The Mind Virus

Ideas behaving in society like viruses in the body

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"The voice which I heard out of the sky, I heard it again speaking to me, saying: Go, take the open book-roll in the hand of the angel who stands upon the sea and the land. I went toward the angel, bidding him to give me the book. And he said to me: Take it and eat it, and it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth, it will be sweet as honey. And I took the book from the hand of the angel and ate it, and in my mouth it was like sweet honey; and when I had eaten it, my stomach was bitter"
--Revelation 10:9-10 Richmond Lattimore Translation

The epigraph above, taken from the Richmond Lattimore translation of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, is an excellent analogy to the effects that a major meme complex can have on the soul.

What is a meme? A meme is an idea that behaves in society like a virus does in a body. They're all around us. Political or sexual jokes, for example, can behave like memes, they start with one person, are retold time and again, and end up travelling around the world, as they're told and retold, and in so doing, they behave like viruses. They infect (the joke is told to the 'host'), they reproduce (are retold by the 'host' where they 'infect' new 'hosts,' etc.), they mutate (are told in variations that arise in the retelling), and they can even have vectors (books and magazines, for example).

Like viruses, memes can be benign like many physical viruses, or they can be pathological, producing illness, just as do many physical viruses. Like physical viruses, they can be only modestly infective, or they can be highly virulent. They can control behavior, just as physical viruses can, and they can even direct physical evolution, as explained by the recent article on them in Scientific American (see The Power of Memes, by Susan Blackmore in the October 2000 issue, page 64). The whole range of behaviors that are seen in physical viruses can be seen to have analogies in memes.

This essay is the story of the most successful meme complex of all time, how it infects, why it is virulent, and the effects it has had on culture and society.

We'll start by saying that the meme we are going to study is actually a complex of memes, hundreds of them, which have been packaged together and infect their hosts together. Some of the memes in this complex even prepare the host for the entry and infection of other memes in the complex, being extinquished themselves in the process. The intricacy of the meme complex in our example is truly remarkable in its evolutionary success, its extreme virulence and infectivity, and the wide range of behaviors it controls.

The reason this meme complex has been so successful is that it has evolved a remarkably precise insight into human nature. The meme complex has mutated and evolved through the centuries, creating a meme complex that is highly effective, because it "pushes all the right buttons" and is successful at reproducing and spreading because it very artfully and skillfully alters behavior.

This meme complex is one in a major category of memes, studied by the science of memetics, and that category is religion. The specific meme complex we are going to study is that of Christianity, and its principal vector, the Bible, specifically the New Testament.

The origins of the bible is discussed extensively elsewhere at this site, and won't be discussed here. What this essay is intended to explain is why the New Testament says what it does, how it was designed, both initially and through evolutionary change, to be an infective meme complex, and to explain the subterfuge that was included to defend the meme complex from external "immune" attack.

The Bible, as we all know, consists of two main parts, the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is primarily a collection of laws and myths for Hebraic Judaism, having been passed down as part of an effort to maintain Judaism as a distinct religion and culture. The New Testament, however, was designed from the outset to establish a new branch of Judaism known as Christianity. Why the new branch? Many scholars who have studied this question have said that it was because of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple at the end of the Jewish revolt of 67-70 C.E., and the attempts to quash Judaism that were the result of the rebellion. These scholars maintain that Christianity was really an attempt to re-order Judaism both as a culture and a religion to make it easier to accept, make it propagate itself into non-Jewish populations, and defend it against the assault of Roman suppression. The Jewish intelligentsia that crafted this new strain of the Jewish meme complex, led by Peter and Paul, were successful beyond their wildest dreams. What they created was a meme complex that has evolved not to preserve Judaism in the form they were seeking to preserve it, but it has evolved to be a meme complex that survived for two thousand years and has spread to one person in three on the entire earth, more people than were even alive than when the original meme complex was crafted.

What accounts for the wild success of this meme complex?

As stated before, the original crafters of this meme complex started with a few insightful understandings of human nature. With these insightful understandings, the crafters then set about quite deliberately to create a mind virus that would infect others with their ideas about what Judaism in the post-temple era should be, how the believers should behave in order to best spread the infection, and using a few techniques to maintain an immunity from ideas that would threaten the infection. While the original meme was only modestly successful, it was sufficiently successful to survive and it evolved slowly but brilliantly, eventually acquiring new insights and new control and immunity mechanisms, eventually becoming one of the most successful meme complexes in all of human history.

Let us begin by examining the dichotomous problems of human nature which the meme complex has evolved exploit.

What is significant here is that these insights into the problems of the nature of man are, in each case, answered by interpretations that have come to be carefully designed to be instruments of mind control. While the authors of the New Testament were somewhat prescient in their understanding of the problems of human nature, their prescription was not intended to become a didactically correct model of how human behavior should be ordered. Rather, as can be seen, their prescriptions have, over the centuries, become to be designed with careful specificity to control the behavior and thinking of their believers, with no concern as to the effect on the believer.

These prescriptions became the basis of Christian doctrine. They form a framework around which the rest of the meme complex is built. In our virus analogy, these interpretations on the insights described above are analogous to the DNA, the genes, that prescribe how the doctrines are to be controlled, so as to become and remain maximally virulent.

Hiding the Pathology: Weak Mind Games but Strong Synergy

The manner in which this meme complex is able to infect its host is through mind games. These mind games are subtly designed to influence thinking and behavior. The nature of the meme complex would be obvious to the host if the mind games were themselves overt and obvious, but they're not by design. They're deliberately made to be individually weak so that they're subtle and not easily visible to the host. The crafters of the New Testament meme complex couldn't take the chance that many believers would detect the mind games; rather than allowing their game to be exposed, the mind games of the New Testament had to be subtle and therefore weak, but rely for their effectiveness on synergy.

Yet they're powerful. They're as effective as if they were overt, because each mind game is carefully designed to work together with other weak, subtle mind games to synergize into a powerful, influential and self-reinforcing whole.

Synergy, then, is the key to understanding the mind games of the New Testament. So what are the mind games that are working together to subvert the minds of the potential believer? And what are the indicators for each of these mind games? The indicators are sometimes, but not always obvious. Often, they can only be understood in the context of their synergy with other mind games. This is why they are not well studied. I present them here in the order of their importance and obviousness.

Expressing the Genes: Infectivity Through Synergized Mind Games

The first mind game is the spontaneously generated fantasies that accompany indoctrination. These fantasies are the result of presenting a bright, attractive persona of the Bible and of the experience of Christianity and the experience of conversion to it. This is absolutely crucial to recruitment, but by itself it is shallow and meaningless. Similar to the hallucinations of dreaming, the believer-in-prospect is encouraged to come to the "truth" through the "holy spirit." The experiences that are encouraged causes the 'warm and fuzzy' feelings of the prospect to be translated into a pseudopsychology that he is having a genuine interaction with the "holy spirit." Working in synergy with other mind games, the prospect is convinced. By getting in touch with the remotest areas of one's mind through poignant, sublime experience, the prospect comes to believe that he has had a genuine religious experience. The reality of the experience, is, however, a purely physical phenomenon that is the result of stimulation of the temporal lobes of the brain, which can be duplicated at will in the laboratory. This temporal lobe stimulation and the experiences it elicits is currently the subject of much study at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

The success of any religious system is in inverse proportion to the sincerity of the founding prophet. --Edmund Cohen, "Mind of the Bible Believer"

By presenting a bright and attractive persona, the New Testament becomes attractive to the prospect who is then encouraged to go on and have the religious "experience." Liberal denominations and evangelists often go no further than this, but because it is largely a facade for the more serious and effective (and less pleasant) mind control techniques, and is intended largely just to get people in the door, the conversion based solely on this attractive persona usually doesn't last long. That's why liberal denominations of Christianity that don't go on to more serious mind control techniques and mind games seldom prosper and gain large numbers of dedicated adherents. By being liberal and recognizing and excluding the other mind games, this mind game loses the power of its synergy with the others, and the conversion is usually eventually abandoned.

The second mind game is to not allow understandings of experience to be modified by subsequent learning and experience. This is the primary defense against a reinterpretation of the conversion experience as not being spiritual after all. Once one has the fantastic religious experience, this mind game keeps that one going, and prevents it from being overturned by subsequent learning. This is a mind game that we all play, and it is an important part of learning. But it is one that is hijacked by the meme complex of Christianity to reinforce the fantastic conversion experience and not allow it to be reexamined.

The way this mind game is played is by discrediting "the world." We have all seen evangelicals who have been so caught up in the experience that they literally ignore contrary evidence. Of course this is encouraged, and specific instructions are given throughout the New Testament for dealing with contrary evidence presented by unbelievers.

This mind game, of course, short-circuits the intellectual life-cycle of learning that is an important part of mental health. The mind which is excluded from subsequent learning modification cannot, in the long run, maintain mental health, and as a consequence, this mind game loses its power if not for the synergy of its interaction with other mind games. The meme complex deals with this by allowing subsequent learning modification with only approved doctrines and dogma.

The third mind game is verbicide It is, quite literally, distorting, even destroying the meaning of words so that they have a different meaning to the believer than the non-believer. By giving the believer an understanding of the meaning of words that the authors intend, rather than the generally understood meanings, the general impression of a religious experience (the first mind game) is reinforced. The believer is led to understand the a "hidden meaning" has been "revealed" by the "holy spirit." The New Testament is riddled with such double meanings. When one understands the hidden meanings, the phrase often has a meaning radically different than the one understood by a causual reader. Examples of words with hidden meanings:
Word Casual Meaning Meaning to Believer
Life a state of non-death; being aware being in a state of spiritual sensitivity arising out of the state of belief; being saved; being in a state of salvation (depending on context)
death a state of not being alive; the endpoint of living Not being spiritually sensitive; not being saved; not being in a state of salvation (depending on context)
truth That which is real, verifiable, reality apart from human understanding That which is revealed by the Holy Spirit
wisdom Understandings that are shown to be correct the doctrines of the "Gospel" as revealed by the "holy spirit"
The other key words are "righteousness" (meaning being converted and living according to the doctrines), "justice" (punishment dealt out to the unconverted), "liberty" (the feeling of freedom from the effects of sin felt by the believer), "bondage" (being controlled by "Satan"), "love" (a feeling of connection with God), "hate" (not being tolerant of unbelief), "will" (the understanding that you no longer wish to do anything contrary to the will of God), "witness" (being an agent for the teaching and spread of belief), and "word" (the collection of doctrines known as the Gospel). There are other words as well, but the above are the more significant words.

When one fully understands the meanings of these words as used in code to the believer, one can then go back and read the words of the New Testament and understand the intended code meaning.

As one does so, it becomes apparent how the verbiage means one thing to the casual reader and something quite different to the true believer. But what really stands out, when you examine it dispassionately, is how the new, hidden meaning is calculated to influence behavior.

The verbicide mind game is unrelenting in how it is designed to hook the believer into thinking he has a "special" understanding. The principal synergy of this mind game is with the first mind game to reinforce the warm and fuzzy feeling that the believer has, through divine "grace," been given access to something special and deeply meaningful, not available to the "unsaved."

The fourth mind game is an assault on ethical and moral integrity. By ethical and moral integrity, we mean that ability as well as propensity to understand the situations and dilemmas of others and act accordingly with compassion, understanding and concern, as well as in harmony with one's understanding of reality and one's self-knowledge as well.

It sounds strange to hear such a claim made with regards to a people who, when casually seen from the outside, would appear to be full of love and concern, and posessed of a powerful ethical system.

The reality, however, is that the believer often is encouraged to hate certain groups of people (usually a "morally suspect" group, such as abortion doctors, feminists, homosexuals, secular humanists, etc.) who represent some sort of threat, perceived or real, to the spread of the meme complex or the cohesiveness of the believers. The hatred is seldom expressed openly, except in the most conservative and extreme evangelicals, and a facade of loving tolerance is presented to non-believers to make them believe that the believer has achieved a state of accepting, loving tolerance to non-believers who may be a threat. Instead, a code-word system (a synergy with the verbicide mind game) is used. For example, "family values" is a code-word for homophobia, "loving the sinner but hating the sin" is a code word for the license to hate homosexuality and, by extension, homosexuals.

The facade of sweet, loving calmness, is itself a lie. Inwardly, the believer is usually (though not always) full of raging doubts and concerns, frightened that he's instructed to hate and yet show love and tolerance, and is struggling to maintain the synergy of the first two mind games, i.e., the denial of the contrary evidence he sees all around him, and the warmness of the conversion experience. On top of this, he is struggling to maintain the fiction that all is calm and self-assurance. Hence the compromise of integrity. It's quite an acting job, to the outside world but even more to himself. Yet the "still waters" that this state is called, is considered essential. And it is - it's essential to hide the inner conflicts from being visible to believer where it might cause doubts to surface, and to the non-believer who is himself a prospective convert.

The rare believers who do not harbor doubts and concerns, and are not troubled by the inconsistencies, have done so by highly developing their dissociation skills - i.e., have compartmentalized their thinking to the extent that obvious contradictions do not cause cognitive dissonance.

There are many other examples to which I could refer as well, such as the rejection of scientific facts one knows to be true, the denial of the conflicts of fact and doctrine that exist throughout the believer's belief system as they relate to his understanding of the world around him.

The fifth mind game is the induction of dissociation. It is the dissociation of the ideas in the mind of the believer from the reality he sees all around him. It is really the essence of the synergy of all the mind games working together.

This is where psychology as we understand it begins to get involved in our discussion. Here is where subtle, psychological effects, resulting from the synergies of all the mind games working together, begin to create real psychological changes in the believer. It is right at the core of the believer's experience. Dissociation of his personality with the realities around him is what enables the believer to maintain the fictions of his doctrines as being reality in his mind.

The drive for dissociation is vitally important. It is a difficult state to achieve and maintain, as it requires constant, enormous effort. But it is the essence of maintaining conversion, so it is vital to the process of maintaining the conversion.

Dissociation even extends to such basic drives as the libido. The sincere, committed evangelical Christian seeks to displace his libido to associate it with the Trinity and the Gospel, so that libido drives one on to "higher states" of "love" of the gospel and one's understanding of God, even to the extent that one does not even have sexual temptation of a more earthly kind. This kind of tension requires almost constant mind control, a state few are able to achieve. But achieving it is considered neccessary by many evangelicals for complete "submission" to Jesus. It is truly the ultimate form of dissociation.

Burning of bridges is the sixth mind game. Not being able to go back is a way of keeping the converted from abandoning the conversion to second thoughts. We see evidence of this mind game all through the New Testament; Jesus saying that he will divide families, he has come with a sword, etc.

The burning of bridges among groups of Christians is done by binding the believers together so tightly that they cannot easily leave, though care is taken to ensure that paths remain open so others can easily join. Here is where evangelical Christianity resembles cult religions more than anywhere else; the Christian invites others to join by paying lip service to listening to them (while carefully filtering out any 'dangerous' ideas the infidel may present), and appearing to be friendly, loving and caring. It never occurs to the believer how, in filtering out dangerous ideas, the presentation of a listening facade represents a dishonest act. The higher good of "bringing in the harvest" is appealed to, with the belief that somehow, lying for Jesus through the facade one presents, is somehow not wrong.

In the mind of the believer, the bridges are burned by the doctrine of blasphemy. The tool of fear is imposed to make the believer fear that if he should reject the doctrine, he would have blasphemed against the holy spirit, and in so doing would be consigned to hell forever and ever. It is this fear of the greatest of sins that burns the bridge. The believer can't turn back, because doing so would consign him to hell.

A very effective technique used to bind believers together against the threat of blasphemy is the "false prophets" threat. If the believer should fall under the spell of a false prophet, he is doomed again to be consigned to hell. This keeps the believer in the circle, depending on using others to verify his understanding, and preventing him from straying from the "truth."

Again, there are many other examples that space here does not permit to be quoted.

The seventh and final mind game is fear. Yes, good old fashioned "hell-fire and damnation." Of course it has its greatest effect on the ignorant and superstitious, but it can be an effective motivator even among the learned when it synergizes well with other mind games, such as the burning of bridges and the induction of dissociation.

It would appear that this conflicts directly with the sweet, likable persona of the first mind game. It actually doesn't; they work well together as a carrot and stick.

Even a casual reading of the New Testament will uncover plenty of examples of this mind game. Damnation, judgement, punishment for sin, blasphemy, etc., all are based on the fear mind game, and are so commonly employed by evangelicals they've become a stereotype.

The Meme's Vector and Its Method of Spread

The principal vector of course is the Bible-toting evangelist. But in this day and age of new media, other vectors are assuming ever greater importance; the radio stations one hears clustered towards the bottom of the FM band in the United States, for example, or the millions of web sites that have a Christian theme that are out there looking for converts. Television networks run by and for Christians reach millions every day, and expose thousands to the meme. Newspapers, magazines and other print media supplement the electronic media, providing material that explains, expounds, and helps deepen the infection. Not being content with American infidels, evangelism has taken hold of shortwave radio in the United States and used it to reach millions around the world who depend on shortwave radio for much of their news and entertainment. The result of conservative evangelical politics on shortwave radio is often an embarrassment for the American government and an impediment to its foreign policy.

The Billy Graham evangelist who is preaching to a circus tent full of believers he is pretending to be potential converts is really an anachronism. In true evolutionary fashion, more potential hosts for the virus can be reached electronically for far less money, by means that didn't even exist a half century ago. The 'virus' has 'mutated' to meet this opportunity and has been wildly successful in doing so, often with the help of 'viral hosts' placed in positions of political power to clear regulatory barriers.

Pathology of the Meme: Implications for Mental Health, Politics, and Society

It is widely assumed that religion is a net positive in society. It is an assumption so often repeated that it has become deeply ingrained in the culture. No one ever seems to challenge it.

Well, social scientists, themselves often hosts of the meme of Christianity, have been reluctant to examine that question, because of the deepness of the assumption, and the politics that it creates. But in recent years, a few brave souls who have been willing to risk their careers for the sake of truth have begun to look at the question.

What is becoming clear is that conservative fundamentalist Christians are not at all like they are perceived. The educated humanist normally assumes that the conservative Christian has a few, clear, simple unambiguous answers for the questions with which he is presented, and has a low tolerance for ambiguity. The reality is quite the opposite.

When one examines the pathology of this meme, it becomes clear that the conservative Christian actually has a wide range of answers, many of which are conflicting and ambiguous, because he has, through his conversion process, cultivated a tolerance for ambiguity. It is the only way that he can compartmentalize a wide range of ideas, many of which are conflicting, many of which are contrary to the evidence of every day life, and still maintain his faith.

Of course this cultivation of tolerance for ambiguity has consequences in everyday life. The ability to compartmentalize mutually conflicting ideas means that he is a setup for political ideologies that don't make sense, that run contrary to his interests or make his life more difficult. It is not surprising, then, that the National Socialism of Adolph Hitler was originally couched in Christian terms, and strongly promoted as a Christian ideology, and early on was most popular among Christian evangelicals.

The undermining of integrity that we have explored also has serious implications. It means that lying to oneself becomes easier to do, and has less likelihood of producing a self examination. The assurance that one is "saved" means one need spend less time in introspection and self-examination, and of course, that is precisely the intent of the meme's authors. By avoiding self-examination, the consequences of conversion are not likely to be examined.

It is not surprising, then, to those who truly understand Christianity as a meme and the mind games it plays in its converts, that when conservative evangelicals achieve political power, corruption is often the result. Those who understand the compartmentalized thinking along with the undermined integrity and the tolerance for ambiguity realize that the evangelical will often turn a blind eye to corruption. This is why we have seen such a long series of Christian televangelists being exposed in acts of sordid corruption. And it's not a surprise that Ronald Reagan, the most committed Christian of recent American presidents, presided over the most corrupt administration in American history, with fully ten percent of his appointees being indicted or convicted of felonies committed while in office.

Surely, these phenomena demand a close examination by social scientists. The stakes are simply too high to ignore. Especially when Christian evangelicals are poised to take control of the political process and thereby be placed in a position to forcibly expose others to the meme complex, much as has been done in centuries past.

The overwhelming influence of the hosts of this meme complex, influence far out of proportion to their numbers in society, can be attributed partly to the unchallenged assumption that religion is a net positive force in society, but also, and probably primarily, to the unity of purpose that this meme complex creates in its hosts. By welding this unity of purpose with political activism, a truly awesome political machine is readily created. Hitler was one leader who recognized this, but he was hardly alone, and certainly not the first. Today, Jerry Falwell, who hardly has anything approaching a unified body of believers behind him, but who has a political influence that is amazing, given his extreme politics, has the cynical conservative politicians on his side. Of course, cynical politicians are quick to realize and sieze upon the potential that an alliance with evangelicals can provide.

The effect of this influence on public policy can be frightening indeed. A typical example is the abortion debate. Nowhere in the bible is there a clear prohibition of the practice; it is assumed to be proscribed on the basis of a single verse, "whoso sheddeth a man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6). Out of that whole cloth, evangelicals have cut the doctrine that their god not only forbids man to abort a fetus, but even a zygote (the cell resulting from the fusion of sperm and egg), and they even assume the right, again entirely without biblical foundation, to impose that view on non-believers. With hard-core, committed fundamentalists amounting to only about 9 percent of the population of the U.S., the notion that their views could soon become the law of that land speaks volumes about their organization and zeal, and their commitment to spread the meme complex by whatever means neccessary.

How Did This Meme Complex Come To Be?

It began, as has been explained elsewhere, with a group of first century Jews who sought to preserve Judaic traditions, culture and religion from the onslaught of Roman persecution and the political suppression of Judaic culture. So they deliberately created a religious system that would be self perpetuating in the absence of a Rabbinical authority. They succeeded by accidentally creating a religion that could adapt, because it had room for mutation and be subject to the forces of natural selection, mimicing evolutionary processes to adapt, grow and change as needed to succeed. While the original creators of the meme complex had no idea what they needed to ensure survival, they succeeded, and they would be astonished at how it has evolved to grow, succeed and change the world.


Clearly there is much at stake in the public policy debates that underlie the influence and epidemiology of this meme complex in our society. For this reason, we cannot simply make the unwarranted assumption that because it's the dominant religion, and it outwardly at least, preaches love and tolerance, that it's good.

Besides the public policy issues, there is the mental health issue of the hosts of the meme complex as well. How many suffer, without understanding what has happened to them, that they are the targets of a system originally designed two thousand years ago to preserve a culture and religion from an immediate threat, and give their means and their lives over to it? How many families are broken, how many lives ruined, how many friendships destroyed, simply because everyone assumes that because it's religion, it's good? How many innocent victims, such as humanists, gays and feminists, should be made to suffer so that the meme complex can be allowed to propagate freely? The time has come for some serious study of this phenomenon, both from a personal mental health and a public policy perspective. And the time has come that we should base our public policies on what we now know are the consequences of being infected with this meme complex. We are now well aware of the consequences for the believers and their families, neighbors and society. Can we stand by and allow the unfortunate consequences of this meme complex to continue to propagate themselves? Personally, I think not. One and a half millenia ago, the meme complex led to the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria. That single act, for which the perpetrator was sainted, led to the stifling of scientific progress for more than a millenium, and allowed the death and persecution of millions. We know better now. Let us not make that same mistake again.

Books I recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from by pursuing the links here):

The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark is Dr. Carl Sagan's last book, and an excellent analysis of the effects of unexamined belief. This best seller is an easy read, and can't be recommended highly enough.

The Mind of the Bible Believer is Edmund Cohen's excellent analysis of how and why the Bible (and specifically the New Testament) was written to hook the non-believer. It is 400+ pages of a somewhat tedious read at times, occasionally straying from the subject, but nevertheless well worthwhile, as it is thorough in its treatment, exhaustively researched and carefully documented. It is the definitive book on this subject and was the source material for much of this essay. This book is not a polemic, it is a carefully considered scholarly analysis that can only be described as fair, and is a vital resource for someone seeking to understand the Bible and the mindset of its followers.

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