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

Just perusing some of the older discussions.

Personally, I favour a battle scenario. I don't see either side in the rational vs religious struggle 'infecting' the other with their way of thinking in any appreciable numbers. Instead we fire salvos of ideas back & forth at each other. However, there is precious little battle damage as both sides are like the iron clads of the Civil War. Well armoured & impervious to cannon fire.

Jay Stride,

Your comment is amusing but not entirely true. If you look at the recession of faith among Europeans then you will know that rational salvos are capable of penetrating the armor of belief. Besides, there is a perceptible growth of 'nones' in the bastion of religion, the US. The armor of faith is weak and it is breaking.

The comparison of numbers of children by religious and non-religious is an argument against religion, in my opinion. It might have been an evolutionary advantage when the world's population was low, when over-population was not a problem. We need to stop reproducing Homo sapiens. To continue means more hunger, disease, poverty, and exploitation because of an overabundance of available workers and more enforced hardships for women, already overburdened with social conditions being what they are. 

Fear of overpopulation by non-religious is no rational reason to favor religion. Fear can and should alert us to the dangers of too many mouths to feed and not enough water to support agriculture for humans, animals and all flora. Just watch what happens when mice have a chance to populate a house. Very soon, babies have babies and the house is overrun with vermin. A few good cats can help stop the increase. With the human population, a responsible goal would be to have a population that can support all life, human, and flora and fauna. The needs of the Earth must take precedence over the wants of religious humans. 

To assume "data suggesting that religious people are happier and possibly even healthier than secularists may or may not be true." It depends on how one defines religious, secular, healthier and happier. Because my interests involve family violence, the data is growing that "non-church affiliated women experienced lower rates of domestic violence than conservative Christian women. (Brinkerhoff et al. 1992)

Zuckerman cites a study that finds that "atheists and agnostics actually have lower divorce rates than religious Americans (1999 Barna). 

The most secular nations in the world report the highest levels of happiness among their population.

During the Holocaust, "the more secular people were, the more likely they were to rescue and help persecuted Jews."

"atheists and agnostics, when compared to religious people, are actually less likely to be nationalistic, racist, anti-Semitic, dogmatic, ethnocentric, and authoritarian. 

"Secularism also correlates to higher education levels.

"Atheists and other secular people are also much more likely to support women's rights, gender equality, gay and lesbian rights."

"Religious individuals are more likely to support government use of torture."

Religious research easily picks up on results that favor religion over secular and too often without citations. Zimmerman cites his research. It may be easier for religious to believe unsupported research as they also believe unsupported claims of religion.

I also have difficulty with Sue Blackmore because she seems too easily persuaded to one side or another. Although she writes powerfully, she does not provide the kinds of evidence that persuades me. 

Nothing justifies the perpetuation of plain falsehoods regarding atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists, falsehoods that in turn perpetuate prejudice against them.

~ Phil Zuckerman, Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions. Pitzer College, Claremont, California

~ David Niose,  Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans.

My reaction to Blackmore's change of heart is found in this discussion.




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