The Mind Parasites

Religion is a mind parasite.

Yes, your religion too.

Like other parasites, this one is subject to the normal processes of evolution. We tend to think of evolution strictly in terms of DNA, but DNA is not required. All that’s required is that a phenomenon exist within an environment that’s suitable for its survival, and that it be able to create copies of itself. The copies will always be imperfect, so the succeeding generations will compete with one another for survival in the environment. Those that are better equipped to thrive in that environment will spread. Those that are less well equipped will tend to die out.

In the case of religion, the environment is the human brain and the surrounding culture that human brains generate when they encounter one another.

Religion is a parasite because it ultimately does not care about the survival of its host. The survival of its host may serve the purposes of the religion, or it may not. The religion only cares about its own survival and the survival of its near relatives — its progeny and cousins that occupy the brains of other humans. If a given behavior in the host (a human) increases the religion’s chances of survival, religions that are better able to produce that behavior will flourish, even if the behavior is not healthy for the human. Religions that fail to guide their hosts toward behavior that helps the religion to survive will tend to die out.

It’s all very simple.

The chances of a religion’s survival are enhanced when it is well tailored to fit within the host environment — that is, the human brain, which has undergone its own evolution. Religious beliefs that are too confusing, for instance, won’t survive well. Religions that are too wishy-washy will be too easily cast aside (or altered, or forgotten) by the human host. A religion that is well equipped to insure its own survival will guide the behavior of it human hosts in somewhat rigid ways.

Religions that are too toxic to their hosts — for instance, Jim Jones’s People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians of David Koresh — will die out, and quickly. Conversely, religions that, on average, engineer prosperity and happiness for their hosts, such as the religions of the Latter Day Saints, will tend to flourish.

None of this has anything to do with the fact value of the religious beliefs. There is vanishingly little factual basis for any religion. But it does matter that the ridiculous propositions of a religion be believable. Believability is somewhat different from factualness. If the human brain had different standards for believability, religions would look different.

Religions quite often encourage believers (their hosts) to kill those who have been infected by other religions. That’s why religious wars are so common in human history. The religion that starts the war does not care about the survival of an individual host: It only cares that its rivals (other parasitic religions) be wiped out. Religious wars are always about one religion, a parasite, trying to spread through the environment (the community of host brains) at the expense of its rivals.

Religions mutate, and the mutations that are better equipped to survive in the host environment displace those that are worse equipped. That’s why monotheism is so popular: It’s a better fit than polytheism. Monotheism encourages its host brains to engage in activities (such as missionary work) that enhance the religion’s prospects for spreading. New ideas that improve a religion’s chances of survival spread. Ideas that are weaker are trimmed off or forgotten.

One of the most important ideas in religion is, “This religion is not to be questioned!” A religion that encourages individual questioning of its tenets, such as perhaps Unitarianism (what’s left of it) is very weak. It can’t survive.

Religions hijack humans’ desire for community using the idea of ostracism. Being cast out of your community may have only an emotional impact, or it may threaten your very survival. So a religion that uses ostracism to control its hosts’ behavior (as Mormonism and Orthodox Judaism do) will tend to survive better than a religion that practices tolerance of diverse beliefs within the community.

A secular society, such as what was attempted (in a limited form) in the United States toward the end of the 18th century, is an existential threat to the survival of any religion. No religion can readily tolerate secularism, because a successful secular society weakens the control of the religious parasite. That’s why Muslims in Europe kill cartoonists who mock them. The religious parasite forces the believer to commit murder.

What is unfolding in the United States today is a concerted attempt on the part of a specific religion to rid itself of the very real danger of secular society. That is, the danger to itself. Secular society poses no danger at all to the humans who are in it, or at least it poses significantly less danger to the individual than a virulent outbreak of religion.

Those who have been mocking the recent Supreme Court decision about public prayer have been misguided in their mockery. They’ll tell you, “Boy, imagine how freaked out the Christians will be when they see that this decision allows Muslim teachers to conduct Muslim prayers in the classroom!” But that’s not going to happen, for two reasons. First, Muslim teachers are mostly smart enough to know that it would be dangerous to their personal well-being for them to do that. Second, do you honestly think the Christians are going to be satisfied with simply allowing public prayer? My goodness, why would you think that? Their next step will be to create a legal framework in which this decision applies only to Christian prayer.

Count on it.

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