I don't say this about very many books, but Craig A. James's The Religion Virus can facilitate a wholesale change in the way we think about religion. By itself, it stands strong and makes a great argument. When it works together with the already growing "God Virus" meme, it forms a powerful meme-plex, and gives us a great framework for examining and talking about religion.
The subtitle - Why we believe in God: An evolutionist explains religion's incredible hold on humanity - might confuse some readers. Indeed, I expected to read about cognitive mechanisms or the evolution of human psychology. And to be fair, chapter 7 does cover one possible explanation for our seemingly innate attraction to religion. But that's not what this book is primarily about.
Don't let that deter you from picking up a copy, though. The Religion Virus is an engaging, entertaining, and educational journey from the earliest animist religions to modern Christianity, with a focus on the meme as a unit of "idea evolution." James takes us on a guided tour of religion's development as both a reaction and a shaping force in history.
Since memes are a relatively new concept, with an evolving definition, James helps us out by discussing and explaining his use of the word. In short, a meme is an idea. More specifically, it's an idea that is passed from human to human and/or generation to generation, and "evolves" as it moves through space and time. He is quick to point out that it does not evolve precisely the same way as organisms, but the similarities are striking enough to use the term "evolution" in a colloquial sense and be well justified.
The most important characteristic of memes is that they have "survival ability." A meme's survival is not dependent on its truth value. Rather, it relies on two main factors: Message and Motivation. A virulent meme must communicate a Message that makes people want to remember it. It must also generate some kind of Motivation so we want to tell other people, who find it compelling and pass it on to their friends.
In a delightfully ironic anecdote, James uses the popular meme "survival of the fittest" to illustrate that truth value is not as important as "catchiness." Survival of the fittest is a vague and ultimately inaccurate way to sum up natural selection. "The correlation between specific genetic characteristics and reproductive success" is much more accurate, but it's much harder to remember, and much less appealing. It just doesn't roll off the tongue.
The first section of the book concerns eight major ideas from the millenia preceding the birth of Jesus, each of which can be viewed as an evolutionary step in the meme that would become Christianity. When they are viewed in order through the lens of cultural and philosophical development, they present a concise and appealing account of how religion in general, and Christianity specifically, came to exist.
The earliest religionists were animists and spiritualists. They believed that "spirits" were a part of nature, and that each different "thing" - from rocks to trees to people - had its own spirit. When people prayed for something specific, like rain for instance, they prayed to the spirit who had influence over that sort of thing. While this was reasonable and practical for "primitive" society, it became a bit unwieldy as we moved into cities and increased our repertoire of abstract concepts like justice, wisdom, or temperance. This change of environment provided the "evolutionary niche" for the "General Purpose God" meme. Gods could now preside over multiple spheres of influence, or broad concepts.
The evolution of pre-Christianity from henotheism to monotheism is especially interesting. I can also see how it could be very threatening to believers. Using passages from the Bible and references to contemporary cultures, James gives us a clear understanding of Yahweh's evolution, beginning as a local war deity, becoming an angry and jealous god who demanded exclusive worship among the gods, and finally a deity who claimed to be the only true god. In its mature form, this is the Monotheism Meme. Other notable developments in the Christian meme included the Intolerance Meme, the Godly Origin of Morals Meme, and finally, the Asexual Meme.
We are also introduced to the idea of a meme-plex, which is roughly defined as a conglomerate of memes, some of which provide foundational support, and all of which can be said to exist in a kind of symbiosis. Religion is a meme-plex. For example, in Christianity, the doctrines of heaven and hell work together with feelings of guilt inspired by morality doctrines, making believers more likely to adhere to both doctrines than they would be to either one individually.
Next, James explains Paul's unique influence on the Christian meme - especially the popularization of "The Globalization Meme," which is best exemplified in The Great Commission. He also discusses Augustine's unique and powerful addition of the "Guilt Meme." At the end of each section, we are presented with a systematic overview of how new memes interact with and reinforce older memes, making Christianity a stronger and more virulent force with each new addition.
For linguists, Chapter Five will probably be the source of some dispute (good-natured, I hope!). Defying both Gould and Pinker (evolutionary psychologists), James suggests an alternate explanation for the evolution of language: "[M]emes evolved as a new mechanism for evolution. Memes replace genes as the primary adaptive mechanism for humans."
The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture,by Darrel W. Ray, is written in a similarly accessible style. Ray deals primarily with the mechanisms of the God meme, not its history or evolution.
Taken together, these two books form a cohesive account of religion's origins, history, and virulence. I mention this now because Chapter Six of The Religion Virusdiscusses religion's "immunity system," specifically listing six meme components which work together as a meme-plex to make Christianity virtually impermeable to attack from the outside. When the mechanics of the The God Virusare paired with the classifications from The Religion Virus,the resulting "eureka moment" is enough to make even the most scholarly atheist's head spin. In the interest of "intellectual synergy," I have to recommend that everyone read both of these books as if they were designed to be companions. They might as well have been.
Chapters 7, 8, and 9 deal with more contemporary issues: "Why is Religion So Appealing?" "The Atheist's Paradox." "Religion, Technology and Government." These chapters seem to be an epilogue to the main presentation, and serve to expand our vision and take in the whole picture in the light of modern technology, global communication, and the monster that is the blogosphere.
Throughout the book, there are brief "mini-chapters" called Interludes. Most of them are interesting little anecdotes or asides dealing with recently introduced material. While none of them are strictly necessary or foundational to the topic, they do provide some personal, emotional, and practical insights into the real-world impact of The Religion Virus. I was particularly moved by the account of James's Aunt Carolyn, who became an atheist at an advanced age after a powerful life experience.
The meme of religion and God as viruses is spreading, and I think that's a good thing. The analogy is so good that I believe it deserves the same kind of linguistic status as that of a computer virus. When The God Virusand The Religion Virusare taken as companion works, the resulting overview creates a kind of synergy. The two perspectives on the same meme are exceptionally powerful.
The Religion Virus: Why We Believe in God: An Evolutionist Explains Religion's Incredible Hold on Humanity adds to a growing selection of books for the "casual non-believer" -- those of us without biology or anthropology degrees. A quick and easy read, it provides a general framework and vocabulary for non-believers (and probably certain more liberal believers) to think about and discuss religion through history. At 208 pages, it's short enough that most readers will be able to finish it in a couple of sittings, and yet it is still packed with a lot of good information.