An ant climbs a blade of grass, over and over, seemingly without purpose, seeking neither nourishment nor home. It persists in its futile climb, explains Daniel C. Dennett at the opening of his new book, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (Viking), because its brain has been taken over by a parasite, a lancet fluke, which, over the course of evolution, has found this to be a particularly efficient way to get into the stomach of a grazing sheep or cow where it can flourish and reproduce. The ant is controlled by the worm, which, equally unconscious of purpose, maneuvers the ant into place.
Mr. Dennett, anticipating the outrage his comparison will make, suggests that this how religion works. People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea "that has lodged in their brains." That idea, he argues, is like a virus or a worm, and it inspires bizarre forms of behavior in order to propagate itself. Islam, he points out, means "submission," and submission is what religious believers practice. In Mr. Dennett's view, they do so despite all evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend.
I admire Dennett, and was thrilled by his earlier book, Consciousness Explained. As for his argument here though, I think it's plain wrong. Religious belief is not analogous to the worm in the brain of the ant, forcing the ant to do things that are of no benefit to it.
Richard Dawkins' expression of a similar idea was more subtle, and also allowed more room to see it as a metaphor rather than an actual biological fact. (See my earlier blog of 2005/9/25.) What Dawkins calls a "meme" (such as "Allah is great," or any ad jingle) is not a gene, and has no physical presence in anybody, but in some ways it acts like a gene, and the metaphor can help us perceive the process of transmission. I borrowed the "meme" metaphor in Hispanic Nation, for that reason. But, like the Danish cartoons, "meme" (or "parasite") is only a metaphor: it points to some other reality, exaggerating some aspects without defining or describing it.
This is serious, this biological reductionism, when it's taken seriously. It's serious, because as a diagnosis it prescribes exactly the wrong remedy. If religious belief is a parasite in the brain, then to get rid of it you have to attack the brain in some physical way. For example, stripping men naked and putting women's underwear over their heads, chaining them and treating them like dogs, or, as Rumsfeld advocates, making them stand (preferably naked and chained) for many hours, or shocking them physically (water, electricity) or emotionally (tossing a Koran into the toilet, for example). So far, it doesn't seem as though the Guantanamo cure has worked for anybody.
Religious believers (the "hosts" of the belief) persist in believing because they do derive benefit from it. Among people I know, the benefit is often esthetic (the beautiful music, or paintings, etc., seem to glow more warmly for the believer). Usually, it's something to cling to to get you through the dark night, the bad times -- the notion that, whatever the hardships of the moment, there will be some final justice in the end. And there is also the benefit of belonging, of feeling part of the crowd, so that one's personal minuteness in the vast and confusing whirl of the cosmos joins a powerful flow. As our friend Karl put it famously, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."
We non-addicts, and non-believers, have to find other ways to feel good, but people without our resources have a hard time getting along without their gods. If we want to free them from the addiction, the opium, the parasite (all metaphors for a kind of yearning), we need to supply them with the necessary resources for a life free of gods, demons, mullahs and priests: e.g., education, income, medical insurance, a reasonable expectation of civil justice, care for the elderly, etc.