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.
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.
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