The 'Explaining religion' conference has made me see that the idea of religious belief as a virus has had its day

Sue Blackmore

Sue Blackmore

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 16 September 2010 15.12 BST

Article history

Are religions viruses of the mind? I would have replied with an unequivocal "yes" until a few days ago when some shocking data suggested I am wrong.

This happened at a conference in Bristol on "Explaining religion". About a dozen speakers presented research and philosophical arguments, mostly falling into two camps: one arguing that religions are biologically adaptive, the other that they are by-products of cognitive mechanisms that evolved for other reasons. I spoke first, presenting the view from memetics that religions begin as by-products but then evolve and spread, like viruses, using humans to propagate themselves for their own benefit and to the detriment of the people they infect.

This idea began with Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, was developed in his later article "Viruses of the mind" and taken up by others, including myself in The Meme Machine and other works. It is one version of "dual-inheritance" theory in which genes and culture are both seen as evolving systems.

The idea is that religions, like viruses, are costly to those infected with them. They demand large amounts of money and time, impose health risks and make people believe things that are demonstrably false or contradictory. Like viruses, they contain instructions to "copy me", and they succeed by using threats, promises and nasty meme tricks that not only make people accept them but also want to pass them on.

This was all in my mind when Michael Blume got up to speak on "The reproductive advantage of religion". With graph after convincing graph he showed that all over the world and in many different ages, religious people have had far more children than nonreligious people.

The exponential increase in the Amish population might be a one off, as might Catholics having lots of children, but a comparison of religious and nonaffiliated groups in the USA, China, Sweden, France and other European countries showed that the number of children per woman in religious groups ranged from close to zero (for the Shakers) to between six and seven for the Hutterites, Amish and Haredim, while the nonaffiliated averaged less than two per woman – below replacement rate.

Data from 82 countries showed almost a straight line plot of the number of children against the frequency of religious worship, with those who worship more than once a week averaging 2.5 children and those who never worship only 1.7 – again below replacement rate. In a Swiss census of 2000 the nonaffiliated had the lowest number of births at 1.1 per woman compared with over two among Hindus, Muslims and Jews.

Another striking comparison came from Eric Kaufmann's book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, to which responses differ on whether secularists should be terrified of an impending world dominated by religion or not. When European Jews were classified as orthodox, nonreligious and atheist, the atheists averaged around 1.5 children per woman and the religious Jews nearly three, with the Haredim in Israel averaging six to eight children per woman over many generations.

All this suggests that religious memes are adaptive rather than viral from the point of view of human genes, but could they still be viral from our individual or societal point of view? Apparently not, given data suggesting that religious people are happier and possibly even healthier than secularists. And at the conference, Ryan McKay presented experimental data showing that religious people can be more generous, cheat less and co-operate more in games such as the prisoner's dilemma, and that priming with religious concepts and belief in a "supernatural watcher" increase the effects.

So it seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as "viruses of the mind" may have had its day. Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a "virus" to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase "bacterium of the mind" or "symbiont of the mind" doesn't have quite the same ring.

This is how science (unlike religion) works: in the end it's the data that counts. Being shown you are wrong is horrid, but this has happened to me often enough before (yes, you may make jokes if you like) and one gets used to it. This shock may not be as bad as when I discovered I was wrong about the paranormal, but it's still a shock. The good side is that it has thrown me into new thoughts, new lines of inquiry, and set me wondering again just how religions can have such power over us.

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Replies to This Discussion

I think she has some very good points to make - I think it worth discussion in terms of the future of atheism and rational thinking.

interesting post and i will have to read it with all the links after work, but a quick point for now. Is it better to be happy believing something is true which is not.

no i prefer the red pill

Mohamed - me too - I'd rather know the truth of the matter and work with that, than fool myself about the truth in an attempt to gain more happiness.

Pardon me, but my immediate response to such information is "are we so gullible?" 

It appears that the whole argument in favor of religion is based on the premise of "reproductive advantage." As if that is the be all and end all. But is really the unlimited propagation of the human species, or any species, the best thing? Take the "virus" again as an analogy (I have always taken the virus comparison as an analogy, not equivalent and complete when comparing to what religion does to humans), or use the hypothetical example of a deadly virus within the human body, if left unchecked (reproductive advantage), the virus eventually kills the host. That appears to be what's happening with humans, and its host mother Earth. I am not so sure having more babies is better, when limited resources cannot sustain a forever growing population. Just like the economy, we cannot forever have unlimited growth. The Earth's limited resources simply cannot sustain it. 

Or examine from a different point of view: with the development of the brain in humans, we have come to the point of discovering that a lot of "science" suggested in religious texts is simply false. What I find most amazing is that Nature has "created" humans to the point of endowing them the ability to examine nature itself. Or in other words, it is nature examining itself. Cells, or subatomic particles grouped in some way that can look for itself. How amazing can that be??? I am definitely not an advocate for claiming that humans are the highest form of developed creatures on Earth, as day after day we are discovering how little we know of the intellect of other animals. But what I am saying is that perhaps, humans have evolved beyond seeing reproduction as the highest prerogative. Perhaps, in the long run, checking our unlimited growth, we can survive for even a longer amount of time. After all, the human species is a very, very young species. 

Even if we were to accept the premise that reproduction is the ultimate advantage, there are many other species that propagate just as well without religion. I live in a part of the world that has cockroaches reproducing happily unchecked. And I don't see them building mosques, temples, or churches, nor are they bombing each other with insect bombs (pardon the pun). And we know cockroaches have been around us a very long time. Or take viruses, they've outlived many many humans, and they don't need no goddam religion. 

And, one more thing: lets not be confused by the very broad word of "religion." What religion are we talking about? If it is the Catholic religion, the Protestant religion, the Islamic religion, or Jewish religion, we all knew these were all based on myths, not facts or science. And we all know how much damage these religions have caused, and continue to cause among humans, or other creatures AND mother Nature itself. If we were to have religion to give humans "reproductive advantage," it better be a religion that is not going to end up killing us all. Just like the deadly virus that will eventually kill the host. 

Zhi - interesting points - made me think that religion might just dumb everyone down enough to cause them to avoid responding to the damage that faces us - and submit to our drive to procreate - if we switch off our reasoning, imagine that God will look after us all, then we don't need to concern ourselves with taking steps to prevent over-population and the consequences of continuing to live the consumerist lifestyle we do - leading to environmental pressures - such as global warming, dwindling fish life in the oceans, polluting fresh waterways with chemicals etc etc.  We can switch off, pretend we have an imaginary friend that is watching over it all - and hey, we'll all go to heaven anyhow.... and then sit back and give in to our drive to indulge our primitive drives to reproduce, eat and get the best for ourselves regardless of the consequent.

Right on Zhi--it isn't "multiplying and being fruitful" when the multiplication is destroying the environment in which we live.

Zhi and many others have a good point, population size alone is not a good indicator of success and in fact could be the opposite.  If the virus multiplies so much that it kills the host, then it isn't ultimately "successful."   Religion may not exactly fit the definition of virus but it has many aspects that do.  In a way atheists are actually the adaptive ones by recognizing what is valuable about religion and shedding the destructive parts.

Viral behavior: ...hijacks the machinery of the cell, turning it from its usual purposes to the sole task of replicating the virus's genetic material.....

Religion exhibiting viral behavior. 

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/02/polygamists/anderson-text

I suppose religions that preach conversion are like this - but many religions do not preach conversion.  Judaism discourages conversion.  As far as I'm aware Hinduism is pretty benign in this sense, as is Buddhism and other eastern philosophies.

I think we need to be more specific when we talk about religions.

Powerful statement and to the point. In nature, reproductive advantage that creates over production of the species result in depletion of food supplies. Mice populations grow until all their food is gone or dead, so does cancer grow until death, if not stopped. 

The strength of science is that information sources exist everywhere one looks, just simple observations, or experiments, or reports and books, and other points of view can be tested and shown to help or hurt a person or living forms, or the earth, for that matter. 

The weakness of religions is narrowing vision. If one has fewer sources or denies observation, then irrational choices can be made. The brain, eyes, ears, feeling, and emotions function and the brain decides what is acceptable. If options narrow too far, valuable information loses its ability to inform. That is self-inflicted ignorance. 

An obvious example of self-inflicted ignorance is family violence that is justified by scripture or traditions and values that make criminal assault possible and accepted by others. At some point, critical thinking should inform one to adhere to basic human rights, even in families.  

While it may not be a virus, that doesn't mean it isn't a disease.

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