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

Perfect! Let me think, "a friend with a life virus." How would that look? or sound? or feel? 
Enthusiasm for life; compassion for others, especially those who are different; being realistic about problems and their causes; having a vision of a preferred future; exploring options by experimenting, trial and error, willing to take risks, paying attention to criticism while not being overrun by it; finding a way to measure success in what they are attempting; celebrating often; joining with others who share a similar vision. 

exactly!  where is she? haha.

Tim Otheus

This comes down to an argument as to what qualifies as a virus and how to measure harm versus benefit.

Superstitious beliefs bear some resemblance to viruses in how they spread and in other respects.


Supersititions not only spread very fast but they also produce many variations. This to compares well with a virus. Superstition itself is not religion and most of the superstions are not even supported by religion, but religion creates a habbit of believing without inquiry, which is harmful. To a great extent, the priesthood is responsible to support the superstitions.

Well said.

"We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization."

A related query that's been in the back of my mind for awhile after reading this National Geographic article:

Was religion ever adaptive in a positive way?  I mean, was it ever a tool, or symbiotic parasite or...  

did you hear about that creature that formed based on virus' that held onto it and kind of became legs or fins to get about - so that the parasitic virus became a working in harmony with this cell???  it's late - I'm not explaining myself well....

i'm sure religion was somewhat adaptive to have lasted so long - and also - to still capture peoples minds and imaginations.

It's something about our need to pass on stories of metaphor in order to survive.

Our brains are better at remembering stories than facts - we hold to excitment or other emotional interaction in a story line.

So we weave in excitement for the sake of story - so that we can remember where the food is and what to do in drought.

it became religion when we had forgotten 'why' we told the stories - or the stories became unnecessary and myths - long ago - it was useful - but now it is not.  why do we still tell them?  because that's what our mother did and I will do the same - this is causality - we do what we learn.

I visited the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, Turkey.

There were no temples or what could be described as churches or mosques. At each household fire-cooking area were small female images (see page 2 of images) or grains and animals made of clay.
The bull and vultures were common on walls as paintings or clay pieces. 
The burial practice was to set the body on a stone platform where vultures stripped the flesh from bone, called excarnation, 

The bones were deposited in benches inside the homes. 

One still could consider overpopulation of the earth as a viral infection, resulting in the depletion of resources, not a benefit to humanity.

I suppose I virus can be an enemy of itself - if it does kill it's host.

I've seen much evidence of thinking on this thread but no evidence of feeling.

A cinquain (a la Adelaide Crapsey): < I think / Therefore I am / Said the philosopher. / Bunk! He didn't feel; he only / Half was. >

Now, having destroyed the Western intellectual tradition . . . .

I once believed people are rational. I'd studied math and science, both of them products of rational effort. The work I did for ten years, and that paid well, required rational effort. All was well.

Then, seeing a billion-dollar piece of political corruption, I plunged into politics and what followed jarred my rationalist ways.

With thanks to Blueberry M. on Feb. 4 above: "We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization."

Did thinking produce that urge to worship? I doubt it.

Thinking produces temples, and it produces ways to take wealth from those with an urge to worship.

How do thinking people explain an urge to worship?

Tom Sarbeck

Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.

Some days before I had posted here a discussion based on the discovery of a museum of 100,000 year-old-art. I believe that an evolving man must have had many more activities before religion arrived. It is a different story that later it took a strangle-hold on humanity. The start of a civilisation must have been when man acquired  the ability to think. but it is difficult to believe that this ability first produced temples.

I Think primitive peoples looked up the night sky and say things that filled them with awe. Or they saw a baby born, or loved one die and felt profound emotions, not unlike what we feel during some important event. Primitives could function as long as they had their health or youth. Finding limitations on oneself could have been a stressful experience. Not knowing about bacteria or virus, or spreading killer diseases through lack of cleanliness, there must have been some superstition rise up around some fearful, unexplainable or undesirable events and hope rise out of some ethereal promise of overcoming the thorns of life. 

Modern humans know about the need for cleanliness and good hygiene.  We know that rats don't develop from dirty clothes, or we know that flies spread diseases. Not knowing, people developed superstitions and religion. 

The sense of wonder of a primitive and a modern human may be the same, except moderns have access to information. Stored information piles up on bookshelves and in libraries. Each individual doesn't have to discover everything, he or she just needs to know how to find information.

As to population growth correlated with religion, there was a time of population shortage and the need for offspring to take care of the elderly. In modern days, with seven-billion + humans on the planet, with a growing scarcity of water and soils to grow food, a growing population is not something to be desired. If we don't need religion to encourage population growth, and don't need religion to experience a sense of awe and wonder, then is there a need for religion? Do we want to place control and power of ourselves into some unseeable/untouchable spirit? Or can we think and reason our way through life's challenges, and can we find meaning and purpose in our daily lives so that we don't have to seek them from some cloud? Surely happiness,  contentment, serenity, equanimity comes from within, without the need for some spirit-guide. 




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