Thoughts in Captivity

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”
—Proverbs 3:5 (KJV)

“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ…”
—2 Corinthians 10:5 (KJV)

Many critics of organized religion have compared it to brainwashing or mind control. Personally, I would not describe it in these terms. These are strong words with overtly pejorative connotations, and their use is likely to be perceived by believers as an ad hominem attack, rather than contributing to a civil and productive dialogue between atheists and theists. Nevertheless, the fact remains that their application is not without merit. Even the staunchest defender of theism cannot deny that, to an extent, religions teach their followers to prize faith over facts, to rely on the word of authorities rather than their own judgment, and to disregard arguments that run counter to their beliefs.

The above quotes from the Bible provide examples of this. The first specifically tells believers not to rely on their own understanding, while the second instructs them to bring their thoughts “into captivity”. What can this possibly mean other than that a Christian’s every thought must begin with the preconception that their religious beliefs are true?

By comparison, atheists, in general, do not believe that a person’s thoughts should be brought into “captivity” to any particular belief system at all. Instead, atheists generally hold that one’s thoughts should be set free to explore wherever they please, to examine one’s beliefs from every angle, and even to consider the possibility that they are not true – because if they are true, they will inevitably stand up to reality and so there is no harm in asking the question. On the other hand, if they are not true, we should want to know that so we can replace them with something better.

Quotes such as these from the Bible and other holy books provide one example of the unending battle between faith and reason at the heart of every system of religious belief. But there are many more such conflicts, and many more methods, some of which are especially insidious, by which theistic systems teach their followers to keep their thoughts in captivity and suppress reasoning and arguments that threaten their beliefs. This essay will examine some of them.

The Memetic Virus

“Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won’t know it, and may even vigorously deny it. Accepting that a virus might be difficult to detect in your own mind, what tell-tale signs might you look out for? I shall answer by imaging [sic] how a medical textbook might describe the typical symptoms of a sufferer (arbitrarily assumed to be male).
1. The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn’t seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as ‘faith.’
2. Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith’s being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence. Indeed, they may feel that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief….”

—Richard Dawkins, “Viruses of the Mind

The concept of the meme was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. A meme (rhymes with “dream”) is the basic unit of culture, just as the gene is the basic unit of biology. Any idea or concept that is passed from person to person can be a meme, and the sum total of the memes in a given society forms what is usually referred to as culture. There are all sorts of memes: a meme can be as trivial a concept as an advertising slogan, a slang expression, a clothing style or a catchy musical refrain; or it can be as powerful and world-shaping an idea as democracy, freedom of speech, science, or God. The concept of the meme is itself a meme.

Memes share many traits with their biological counterparts. Like genes, they replicate themselves (by spreading from person to person). Like genes, they mutate, with new variants occasionally appearing. Like genes, they experience frequency changes over time, with some variants persisting and spreading rapidly while others dwindle and go extinct. And what this means is that, like genes, memes evolve. The competition among them mimics the Darwinian competition among genes occurring in the real world: some which are very effective at winning people over propagate and become dominant in society. Others which are less successful at spreading to new minds die out.

However, in one very significant respect memes differ from genes. Namely, genes cannot spread in isolation; they must combine into complexes, usually called organisms, that possess all the numerous necessary adaptations for survival and reproduction. Memes, on the other hand, can reproduce all by themselves, spreading from mind to mind through the medium of human culture. There is only one type of organism in nature for which there exists an apt comparison: a virus.

Viruses are obligate parasites, consisting of little more than a string of genetic material surrounded by a protein shell. Although they cannot reproduce on their own, they can commandeer the reproductive machinery of a cell, causing it to create more copies of the virus. Memes can act similarly, spreading to new minds and incorporating themselves into a person’s set of beliefs or memories; in many cases, individuals that have come into contact with a new meme feel the desire to transmit it to others. However, unlike real viruses which are almost always pathogenic, memes can be benign or positively beneficial – although they too can be malignant and dangerous. People have been inspired both to kill and to die by memes. Of course, memes do not have an existence apart from their hosts as viruses do. They are only an analogy, albeit a very useful and apt one, to demonstrate how ideas arise, evolve, and spread from person to person.

With this established, let us try a thought experiment. Imagine that you wanted to create a complex of memes – a memetic virus – whose purpose was to keep people under your control and cause them to obey a set of rules of your choosing; one that would spread from person to person and that would be nearly impossible to eradicate once it had taken root in a mind. Why anyone would want to create such a thing is not important for the purposes of this exercise, but there are many imaginable reasons. A member of the elite seeking personal gain might want to foster a belief system that would convince people to willingly hand over their wealth or possessions; an aspiring leader might want to acquire the obedience of the populace or unite a group of people against an outside threat. The question is, how could one craft a system of beliefs that would inspire such a response?

The first hurdle that must be overcome is to convince people to accept your new ideology. The simplest and the best way is to appeal to self-interest, as successful leaders throughout history have done: people will eagerly follow you if they genuinely believe that doing so will bring benefits to them. But what type of reward to promise? Different people are motivated by different things. The best way to avoid this difficulty, since all the things that people strive after are ultimately just efforts to make themselves happy, is to simply promise your adherents a life of unsurpassable happiness and bliss. While one could try to describe what form this would take, it might be better not to be overly specific, but instead to tell your followers that all their greatest desires will be realized. This allows them to personalize the reward in their own minds to whatever they themselves want most.

This now presents a new difficulty: if you promise something you cannot deliver, people will likely abandon you. But there is a way around that problem as well. Rather than promise your followers they will be rewarded immediately for their allegiance, move the reward to somewhere where its existence can never be disproven. One particularly clever way to do this is to perpetually keep the payoff in the distant but not too distant future, always just over the horizon, always soon but not yet. This will inspire people to keep chasing it, to always be working just a little harder, doing a little more in anticipation of that day. Another solution, not mutually exclusive with the other, is to place the reward after death, in another life beyond this one. Not even the most skeptical examination can conclusively disprove it then. Again, this will encourage your followers to work for you their entire lives without ever becoming discouraged. It might also be helpful to counterbalance this promised great reward with an equally great punishment for those who will not believe, and safeguard this from disproof using the same methods. This will provide strong incentive for believers not to stray, by appealing to their sense of self-preservation as well as their desire for happiness.

The second major issue is transmission. You may be able to sway a few people into believing you, but spending all your time evangelizing would be tedious and slow. For maximum efficiency and rate of spread, the type of growth to strive after is exponential, in which the more followers you have, the more converts you make. The obvious solution is to add to this suite of beliefs a new one that encourages the converted to work to convert others as well. Since we already have the reward proposition, one could justify this by modifying it slightly to inform your followers that it will increase their own reward further to win converts. However, a more subtle and potentially even more effective way is to tell your followers that they should want to convert other people for those people’s own good, so that they can share in this wonderful reward. This will give your followers a strong reason to want to evangelize: they will believe that it is the moral thing to do. The existence of a punishment for nonbelievers, as above, will aid in this. Transmission of these beliefs can also be made more effective by encouraging adult converts to teach them to children, who by their nature are more trusting and less skeptical. Throughout their lives, people rarely throw off the beliefs that they were taught while young.

The third important issue is how to retain believers. Since the purpose of this assembly of memes is to keep people under control, encouraging them to think for themselves and question their beliefs is probably a bad idea. Those activities have been feared by those who would control others throughout history, and with good reason: skeptics and freethinkers are by nature difficult to herd. Instead, you want your followers to be passive, accustomed to obedience and unaccustomed to doubting your authority. The most effective way to achieve this is to add to the memetic virus a suite of beliefs that will convince those harboring the virus not to question it. These beliefs would teach your followers not to expose themselves to information or arguments that could damage their beliefs and, where possible, to cut off other believers’ access to such information. Most important, teach them that they must always think of their belief as true, no matter what the facts say, and their personal faith takes priority over the evidence of the external world. If possible, teach that absolute trust and obedience are virtues, while doubt, for any reason whatsoever, is a sin, and puts them in jeopardy of losing their promised reward, or worse, suffering the corresponding punishment.

Of course, every reader will have realized the point of this thought experiment by now. The beliefs incorporated into this hypothetical memetic virus, designed to capture and command people’s obedience, are precisely those beliefs taught by most of this planet’s religions. Religion is a system of memetic thought control. (Richard Dawkins, inventor of the concept of the meme, puts forward the same argument in his above-cited essay Viruses of the Mind.)

Admittedly, these beliefs and the reasons why they are effective at controlling people’s minds were not derived from first principles without reference to the external world. This example was constructed with an eye on the teachings of conventional religion. Nevertheless, the fact remains that religions are very effective at directing people’s thoughts and actions. The extended example presented above is an attempt to explain why this is so, and what reasoning underlies the tenets of successful religions and makes them effective.

However, it is important to note that, although I have presented this particular example as if a single individual or small group of individuals came together to concoct it deliberately for the purpose of controlling people, I do not believe that most religions were started in this conscious, calculating way. (There may be a few exceptions.) Rather, the organization of religions and the fact that many of them incorporate concepts effective at controlling people is a consequence of memetic evolution. Just as genes do in nature, memes engage in a Darwinian struggle for limited resources – in this case, the number of available human minds. This is not to say that memes “want” to multiply in any conscious sense, any more than viruses do, but memes that are more effective at gaining people’s allegiance and belief will inevitably flourish at the expense of those that are not as effective. This principle applies to religion just as it does to other types of memes.

As alluded to above, religions employ a variety of tactics, not just to spread themselves to new minds, but to maintain their hold on the minds they are already in and prevent themselves from being dislodged. The remainder of this essay will explore some of these tactics in detail.

One particularly effective and insidious method by which some religions accomplish this is by teaching their adherents that it is a sin to doubt God, thus linking the concept of virtue to the ideal of unquestioning faith. If some event leads believers to wonder whether their beliefs might not be true, they feel guilt over having done so, no matter how reasonable their doubts are. This is a very effective method of shutting down skepticism and preventing doubt from ever taking hold, sealing off religious beliefs from questioning or critical examination in the believer’s mind.

Another method by which religious memes maintain their hold on the believer’s mind is by teaching them to use those memes as the filter through which they view and interpret everything that happens to them. In religions which use this tactic, believers are no longer free to form their own opinions on any topic. Instead of thinking, “What do I think of this?”, they become accustomed to thinking, “What does God think of this?” – where “God” is assumed to be the sum total of sacred books, teaching and tradition which the believer has absorbed. Not only does this have the desirable (to a religious meme) side effect of accustoming the believer to yielding their own judgment to that of an external authority, if a believer attempts to break away, they will be unable to do so because they will have no cognitive framework that can be used to evaluate issues from a perspective other than that of their previous belief system. Thus, even when doubts do occasionally spring up, they are phrased in a way that still presupposes the theist’s beliefs being true – i.e., “Why would God allow this to happen?”, not “Is it possible that this happened because God does not exist?” The former phrasing presupposes that God does exist and that he allowed a particular unfortunate event to happen for a good reason that is simply unknown to the believer. The latter phrasing carries no such built-in assumptions.

However, in addition to these fairly subtle techniques, the memetic epidemic that is religion employs some thought-control tactics that are much more overt and heavy-handed. One of these, already mentioned in passing above, will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

Dangerous Knowledge

“My appeal is as follows,” Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said this week during a Vatican Radio broadcast. “Don’t read and don’t buy ‘The Da Vinci Code.’”
—Tracy Wilkinson, “20 Million Copies Later, Vatican Says Don’t Read ‘Da Vinci Code’”; The Los Angeles Times, p.A1, 18 March 2005.

One of religion’s most intrusive, and for a long time one of its most widespread, thought-control techniques is the concept of “dangerous knowledge” – the belief that there are some facts about the world that are inherently harmful to know about and that believers should not be aware of. Sometimes this ignorance is merely encouraged, by teaching believers whether implicitly or explicitly to avoid material deemed injurious to faith; sometimes it is enforced by church authorities who issue proclamations ordering the banning, censoring, or burning of books that convey forbidden ideas. Sometimes the authors of works judged particularly offensive are burned along with their books.

Probably the most infamous example of this meme is the Roman Catholic church’s official Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the Index of Forbidden Books. Created in 1559 by the Roman Inquisition under Pope Paul IV, the Index was a catalogue of books which Catholic believers were not allowed to read or possess. At its peak, the Index contained thousands of titles, including works by many famous poets, philosophers, authors and scientists such as David Hume, John Milton, John Stuart Mill, Rene Descartes, Daniel Defoe, Alexandre Dumas, Voltaire, Copernicus, Galileo, and others. In 1564, the Index was revised to include a blanket ban on the works of religious leaders of sects other than Catholicism and to allow for bishops and inquisitors to inspect printers’ and booksellers’ shops to ensure they were not selling any forbidden works. Even this was not enough to satisfy some, and in 1908 Pope Pius X declared that the scope of the Index would be further expanded. From that point on, every book was declared forbidden by default, and the only books which Catholics were allowed to read were those that had been certified by a bishop as “nihil obstat” (Latin for “nothing obstructs”). The bishop who authorized a book would add the phrase “imprimatur” (Latin for “let it be printed”) and his own name to signify that he was the one vouching for its conformity with orthodox dogma. Catholics who violated church law by reading or possessing forbidden books were punished by excommunication.

Updates to the Index officially ceased in 1966, and the associated penalties were abolished. Today, Catholics no longer face excommunication for reading books on it. However, strictly speaking they are still required to avoid books that might be “dangerous” to their faith. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, stated as recently as 1985 that the Index “retains its moral force“. And the Catholic church is far from apologetic about the chains it once placed on free speech. Even today, the Catholic New Advent encyclopedia holds that it is the duty of “every lawful authority” to “protect its subjects from the ravages of a pernicious press… [by] exercising censorship of books” (from, states that church censorship of ages past was “proper”, “perfectly reasonable” and showed “wise moderation and true justice”, and blames today’s social ills on “so-called freedom of the press”. And as recently as February 2002, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the modern-day Inquisition) proposed creating a panel of censors to oversee the Catholic magazine America, in response to its persistently publishing editorials on controversial church topics such as condom use and religious pluralism, according to a May 6, 2005 article from the National Catholic Reporter. An article in the same magazine estimated that over 100 Catholic theologians have been silenced or reprimanded in the past few decades for promoting views unacceptable to the church orthodoxy.

Although the Index is the most glaring example, attempts by religious leaders to suppress books with which they disagree are by no means limited to Catholicism in particular, nor Christianity in general. To name another well-known example, author Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses has been banned in most Islamic nations; some bookstores have been bombed for selling it, and Rushdie himself still lives under the threat of a death sentence pronounced on him by Muslim fundamentalists furious at his perceived irreverence toward Islam. Other authors, such as Nawal El Saadawi, have likewise had their books banned from intolerant Muslim societies. And although such drastic infringements on free speech are thankfully a memory in the United States, right-wing Christians here continue their efforts to restrict others’ access to books they dislike by agitating for their removal from public school libraries. Even today, Christians still burn books. Although this latter practice is now largely symbolic rather than a genuinely effective gesture, that makes its evil message all the more apparent – that there are books and ideas which should be destroyed or censored rather than allowing others to read them for themselves.

“In the reign of Henry VIII — that pious and moral founder of the apostolic Episcopal Church — there was passed by the parliament of England an act entitled “An act for abolishing of diversity of opinion.” And in this act was set forth what a good Christian was obliged to believe:
First, That in the sacrament was the real body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Second, That the body and blood of Jesus Christ was in the bread, and the blood and body of Jesus Christ was in the wine.
Third, That priests should not marry.
Fourth, That vows of chastity were of perpetual obligation.
Fifth, That private masses ought to be continued; and,
Sixth, That auricular confession to a priest must be maintained.
This creed was made by law, in order that all men might know just what to believe by simply reading the statute. The church hated to see the people wearing out their brains in thinking upon these subjects. It was thought far better that a creed should be made by parliament, so that whatever might be lacking in evidence might be made up in force. The punishment for denying the first article was death by fire. For the denial of any other article, imprisonment, and for the second offence — death.”

—Robert Green Ingersoll, “Heretics and Heresies

Another egregious example of religious thought control is the concept of blasphemy laws. The mere existence of such a concept as blasphemy is revealing when it comes to the religious view of dissent: what this idea says in essence is that arguments against religion, regardless of their factual merit, should be silenced because some people do not want to hear them. However, more telling still is the fact that often in history these prejudices have been actually enacted into law, evidently by nations who were evidently either so fearful or possessed of a faith so fragile that it could not stand up to hearing a contrary opinion. In a celebrated case from 1886, the great agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll defended an American freethinker, Charles B. Reynolds, charged with violating New Jersey’s blasphemy laws.

Nor are blasphemy laws mere antiquated relics of the past. Unbelievably, these laws are still being invoked today to stifle speech and expression which religious groups disagree with or are offended by. For example, in 2002 an Austrian artist named Gerhard Haderer published a book entitled The Life of Jesus, a satirical depiction of the career of its title character. The book sold well and was translated into several languages, including Greek. Greece, however, still has blasphemy laws; and as soon as it went on sale there, the powerful Greek Orthodox church had the author charged under them. Although Haderer wrote the book in Austria and had not even known it was being published in Greece, due to the European Union’s extradition laws he was compelled to travel there to stand trial. At the first round of his trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to a six-month suspended prison sentence, and his book was officially banned in Greece. Fortunately, thanks to widespread outcry he was acquitted on appeal in April 2005 and the ban lifted. However, the Greek blasphemy law itself does not seem to have been overturned, leaving open the possibility of similar abuses in the future. In a similar case from March 2005, a group of Catholic bishops used a French blasphemy law to force the banning of a fashion ad that parodied Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. And of course, Islamic nations still have barbaric blasphemy laws: the arrest and near execution of Dr. Younus Shaikh for allegedly violating Pakistan’s is one recent example.

“It would be a mistake to think that you need to listen to apostates or to read their writings to refute their arguments. Their twisted, poisonous reasoning can cause spiritual harm and can contaminate your faith like rapidly spreading gangrene.”
—excerpt from The Watchtower, 15 February 2004, p.28

Although concepts such as banned books and blasphemy laws still linger today, as the above sections demonstrate, it is fair to say that they are nowhere near as prominent as they once were. Thankfully, the rise of new memes such as freedom of speech has weakened these ideas greatly, at least in the Western world. However, although Western religious institutions have largely lost their ability to forcibly silence those with whom they disagree, the concept of dangerous knowledge persists in a more subtle form. Today, rather than external enforcement of the dangerous-knowledge meme, some churches and other religious institutions have persuaded believers to internalize this idea and make it part of their own thought processes – in effect, teaching believers to censor themselves.

An example of this is provided by the above quote, in which the Watchtower, governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, informs its members that they do not actually need to know what non-Jehovah’s Witnesses are saying about their religion in order to know that it is not true. It also attempts to give them incentive to avoid such writings by the none too subtle technique of linking them with undesirable, repulsive concepts – contamination, poison, gangrene – thus producing a similar instinctive reaction of repulsion when ordinary Witnesses encounter such writings that would forestall any effort to read or understand them.

Another example is the phenomenon occurring among Christian young-earth creationists which geologist Glenn Morton, himself a former member of that group, called Morton’s Demon, in reference to the scientific thought experiment imagined by James Clerk Maxwell and dubbed “Maxwell’s demon”. The more general version of this phenomenon, which occurs in believers other than just creationists, I would propose naming the “selective wall”. The selective wall is the tendency of some theists to only expose themselves to information supportive of their religious convictions, while ignoring or filtering out all other information. Although this tendency manifests itself in many different ways, there is one guise in which the selective wall persistently recurs: Of all the theists who claim to reject atheism for solid evidential reasons, how many have read even one book arguing for atheism written by an actual atheist? Although some undoubtedly have, they are very rare indeed. In my experience, the vast majority of theists have concluded atheism was false based solely on what their pastors and apologists have told them, and have never allowed actual atheists to speak for themselves and make their own case before making up their minds.


“In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.”
—Luke 10:21 (KJV)

“For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
—1 Corinthians 1:19 (KJV)

“If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
—1 Corinthians 3:18-19 (KJV)

“Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise.”
—Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, book 1, chapter 2

“We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture.”
—Pastor Ray Mummert, in response to an effort to prevent the teaching of “intelligent design” in public school science classes in Dover, Pennsylvania; sighted on Yahoo News, 27 March 2005

Another type of thought control technique that occasionally arises in religion is anti-intellectualism: the tendency of believers to view intelligence and education with suspicion and disdain, and conversely to take pride in ignorance. In sects where this meme is operative, the desire to understand how the world works is believed to be, at best, unfruitful and pointless, and at worst, a fatal distraction from the path of salvation that inevitably leads to arrogance and rejection of God. As the above quotes show, this tendency has a long history in Christianity, dating back to the writing of the Bible, and is still alive and well today.

The crowning expression of anti-intellectualism in the Judeo-Christian tradition is, of course, the story of humankind’s fall from Eden in the Book of Genesis. According to this story, humanity’s first sin, the one that led to our expulsion from Paradise and our condemnation to lives of toil and suffering, was the desire for knowledge. The message could hardly be less subtle: we should not seek to understand the world around us, but instead should be content to believe whatever God has told us and remain ignorant otherwise. Although written much later than the original text of Genesis, John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost makes the same point, placing it in the mouth of the angel Raphael as advice to Adam and Eve: “Be lowly wise; / Think only what concerns thee and thy being; / Dream not to other worlds, what creatures there / Live, in what state, condition, or degree / Contented that thus far hath been revealed”.

A similar expression of anti-intellectual sentiment can be found in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians. According to the argument developed in this book, the belief that humanity can be redeemed through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ sounds foolish to non-Christians, but Christians understand it to be the only route to salvation. This claim is then developed into an extended argument about how it pleased God to save believers through a belief that the rest of humanity finds absurd, and how God will ultimately confound and destroy the “wisdom of the world”. Again, the clear and consistent message of this scripture is that attempting to understand the world is a sin of pride and will ultimately lead to disaster and condemnation, while remaining “foolish” is a desirable thing since it will prevent one’s mind from being clouded by excessive education.

Why would such a strain of anti-intellectual fervor develop in any religion? The answer may lie in this article from the website Common Dreams, which recounts an overheard conversation between two young Christians on the subject of higher education. In it, one warned another to be careful, because getting “too much education” could result in becoming, horror of horrors, a liberal. (The master’s degree was identified as the specific threshold of danger, for the curious.) The particular field of study apparently did not matter; even faculty at Christian colleges, it seemed, might unintentionally lead students astray. The implicit message of this conversation – that the beliefs and values these young people had been taught could not survive excessive exposure to the real world – apparently did not occur to either of them.

Nor were their concerns unfounded. The conclusion that fundamentalist religious beliefs and higher education are mutually exclusive is borne out by the evidence. A January 12, 2004 survey by the Barna Research Group, a Christian polling firm, found that a “biblical worldview”, defined as one that includes six tenets of fundamentalist Christianity, was frequency-dependent upon, among other things, the respondent’s education level. Pastors who were seminary graduates were significantly less likely to hold this view than those that were not. A similar conclusion was reached by a 2001 Harvard University study by Bruce Sacerdote and Edward Glaeser titled “Education and Religion” (available for download here). This study found that, in general, increased education causes individuals to “sort into less fervent religions” and “decrease[s] belief in the returns to religious activity”. The study found a strong negative correlation between higher education and beliefs that miracles occur, that heaven and hell exist, that the Devil is an actual being and that the Bible is literally true. More educated people were significantly less likely to believe all these things.

We now have a clear view of the reason why anti-intellectual memes cluster in the fundamentalist sects of many religions. Simply stated, they arose as a defense mechanism for belief systems that cannot survive exposure to the real world. Many religions, in particular the literal, fundamentalist versions of those religions, teach doctrines that are so flatly incompatible with the facts of the world and of human nature that they will often collapse when contrasted against alternative ways of thinking that better explain and accommodate those facts. To prevent this from happening, memes arise in these sects that teach followers not just that they should avoid education themselves, but also that they should scorn it in others. By teaching their believers in advance that intelligent, educated people will reject their doctrines, these religions not only prevent their followers from being surprised when this inevitably happens, but teach them to see it as a vindication.

This is not to say that all Christians or all theists are opposed to understanding the world. Many major religious traditions have produced great scientists and philosophers who have done much to increase humanity’s store of knowledge and our own appreciation of the powers of the mind, and these efforts deserve respect and admiration. On the other hand, it would be equally foolish to deny that there is a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism lurking around the edges of many major religions. Not all the members of a given religion subscribe to it, just as not all members of a given faith subscribe to the idea that certain books should be banned or “blasphemous” statements outlawed. Nevertheless, that sentiment is there and can be strong.

Conversion by Indoctrination

“Most of the intelligent men in Turkey are followers of Mahomet. They were rocked in the cradle of the Koran, they received their religious opinions as they did their features – from their parents…. The same may be said of the Christians of our country. Their belief is the result, not of thought, of investigation, but of surroundings.”
—Robert Green Ingersoll, “Which Way?

Although many religions work actively to make new converts, the conversion process rarely, if ever, takes the form of a reasoned argument for the truth of that religion backed up with facts and evidence. Instead, conversion usually happens in one of two ways: either by presenting the beliefs of that religion as truth to children too young to ask questions, or by placing adults in a highly emotionally charged atmosphere in an attempt to cause an emotional reaction that overwhelms reason. In this way, religion attempts to defeat opposing arguments not by showing them to be false, but by sidestepping them entirely.

Consider how religions target children for indoctrination. Young children are highly prone to unquestioning acceptance of whatever authority figures, especially their parents, tell them. Religious parents, of course, are taught that it is their duty to bring up their children in the same belief system they were raised under, and most do. Most commonly this is done by sending them to Sunday schools or other religious education organizations that present their beliefs to children as unquestioned truth, but there are also homeschooling programs that virtually ensure their total lack of exposure to any other belief system. In addition, there are groups such as the Child Evangelism Fellowship that specifically and unashamedly proclaim their mission to be the proselytizing of children, both in public elementary schools and elsewhere.

The techniques used to make converts among adults are somewhat different, but operate under the same basic principle: get the prospective convert into an environment where all other viewpoints are shut out and intense peer pressure can be brought to bear. The first step is usually to draw an outsider into the group by inviting them to take part in group activities – attending church, Bible studies, religious retreats, and so on – that surround them with people who already believe. All the while, they are provided with constant encouragement and acceptance, exerting a strong if subtle peer pressure and drawing them deeper in. The claimed benefits of the religious system, including purpose on Earth, approval from God, and a blissful afterlife are constantly mentioned and reinforced. Often this is done with several potential converts at once; if one decides to convert, their decision is highly praised and dramatically displayed, putting enormous additional pressure on those who are still holding out. Among all people there is a spectrum of vulnerability to these tactics, but in this way those who are more susceptible to joining can be used as a lever against those who are more resistant. People who are lonely, bereaved, or otherwise emotionally or psychologically vulnerable are particularly susceptible to such tactics.

Finally, the defenses of even the most resistant can often be broken down through intense revival-type meetings that foster a highly charged atmosphere of contagious emotion through dancing, singing, clapping, and other activities carried out in unison. It is extremely difficult to resist the urge to go along with the group in such situations, and once a person feels compelled to go along with these activities, a corresponding shift in mental state inevitably follows, accompanied by a “rush” of emotion as the individual is submerged into the group. The group’s teachings lead the new convert to interpret this experience as an indication of the presence of God, and even once the intense emotion fades, they often remain converted later. To do otherwise would be to admit that an experience that moved them so powerfully at the time was not genuine, and since most people are subconsciously unwilling to admit they can be deceived, they will not do this and will instead convince themselves that their experience was real.

This is essentially the same technique used by many advertisers: rather than present data showing their product to be objectively superior, they show the product in settings designed to provoke a positive emotional reaction in the viewer and associate the product with that emotion. For example, car commercials often show the car being advertised driving through exotic wilderness settings to stimulate the viewer’s sense of adventure, even though the vast majority of owners of that model of vehicle will never take it to such a place. Other products are shown being used in lavish and glamorous settings or by celebrities to appeal to the desire for wealth and fame. And of course, sex appeal has been used to advertise virtually every product that exists. Religion works very much in the same way; it merely appeals to somewhat different emotions.

The overall point is that there is an indoctrinating superstructure built up around most religions that encourages people to believe because of culture, because of family, because of peer pressure, because of community, because of tradition – in short, for every reason except the one that really matters: because the facts support it. Most believers are taught that their religion is true before they are taught any reasons to believe this, if they ever are. And very few, if any, people convert as the end result of a detailed course of study of comparative religion. Instead, most make the decision to believe first – either as a result of youthful indoctrination or a highly emotional conversion experience – and then search for reasons to justify their decision. This does not automatically invalidate their arguments, but it does mean we are justified in regarding them with deeper suspicion as an exercise in after-the-fact rationalization.

Faith Takes Precedence Over Evidence

“The Bible is preserved, reliable, and true because of the nature of its Author. It should be believed over observation and evidence.”
—Kurt Wise, Faith, Form, and Time, p.26. Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2002.

“Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.”
—William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 36. Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 1994 (revised edition).

“If the conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”
—Tom Porch and Brad Batdorf, Biology for Christian Schools (3rd edition). BJU Press, 2004. Available online at BJU Press.

“By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.”
—From Answers in Genesis’ “Statement of Faith” (available online at

“To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so
decides it…”

—Ignatius of Loyola, “Spiritual Exercises” (available online at

“After ten years (in prison in Siberia), [Dostoevsky] emerged from exile with unshakable Christian convictions, as expressed in one famous passage, ‘If anyone proved to me that Christ was outside the truth… then I would prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.’”
—Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 141. Zondervan Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.

The last, most pernicious and most powerful meme used by religions to control the thoughts of their followers is the belief that a person’s faith takes priority over the facts of the external world when it comes to deciding what is true. This belief lies at the heart of most religions and could justifiably be considered the defining characteristic that sets them apart from all other systems of thought. And although not all religious individuals or groups would state this as plainly as the above quotes illuminate, it is present nevertheless.

Consider the message that these statements convey. The first three, from Christian apologists Kurt Wise and William Lane Craig and a biology textbook used in some Christian schools, state that the authors’ version of Christianity should be believed over any evidence a believer might see or any arguments they might hear – in short, that facts, reason and logic are ultimately unimportant when it comes to deciding what is true. The fourth quote, from the creationist organization Answers in Genesis, declares that any evidence that contradicts their interpretation of the Bible is by definition invalid – as if the very concept of truth, in these creationists’ minds, was redefined to read, “Truth, noun: See ‘Bible’”. And the last two excerpts go even farther: the quote from Ignatius of Loyola instructs believers to disregard even the evidence of their own eyes if it contradicts what they have been taught to believe, while the one from Dostoevsky states that he would not give up his religious beliefs even if they could be shown to be false. This message is cleverly reinforced in the Bible and other holy books by stories such as Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the lion’s den, or David and Goliath – all of which convey the message that the impossible can and will happen if only one keeps the faith and does not doubt God.

What all these statements and parables have in common is the unstated theme that it is somehow virtuous or praiseworthy to believe something that is not supported by the evidence. Why this should be so is inevitably never explained. What truly deserves praise and credit is a person willing to put their ideas to the test and accept the results whatever they may be – not a person coming up with an idea, proclaiming it out of bounds for investigation, and declaring that being a morally good person requires believing it blindly without doubt or question. There is nothing virtuous about this, and most religions would probably agree with that conclusion, at least in the abstract. And yet many religions and religious people, no matter how much they claim to approve of questioning and investigation, will rapidly shift their view to one of disapproval and condemnation when it becomes clear that such an investigation is not being carried out with the sole aim of supporting a predetermined conclusion about the infallibility of the belief system being investigated. Statements like the ones above are illustrations of what happens when a supposedly free and open investigation carried out by a believer runs up against the limits of what the authorities have declared their followers may not conclude.

Of course, beliefs of this sort must be properly compartmentalized in the believer’s mind. It would not do to have one’s followers wandering around believing that any proposition they had faith in was necessarily true – such a solipsistic belief system would not last long in the real world. (Its followers would fare very poorly against used-car salespeople, for one thing.) Instead, each religion teaches its followers that their faith only overrides evidence when it comes to matters having to do with that religion. Thus, believers can function normally in daily life and be perfectly rational in every other respect; they can even analyze other faiths and discern the logical problems with them. But when defending their own beliefs, they automatically switch to a different mode of thinking, one where all manner of impossibilities are accepted as fact and evidence is acknowledged only where it supports them, and dismissed otherwise.

As extraordinary as this way of thinking may sound, it has its roots in basic human nature. Most people do not want to lose the comforting, familiar notions that they have grown used to and that they rely on to chart a course through life. That is a natural and understandable human tendency. We tend to resist upsetting discoveries and evidence that is incompatible with our worldview; we would much prefer to reject an inconvenient fact rather than rewrite the core beliefs it threatens. That, too, is human nature. It is no coincidence that the faith-supersedes-evidence meme has found such fertile ground in which to flourish: although religions have learned to exploit it for maximum effect, it has always been a deeper part of the cognitive structure of our minds.

But just because some tendency is part of human nature does not always mean we should obey it. To form a functional and moral society, some of our instincts should be encouraged, while others need to be kept in check. Unfortunately, this tendency of belief protection which is promoted by religion falls into the latter category. Faith alone is no guarantee against error: no matter how strongly a person believes something, no matter how great their inward conviction, they can still be mistaken or outright wrong.

The only way to guard against the possibility of error is by testing an idea against the real world, the ultimate arbiter of truth, without preconceptions as to what the result will be. But for this to be possible, an idea must be testable, i.e., there must be some way to show by experiment that it is true, and more importantly, some way to show that it is false. Anyone can have faith in an idea crafted to be impossible to prove false, but there is nothing impressive or praiseworthy about that. What should be considered impressive is a person taking a stand for a belief that they freely admit they would give up if presented with the right evidence. It takes courage to be willing to be wrong.

Most people, however, do not do this. Instead, with the encouragement of religious authorities, they craft their beliefs to be as unfalsifiable as possible, and often studiously avoid investigating contrary arguments or alternative belief systems. Most religious people believe not because they have critically examined their religion, but because they have not done so; and again, the authorities have encouraged them to consider such an examination irrelevant.

Still, the majority of religious ideas are not completely beyond the reach of pesky evidence. After all, providing comfort and reassurance is one of the main functions of religion, and in order to obtain this most believers need a god that acts in history, that does things. A completely unfalsifiable god would have to be too remote and uninvolved with the affairs of the world for belief in him to provide much comfort. Therefore, despite the best efforts of their founders and followers, the vast majority of religions make claims that are at least partially vulnerable to falsification. In order to provide additional belief protection, these memes have evolved that teach theists to give preeminence to their beliefs over any evidence that might disprove them.

One of the most flagrant examples of this meme in action is the religious maxim “Thou shalt not put God to the test” (as is stated by religious texts such as Matthew 4:7 in the Christian Bible). The essence of this saying is that, while God may sometimes help us in our time of need, he will not reliably do so, nor do we have any right to expect him to do otherwise. Such a rationale is commonly invoked to explain why, for example, double-blind scientific studies have repeatedly found that intercessory prayer makes no measurable difference in the recovery rate of the severely ill – “God does not perform on command,” the apologists say, and we cannot expect nor predict when he will choose to intervene.

But consider what this is really saying. Imagine if you had a friend who said that sometimes, when you need his help, he will help you, but sometimes he will not. Furthermore, when he chooses not to, he will not tell you why; and if you become upset at this reticence, he views it as a personal insult, claiming that you should not have the arrogance to try to put him to the test, and if you really valued his friendship you would not do such a thing, but would accept his help when he chooses to intervene and trust that he has his reasons when he does not. Would we stand for this sort of bizarre and capricious behavior from any human being? Of course not. Why, then, do believers tolerate and even expect it when they are told God acts in the same way? It is because the faith-overrides-evidence meme found in many religions has conditioned them not to expect any tangible proof of their beliefs.

The Vaccine

“Basing your life on reason alone is to me very limiting. You can only reason with the knowledge you have.”
—excerpt from a feedback e-mail sent to this site

Although the opening section of this essay referred to “the” memetic virus, there is actually not one, but many. Each religion in the world today can be viewed as a distinct strain of a particular type of meme complex. They all have unique characteristics: some of these are relatively slow-spreading, while others leap rapidly from mind to mind; some are benign, encouraging humans to live ethically and be at peace with each other, while others are malignant, giving rise to terrorists, suicide bombers, zealots and theocrats. It is an open question whether all these strains ultimately descend from a single common source, or whether they arose independently through the fusion and mutation of memes emerging from the medium of human culture.

However, what is certain in either case is that most, if not all, of them rely on the same techniques to gain and keep their followers’ allegiance and devotion. One of the most effective of these techniques is the doctrine of dangerous knowledge, which prevents members of a given religion from being exposed to outside information that they might use to form a viewpoint contrary to what their religion teaches. This doctrine may either be internalized, in which believers are encouraged to censor themselves, or externalized, in which church authorities explicitly act as the gatekeepers of what information their flock is or is not allowed to see. Accompanying this idea is the doctrine of anti-intellectualism, providing believers with a reason to mistrust the word of any educated person who does not belong to that religion. To provide further incentive to believe, conversion typically takes place through indoctrination, in an environment where opposing viewpoints can be shut out and doubts can be effectively silenced through the word of authorities or by creating a highly emotional atmosphere. Finally, the teaching that faith takes precedence over evidence is used to stifle any remaining objections by disseminating the idea that mere belief is superior to the facts of the world. This idea is often reinforced by teachings that unquestioning faith is a virtue and that it is a sin to put God to the test.

But why, one might ask, is all this necessary? Truth cannot contradict truth. Any idea that is true should have nothing to fear from even the most searching critical analysis, because if it is correct, the evidence will inevitably bear out that conclusion. Therefore, we might expect that any religion confident of its own truth would instruct its followers to question and test it at every opportunity. But almost none actually do this. Instead, the authorities of each religion tell their followers that they must always believe, no matter what reason tells them, no matter what they see or hear. It seems very much like an admission.

What is the purpose of all this? Why do many religions go to such laborious lengths to shield their followers from reason, why in fact do they build their entire structures around accomplishing this goal? The answer lies in faith’s uneasy relationship with reason, as is best exemplified by our own history. To a person who lives their life by reason, ideas are accepted as true because they fit the evidence and pass the tests – not because they have the most eloquent orators, the most ancient and venerable writings, or the most creatively sadistic supporters. As simple as it seems, this is a radical departure from all the worldviews that preceded it. For the vast majority of our civilized existence, human beings were a faith-based species, and it did us no good. Millennia of religious belief, although it gave rise to kings and tyrants and inquisitions beyond counting, did not produce one iota of real, measurable progress, nor one bit of genuine insight into the way the world truly works.

But there has always been another way. Throughout human history, there have been thinkers who advanced the radical idea that we should live by investigating, by asking the questions and letting the world tell us the answers, rather than deciding on the answers in advance and forcing the world to conform. On most occasions, these bright sparks were stamped out, often by the dark ages of faith, before reaching critical mass; however, even these brief flare-ups of reason were often enough to shed some light on the true underlying workings of the universe. But after long centuries of struggle, there was at last a turning point – commonly identified with the period of the Enlightenment in Europe – in which the idea of rational study of the world finally took hold. The flowering of this meme, known in its institutionalized form as the scientific method, gave rise to the most rapid and dramatic improvement in the human condition ever known, and today the pace of progress continues to accelerate. Simply stated, reason is a better way of understanding the world.

However, although the benefits of the reality-based worldview are undeniable, they came – at least from the religious viewpoint – at a price. A worldview that teaches that any conclusion can be questioned is a threat to worldviews that depend on an absence of such questioning in order to survive. When religion reaches people first, it can often teach them to compartmentalize, as described earlier, thus blunting the effect of any critical thinking principles they may subsequently learn. (Many of the great scientists of the Enlightenment were religious themselves; but although they made enormous contributions to our understanding of the world, most did not view their belief in God as a hypothesis equally eligible for testing and potential refutation.) However, it is safe to say that this is an uneasy coexistence at best. The habit of critical thinking, once in place, has a tendency to spread, and worldviews that are not based on evidence do not hold up well when people begin to ask questions, especially questions of the “How do you know that?” variety. Were more people to start thinking in this way – investigating alternative viewpoints, seeking out contrary opinions – the power and popularity of religion would very likely be drastically reduced.

This is the answer to the question posed earlier: religion is so opposed to reason, has gone to such lengths to keep it contained and suppressed, because reason is the vaccine. It is the inoculation that primes one’s mental “immune system” to respond to and reject memes that encourage us to believe without evidence. And since there is no good evidence of any gods that are or have ever been active in the world, religion has no choice but to teach that people should instead believe on the basis of faith. Any competing meme that strikes at the foundation of this worldview is therefore considered a potentially deadly threat, and mechanisms have accordingly been devised to suppress it – though not to reject it entirely, because its usefulness and power are too great to be denied.

Instead, religions often teach that relying only on reason is an artificial and unnecessary limitation – that it has its uses but that there are other ways of knowing, equally valid, that should not be neglected. The quote given above, an excerpt from a feedback e-mail sent by a theist visitor to this site, sums up this sentiment. Naturally, this person did not explain what they felt the alternative was. If not reason, then what? Should we believe whatever we have been taught, without ever inquiring how the teachers came by this knowledge? Should we decide what we want to be true the most and then believe that? These methods would fail disastrously and lead to epistemic chaos. Is basing one’s life on reason a limitation? By definition, yes, but it is a limitation only in the same way that guard rails on highways are a limitation. The only freedom we gain by removing them is the freedom to drive over the edge. Contrary to what some may think, it is not overly restrictive to only believe what is true.

Although many religious apologists openly admit that they would not change their beliefs for any evidence, they seem to expect other people to be more reasonable than they themselves are. When proselytizers produce evidence and arguments for their faith, they apparently expect other people to give them a fair hearing, although they are usually not willing to extend their listeners the same courtesy in return. By contrast, I have never heard an atheist say, “If a conflict should arise between the truth of atheism and beliefs based on arguments and evidence, the former should take precedence over the latter.” Although there may be such dogmatic atheists, I have yet to encounter one. In fact, many atheists have explicitly said what it would take to convert them (see “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists” for one such list). The apologists’ unwillingness to produce a similar list strongly suggests that they are aware that any reasonable criteria they proposed could be met. It is no surprise that they state that their beliefs are not founded on evidence and cannot be changed by evidence.

Homo sapiens has always been a race of believers. Humankind invented religion before we invented writing. While some would doubtless say that the universality of theistic belief testifies to an external source of inspiration, the vast differences in the specifics of belief across many cultures suggest that the human will to believe, coupled with imagination, is the more likely cause. Religiosity is a basic tendency of human nature, and the institutions that have sprung from it are long-lasting and immensely powerful. This does not mean that it is futile for atheists and freethinkers to stand against it; it simply means we must recognize the magnitude of the task. When people consider their beliefs to be sacrosanct, with no room for doubt or compromise, there is no way to resolve disagreements except through the sword, and it is therefore no surprise that religious conflict has led to war, persecution and intolerance throughout history. But now more than ever, when our power to destroy is greater than it has ever been, it is all the more crucial that we rely on reason to guide our actions, rather than blind faith.

This, then, should be the goal: not eliminating religion, but illuminating the tactics by which it commands obedience and discourages doubt, so that people can recognize these and reject them. It is more important that we all make up our own minds, use reason to guide us, and do not passively rely on faith or authority than that we all be atheists. Rather than keep our thoughts in captivity, we should set them free to explore wherever they wish – to seek out different viewpoints, to question fearlessly, and most importantly, to expose all ideas to the fire of testing. The ones worth being kept will survive. Humanity has a vast potential to accomplish things as yet undreamed-of, but blind faith will never take us there. If we are to thread the needle of the dangers that beset us and enter into a future where we can realize this potential, this is the way we must learn to live.