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

Ruth - your comment here reminds me of Non-Violent Communication:

Communication that can limit or block compassion - A/N discussion -

Deserve reward and deserve punishment

Life-alienating communication is also associated with the concept
that certain actions merit reward while others merit punishment.
“He deserves to be punished for what he did.” It assumes
“badness” and calls for punishment to make them repent and
change their behavior. It is in everyone’s interest that people
change, not in order to avoid punishment, but because they see
the change as benefiting themselves.

“People who hurt others deserve to be punished.” – deserve
oriented language

“I’d like to see people who hurt others be given the opportunity to
make amends for harm they caused because I value healing and
restoration of trust.” - NVC

Replace “I have to”

with “I choose to”,

and “I should” with

“I might”.

Think of the forms of life-alienating communication as the “Four D’s of

• Diagnosis, judgments, analysis, criticism, comparison
• Denial of responsibility
• Demand
• “Deserve” oriented languag

Most of us grew up speaking a language that encourage us to
label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than to
be aware of what we are feeling and needing.

I am new to the conversation and I read some of the first and last page.  I'd like to respond to the idea of religion as a virus and religion and reproduction.  Religion is a belief about our existence and what we should do with that existence.  Virus used to describe something other than a virus is just an analogy.  The ability and motive to reproduce will always be subject to availability to resources.  The resources are all that you can think of including social support to energy from fire.  A belief is true to each individual until that person does not believe it.  Science, logic, rational may have nothing to do with a person's belief if a person continues to believe in something.  No matter how illogical a person's mind may be, that person continues to be in existence until they are dead.  Like a virus, logic or illogic can be passed on as a belief.  Children are more vulnerable to the deeds of adults because they are totally dependant on the examples made.  Social exceptance to a logic or illogic may become a peer pressure or even a threat.  An atheist may call beliefs in illogic a lie and abusive when it seems to threaten them.  Some atheists who are seeing illogical social peers as nonthreatening may find the topic as useless information of bizarre minds.  In our world we atheists may see both threats and the bizarre minds act out.  When I listen to the news about the political races I hear much of the same thing repeatedly. There is much talk about how religion is a factor in selecting a government leader.  Let's look at the logic of where we are and who we are.  People need to believe in something because it serves a biological purpose of survival.  People need to reproduce because with out it survival is not possible.  Reproduction may be creating food, clothes, shelter, or even babies.  While creating, a person will observe their resources, environment and self awareness.  A person usually requires the ability to have deductive reasoning to acquire a goal.  They may also be aware that the choices being made to reach success they use efficiency, adaptions, and changes.   There are a lot of possibilities to our existance but logic used to create may or may not be adopted by others to exist.  Virus is an analogy when it is used to describe the unaccepted views of belief by others.  The word virus is objective to human emotions but affective when it is used as a positive or negative cause.  The view of ourselves and others in this world is always emotional unless we are without emotions.


The view of ourselves and others in this world is always emotional unless we are without emotions

What you have said is very wise and true and your reply is very readable. One small thing that should be a part of our lives in every sphere of our thought and activity, is moderation. My thinking is that if we do not practice moderation, we tend to be extremists. Using the word virus universally for all religions and every thing that is in them, in my opinion tilts us towards extremism


This is a wonderful discussion you have initiated. I think you are one of the persons here who have understood my views on atheism and on religion, although this does not mean that you agree with all of them. What I want to suggest now is, having known my views on reliigion, may I suggest to you that you take a review of the opinions expressed here and let us find out where most atheists stand on the subject matter of your original post? It would be very interesting to know your opinion on the responses received.

Madhukar - unfortunately I really don't have the time to prioritise reading 11 pages right now and assessing them in terms of general opinion.

Just from my memory - it seems that most rejected the idea that we needed to change from the metaphor of religion as a memic virus of the mind.  There was some acceptance that changing it for the sake of being more accurate was a valid suggestion.

Overall I think everyone was in agreement that religion does cause harm - but how it causes that harm (and some of the claims made by the article - such as through the having of children)  were questioned.

Good enough Alice, you appear to have kept an eye on replies throughout the discussion and are presenting the general opinions obsreved. That is all I wanted because I have not read every reply. Thanks.

Your welcome - perhaps others can add if I've got it wrong.

I try to logically make an association of why it is harmful by looking at why a lie or misinformation could be harmful.  Could the truth be harmful...Yes.  Religion is taught through language that deems its information as nonmetaphorical and nonmythical, a belief.  Because of this the mental health of those who are under its lead often depends a lot on the social support of that belief and the tenacity of the person's hold on the belief.


Christ taught that you should give your goods to the poor, that you should not fight, that you should not go to church, and that you should not punish adultery. Neither Catholics nor Protestants have shown any strong desire to follow His teaching in any of these respects.



A recent study addresses the claim that the religious are happier or better adjusted.

Are Religious People Better Adjusted Psychologically?

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. But a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that this is only true in countries that put a high value on religion.

On average, believers only got the psychological benefits of being religious if they lived in a country that values religiosity. "We think you only pat yourself on the back for being religious if you live in a social system that values religiosity," Gebauer says.

Sometime during 1956-1959 a Time news article reported USA physicians using western medical technics were not accepted by African tribal people until doctors learned folk medicine of shaking bones, using eyeballs of newts, and blood sacrifice. As they became proficient in folk medicine, more Africans sought their help and submitted to treatment. 

I guess this is mind-body connection.

Working with boys at boys' ranches, one run by Roman Catholics and the other two run by Mormons, I often encountered boys who were sure of themselves, confident in their authority, able and willing to do whatever they could to avoid tasks, responsibilities, and instruction, and more often from religious homes. Many referred to a higher authority to justify their behaviors. 

Working with battered women from religious homes I heard a similar story repeated; when their husbands became angry and started beating them, wives reported the men's pupils  turned black, and wives described them as "snake" eyes. 

Working with a male prison population, many who had either come into prison with a belief in god or turned religious while incarcerated, when I gave instructions they didn't like, I observed  "dark eyed" looks that looked as though the pupils filled the entire colored part of the eye. They also tended to believe they were entitled to be angry with me. 

These are merely anecdotal events, but rich fodder for future study. Sadly, I did not pursue these clues and it very clearly could be I saw these events through my biases. However, there is enough to do research on such evidence. 

Future researchers, here are some ideas for study.  




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