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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Drake thanks for the long reply - interesting stuff - I think I do a few of them.... and chop and change depending on mood and experiments based on 'how bob's feeling today' LOL

For me, I think it might be more about the interface of the computer screen. My eyes feel tired and my brain starts to kind of ache - especially when having to concentrate on long pages of text - perhaps I need glasses and need to get my eyes tested.

Also I'm aware that I do a lot of sitting - and think I need to get more fresh air and exercise - rather than spending all my spare time sitting at a computer.

Do you have an old monitor, possibly even a CRT (the fat kind)? Tired eyes and pressure headaches are a common effect of straining to see low-contrast or fuzzy details, especially if you have poor lighting or a basement computer. 

Drake - no, I've got a laptop... ?

I supposed it was a bit off-topic, but I believe that computer use need not be a tiring activity. With the right habits and ergonomics, I think intellectual posting can be mentally energizing and (at least) physically comfortable. My tangent was just a "Can I help with that?" reflex that I've developed over the years.

Drake - yes, I like to follow things up if I think that the person may be lacking some information that I've become aware of...  I still do it because of the chance - even if low - it's a good trait to want to assist others.

Maybe I need to buy a really expensive chair and desk at the right height! :)  One for my wish list...

It's wonderful to watch how this discussion has been unfolding. As a "young" atheist, I sure am learning a lot (not that I understood what everyone said, sorry...) : )>

I have been hoping that gay atheists would respond to this conversation, but unless I've missed it, I don't think I am hearing this community's perspective. So, I guess I'll be the first one to give my two cents.

My question, in line with Joan's list of additional questions on the mentioned reports, is this:
Assuming some gays are also religiously inclined, are religious gays happier than non-religious gays?

To me, being gay and religious (I mean mostly Christian, Mormon, or Muslim) is an oxymoron. To believe in a religion that absolutely hates and detests you and wants you dead or to have never been born, one has to be either very ignorant about what the scripture says, or indulge in substantial self-delusion to keep the faith going. Having been brought up in an educational system when since kindergarten all the way up till high school I have been indoctinated with superstitious beliefs without my consent or been given a choice, I do understand that brainwashing also works wonders.

Unless some gay Americans have been hiding in a cave for the last several months since the Republican presidential hopefuls have began campaigning, I don't see how any of us could have not felt personally to be on the receiving end of the full force of the Christian wrath.

Which brings me also to my other question: within these studies, have any of them detailed how many gay Christian persons they have asked if they were happier? Further, have any of those studies measured the cost of violence inflicted upon gays, or similarly ostracized and discriminated groups, and how such data might change the way how we define as "happier" people.

I know this may sound a bit vindictive and "emotional," but I wonder if religious folks like the Rick Santorums or Michelle Bachmanns are happier because they get their self rightousness and kick from demonizing gays and targeting their religious intolerance and violence against them.

And the claim that "religious people are healthier"? Sure, when you inflict pain on other communities through religion, that seems a very likely consequence.

good question - I'm sure you could find stats out there if you keep looking - otherwise you could start a topic and see if you can get some first hand reports :)

Religious Believers Happier than Atheists and Agnostics: Study
Tue Mar 18, 2008 11:15 EST
Comments (0)

By Hilary White
LONDON, March 18, 2008 ( - Another study has found that sincere and active religious belief makes people happy, the Daily Mail reports.
Statistical analysis has shown repeatedly that church attendance, family life and stable marriages are the building blocks of a happy life.
Prof. Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics, and Dr. Orsolya Lelkes of the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research presented their research at the conference of the Royal Economic Society in Coventry. They said that religious believers are happier overall than atheists or agnostics. More than this, regular church attendance and an active prayer life make people even happier than passive belief alone.

Gay Atheists

Why are there so many gay atheists? Does one tendency help cause the other? Or is it perhaps that being gay or atheist is not enough of a reason to visit my site or send me email but being both is?
Of the people I interact with most on my site the majority are heterosexual male. But I am not quite sure if the next biggest group is women or gay men, it is a close run thing. This proportion is very much higher than it “should be” the proportion of gay men out there in the population as a whole is much smaller than this.
Since I first wrote this (2002?) I have met more straight female atheists, but nowhere near as many as you would imagine I should meet if they were in the same proportions as the general public. Gay men are significantly over-represented among atheists (pushing towards the 10% they claim for the whole of humnanity) and heterosexual women seem to be in the minority! Is that because atheist women are significantly more likely to describe themselves as bisexual, that they actually aspire to be bisexual? It's possible.
Why this is I do not know. It could be an artefact of memory, I simply forget more of the people who are straight and dull but I remember every one who is gay, no matter how otherwise unremarkable they are, it is a possibility but I think it is unlikely. I think it is a real effect. Another possibility is that the number of gay atheists is normal but they are unnaturally vociferous, or more likely to find a reason to e-mail me. This possibility is probably capable of explaining a part of the gay overrepresentation but not all of it.

Atheists and gays live shorter lives
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Re: Atheists and gays live shorter lives
by crank » May 27, 2011 2:48 pm
kiore wrote:Picking a single indicator and correlating it to group rather than individual life expectancy is problematic at the least.
In his work on epidemiology that arose from the White Hall Studies wiki article here Michael Marmot author of the Status Syndrome identified social gradient as a powerful predictor of life expectancy. abstract here.
Some of the predictors to group (rather than individual) life expectancy were noted to be educational level and social position (status) within society, people with post graduate degrees live longer than those with graduate degrees who live longer than under graduates etc, and senior managers having a longer life expectancy than middle managers and so on. Some of the more astounding links noted were that hollywood actors who had won Oscars (as a group) lived significantly longer than those just nominated, the degree of difference was similar to the life expectancy difference between smokers and non-smokers, so a significant difference indeed. These markers, Degree, Oscar etc seem to have no intrinsic value to group life expectancy, but rather suggest a number of other factors in process. Picking a single indicator, religion or no religion could be classed in the same category as Oscar no Oscar, perhaps what is being measured is something else. I doubt the accuracy of many of the 'religious people live longer' studies anyway as really indicating what they proclaim to. Likewise the 'gays live less long' studies, what is actually being measured is not at all clear.

Good stuff. I think all the latest research indicates that those living in more favorable social contexts live longer, e.g., many close friends and family, higher social status>>less stress since usually in more control over ones life, Oscar winner>>you are appreciated and looked up to by your peers... As social animals, should it be a surprise that this obtains? Gays as noted earlier, are subject to many social negatives, most definitely often feel no control over large aspects of their lives like not even being able to be themselves lest they be outed. The teen suicide rate amongst gays is going to be a tad negative on longevity. Church affords an expanding of who is family with all the unquestioning, non-critical acceptance and love that results, more bulwark to fend off the stresses.

Why Do Atheists Hide Atheism from Families? Are Atheists Ashamed?

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Why do atheists hide their atheism from their families? Are atheists ashamed?

Not all atheists hide their atheism from friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family, but it's true that many do. This doesn't mean that they are necessarily ashamed of their atheism; instead, it often means that they are afraid of the reactions of others if they find out and this is because so many religious theists — especially Christians — are intolerant of atheism and atheists. Thus atheists hiding their atheism isn't an indictment of atheism, it's an indictment of religious theism.

Alice, you have provided several good links but it would be interesting to have your comments on the subjects covered by these links.

OK - first link is dubious - not sure who is pushing it - but if marriage is one of the things that makes a happy life - then atheists are best at keeping in a marriage and have the lowest divorce rates.

The second is a blog by a Gay Atheist which I thought perhaps interesting in response to the previous poster.

The last link I thought interesting for us all - as many of us need to deal with coming out as atheist to our family and friends and this can be difficult and happen in stages.

Women, happiness, marriage, alternatives - tags

In the late 1970s, when I was doing the early work on family violence I ran across some studies that showed

Married men were happier than unmarried men;

Married women were unhappier than married women.

Google doesn’t bring up the studies so I can’t give you the citations without going to the college library and going through Psych and Soc Abstracts.

Obviously, this finding is controversial and many researchers have a bias against this finding, just as I have a bias for it.

In 1972 Jessie Bernard claimed marriage in USA was “distinctly beneficial to most husbands but is much less so, or not beneficial at all, to most wives.” She “attributes a wide variety of emotional disorders to females’ marriages … alternatives open to young women may be no more desirable.”

Bradburn, 1969, disputed Jessie Bernard, 1972, findings and I can’t find his original, but have found many studies that refer to him.  

These studies can be found by Googling using marriage, satisfaction, happiness,

Sex-role stereotypes and clinical judgments of mental health.

Broverman IKBroverman DMClarkson FERosenkrantz PSVogel SR.


In another post a former Christian communicated how they maintained a feeling of stability in a frightening world of change by defining themselves as normal, with invidious comparison to "deviants" such as atheists, gays, etc.

Self esteem through invidious comparison is pathetic compared to self-actualization. The process of questioning gender is inherently one of personal growth and facing your authenticity, learning to love yourself based on your unique value as a human being. Though painful, one gains personal empowerment and wisdom.

Putting yourself up by putting others down, in comparison, is as easy as shooting down a greased slide. It requires no self-examination, no questioning, no admission of personal needs, fears, hopes, strengths or weaknesses.

Which sounds healthier to you?


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