In moderation, religious and spiritual practices can be great for a person’s life and mental well-being. But religious fundamentalism—which refers to the belief in the absolute authority of a religious text or leaders—is almost never good for an individual. This is primarily because fundamentalism discourages any logical reasoning or scientific evidence that challenges its scripture, making it inherently maladaptive.
It is not accurate to call religious fundamentalism a disease, because that term refers to a pathology that physically attacks the biology of a system. But fundamentalist ideologies can be thought of as mental parasites. A parasite does not usually kill the host it inhabits, as it is critically dependent on it for survival. Instead, it feeds off it and changes its behavior in ways that benefit its own existence. By understanding how fundamentalist ideologies function and are represented in the brain using this analogy, we can begin to understand how to inoculate against them, and potentially, how to rehabilitate someone who has undergone ideological brainwashing—in other words, a reduction in one’s ability to think critically or independently.
How Religious Ideologies Spread
Similar to how organisms and their genes compete for survival in the environment and gene pool, ideas compete for survival inside brains, and in the pool of ideas that inhabit them. The famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has used this insightful analogy to explain how ideas spread and evolve over time. In his influential 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he refers to ideas as “memes” (the mental analog of a gene), which he has defined as self-replicating units that spread throughout culture. We are all familiar with many types of memes, including the various customs, myths, and trends that have become part of human society.
As Dawkins explains, ideas spread through the behavior that they produce in their hosts, which is what enables them to be transmitted from one brain to another. For example, an ideology—such as a religion—that causes its inhabitants to practice its rituals and communicate its beliefs will be transmitted to others. Successful ideas are those that are best able to spread themselves, while those that fail to self-replicate go extinct. In this way, some religious ideologies persist while others fade into oblivion.
It is easy to see why religion quickly spread through culture once it emerged. When humans gained the cognitive capacity to reason and plan for the future, they became aware of their own mortality. The realization that oneself and all one’s loved ones will someday die is naturally terrifying, and this existential fear perfectly set the stage for anxiety-reducing ideas, like ones that offer a never-ending afterlife. But religions are complex ideas, and the psychological effects they have on minds go beyond just relieving anxiety.
Essentially, the brain is a biological computer, and an ideology is a set of coded instructions, or “cultural software,” that is running on the brain’s hardware. Esteemed philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett insightfully described how ideas can control minds when he said, “The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes.” In this regard, it is often not the brain that controls the mind, but the memes that compose the mind that control the brain. This is especially the case when the meme is a religion...…….