The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture January 19, 2009

The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture

Author Darrel Ray has come out with a new book called The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture.


I had a chance to read this a few months ago and really enjoyed it.

The book extends the metaphor of religion as a cultural virus, discussing how it spreads and how it can be stopped.

In the intro, Ray talks about when the religion virus is most infectious:

Virtually all religions rely upon early childhood indoctrination as the prime infection strategy. Other infection strategies include proselytizing, offering help and financial aid with strings attached, providing educational opportunities at religious institutions and many other approaches which we encounter frequently in the media and in daily exposure to religion.

In other chapters, he talks about religious guilt, how religion affects intelligence and personality, and how to live a virus-free life.

It’s a nice extension after you’ve read something like The God Delusion or Breaking the Spell for the first time.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I do have a blurb for the book on the back cover. As do Dale McGowan and Dan Barker.)

This book probably falls among those aimed at religious readers but primarily read by atheists. Still, it raises a lot of important points and it’s a great discussion starter. I know I was annotating it all over the place, marking questions I wanted to pose to other people and writing down some of my favorite sentences.

The first couple chapters are available for free download (PDF). If you like those, the full book can be found on Amazon.

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  • Sam

    Wow. I really enjoyed those chapters. I’ll have to read this book.

  • Matt

    I just tried to order it and Amazon is out of stock…what a shame.

  • I just tried to order it and Amazon is out of stock…what a shame.

    You can also purchase it directly from the author’s website for the same price!

  • Matt

    Done and done…thanks!

  • “Temporarily out of stock”

    I hope that means it has been selling well.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    I wasn’t impressed with the first two chapters. It looks like the author is trying to take an already dodgy metaphor and extend it out to book-length, where it becomes even more strained. I found this bit to be unintentionally amusing:

    In 1796, Edward Jenner demonstrated that infecting a person with the cow pox virus effectively immunized the person from the dreaded small pox virus. In other words, one virus immunizes against another.

    No, one virus doesn’t immunize against another. What happens is that the cow pox virus stimulates the body’s immune system to make antibodies that also happen to work against a virus similar to cow pox. If Darrel Ray took his metaphor to its logical conclusion, he’d recommend “infecting” people with a weak religion so that they could deconvert and become immune to conversion to similar but stronger religions. I suppose one could argue that we already do this by using the Santa Claus myth as the equivalent of cow pox, but I think we’ve seen how well that doesn’t work.

    This footnote is incredibly laughable:

    For purposes of our discussion, I will use the term “virus” although parasite might be more appropriate in some cases. I want to avoid the totally negative connotations of the word “parasite.” Most people realize that viruses can be benign, even beneficial, in some cases.

    Who are these “most people”? Last time I checked, “virus” and “parasite” have similar negative connotations in common speech.

    Then there is the bit about how “A religion always functions to ensure its own survival.” Not only is this a reification fallacy, but it contradicts what he wrote earlier:

    The Protestant emphasis on reading the Bible allowed people to draw their own conclusions without priestly interpretation or central ecclesiastical control. As a result, dozens of mutations sprang up in Europe after Lutheranism began. When people were able to read for themselves, inevitably some of them concluded that the whole enterprise was a house of cards. Most kept their mouths shut to avoid losing their heads, but others made the leap to openly criticize religion and its role in society. These early critics of religion were the forebears of today’s freethinkers and the freethinking movement.

    So a religion always functions to ensure its own survival, um, except when it functions to plant the seeds of its own demise.

    The author is a psychologist, and one would think that if he wanted to highlight how people shield their own religious beliefs from criticism, etc., that he could have used stuff from his own discipline, like cognitive dissonance theory, which–unlike the virus metaphor–would discourage readers from getting too cocky about not being “infected” by particular belief systems. Instead, this looks like a mediocre rehash of stuff we’ve seen elsewhere.

  • I’m glad it’s out of stock to be honest, already got 3 books on my shelf waiting to be read and don’t need to be adding to that pile just yet…

  • Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM


    I agree with you (and said as much to Ray) that the term “Virus” has negative connotations to the common or garden variety person (like us) but he is correct in his assertion that viruses can be good.

    But, if we want to nitpick, so can symbiotic parasites.

    However this is beside the point, really.

    Ray is careful to point out that the use of the term “virus” is just a metaphor to hang his thesis on. He is quite clear that is does not entirely match what he has to say. Bear that in mind.

    I found the book quite fascinating, so much so that I read it three times. I don’t usually do that.

    He has a chapter on “civil religions” where he focuses on the unofficial American State Religion as well as touching on things like Germanic Nazism and Russian Communism, both of which qualify for this description.

    He has quite a bit to say about how to protect oneself from being pulled in by religious and ideological beliefs but unfortunately these snippets are scattered throughout the book rather than concentrated in one place.

    He did, indeed, suggest that “weak” religion can be used to protect against the full blown bug. He also suggested that a heavy of dose of a contradictory religion can protect against another religion, but at a greater cost to the individual.

    Once again, the metaphor is simply a vehicle for presenting the ideas in a palatable and easily digestible format.

    I would highly recommend Ray’s book. My main complaint is that he addresses his book to atheists. It suits a much wider audience.

  • Anonymous

    [i]My main complaint is that he addresses his book to atheists. It suits a much wider audience[/i].

    With a title like The God Virus, only atheists (or those curious about them) would read it anyway.

  • j.klarr

    I just received this book about a week ago, and so far it seems very interesting. It’s not a college textbook, or a standard psychology reference tool, so it’s not going to display a mastery of the English language nor scientific evidence to support the author’s theory/metaphor.

    The book doesn’t have the subtitle: “How religion is absolutely a virus… OF THE MIND!”

    Be sure that this book really is an extension of an idea that the author got from Richard Dawkins. Darrel Ray simply decided to expand upon it and market it.

    My complaint would be that the book was not made open-source and free, but I would’ve bought it either way.

    But really, the New Atheist movement needs to go open-source and free as in beer. It’s simply the next step in reaching more minds, if that is the intention (rather than making a buck).

  • J.P.

    I LOVE THIS BOOK! One of my favorites!

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