Is religion a virus?

L7 with lytic virus. Magnified 400x. Photo by Mr D Logan Not to be con­fused with Buddhism.

I see that Daniel Dennett has a book out immin­ently treat­ing reli­gion as a nat­ural phe­nomenon. It doesn’t sur­prise me that it’s happened, but rather that it’s taken so long for someone to do this. I’m inter­ested in the func­tion of reli­gion, but some debates get bogged down in spe­cific con­tent. This is a prob­lem because adher­ents to a par­tic­u­lar reli­gion get upset at being ana­lysed, as would most people. But if you do believe in a god or gods, then it would seem reas­on­able to con­clude that 99% of humans who have exis­ted have wor­shipped false gods. Nevertheless, see­ing as we lack a uni­fied world reli­gion, it seems that the actual exist­ence of a god is unne­ces­sary for a reli­gion to work. There is per­haps little puzzle about how a reli­gion with a genu­ine god would sur­vive, but isn’t it a fas­cin­at­ing social pro­cess that oth­ers can build whole soci­et­ies on gods that have never existed?

Most stridently Richard Dawkins has argued that reli­gion per­sists because it is a virus of the mind. This has upset Alister McGrath who notes “As every­one knows vir­uses are bad things; they are con­ta­gious para­sitic entit­ies which exploit their hosts.” (Dawkins’ God 2005 p135). Some of McGrath’s oppos­i­tion seems to be that Dawkins is being mean. I’d agree that describ­ing reli­gious instruc­tion as child-abuse isn’t going to win any awards for dip­lomacy, but that alone isn’t going to aid the argu­ment. He is bet­ter when regard­ing the per­sist­ence of reli­gions:

If reli­gion is repor­ted as hav­ing a pos­it­ive impact on human well-being by 79 per­cent of recent stud­ies in the field, how can it con­ceiv­ably be ana­log­ous to a virus? Viruses are meant to be bad for you. So just how many vir­uses have a pos­it­ive impact on their hosts? Far from being some­thing which reduces the sur­vival value of the host, belief in God is some­thing that enhances psychic survival.”

There are holes in the argu­ment but there are two big hits in here. One is the pos­it­ive effect of reli­gion. It is pos­sible to argue over the rel­ev­ance of the bene­fits being stud­ied to reli­gion but com­bined with the sen­tence “, belief in God is some­thing that enhances psychic sur­vival” (I’ve scratched ‘psychic’ because there’s no reason to use it) you have a prob­lem. Of the ancient human soci­et­ies, the ones that sur­vived were all soci­et­ies with a concept of the divine and of those at least all but one were mis­taken in that belief. If reli­gion is mal­ad­apt­ive then how can you explain the sur­vival of erro­neous reli­gions?

There must be many reas­ons, but one I want to look at is repro­duc­tion. It’s going to be a simple and flawed model of soci­ety I use. If you like you can add com­ments at the bot­tom say­ing “that doesn’t work because you haven’t allowed for…” You’ll prob­ably be right, this isn’t a final the­ory of reli­gious repro­duc­tion. There are a couple of found­a­tions for my model.

1. The model soci­ety I’m con­sid­er­ing is an archaic soci­ety.
I’d be temp­ted to say it’s in bib­lical times, except I’d like to make this clear, it isn’t dir­ectly ana­log­ous to Christianity or Judaism any more than it is to Olympian reli­gion. It’s a gen­eric reli­gious belief and hence unreal­istic. You may or may not be able to extra­pol­ate beliefs of this soci­ety to the mod­ern world.

2. The soci­ety is pretty much male. Women exist, but only in rela­tion to males.
This may annoy you. The reason I’m mak­ing this assump­tion is that major reli­gions do seem to be more oner­ous on woman than men. If we were talk­ing about a genu­ine reli­gion one reason for that could be that the Gods are less tol­er­ant of women. But this soci­ety stands for one of the many with false beliefs. You may be aware of an ancient reli­gion with a female head and proto-feminist believes. I know the earth god­dess cult which is pop­u­lar among some mod­ern pagans might be an example of this. Personally I’m not sure that depic­tions of women neces­sary show that they were in con­trol. Quite a few Mediterranean civil­isa­tions were big on depict­ing bulls or calves. I’m pretty cer­tain the head priest wasn’t bovine. Even if some reli­gions were gyn­o­centric, I’m afraid that the writ­ten evid­ence would sug­gest that it was more often a man’s world.

I’m not writ­ing off the whole of ancient female exper­i­ence, but for the pur­poses of a simple model I’m not includ­ing it. Adding in a fem­in­ine per­spect­ive would be an inter­est­ing task for later, because it’s hard to build up a con­vin­cing argu­ment while ignor­ing 50% of humanity.

So con­sider the mar­ried man in the ancient world. His wife has chil­dren, but how does he know they are his? Belief in a divin­ity that watches over moral beha­viour would provide sup­port for the belief they are his. Such a man may provide more dili­gently for the chil­dren than one who har­boured doubts*. As for the woman it is neces­sary, from the male point of view, that she beliefs that trans­gres­sions are observed as this adds a fur­ther like­li­hood that infi­del­it­ies will be discovered.

This becomes an issue at mar­riage. In the ancient world mar­riage was in some ways a com­mer­cial deal between two fam­il­ies. Part of the family’s wealth was to be inves­ted in strangers with the inten­tion that off­spring would be pro­duced. If you are look­ing for a wife, who is the more attract­ive pro­pos­i­tion? To take two extreme examples, the pious woman or the faith­less woman? To provide the best house­hold for a son, father would do best to marry his sons to women who appear to be pious. To make his own daugh­ters attract­ive to poten­tial mates then a father should instil the appear­ance of piety in his own daugh­ters, and the easi­est way to do this is for them to believe in the local reli­gion and observe it.

The father of daugh­ters is also tak­ing a risk. He is invest­ing a sub­stan­tial dowry in the new fam­ily. Again which males would be the more attract­ive? Faithless males or pious males? A man who is will­ing to have affairs may spread his sup­port for his chil­dren amongst the moth­ers too. The dowry no only funds the genes of the wife’s fam­ily but also the genes of the hus­bands and his mistress(es). Therefore piety would also be attract­ive in a male. If belief is genu­ine you would also expect the chil­dren to inherit the reli­gion of the par­ents. Richard Dawkins points out in the same Viruses of the Mind “…it is a telling fact that, the world over, the vast major­ity of chil­dren fol­low the reli­gion of their par­ents rather than any of the other avail­able reli­gions.” It was at this point I half-remembered that ver­tic­ally trans­mit­ted para­sites tend to be more benign than hori­zont­ally trans­mit­ted para­sites. This was far too good an idea to be one of my own so I did a quick search and found the late Ben Cullen’s paper: “Parasite Ecology and the Evolution of Religion” which is both well writ­ten and short.

The model works in that adher­ing to the local reli­gion would pass on a repro­duct­ive advant­age. Fail to get mar­ried by the local priest and you won’t be repro­du­cing any­where around here. If false reli­gions are para­sites then they would be ones that, as Cullen describes, have evolved towards sym­bi­osis with their human hosts. Regardless of its vera­city a reli­gion could be an evol­u­tion­ary advant­age in the ancient world. I’m not sure that you can trans­fer this to the mod­ern world.

This model only works if belief is endemic in the soci­ety. If you’re uncer­tain whether or not your part­ner is a believer then life is dif­fer­ent. A reli­gious world­view only helps if your part­ner is reli­gious, else you may be com­mit­ting more to the rela­tion­ship than your part­ner. A sec­u­lar per­son on the other hand has the bene­fit of not accept­ing the plat­it­udes of a god who (in this reli­gion) doesn’t exist. If the part­ner is reli­gious, then that’s a bonus, but if they’re not then you don’t stand a much to lose as a per­son who relies more on a non-existent being to guar­an­tee the rela­tion­ship. In such an envir­on­ment then it becomes bet­ter to raise chil­dren in a sec­u­lar way to ensure they are not taken advant­age of.

This paints a pretty grim pic­ture of mar­riage, but until recent times mar­riage was not a union of equals. The man was usu­ally much older than the woman, and this stretches the defin­i­tion of woman to include girls of four­teen. Modern mar­riage in con­trast is a union of equals bound by mutual respect, trust and love. Some of my mar­ried friends find it hil­ari­ous when I say that, but refuse to explain why. Is a god, act­ing as a moral enfor­cer, neces­sary in this? Personally I think not, but oth­ers dis­agree. It would appear to be a com­mon ques­tion to ask an athe­ist “What stops you from killing/stealing/becoming the sixth Village Person etc.?” The ques­tion would indic­ate that questioner’s belief in a god is an enfor­cer of their moral beha­viour. The uni­form­ity of response from vari­ous reli­gious groups would indic­ate that it is the belief rather than the exist­ence of god as the enfor­cer, as there’s no theo­lo­gical argu­ment that would recon­cile Christian and Hindu claims on the nature of the divine. If you have a more pess­im­istic view of human­ity than me, then it may a jus­ti­fi­able pos­i­tion. Obviously there’s more to reli­gion than repro­duc­tion, so even if this par­tic­u­lar bene­fit were neg­ated the net effect of reli­gion might argu­ably be positive.

I appre­ci­ate that this approach might appear to be irre­deem­ably athe­istic as it’s a god­less approach. On the sub­ject of Mirecki, Brenda Landwehr of Kansas said: “It’s hard to teach reli­gion if you don’t believe in it.” However, as Jim Davila makes clear, you simply can­not be a sin­cere believer in all reli­gions and so study of them must be some­thing which can work where belief isn’t neces­sary nor forbidden.

I don’t think that any of the above is ground-breaking. What is does show that you could take Dawkins’ meth­ods without neces­sar­ily com­ing to the same con­clu­sions. It is pos­sible to take memes or cul­tural vir­uses and apply them to reli­gion without neces­sar­ily arguing that reli­gion is a Very Bad Thing. I’d say that would sug­gest that evol­u­tion by selec­tion is no more hos­tile to the concept of reli­gion than any other sci­entific paradigm. Equally this evol­u­tion­ary model isn’t an advoc­ate for the desirab­il­ity of reli­gion in the cur­rent world either. It may have been suc­cess­ful in the past but for a mil­lion years sit­ting on the African savan­nah chip­ping bits of rock was a suc­cess­ful strategy.

Anyhow feel free to point out where my reas­on­ing is far too simplistic. I spot­ted an embar­rass­ing over­sight noted below, so I’m sure there must be others.

* Putting this into WordPress it’s just occurred to me that a male non-believer might spend his ener­gies cre­at­ing more off­spring rather than tend­ing to the ones he’s got which could be a repro­duct­ive advant­age. That simply hadn’t occurred to me — and ladies I’m single.

2 thoughts on “Is religion a virus?

Comments are closed.