Sue Blackmore’s article about her recent mishap in Oxford, where a large number of students walked out of a lecture she was giving, is rather ironic because she wrote another article — in 2010 — where she came close to seeing why her present view is not only false but offensive. Let me explain.
For those who don’t know, Blackmore recently explained to a group of teenagers at the Oxford Royale Academy that religions are “viruses of the mind” and that they have (apparently) uniformly negative consequences. A large number of teenagers (who she claims were mostly Muslims) walked out. I don’t blame them. See her article here.
The notion that religions are viruses is an accurate metaphor in a very restricted sense, but it is more often misunderstood than not. From what I have read of the incident, I do not believe that Blackmore presented an accurate understanding of the metaphor or how it relates more generally to the anthropology or sociology of religion literature.
It has long been known that mathematical models of viruses and of cultural diffusion have much in common. Both involve some attribute (that an individual may be infected or the holder of an idea, for example) that can be spread upon contact with others and which will adapt features to ensure its own propagation (or it will disappear). That’s a purely neutral feature of cultural diffusion. It is true of popular stories, for example, so that a story might be more likely to spread if it is more entertaining or more useful or whatever and successful stories tend to inspire their hosts to provide repeated tellings, often with modification. The fact that viruses are themselves typically harmful to their hosts is an irrelevant distraction. The relevant feature is the way in which some bit of culture spreads throughout a population and the fact that the mathematical and explanatory tools used by biologists can be used (with some modifications) by social scientists to explain cultural evolution.
When Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a “meme” (in his The Selfish Gene) — a bit of culture that self-replicates, such as genes do for biological systems — he compared it to several different bits of culture, including music. Daniel Dennett expanded on the notion and applied it to religion in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which he leaves it as an open research question whether or not individual religions (or doctrines) tend to be neutral, malignant, or beneficial to their hosts. Meanwhile, a large number of atheists — who failed to read Dennett carefully — gleefully declared religion to be a virus (of the malignant sort) and have have ignored all of the obvious problems with framing the issue in this way. Not to mention that the simple ignorance of such atheists as to the plethora of anthropological data or the careful arguments against the view articulated by, for example, Pascal Boyer (in his Religion Explained).
In Blackmore’s 2010 article, after being presented data that religion does not have uniformly negative consequences for its host, she articulates one of the major problems with this uncareful view: “So it seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as ‘viruses of the mind’ may have had its day. Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a ‘virus’ to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase ‘bacterium of the mind’ or ‘symbiont of the mind’ doesn’t have quite the same ring.” Here she has apparently ignored the fact that Dennett says the same thing in his book and is careful to couch his arguments in neutral terms. Several of the posters in the comments section hammered the nail on its head. For example, Jimothy81 wrote: “I haven’t read the Dawkins book you’re on about but my limited knowledge of viruses is that they aren’t evil or good. Their simple purpose is to multiply.” What’s true for viruses is likewise true for religion: descriptive claims should not be taken prescriptively. Edit: Indeed, viruses are not even uniformly negative in their consequences for their hosts. Some are beneficial.
As evidenced in her 2010 article, Blackmore, for reasons mysterious to me, had somehow misinterpreted the previous literature on religions-as-memes to be unanimous in its conclusion that religion is dangerous, bad, or (perhaps) evil. The only explanation that I can see for her conclusion is her own prejudice. While I am happy to see that she did change her mind in 2010, to see her declaring her older view to teenagers at Oxford is disheartening, to say the least.