Anatomy of a Social Disease
I’ve just finished reading Parasite Ecology and the Evolution of Religion by Ben Cullen.
(From the work)
“Abstract: It is argued that the blanket view of religion as a disease, advocated by Dawkins, is inconsistent with the principles of parasite ecology. These principles state that vertically transmitted parasites evolve towards benign, symbiotic states, while horizontally transmitted parasites increase their virulence. Most of the world's established religions are transmitted vertically, from parents to children, and are therefore expected to be benign towards their hosts. Yet, certain horizontally transmitted cults, such as the Aum Shinrikyo, seem to effectively exploit their hosts in a way similar to an infectious disease.”
“In conclusion, then, it would appear that the blanket view of religion as a disease, as advocated by Dawkins (1993a,b), is not consistent with recent research into the nature of parasite evolution. Many religions are being vertically transmitted or family dependent, and we would therefore expect them to evolve toward symbiosis or at least benignness. As Dawkins has remarked, it is an extraordinary fact that if we adhere to a faith at all, it is overwhelmingly likely to be the same as that of our parents. This simple fact ought to ensure that if a religion which followed this pattern of transmission ruthlessly exploited its congregation, it would eventually plunge both itself and its people into extinction.”
On the face of it, this is a moderation of Dawkin’s position, making a case for “traditional” religions being benign. I cannot help but observe that, with the long human history of religiously motivated wars and pogroms, it remains to be seen whether vertically transmitted religion will be the cause of its own adherent’s extinction. Certainly it has been the cause of extinction many times on an individual scale. Cullen’s criterion for being considered benign seems to be “not destroying the entire population (congregation)”. By this definition, Influenza is benign.
I think that Cullen is correct when he identifies a symbiotic relationship as opposed to a parasitic one. The problem comes from considering a symbiotic relationship as necessarily benign, mutually beneficial, or synergistic. From Wikipedia:
Symbiosis (pl. symbioses) (from the Greek words syn = con/plus and biono = living) is an interaction between two organisms living together in more or less intimate association or even the merging of two dissimilar organisms. The term host is usually used for the larger (macro) of the two members of a symbiosis. The smaller (micro) member is called the symbiont (alternately, symbiote, and the plural is symbionts or symbiotes). When a microscopic symbiont lives inside a host, it is referred to as an endosymbiont.
The various forms of symbiosis include: -
parasitism, in which the association is disadvantageous or destructive to one of the organisms and beneficial to the other (+ -)
mutualism, in which the association is advantageous to both (+ +)
commensalism, in which one member of the association benefits while the other is not affected (+ 0)
amensalism, in which the association is disadventageous to one member while the other is not affected (- 0)
In my opinion, religion is a symbiotic hybrid, capable of moving between states of symbiosis. It is also a hybrid in another way, having some characteristics of a host, and some characteristics of the symbiote. Consider: as a subset of a larger organic form known as society, the religious community acts as host to its members. As a set of ideas placed in one human brain by the communication of another, it is a symbiote.
Note also that parasitism and amensalism are defined as being disadvantageous or destructive, not necessarily destructive.
Religious institutions are a hybrid in another way also; there is an exchange of advantages and disadvantages. Advantages in the relatively benign traditional institutions include membership in a socially acceptable group, a certain amount of mutual aid and comfort, and the potential preferential treatment one can obtain in any similar networking opportunity. Disadvantages include the potential loss of critical thinking skills, financial drain, and the acceptance of a subservient position in society. This is not an exchange that I am willing to make. I find it interesting too, that evangelizing changes an organization’s structure from vertical to horizontal, and in my opinion, conforms to the rules of parasitism as defined in Cullen’s essay.