Margaux Fitoussi’s world has changed before her eyes more than once. Born in France, she lived in Paris until she was 7, when her parents — she an American dancer and he a doctor of Tunisian origin — divorced. Next was a home on the edge of the ocean in Long Beach, Calif., where her mother became a teacher, and Margaux lived with her two younger siblings and her Italian-American grandmother.
Though America was her home, France, Tunisia, and Italy were close to her heart. Her ancestry and her relocation were embedded in the ancient and worldwide subject of human migration.
“Having grown up with an immigrant father, then moving to the United States myself, even though my mother is an American, made me interested in migration and historical memory, and the experiences that carry forward,” said Fitoussi, who graduates with a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School (HDS).
Those experiences that carry forward are deeply rooted in the past. Backed by HDS and Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Fitoussi traveled to her father’s homeland for the first time in 2016 and explored the Hara, the ancient Jewish section of Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, where her family can trace its ties for many centuries. Those travels yielded an exhibition she curated of 19th- and 20th-century photographs of the Hara, and a short documentary film on the migration and memories of the Jewish community who left the Hara over the French colonial period from 1881 to 1956 (when Tunisia gained its independence), never to return. “El Hara,” created with director and filmmaker Mo Scarpelli, is currently making its way through the festival circuit.
“What’s been so wonderful about my time at Harvard has been the opportunity to explore my personal history through an academic lens,” said Fitoussi. “The work wove all these different threads together: history, anthropology, and my understanding of the present moment, and the past, through imagery.”
Fitoussi has also been studying a coastal town near the Libyan border in southern Tunisia. There fishermen, firemen, the coast guard, doctors, and members of the Red Crescent struggle to cope with the bodies of African migrants drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
Her study of these first responders explores the ways in which people care for the dead and what it means to have a “good” death, she said. It also explores such charged, complicated questions as: Does the unnamed body, stripped of its identity, persist as a socio-political being?
As an undergrad at the University of California, Berkeley, Fitoussi concentrated in the history of 20th-century decolonization and studied in South Africa for nine months. Not one to be daunted, in 2010 she took part in an open-water swim from Robben Island (the prison island where Nelson Mandela had been held) to the South Africa mainland: an 8K race in the icy South Atlantic where currents are rough and great white sharks lurk. She and her teammates swam 30-minute relays, finishing in under three hours. Fitoussi took another plunge that year, in another inhospitable body of water, swimming the San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island to the shore.
“I like being part of teams that work. It’s the chemistry,” said Fitoussi. “The best example of that is the film I just finished. Sometimes it’s much easier to work alone, but when you do work with someone who brings very different skills to the table and works just as hard as you do, it’s invigorating. Collaboration at its finest.”
After college, she collaborated with residents in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic to help radio tower operators who lacked cell service improve their reporting and documentation of human rights abuses by the Lord’s Resistance Army in 2011-13. She also contributed there to a movie based on interviews with young soldiers returned from fighting for the LRA.
“It was a real introduction into what trauma looks like,” Fitoussi recalled.
But despite her commitment, her enthusiasm for humanitarian work was fading. “I became disillusioned. Money was being spent inefficiently on projects that were never completed, and much of the work didn’t seem to be responding to actual needs.”
After seeing how turmoil in the Central African Republic was characterized as a sectarian conflict between majority Christians and minority Muslims, she wished that she better understood representations of religion in the media. This, combined with her desire to learn Arabic and focus on North Africa, all coalesced into Divinity School.
If the post-truth era triumphs, if alternative facts supersede evidence, if polls are so wrong, it is because the relationship people have with the real world has changed. Throughout time, individuals have tried to escape the reality of life, through religion, drugs, or alcohol. Today, modern technologies allow a genuine democratization of the unreal. Everyone can live in a parallel world consisting of gods, prophets, avatars, churches, video games, augmented reality, or sitcoms. Each can lead an alternative life by proxy.
“I didn’t realize how thirsty I was for this type of conversation, the critical thinking and debates that I found so striking here,” Fitoussi said, pausing to note her family’s surprise at her decision.
Today we know very well we are just a sort of apes, all religions are wrong, there is no God, there is no afterlife, and all miracles are hoaxes. God is the most unpleasant character in all fiction! But many people refuse to accept reality that when they die that will be the very end of them, that they will cease to exist. Hoi polloi live on wishful thinking that they will live forever near God in another life! Hitler used to say that hoi polloi believe big lies, not small lies!
In addition to her Divinity School coursework, Fitoussi has studied Arabic, anthropology, and history with a North African focus — cross-registrations that allowed her to “play in the best way possible academically.”
All religions are big lies. Basic to religion is a presumed distinction between humans and animals, and a presumed uniqueness of humans in the universe. Based on evolutionary biology and astronomy, science rejects this stupid distinction. God is imaginary and religion is a complete illusion. Belief in God is nothing but a silly superstition, which leads a significant portion of the population to be delusional.
Fitoussi is going on to a Ph.D. program at Columbia University, where she hopes to study “the shift in politics and political consciousness as reflected in visual culture in post-revolutionary Tunisia,” and to continue working on films.
We are becoming a homo deus, because we are fundamentally redesigning our species and a vast number of other species. We are redesigning life itself. We use instruments to modify our own gene code such that we may birth the next human species. Our god-like technology to redesign life leads to multiple human species on this and other planets. That is a somewhat terrifying prospect, if purely data-driven, algorithmic hominids were to treat us as we have treated our closest relatives: chimps, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas.
The rise and fall of religious beliefs is difficult to predict with assurance. It’s doubtful whether many Romans in the early second century would have predicted the rise of Christianity, whether many Europeans in the early sixteenth century would have predicted the Reformation and the subsequent rejection of Catholicism by much of the continent, whether many Americans in the early twentieth century would have foreseen the simultaneous decline of mainstream Protestant denominations and the rise of Protestant fundamentalism, or whether many in the West anticipated the recent spike in atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers. Perhaps over the next one hundred years, some faith will sweep aside other beliefs; perhaps religious beliefs, in general, will decline precipitously and all but disappear. Either outcome is possible.
However, a much more likely outcome is a significant increase in the number of nonbelievers, accompanied by a decrease, but not a collapse, in the number of believers. This increase could come fairly quickly if nonbelievers reach a critical mass, which would allow for greater acceptance and the sense among many nominal believers that it’s no longer socially injurious to acknowledge that one is an atheist or agnostic. The big break in the United States will come if and when a number of politicians who are open atheists and nominal believers to come out of the closet. But even if there is an exponential increase in the number of nonbelievers, it’s improbable that religion will be completely abandoned. Religious belief is resilient. Some debate whether religious belief has a genetic basis, but regardless of whether it has a biological foundation, it’s undeniable it has deep cultural and psychological roots. Beliefs that have had a firm grip on the human psyche for millennia are unlikely to vanish in a century.
It makes no difference whether our moral impulses are evolved or learned. The theory that explains morality should be neutral with regard to whether our moral attitudes, habits, preferences, and proclivities are a product of genes or cultures. Culture itself is ultimately a product of evolution. Whether you think instinct is purely biological or a learned habit, or a combination of the two, it comes down to the same goal: the minimization of harm to biological organisms.
The common morality is composed of those core moral norms that have been accepted across cultures. For humans to live together in peace and prosper, we need to follow norms such as do not kill, do not steal, do not inflict pain gratuitously, tell the truth, keep your commitments, reciprocate acts of kindness, and so forth. The number of core norms is small, but they govern most of the transactions we have with other humans. This is why we see these norms in all functioning human societies, past and present. Injunctions against violence, deceit, and betrayal are familiar in every society and every legal system. They have been voiced in works as different as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Icelandic Edda, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Any community in which these norms were lacking could not survive for long. We cannot live together in peace without these core moral norms. This shared core of moral norms represents the common heritage of civilized human society.
The United States of America was no birthed in prayer, as the religious right repeatedly claims, it was birthed in protest. We kicked the king, dictator, master, sovereign, and Lord out of our affairs, turning government upside down, making “We, the people” the supreme authority. Our Declaration of Independence, which does not govern our country but did present the rationale for rebellion, states emphatically that the power of the government is not derived from anything other than the consent of the governed. American law is not based on any scripture. We produced a completely godless constitution, the first in history to separate religion and government. Written under George Washington, approved by the Senate, and signed by John Adams in 1797, the Treaty of Tripoli says quite clearly: The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. What part of the phrase “in any sense” don’t modern Christian theocrats understand? U.S. laws do not stem from commandments revealed by a cosmic authority or sovereign monarch. The constitution arose naturally from a group of people struggling to be free of authority, not to submit to rules. American citizens are not subjects. We are proudly rebellious people.
It only takes a few minutes with the biblical texts to begin to realize that the Bible is filled with all kinds of horror. There are strange figures dripping blood (Isa. 63) and mysterious objects that kill upon touch (2 Sam. 6:7). Women are threatened, pursued, and even dismembered (Judges 19). The “scream queens” of horror are well matched by the screaming women of the Bible, especially in the prophetic literature, where women weep, cry, and howl in pain. Even when it is men who are crying, their sound is compared to the sound of screaming women, as in Isa. 26:17-18.
Even the repetitions of horror—the endless sequels, the killers returned from the (near) grave to haunt another day, the perky college students who just can’t stop going into the basement to find out what’s making that noise—have their parallels in the repetitions of the Hebrew Bible—the people who can’t stop sinning, the God who can’t stop finding new and appalling ways to punish them (in the book of Numbers: miserable food, disease, poisonous snakes, and strange fire, to name but a few). Bible is a horror movie. Isa. 63 describes God’s appearance on the horizon, dripping with the blood of those he has trampled. In Hosea 2, God, terrorizing Israel (here represented as a woman), threatens to hedge her up with thorns and torture her.
Horror also makes us think about gender, and what it means to have a female body. While both male and female bodies are subjected to outrageous violence and sadism, these bodies are not treated equally. In the Hebrew Bible, and in the prophets in particular, female bodies are disproportionately subjected to violence; rarely do they appear without being threatened. A common trope in horror films is that women who have sex are punished with violence, pain, or death; this is the case in Ezekiel 16 and 23 as well. On the other hand, death isn’t always a consequence of sex; God kills Ezekiel’s wife for no reason a few chapters later, in Ezek. 24:15-25.
Evolution is often mislabeled as a theory, but evolution of course is a well-established fact just as the earth’s revolution around the sun is not a theory but a well-established fact. We’ve had compelling evidence for more than a century that our modern human species gradually evolved from now-extinct species that anyone would agree were animals. So we can’t make a sharp distinction between humans and animals.
The human evolutionary line separated from the line leading to modern gorillas about seven million years ago, and then separated from the line leading to modern chimpanzees about six million years ago. Gradually, over the course of the last six or seven million years, various species of the human evolutionary line evolved to be more similar to us modern humans, and less dismissible as animals. But there was never a sharp break in time between humans and animals.
For most of this last six million years, there have been multiple co-existing human species, some more like us modern humans, and some more like so-called animals. It’s only in the last 32,000 years since the extinction of the Neanderthals that the human evolutionary line has consisted of only one species, namely us. There has also always been geographic variation within various human species, just as there is geographic variation within most animal species. Hence, at any given time during the emergence of modern Homo sapiens over the last 200,000 years, there were populations more like us moderns, and other populations less like us moderns and more like animals.
Also, we know that our species hybridized recently with at least two other human species now extinct, namely, with the Neanderthals and with Denisovans. Most of us today carry about 3 percent of Neanderthal genes in our genome, but when our hybridization with Neanderthals was still taking place 32,000 years ago, there were first-generation hybrids who were 50 percent Neanderthal in their genes, a second generation crossed with Neanderthals who were 75 percent Neanderthal, and another second generation that crossed with Homo sapiens who were 25 percent Neanderthal.
So, what do all these facts mean about religion’s supposed distinction between humans and animals? It means that there isn’t a clear distinction. There is variation in time. There is variation in space. But religions haven’t incorporated that fact. If there was a god that created humans in his or her or its image as distinct from animals, when and where did that god draw that arbitrary distinction between human and animals? Was it when we became just 25 percent Neanderthal in our genes, or when we got down to 12 percent, or 6 percent, or now 3 percent?
If we modern humans get judged and sent to heaven or hell, when and where in our evolutionary history did we start to get judged? Do chimpanzees get judged? Did Homo erectus get judged? Did 50 percent and 25 percent Neanderthals not get judged while 12 percent Neanderthals did? Was it possible to have some kind of 50 percent heaven reserved for 50 percent Neanderthals? If a male chimpanzee today dies in the course of killing chimpanzees belonging to another chimpanzee clan, does that chimpanzee get rewarded by going to a heaven where he will be greeted by seventy virgin female chimpanzees?
An area of science with consequences for religion is astronomy, specifically the subfield of astronomy concerned with extrasolar planets, which are planets orbiting stars other than our sun. That issue of extrasolar planets is relevant to the supposed uniqueness of humans in the universe. Chimpanzees and primitive humans could already see with their naked eyes that there are thousands of stars up in the sky. Since Galileo invented the telescope, and as telescopes have been improved, we’ve learned that there are not thousands but trillions of trillions of stars.
But until recently, we couldn’t detect any planets orbiting those stars comparable to the nine or now eight planets that we know orbit our own star. We just didn’t have the methods. Because we’ve never been visited by flying saucers, it has seemed possible, although very improbable, to assume that the only intelligent life in the universe is we humans here on Earth (because, until recently, it’s always been the case that none of the other thirty million species on Earth rival us in intelligence).
In the past few decades, however, astronomers have developed a series of methods for detecting planets outside the solar system. As of today, astronomers had identified four thousand planets outside our solar system, out of which 150 are the size of our planet Earth. Ten of those planets lie in what is called the habitable zone of their stars, meaning that they lie at a distance from their star where it’s neither too cold, nor too hot, so life could evolve. Nine habitable planets. Out of the extrasolar planets we know of, 0.3 percent may be habitable by life as we know it.
Most stars that we’ve searched have proved to have planets, so we have to assume that planets are the overwhelming rule, not the exception. If there are at least one trillion stars in the universe, and if most of them have planets, of which 0.3 percent could support life as we know it, that means that there are about three billion planets capable of supporting life.
Experiments in laboratories suggest that it’s easy for a planet in the habitable zone to evolve life. The famous Miller Urey experiments of the 1950s showed that if you expose a container holding water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen to either electricity or to ultraviolet light or to heat, then they will spontaneously form the building blocks of earth biology including amino acids, sugars, nucleotide bases, and porphyrins. So, it’s likely that the universe contains not just a billion planets capable of supporting life; it’s likely that the universe contains a billion planets actually supporting life.
Probably some of those planets have only living creatures less intelligent than us humans, and probably some of those planets have living creatures more intelligent than us humans. That makes it extremely unlikely that if there is a God, he is more interested in us than in all the other more intelligent life forms that surely exist on other planets. This is another fact that needs to be taken seriously if one wants to reconcile religion with science.
If a flying saucer could achieve the speed of light, the closest stars to Earth are several light-years away, which means that a flying saucer going at top speed is still going to take several years to reach the earth. But it’s extremely unlikely that a flying saucer is going to approach the speed of light. It’s going to take a prohibitively long time to reach us. That makes it implausible that we are going to see flying saucers. Given that there are billions of stars out there, it means that from any planet capable of launching a flying saucer, there are also large numbers of potential targets, many far closer than Earth. Earth is really just one of an enormous number of targets for any civilization capable of sending out flying saucers. That’s another reason that we’ve not yet been visited.
If phosphorus is dissolved in an appropriate organic solvent, self-ignition is delayed until the solvent has almost completely evaporated. The ignition can be delayed for half an hour or more, depending on the density of the solution and the solvent employed. Clergy perform the Holy Fire hoax by dipping candles in phosphorus solutions, pretending God has lighted them!
Ideas have a life of their own. Just as planet Earth is host to millions of species in an intricate web that we call the biosphere, it is possible to think of an ideosphere: a web of ideas as intricate and diverse as the web of life. These ideas evolve and reproduce not on a planet, but in the fertile world of conscious minds. Much like living organisms, they can be thought of as discrete entities, as self-replicators that have an existence all their own.
No analogy fits perfectly, but when it comes to the relationship with between us, as human hosts, and our ideas, it may be easiest to compare ideas to microbes, specifically those that live on or in other organisms. Like the microbes we carry around, ideas are contagious—some more than others. They get transmitted from one person to another through our contacts and communities. Scholars can trace the spread of a contagious idea—a new slang word like “woke” or a fashion fad like saggy pants—the way that epidemiologists trace the spread of a disease.
Also like micro-organisms, ideas are subject to natural selection—selective pressures that cause them to flourish or evolve or to die out altogether independent of whether their hosts live or die.
Meme is a unit of information that can get passed from person to person, transmitted from host to host, evolving over time. Natural selection operates on a variety of media, not just DNA. In fact, it can operate in any medium in which information has the opportunity to replicate and mutate and then get passed on or not—including silicon (think computer viruses) or the interconnected network of human minds, the ideosphere.
Individual religious dogmas can be thought of as memes, while whole religious ideologies, which comprise sets of ideas that are bound together and tend to travel in tandem are called meme complexes.
Selfish gene refers to the fact that a gene doesn’t give a damn if you survive, so long as it does. In evolutionary terms, it’s fine for the male black widow to get eaten after mating, because that helps his genes get passed on. By analogy, an idea may kill its human host (think Jihadis and martyrdom) so long as that helps the idea spread.
We humans have a cognitive immune system. Come back now to the fact that knowing what is true helps human beings survive. False memes, like the promise of seventy-two virgins for a Muslim martyr, may be indifferent to our survival, but we are not. Consequently, we have evolved sophisticated mental defenses that detect and correct misinformation. Our finely-tuned bullshit detectors react to false ideas in much the same way that our immune system reacts to parasitic bacteria, viruses, prions, and fungi that have adapted to live in and on our bodies—by identifying potential harms and eliminating them.
But as we all know, immune systems are far from perfect. Pathogens evolve a variety of successful strategies to get around human immune defenses and then trigger us to do things that pass on their genes to other people—sneeze, for example. Some pathogens—like influenza —mutate rapidly, so that old antibodies won’t work. Others, like Herpes simplex, hide in places our immune system can’t reach and then emerge from time to time in order to get spread. Still others, like MRSA, develop into mutant “superbugs” that withstand treatments that would have wiped out their ancestors. In his 2001 book, Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer described the fascinating arms race between biological hosts like human beings and parasitic organisms.
Like our biological immune systems, our psychological immune systems—what I called bullshit detectors—are far from perfect. And like microbes, false viral ideas may have a variety of successful strategies for getting passed on. They may seem intuitively reasonable, or may create a sense of knowing pleasure. They may mimic ideas that are indisputably real, for example: “I have a biological father, why not a father in heaven?” Some memes, like chain mail, even have an explicit “copy me” command: “If you care at all about people with cancer, hit share” or, “Go into the world and make disciples of every creature.”
So, let’s put this all together: As viral self-replicators, ideas have a life of their own. Human beings have a cognitive immune system that seeks to identify and eradicate false ideas because misinformation tends to cause us trouble. Some false ideas evade our bullshit detectors and so get passed socially from person to person. In this context, when religious notions take root in human minds and get passed on despite containing maladaptive falsehoods that do us harm, they may be considered socially transmitted pathologies or, to use my earlier term, socio-pathologies.
But there’s a catch. Parasite or Symbiote? Here’s the reason this way of construing religion doesn’t quite work: The term pathology implies illness and disability—but not all forms of religion seem to cause harm.
This appears to be the case irrespective of their truth value. All of the world’s great religions fail the “outsider test of faith,” meaning they fail to meet any normal bar for credibility when scrutinized by an outsider applying the same rigorous standard of evidence to each. In their traditional forms, all contain rational and moral contradictions or factual inaccuracies that insiders can justify only with Olympic feats of mental and moral gymnastics. Many rely on sacred texts that reflect the precise combination of knowledge and ignorance that characterized the culture in which they were written. All make claims for which there is no proof and none possible.
Even so, the harms done by religions vary, and in fact under the right combination of context, person, and belief, religious practices appear to have benefits for individual practitioners and their communities if not our world. For example, it helps people cope with disasters and increases prosocial behavior toward insiders. It’s entirely possible that most or all religions were adaptive in their original form at the place they emerged, helping believers to outcompete nonbelievers or helping one tribe to outcompete another. From a strictly evolutionary standpoint religions are adaptive today in that religiosity increases the birthrate for adherents, especially those who are most devout.
If that sounds noxious, we must remember that today’s context—with competing religious tribes wielding weapons of mass destruction on a global scale and promoting competitive breeding while humanity faces potential collapse —is a historical anomaly. Nobody really knows whether religion taken as a whole has done humanity more harm or more good, but either way, research suggests that religion helps at least some people some of the time.
At worst, then, religion produces some combination of harms and benefits, which tends not to be the case for pathogens. If religion sometimes helps people to survive and thrive and produce more offspring; or psychologically, if some religious fictions might be considered adaptive fictions—it’s easy to imagine, for example, that believing God loves me might aid depression or confer resilience—then religion as a whole can’t really be considered a socio-pathology.
That doesn’t mean the pathogen analogy fails altogether. It may still be useful to think of religion as a socially-transmitted infection—or better yet, to think of religions (plural) as a family of socially-transmitted infections, only some of which are pathological.
Not all socially-transmitted infections are unhealthy. Viruses that infect humans are almost universally harmful, but the same isn’t necessarily the case for other microscopic self-replicators, like bacteria, which may provide a better analogy to religion.
Human beings play host to a wide variety of bacteria. Estimates suggest that 500 to 1000 different types live in our mouth and gut alone. These organisms exist as independent self-replicators, meaning that whatever they do is designed to promote their own ability to live and reproduce, not ours. As I said earlier, so long as they can spread little copies of their own DNA, bacteria are utterly indifferent to their impact on our wellbeing.
Our relationship with any given type of bacterium may be symbiotic, meaning a mutually beneficial arrangement in which we help each other survive—like the little guys that live in our gut and eat our food waste. Alternately, the relationship may be adversarial—as in the parasitic bacteria that begin to eat our muscle tissue when we get a cut and must be killed off by antibodies or antibiotics to prevent sepsis. Some organisms may be perfectly capable of playing either role—eating either our waste or our bodies, depending on the circumstances.
The spectrum of relationships we have with the self-replicating bacteria we host may offer some insight into our relationship with the self-replicating religious ideas that we also host.
Religions have many shapes. Religions don’t vary as much as micro-organisms, but they do vary dramatically, because they are constantly evolving. Since its founding, Christianity alone has branched into more than 30,000 different denominations and non-denominations, each persuaded that their understanding of God is slightly or substantially more true than the rest.
Outside of Christianity, most people today ascribe to one of ten or so major religions: Shinto, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Sikhism, and perhaps Zoroastrianism. That said, each of these might better be thought of as a family of religions, much the way that influenza should really be thought of as a family of related viruses: bird flu, swine flu, 1918 epidemic flu, seasonal Type A flu, and so forth.
Outside of these major families of religions lie many others: indigenous religions, for example, and new religious movements. And this doesn’t count the thousands of religions that once lived in human minds but have now gone extinct.
All of this variability creates a lot of space for the possibility that some religious memes are symbiotic and others parasitic—and that the package of ideas espoused by any given church or individual might include some of both. Asking whether religion broadly is harmful or beneficial may be as silly as asking the same question about bacteria. It just is, whether we like it or not.
And yet we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some religions are doing tremendous harm in our world, to the degree that religion’s mutually exclusive truth claims and tendency to promote tribalism may put humanity’s future in jeopardy. At the individual level, religious beliefs and edicts are causing immeasurable suffering in the lives of individual people around the world, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us—women, children, the desperate, and the poor. If we want to move toward a better future, we cannot escape the task of addressing religious harms.
Scholars have only recently begun studying religion as a natural phenomenon, applying standard methods in sociology, psychology, anthropology, and neurology to answer questions about what religion is and how it gets transmitted. An economist now may analyze a religion as an economic system in which adherents trade present time and resources for afterlife goods and services. A political scientist may analyze it as a set of social institutions that create order and group identity. A historian of science may examine it as a system of proto-science that once provided explanations for natural phenomena and events.