Religion cannot be a ‘virus of the mind’

Opinion graphic

Many prominent atheists, including Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, have argued that without parental indoctrination very few children would naturally form a belief in God. In his book “God is Not Great,” Hitchens argued that, “if religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in quite a different world.”

To Hitchens, this “different world” means that there would be far fewer theists and far more atheists. Dawkins makes a similar argument in his book “The God Delusion,” where he says, “Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival … [but] the inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses.”

In fact, Dawkins has argued that theism is an unnatural, destructive meme which infects human minds through indoctrination and brainwashing. 

In order to assess the plausibility of the Dawkins “mind virus” hypothesis we should attempt to find some observable predictions for the hypothesis. If we find that the predictions made by the hypothesis are found in the real world, then we will have found some corroborating evidence for the hypothesis. If we find that things are not as the hypothesis predicts, then the hypothesis will be falsified.

If Dawkins’ hypothesis is correct, then we should expect to find evidence for the following two outcomes. First, we should expect the children of atheist parents to very rarely believe in God. If religion is unnatural and the mechanism for becoming religious is parental brainwashing, then children who do not encounter the mechanism should not become religious. Second, we should expect atheism to have a high retention rate. Atheists’ children should remain atheists once they grow up because they will have passed the highly gullible childhood stage without being exposed to parental brainwashing.

Unfortunately for Dawkins, these predictions are both contradicted by the fact that, according to the Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, atheists have the lowest retention rate of any worldview at 30 percent. This means that only 30 percent of the children whose parents were atheists retained their atheism as adults. This is compared to 84 percent for Hindus, 68 percent for Catholics, and 60 percent for Baptists. If atheism is natural and religion is only caused by brainwashing, then atheists ought to have the highest retention rate of any religion. How could it be that 70 percent of the children of atheists leave atheism when the mechanism for leaving atheism, parental brainwashing, is not present? 

These predictions are also contradicted by numerous case studies from Oxford Psychologist Justin Barrett’s book “Born Believers,” in which the small children of atheist parents, to the shock of their parents, express a strong belief in God. Barrett cites many case studies of atheist parents who are surprised at their young child’s insistence that God exists in spite of their attempts to teach them otherwise. In one case an atheist parent tells his young daughter, Anna, that God didn’t create the universe, but that there had been a big bang a long long time ago that caused the universe to just appear out of nothing. Anna responded, “God must have been surprised.”

Barrett also tells of a case where a young boy couldn’t stop laughing hysterically when his atheist mother told the researcher that she didn’t believe in God. In response to his mother’s atheist answer, the boy said, “Mum, why are you saying ‘no’? The answer should be yes!” Barrett goes on to explain that “He found his mother’s obvious confusion a source of amusement throughout and kept laughing at her ridiculous answers. How could she get something so wrong that was so obvious to him?”

Both of the outcomes predicted by the Dawkins’ hypothesis have turned out to be the opposite of what we see in the actual world. The evidence against Dawkins has been so overwhelming that Susan Blackmore, one of the most vocal supporters of his “religion as a mind virus” theory, recently wrote an article for the Guardian retracting her support for the theory. She stated that after attending a recent conference on the Cognitive Science of Religion and watching presentation after presentation on the benefits of religious belief, she was convinced by the evidence that religion was not a dangerous “mind virus.”

After summarizing the presentations she wrote that, “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 … it seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as ‘viruses of the mind’ may have had its day.”

Andrew Rogers is a junior in philosophy. Please comments to [email protected]

  • shannon oakley

    Straight from the Bible Belt comes this curt report. What say of the agnostics? Surely they have not been put in the pen with the atheists? Dr. Barrett may give one the impression of him being a wishful thinker. In the ever-trusty Wikipedia page for Dr. Barrett, the New York Times describes him as: “an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God.” He states our purpose is to love God and each other. Well the proofs in the pudding, it wrenches away emotional dependence on such a purpose (not for us fellow-beings) for such a God that is all- powerful, all-knowing and perfectly good. For this God has failed miserably, in this world, for being a “perfectly good God”; unless he gives up the other two traits — “all-knowing,all-powerful.” Or God can be perfectly good, and not claim the other two-traits, for as goes the old question, “Why does God let such horrible things happen?” Perhaps a God of deistic traits? But then that takes away the whole love quality. Abandoning his creation is not seen in a loving light, to us humans.

    • Conscious Objector

      Shannon, you might be interested in this piece by one of the leading philosophers and theologians in the world in which he discusses the problem of evil. //

      • shannon oakley

        Thank you for the link.

  • Anonymous

    This is awesome. Great points and very well written.

  • Mac

    In a society that clearly supports belief in religion, it is easy for children to receive the idea of the existence of a god outside of the home, while the concept of atheism is often condemned as a hateful and incorrect worldview. I wonder if the retention rate of atheism would be significantly higher in a setting that did not resonate ideologies that constantly negate their beliefs.

    • MarilynLaCourt

      It’s not the belief in god or gods that is the problem.
      It’s religions! It’s the personification of god and gods that makes religiouns so dangerous.
      It’s the hubris of man to think he knows what and who their god or gods are, what they think and what they do. It’s religions that give us falce prophits, false prophets who tell us slavery is just fine, false prophets who tell us their god rewards the wealty with wealth because…..who knows what or why. False prophets who tell us our part in global warming is a myth and we should continue to rape the earth, our home, our mother, in order to provide well for the 1%. Slavery is not dead. We are all slaves to the false prophets who support the 1%. And, religions are the tools they use to keep us ignorant and them in control.
      As a species, we are still evolving. Perhaps several hundred years from now we will learn to trust science to inform us, and Humanism to help us find a moral compas. It’s not about the “meaning” of our existence here on planet earth, but to acknowledge that we humans with our big brains CONSTRUCT our meanings as we go along.

      • Conscious Objector

        ‘We are all slaves to the false prophets who support the 1%. And, religions are the tools they use to keep us ignorant and them in control.’

        If you consider statism to be a religion I can only agree, but I can’t agree that the Judeo-Christian religions which explicitly teach love and charity are dangerous. The state’s death toll for the 20th Century reached well over 100 million which utterly dwarfs any combined death toll that can be laid at the feet of theistic religions in known human history. The biggest horrors, Stalinism, Maoism, Nazism were philosophies firmly rooted in the primacy of man and the absence of God/morality. They represented a total abandonment of objective standards of theistic morality in favour of moral relativism and nihilism.

        I wonder then how you think the Humanism that did this can now be trusted to ‘help us find a moral compass’? And how do you think this compass could be better than what we already have from religion; ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’?

        In what sense do you think we need to ‘learn to trust science to inform us’? It seems to me that while science is a fantastic tool for the material advancement of humanity, in terms of morality and ethics it is useless since all it can provide, at best, is empirical facts. It can describe in detail the mechanism of how an atomic bomb works, but it can never tell us if dropping it on Hiroshima was a good or bad thing to do.

    • dalek1099dw

      The major flaw in this study is as you said societal views of these religions I think that if you compared the retention rate of different religions compared to the proportion of society that is religion you would see evidence that corresponded to the mind virus theory with children of atheistic parents being x number of times less likely to become religious with that number(x) being less for children of theistic parents having children becoming another religion.

  • Matt

    Athiest are growing at 20%, where other religions in US are declining. The main reason that it is not higher is because of the stigmatism against them that most are afraid to reveal that they don’t believe in a god.

    • Rabbi

      Yes. An epoch of change is happening. It does not care if we are here or not,

  • Utah

    I’m failing to see any opinion in this opinion piece. Rogers has merely presented the selected findings of others.

  • Tammy

    I think perhaps the research is not taking into account many atheist parents have close family members who may proselytize to their children. Not to mention many atheist parents don’t raise their children to be atheists, but rather as freethinkers. They are given the freedom to choose any or no faith. And at what age are the children being asked what they believe? I imagine like many kids being raised in a secular home, they try out many religions and go through a series of belief systems before coming to a conclusion as an adult.

  • atlanta humanist

    I think if you look at a modern country such as Sweden where greater than 80% of the people are atheist and surveys conducted show them to be the happiest people of any first world country, and review whether their children become believers is god, you’ll find Barrett’s suppositions fall apart. Anyone can find statistics that could support your view, but ethical non-biased researchers will look holistically and report facts. Barrett is anything but unbiased and therefore his assertions will always be met with scepticism.

    • Sven

      Where didi you get that percentage? In 2013, 65.9 % of all Swedes were members of the Lutheran Church and an additional 350,000 of other Evangelical Churches. While churches have lost large amounts of members, the percentage of actual atheists is probably quite small. BTW, I speak Swedish so I can read the original surveys .

  • Valley Scharping

    I appreciate this post.