The Force Is With Us

08.10.14

The Midichlorians Made Me Do It: Can Microbes Explain Religion?

A wild new paper draws on ‘Star Wars’ to speculate about whether microbes might cause religious behavior—the latest in a long history of scientific attempts to pathologize belief.

For close to two thousand years, Christians have been taking Holy Communion. They’ve gone to war over the details of its theological nature. Mormons sip from cups of water, Catholics from chalices of wine. A few denominations dispense with it altogether. It’s no exaggeration to say that individuals have taken part in the ritual billions of times. 

What motivates those individuals to take communion? Do they want to feel closer to God, or just please their mothers? Are they anxious about entering heaven, or anxious, as teenagers, just to try a little wine? Do they enjoy the aesthetics of the experience? Do they feel pressured to participate by people more powerful than they are? Are they trying to affirm their membership in a club? To signal some kind of purity? To stand next to a distant crush while waiting in line? To fulfill a habit, with no real sense of intention at all? 

Or—so much simpler!—is it just the microbes in their stomachs pushing them to go perform a ritual?  

That, more or less, is the suggestion of a paper published last month in the online journal Biology Direct. Written by Alexander Panchin and two colleagues associated with Moscow’s Institute for Information Transmission Problems, “Midichlorians – the biomeme hypothesis” suggests that the impulse behind some religious rituals could be driven by mind-altering parasites. Looking for chances to spread, these hypothetical microbes push their human hosts to do seemingly irrational things—like, say, share a cup of wine en masse, or dunk themselves in the Ganges, or gather themselves from all corners of the earth in order to kiss the same wall, stone, or icon. 

On the whole, this paper must make for some of the weirdest academic reading of 2014. It features Jedi knights, cat-borne diseases, the Eucharist, and bacterial mind control. And it’s been making the rounds lately, if by “making the rounds” one means “simultaneously entrancing and horrifying renowned biologists while earning a major cameo in Nature.”

You should check it out

The outrageous thing, really, is that Panchin et al.’s thesis sounds, well, so un-outrageous.

Essentially, Panchin et al. have noticed that some rituals spread germs. (They’ve mostly ignored the many, many cleansing rituals that seem to do the opposite). So, they ask, what if germs, looking to spread, drive people to perform rituals? This isn’t quite as outlandish as it sounds. Many germs really do alter their hosts’ behaviors in ways that help the germ spread (think of rabies, which spreads by biting, and which alters the brains of infected mammals to make them feel very, very aggressive; or consider Toxoplasmosis, a protist associated with cats, that seems to cause infected rats to feel less fear of felines). 

Of course, the urge to bite your fellow mammals is, perhaps, a shade less nuanced than all the possible reasons that might motivate a person to take communion, or kiss an icon, or travel to Mecca and mingle with strangers. 

Still, undeterred by their total lack of evidence, the paper’s authors proceed boldly into the realm of the hypothetical. They cite Star Wars, in which Jedis get their powers from weird blood-borne microbes, called midichlorians, as a good analogy for this idea of spirituality-emerging-from-germs. They talk about the unsanitary qualities of holy water. They wonder if religious fasts are intended to help clear out the gut so that certain fast-inducing microbes can move in and take up residence. “I thank the authors,” wrote one peer reviewer, “for think [sic] outrageous thoughts.”

The outrageous thing, though, is not that Panchin et al. have decided to reduce many of the world’s most complicated, tangled, historically fraught ritual practices to the mind-hijacking impulses of microbes. The outrageous thing, really, is that Panchin et al.’s thesis sounds, well, so un-outrageous. If anything, they’ve finally achieved the apotheosis of a long line of scholarship that mixes wild speculation, a total disregard for human agency, and a love of just-so stories in order to construe religion as some kind of disease. 

There’s a history here. As early as 1878, the German religion scholar Max Müller could write that “the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have been found out or exploded.” Müller himself described religion as a “disease of language”—metaphors about the natural world that had slipped their figurative chains and become personified deities. 

In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud began to explore in earnest the similarities between neurotic behavior and ritual. His grand theory of the evolution of religion, which involves a primal murder of a father and a whole lot of ancestral guilt, sounds suspiciously like a mashup of Genesis and The Jungle Book. And it places religious practice squarely in the realm of mental trouble.  

The religion-as-psychological-disorder concept lingers. Last year, the Oxford neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor suggested that neuroscience may one day help us diagnose and treat certain kinds of religious belief, so that we could think about, say, radical Islamist belief as “some kind of mental disturbance that can be treated.” American Atheist president Dan Silverman has written that “we must recognize the (hyper) religious as mentally damaged.” (These kind of comparisons, as the atheist writer Chris Stedman has noted, help stigmatize mental illness).

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, Richard Dawkins introduced his idea of memes, or cultural units that spread from mind to mind, acting—in their transmission, infection, and expression—like a kind of viral gene. The meme enters your mind, changes how you behave, and then finds a way to pass itself on to another person. 

The meme concept is rather clever, and I don’t mean to be dismissive of Dawkins’ work. But, eventually, Dawkins would apply it to religion in some rather questionable ways. In a 1991 essay, at the dawn of the computer virus, he laid out the symptoms of someone suffering from a religious mind-virus, charting the epidemiological details of its spread from parents to children, and reporting, with relief, that “many children emerge unscathed from the worst that nuns and mullahs”—those spiritual sneezers, spraying memes—“can throw at them.”

Certain atheists took Dawkin’s analogy and ran with it. Today, there’s “the faith virus,” The God Virus, and The Religion Virus. To this, the midichlorian paper is a kind of humorous afterthought: wait, what if certain rituals actually are the result of literal, physical infections? Panchin and his colleagues call their idea “the biomeme hypothesis”—a Dawkins meme grafted onto an actual, physical microbial invader. 

And all of this makes sense, as long as you think of religious people as passive zombies. The bacteria-driven-ritual hypothesis ignores the huge diversity of reasons that could push someone to perform a religious ritual. 

More generally, thinking of religion as an illness of the mind gives an enormous amount of power to abstract ideas, and very little credit to individual people. Unlike, say, the experience of having a virus, we can usually exercise some choice over our religious lives. When we can’t exercise that choice, the constraints are as likely to be sociological as they are the result of some multi-tentacled idea that has become lodged in our brain (or in our gut). And, unlike a virus or a gene, we can take the religious practices given to us and consciously shape them, change them, deploy them in new ways, and use them for practical ends. 

One feels, reading the Panchin paper and its viral ilk, not that they’ve plumbed the psychology of the religious impulse, but that, unwittingly, they’ve revealed their own total bafflement at why someone might actually want to do something spiritual. 

Fortunately, there’s a cure for that bafflement. It’s called interacting with human beings who are different from you. Unfortunately, this kind of activity is also one of the leading vectors for disease transmission. But, hey, just ask anyone who’s ever shared a communion cup with a few dozen other people: sometimes the world’s a little bit messy.