Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tonight on AETV

Technical problems, especially with the UStream feed, plagued our late edition of AETV tonight. This is a shame, because our guest, Dr. Darrel Ray, who joined us to discuss his book The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture, engaged us in a tremendously enjoyable talk that made this one of our best episodes in a long time, if I do say so myself. Since most of our viewers trying to watch live online didn't get to see the whole thing, we'll be sure to get the full version of the show up on the web as soon as we can. I'll be reading Dr. Ray's book during the coming week and will offer my thoughts on it when I'm done. But with his background in psychology, it seems he's really taken Dawkins' concept of memes and developed the idea to much greater depth. In all, a fine night, with a terrific guest and a good studio audience too. The sort of episode that reminds us just how much we enjoy doing the show.

Here's Dr. Ray's adjunct site, Recovering from Religion.

Addendum, Monday night: Okay, here's the video.


  1. Slight correction for Matt. Sickle Cell Anemia and Sickle Cell Trait are genetic diseases not viral infections. In reality all most viruses can do is be infectious. They're just replicating genome, no metabolic machinery. They can't do anything beneficial for the host, at most they can be benign.

  2. The audio and video of this show are now available online.

  3. Slight amendment to my post.

    A retro virus could in theory accidentally help a host. It would first have to have up taken DNA from a host of a previous species...then insert it in its new hots's a way that's activatedable...and doesn't mess with other genes needed for life...and the gene itself isn't a harmful one.

    So a virus can be beneficial only in insanely rare cases of horizontal gene transfer. To my knowledge there is only one animal that is suspected to have benefited from this (a sea worm that can make chlorophyll and is photosynthetic)

  4. Guys, I just love your show, have watched every single episode there is online and I have a deep appreciation for what you do. However, when I hear any mention of what Marxism or Communism is about on the show, it makes me cringe. Lenin's Mausoleum or the Necrocracy (as Hitchens has called it) of North Korea have nothing to do with Marxism or Communism, which is above all a socio-economic theory, a critique of Capitalism and a call to the exploited workers' solidarity to overturn the current social order and all that jazz.

    I know it was Dr. Darrel Ray who made a reference to Marxism or Communism as a "religion" or a "mind virus" (and if one accepts that, I don't see how Capitalism or Feudalism are not in equal measure "religions", which would be a ridiculous thing to say of course), but, as I expected, neither Martin nor Matt challenged him on that.

    Furthermore, it is clear to me that in the U.S.A. "marxism" and "communism" are dirty words, but I expect from free thinkers, who have adopted the controversial label of "atheist" (and they did well to do so) to look a bit further into things. I am not here to start an argument or be an apologist for Marxism on an American forum (I am Greek, so please excuse any linguistic mistakes!), I just wish the hosts would look into the basics of what Marxism is about and not instictively think, every time you hear the word, of Stalin, Gulags and Russian troops clashing with Patrick Swayze's Wolverines all over Colorado, that's all.

    Otherwise, keep up the good work, and thank you for all your efforts!

  5. Good discussion, though superficial. I can't imagine that anyone who watches the AE doesn't already know the irrationality of religion with regards to human sexuality; it doesn't merit a 20 minute discussion unless something more profound is said than, "wow, this is really irrational, isn't it."

    Otherwise, looking forward to more guests in the future.

  6. I liked the format of this show - having a guest on with a particular book - and overall I thought it was quite interesting. But the show also left me feeling uncomfortable that the 'God Virus' idea was not being treated critically enough. It was really unclear to me to what degree the word 'virus' was metaphorical and what was literal. It also struck me that it was an oh-so-convenient way of characterizing a belief that you don't agree with.

  7. Tiberius: Regardless of the political goals involved, when you've got Lenin's mummified corpse on permanent display as an object of reverence, it's a bit naive to say there's not a cult of personality going on there.

    Andrew: If "Wow, this is really irrational" is all you got out of the discussion, then you probably weren't listening as closely as you could.

    T-Time: Neither Matt nor I had actually had a chance to read the book before the show (we both have copies now), so we just decided to let the show be a basic interview where Darell could explain his ideas. I thought I did try to pin him down on some details (like, why would the God Virus seek to create guilt about sexuality rather than exploit its pleasure?). If the show made people curious to read the book and evaluate Darell's ideas for themselves, then we met our goals.

  8. Martin, you are right, of course, and no one would deny that there was a cult of personality of Lenin and primarily Stalin (who also originated Lenin's cult) in the USSR. I am just saying that this is not an inherent part of Communism, or even more Marxism in general, as there have been, and still are, many Communists who find Stalin's methods and actions repugnant and misguided. All I am saying is that one should not equate Socialism/Communism or Marxism with that particular brand, which its detractors call Stalinism and its apologists "Anti-revisionism". I am not attempting to pull a "No-True-Scotsman" here, Stalinism is a brand of Socialism, just not the only one out there.

    This is really meant in the spirit of constructive criticism, because I believe you are doing a great service to the people by making them think on the particular issues your show addresses, and I certainly hope I do not come off to you as just a commie throwing a hissy fit! :P I don't want to derail the thread so I will just shut up now I guess, just my two cents. Peace.

  9. Marxism (call it Communism, Socialism, whatever) is remarkably religious in structure and operation. Many people have remarked on that over the years - including those sympathetic to Marxist historical and economic analysis.

    Perhaps the most direct case was made by Eric Voegelin, who pointedly compared Marxism to gnosticism. See his work "New Science of Politics, Order and History, and Science, Politics and Gnosticism" for more.

  10. Really I think The God Virus could just be summed up by Rick Astley or "Pants on the Ground"

    An idea doesn't have to be GOOD...just catchy.

  11. Tiberius: Totally get what you're saying, it's just that the personality cults communism became (under Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung) is what Darell was talking about. And because neither Matt nor I are communist, we didn't really have much of a vested interest, I suppose, in protesting that communism didn't have to be that way if it had somehow been kept pure.

    Objectivism wasn't without its good ideas either. But the Rand cult kind of blew over all that like a tidal wave.

    Ing: Well, I brought up the "catchy ideas" notion, but I think the whole idea of memes and Darell's concept of the God Virus is what happens when catchy ideas go past catchy and into a culture-wide force that has a life of its own and perpetuates itself long past what you'd think its sell-by date should be.

  12. first of all I love what you guys do.

    on communism/marxism/socialism; first of all I am not a socialist, communist, or marxist. I probably would be called one if I were in the states though (since I would be considered a pretty extreme liberal). And this goes to the heart of the problem I had in the last episode. I live in a country (the netherlands) that has socialist and social democratic parties (and that latter one is one of the big parties over here and has been part of many ruling coalitions) These parties have completely (the social democrats) or for a large part let go of their marxist roots. By putting a very specific and totalitarian form of communism in the category of parasitic memes without giving any context opens the door to those who wish to accuse others of propagating a parasitic meme to bundle the many liberal and leftist ideologies together under the term communism. It would be not be hard to put the definition parasitic meme on any idea you do not agree with. I think putting that label on ANY political movement, without giving context is getting on a slippery slope. I don't think you should be forced to defend any political movement. However I do think that, since you are an educational and informing show, you should at least have explained that you were talking about Stalinism/Maoism specifically, instead of lumping in the term communism or marxism. Especially since many americans seem to be very confused about the meaning of those two terms, not to mention the extremely negative connotation they have in american culture. People don't seem to know that the UK has for the past 13 years been ruled by a party originating from marxism, though it has gone very far from it's roots these days. and the same goes for many european countries.

  13. This is really moving toward thread drift, gang.

  14. What would be the qualities an institution or idea would need to have in order to be 'godviral' (god this is getting stupid quick). Lets define the terms then we should easily see if the pinko commie bastards fit it.

  15. Martin, I understand your position, and Frits has covered anything else I might have said on the matter, so it's ok. I just wanted to get it out there.

    Moving on to a different matter, I believe that Dr Ray explained quite well how the guilt mechanism works, so as to bring people in line and place them under the sway of religious leaders. On the other hand he seems to work under the petit-bourgeois notion that any ideology that informs and holds a popular movement together (including Christianity and Islam, which did originate as popular movements) is literally a virus which works for its own benefit to the detriment of its hosts! Is nationalism a virus as well by the same token? How would modern Capitalist nation states exist without it, how would the U.S. have gained its independence without the rise of national conscience? I think he is taking his metaphor a little bit too seriously, or he does not want to see it to its logical end.

    Ideologies, such as religions, rise from the socio-economic conditions of their time and place and they in turn hold together a social order that gave rise to them, or if they are revolutionary for the time they contribute to its overthrow. I bring this up, because Martin asked on the show, how is it that religions e.g. tend to be restrictive of sex and why we don't have religions that would allow huge orgies. The thing is that religion is a mechanism of social control and cohesion and sexual relations are not about pleasure or free association and love when seen from a social perspective. They do not exist for the individual, they exist to hold a certain social order together. Sex seen from that perspective is about power, ownership of women and the preservation of the family as a building block of society and economy. Which is why, in my view, most modern religions tend to be all about keeping it clean and tidy when it comes to sexuality; even their hostility against homosexuals as individuals which cannot contribute fully to society as family makers could be explained in that way.

    P.S. George from NY, as a final comment on Marxism (because I realize this aspect of the discussion is not very interesting to most readers here, but I don't want to seem as if I am ignoring your comment, so apologies to those not interested, just ignore this), I take it that what you mean as Marxist religiosity is probably what many Marxists condemn as Dogmatism, i.e. a "religious" adherence to Marx's writings, divorced of time and place, which is indeed an issue for Marxist parties. All I have to say is that Marx himself wrote that all he offers is a guide and not a recipe and Gospel to action and Lenin has commented (in "Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder", I would recommend it to you if you are interested and have not read it) that the duty of a revolutionary party is to evaluate their actions and in all honesty accept and learn from their mistakes, something which apparently even Marxists of his time were not realizing. So, Dogmatism is an issue that Marxists have been aware of since the very early days.

  16. "Is nationalism a virus as well by the same token? "

    Considering nationalism led to putting people in ovens...yes...yes it is

  17. Martin: "If the show made people curious to read the book and evaluate Darell's ideas for themselves, then we met our goals."

    Martin - I have to disagree a bit with you on this point. This is kinda what mainstream media often does with pseudo science topics. Without a critical appraisal upfront you may be promoting non-sense. The appearance of Darrel Ray looked like an acceptance and promotion of his point of view rather than an interview. He was part of your panel. He was presented as if he were a scientific expert, but his actual work in psychology was only tangentially related to the topic he was writing on. He appeared to be making a scientific case, but it was not evident that he had used any scientific evaluation process to come to his conclusions. Finally, he was promoting people accepting his god-virus idea and joining his self-help groups which the ACA appeared to be endorsing.

    I liked the format of the show, but I think you could have overcome a lot of problems by simply sticking with the question you guys do best: "What do you believe? and Why?" I think Ray was not clear on what he believes (Is he talking science or metaphor and does he understand the difference? What are the limits to his idea of a God Virus - what are some of the problems with it? Why does he believe that there is something call a God Virus? What is his evidence and reasoning?)

    In short, what a value about your show is that you guys usually really press critical thinking. I trust what you present because I believe that you are intellectually honest. The last show left me concerned that you were willing to drop your standards just because someone was presenting a case that was supportive of an atheist position, not because he was able to meet your usually good standards of evidence and reason.

  18. Didn't we achieve a good deal of the marxist goals through collective bargaining and raising public awareness? Doesn't that shoot down the whole 'call for revolution thing'.

  19. T-Time: Once more with feeling, what part of "neither Matt nor I had read the book yet" didn't you understand? Had we done so, we might very well have been able to ask harder questions about specific points raised in it. Overall though, I didn't have any trouble understanding Darrel's summary of his thesis, and I didn't find anything fundamentally unsound with it. Given my limited knowledge of what he was going to talk about, I certainly think I did challenge him at times. He mentioned at one point that Dawkins hadn't gone into the psychology of belief like he was doing, and I promptly reminded him that Dawkins was the guy who came up with the concept of memes in the first place, a concept that Darrel was basically piggybacking on for his own book. Then I asked the value of memes as a way of understanding how religion works. This was live television, and a lot of it involves thinking on your feet and having to interview guests with little to no preparation. Next time we have a guest, why don't you try to watch live, so that if you think we're not asking questions that should be asked, you can call in and do so yourself. That's why it's a call-in show, you know.

  20. I found myself astonished about how fundamentally unsound his premise was, and furthermore that both you and Matt left him unchallenged on it the entire show.

    Had I not been a long time podcast subscriber and been listening live I most certainly would have called in.

    Darrel repeatedly throughout the interview referred to both religions and virii synonymously With phrases such as "it (the god virus)is trying to find the best way to infect you and your progeny."

    First off, no. Evolution and by extension virii are not trying to "do" anything. They are undirected. Without intent. Replication is merely a properly of life. This is not a small part of his argument. He repeatedly would say. Religion does X to better propagate. THIS IS NOT HOW EVOLUTION WORKS. I would think that Matt especially who is trained in spotting apologetics would spot this error easily as this is a common straw-man argument trotted out by those who wish portray evolution falsely.

    Secondly I don't even realize the merit of tying to "prove" a metaphor, even if it is a good one. In fact the over-simplification of targeting an emotion such as guilt as a vector leaves out the vast social constructs both communal and personal that religion has a hand in. Remember FOG? Fear, obligation AND guilt? These are also important, not just some quaint metaphor. But I digress.

    I had a longer rant planned but I found a listener (who happens to be a cytogeneticist) who had more to say and said it better than I could.

  21. "First off, no. Evolution and by extension virii are not trying to "do" anything. They are undirected. "

    Yes but we still use anthropromorphic language because it's what we know.

    For example, in my parasitology class we talk about how Lieshamaniasian (a type of parasitic blood protozoa) secretes chemical messangers to promote AMA (alternative Macrophage activation) The AMA pathway surpresses the immune system allowing Leisha to invade the phage cells where they reproduce.

    Now they don't INTENTIONALLY secrete the chemicals, they're evolved to do so, but we talk as if it's a strategy they came up with as a language short hand.

    Likewise Y. Pestis is observed to have become less lethal since the black plague. The explanation, and I quote from lecture "The bacteria killed off too many hosts too fast to reproduce well, so it dials down it's lethality allowing the host to live longer and thus spread the disease longer. Y Pestis thus became more benign to us so it could survive" Y Pestis did not form a commitie to talk it over, the less malign strains just died out while the more benign ones reproduced better. This is seemingly a common trait in many pathogens and is suspected that "domestication" of various microbes and parasites has happened countless times.

    WE use this language all the time
    Penguins lost their flight cause they didn't need it... humans lost their tail cause we stopped living in trees blah blah blah, etc.

    We talk about it form a top down method because that's how humans understand thinges. We look at the result and then ask 'why'.

    The God-viral hypothesis also states that it is more or less random selection. Various religions pop up, but those that are evangelical and repressive spread faster because of their qualities.

    For example in the early days there were a ton of christian sects...only the one we know came out on top, but there were many that had less batshit insane or humans are useless world views. One might have even praised woman and HAD sex as a sacrament like event glorifying oral sex. That one died out because it didn't have the staying power...people were free to wander away from it without guilt. Catholicism and co caught on because of the difficulty of breaking away and the zeal it causes. It's like is hard to cure and makes the host aggressive so it can spread.

    There might be criticism of it but let's not focus on the semantics of language.

  22. ...On the other hand you are right in that Memes are completely different system than genetics and probably can't be directly overlayed.

    I'd actually say memes may be more like assay variable gene transcription (ie there's multiple genes and various ones are cut and pasted into the transcription zone)...those that benefit the host remain and those that are useless are shuffled out.

  23. L wrote: "Darrel repeatedly throughout the interview referred to both religions and virii synonymously With phrases such as 'it (the god virus)is trying to find the best way to infect you and your progeny.' "

    I was thinking something similar while listening, but have a different take on it. I was wishing that someone there had pointed out that the language about what the religious virus wanted to do was a shorthand for how selection works.

    We can compare it to actual viruses - people frequently talk about how viruses "want" to invade your cells and develop genetic strategies to do so more effectively, but we all realize that a virus is a pretty simple thing and of course it has no desires. But through the magic of variation and natural selection, we can think of the process as the thing striving to be more effective.

    I would have liked for Martin or Matt to point out that they understand it's a shorthand, but a useful one.

    The way I look at it, thousands of years ago there were a huge number of religions. The ones that were better at replicating themselves have overtaken, replacing the ones that were not as good at that. And what Dr. Ray has done is to describe the mechanics of WHY the major religions we have now were the ones that propagate. It wasn't that the religion was designed that way, it has survived simply because that's what survives.

  24. I don't think there is much merit to the view that religions simply die out because they are no longer "successful" in propagating themselves. First off major religions rarely, if ever, simply "die out". The pagan religions of the Roman world never "died out", their elements were incorporated into Christianity; old rituals were taken up by Christians and given a Christian twist, pagan sacred places had churches built on them, old lesser deities along with their properties basically became identified with Christian saints (Protestantism isn't big on this, but where I come from there still is a patron saint for everything, if you look hard enough, the Virgin Mary is the patron of the Armed Forces, believe it or not, Saint Nicholas is the patron of sailors etc; the Catholics are no different) or were wholesale brought into Christian folklore.

    Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that Christianity's dominance is due to the late Roman Empire's adoption of it as an official religion and its persecution of old religion just soon afterwards. There were socio-economical reasons for this adoption. One could argue that these were the conditions that acted like "natural selection" displacing the old religions in the process. So what? The idea of a "mind virus" is simply misleading and brings nothing new to the table in terms of explanatory power in the field of history. On the contrary, the more one thinks of it, the more it sounds just like a reactionary rhetorical trick to denigrate positions one does not agree with, not much different from cries of "heresy" one would hear from the religious camp.

    It also gives the completely false impression, in the case of religion, that religious people are ill, or just stupid or mean or whatever. I know that the hosts of the AE understand very well that religion, among other things, is a banner for like minded individuals, namely right-wing reactionaries in the case of the U.S., to rally to and push their social and political agenda; I mean, look at it, a centre-right wing guy like Obama attempts a health care reform and all of a sudden he is called a godless communist! Religion offers powerful rhetoric to employ in the political sphere because it has a great outreach among the masses. What is the point of analyzing social phenomena in dodgy biological metaphors? It only serves to obfuscate the social issues one should be focusing on, because the problem of religion and religious groups is not merely an academic one.

  25. this is not a simple case of anthropomorphic language and ill tell you why. In almost every example he PERSONIFIES virii with statements such as:

    "the first thing any major religion does is breed guilt around sex and sexuality. And religion KNOWS your gonna do it."(emphasis mine.).

    I think you would have a problem if he said "Penguins wanted to lose their wings so they could swim better."

    This is not just semantics, it is the crux of his premise. Religion uses what works (guilt) in order to propagate. Virii have adapted to a given situation and the ones that did not died out. The difference is subtle but it is there. By assigning intent you remove the adaptability that is the core of evolutionary theory.

    The reason why I stress this and the reason I even bring it up is that I suspect (although without good evidence at this point) that Darrel means to imply that religions actively mutate to do this better. That is, a religion will try new things and molt into more successful forms. (certainly you could argue this historically). But this DEFINITELY not evolution or even biological by any stretch of the imagination. Evolution, by definition can only take place over successive generations. A dogma attempting a reformation does not fit this criteria. I see no reason to torture a metaphor trying to make this nonsense fit.

    Now it is frustrating that well meaning educators fall into this shorthand trap, but a trap it is. Evolution is bottom up, and we can change our wording to reflect this. The lecture you quoted could just as easily said:

    "The bacteria killed off too many hosts too fast to reproduce well, consequently over time bacteria of less lethality evolved allowing the host to live longer and thus spread the disease better. Y Pestis thus became more benign to us so it could survive"

    It is as equally wrong when "Dr" Kent Hovind get up on stage to say that "Evolution means we are all getting bigger better stronger over time", as when a psychologist gets on a TV show and says "Virii don't care about you they only care about propagating and going from host to host."

  26. Um yeah but we all understood enough to know that the bacteria had no intention. Selection just worked that way. I think the same thing implies

  27. "
    It is as equally wrong when "Dr" Kent Hovind get up on stage to say that "Evolution means we are all getting bigger better stronger over time", as when a psychologist gets on a TV show and says "Virii don't care about you they only care about propagating and going from host to host.""

    To quote big bang theory, no you are able to be a little wrong or very wrong. "Saying a tomato is a vegetable is a little wrong, saying it's a suspension bridge is very wrong"

    That's the same thing we're dealing with. You're (no offense) bitching about a language short cut and equating it to gross ignorance.

  28. Tiberius,

    Obama is "centre right?" That's news to me. I'm a Conservative (old skool) and I know my own.

    As for the "mind virus" thing, I still haven't seen the AE ep, so I must aver from commenting. It does sound rather dubious at first pass, however.

  29. Sorry if this is further topic drift Martin, but I agree with Tiberius. I'm generally sceptical whenever I hear reference to anything being 'a new religion'. Ann Coulter says Darwinism is 'a new religion', others say 'environmentalism is a new religion'.

    They'll take anyone associated with the movement, claim that everyone is 'worshipping' that person, and then make their argument around that.

    "But people really do worship Stalin!" I'm sure you'll reply. For a start, Communism isn't a synonym for Marxism. But more importantly, I wouldn't care if it turned out that a weird cult was worshiping Darwin's grave - that wouldn't make natural selection a religion. It would just mean there were some strange people out there.

    Marxism isn't a religion, it's a political or economic view.

    George from NY
    "Obama is "centre right?" That's news to me. I'm a Conservative (old skool) and I know my own."

    Hi George, are you that charismatic guy who often calls in the show? You're pretty cool. But I think whether you label someone 'centre right' depends heavily on whether you place yourself. To Europeans, Obama looks fairly central. In fact, many of his policies would be considered right-wing if transported to France, Germany, Norway etc.

    During the US election, I heard a fair few British Conservative politicians saying that in America they would be considered left-wing. Though perhaps they were just trying to identify themselves with Obama.

  30. @george from NY

    Tiberius is from greece I think. and in europe (The netherlands where I live too) the definitions of what is right and what is left is somewhat different than in the US I think. in europe he would most probably be considered someone who is just right of the centre. our political spectrum is a bit wider (for good or for bad) with socialist parties on the utter left and nationalist (and sometimes worse) on the far right. I don't know how it is in greece but the netherlands has a representative democracy, meaning each party gets seats in parliament according to how many votes they got. This means that there are not just two parties represented. This system has it's faults and advantages, but it means that all the parties represented (the more extreme ones too) are in the political limelight. which might account for a different view on what is right and left.

    as for the mind virus. I couldn't quite put my finger on where it felt wrong. L and tiberius did it for me. I'd need to read the book to give any real judgment, but if Dr. Ray gave an accurate reflection of the book in the episode, I think it's an interesting idea that needs to worked on a lot more.

  31. One suggestion I would make to the author (call it a gripe if you will, but I am posting it because I hope it will help)...

    I understand that you are trying to promote a book called "The God Virus", and you need to say the name of the book, but, please stop saying the phrase so much. Hearing every sentence begin with "the god virus is trying to" got obnoxious quickly.

    Did you get any kind of summary from the author beforehand? I'm thinking that requesting a brief synopsis of what it is the author is asserting (common themes, tell me a sentence or two of what you try to argue in each chapter), may not be a bad idea in scenarios in which the guest is trying to promote something.

  32. Rather than go with the virus thing...I think the main point that should be taken away is that religions survive not by being right or by being nice to their worshipers...but by being self promoting and hard to leave.

  33. @Ing That is true I think. However it seemed to me that Dr. Ray was taking that idea to an extreme. It would have been more plausible and even more interesting if he had tried to proof your idea with research, instead of, what to me sounded like an interesting but not very well worked out theory.

  34. @ Frits. I am more biased I think because I heard him on Infidel Guy where he made a better case. or at least not as flippent a case for it

  35. Russel and Jeff bring up what I think is the more important point of critique about the 'theory'. The insistence that people are beyond reason.

    "Don't bother to reason with them" is...kinda a short jump from more active morally heinous statements.

  36. This was one of the more fascinating shows I have seen in a while. The analogy of the god meme to a virus may be very useful in trying to unlock why people are unable to shake the belief. The virus has developed numerous methods to protect itself and survive - out competing other memes to pass on to the next generation.

    One thing that I have been struggling with for a long time is how do people get caught in the theological trap. There is a mode of thinking which seems strongly associated with god belief (just as our opposition can accuse us of the same in reverse). Even though I managed to fight my way out of that paper bag, I still cannot work out why it held me in the first place.


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