In Theory: Viral Memetic Infection and Mormonism

A few days ago I watched a TED Talk by Diane Benscoter who spoke about her time with the Moonies. What she was saying resonated with what I’ve been reading. This last chapter I read focused on Elizabeth Smart, a teenage girl who was kidnapped by a Mormon Fundamentalist. According to reports, her kidnapper manipulated Elizabeth and convinced her that Fundamentalism was the only true way to live. Her devotion was such that on several occasions she was left alone and unrestrained and didn’t try to escape. When they finally rescued her, at first she wouldn’t admit to being Elizabeth Smart, even after she did her only concern was for her kidnapper’s well being.

While Benscoter chalks the ease with which she became a Moonie up to being young and idealistic.She considers the whole experience to have been a “viral memetic infection”. This concept arose with an essay by Richard Dawkins called Viruses of the Mind, in which he likens the spread of a computer virus to the spread of ideas, particularly religious ones. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer quotes women who think that Elizabeth Smart’s upbringing played a part in her apparent submission to her kidnapper. To them, the fact that she already had a Mormon background, made the Fundamentalist ideals seem more reasonable than they otherwise would’ve.

In his essay, Dawkins says there are two necessary conditions for a system to become infected. The first is “a readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately; and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.” (Dawkins, 1991) He also mentions viruses are more likely to thrive in a system that is already compromised, like immune-deficient patients.

As human beings, we’re certainly capable of replicating information, Dawkins mentions how we learn and replicate complex language patterns from a very young age. On the other hand, we’re able to obey instructions; we may not always obey them and we may not obey everyone, but there is still a large percentage of preexistent rules that we follow.

Then there is the compromised system. It is perhaps possible to say that Elizabeth Smart’s system was already compromised by her Mormon upbringing. When she came into contact with her kidnapper, it was easier for him to “infect” her because he already had a framework within which to build and expand. Benscoter speaks of her youth and so does Dawkins, young minds are more impressionable and likely to believe because they are designed to absorb large amounts of information in order to function in society. Elizabeth Smart still had that impressionable youth, coupled with already cemented beliefs that weren’t that far off from what she was being told by her kidnapper.

It’s certainly an interesting way of looking at the spread of religion throughout society, as an epidemic that constantly replicates itself. This is true of all ideas and concepts, good or bad, if given the right conditions to proliferate. I think everyone has a right to their own beliefs and religion, but it becomes problematic when those create situations like the one Elizabeth Smart went through. It’s problematic when you have people that will be easily convinced that it is ok to be raped and forced into marriage, that it is necessary to kill yourself like the people of Jonestown did.

Diane Benscoter admits that she can understand how she fell prey to the Moonies, how events like the Jonestown massacre occur, how girls like Elizabeth Smart are manipulated into thinking being kidnapped and forced into polygamy is an act of god. I was asking myself where self preservation went in the face of faith, maybe this theory of viral memetic infection has the answer. Maybe it’s not that self preservation disappears, but rather that it is hijacked by the idea virus that is religion, reworking the thought process until it seems like there is no need for your self-preservation instinct to kick in.

Any thoughts, readers? Until next time, stay golden.

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