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

Psychological research has found that religious people feel great about themselves, with a tendency toward higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment than non-believers.

I do not know how much these types of researches are true. I have no way of knowing the respondents they use, so I think about myself. Indian people are religious, all my relatived are religious and I am an atheist of long standing, but I have always lived my life with great self esteem. All religious people do not enjoy self esteem. In act,   money gives self esteem to most people. I feel most people truely value money more than religion. 

Madhukar, I question findings about happiness being correlated with religiosity as well. There doesn't seem to be reference to factors such as denial and delusional thinking when measuring results. That raises a red flag for me. 
Self esteem is an odd thing; it comes from outside, at least in my experiences. When I received a troubled boy, many had an exaggerated sense of self and felt entitled to attention. I interpreted these behaviors as defense mechanisms against emotional assaults and worked on building a realistic sense of self in relation to their environment. Learning is a factor in self esteem. 
When I received a boy with very low self esteem, my job was to fine his strengths, build on them and help him build a strong support system at home, school and his normal life. Here, too, self esteem is learned. 
Working with battered women, many of them had been so horribly put-down, discounted, trivialized, and demonized, they had to learn how to look at their strengths and build on them as they strengthened their weaknesses that held them back.
With the prison population, many were arrogant, self-righteous, judgmental and resisted authority. My task was to clarify with them their true abilities and explore ways to use those abilities to build character and relationships. It also involved being able to recognize when guards were being power-hungry and for prisoners developing coping strategies to not be vulnerable yet able to stand with head high, shoulders back, spine strong as steel and a mind determined not to be overcome by power, perceived or real.
Your statement is true about people trying to have self esteem by things money can buy; it  just doesn't work. Yes, valuing money more than anything else, including family creates havoc that lasts for generations. We have lost our way and until we realize we are part of a magnificent whole, we will continue lost and yearning. There are some great ideas floating around about how to govern so that people matter as much and more than material things.
Just as belief and faith in a god may or may not bring happiness, there is nothing about atheism that guarantees happiness either. Happiness comes from a deeper place, doesn't come from seeking it, and escapes us as we cling to illusions of happiness.
For me, happiness is looking into the stars at night and realizing I am part of this great magnificent universe, and looking into a microscope and understanding how complex and full of wonder life is, and looking around me and seeing diversity of every nature. The worm has life and feeds birds, birds have life and feed hawks, hawks have life and feed eagles. The chain of life is what it is and I am part of it all, made of the same stuff and participating in living.  I am no greater or less than any other life form, I have function ability of a homo sapiens and as such am no greater or less than any element of which I am a part. 

Psychological research has found that religious people feel great about themselves, with a tendency toward higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment than non-believers


I am very sorry, I have made a silly mistake. In my earlier reply, I have taken the above lines from Ruth's reply, where she was commenting on the above lines. I also waned to comment on them, so I copied these lines but forgot to sshow them in italics. They do not reflect my or Ruth's opinion. I am not a religionist, I m a strong atheist.

Once again, very sorry for the mistake which caused a misunderstanding.


There is a world of difference between your experiances in personal life and my experiances in my personal life. That is why I have been able to maintain  a self respect. You have travelled and observed miseries in human life, so your experiances can said to be more complete than mo own, which are relatively very restricted. I have try to understand what you are painstakingly explaining. 

Madhukar, Yes, I have had a lot of experiences with other cultures. It started for me just before World War II began for the USA. Many of the young men from rural areas were recruited to build railroad bridges across the southern tier of the USA in preparation to move men and material across country. My father, my uncles, and friends from my small town, Tekoa, Washington State, signed up. It was at the end of the Depression and these families struggled to keep food on the table. Dad bought a 12 foot house trailer and Mom and I went with him and lived in migrant worker camps. I had such a good time ... their were children and families from all over the USA, especially from Arkansas and Oklahoma, who were called "Arkies" and Okies" making fun of their backward ways. I didn't know they were backward. They played great games, the families created music and we danced and sang, we ate food from each family so I was introduced to Mexicans cooking the way the working class cooked, and it was delicious. We had Black families that cooked very interesting, delicious foods. There were Asian families and we kids all ate their peasant meals. This experience was, without a doubt, a life transforming event for me because I never "saw" poverty, I only saw loving families taking care of each other.

When I grew into adulthood, and my family prospered, I held a great affection for the poor. Every job I have held as an adult was with troubled people. Many of them are eager to rise out of poverty and are willing and able to learn skills that make their lives better.   

There are lots of factors unknown here.

There are many young Mormon gay people living on the street, having left their Mormon family homes.  They have less well being than the rest of the their family.  So being forced out of religion causes harm - we can't say that therefore the atheist way of life provides less well being - we can say that religious ideologies are creating harm.

I agree. 

"On average, believers only got the psychological benefits of being religious if they lived in a country that values religiosity."


I believe that, I also believe that atheist can be depressed because of the lack of social support and validity to personal concious views of life.

it's good to qualify the context - I agree with you - we all need community support and feel better when we get it.

This comes down to an argument as to what qualifies as a virus and how to measure harm versus benefit.  Even if, for example, a believer in superstition X breeds more, it's going to be hard to show that they wouldn't have had they been an unbeliever in superstition X.  That is, what is the cause and what is the effect?  Too, a believer in superstition X may breed more but maybe is also more likely to be killed in a religious war.  If all you measure is the offsrping of those who aren't killed in religious wars then you're not measuring what you think you are.  Bottom line is that we know what real viruses are.  Superstitious beliefs bear some resemblance to viruses in how they spread and in other respects.  But we're talking analogies here, not whether superstitious beliefs really are "viruses" in the biological sense.  There is no "being right" or "being wrong" as much as being *clear* on how well the analogy works and where it doesn't work so well.

Tim - agreed.

I'd like to find a friend with the life virus.




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