Essay: Religion is Like a Fungus

Some of the most maladaptive social behaviors I see seem to indicate deep human longings for religion and/or magic. Here’s something I wrote about religion in December. It’s weird. You don’t have to agree.


Religion is like a fungus: seemingly toxic, but an essential part of an ecosystem we don’t understand.

Culture is alive. Just as physical living organisms are interconnected in complex ways, so are cultural organisms.

Our usual approach to Life is to think of organisms as discrete individuals. The plant is one thing, the soil is another, the insects another, and the fungus is some pathogen or pest. The animal is an individual, whose life processes are carried out by its individual organs. A human is one thing, culture is another; an intestine is one thing, gut flora are another.

Only recently have we acknowledged that animal digestion relies on bacteria. Without internal bacteria, animals cannot live. That bacteria is communicated through a complex living environment we remain mostly stupid about.

Religion is like a fungus. Consider Penicillium: a mold that spoils bread. No one wants moldy bread. If our bread is moldy, we curse the mold, and perhaps dream of a world in which mold is eliminated.

Suppose we succeed in wiping out the nasty bread mold. Do we end up with clean, pure bread? No, we open the door to far more toxic organisms.

I am highly critical of established religions. Terrible things are done in their names. They do seem toxic.

But a human mind without religion does not become some pure, rational ideal. The human mind never was and never will be pure or discrete. The human mind exists in a cultural ecosystem we do not fully (or even begin to) understand.

Because cultural ecosystems are barely acknowledged, let alone studied, there aren’t well-developed ways to talk about them. I use the metaphor of soil: human minds are the soil in which culture lives. Culture itself may be “airborne,” like spores. A human mind with permeable ears and eyes will be colonized by music, images, language, gestures, sounds, patterns, and much more we can’t even name. Trying to stop culture from entering a mind by enclosing it just makes the system unhealthy – like wrapping food in plastic. It works for a short time, but eventually traps colonies of microbes, and not the ones you want.

Better to keep the mind nicely aired out, with an open flow of culture around it, so it can stay healthy.

Established religions may protect minds against even more toxic cultural organisms, just as Penicillium makes bread inhospitable for pathological bacteria. For all its faults, Abrahamism may protect minds from even worse ideologies.

Atheism has become very popular in the West over the last few decades. I’m all for it. Except…it has coincided with the rise of some pretty toxic new religions. Foremost is genderism, the belief in an unprovable, indefinable gendered essence (soul) that can be born in the wrong body. Genderism is remarkably popular among professed atheists.  Danielle Muscato is a prime example.

This is anecdotal, and I am only one data point, BUT: I’ve noticed that the most toxic, extreme genderists tend to identify as atheists, while many of the most benign and rational genderists I’ve encountered practice a traditional religion (Christianity). They may not even be genderists per se, but they are transsexuals. I speculate their established religion protects them from the worst cultural toxins – misogny, dishonesty, entitlement, violence – attendant to gender extremism.

For all my criticism of religion, I conclude that humans may need it. Killing off religion may be like killing off “pests”: seemingly beneficial in the short term, but having complex effects on the larger ecosystem that can be catastrophic. Healthy soil needs – largely is – fungi and bacteria. Healthy minds – the soil of culture – may require similarly unsympathetic cultural organisms. Like physical Life on Earth, most mental life is “below ground,” and staggeringly complex. The writhing colonies of organisms that live in dark places may disgust us, but our life and health depend on them.


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

7 thoughts on “Essay: Religion is Like a Fungus”

  1. I like “genderism” and I agree about the religious beliefs of atheists. Many people assume that a religion requires one or more gods, but it only requires a belief system. Genderism comes from the social justice community, and social justice is a concept that began with the Catholics and was limited to religious communities for over a century. Atheists didn’t begin to use the term until the 1980s or so. While they leave God out of it, they keep many of its assumptions and fail to notice what atheists should notice, that science does not support many of their beliefs.

  2. Great analogy!

    Religion is pretty universal and part of every human culture we know about. So, let’s not try to eliminate because we can’t. Then again, we should not let this toxin run amuck.

    In particular, I don’t get this, “… religion protects them from the worst cultural toxins – misogyny, dishonesty, entitlement, violence – attendant to gender extremism.” As it is rather obvious right now, religion, particularly the “Book” ones, promote all those things.

    Like fungi, rather than eliminate them, we need to limit their impact (“DON’T eat that one or you’ll die”). Separation of Church and State worked, more or less in the US, while pockets of religionists remained separate, in their own patch, so to speak. Unfortunately, Gingrinch et al learned to aggregate them into a potent (toxic) force by affording them a national identity. Bannon is now trying to give them an international one (ie, the ultimate biological weapon, to use your analogy).

    We need to figure out a way to keep this toxin out of national governance.

    I agree also that there is an element of social justice in religions, but only one element of it. Modern religions are primarily about social order. Monotheistic religions embraced the fiat hierarchy, with one male god at the top, as their organizing principle. That was not a coincidence.

    Social justice becomes a rallying force for exploited communities (the early Christians, the jewish diaspora, or the early Mormons). But once in power, *justice* fades away and the *order* of a power hierarchy takes over (the Roman empire, Israel, or Utah).

    We are wired to believe in imagined actors (“the leaves are rustling, run away from the tiger”). We don’t like to feel powerless, so we imagine at least influencing the forces around us. We are social animals. Add it all up and you get religion. It becomes toxic when it is turned into a tool of power over one another. That’s the part that we need to contain. Just like fungi.

  3. One big problem with religious faith, of any kind, is that it stops you from asking questions. This is done in two ways: supplying ready-made yet empty answers (“God did it !”), and prohibiting the questions themselves (“that’s blasphemy !”). Unfortunately, in our modern world, our prosperity (and, arguably, our very survival) depends on coming up with correct answers to all kinds of questions.

    For example, back in ye olde days, answering the question “how did life get here ?” wasn’t really important. It could’ve been through the divine word of YHVH, or by the death of Tiamat, or whatever; every religion had its own answer. Today, knowing the correct answer is the difference between starvation and the Green Revolution, which saved millions of people from famine.

    Yes, religion is not all bad. It has some nice features. But, due to its stifling effects on the mind, I’d still say we’d be better off without it.

  4. Regarding “genderism”, obviously the modern SJW movement is totally insane. However, simply reversing their insanity isn’t necessarily the right answer, either. Today, the medical consensus is that about 0.5% of the population is born with a birth defect, where their brain develops one way (male/female), whereas their body develops the other way (female/male). If untreated, this birth defect will cause them prolonged suffering and significantly increase chances of suicide. We could fix the defect by changing the brain, but currently we don’t really know how; we can, however, change the body to some extent. Meanwhile, we’re researching better ways to cure the condition.

    I don’t thing transgenderism needs to be more complicated (socially speaking) than this. It’s just like diabetes, or any other inborn condition. It’s not an insidious invasion plot by the Patriarchy; nor is it a front in an eternal war against our straight white male oppressors. It’s just a medical condition that affects a small, yet significant, number of people. You don’t see people up in arms about diabetes (other than, you know, the scientists who are actually doing something useful to cure it), do you ?

  5. Actually it is not weird at all. It is quite on point!
    It is quite funny to think “genderism” as a religion but really, the description of it matches so well! Hahahah

    I think the only way to avoid this fungus to grow so much is to do as done berore: (try to) keep it out of the government and promote and protect real free speech.

    I hope someday we evolve and stop needing this fungus in order to survive.

  6. * Hold up — leaving bread out in the open to let air flow freely around it doesn’t keep it healthy. Wrapping it in plastic makes it last way longer.

    * Do you refer to a single cat as a ‘cats point’?

    * I think this conclusion is ludicrous. All we’re talking about in both cases — religion and genderism — is humans failing to understand known facts about reality. There’s no reason why getting our heads straight on one issue would make us fundamentally vulnerable to illogical ideas about others.

    * Finally, your definition of genderism isn’t especially clear in distinguishing between people ignorant of the relevant biology and people who simply have personalities such that they’d prefer being of the opposite sex. And aside from that, I don’t think there are many people who wouldn’t alter their bodies in some way if they could. There’s no question that personalities and the bodies they find themselves in can be poorly matched.

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