Viruses of the Mind

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"Viruses of the Mind" (1991) is an essay by Richard Dawkins using memetics and analogies with biological and computer viruses, and with disease and epidemiology, to analyse the propagation of ideas and behaviours. Its particular focus is on religious beliefs and activities. The essay is included in the books Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind (ISBN 0-631-19678-1) and A Devil's Chaplain. In this essay, Dawkins coined the term faith-sufferer.

The second episode of Dawkins' two-part television programme The Root of All Evil? explored similar ideas and took a similar name, "The Virus of Faith".

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Dawkins defines the "symptoms" of being infected by the "virus of religion", providing examples for most of them, and tries to define a connection between the elements of religion and its survival value (invoking Zahavi's handicap principle of sexual selection, applied to believers of a religion). Dawkins also describes religious beliefs as "mind-parasites", and as "gangs [that] will come to constitute a package, which may be sufficiently stable to deserve a collective name such as Roman Catholicism ... or ... component parts to a single virus".

Dawkins argues that religious belief in the "faith-sufferer" typically shows the following elements:

  • It is impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, the believer feels as totally compelling and convincing.
  • The believer typically makes a positive virtue of faith's being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence.
  • There is a conviction that "mystery," per se, is a good thing; the belief that it is not a virtue to solve mysteries but to enjoy them and revel in their insolubility.
  • There may be intolerant behaviour towards perceived rival faiths, in extreme cases even killing opponents or advocating their deaths. Believers may be similarly violent in disposition towards apostates or heretics (even when "heretics" espouse only a very slightly different version of the faith, as with the proliferation of Christian sects).
  • The particular convictions that the believer holds, while having nothing to do with evidence, are likely to resemble those of the believer's parents.
  • If the believer is one of the rare exceptions who follows a different religion from his parents, the explanation may be cultural transmission from a charismatic individual.
  • The internal sensations of the patient may be startlingly reminiscent of those more ordinarily associated with sexual love.

Dawkins stresses his claim that religious beliefs do not spread as a result of evidence in their support, but typically by cultural transmission, whether from parents or from charismatic individuals. He refers to this as involving "epidemiology, not evidence." He distinguishes this from the spread of scientific ideas, which, he suggests, is constrained by the requirement to conform with certain virtues of standard methodology: "testability, evidential support, precision, quantifiability, consistency, intersubjectivity, repeatability, universality, progressiveness, independence of cultural milieu, and so on." He adds, "Faith spreads despite a total lack of every single one of these virtues."

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