Religious Belief is a Virus

Religious Belief is a Virus April 14, 2016

We were starting our second beer, and I had been waiting for this moment. Al is a very smart guy, a trained scientist with advanced degrees in engineering. He is a kind and thoughtful person. He is also a devout Christian. I am a nonbeliever. We have had many spirited discussions about religion, but they have always remained civil. We have never let our differences of opinion on matters of faith threaten our friendship. I was planning to spring a little trap on him.

I mentioned a recent terrorist attack in Iraq that had killed a number of innocent civilians along with several American soldiers.

“How can any religion condone such actions?” I asked. “The whole idea of Islam is crazy, though. Mohammed appoints himself as Allah’s prophet and proceeds to write the Koran, supposedly with Allah dictating. But if you read it, with all its logical and grammatical errors, it was clearly written by a not-too-literate man named Mohammed. He claimed he was the only real prophet. All the rest were fakes. The man was either a charlatan or he was deluded. And then, he flew to Heaven on a horse. I haven’t seen too many flying horses except on gas station signs.”

Al laughed at that, and agreed that Islam was indeed pretty crazy.

And then I dropped the bomb.

“Okay, let me change a few words in what I just said. “Jesus must have been pretty delusional to think he was the son of God. And his claim that he is the only true prophet…ridiculous! But even that isn’t as bad as the whole idea that he was born by immaculate conception, and after he rose from the dead and was lifted up into heaven. That’s even crazier than flying horses!”

Al wasn’t smiling. “Those are historical facts. It’s all in the Bible.”

“And the Bible was written by whom?”

I answered my own question before Al could open his mouth.

“Written by men, but God dictated the words. Gee, that sounds familiar. And judging by the contradictions and inconsistencies, one would have to conclude that God had a lot of human failings. He would have failed a high school English class.”

Al laughed at that. “Yeah, he probably would have failed English class, since it wasn’t invented when the Bible was written.”

“But,” he continued, “If the Bible isn’t fact, then two billion people on the planet are wrong.”

“If the Koran isn’t fact then more than one billion Muslims are wrong,” I countered. “Do we decide who is right by a vote? And if so, we better hurry up and hold the election pretty soon, because the Muslims are gaining on the Christians every day.”

Al shook his head. “Most Muslims are ignorant Arabs who were indoctrinated with that stuff since they were born.”

“And how is that different from what most Christian families do? Are American kids any less brainwashed than Iranian or Saudi kids? The fact is, most children are taught religious beliefs as soon as they are old enough to understand language, and most of them retain the religion of their parents for their entire life. That’s not surprising. Children are very receptive to anything their parents say, and once the belief system is in place, it’s hard to dislodge. Later in life when they are adults, they could examine those beliefs critically, but most of them don’t. Have you ever really, REALLY thought about it? Questioned it?”

“Of course I have!” Al exclaimed. “But deep down, in the center of my soul, I know that Jesus is my lord.”

I knew better than to question that statement. There is nothing you can say to a devout religious believer, no logic, no reason, to answer such a statement.

“Okay, I know that you believe that, but I just want you to think…to realize…that there are a lot of people on this planet who do not share your convictions…who think all Christians are wrong, and doomed to hellfire and damnation, just as you think they are. Maybe you are all wrong!”

We were both silent for a moment. Then I continued.

“I just read a book called ‘The God Virus’ by Darrel Ray. He makes the case that religious belief afflicts the brain of believers, suspending logic and reason in matters related to their faith-based beliefs, but leaving them fully intact in evaluating competing religious beliefs. I want you to think back to the beginning of this discussion, how you were able to see through the fantasies and deceptions of Islam, but when I presented very similar ideas associated with Christianity, you were completely unable to examine them critically. It’s as if a disease gains control of the minds of religious believers, and it spreads through their preachers and priests and imams. Right now, it seems to me that Islam is winning the battle. Their virus is stronger than the Christian virus, because it doesn’t care about separation of church and state. So the power of the government is enlisted in the coercion of people to become believers. Our secular society is at a disadvantage to that. I know that you have no use for the lunatic fringe fundamentalists who want to take over our government, discard the Constitution and replace it with Biblical laws, but that is probably a natural reaction of the Christian virus to the perceived threat from Islam.”Al was looking at me in total perplexity.

“What are you raving about? Islam will never replace Christianity. Those people are doomed. When Judgment Day comes, they will all burn.”

I decided maybe a third beer was needed, and I wanted to let things cool off a little.

We changed the subject to health care.

That was a really bad idea!


I didn’t see Al for a few weeks, but when we got together again, the virus discussion continued.

I handed Al a cold mug of Heinekens and we headed for the rockers on the patio. It was a beautiful late afternoon in southern California…light breeze, about 75 degrees. The binoculars and the bird finder book were on the table between the rockers, so that we could watch and identify the birds at the feeders in the back yard. As usual, there was a flurry of activity around the feeders. Several varieties of finches and sparrows plus several mourning doves jockeyed and sometimes fought for a position at a feeding station. Neither of our local Cooper’s Hawks had made an appearance. When they did, the feeders would empty with a “whoosh.” The hawks rarely stayed long, and as soon as they left, the feeders would be populated again very quickly.

We usually spend our first beer doing small talk…weather, family and the fortunes of local sports teams, but today, I could see that Al had something on his mind. He wasted no time getting to it as soon as we were seated.

“I have been thinking about our discussion last month…about your theory that religious belief is a virus. You don’t really believe that do you?”

“Not literally. Darrel Ray, the author of the book, “The God Virus,” shows that religious belief spreads through a population much like a biological virus does, and he draws many analogies…priests and pastors as vectors, the attempts by the virus to suppress the immune response, etc. He shows convincingly that the primary concern of all religions is survival of the religion, and the spreading of the virus, not the well-being of the hosts…the infected people.”

“While Dr. Ray acknowledges that there does not appear to be a biological basis for religious belief, he asserts that its characteristics and the strategies used to spread it are very similar. He also believes that reason and critical thinking are inhibited by it, so that its influence is not beneficial to the human race.”

“To paraphrase James Whitcomb Riley, ‘If it looks like a lion, walks like a lion and acts like a lion, it still may not be a lion, but if you assume that, you may end up as lion dinner.’”

Al laughed at that, but then grew serious.

“Religions do a lot of good things in society. Surely you can’t deny that. Our laws and moral codes are all derived from the Bible. The charitable work of churches fills an important need in our society.”

We had been over all this before, and I was not surprised that my arguments had not changed his mind. I could have repeated my arguments that the basis for most laws is the Golden Rule, which far predates Christianity, or even the much older Judaism, having its origins in hunter-gatherer groups as much as fifty thousand years ago. The Egyptians had an elaborate system of laws and moral codes long before Christianity came on the scene. But Dr. Ray had an even stronger argument, and I decided to lay it out.

“Religions spend a tiny fraction of their accumulated wealth on charitable work. Dr. Ray was raised in a Christian fundamentalist household, and he looked into the budgets of churches. He found that a typical church spends 5% or less of its budget on what he calls “good works,” which he defines as helping people who are in trouble…the poor, victims of natural disasters, etc. Most of the rest that is not spent on maintenance of their facilities is targeted at proselytization; missions, Bible Schools, youth camps, buying Bibles to place in hotel rooms, and even public schools if they can get away with it. His point is that the overwhelming emphasis of the church is on spreading the word…infecting as many people as possible. That is how the church increases its wealth and power. Helping people is far down the priority list, unless it includes an opportunity to spread the word…infect some new people to increase the flock.”

Al was irritated, I could see that. “That’s nonsense! Our church spends a lot more than that on helping the poor and disadvantaged.”

“What percentage of your total budget would you say is spent on that?”

He shrugged. “I have never really looked at the books, but I know it’s more than that.”

“Could you find out?”

He wasn’t sure. “The finances of the church, as you know, are not subject to any public audit. They are controlled by the church officials. I am not sure that I could ask questions without raising eyebrows.”

“Unlike secular charities, churches are not required to submit to an IRS audit to keep their tax-exempt status.” I commented. “Most secular charities spend at least 65% of their funds on “good works,” limiting administrative and fundraising costs to 35% or less, according to Dr. Ray. Do you think your church does that well?”

Al shrugged. “Probably not. They have a much larger physical plant to maintain than a charity. Not to mention the Bible School, summer camp and the community outreach programs.”

“Yeah those are all attempts to spread the virus,” I said, and then regretted that I had.

Al’s face reddened. “C’mon, get off that virus thing. It’s just another way that you nonbelievers are trying to attack us…to make religious faith look like a sickness. Well, if it is, most of the human race is sick!”

I grabbed my beer and took a long pull. I didn’t want this to turn into a shouting match. Al did the same. I think we both regretted our words. It is really hard to keep a discussion on religion, even among friends, civil and objective.

I decided to let him make the next move. He had raised the subject. Now it was up to him to continue or change it.

To my surprise, he did not change the subject. Instead, his anger gone, he continued.

“I guess the word ‘virus’ just put me off. If you think about it, lots of ideas spread through a populace in the same fashion. How about the ‘freedom virus?’ Surely, our founders must have spread that to get publilc support for the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence was the ‘Bible” of the Revolution, wasn’t it?”

I had to admit that he was right. And then, I remembered Richard Dawkins’ introduction of memes in his book, “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins had specifically identified religious beliefs as memes. I described the concept to Al, and I could see that he much preferred ‘meme’ to ‘virus.’ It’s interesting how certain words carry emotional baggage. Using them at the wrong time can really disrupt a conversation!

Al wasn’t through yet.

“Now, let’s talk about this guy’s claims that reason and critical thinking are inhibited by religiosity. What is his basis for that idea?”

“Well, he cites the clear double standard that believers invoke when they judge the tenets of their religion versus any other religion. They are able to evaluate the flaws, inconsistencies and alleged miracles of other religions, and disparage them, but they are completely unable to perform the same evaluation of their own religious beliefs.”

“Then there’s the business of measured intelligence…IQ.” I continued.

Al looked at me quizzically. “What are you talking about?”

I grinned. “Well, I read about a study done in Belgium at a University there. They looked at a sample of 7000 subjects, and correlated religious belief with IQ. Atheists came out 5.8 points higher.”

“That’s a crock,” Al shot back. “You don’t really believe that.”

“Well, I dunno. I have some doubts, even though peer reviews found no errors in the research. Here’s another one: Free Inquiry magazine did a comprehensive review of 31 IQ studies, some dating back to 1927. Every one found a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence.”

“Isn’t that an atheist magazine?”

“They call it secular humanism,” I corrected.

“Yeah, well, I suppose I could find some studies by fundamentalist church groups that would show that atheists, agnostics and secular humanists are all idiots. Was there a peer review of that study?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, but if you think about all those ‘young earth’ creationists taking IQ tests, it seems like they could pull down the average.”

I knew that Al is an “old earth” creationist. He accepts the scientific evidence that the earth is several billion years old. He also believes in “little evolution,” although he thinks God created Man pretty much as he is today. He disagrees completely with “young earth” creationists who believe that the earth and all living things on it were created about 6000 years ago, and have remained unchanged since that time. He says there is just too much evidence that they are wrong.

I also knew that, as a scientist, Al could not just reject the IQ data that I had presented. He had to consider it, at least tentatively. But if he did, he was backed into a corner. Either religious believers weren’t as smart as nonbelievers, or the religious virus/meme was affecting their performance in IQ tests, validating Dr. Ray’s conclusions.

I sipped my beer and waited for him to work it out.

“Several years ago, it was discovered that IQ tests were racially biased,” he said finally. “The tests favored whites over African-Americans. I wonder if the tests could be religiously biased somehow.”

My admiration for Al was reinforced yet again. As a scientist, he could not reject data just because he didn’t like its conclusions. So he dealt with it, and showed another possible way it could be interpreted. That is the Scientific Method at work!

It was also obvious that if we wanted to pursue this, we were going to have to learn more about biases in IQ test methodology.

Al settled back and took another pull on his beer.

“Here’s what I conclude about all this ‘virus’ thing. If the writer of that book had called it “The Religion Meme” instead of “The God Virus,” nobody would have gotten very excited about it…and he probably would have sold about ten books. So, my suspicion is that he picked that name to promote sales…and profits for himself. It’s all Much Ado About Nothing.”

I wasn’t willing to let him get off that easily.

“He may have chosen the name to sell the book, but his conclusions are the same whether you call it a meme or a virus, and I still think he’s right about the inhibition of critical thinking and reason.”

Al got the last word. “IF those IQ tests aren’t biased.”

Stay tuned…


It was more than a month before Al and I got back together. I was out of the country, on one of my photography safaris in Africa, and when I returned, Al was involved in volunteer projects at his church. Finally, on a beautiful warm and sunny Sunday afternoon, the phone rang. It was Al, saying that he needed a beer and some bird-watching.

A few minutes later, we were sitting in the backyard, beers in hand. Al looked at the table between the rockers, where some papers were stacked.

“What’s this?” He looked closer and grinned. “Ah, I see you’ve been at work. He read the title page. ‘Religiousness, Spirituality, and IQ: Are They Linked?’[i] I haven’t had a chance to follow up on our last discussion. I’m glad to see that you have. Tell me what you’ve learned.”

I dug down in the stack of papers and pulled out a sheet with some notes. “Well, first let me clear up some things that I claimed in our previous discussion. I looked into those studies that showed a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence. Many of them were very old, dating clear back to the 1930’s, and the methodology was not very rigorous. IQ tests back then were just beginning to come into common usage, and the early ones had some problems. And, there were other studies at the time that showed absolutely no correlation, and even a few that showed positive correlation.”

Al nodded. “I’m not surprised. The whole science of IQ testing didn’t really mature until after the war. World War Two, that is.” He grimaced. “Did you know that the early developers of IQ tests believed in eugenics?[ii] They intended to use the results of the tests to select the smartest kids and do selective breeding to improve the overall intelligence of the US population. They never really said what they intended for the lower scorers, but if they had been able to carry out their plans, I’m sure they would have favored sterilization or even euthanization. Hitler actually tried to do that, of course, with his extermination of the Jews, retarded people, and the sick and the elderly. The Nazis’ notion of a Master Race wasn’t that different from what those IQ test developers had in mind.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I read somewhere that some states actually did forced sterilizations based on IQ test results, and even advocated limiting immigration from certain countries because they thought the people were of inferior intelligence.”

“They didn’t just advocate it.” Al shook his head. “They actually managed to convince the Congress to pass very restrictive immigration laws in the 20’s, and they started testing all immigrants with an IQ test in English. Many immigrants didn’t speak English very well, and some of them who did badly on the test were deported.”

“Anyway, to get back to the question you raised, I started looking around to see if I could find some more recent studies, and I didn’t find a lot. After the eugenics thing, and the racial bias of those early tests, I think the idea of attempting to link IQ with anything became taboo. But I finally found this one which was published in 2004. It seems to me to be a pretty rigorous study with good test methodology and extensive statistical analysis of the results. But the author’s sample base is small, and he makes it clear that there are plenty of uncertainties about the results…areas that need more extensive studies.”

“No IQ test is truly a measure of intelligence,” I continued. “It is a measure of how well an individual performed on this particular test on this particular day. Nobody knows how to really determine a person’s intelligence. Definitions vary, but usually include attributes such as the capacity for abstract thought, reasoning, planning and problem solving, the use of language, and the ability to learn. I don’t want to get into a philosophical discussion about the nature of intelligence. We could spend all day on that. This report only talks about measured intelligence as determined by the score on a standard IQ test.”

Al nodded again. “Maybe someday we’ll figure out a better way, if it’s important enough. I’m not sure that it matters that much. Too much knowledge might even push us into the “Brave New World” that Aldous Huxley warned about.”

He sat back in his chair and took a pull on his beer. “So, tell me what the report says.”

I picked up the report. “I’ll just read the Abstract. It’s short and to the point.”

“Research has revealed a positive correlation between IQ and education, as well as a negative correlation between education and religiosity. However, there is little research linking IQ with religiosity and spirituality. Furthermore, researchers disagree about the operational definitions of religiousness and spirituality and about their relationship to one another. To probe the link among religiousness, spirituality, and IQ, I had participants complete the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale Third Edition (WAIS-III), the Spiritual Transcendence Scale (STS), and a questionnaire that asked about their religious background and behavior, academic achievement, and SAT scores. Religious belief and behavior were negatively related to self-reported quantitative SAT (QSAT) scores. Moreover, prayer fulfillment (one of the STS subscales) correlated negatively with father’s education, and with self-reported scores on the Verbal SAT, QSAT, and Verbal IQ as measured by WAIS-III. In a regression analysis involving these predictors, only QSAT (which was related to father’s education) was uniquely related to prayer fulfillment. The results suggest that an educated father influences his offspring’s cognitive ability, which in turn reduces certain aspects of religiosity and spirituality. The results also suggest that the relationship between religiousness and spirituality is one of degree: both religious and spiritual individuals performed activities formally conceptualized as either “religious” or “spiritual,” but religious individuals more frequently performed such activities.”

I dropped the report back on the table. “There’s a lot of statistical analysis in the body of the report, and more discussion of correlations between other factors, such as prayer fulfillment. What was surprising to me was the correlation between the education of the father and measured intelligence levels…and of course the negative correlation to religiosity. I think of my own father, who was an intelligent and informed atheist. Although he had only a high school education, he had continued to read and study philosophy, semantics and theology throughout his life. He even engaged in informal friendly debates with the local clergy in the small town where we lived. So I would count him as ‘educated,’ even though he was mostly self-educated.

“In reading this report, I concluded that the author was pretty unbiased. The introduction talks about the history of criticism of religion by prominent intellectuals, but goes on to cite many studies that have shown that religious belief is ‘an important predictor of existential well being, happiness and general life satisfaction.’ He cites various studies that claim the religiously faithful have lower rates of suicide, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, divorce,, higher marital happiness, better overall well-being, and better recovery from mental illness. I didn’t check out those studies, but I have seen statistics that show higher divorce rates in Bible Belt states, and I am skeptical about the other claims. I think the author included all of this introductory stuff to demonstrate his neutrality and objectivity.”

Al was silent for a moment, digesting what I had said.

“Does he cite any numeric values? If I remember correctly, you said those early reports claimed that nonbelievers’ IQ’s were 5 or 6 points higher.”

“No, he just talks about correlations. He gives mean and standard deviation values for the whole sample group, but he does not break it down. I’m not sure why. Maybe he thought it was too sensitive a subject.”

“What about bias in the IQ test that he used?”

“He doesn’t discuss it, but as you will see when you read the report, it’s not just based on the written IQ test. He includes verbal and performance (written) IQ, and verbal and quantitative SAT scores. All of his subjects were college students, so he also includes their grade point average in their major subject.”

“But, to answer your question about bias in IQ tests in general…” I dug into the pile of papers once more and extracted another sheet of notes. “…I spent quite a bit of time reading various analyses of ethnic and racial bias in IQ tests.”

Al held up his hand. “Whoa! I don’t need a history of biases in IQ tests. I know that a lot of work has been done on that…to identify and eliminate it. I’m just wondering if anybody has looked at religious bias. Let me ask a different question: How does the author of the report explain the negative correlation?”

I picked up the report again. “Here’s what he says about it. ‘This result suggests that religious individuals are somewhat lower in quantitative ability, perhaps suggesting less rigor in certain kinds of reasoning.’”

“But then, he adds an even more interesting conjecture: ‘It is interesting that father’s education was significantly related, positively, to several of the ability measures, and related negatively to prayer fulfillment. This set of findings is consistent with the possibility that educated fathers help their children learn to think rigorously, a capacity that then lowers religiosity and spirituality in certain ways.’ He doesn’t claim to have proved that, and he suggests that it is a fertile ground for future studies.”

Al looked skeptical. “I guess I need to read the whole report, but based on what you have said so far, it doesn’t sound like he has much to base those conclusions on.”

“No, and I think he admits that. Frankly, I don’t expect anyone to really take this on as a major project. It’s a sensitive subject, and what’s to be gained by pursuing it?”

I grinned. “Besides, if it were proven that religious belief makes you stupid, believers would just have one more reason to hate scientists.”

Al laughed. “Not all of us believers hate scientists. Some of us are scientists!”

I chose my next words very carefully.

“Even if it were proven that religious belief inhibits analytical and logical processes, the effect is obviously pretty small. But as a scientist who is also a believer, would it change your attitude toward your faith?”

Al was quiet for a long time. I sat back and worked on my beer.

Finally he spoke, slowly and softly.

“My faith is very important to me. It is the center of my being. Everything else that defines who I am is built around it.” Without it…” he threw up his hands. “…I would be lost. I have seen the positive effects of religious faith in many of my friends and family. Some people don’t seem to need it. You, for example. But I do. And most people I know would be lost without it. I guess if there are some negative aspects to religious belief…and I am not ready to acknowledge that…they would have to be weighed against the many positive aspects. In my case, and I believe in most cases, the positives would far outweigh the negatives.”

We were both silent with our thoughts for awhile.

“The center of my being,” I said at last, “is respect for myself…belief that I am a worthwhile person who can contribute positively to society. That’s what drives my morals and ethics. That’s what my parents, who were nonbelievers, taught me. If I didn’t believe that, I would have no reason to live.”

I continued. “A friend who is a devout believer recently challenged me, as an atheist, to give him a statement that defined my ‘belief system.’ I answered him as follows:

“I have a strong feeling that every person should try to make a significant and lasting contribution to humanity during his/her life. The criteria for defining “significant and lasting” are entirely up to each individual. As an atheist, I believe we have one short life here on earth, and when it’s over…it’s over. So there is some urgency in my urge to contribute. Time is precious.”

Al nodded. “That’s not so different from what a Christian would say about our time here on earth.”

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