Re: virus: E-Mail Thought Contaigion
Wed, 3 Dec 1997 15:47:56 -0500 (EST)

In a message dated 97-12-02 16:56:20 EST, you write:

<< Impressive: This piece more or less exactly fits my views on these
subjects. I especially like the passages about after-life and morality.

However, I believe this piece serves a purpose somewhat different from the
original intention of contagion via email. For the contagion to be
succesful, I propose that it merely seeks to explain memetics (and
itself), without offering any critiques of established memes. This will
allow it to spread further and faster, thus greatly incrasing the number
of vectors for memetics (at, admittedly, a very basic level).

Once this contagion is well under way, and also documented to a certain
degree, we might consider sending out something along the lines of your
piece, Jake. If we were to send it along the same channels as the first
meme, we would (hopefully) be able to detect any changes in the pattern
of infection. This, I belive, would yield more useful information as well
as giving the meme a better chance to spread (more potential hosts which
have been better prepared).

Actually if I remember my intentions at the time I created it, I was
actually more interested in reaching atheists through this thought contagion.
I was hoping to encourage a more proselytic attitude among atheists, while
encouraging this out of real humane concern. The only problem was that I got
very little response from atheists on AOL. Actually it was the Christians
who responded more and they were not the actual intended audience. Anyhow it
flopped. I am sure the message could be tailored a little bit better. I
offered it only as perhaps a begining point.
A couple of ideas about spreading an e-mail like this. Make it look as
little like a chain letter as possible. Don't blindly forward it like any
chain letter. I think it helps if you engage the intended target in a little
preliminary dialog. I think it needs to be spread to people that already are
susceptible to the message, otherwise it may not spread beyond the intended
target. Though it may not be a bad idea if it also reached less susceptible
audiences too. Later on they may encounter a similar idea elsewhere and
repitition and number of sources adds to susceptibility. I think that if you
include it as packet, along with a more personal introduction to your target,
it will be more likely to be read. I also think you should be ready to
engage in possible follow-up questions. Here you have to appear as open and
rational as possible. In that circumstance, you are the message. It may
even cause you to evaluate your own beliefs more carefully. The net result is
that it might not spread as quickly as your usual chain letter, but it's
message will be more likely to be absorbed. Currently these ideas run
counter to our dominant culture. Right now we are swimming upstream. We
can't be in a hurry, but we can compensate with persistence.

Actually once the original "Thought Contagion" flopped, I came up with
another piece called "The faith-meme". This is essentially a bite-sized
summary of a particular idea in Richard Dawkins "Viruses of the Mind". It
concentrates on defining the faith meme. I spread this one by lurking in
religious discussion chatrooms (with titles like "God is a Myth" and
"Atheists v. GodZilla") and then e-mailing this to the participants who were
apparently atheists (or at least with atheist tendencies) while I was still
in chat. Often I got immediate response. I don't know how much it spread
beyond the initial targets. I didn't explicitly instruct any of them to
spread it further, but I do know that at least one person pasted it into her
website. Here it is.

This is an interesteing idea that I ran across in an essay by Richard
Dawkins. This is the faith meme and I think it goes a long way to explaining
the persistence of religion. Most people are indoctrinated with this meme as
children when they are too young to seriously evaluate the thinking. Faith
is essentially the belief in things that are unsupported by evidence. The
faith meme is very simple; all faith is a virtue. When people say "I don't
care what a person's religion is as long as he has one," that is a variation
of the faith meme. When faith is made virtuous in and of itself, all
religion is downhill from there. It even becomes easier to accept patently
ludicrous beliefs than it is to challenge them.
It takes some faith to believe in any of the many nebulous concepts of
God. It takes a little more to believe that God sent Jesus to help us out.
But it takes someone with a strong faith to believe in the literal
interpretation of miracles in the Bible. It takes some faith to have a
general allegiance to the Catholic Church. But it takes a very faithful
Catholic to believe in transubstantiation. The more ludicrous the belief,
the greater it testifies to the faith of its adherants, and hence their
When we atheists challenge these beliefs without addressing the faith
meme itself, we are actually strengthening these beliefs. We are confirming
that indeed the belief is ludicrous; therefore it must require a lot of faith
(especially when it CONTRADICTS the evidence); therefore the believer must
have a lot of faith; therefore the believer is very virtuous. All religions
get a free ride on the faith meme. All religions support each other on the
issue of faith despite their occasionally bloody differences. Even the
tolerant new ager who points out the common messages of different religions
and affirms that all religion is basically good, is helping the faith meme
along. As long as the faith meme persists, religion will be persistent.


P.S. the URL for the Richard Dawkins essay is:
If you like that here are two more references that elaborate on these

Although the ideas in this piece were nothing new, I think its brevity and
concentrated focus on the faith-meme concept instead of trying to explain the
entire Dawkins essay, helped to insure that the targets would read it and not
lose interest halfway through the piece. It was a good teaser to get them to
look as some of the links.