Monday, September 21, 2009

Author Darrel Ray Lectures on “God Virus”

Says Religion Propagates Itself In Ways Similar to Infectious Disease


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s not every atheist author who begins a lecture to promote his book with a bit of a fire-breathing Fundamentalist Christian sermon on the nature and ubiquity of human sin and the need to appeal to the Holy Spirit to be cleansed of it. But that’s what Darrel W. Ray did at the San Diego Public Library September 19 in an appearance sponsored by the Humanist Association of San Diego (HASD) in connection with his book The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture. He did it partly to demonstrate how utterly without logic your average sermon — especially an Evangelical one — is, but also as an ironic reflection of his own religious background.

“I was raised in Wichita, Kansas, and went to church three to five days a week — except during revivals, when it was seven days a week,” Ray recalled. “I thought that when I grew up, I’d go into the ministry. Then, when I went to college, I got bachelors’ degrees in anthropology and sociology and started to have my doubts. I got a masters’ in religion, and then I realized I couldn’t tell anyone else what to believe when I didn’t know what to believe myself.” After a lifetime of involvement in the church — including acting as a tenor soloist and music director for services — Ray ultimately became a psychotherapist specializing in using hypnosis to help his clients. He slowly started to realize that church services are carefully structured to achieve the same sort of hypnotic effect he was inducing in his patients.

Ray said he first thought of the metaphor of religion as infection when he read a 1991 essay by prominent atheist author Richard Dawkins called “Viruses of the Mind” (available at Dawkins’ piece compared biological viruses, computer viruses and what he called “mental viruses,” including but not limited to religion. What Ray believes sets his book apart from those by Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris is that he offers a step-by-step comparison between the way biological viruses infect a host’s body and use the host to replicate, and the way religious viruses do the same to the human mind. Also, he said, the other authors “don’t tell you how to interact with religious people in a way that respects them but doesn’t cave in to their beliefs.”

According to Ray, the last thing you should try to do when talking to a religious person is to use logic to pick apart the central tenets of their faith. “Logic has nothing to do with it,” he said. “You cannot win an argument with them. If you try to argue someone out of a religion, they become more staunch and dug in to their beliefs. As non-theists, we have to examine ourselves and understand how our behavior can make things worse. We also have to understand the channels of infection. If you understand how the virus works, you will understand that you can’t argue with a virus. The God-virus theory helps us understand religion in ways we never did before.”

Ray then mentioned several biological infections that actually destroy their hosts in the course of spreading themselves and ensuring their own survival. “There’s an infection called Toxoplasma gondil that infects rats’ brains and takes out the part of the brain that makes the rat afraid of cats,” he explained. “It’s still afraid of owls, dogs and its other native predators. T. gondil can live only in the guts of a cat. It’s excreted in cat feces, and rats step on it and become infected. There are hundreds of thousands of viruses that affect our behavior. When you get a cold, you sneeze a lot because the virus is irritating your mucous membranes to get you to sneeze and spread the virus. T. gondil says, ‘Go find a cat and kiss it, so I can spread.’ It doesn’t care that the rat will die. It only cares about its own survival.”

Acknowledging that some people have objected to his God-virus metaphor, pointing out that viruses are biological products of evolution while religions are human-made, Ray pointed out that infectious computer programs that use the Internet to spread from one computer to another are often called “viruses” even though they too are human-made. “God-viruses are ideas that have been put in our brain computers and want to spread to others,” Ray explained. “What matters is that viruses have a strategy for infecting. Some viruses use sexual transmission. Others use a sneeze. Humans have something similar that enters through the ears at an early age, germinates in the mind and comes out through the mouth to spread religion.”

And, Ray added, just as biological viruses make their hosts sick and sometimes kill them, God viruses make their hosts’ minds weaker and can kill them. “Religion has consequences on intelligence and personality,” Ray said. “Seventy years of research have shown a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence. Religion suppresses curiosity, which is one of the key components of intelligence. Those infected with religion tend to avoid or deny scientific or natural explanations in favor of supernatural ones. They even deny the scientific explanations for their own behavior.”

Ray explained that just as biological viruses have two strategies for spreading themselves — horizontal (moving from one host to another) and vertical (passed down from parent to child), “religions have similar strategies. The younger a religion, the more emphasis it places on horizontal strategies. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists go out and recruit. The Catholics have a vertical strategy: have as many kids as possible, and infect them all.” He noted that some religions don’t allow converts — horizontal recruits — at all. “The Amish make it very hard to convert, and the Druze in Syria closed their religion in the 1200’s,” he said.

Another similarity Ray noted between religion and infection is when you’re most vulnerable to being infected. Biological viruses, he argued, frequently infect children because their immune systems haven’t fully formed and given them the power to resist. Religious viruses do the same thing, he said. “You get religion when you’re young, when you have no rational immune system and can’t resist the things they’re going to tell you in Sunday school.” One difference Ray noted is that children frequently encounter a wide variety of biological infections — indeed, that’s usually a good thing, because the more germs they are exposed to, the more information they will give their budding immune systems so they can fight back as adults — while they’re usually exposed to just one religion. “Therein lies a hint on how to prevent children from being infected with the God viruses,” Ray said; “take them to a lot of churches, and let them hear the nonsense they all preach.”

As for adults, Ray argued, they’re most vulnerable to biological infections when they’re under stress — and the same is true for religion. “Of all the adults I know who ‘got religion,’ 80 to 90 percent of them got it when they were going through a major period of stress or a mid-life crisis,” he said. He added that, except in closed-in settings like prisons — where inmates are frequently exposed to fellow convicts with strong commitments to fundamentalist Christianity or Islam — late-in-life converts tend to adopt the religious beliefs with which they were raised as children. The one new factor that might change that, Ray added, is the Internet, “which exposes people to many new beliefs — but can also expose them to the craziness behind them.”

The most powerful parts of Ray’s presentation were his discussions of the ways religions literally hypnotize their followers into believing and obeying. “Almost every religion uses trance induction,” he pointed out. “They use stress and guilt. Guilt is a prime infector. Another reason people go to church is to meet their social needs; church offers them a community, but to stay in the community they have to believe. Sex is a great motivator; I think religion is a sexually transmitted diseases. Inspirational music is a key factor, and last but not least is childhood intimidation. When you put all these things together, what do you get?” At that point, on the computer slide show he was using to accompany his presentation, he flashed a photo of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin — to the cheers of some audience members and the groans of others who called it a cheap shot.

Ray said that the use of trance induction and other forms of hypnotic suggestion by religion is the equivalent of the biological “key” by which a virus infects a host cell and reprograms that cell to replicate viruses instead of cells. “If I hypnotize you, you will then start acting on my commands,” he explained. “The hypnotic techniques used by preachers include the up-and-down curve of the voice and lots of silences that make people open to the suggestions they give them today.” He said the group prayers ministers frequently incorporate into sermons — “long, rhythmic prayers, almost interminable” — are a key infection technique, especially when they incorporated a repeated word that acts like the “trigger word” a hypnotist implants in the unconscious of his subject so he’ll still be vulnerable to the hypnotist’s commands even after the trance ends. Ray demonstrated with a sample prayer that repeated the word “just” and said he’d heard a prayer that used “just” 20 times as a trance induction technique.

“There are also trigger things, like incense in the Catholic church, which is paired with the hypnosis,” Ray added. “There are musical techniques. A rock band giving a concert does everything it can to program the emotional experience, so you have a great time and tell your friends about the emotional ‘high’ you got. Churches use music the same way. The music is put in very special places in the church service.” On page 150 of The God Virus, Ray lists the nine cues in one Fundamentalist service he attended, and designates the role of each one in inducing the trance: quiet entry music as you walk in (sense of peace); song about hope and triumph (sense of hope); song about sin (sense of guilt and unworthiness); song about salvation (guilt, ending with hope); rousing salvation song from the full choir (hope); sermon on marriage and relationships (guilt and self-doubt); song about commitment before the collection plates are passed (resolve to give money); and rousing song of joy and forgiveness to end the service (joy, hope and a good feeling to get you to come back next week).

To illustrate his point. Ray then showed a two-minute excerpt from a sermon by mega-church pastor John Piper from his Web site, (a site name which itself made Ray’s point about how religion both makes people feel guilty about their sexual desires and offers them a way to sublimate and resolve that guilt) and quoted Bertrand Russell as saying, “So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence.” He asked his audience to watch Piper’s gestures and listen for the repeated words that would indicate the hypnotic “triggers” he was feeding his congregation. “There’s no eye contact with the audience,” he said of Piper after showing the tape. “The man himself is in a trance most of the time, and he’s putting other people in the trance. After reciting Scripture he’ll often give a long silence because it draws you in. He’s talking to God, and telling the peons, ‘Listen to me, I’m in direct touch with God.’”

After noting the anti-reason, anti-thought, anti-human character of Piper’s message — particularly his call to his congregants to make themselves “empty vessels” and allow God to fill them up again — Ray said, “A church, a mosque, a temple is an infection center where all channels are brought to bear on the people in the room. Everything in the service — and in the building itself — is designed to infect you. The sermons have double messages. It’s an emotional roller coaster, up and down, to make you feel worthless so you give money to the church and get other people to come.” He noted that the repeated instructions in the Roman Catholic service to change positions — the calls to stand, sit or kneel on cue — are themselves a technique of hypnotic induction.

Ray also said that the reason churches go out of their way to protect their ministers — whether it’s the Roman Catholic hierarchy covering up for pedophile priests or Ted Haggard’s mega-church allowing him to come back after “five Fundamentalist ministers prayed over him for six weeks and ‘cured’ him of homosexuality” — is that they are especially talented hypnotists and it takes a lot of time and money to train people good enough to replace them.

He quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s September 2007 statement that “Europe has become child-poor” and that this would lead to the breakdown of all morality in Europe as an example of the institutionalized hypocrisy he finds in religion. “What the Pope is really saying,” Ray explained, “is, ‘Make more Catholic children. We’re falling behind.’ Would the Pope be happy if more Muslim, Lutheran, Presbyterian or atheist children were born? Probably not. The ministers are really saying different things than what their words literally mean. ‘You need to get more of the Holy Spirit!’ means stop questioning.”

Acknowledging that a certain level of guilt is essential to a healthy personality — “If we didn’t have guilt, we’d all be psychopaths or mass murderers” — Ray nonetheless critiqued the church’s heavy reliance on guilt in general and sexual guilt in particular. “Religion likes to take advantage of our natural tendency towards guilt,” he explained. “It teaches us new things to be guilty of — things that are natural and normal — and then it offers us ‘salvation’ from the guilt it’s taught us. Religion gives us the disease and then offers us the ‘cure.’”

What’s worse is that, since the things religion teaches you to feel guilty about are normal, natural human behaviors, you’re likely to keep doing them even though the church officially tells you not to. Ray gave a humorous example from his own life, recalling that when he and his wife (now his ex-wife) were first dating, they would get together and pray to God to keep them chaste until they were married — and then they’d take their clothes off and “screw like bunny rabbits.” They did this again and again, week after week — and kept going to church afterwards to ask for “forgiveness” for their “sins.”

“Most God viruses are consumed with sex,” Ray argued. “’Just say no,’ abstinence, anti-abortion. The reason is sex is an incredibly effective way to infect people. If you can keep them feeling guilty about sex, you can infect them. If you open up to sex, you feel guilty. Most religions use masturbation as an early guilt pathway. Every primate, and almost every animal, masturbates. Albert Ellis said, ’97 percent of all men admit to masturbation, and the other 3 percent are lying.’ The virus creates a huge cognitive dissonance in the four of guilt. You have to learn the prohibitions.”

Ray said that each time the “sinner” comes back to church and asks for “forgiveness” for the same thing, the church ups the ante. “You have to do more — pray more, read the Bible more, say more Hail Marys,” he said. “Forgiveness does not generally change behavior, but it does make one more dependent on the imaginary God. It’s a good thing for a religion to get people to do the ‘bad’ things, so you feel guilty and come back to church. It’s a great cycle that says, ‘You’re never good enough. You’ve got to have Jesus.’ They even went so far as to invent ‘original sin’ — to say that you’re an ‘offense in the sight of God’ just because you exist.”

At this point Ray sang the song “Amazing Grace” a cappella in a strong, clear tenor voice that made his claim of once having been a church soloist totally believable. His point was to compare the soaring eloquence of the melody with the abject misery of the lyrics — “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me/I once was lost, but now I’m found/Was blind, but now I see.” The message of the song, he argued, is the same as the message of John Piper’s sermon: you are nothing, God is everything, you have to “empty yourself” and allow God to refill you — which in practice means believing everything the minister says and doing everything he tells you to do, or rather not doing everything he tells you not to do.

“The God virus will teach you that some things are bad to keep you feeling guilty,” Ray explained. “Almost all major God viruses are sex-negative. In Hawai’i the first thing the missionaries did to the natives was teach them to feel guilty about sex. Just as yeast bacteria change the pH balance in your body so it will be more friendly and allow them to grow and expand, so the God virus wants to create a negative pH towards sex so your brain will be more friendly to its growth and spread. Can you imagine the Pope waking up and saying, ‘We were wrong. Masturbation is O.K.’ That’s not going to happen. Sex-positive messages are impossible to maintain within the major religions, especially Christianity and Islam.”

Knowing all this, Ray said, will make it easier for you to handle conversations with religious people. “First, remember that they are infected — not you,” he explained. “”You can’t argue with the virus. Logic is not the answer. If you argue, you get them more defensive. You have to take into consideration that the God virus is affecting their behavior. You have to take a different tack. Recognize religious defensiveness.” He suggested that you first get them to talk about issues that don’t involve religion — their families, friends, jobs, hobbies — and then ask about their beliefs and watch as their body postures and vocal tones change. “That’s the God virus taking over, just like the demon took over the little girl in The Exorcist,” he said.

“Focus on the emotion, not the virus,” Ray advised. “When someone says, ‘God is helping me through the illness of my child,’ respond with, ‘I understand that you’re very concerned about your child.’ Recognize that they’re infected, and that arguing with them and condemning tem is as stupid as them arguing with and condemning you. If you take one thing away from today’s meeting, it should be this: Defensive people cannot learn because defensive people cannot listen. Your job as a freethinker is to influence people, not to change them. Look under the hood of religion and analyze it as a behavioral mechanism. Observe religion and understand what is going on with that person. I’m not interested in converting people to what I am — I just want them to keep their stuff out of my schools.”

Ray’s talk didn’t discuss a topic that frequently comes up in arguments between believers and freethinkers: the things religious people have done in the world, both for good and for ill, and their net effect on the welfare of humanity. He did address this on page 230 of his book, where he wrote, “Those who claim that religion has brought about great change [for good] often point to people like Martin Luther King, Jr. I would suggest that Dr. King was a pragmatist who used religion as his method of communication. His ethics were more informed by Mohandas Gandhi (a Hindu in India) than by Jesus. His reading of the Bible was extremely selective and in strong opposition to many other Christian experts. White supremacists have many more scriptures to quote than Dr. King. His genius was his ability to play the virus against itself. Through speeches and actions, he illuminated how religion maintained oppression. His followers were from many different churches, and a surprising number were non-religious or atheist.”

Finally, Ray ended his talk with a plug for a movement he’s building called “Recovery from Religion.” He asked his audience how many had grown up in believing families and had been exposed to the God virus from birth; about half of them raised their hands. He then discussed the problems many former believers face when they become atheists or agnostics, including being ostracized from their families and losing their entire support networks. (Ironically, he’d noted earlier in his talk that nonbelievers who “get religion” as adults frequently do the same things voluntarily, breaking up their existing friendships and sometimes their marriages as well.) This movement can be reached on the Web at or, and Ray’s own Web site is