Thought: The Virus – An interpretation of the “The God Virus” by Darrel W. Ray

Darrel W. Ray, Ed.D., author of The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture was in attendance at the Atlanta Freethought Society meeting recently to discuss his theory on how religious dogma is spread through society.

In his lecture, Mr. Ray uses a comparison of actual viruses and parasites to help develop his theory. He explains how certain viruses can actually influence an individual’s behavior.

One such example he uses is the parasite Toxoplasma gondii and its impact on rats. There are studies which suggest that the neurology of rats infected with the T.gondii parasite are significantly changed to the point where the rat actually see cats as less of a risk. Another example is how influenza can cause the body to cough and sneeze.

Mr. Ray equates his entire theory that religion is a virus that spreads among humans by a variety of means including through music, prayer, sermon and even birth.

Religion is essentially a system of beliefs. Organized religion occurs when multiple individuals share the same system of belief and is spread from one to another in order to grow and expand.

A belief is nothing more than.. a thought. My interpretation of Mr. Rays argument is that the virus is thought.

Now, depending up on how strong your immune system is would depend upon the degree to which the infection has an impact on its host. The stronger the immune system the less impact, if any, the virus has on its host. The weaker the immune system, the greater the potential damage or control it has over its host.

If the virus Mr Ray explains does equate to thought, then how well the host can utilize reason, logic and common sense determines how the thought is then used. The flaw in his argument is… this “virus” is not predicated only to religion and can be used for any system of thought – including atheism and politics.

In each case, he appears to represent this particular virus in a negative manner. However, there are “beneficial viruses”, such as the Seneca Valley Virus-001 which is believed to kill cancer cells in humans.

If you use Mr. Rays comparison and argument that all thoughts are viruses that infect the human mind, then that would also have to include those thoughts that are also “beneficial”. Then the argument becomes which thought is beneficial and which is not? Who decides what is a beneficial thought and which is not?

That answer is much like beauty is to the beholder. A Christian is naturally going to argue in their favor, just as an Atheist would argue in favor of their point of view.

Mr Ray is right about one thing – arguing with someone with an opposing belief will get you no where. But that is not to say that opposing thoughts cannot find common ground. Afterall, there are viruses which either depend upon one another or can co-habitate in the same environment.

In order to reach such common ground would require mutual cooperation and respect of each others system of thought. Perhaps humanity can learn more from a virus than we originally… thought.


  1. Woody: I think you misstate some of what I said. I was not focusing on memetics so I did not go into detail about how viruses can be beneficial, how multiple viruses can coexist and how other memes can be just as destructive as god viruses. I will be interested in your critique after you read the book. I address most of your concerns in the book. In addition, other people, working in the area of memetics have explored the idea of how memes propagate and how they become parasitic. My primary contention is that most religious memes are parasitic. While they may have some benefit for their host, their primary objective is to propagate to the next host without respect to the current host.

  2. Hey Darrel – First, I want to thank you for the lecture on Sunday. It was, if this blog is evidence, very thought provoking and very well presented. Also, thank you for taking the time to read my interpretation and commenting as well.

    I want to make sure it is clear to you and anyone who reads this that this interpretation is solely an expansion on the details presented in your lecture. I do understand that you only have so much time to present all the facts and details from your book and the presentation itself is a very high level representation of what can be found from your book.. I do plan on reading your book and I certainly look forward to writing a follow up piece.

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