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, 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

Orson - she is saying that ''All this suggests that religious memes are adaptive rather than viral from the point of view of human genes'' and ''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.''  

So she is not negating that it is a problem - but she is saying that the analogy that it is a virus needs to be updated - because evidence has shown that it does not damage the host, but is beneficial to the host - she asserts that the religious meme is adaptive not viral.

Alice, yes, religion can be adaptive and those that do not adapt will fail and those that do adapt will succeed and grow. Islam is adaptive, do you see it failing? Christianity, with its missions to poor countries to treat symptoms, not causes of hunger, disease, and tyranny, and so it becomes part of the problem. Do you see them failing? 

Cockroaches have their purpose in nature in cleaning up the scraps and they adapt to conditions of availability or lack of food, and they are not failing. We don't like them because they cause spread of diseases but we have difficulty getting rid of them.

Religion appears to me to present symptoms of cognitive dissonance, religious people believe they do good when in fact they may be doing things that harm others, thus becoming maladaptive and defensive.  

An example is Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, who reframed his activities by saying his firm is doing "God's work." He was sincere, he believed what he said, he acted out of faith and beliefs that were not based on reality. He may be sincere when he prays; is he sincere when his policies and practices bring suffering to so many people? 

I think "adaptive" is too puny a word for what happens to people and institutions that don't have a moral compass that is based on what is good for people, the environment, or the earth. 
For me, virus fits with my understanding of the word: "A virus invades living cells and uses their chemical machinery to keep itself alive and to replicate itself. It may reproduce with fidelity or with errors (mutations)-this ability to mutate is responsible for the ability of some viruses to change slightly in each infected person, making treatment more difficult."

The living cell in this case is the belief that invades living brains and uses bodies as a machine to stay alive and to replicate itself, reproduce, and mutate.

Joan - can you give me more evidence that Islam is succeeding and Christianity is failing?

and also if you can examples of how Islam is adaptive?

My reasons for asking are educational on my part :)

Alice, thanks for the questions. However, I did not write,"Islam is succeeding and Christianity is failing".

I wrote, "Islam is adaptive, do you see it losing members? Christianity, with its missions to poor countries to treat symptoms, not causes of hunger, disease, and tyranny, and so it becomes part of the problem. Do you see them failing?"


I see them both as adapting and thus maintaining and perpetuating policies and practices that are harmful to human beings, to nations and to the earth. 

"Religion can be adaptive" If I understand "adaptive", it means the ability of an organism or system to adapt to conditions that exist and produce and reproduce. Non-adaptive means the system cannot adapt and cannot produce and reproduce.

Both Christianity and Islam have made adaptations, Islam had periods of exploration and experimentation. The Golden Age of Islam is quite an impressive period with good science for its day. They welcomed scholars of all religions as well as those who had no religions. Their science and liberal arts flourished. What turned it away from those values? Christianity had a terrible history of violence and I don't need to repeat them here, we have had quite enough of that. 

Evidence that both Islam and Christianity are adapting:

Islam adapts very well to threats and invasions, it seems to be getting stronger and using more lethal killing methods and not standing back for any other nation, not Russia and not USA. 

Christianity is adapting very well, getting into politics, our Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government, into our schools, even trying to bring creationism into our science departments. 

Some Christian church leadership and members adapted so well thy think they have the right to interfere with the right of women to be in charge of their reproductive lives, even when their health is involved or problems exist with the fetus. They seem to feel entitled to enter our homes and bedrooms. Contraception is beneficial to a woman, the community and the world. Wanted children are preferable to having children no one planned or wants to raise. 

Many Christian churches deny adult men and women the right to choose their life partners without interference from church, state or public opinion. Homosexuals do not choose their sexual orientation and have the right to live according to their natural status.

Islam and Christianity have adapted over the centuries and yield incredible power over large numbers of people. 

South Dakota tried to get a law passed that would legalize the assassination of  abortionists.

Nebraska Resurrects "Justifiable Homicide" Abortion Bill

How Mitt Romney Threatens Women's (and Men's) Legal Right to Birth Control and Privacy in the Bedroom

Joan - LOL - must can be lost in intonation! :)

I had an interesting chat tonight with a friend at a cafe - I've met her before, about a year ago.  She is very lovely - but when I asked her if she had a religion, she basically said that she didn't but she did believe there was more to it - call it God, energy, Buddha etc.  She also referred a lot to astrological signs of friends.  I had quite an interesting conversation with her - and was able to transfer quite a bit of science her way - which I think she found very interesting.  

I mentioned about the Bible having lots of bad stuff in it, and she said that they hadn't been able to evolve, but we talked about how it really had, because they no longer stone adulteresses or cut off the hands of thieves.  They cherry pick their sins now - with homosexuality being the flavour of the day.

Religion does adapt - and humans cherry pick the books to suit them.

Alice, Your conversation is interesting, as you conclude "religion does adapt." It is interesting that the underlying principles of religion have not changed but the "face" has. And you correctly state stoning and cutting off hands no longer occur, but the subordination of women to men does occur, if in no other way than by the use of language. God as king, lord, master, and soldier, remains in the literature and sermons and lessons. 

At a funeral of a matriarch of our family the minister spoke of only the masculine nature of god; I met with him later and asked why he didn't use the images of a woman sweeping the floor looking for a lost coin, or a hen protecting her hatchlings from the sun in reference to great aunt Eadie. He just laughed and indicated my question was irrelevant.  

That meme, that thought, that reference reveals the underlying belief of this man and his flock of sheep. He did not know, nor did he care that the terrible violence taking place against women and children in his community was directly the consequence of how he and they perceived the relationship between man and woman and parents and children. Nor did he see the relationship between the way he saw the world in terms of obedience and submission, and suffering. 

These are the memes that go from one person to another to another for generations throughout geologic time. This fits my definition of infections.

One of the reasons Hitchens was so powerful was he named the reality. He used language that called attention to the things that are normal but not healthy. And OH! MY! the heat he took for that. 

If you and I are seeking truth, which I think we are, then do we want to use language that is strong, powerful, jarring, or do we want to revert back to wimpy words that offer just a hint of the problems but are not able to take on the reality. 

Am I to make friends, or to reveal what goes on behind closed doors? As a teacher, many of my students talked to me privately. I taught in the Community College and these adult men and women came to me with questions. Oddly, many of the women were wives of ministers, doctors, lawyers, and police officers. Eventually, their husbands came to me to understand what their wives were learning ... some wanted my head on a pole, others wanted to know how to make their marriages work better. 

These experiences helped me design my research. 

I was shocked when I read Leviticus after seeing it quoted on The Chasers War - and found that I actually follow all the laws of Leviticus - because they are naturally accepted in my society.  We do accept much for granted, when they are based in the Bible.  There is no right and wrong - only acceptable and not acceptable socially - creating more harm or creating less harm to individuals.

And awareness is the first step to health. So, we are on a magnificent journey and who knows where it will take us. The only thing I know for sure, that I am alive, a little bit old, but full of energy ... even if I can no longer take the lectern. 

yes - at the end of the day - you do what you can and what you will and you enjoy your life as much as you can - which I would suggest means living a moral life with moderation in all things - learning to appreciate the small love and beauty we come across :)

Islam is adaptive, do you see it failing?

Joan, Islam may not be seen to be failing, but when it goes, it will go crashing. What Islam is doing today is not adapting. It is not failing because of the patience of the rest of the world and it's aversion for violence. When both these tendancies end, Islam will crash. There are internal stresses in Islam which are not seen today becaue Islam relies on extreme fear, but when rest of the world starts acting against Islam, these stresse will surface.

Before branding a religion as a virus or a disease, it is better to be more specific. All religions are not alike. There was a lot of animal sacrifice in hindu religion in ancient times, but opposition from within and from Buddhism and Jainism has almost eliminated it now. The main problem with hinduism, like any other religion, is that it is based on a lot of assumptions and not on facts. Like any other religion, it also promotes blind faith. Otherwise, Hinduism of today is a benign religion. The same thing is true of Buddhism and Jainism. Zoarstrianism and Sikhism, other two religions found in India in no way can be called a disease or a virus. All the ills of religion that we see today can be attributed to two religions, Christianity and Islam. I often say that the world might have been a better place had these two religions not emerged at all.

Virus is a very loose term.

Religion is still communicable and parasitic. Sorry I don't have more time to get into this as I've had a bit too much Xmas cheer.




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