Religion cannot be a ‘virus of the mind’


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