The Religion News Service (RNS) has a commentary on Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of the fastest growing religious traditions in the United States. The piece reminds me of the accusation some people make that religion is a virus.
This is a pretty incendiary thing to say. No one likes to think that their minds have been overcome by a sickness. Yet there are, nonetheless, similarities between viruses (or, for that matter, any contagious pathogen) and religion. Religion, after all, has had thousands of years to converge on good strategies of spreading itself from mind to mind.
Three things in particular stand out in the RNS commentary:
1. Children are indoctrinated as early as humanly possible. We are told of a family who includes their 18 month old child in Bible study. This is akin to the construction of new viruses within an infected host cell. The new viruses must be put together carefully because mutations might destroy their development. And if that happens, they’ll never venture forth to infect other cells.
2. Every member of the church is required to evangelize. Most people are familiar with the practice of Jehovah’s Witnesses going from door to door, trying to spread their beliefs. Most of these attempts fail, but a small yet crucial proportion succeed. In the same way, large quantities of new viruses are produced within each host cell, and while many of these viruses will fail to attack new hosts, a small yet crucial proportion will succeed.
3. Communities are insular. A Jehovah’s Witness’s support will generally come from other Jehovah’s Witnesses (I highly recommend this podcast from Reasonable Doubts, in which an ex-Witness discusses the insular social culture of the church.) This makes me think of mechanisms found in bacteria that allow them to escape the influence of the host’s immune system.
In summary, purity and proliferation are the two key ingredients. Maintain your identity and spread it to others.
It’s also interesting to read, in the RNS commentary, about the husband’s slow conversion to the church. As is often the case in such matters, though, it’s clear he had several in-tact Christian beliefs before becoming a Jehovah’s Witness:
“Things just slowly progressed,” Chad Tate said. “I found myself starting to pray. But I’m a skeptical person. I’ve got to have stuff laid out in front of me. They had to show me from the Bible.”
Clearly Mr. Tate already considered the Bible to be a source of authority, and this is where so many people who get sucked into religion go wrong – they have been enculturated into believing certain aspects of Christianity, like the authority of the Bible, the existence of hell, the need for salvation, etc., long before they choose to become active, practicing believers. It’s a sort of cultural indoctrination.
Anyway, it’s always fascinating to look into the practices of different religious traditions. Calling them viruses may be insulting to some, but the analogy is certainly there.