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

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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 sometimes am attracted to figures such as the Dalai Lama et al - those who seem to offer some creative space from the hard facts of science - but I am still skeptical of their basis and motives - and so fear to spend time listening to them - but I do still feel sometimes that I am lacking in some respite from aware rational and critical thinking.

I'm curious what others do to gain their respite from aware rational and critical thinking?

Is it found in observing nature, listening to music, drinking alcohol, reading a fantasy novel or watching a movie, painting an abstract picture or writing a poem?

There is something to be had from a gathering of people who all aspire to uphold virtue.


respite from aware rational and critical thinking?

May be I lack something, but I have not understood the meaning of your above words. I hope ypu will clarify.

Alice, I know what you mean. Sometimes things just don't get better fast enough even though I can clearly identify problems. Things I find helpful when I am down and discouraged:

Molly Ivins' tapes and books always gives me an adrenaline boost. She had such spirit and although she dealt with politics, I feel the same frustration when someone sends me another family caught by being prisoners of belief.  

Another thing that helps me is meditation, although I find it easier to do in summer months because I have a lovely garden where I am surrounded by critters of nature. Emptying my mind, letting thoughts go with acknowledgement, feeling peace and calm from ground to sky and back to ground.

The greatest help of all is to be with my supportive friends and talk through feelings of fear and anger. They are very skilled at active, compassionate listening and Socratic questioning so I am able to work through the dark times relatively quickly. We have all worked with troubled kids so we all know how powerfully unconscious thoughts block healthy functioning. 

Molly Ivins: How we hurt ourselves when scared to death

Joan - sounds cool :)

Madhukar - I think that it might be that I am using my left brain too much and not getting enough balance in my life with exercise, singing, music, poetry, art, walking in nature etc.  I sometimes get left brain fatigue and do need to incorporate more right brained activities into my life.

Why do those have to be separate things? Personally, walking in nature and meditative times is when I am most effective at poring over ideas and concepts. Exercising routines, listening to music, or any other patterned but varied activities are also a very good basis for heavy thinking because they 'free up' most of my thinking capacity without becoming distractingly repetitive. 


So... perhaps like Madhukar I don't really understand what you describe here. I've definitely seen other people describe similar fatigue, but I haven't really worked out the dynamics of how it's happening. Is it more of a "Not enough of A" or "Too much of B" reaction?

Drake, I like your comment. 

Your comment reminds me that the shower is a good place for creative thinking. When faced with a challenge that doesn't seem to have solutions, I quite often come up with new ideas there ... 

Alice, you stated the way out is to find balance through more right brain thought and action. Exactly! Now, if that is true, we can do some preventive measures and live happier and healthier lives. 

Joan - sure - I'm working on it - because at this stage it's just a hypothesis - and needs some experimentation to see if it's a workable theory :)

Drake - sure - when on forums I spend a lot of brain effort aiming to understand and respond to so many different people - they have such wide variety of perspectives and therefore require a stretching of my capacity to think about how to respond.  I wonder if this is harder the more estrogen you have in your brain - due to the connectivity of left and right hemispheres and always considering facts and emotion - the less estrogen the less connectivity the greater the capacity to stick with non emotional facts - without consideration of the others emotional needs.  I don't know - it changes all the time - we think so quick - probably just the story telling part of my brain making it all up as I go :)

(Long but worth it)

As far as my experience in psychology goes, I have heard that the left brain/right brain idea is a false distinction, and that most thinking integrates across the whole brain.


My own views are a bit unusual, though, as I consider "emotion" to be a misrepresentation of the 'logistical' part of our minds, where we track the growth/change of things and monitor the feedback of our other thinking processes. I consider this feedback to be the very basis of self-reflection and a critical part of philosophic thinking.


So I'm thinking maybe it's not the discipline of thought which is so tiring, but rather that you're pushing your mind to use less comfortable styles of thinking (most likely ones you were taught/learned were "better" to use).


Based on historical patterns, I might suspect you are trying to rely on the "hypothetical" thinking style, which tends to involve envisioning specific event scenarios based on causal "identity" factors (focusing on the actor and who they are). A statement in this style would be, "Bob has a short temper, so I don't want to tell him bad news (he will get angry)." 


But that's not the only thinking process that people use. The most central is the "logistical" thinking which helps us track how interactions affect us and other things (often misrepresented as one's "gut" or "heart" due to quirks in our spatial perceptions). A statement in this style would be, "It would be dangerous to give Bob bad news (I might get hurt from it)."


There is also "reactive" thinking which we use to 'save' and 'replay' simple action sets, making regular decisions fast and energy-cheap. The same situation again would be, "Always leave bills on Bob's desk when he's away." Other styles, especially the logistical one, help for training habits that protect us against very regular situations.


And lastly, there's also "categorical" thinking, which is more sophisticated than the hypothetical style. Rather than envisioning single scenarios, the key is to identify the boundary conditions for a range of actions (regardless of the actors). This style can be much more energy-expensive, but it gives infinite flexibility to events within the covered ranges. The corresponding statement would be, "If it's an expensive bill, I can wait until just after the board meeting to give it to Bob. If it's a minor bill, I can just hand it to him in the morning."


So I'm being way more descriptive than I need to here because I want to see if I can give your a different way to frame your experiences. My best guess so far is that you're probably a very strong 'logistical' thinker, but that you try to use 'hypothetical' thinking when you're being critical so you can simulate other perspectives to overcome individual bias despite the fatigue of overusing a non-primary style.


My suggestion in response is that the 'logistical' style which may be your primary type can also let you overcome individual bias if you use self-reflection to recognize the shape of your own reactions. In doing so, you can remain neutral despite your reactions, rather than attempting to go outside yourself for objectivity-- and it has the advantage that you could train it to be an automatic habit if it's your strongest style.


So if you mull it over, how does that match up against your thinking experiences? If I presented it well, you should definitely have noticed some recognition and resonance with one or another of those styles. If one of them just doesn't connect with anything for you, that's a common sign of something we haven't experienced. If none of them resonate... then I'd sure like to hear more to find what I might have missed in my surveys before.



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