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

I agree he was a very great man and made his point well.  So sad that he was killed.

Might I humbly suggest that you make your discussion titles less vague, to attract initial attention. The title you choose might be about charged particles, where to find a romantic partner, or matching contrasting borders correctly in craft projects.

Overall, I find that argument unconvincing. It fails to demonstrate that properties unique to religion are responsible for the observed differences, since a close examination suggests to me that the presented benefits are merely coincidental to religious faith (such that similar results should also arise from entirely non-religious behaviors as well).
Here are several factors not properly accounted for in her argument:
1. Community strength and # of social relationships as they correlate to participation rates
2. Dispersion of emotional dependencies due to separation between social networks
3. Impact of economic status on the costs of child-rearing
4. Influence of communal psychology on social behavior
While the data showing that average birth rates are stronger among certain religious groups initially appears convincing, she failed to indicate why this is only true for some religions (such as the Amish), while others have birth rates "close to zero" like the Shakers. She then presented data showing a correlation between frequency of community worship and birth rates. If we consider (1.) above, though, it is reasonable to expect that exposure to a large population of non-blood, culturally-similar peers also would provide greater exposure to romantic prospects, and consequently to romantic relationships which produce children. she have not demonstrated that religion itself is responsible for the difference, as the same correlation could likely be found between birth rates and how often 20-somethings go out drinking at bars. To the contrary, the low birth rates in the highly-communal Shaker religion suggests that religion is more likely to have a suppressive effect on romantic pairing within communal groups.
The correlation between faith and being "healthier" was disingenuously-presented, as I would consider "emotional stability" to be a more accurate description of the study results. If it is phrased in that way, then (2.) suggests that the separation between a person's business relationships and religious community helps to compartmentalize damage to social relationships. In the context of marriage, there is clearly a distinction between the 'married couple' network of friends and the separate 'personal' network of friends for each person; if the couple were to divorce, the 'married couple' network would disintegrate-- but each divorcee still has their 'personal' network to fall back on for support. So while religious communities may provide "backup" relationships, it is not clear that they would be any more effective than joining a local sports team.
Across her whole argument, she failed to mention one of the strongest determinants of family size: the disruption of financial stability. While she could paint the situation in Sweden as a divergence between the religious and secular, she glossed over the fact that most of the 'religious' are in fact recent immigrants who live in poor economic conditions. The poorly understood but highly visible inverse-correlations from fertility rates to social development and economic wealth indicated that a comparison between birth rates without adjusting for economic conditions (3.) is fallacious at best or manipulative spin at worst.
So to the final point, does religious faith lead to "better" people? The experiment in the prisoner's dilemma primarily relies on the perceived relationship between one player and another. As little or no information is provided to them, this primarily relies on their conditioned assumptions about other people. In communal psychology, where individuals are thinking as a member of a cooperatively-beneficial group, it is far more efficient to assume that other members are trustworthy than it is to examine and distrust people who are (most likely) working toward shared benefit. It would make sense from (4.), then, that if people are primed into communal thinking (religious or otherwise), that they will display an increase in cooperative support and communal trust. But if the researcher were to highlight that the other players were from opposing religions-- as between Middle Eastern Jews and Muslims --then the result would be far from communal behavior. Here again, the involvement of religion could destroy the otherwise-beneficial effect of strong social communities and instead generate vindictive, anti-cooperative behavior.
As a whole, this leaves me utterly unconvinced that religion is a positive, beneficial entity which we should (consider) embracing. And I would have remained at a passive neutral, but for one more problem: she spoke as if she were an Innocent Questioner, a open-minded thinker facing something unexpected. Except she linked to another post about her conversion to Woo, a reaction to an unusual experience which was wholly anti-thetical to the skeptic's mindset. So now I suspect that she was actually talking as a Wolf In Sheep's Clothing, pretending to be an atheist/skeptic while actually attempting to peddle religious or Woo beliefs (it is an extremely common tactic to do this with conspiracy theories). So reconsidering my above reactions, the "accidental" oversights in her presentation now strike me as slanted data and intentional spin-- and my own points now seem a firm rejection of what is so clearly snake oil.

Good points - well thought through.

An impressive response, Drake. Well argued and original.

Drake Everren

I am again and again required to make the same reply. None of us know enough about all religions. All of them are different, all of them have dfferent history and so very general arguments about religion can be in complete. I have therefore suggested that we should refrain from using such adjectives as virus and from making very strong arguments that almost amount to hate. All of us should remember that we have to deal with the religionists and try to make them to slowly realise the truth. We can not speak to them if our minds are not clear.

Of course not all religions are the same, and not all people are the same. Even within the same religion there are people who practice and believe it very differently. I too was never a Christian and view Christianity as an outsider. I was involved in paganism for several years and still have friends who are pagan/Wiccan. I still see similarities even though there are vast differences in belief.

Some similarities: Most pagans I knew still more or less acted like god/the gods were on their side during their trivial problems. To their adversaries, they just replaced "god will punish you" with "karma will bite you in the ass". I've known many to proselytize, to either assume that everyone in the room shared their religious views or wouldn't mind proselytization because their religion is somehow "good" unlike Christians who do the same thing. Indoctrinating children was the same. Ridiculing religions they didn't like, while not examining their own religion was the same. Most of all, I think the majority of religions attempt to make life fair but in doing so usually end up blaming the victim. If bad things happen to you, god must have a reason for it. Or in pagan/new age religions, what comes around goes around (therefore you deserve it).

Prog - interesting point - I was heartened to come across Naturalism and find that determinism and causality mean that really stuff just happens - our choice do effect outcomes, but to blame someone is to ignore the fact that they may well have chosen different had they known the fully extent of the outcome.

MADHUKAR, I can see why calling religions a virus might sound like name calling, which would be verbal violence and might be construed as a hateful act. However, this description is intended as value neutral. It's descriptive, and the basic research is scientific.

You aren't familiar with the positive role memeplexes are thought to play, perhaps because we don't focus on those here. One theory considers them essential for the evolution of our large brain, for example. You will find one of my pictures expresses my feeling of revelation, as I internalized the selfplex concept into my identity.

I disagree violently (ha-ha) that atheists should refrain from making "very strong arguments." Yes, we need to avoid hate. Distinguishing between these might sound like splitting hairs, but it's not at all trivial. We have every right to anger. Anger can be good. Anger only becomes damaging and dysfunctional when it's not recognized and used productively, when we feel helpless and so frustrated that it controls our minds.

I'm not saying that all atheists eschew hate. I'm saying that memetics isn't about hate at all. Yes some people angrily denounce religions, put them down as mind viruses. That use is not the core of memetics. Any field of knowledge will be used by some people to attach others.

Of course every religion is unique. That doesn't mean they aren't all mind viruses. There are plenty of unique bacteria too, but they're still bacteria. There are millions of books, each with a unique history. They're all still books. We classify things because common traits help us to understand them and predict how they behave.



You are correct except that you are missing a small popint. I have very often stated that my all suggestionsare also meant for talking with the faithfuls, because I always want such discusions to take place. Yes, it will be good if my suggestions are acccepted for our discussions too because how long are going to live in the past? I may tell you Ruth that language of hate disturbs a reader if he is not sharing the hate. How can you then expect me to change my thoughts? All I can say is that you may continue to express yourselves  as you want, I am already avoiding those hateful discussions.

If every religion is unique and still is a virus, then you must study other religions and make specific criticism. A universal creticism is adventureous.

Drake Everren

I suggest you read The Bhagvad Geeta. It is a religious scripture and so we can find many unacceptable things in it, but you will find that at least some of it's parts were intended to create a vice free social order. Here to, we may not like the methods, but it clearly indicates a desire to create a social order. If you further read the epic Mahabharata, you will also find that many persons led an ascetic's life in accordance with Bhagavd Geeta's teachings. Buddhism and Jainism also attempt to create social order by means of religion. Their ideas may be outdated today, but the people of those time did what they could think within the limits of their time.

We are not aware of the philosophy of all religions. When we talk of religion, we see the Greek-Roman, Christian and Islam and make sweeping general statements. I would avoid doing so.

When I speak of religions, I am being inclusive of Greco-Roman, Judaic, Orthodox Christian, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Mesopotamian, Celtic, Nordic, Meso-American, Cherokee, and a number of geographically-minor traditions. Despite your accusation of provincialism, I believe am I making a broad consideration of alternatives here.


Your apparent objection is something I have encountered many times before, and I believe you are confusing the concepts of content and frameworks (see Structural Metadata). Any philosophy of sufficient size will contain useful or insightful ideas simply from the contribution of many thinkers. The presence of "good parts" within an ideology is irrelevant to the framework because that same content could be found from many other sources; this is also true because frameworks are inherently "content non-specific" in that the framework must logically precede (and be independent of) the content which is later applied to it.


So why do I mention that? Since frameworks are content non-specific, that means they are universal concepts which must necessarily remain true for any set of content which you could supply to them. So regardless of which nation from which culture in which era a framework arose, those concepts must hold for any nation from any culture in any era. When we discuss the transmission and properties of "religion" here, we are specficially addressing the class of frameworks which are:


  1. Faith-reliant (allow non-physical content)
  2. Communal (rely on social transmission)
  3. Perfective (mandate a specific ideal to approach), etc.


The "virus" analogy arises from a memetic perspective, which essentially argues that since content from (1) cannot exist outside human beliefs that (2) will end up perpetuating those mythologies within a conflict-driven (evolutionary) environment. Similarly, a virus is a biological structure which cannot sustain itself (1) but which can be sustained by host transmission (2). Most arguments against this perspective attempt to show that (3) serves a direct role in human behavior (more like antibodies), or that the content of (1) is actually created for strategic purposes by the host (more like proteins).


The general atheistic rejection is that only physical content (not 1) presents an accurate (and therefore useful) representation of reality. Dispersions against atheists generally draw on the assumption that the compass of (3) requires the foundation of (1), which is outside the comment of atheism (it is not a philosophy, contrary to the assumption), resulting in a challengingly-asymmetric discussion.


So I have no problem at all with arguing against the frameworks of religious thinking, regardless of who suggests it. So long as it relies on those structural tenets, then I'll knock it down as quickly as I please. If it doesn't rely on those core tenets... well, sure I'd be happy to discuss your philosophy or ethics or [insert not-a-religion]. It's not my burden to argue the negative and cover frameworks never presented-- so if you have any specifics to include, then I'd suggest that you make an argument to support them (not just suggest that I be less provincial for missing your personal slice of the pie). 




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