly sermons and proscriptions against masturbation in many religions? If it's good for the virus, it will spread and remain as long as it remains useful. They also tend to be very specific as to what constitutes "charity" (the ACLU typically doesn't qualify). Contradictions are rife, but the virus neuter's its host's capacity for critical thinking and reason (except where "heathen" faiths are concerned). Martyrs can be profitable "fruit" for sects, as was the case of Joseph Smith and Mormonism.
Chapter Two details religion's natural tendency for schisms and conflict. Sunnis and Shi'ites just can't seem to get along. Al Qaeda seems to loathe both groups equally. As an example, Iran has tried to keep fundamentalist Islam contained, but it continues to flare up violently on occasion. Religions can be grouped into three categories - parasitic, symbiotic and a hybrid of the two. All religions have some tangible benefits for their societies; they would not have survived very long without them. Jehovah's Witnesses can be very parasitic at times, especially since their dogma forbids blood transfusions. The harm that this can cause led to Russia clamping down on their religious practices to protect children and families from splitting apart.
Chapter Three begins with a description of early tribal religions and how it is the goal of most religions (at least in Europe and the US today) to seize control of the state (which will lead to further control as the two institutions become indistinguishable). Not only does this violate the protections of the US Constitution, but if successful, would threaten the religious freedom of every religion not in power. The myth of religious organisations doing more good than secular ones is smashed to smithereens here. Studies have shown that only around 5% of donations to churches and other religious institutions actually goes to benefit impoverished individuals (building wells, farming, education etc.). The vast majority is wasted on bibles (unless you're a goat), preaching, church buildings and instilling religious rituals and teachings, which have no benefit here on Earth.
By stark contrast, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and other charities motivated by a desire to reduce suffering spend close to 80% on directly helping communities, with most of the remainder on administrative costs. No plush, extravagant mansions for these altruists.
Chapter Four deals with repressive sexual teachings, and how they can instill individuals with guilt (which is covered in detail later) for normal desires such as masturbating and fantasising about attractive adults. The contradictory messages of religion are shown here, and are so transparent all but the most brainwashed (or willfully ignorant) can and will see them. Misogyny and emotional blackmail are also rife.
I would go through the chapters individually, but I'm already starting to ramble. It is safe to say that scientific education is the best vaccine we have against theism, as showcased in Japan and Europe, where creationism has been held at bay, more or less. When dealing with the infected, be polite and do not ridicule their beliefs. Notice when they have put up a wall or are unwilling to discuss certain subjects. This will often be in a different tone, glance or personality. When dealing with grief, be tactful, and put your own skepticism aside to comfort them. If they need a priest or rabbi at their deathbed, arrange for it. Compassion is crucial in such situations. Honesty is once again the best policy; do not indicate that you might be interested in converting (unless, of course, you actually are).
The myth of objective religious morality is exposed as a fraud and a sham. Not only do evangelical Christians divorce more frequently than atheists and agnostics, but their own preachers, held up as paragons of virtue, often and even when they fall (Satan must really be going after them since he's doing such a good job of winning souls for Christ). Furthermore, even such things as the definition of "murder" have changed through history. In Old Testament times, certainly, it was not murder to beat your slave so badly that he or she died after a few sunsets. Black lynchings were accepted in racist portions of America in past decades. As Matt Dillahunty eloquently put it, religion has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Enlightenment ideals led to more humans laws and compassionate societies, not religious edicts that cannot be empirically verified and must be taken on faith.
This book is a must-read for anyone incredulous or concerned at religion's pernicious and near-ubiquitous influence in modern society.
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