Religion Is a Virus

Why God is a product of natural selection

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


The following interview is excerpted from a conversation between Mother Jones contributing writer Michael Krasny and Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of The Selfish Gene, River Out of Eden, and Climbing Mount Improbable. The interview took place on March 17, 1997, at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater at a California Academy of Sciences benefit.

Q: You’re known for your atheism and your comment that “religion is a virus.” Are you more tolerant toward religion these days?

A: No. I am often asked to explain as a biologist why religion has such a hold. The theory is this: When a child is young, for good Darwinian reasons, it would be valuable if the child believed everything it’s told. A child needs to learn a language, it needs to learn the social customs of its people, it needs to learn all sorts of rules — like don’t put your finger in the fire, and don’t pick up snakes, and don’t eat red berries. There are lots of things that for good survival reasons a child needs to learn.

So it’s understandable that Darwinian natural selection would have built into the child’s brain the rule of thumb, “Be fantastically gullible; believe everything you’re told by your elders and betters.”

That’s a good rule, and it works. But any rule that says “Believe everything you’re told” is automatically going to be vulnerable to parasitization. Computers, for example, are vulnerable to parasitization because they believe all they’re told. If you tell them in the right programming language, they’ll do it. Computer viruses work by somebody writing a program that says, “Duplicate me and, while you’re at it, erase this entire disk.”

My point is that the survival mechanism that makes children’s brains believe what they’re told — for good reason — is automatically vulnerable to parasitic codes such as “You must believe in the great juju in the sky,” or “You must kneel down and face east and pray five times a day.” These codes are then passed down through generations. And there’s no obvious reason why it should stop.

There’s an additional factor in the virus theory, which is that those viruses that are good at surviving will be the ones that are more likely to survive. So, if the virus says, “If you don’t believe in this you will go to hell when you die,” that’s a pretty potent threat, especially to a child. Or, if it says, “When you become a little bit older you will meet people who will tell you the opposite of this, and they will have remarkably plausible arguments and they’ll have lots of what they’ll call evidence on their side and you’ll be really tempted to believe it, but the more tempted you are, the more that’s just Satan getting at you.” This is exactly what many creationists in this country have been primed with.

Q: You’ve said that when you discovered Darwin, everything fell into place. You felt a peace of mind. How was your atheism confirmed by Darwinism?

A: Before I discovered Darwin, I was fascinated by the apparent design and beauty of living things. I knew enough biology to know that living creatures are prodigiously complicated and elegant. They look exactly as though they’d been designed. That was why I believed in a divine creator. Because I had been so persuaded by this argument for design, when I discovered Darwinism, I had a kind of “road to Damascus” experience.

I think there is a serenity that comes from understanding, from being able to solve a mystery. And the bigger the mystery, the greater the serenity. When you think about the diversity, complexity, and beauty of life — the elegance of the apparent design of life — it adds up to a colossal mystery. And the solution, Darwin’s solution, is quite remarkably simple. My serenity comes from the satisfaction of seeing a really, really neat, elegant explanation that can explain so much.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate