I was initially amused when I first read Richard Dawkins' reference to religion as a virus. I believe it was in his The God Delusion that I first found the idea, but then found out that Craig A. James had fully fleshed out the notion in his The Religion Virus.
The example that Dawkins sets uses parasites who enter the body of innocent animals and make animals (in his case, frogs) deformed and particularly vulnerable to predators. Once eaten, the seed of these parasites lies dormant in the dung of the birds who usually feed on these frogs, and then the life cycle of the parasite can begin again.
Another example he uses is the ant who is overtaken by a parasite that grows on its head. Other ants quarantine the member of the species and mark the territory around it with chemicals to warn each other. These super-intelligent insects apparently know the parasite is contagious. The growth of the parasite is such that the ant is entirely deformed. It attracts birds who also eat the ant and perpetuate the seed of the parasite.
The argument seems to be that only something that functions as a psychological parasite can make a man blow himself up for a higher good. Only a man possessed by a foreign biological agent would act as a suicide bomber or pilot, or murder his own children as a sacrifice to his God, or make a person engage in celibacy. These are behaviors that obviously have no connection with biological imperatives to survive and to pass on the genes and are, therefore, anti-life.
These memes hijack instincts and emotional responses inherent to people (our connection to father, to mother, an infantile urge to surrender, our fear of death, etc.) and use them for self perpetuation. Just as many viruses are intelligent and use the behavior of other species to their advantage, these memes cleverly implant impressions in the soul through devotion, ritual, initiation, passionate speech; they create fond memories just as familial relations do. And just as with bacteria, some are harmful, while others are relatively innocent.
It may be more accurate to say that these cultural memes are not agents themselves but are cleverly utilized by agents: parents wanting to protect their children teach them certain beliefs, pastors wanting to control people implant beliefs based on guilt or fear, and some people seek to console themselves in times of difficulties and also construct belief systems that provide comfort. All these agents have their own agendas and, ultimately, it is these agents who (consciously or not) create and perpetuate these memes.
Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. In the worldview of an evolutionary biologist, living entities' genes adapt constantly to their environment by the process of natural selection, perpetually increasing their chances of survival and honing the survival strategies of the species. It is therefore understandable that, to Dawkins, only a parasite would lead a living entity to behave in a manner which is counterintuitive for its survival.
Lucretius, in Chapter IV of his poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) describes an early theory of natural selection which existed among ancient Epicureans 23 centuries ago. This theory was part of the first and most cogent ethics based on biology, science and the study of nature that any philosophy has proposed. Because Epicureanism is a naturalist philosophy, it frequently draws metaphors from nature and there is ongoing discourse where philosophy is compared to medicine. Applied Epicurean philosophy gives us a compassionate process of therapy by which the diseases of the soul can be treated.
Philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that cannot cure the body - Epicurus
We therefore take very seriously Dawkins' assertion that supernatural beliefs are parasitical, viruses of the mind and that religion can behave like an epidemic. We should carefully consider the repercussions of this and not ignore the many and complex religious worldviews and paradigms, not all of which are equal. It would be unfair to treat all religion as (equally) evil or harmful.
The main danger coming from religion has to do with fear-based beliefs, as I see it. This is indicated by the first two of the Four Remedies: do not fear the Gods and do not fear death. These are among the very few 'thou shalt nots' of Epicureanism and their primacy indicates how important they are.
It's fear of God(s), and the implied notion that it is wholesome to be scared of a God, that produces many of the more primitive and superstitious, less desirable expressions of religious fervor, from the episodes of genocide in the Old Testament, to the inquisition, to the glorification of violence as jihad or of martyrdom in Catholicism. In all these cases we create misery on Earth, all for the sake of a feared divinity.
It is here that the ancient imagery of an angry tribal warrior God sending plagues to his tribe's enemies becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in our process of co-creating our otherwise beautiful world. It is here that the AIDS plague becomes an occassion of thanks-giving to pious Christian fundamentalists and 9-11 an occassion of festivity for pious Muslim fanatics.
Why else would a God have to be feared? People only fear if they are threatened, if they feel like there is a reasonable danger approaching. If you believe that you worship an agent capable of heinous acts of bioterrorism or mass murder, even if at times you wish he would act against your perceived enemies, you WILL fear your God and think of fear of your God as a necessary part of your piety. But a closer and honest talk with the mirror will reveal that a part of your soul ressembles him. Joseph Campbell said that your God is your limit. He can also be your disease of the soul.
Each one of our unanalysed fears is seen as a disease of the soul, defined by us as diathesis (dispositions, or underlying beliefs) founded on false belief which generate unnecessary suffering. The plague-sending God becomes very real to the people who suffer from this insidious type of spiritual disease. They live in fear and they spread it against their will. Like Dawkins' narrative of parasites in nature, these diseses perpetuate themselves through their agents, the false preachers, even when they seem to provide no apparent survival value. They do not serve life: they hinder it. They do not add pleasure: they remove it, and replace it with ignoble values and experiences.
Epicurean therapy requires that we replace false dispositions with true beliefs and wrong views with right views. Science had advanced tremendously and provides great assistance, as it is through the study of nature that people can acquire a proper naturalist understanding of reality and protect the mind from supernatural (and, therefore, UNnatural) views. There is now a science of dying, and also a science of happiness, both of which add to the conviction needed to succeed as an Epicurean and slay the monsters of the soul.
Applied philosophy heals the soul with its wholesome arguments, which argue against the false beliefs and make it easier for us to abandon the empty or vain desires, fears and habits that emerge from them. Epicurus calls us to carry out nothing less than an inner revolution through which we regain our spiritual health.
We treat false beliefs, mainly, via thorough study, repetition and memorization of Epicurus' teachings, which are rendered in the form of short adages for easy memorization and compiled in epitomes like the 40 Principal Doctrines. Having wholesome friends is the most important ingredient in happiness. Also important is associating with people of like mind. But without this introspective process, it is impossible to gain the insight and freedom by which philosophy redeems the soul.
Dawkins was recently seen sporting a shirt with the message: "Religion: Together we can find a cure!". I wish I could meet Professor Dawkins in person and tell him: "Dear Friend, have you heard of Epicurus? We at the Society of Epicurus are here for that very purpose!"