Daniel Catalaa

Viral belief systems

(Authored by Daniel Catalaa on March 6th, 2012)
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There are areas of our life over which we will freely admit that we have little control; however, there is one domain over which we universally take great pride in proclaiming absolute sovereignty: Our mind. We assure others and ourselves of our mental mastery with statements like "I will make up my own mind" or "I am free to choose".

Unbeknownst to us however, we may be hosting and catering to external beliefs that found their way into our head and that we can no longer distinguish from our own thinking. I refer to these beliefs silently operating in the background as "viral beliefs" because they share many characteristics with biological viruses.

Closed belief systems are like viruses

Healthy belief systems are open to challenges, change, and new information. However, they coexist in your mind side-by-side with their evil twins: viral beliefs. Not only do viral beliefs feed you a steady stream of misinformation, they also make you do the bidding of others, and they have built-in defense mechanism that will make them particularly insidious and hard to remove.

During infection many viruses go undetected as they insert themselves into our chromosomes and take over our molecular machinery for self-serving purposes. Likewise, viral beliefs will use your mind as a host where they will live, replicate, and propagate into other minds. A viral or closed belief system can be recognized by these characteristics:

  • Indisputability: the belief is dogmatic and requires you to have faith instead of experiential knowledge to believe in it. Its veracity cannot be questioned. Internal contradictions between different beliefs that compose the system are ignored and contrary data is assumed to be incorrect or fabricated by detractors.
  • Immutability: the beliefs are fully formed and perfect. There is no room for change, adaptation, or improvement.
  • Punishment of non-believers: Non-believers will be punished in some way such as exclusion from group activities, interactions, and privileges, financial repercussions, an alleged eternity of torment, or why not, good old physical violence.
If you accept the premises listed above, then you will find several well known belief systems that fit the pattern, like: patriotism in the form of unquestioned loyalty required by armies and countries, religions claiming to be the one and only truth (e.g. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), and the enforcement at different times in history of the prevailing social mores when the actions only affects the individual or willing partners (e.g. sexual orientation or practice, inversion of traditional gender roles, opting for assisted suicide, criminalizing the use of natural remedies, etc.).

Viral beliefs are self-reinforcing

In a world where everything changes, how can an immutable viral belief stay current, and hence relevant to you? They do so by limiting or excluding your access to new information. One way this is done is to discourage association between believers and non-believers. Non-believers are labeled in such a way that will dissuade you from coming into contacts with them. The apostates will go by names such as the enemy, the opposition, sinners, low-class, weirdoes, queers, hippies, promiscuous, perverts, godless, anti-social, fanatics, communist, and terrorist. And the less you talk to them, the more your viral belief will appear to be true and indisputable.

Self-perpetuating viral beliefs are not limited to politics and religion, they can also occur in the corporate environment. For example an employer may block you from viewing a job search site during your breaks believing that, if you cannot view Monster.com, the company will retain you a little longer. Simultaneously, it's marketing department will attempt, through unsolicited internal communications, to convince you that the company is the best place to work and that there is really nothing else worthwhile out there.

The other way viral beliefs are self-reinforced is by asking for, in fact demanding, that you shut off your rational mind, and accept things on faith and on faith alone. Contrary evidence, such as the fossil record for a creationist, or concentration camps for a holocaust denier are just there to "test your faith". The evidence you have personally derived from direct observation and experience will be discounted if it does not fit the dogma.

Lastly, one of the more perverted self-protection mechanisms is for the belief system to program beforehand a sense of guilt and shame in defectors. For example, patriarchal based systems will ensure that divorced women view themselves as less than their married counterparts, and that female rape victims to do not seek justice.

Viral belief propagation

As with a biological virus, a viral belief has as its chief concern to replicate itself into the minds of others. This can take the relatively benign form of an annoying chain letter that urges you to resend a pieces of superstitious spam "to 10 more people"; or, it may be as consequential as a religion that will propagate at all costs, even if this means discouraging the use of condoms among indigent families in HIV high risk areas, just so that a new wave of newborns can be inoculated with the religious belief.

When a viral beliefs spreads it will invariably do so cloaked in the guise of enlighten assistance. When we spread it, we will think that we are doing good. It therefore becomes legitimate to confiscate resources from the natives because they would have mismanaged them, to save the souls of the savages by eradicating their culture and decimating their numbers, and to exchange material help for the adoption our political views. And so we go about spreading our viral beliefs with the oblivion of the chainsaw-happy rancher that levels the rain forest so that his sheep may have pasture or with the abandonment with which a developer expands suburbia so that people may have homes. The viral belief triumphs not only by spreading through unconscious minds, but by making the belief more important than the believers.

I can't give up my beliefs! Help!

As you read this article you may find yourself wanting to defend some of your core beliefs because you feel attached to them. This can happen when a belief system is deeply enmeshed with your own sense of identity and you struggle to separate the two. But you are not your beliefs, any more than you are your nationality, gender, or the pants you chose to wear today. Of course, this last point is going to be harder to make if you are reading the article in your underwear.

Your ideas have changed over time and, each time this happened, nobody had to reissue you a passport, name, fingerprints, face, social security number, or mind. Your beliefs change yet "you" remain "you". Beliefs need a believer, but the believer does not need a specific belief to have an identity. That means that your ideas can be attacked without you being in any danger. Let people assault your ideas with the enthusiasm of an overzealous 10-year-old swinging a piñata stick while high on candy and see if the beliefs survive or need to be modified. Remember, you are not the beliefs any more than you are the piñata. You are just listening to a different perspective and being a curious and fair participant in the dialogue that is taking place.

I remember telling myself that I believed in god because otherwise I would find life to be meaningless. I later learned that I was intimidated by the prospect and responsibility of having to create meaning on my own and would rather have it spoon fed to me by a pre-existing theology. In this area of spirituality, I matured the most only after separating my identity from my particular set of religious beliefs.

Kill your virus — or upgrade it

Sometimes we do not have the strength to liberate ourselves from a cherished virus all at once. We need to do it in small steps. So it can be beneficial to swap one viral belief system for another less harmful one. If an individual belonged to a street gang (virus A), then enlisting in the armed forces (virus B) would be a step up in the consciousness ladder. A viral adoption sequence could go like this:

  1. Street gang member  (I am destructive and undisciplined) to...
  2. Enlisted soldier          (I am destructive and disciplined) to...
  3. Office worker            (I am constructive and disciplined but dependent) to...
  4. Self-employed          (I am constructive and disciplined and self-reliant)
The progression above reflects my own values and I am just providing it as an example. The relativity is what matters. Going from a boyfriend that is both physically and verbally abusive to one that is just verbally abusive may represent a significant improvement in the life of somebody who is struggling with co-dependecy.

If, on the other hand, you can completely get rid of your viral belief system, before you drag it as it kicks-and-screms to the recycle bin, look it over to extract from it any marginal benefits it may have. Do not get stuck with all-or-nothing thinking. Just cherry pick the useful concepts that can be teased away from the more noxious parts. I have retained and admire the concepts of brotherly love from guilt-instilling Christianity, organization and discipline from sadistic Nazism, entrepreneurship and efficiency from harsh Capitalism, experimentation and curiosity from uncaring Science, etc. When you go about this salvage operation, be sure to wear a full body suit, gloves, and a mask!

Choosing a belief system

When choosing belief systems, i.e. the software that runs your mind and hence your life, I do strongly recommend that you opt for open belief systems versus closed viral ones. Open systems, by their very nature, offer an escape hatch that will allow you to switch to another belief systems as the need arises or to tweak the one you are in. Otherwise, you may trap yourself into an ideological corner and have a limited experience of life for many decades. I will close by saying that freedom of the mind, unlike servitude, cannot be coerced. It can only be offered.