I don’t say this about very many books, but Craig A. James’s The Religion Viruscan facilitate a wholesale change in the way we think about religion. By itself, it stands strong and makes a great argument. When it works together with the already growing “God Virus” meme, it forms a powerful meme-plex, and gives us a great framework for examining and talking about religion.
The subtitle – Why we believe in God: An evolutionist explains religion’s incredible hold on humanity – might confuse some readers. Indeed, I expected to read about cognitive mechanisms or the evolution of human psychology. And to be fair, chapter 7 does cover one possible explanation for our seemingly innate attraction to religion. But that’s not what this book is primarily about.
Don’t let that deter you from picking up a copy, though. The Religion Virusis an engaging, entertaining, and educational journey from the earliest animist religions to modern Christianity, with a focus on the meme as a unit of “idea evolution.” James takes us on a guided tour of religion’s development as both a reaction and a shaping force in history.
Since memes are a relatively new concept, with an evolving definition, James helps us out by discussing and explaining his use of the word. In short, a meme is an idea. More specifically, it’s an idea that is passed from human to human and/or generation to generation, and “evolves” as it moves through space and time. He is quick to point out that it does not evolve precisely the same way as organisms, but the similarities are striking enough to use the term “evolution” in a colloquial sense and be well justified.
The most important characteristic of memes is that they have “survival ability.” A meme’s survival is not dependent on its truth value. Rather, it relies on two main factors: Message and Motivation. A virulent meme must communicate a Message that makes people want to remember it. It must also generate some kind of Motivation so we want to tell other people, who find it compelling and pass it on to their friends.