“What it comes down to is this: any information system of sufficient complexity will inevitably become infected with viruses—viruses generated from within itself.”
I’d never read a Neal Stephenson book before Snow Crash, so I had no idea what to expect upon opening it. I got a wild ride of a plot full of commentary on capitalism, computer programming, religious history, and language. Also, for anyone who thinks diversity is a new thing in the sci-fi genre, take several seats—it was written in 1992 and its main characters are a mixed-race Black/Japanese guy and a fifteen year old white girl, a Latina lady is a major supporting character, and the villain, an Aleutian native, is motivated in great part by his desire for revenge on America for what the government did to his people. This isn’t a straight-up review of the book, though, so let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the religious themes that ran through it. One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the idea that religion is the neurological equivalent of a virus (computer or otherwise). While the way it was presented was interesting, in the end I found its implications somewhat insulting to people of faith.
Spoilers for the story below.
So what’s a virus? To paraphrase Wikipedia, a virus is a self-replicating infectious agent that can only reproduce inside a host, lacking the necessary structure to live on its own. There’s ongoing debate over whether pathogenic viruses (the sort that make you physically sick) are actually alive or not because of this interdependence. Stephenson’s protagonist, the aptly named Hiro Protagonist, finds himself tracking the spread of Snow Crash, a drug that causes both computers and human minds to crash simultaneously. Computers display a classic snow crash screen—the blurry, moving black and white blizzard we all dread seeing—and the brain doesn’t fare much better, with symptoms ranging from speaking in tongues to a total vegetative state. His research leads him on a circuitous path that takes him all the way back to ancient Sumeria and the Tower of Babel.
Hiro discovers that the Babel event, where people who all spoke the same language suddenly found themselves shut off from each other by linguistic differences, was the result of a viral inoculation by an ancient Sumerian priest-king. Up to that point, humans were a monoculture, and passed on knowledge through viral ideas rather than conscious thought. In order to protect humanity from being wiped out by a dangerous virus called Asherah (named after a mother goddess who appears in the myths of various ancient cultures) that affected both their physical body and their methods of thought, the priest-king Enki wrote a nam-shub, a countervirus, that reprogrammed human brains so that they could no longer understand Sumerian and had to diversify, thwarting the virus. The virus lived on in humanity in the same way herpes lives on in humans because of its biological component, but it remained dormant because the lack of commonality of thought kept the neurological part of it from spreading.
Throughout history, however, the virus has recurred whenever a religion became too mindless or too focused on following rules without questioning—basically, when the dominant cultural force in society returned to the “viral idea” model of civilization rather than one that made people use their conscious reasoning skills. Hiro points to the behavior of the Pharisees in the Bible as an example, who were so intent on keeping the Sabbath sacred that they refused to help another person because it was considered working to do so.
Stephenson’s conception of the way religion spreads is fascinating, but coming from such a complex book, I found it kind of oversimplistic. At first I was simply a bit insulted by the idea that religion could be conceived as something viral, because it seems to remove the aspect of free will from the equation. People got religion because it was infectious, and the more thoughtless and easily spread the idea behind it is, the more likely it is to run out of control. Moving on from that, though, Stephenson frames the conflict as a battle between reasoned thought vs. mindless acceptance, and I’m not certain it can be boiled down to that. Rather, faith is a complicated thing that requires a little bit of both. On one hand, faith is about choosing to believe in something unproven, and generally you want to have a good explanation for why you do believe in it. Reason comes into it in that way; why do certain religions venerate certain things? What is the basis for certain religious restrictions, and are they important to the root of the faith or are they artifacts of an ancient culture that don’t affect modern life? As a teen, I was obsessed with understanding why Catholicism, which I’d been raised in, held certain traditions over others, and wondering what had inspired those traditions.
On the other hand, faith does require an element of mindless acceptance, and, contrary to Stephenson’s thesis, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, Catholicism has certain beliefs that they refer to as “mysteries” that Catholics simply accept that they can’t actually comprehend, like transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist truly becomes the body and blood of Christ, rather than simply being a symbol of it. On a less specific scale, faith is often dependent on surrendering yourself to the responsibility of a higher power that you believe, against any reasonable proof, is out there.
In the end, what Stephenson appears to be critiquing is not religion itself, but religion that rejects reasoned self-reflection. He claims his target is mindless religion, that it’s the people who accept belief without questioning and don’t really understand or care to understand why they’re embracing the beliefs they claim. And while he’s right that that isn’t a good thing—I do agree that a person should at least understand why they believe in whatever creed they profess—let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. The nature of faith is belief without proof, and that requires the faithful to sometimes just roll with the idea that there are things out there we can’t fully understand. It’s not the result of an insidious neurological infection, but rather a crucial part of having faith at all.