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Dawkins Viruses of the Mind

In: Philosophy and Psychology

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Dawkins is widely known for his beliefs that religion is a dangerous virus of the mind. Readers, who are unfamiliar with the essay „Virus of the Mind‟, like myself, feel that the notion being put forward appears sarcastic and somewhat harsh.
Initially when I read the essay I had already decided in my mind that I would not agree to Dawkins‟ beliefs as the idea that religion is a virus sounds bizarre. People have the tendency to think negatively when the word virus is brought up. Whilst I agree with Dawkins‟ statement that religion is a „Virus of the Mind‟ and it spreads the same way that viruses do, I believe he is also trying to spread atheism in the same way. Thus, Dawkins is being a hypocrite to his cause.
Richard Dawkins starts of with the idea that „a human child is shaped by evolution to soak up the culture of her people‟ (Warburton, 2010, pp. 92). According to Dawkins, young children are highly gullible and will believe almost everything that is being told to them. He gives examples of how children worldwide are taught to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, which are non-existent. As and when the child grows up they realise these characters are actually not true. Children are more likely to survive if they learn and believe what is taught to them by their parents, but a potential problem that arises is that children are very willing to believe something that is not true. Therefore, just as a patient is susceptible to a virus infection, a child can also be vulnerable to a virus of the mind.
Important questions arise when talking about young children and their vulnerability to believe what is taught to them. For example, how much of what we believe about the world today is the result of what we have been taught when we were younger by our parents‟ influences? A young child is vulnerable to believing everything, but when they grow up and become independent they have the ability to make decisions and follow life‟s paths based on their own personal knowledge and experiences of life.
It would be interesting to find out how Dawkin‟s would criticise those parents who are atheist and so have brought up their children with the belief that there is no
God. I also wonder how Dawkins‟ would react to those children who have been brought up with the belief that there is no God, but whom later begins to believe in
God through their own independence.
Richard Dawkins uses a metaphor that religion is like a virus to emphasise his theories and ideas. Like viruses, Dawkins believes that religion is able to easily spread and throughout his essay he emphasises that like viruses, religion causes only harm to those that have been infected. Dawkins sees that people become more susceptible to faults in their thinking and he blames this on their religious views, and this can be spread easily when a person who has been infected presents their ideas to other individuals. Dawkins then goes into detail with comparing the viral effect of religions on individuals to a dangerous computer virus. When a computer has become infected with a virus, it is not always obvious; likewise, Dawkins explains that people do not realise that the religious virus has affected them. As there are many different types of viruses a computer is prone to, humans are also exposed to many different types of religions, but nevertheless, once you have been infected you have been infected. Like viruses, religious beliefs are able to survive as long as they are passed on from one person to another, but could also be forgotten if this chain is broken.
An important question that arises is „how good is the analogy of religion being like a virus?‟ Several important concerns about the reliability of the claim Dawkins makes that religion is a virus surfaces. The title itself, „Viruses of the Mind‟, has an almost completely negative association and this is because of the fact when the word
virus is being used, it is almost always seen in a negative aspect. Dawkins mainly uses analogies, such as religion spreads amongst people the same way a virus would on a computer, to back up his concepts and so there is very little empirical evidence to prove his theories are correct. Moreover, Dawkins states that this analogy is „not that precise anyways‟ (Warburton, 2010, pp. 95). Dawkins shows that he is against religion and faith because they do not follow certain virtues such as quantifiability, universality, consistency and precision (Warburton, 2010, pp. 101), but it is important to bear in mind that Dawkins‟ analogies which are used to argue that religion is like a virus also lacks the same kind of values that he himself has described. Therefore, we are left questioning whether Dawkins‟ ideologies have any value to them.
An important argument to put forward is the example of memes that Dawkins uses as his central argument in the essay. A meme is literally “an illness of thinking that arises from a set of connected ideas that are easily and effectively passed along from generation to generation” (Pagel, 2007). The idea of memes was originally introduced by Dawkins in his book „The Selfish Gene” where he explains how a meme is parallel to a gene in humans in order to describe the development of cultural occurrences (Chesterman, 1997). Unlike genes, memes do not have any empirical evidence for their existence and are thus simply a theoretical framework as they are imprecise and they cannot be tested. There is also no way from a scientific point of view to observe memes as it is difficult to follow the movement of a meme from one person to another, and so we are left to question if we can really believe this idea as again there is a lack of solid proof.
Even though we tend to view a virus as a negative conception it is important to note that there are some viruses that are positive to humans. There are some viruses that prey on bacteria, and so although they are negative on bacteria, they do in fact help humans to get rid of the bacteria and so are seen as being positive. In the same sense, that bacteria which can be compared to unpleasant things, can be gotten rid of by certain viruses, religion can help provide a moral compass by directing a person onto the right path for them.
In another example, gene therapy uses viruses to modify DNA and fix inferior genes. The virus is used as the carrier to introduce a good gene to replace a bad gene.
With the end goal of preventing serious illnesses later on in life, gene therapy attempts to fix the genetic code before any problems arise. In this case, viruses can also be used to introduce a fix to a bad system and make it work again, just the same way religion can be used to introduce a good idea to an individual or to a society. For instance, when the Pope says it is important to be charitable, he is using Catholicism
(the virus according to Dawkins) as a vehicle to introduce the idea of charity, which is notably seen as a good deed, into society.
Faith is an important argument brought forward by Dawkins. Dawkins brings up how people with different religions are inclined to compete with one another to convince all that their religion is the best and that they should take this religion on as their own. A computer virus, for example, is set out to infect the computer system, and depending on the severity of the virus it could also completely wipe out the hard drive, which is the brain of a computer. In the same sense, Dawkins compares this to a person trying to „infect‟ their religious views onto others.
An example brought forward by Dawkins is that of Rev. Jim Jones, founder and leader of the Peoples Temple. Jones used the technique of brainwashing as a means of „infecting‟ his followers with his own beliefs, and so he was able to make his followers trust things without having any solid evidence or proof that it was true.
As mentioned above, like a virus erasing the hard drive of a computer, Jones was able
to „erase‟ people from the world by convincing them to commit suicide. And so,
Dawkins is concerned that not only is faith irrational, it also encourages irrationality by believing and opening ourselves to the negative aspect of religion.
I would pose the question that what is the difference between faith, which is seen by Dawkins as belief in something without any evidence, and Dawkins‟ own personal beliefs that religion spreads like a virus, in which there is also no evidence to show this theory is accurate. Again, it is evident that Dawkins argument contradicts himself, as there is nothing at all to prove that his theory is precise.
To conclude, I agree with the comparison made by Dawkins of religion being a virus, but this metaphor can be extended onto other topics beyond religion, such as in media and with the various trends youngsters would follow on a day-to-day basis.
When seeing this metaphor being used beyond religion, it sheds light on how relevant this concept is to our daily lives, which makes it easier to understand Dawkins‟ argument that religion can pass on from people in different generations like a virus.
Dawkins‟ arguments on the gullibility of a child, the „virus‟ religion, and about faith are simply theories leading to how religion is spread. There is no truth or accuracy in these rationalizations. It also is a double-edged sword in that it can be equally applicable to the spread of atheism.
On one hand, Dawkins‟ piece contains a lot of important information that has influenced the cultural awareness of Western Society today, but at the same time the language he uses throughout the essay is overloaded with information and he is also seen to be biased in many aspects. Many of his arguments have been demonstrated using strategies he is so enthusiastically against. His beliefs are highly based on an assumption that cannot be strongly backed up; therefore, I feel his position to argue these points are weakened.
 Chesterman, A. 1997. Memes of translation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
 Pagel, M. 2007. Dangerous Virus | Rationalist Association. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 7 Oct
 Warburton, N. 2010. Philosophy: Basic Readings. 2nd ed. Great Britain:
Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.

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