scilogs Biology of Religion

Atheists a dying breed as nature 'favours faithful' - Sunday Times Jan 02 2011 - Jonathan Leake - Full Draft Version

from Michael Blume, 06. January 2011, 11:11

For atheists it is the ultimate irony. Evolution, the process they believe is solely responsible for creating humanity, actually weeds out non-believers while favouring the religious, new research has shown.

It suggests that, over evolutionary timescales of hundreds or thousands of years, people with strong religious beliefs tend to have more children, whereas atheists have fewer children and the societies they belong to inevitably disappear.

Religious behaviors are partly inherited by genes.

"It is a great irony but evolution appears to discriminate against atheists and favour those with religious beliefs," said Michael Blume, a researcher at the University of Jena in Germany who carried out the study. "Most societies or communities that have espoused atheistic beliefs have not survived more than a century."

The idea that being religious is an evolutionary advantage is in direct contradiction to theories developed and promoted by atheists like Richard Dawkins who have suggested that religions are like viruses of the mind which infect people and impose great costs in terms of money, time and health risks.

Blume's work suggests the exact opposite - that evolution favours religious believers so strongly that, over time, a tendency to be religious has become embedded in our genes.

The research suggests that the key fact is simply that the more religious people are, the more children they tend to have. This is because most religions place a high value on child-bearing, suggesting it is a holy duty.

Without religion, by contrast, atheists often see far less point in having children and so have smaller families or none at all.

There are, however, other factors too, such as having strong shared religious beliefs allows people to fit into a community more easily, accepting shared tasks and rules of behaviour. This ability to work together further raises the survival chances of children.

In his research into the "Reproductive Advantages of Religion", presented at a recent conference in Bristol, Blume found that all over the world and in many different ages, religious people have had far more children than nonreligious people.

What's more, fundamentalists of all religions have the most children of all. It means atheistic or secular groups tend to die out while fundamentalists of all faiths thrive - a process which means evolution will tend to favour people with a genetic predisposition to hold strong religious beliefs.

Blume took data from 82 countries measuring frequency of worship against the number of children. He found that those who worship more than once a week average 2.5 children while those who never worship only 1.7 - again below replacement rate.

Religion & Demography, Enste

There was also considerable variation in the religious groups. Looking at the USA, China, Sweden, France and other European countries he found that the number of children per woman in religious groups ranged from close to zero (for the Shakers) to between six and seven for the Hutterites, Amish and Haredim. Those without a religion, however, consistently averaged less than two per woman below replacement rate, whereas those with the strongest and most fundamental religious beliefs had the most children.

A census is Switzerland in 2000 found that the nonaffiliated had the lowest number of births at 1.1 per woman compared with Hindus (2.79 births per woman), Muslims (2.44), and Jews (2.06).

What's more, those religions that placed little value on having children, such as the Shakers, have tended to die out whereas those those that place a high value on children have thrived. Perhaps the best example of this is the Amish in America, who have grown from just a few thousand a century ago to more than 300,000 now, even though few people join from outside.

Blume said: "What I found was the complete lack of a single case of a secular population, community or movement that would just manage to retain replacement level. Recent examples of such demographic breakdowns include the Lebensborn movement in Germany during the Second World War, where German woman were encouraged by the increasingly desperate Nazi movement to have more children, and Communist Romania, where the state tried to repress religion while exhorting women to have babies. The results of such policies have always been disastrous."

Other research supports Blume's ideas. In his book "Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?", Eric Kaufmann, a researcher at Birkbeck College, London asks whether secularists should be concerned at a future world dominated by religion. In a study of Europeans of Jewish descent he found that those who had become atheists averaged around 1.5 children per woman, while those of moderate religiosity had three children. However the most religious groups such as the Haredim in Israel had averaged 6-8  children per woman over many generations.

Fertility of secular and religious Jews in Europe by Eric Kaufmann

Blume sees dangers in such trends, too. He said: "If seculars are having too few children to maintain their numbers and if religious moderates lose many of their children to secularism - then the surviving and expanding populations will be those of religious fundamentalisms. They will tend to have many children while blocking any serious discourse with non-theists or other believers concerning education, science, worldviews and, finally, human rights. We are seeing discomforting predecessors of this scenario in some parts of Israel and the USA."

Blume's work follows a series of controversies surrounding the rise of so-called New Atheism. The term is linked to a series of books by authors including Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Chrisopher Hitchens who are hard-line critics of religion. They suggest that it is time to take a far tougher approach to religion which should be countered and  criticized at every opportunity.

Professor Jesse Bering, director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University, Belfast, who has just published "The God Instinct", a book on the origins of religion, said such an approach missed the basic point, that in practical terms evolution was reinforcing religion with every new generation.

He said: "Secular, nonreligious people are being dramatically out-reproduced by religious people of any faith. Since religiosity is to some degree a heritable trait, offspring born to religious parents are not only dyed in the wool of their faith through their culture, but may also be genetically more susceptible to indoctrination than children born to nonreligious parents."

He added: "As a childless gay atheist I suspect my own genes have a very mortal future ahead. But for any godless hetero-couples reading this, toss your contraceptives and get busy in the bedroom. Either that or, perish the thought, God isn't going anywhere anytime soon."

Draft sent by Jonathan Leake. Thank you very much!

The then-published article can be accessed in his final version at (paywall)

Cited Resources:

Bering, Jesse: God's little rabbits: Religious people out-reproduce secular ones by a landslide. Scientific American, Dec 22, 2010

Blackmore, Susan: Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind. The 'Explaining religion' conference has made me see that the idea of religious belief as a virus has had its day. Guardian, Sep 16, 2010

Blume, Michael: "The Reproductive Advantage of Religiosity - Bristol 2010", Lecture at the "Explaining Religion" Conference, Bristol University 2010 (PowerPoint-Sheets)

Blume, Michael: "Von Hayek and the Amish Fertility. How religious communities manage to be fruitful and multiply. A Case study", in: Frey, Ulrich (Hrsg.), The Nature of God - Evolution and Religion", Tectum Verlag Marburg 2010

Blume, Michael: "The Reproductive Benefits of Religious Affiliation", in: Voland, E.; Schiefenhövel, W.: "The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior", Springer Frontiers Collection 2009

All links and pictures have been added by the blogowner. The same is true of this edutainment-clip from the biologists of Tübingen University, emphasizing the role of differential reproduction in evolution. Enjoy!


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Biology of Religion: Why Religion is not going to die - The Quiverfull Example of Religious Fertility
Biology of Religion: How religiosity is spreading in the gene pool


  1. Beechbum Response to claims of genetic descent regarding religion
    06.01.2011 | 22:31

    It is true that many children are born to religious families, but religiosity is a culturally transmitted meme through inculcation. I and my offspring are descendants of a religious family, yet we are atheists due to the ability to think critically about our natural surroundings, skeptically concerning evidentiary claims and rationally regardless of in-group/ out-group pressures.

    Your research seems to forget the other options and the other side of the life cycle. For instance, I can see where your research omits any accounting for the idea that those who don't think critically are more likely to lose their life to the effects of being duped into life threating practices and world views (i.e. the military, radicalization, dead-ended options, in-group acceptance into cults, drugs, and other weak minded ventures). Also, I can see where the contradictions and failures of religious views cause far more conversions to an open minded view than does the inculcation of youth into a dogmatic view. Remember, most atheists come from religious backgrounds, and at one time all atheists came from religious backgrounds--if we restrict our conversation to the West. If we include the entire world your argument disintegrates due to the inclusion of Hindu, Buddhism, and spirituality unrelated to institutionalized superstitions.

    My point is that an inherited inability to think critically, skeptically, or independently will restrict the reproductive success of religious offspring. While the cultural gravity toward a more evidence based world view will leave religious patrons in emptying pews regardless of their antecedents. Thanks for the interesting read.

  2. angie Evidence based world view is shown above.
    07.01.2011 | 00:00

    Re your last paragraph "evidence based world view"....

    Isn't that what the article was trying to explain - that an "evidence based world view" in fact suggests that having a religious belief *is* advantageous in terms of the number of one's offspring? Surely if religiosity were bad for the reproductive success of a population, the demographics would be different? I'm afraid this seems to suggest that those who claim that the religious are somehow less rational and "therefore" less successful, are merely offering their own opinion rather than an evidence based fact.

    Thanks, Michael, for an interesting and well-referenced article.

  3. Michael Blume @Beechbum
    07.01.2011 | 07:31

    We should expect every complex biocultural trait (such as i.e. musicality, intelligence - or religiosity) to have genetically heritable foundations. Darwin himself assumed exactly that concerning religion!

    What's more, neurological as well as Twin-Studies are fully supportive of this assumption, see e.g. the paper linked here:

    Therefore, to assume biological and cultural processes to take place in different realms not connected by feedbacks is no longer a scientifically viable position.

    I do agree that we should base our worldviews on evidence, too. But then, we should be ready to accept it. Note that I didn't just assume higher reproductive performances throughout subsequent generations - we find and measure them, again and again. As to your hypothesis about survival-problems of religious people, I would agree that religious traditions can evolve harmful variants (such as inter-group violence or the genital mutilation of girls). But as a consequence of (bio-)cultural evolution, I would like to point out that the religious tend - on average - to enjoy higher life expectancy among free and educated societies. Main reasons for these findings are higher rates of marriage, familial and social involvement as well as various religious prohibitions i.e. against drugs, alcohol or suicide.

  4. Michael Blume @angie
    07.01.2011 | 07:34

    Thank you very much for your encouraging comment. I agree that Jonathan Leake did a very good job in pointedly bringing various findings to a wider audience and initiating respective debates. I am very glad that you enjoy the science and would like to ask you to bring more people into these discussions - science is only able to flourish in responsible ways if the public is participating.

    In this sense - many thanks again! :-)

  5. Jan Wyllie Religion
    12.01.2011 | 12:51

    If this thesis is true, one cannot help but wonder whether the resulting over population of the planet and the wholesale destruction of nature will be an evolutionary advantage for humanity. Wouldn't it be ironic if religion was a major factor in the extinction of our species (not to mention all the others).

  6. J. A. Le Fevre Blame science for rushing ahead with half-baked plans
    14.01.2011 | 02:24

    The belief systems have been plying their trade for ~ 70,000 years. It is science that showed up lately with dramatically improved medicine and food crops, without preparing the population for the changes. By jumping to simple solutions (technology transfer) without providing the requisite foundations of training and education, ‘naturally evolved’ systems left in place exploded the population. The evolutionary process tends to be a few generations behind newly emerging environments.

  7. Corneel @ J.A. Le Fevre
    17.01.2011 | 13:48

    It is science that showed up lately with dramatically improved medicine and food crops, without preparing the population for the changes.

    Yes, how thoughtless of those scientists.

    So, if the human population grows because religion helps organising large societies this is a good thing, but if the human population grows because scientific advances help save countless lives this is not?
    If you argue that religion confers evolutionary competitive advantages, than it follows that it is also a factor in the current population expansion (and Michael has documented this as superior growth rates of religious societies). I think you should therefore also accept that downside, and not try to place the blame on "science".

  8. J. A. Le Fevre @ Corneel
    17.01.2011 | 21:56

    Should we blame the ‘blind watchmaker’ or the ‘rational’ one?
    How about half-baked ideals? :)
    My sister has worked in Africa trying to convince them to take a responsible role in their population problem (and their STD problems and . . .) and has had to sit through convention speakers insisting that there was a lot of open land still in Africa, and the Bible had left them with the commandment to fill it. Too many people is a very new problem in this world. Religion evolved to solve (in part) the problem of under population which has plagued cities fairly consistently from their foundation. If you make any radical change to an environment (such as introducing powerful new technologies) you risk very destructive side effects which evolution may adjust to very slowly, and leave uncounted extinctions in its wake. Rushing ahead with half-baked ‘solutions’ often leads to chaos, this being no exception. Biologists find this in all environments disturbed.

    Some of the biggest contributors to this particular fiasco were highly religious scientists (+ politician, etc.), paving the proverbial road with good intentions.

    Choose your poison: Science + religion – education = population explosion.
    Science + education – religion = demographic collapse
    Science + education + religion = Replacement lever reproduction

    S. J. Gould postulated (I paraphrase) that the roaches (or some other beetle?) will one day laugh at this drama and toast our ruins with fermented nectar from some future flower.
    Nature/evolution does not care if we ever solver our problems.

  9. Corneel @ J.A. Le Fevre
    18.01.2011 | 11:03

    Nature/evolution has been responsible for a fair number of extinctions already, so I wouldn't rely on those to solve our problems. If evolution "adjusts" a species, it tunes it to short-term survival, and sometimes sends it down an evolutionary dead-end. Moreover, natural selection operates by the gruesome mechanism of competitive elimination.
    So, no, "naturally evolved systems" do not operate at the replacement rate, overpopulation is not a new phenomenon, nor is overpopulation exclusively found in disturbed environments. Rather, this is the very essence of evolution by natural selection: "Nature red in tooth and claw". There will always be a significant number of casualties when a population is at carrying capacity.
    No, the solution will have to come from people, trying to help each other by all means possible, and scientific advancements will be a powerful tool to make this happen.

    Oh, and roaches are not beetles.

  10. J. A. Le Fevre @ Corneel
    18.01.2011 | 18:12

    My bad. Their top wing seems so 'shell-like' - Perhaps they can toast with the beetles.

  11. Paul Tyrrell Higher birth rates don't necessarily equal genetic advantage
    21.03.2011 | 12:17

    Of course religious people produce more offspring: it's what they're ordered to do by scripture. That doesn't mean they have some intrinsic genetic superiority over atheists. Since we know that religious belief is in inverse correlation to intelligence (see: for a primer), all this population explosion will achieve is a world in which there are not only fewer resources but also more conflicts based on superstitious beliefs. As a rational atheist, my instinct is not to "go forth and multiply" but to adopt. There are so many orphans in the world that this seems to me to be the humane option.

  12. J. A. Le Fevre The Selfless Genes
    22.03.2011 | 16:43

    Paul, While noble, you surly see the genetic dead end to this ‘reproductive strategy’. As noted in the lead: "For atheists it is the ultimate irony. Evolution, the process they believe is solely responsible for creating humanity, actually weeds out non-believers while favouring the religious"

  13. Adam Cormier Atheism dying?
    16.05.2011 | 00:36

    I agree that religious belief is favoured from an evolutionary perspective, but to call atheism a dying breed based on this is ridiculous. Non-belief is the fastest growing perspective on The God question on Earth. Just being raised religious does not mean a child will stay religious. Even in the face of very strong indoctrination many faithful lose their beliefs. Atheism will continue to grow and religion will continue to decline, just by out-producing nonbelievers does not make theism win.

    As knowledge, education and science continue to grow it makes the idea of a God appear unnecessary to many, and with the surge of atheistic books that have become best-selling many people are obviously being attracted to this perspective.

  14. J. A. Le Fevre @ Adam
    16.05.2011 | 19:10

    If it was simply a matter of ‘what do you want to believe today?’, you would likely be correct, but the evidence suggests that belief has consequences as you note yourself. ‘Favored from an evolutionary perspective’ suggests significant consequences to anyone with a bit of respect for evolution. Disfavored seldom prevail in the long run.

  15. John Jacob Lyons @J A Le Fevre
    17.05.2011 | 13:07

    As you imply, the evolutionary impact of an adaptive behaviour can be very powerful indeed over the generations. However, we shouldn't underestimate the effect of the current wave of atheistic literature/media-comment on apostasy. Cultural effects of this kind don't have to march to a generational drumbeat; their potential effects can be continuous. We also need to remember that doubt usually coexists with faith and an atheistic 'zeitgeist' always has an ally in this 'fifth-column' in the minds and hearts of many of the faithful.

  16. J. A. Le Fevre Aye, Sir John
    17.05.2011 | 18:19

    But we poor souls can but pontificate from the comforts of our births. ‘tis our dear mother, nature alone who decides who floats and who founders. I lay my chips with the faithful, preferring betting with the odds.

  17. 23.05.2011 | 19:07

    I didn't choose the headline and would like to point out another aspect: Atheists might have on average less children than the religious, but having less offspring is not "dying". But then, the author probably wanted us to think about his text...

  18. Michael Blume Debate at WrongPlanet
    26.06.2011 | 12:18

    There is a small voting and very lively and interesting debate on this article at WrongPlanet.

  19. Suckah Mahballs Really?
    14.07.2012 | 17:54

    So atheist are claimed to be dying out? The only reason that theists have so many children is because they are irresponsible. Earth is overpopulated already. Atheists are just more considerate this way.

  20. thatguy Subject
    14.07.2012 | 18:26

    this goes back to the whole 'only stupid people are breeding', which was the basis for the movie Idiocracy (hated the movied, but the concept was great)

    yes, I agree, we need more intelligent people breeding for the good of the gene pool.

  21. Mike Kirby Shoddy science at it's worst
    14.07.2012 | 23:09

    A classic example of confusing correlation with causation, and the fallacious conclusions that can result.

  22. bob fairlane Solution
    15.07.2012 | 00:11

    We need an atheist country to destroy religion and multiply as atheists.

  23. Jack Lol Irony indeed eh
    15.07.2012 | 04:42

    Also left-wing people are dying out as well LOL. Those with strong conservative religion simply breed, and will last.

  24. S. G. Atheists vs Christians
    19.07.2012 | 15:33

    Over time, there has been identified 2,850 deities that have been created by man. Christians deny 2,849 of them. Atheists only take it one step further.

  25. Michael Blume @S.G.
    19.07.2012 | 23:23

    There have been thousands of languages and most of them have gone extinct. Should, according to your logic, atheists just go another step and stop using language?

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