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

Joan / Alice,

In this discussion itself, I have said earlier that we should not bracket all religions together. Some religions are more bad, some are less bad, depending upon a subject. It  would be better if we discuss specifics of some religion, for example of a Buddhist religion,  instead of having a generalised discussion. This would give us more knowledge by our discussions and make discussions more interesting. We should also stop using adjectives like virus. We need not be as bad as our opponents. 

Madhukar - and again getting down to specific individuals and what they do with their religion....

We can see large evidence of this as well as small - 

On a large impact scale we have:

The Catholic Church on condom use to steam the spread of HIV in Africa and South America 

The Catholic Church and pedophilia

Islam and terrorism - 9/11 and London

Islam and Hinduism and the Pakistan / India conflict

Islam and Judaism and Israel / Palestine conflict

Islam and Christianity and the Bosnian / Serbian conflict


Don't you think that such discussions will bring variety to our discusions? It will also require participants to know more than just christianity. I have only limited knowledge of christianity but I still have managed substantial participation in discussions.

Alice, you are the best person to start such discussions.

Madhukar - give me an idea for a title and a basic premise and I'll start a discussion.


I will suggest just one of the topics you have suggested yourself. You are well aware of the history and the present status of the conflict. I think you won't need any help.

Islam and Judaism and Israel / Palestine conflict

Madhukar - I'm less qualified to comment on political matters than you give me credit for.  I would be more comfortable to address the issue that you have risen regarding prejudice in our community towards religions indiscriminately - in terms of the moral implications of doing acting in such a way.


You have posted so many discussions and are monitoring them intellegently. In fact I have come to respect your intelligence. You don't need any help from any one. You may do as you see fit.

Madhukar - I urge you to start your own discussion on matters of interest - let me know where they are and I will participate also.

Madhukar, On that I plead guilty and heartily agree with you. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, I am told, and a good strong airing of specific issues and groups is in order. 


I have noticed that several discussions get wasted without receiving a single answer. Unfortunately, I too have suffered similar fate more than once, except that the subject was dear to my heart. I had posted a discussion titled "How the opposites meet." I am particularly sad because it featured Mahatma Gandhi, a leader I adore most, and a prominent Indian atheist. There is a link to a small but very interesting book about their interaction. Mahatmaji was a staunh believer and the story of their meetibg is very interesting. There were  zero replies to such an important topic. I do not think it is of any benifit to resurrect a discussion nobody has liked but I would like you to use the link and read the small book. You will surely enjoy it.

Madhukar - I have not read much about Gandhi - but when I was in Delhi one time when I was a child, I was taken to the place where he was shot.  When the story was explained to me I felt quite scared in case someone might shoot me there also.  Children's minds are so vulnerable to these matters.  I was also lucky on one trip to meet the then president of India Zail Singh - he wore a red turban.  I gave him a garland of flowers and then he gave them back to me, plus more - it was quite a nerve racking experience.

My husband is very interesting in politics and has read many books on partition and Gandhi, his life and the time he spend in South Africa - and also books on Nehru and the politics of that time, his relationship with Gandhi etc.

Gandhi was indeed a very important figure and perhaps still is for India and many others look up to him and respect his work in the world.


I forgot to tell you that this post is in the Forum under atheism.

Alice, It appears that you are not conversant with what status Mahatma Gandhi enjoys in today's world too. I recently read in a local press that the municipal corporation of Jerusalem has decided to erect a Gandhi memorial in Jerusalem, close to Arab-Israeli border to inspire both antagonists to find a peaceful solution to their conflict. Gandhi is very much in the thoughts of thinking people across the globe. He inspired Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and many others. President Obama is also one of his admirers.





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