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

Marc - what merit do you gain from calling religion parasitic?  And what benefit might we gain from seeing it in a different light?

Alice, fair questions. 

I completely agree with that, Madhukar Kulkarni. 

The reality of the huge menace posed by religion to the world is almost entirely due to Christianity and Islam.

Dr Terence - do you think that is due to the size or style?

I'm curious about more reading regarding this topic...

Dr. Terence Meaden

I am always delighted to read your comments. Thanks very much.

Madhukar - I agree that not all religions are the same - and it is a gradient - a spectrum disorder of rational to irrational thinking - we all have both but to varying degrees.

I grew up in the Brahma Kumaris - an Indian cult based in Rajasthan, Indian:

On a face they are a peaceful, non violent group who promote peace and well being for all - but it caused havoc with my upbringing - avoiding the vices of lust, attachment, greed, anger and ego - what an impossibility - especially heading into puberty and beyond.  And all run by un-married, childless virgins in their 80's - sounding familiar?


To say that I am surprised to know that you grew-up with Bramha Kumaris would be an understatement of the year! Alice, the Bramha Kumaris life style you described was a practice advocated by ancient hindu religion, which at that time was known as Vaidic religion, with some difference. Hindu religion recommends the renunciation of all worldly pleasures because it believes that the desire for these pleasures is the root cause of all wordly ills. This was recommmended only for males and not for females. Many persons lived an ascetic's life away from human settlements. However, this recommendation was most neglected by common people.

Madhukar - yes I am aware of some of the history of these practices - also that celibacy was practiced by men over 60 once they had already had their families - not by children through to death....  but this experience has given me a greater knowledge and understanding of India and some of its practices, culture and customs, which can be of use, along with all other general knowledge.... :)

Alice, I am not familiar with Brahma Kumaris and like what was written, "We are reminded constantly of the descending energy and its destabilizing effects on the world, increasing feelings of fear, anxiety and hopelessness.

Joan I presume you are talking about what you found on this website?

They also teach that God has come into the body of a man, and when he died God still now enters into the body of a women and speaks regularly.

They also believe that the world drama has only gone on for 5,000 years and that this cycle repeats identically every 5,000 years.  The first quarter is the Golden Age and only the best BK's will come into this age, then the Silver Age, Copper Age and Iron Age.

We are all souls and reincarnate into different bodies - if we don't get to come into the Golden age then we remain in soul world.

We are now in the confluence age, where the two ages meet - the Iron and the Golden.  The world destruction is imminent and the only thing that will lead you to going to the Golden age is to devote your life to them, give them all your money and abandon your blood family for their spiritual family.

Yes, Alice, the "New Year Message 2012"

Oh dear! He didn't write anything about that. I shall have to say I don't agree with those ideas. I wonder what inspired them? It is easier to understand how the Jews and Christians got their ideas, but BK offers quite an implausible concept. His last paragraph made me think. He wrote,

"We find these qualities inside of ourselves, as they have always been our true nature. But to find them ready in moments of need, we have to nurture them daily. To make the greatest contribution to the world at this time, keep the fire of goodness alive in your heart and mind. Fill yourself with the energies of peace, love and happiness and let them infuse your every action."

Joan - I tend to avoid reading material from the BK's having been brainwashed with their material my whole childhood - I find it almost impossible to be discriminating with what they have to say.




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