A Dangerous Delusion
by Sue Blackmore

By thinking of religion in terms of evolutionary theory
we can see just how and why the major religions of today
are so harmful.

First, which God am I talking about? Not Einstein's God, the God of the deists, or what Stephen Hawking or Paul Davies refer to as "the mind of God," for their God amounts to the entirety of the universe, or the laws of physics. If you ask "why is there something rather than nothing?" or "what came before the big bang?" and you answer "God", belief in that God makes no difference to your daily life, or to morality and responsibility, nor does it cause people to band into groups, exclude outsiders, commit atrocities or justify wars.

No, I'm talking about the God of the great monotheistic religions, the vile and vengeful God of the Qur'an and the Old Testament, the God who supposedly made us in his own image, who answers prayers even though the world remains full of suffering, who exhorts us to love and feel compassion while threatening to kill the infidel and punish the unbeliever forever, and who fights on both sides of every war.

Belief in this kind of God is dangerous indeed, but I suspect its danger is different for individuals than for whole societies. For a single individual, living in a generally unbelieving or secularist, tolerant, and open society, belief may be a good thing — for that person. In times of fear, loneliness or bereavement, it's nice to believe that there's someone powerful out there who knows you deeply and cares what happens to you. When difficult choices loom, it helps to think there's a guiding hand. I suspect that for many of the 40% of Britons found in a survey last week to pray regularly, their God fills this role. We know that most of them do not go to church or worship regularly, and they probably do not take on board much of what is required of a committed Christian or Muslim. In other words they feel free to believe in a God of their own choosing. Surely there's no harm in this is there?

Maybe not, but as Sam Harris argues, in The End of Faith, moderate believers like this implicitly encourage the idea that faith is something to be respected — that it's all right to believe in completely ludicrous things for which there is no evidence. And this in turn encourages religious faith, which is where the real dangers begin.

You may have noticed an analogy here with game theory in biology, where what is good for the individual is not necessarily good for the group or the species. For example, there can be species in which most individuals behave altruistically towards each other and so benefit the whole group. But then it pays individuals to cheat and take the benefits without paying their way to everyone else. The result can be the complete elimination of the altruistic behaviour, or else a settling down into a stable state in which the wider group fights back but tolerates a certain proportion of freeloaders.

This is just an analogy, but there are good reasons for thinking of religions in terms of evolutionary theory — although in terms of cultural, or memetic evolution rather than biological. This way we can see just how and why the major religions of today are so horribly dangerous.

There has long been dispute between believers who claim that their particular religion was created by God and that their holy book (whichever one it might be) is "the word of God," and those who say that religions are man-made. Scholarship and historical and archaeological research naturally support the latter, but I'd rather forget that distinction and not think about religions as having been made up by particular individuals, but as having evolved over long periods of time, using lots of people as their copying and selecting machinery.

This way of thinking means inverting our normal way of thinking about ourselves and, to use Richard Dawkins's term, taking the meme's-eye view. Just as biologists have found it useful to take the gene's eye view — asking why and how this particular gene has survived — so we can look at religions as vast cooperating systems of memes, and then ask why this meme survived. Why are these words, stories, songs, artefacts, practices, clothes and rituals here today in Christianity, in Islam, in Judaism? Not because God gave them to us, not because someone or some group of people deliberately put them together to make a religion, but because they, the memes, the bits and pieces of behaviours and practices, out-competed their rivals to pull through over thousands of years and still lodge themselves in people's brains today.

Think of the times in which the great religions began, indeed think of much of the centuries since. All over the world, in villages, towns, or in great city states, there would appear epileptics who saw visions, fascinating visionaries, charlatans who worked miracles by trickery, orators of great skill and persuasiveness, and all sorts of other types who would collect around them small groups of followers. They still appear today and form cults that thrive for a while, and then usually die out. Human nature being what it is, their members want their own group to grow, and so bring in their friends, and persuade others that they have the answer to life's miseries and mysteries, or that they are superior to outsiders.

Different groups adopt different practices. Some of these routines, ways of talking, rituals, markers or special clothes prove attractive to people and so flourish and spread. Ineffective practices and beliefs fizzle out. This is just a simple evolutionary process — competition for survival — only the competition is between beliefs, practices, stories and habits to get lodged in human brains and passed on. Indeed it is a competition between beliefs to take over human copying machinery and make it work to spread those beliefs.

As the competition gets fiercer, free floating beliefs fail to compete. The ones that succeed are more like organisms that protect themselves and use tricks and clever adaptations to ensure their survival and propagation. And so they build up in complexity. This is, I suggest, the right way to understand how we got the religions we have today.

When you see religions as mind viruses that evolved over thousands of years in competition with other, similar, mind viruses, it's easy to see why they have acquired the powerful adaptations they have. Just as animals acquired teeth and claws, beaks and jaws, mimicry and trickery, so religions have acquired their own weapons and tricks. They protect themselves with threats and promises — and not just any old threats and promises. Some are promises of everlasting pain or eternal bliss — only you can't check whether they're true because you'll only find out after you're dead. Others are immediate threats that can be checked — that if you reject a belief you never chose in the first place but were landed with as a baby, you'll be killed. And this is happening even here in Britain. The founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain has had numerous death threats for trying to help Muslims let go of their imposed beliefs.

Then there are subtler adaptations — what about claiming natural human mystical experiences as religious experiences or visions of God? Or claiming that morality comes from God rather than from human nature, so undermining people's confidence in their own moral decisions. Believers frequently claim that rejecting belief in God would lead people to immorality, murder and mayhem. What little research there is so far suggests quite the reverse. A recent study comparing developed nations showed that the more religious nations also had higher rates of murder, suicide, teenage pregnancy and violent crime — precisely those behaviours that most religions prohibit.

A really clever trick — and I'm not sure how the great religions have managed to pull this one off — is to make the rest of us feel that we ought to respect people for believing impossible things on faith, and that we should not laugh at them for fear of offending them. In a society that strives for honesty and openness, that values scientific and historical truth, and that encourages the search for knowledge, this is outrageous — and it's scary that we still fall for it.

Then there's the cost of believing. Many are tempted by Pascal's Wager: if I deny that God exists and I'm wrong, oops I might really go to hell, but if I believe in him and I'm wrong there is no problem. But there is a problem — the enormous cost of belief. There is not only the mental and intellectual burden of having to take on false, disturbing and incompatible beliefs, but the cost in time and money. Religious memes capture people's time to get themselves spread. Just as the common cold virus makes people sneeze to get itself spread, so religions make people sings hymns and say prayers, and chant and so spread the word of God. They also induce them to part with large sums of money to build glorious mosques, churches and synagogues and to pay the wages of priests who in turn spread the word of God.

And how did they get this way? They got this way because less effective versions of the religions, with less dangerous tricks and weapons, failed to infect enough people.

That is why belief in God is not just a harmless choice; it is a dangerous delusion.

Copyright 2007 Sue Blackmore

Sue Blackmore is the author of The Meme Machine (O.U.P, 1999).

This article first appeared in the U.K. Guardian's
Comment Is Free, November 13, 2007.

Comments by Peter Meyer:

The "major religions" include not only Christianity, Islam and Judaism but also Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism (based on a combination of Islam and Hinduism). Sue Blackmore's criticism is most apt when directed against the monotheistic religions — or more exactly, the Abrahamic religions. Sikhs believe in one God, but at least they value rationality and a scientific approach to the world (which, they claim, somewhat curiously, is not inconsistent with their religious faith).

The most harmful meme associated with religion is that it is bad (actually, forbidden) to examine religious doctrine with a critical mind, and that to do this runs the risk of incurring God's displeasure (with unforeseeable but potentially serious consequences). Of course (according to the religion) God has revealed the truth to mankind, so to entertain any doubt about this is to entertain the possibility that God is either mistaken or a liar, so (since God knows one's thoughts) you'd better not do this! Consequently religious doctrine flourishes without the restraint of intelligent criticism, resulting in ridiculous and pernicious beliefs such as that true believers are God's "elect" or "the chosen people" and thus may regard non-believers as inferior (perhaps even as not fully human) and may treat them any way they wish to (even regarding them as little better than animals, or at least as fit subjects for exploitation). Another such belief is that God or his agent will someday arrive to do battle with the forces of evil (nuclear war, anyone?), and after God's inevitable victory there will be a blissful time for all true believers (it is amazing how many idiots actually believe this).

Religion can have a remarkably powerful grip over some minds. Once in Pakistan I got a ride in a minibus full of happy Muslims who were going north to lecture their compatriots in the mountains on why they should be better Muslims. "We are all brothers," they told me elatedly, "because we have the same father" (namely, Allah). Happy, happy Muslims! Just ignorant, benighted and completely unable to have a thought in their heads which was not first in some mullah's interpretation of the Koran.

The second most-harmful meme associated with religion (though not with all of them, the ethnic religions Judaism and Hinduism being exceptions) is that one has an obligation to convert others. An otherwise intelligent Muslim with a PhD in economics from an American university once informed me that all non-Muslims go straight to hell when they die (he was, apparently informing me of this for my own good, so that I would become a Muslim and so avoid this possibility). It seems that his few years of exposure to Western education had been insufficient to overcome his mentally devastating childhood indoctrination.

In former times this meme had a stronger form, that if those whom one was attempting to convert refused to accept the truth when told it, then they were to be killed. The evolutionary advantages of this meme are obvious, since the death of the non-believer means (a) he does not beget any more non-believers and (b) his property is then available for the taking, thus facilitating the survival of you, the believer, the better to produce offspring to whom the meme can be passed.

Fortunately these days Western ideas of the value of the individual have in most countries gained precedence over the idea that killing those who do not share one's religious faith is viewed by God with approval.

Relevant articles on this site by John Kaminski:

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Why I am not a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist
On God The Council of Nicaea The Gods of Eden
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