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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Is Christianity or Atheism the Virus?

As I've written before, the New Atheist movement and its proponents' goal is to proselytize the masses into believing that religion is not only untrue, but dangerous for society. The attitude is no more clearly on display than in the late Christopher Hitchens' book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens took the same stance as Richard Dawkins who wrote that religion is a virus1. They are among a number of authors who continue their assault on religion in general and Christianity in particular as being, well, bad for us all. They categorize faith as dangerous, deadly and evil.

Let's examine the charge of religious belief as a virus. One way you can identify a viral infection is the individual will have symptoms that cause their bodies to not operate properly. It is only when one feels ill or aches or one exhibits some other condition where the body is not operating as it should that gives the person reason to go to the doctor and get an examination. Granted, there are viruses that will stay inert for years, but they do eventually present themselves in some way. The same can be said of poisons. They destroy or impair certain processes of the body which results in harm to the individual.

Using this understanding, it would be interesting to see how non-believers compare with the faithful in their effect on society. If religion is a poison or a virus then one would expect to see some negative ramifications those views are causing. The person who believes would be like an infected cell, and that view spread across a significant portion of the population would affect the health of the society. So, can we tell if  Christian belief is either aiding or hindering the overall health of the society at large? In looking at a recent study released by the Barna Group I think  we can. The Barna Group regularly deals with matters of faith and it has looked at those individuals in the United States "who openly identified themselves as an atheist, an agnostic, or who specifically said they have 'no faith'."2 They then compared their answers against active-faith adults, (those who have gone to church, read their Bible and prayed within the last week of the survey.)

The results are telling. When compared to those with an active faith, those in the no-faith camp are:
  • Less likely than active-faith Americans to be registered to vote (78% versus 89%)
  • Less likely to volunteer to help a non-church-related non-profit (20% versus 30%)
  • Less likely to describe themselves as "active in the community" (41% versus 68%)
  • Less likely to personally help or serve a homeless or poor person (41% versus 61%).
A big difference Barna notes is the huge disparity in giving between the groups.  In a 2012 study, Barna reports "More than three-quarters of evangelicals (79%) have donated money in the last year, and 65% and 60% of them have donated items or volunteer time, respectively. Additionally, only 1% of evangelicals say they made no charitable donation in the last 12 months." What about the non-religious Americans? The report goes on to say, "One-fifth of people who claimed no faith said they made no donation over the last year, still noticeably higher than the number for all Americans."3

So, is faith a virus, a deadly poison that is damaging humanity? It seems that looking at altruistic measurements – basically people helping those in need – that faith is a tonic to society. People of faith volunteer more, give more, and are more active in making their communities as better place than those of no faith. In these measures, it would seem that having no faith is the true virus that needs to be addressed. Dawkins, Hitchens, and other atheists claim to be basing their arguments on a rational review of the evidence, but it seems to me that they're ignoring the real-world test data that pollsters such as Barna have uncovered.

As an aside, it seems that external measurements aren't the only way no-faith adults don't measure up. When asked about an internal perception of contentment, voiced as a feeling of "being at peace", 67% of no-faith adults described themselves in this way, as opposed to 90% of active-faith adults. This was one of the largest gaps between the two groups in the study.

So, by certain internal as well as external measurements, people of faith are more active, more altruistic, and more "at peace" than their no-faith counterparts. If I was diagnosing a patient, I think I can tell which one has the real virus.


1. Dawkins, Richard. “Viruses of the Mind”. [Online] 1991. [Cited: July 7, 2007.]
2. “Atheists and Agnostics Take Aim at Christians.” The Barna Group. June 11, 2007.  Accessed 4/8/2014.
3. "American Donor Trends." The Barna Group. April 12, 2013. Accessed 4/8/2014  


  1. RE: "Is Christianity or Atheism the Virus?"

    They are both a virus in that they spread through a population as ideas (that is, memetics). Whether they are helpful or harmful is a different matter entirely.

  2. Lenny, the symptoms from the infection are a result of the immune response to the virus, not the result of the virus itself (directly). Be careful of the language you use. You cited one study and then made statements like "people of faith are more..." If you are going to use data from studies to make conclusions like that, you might want to use more than one study. If you want to offer an opinion then say whatever you want. Though I am no fan of the methods atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins use, there is a very long history of war, murder, and genocide on behalf of religion that you neglected to mention in your post.

  3. Nate,

    Some symptoms are the result of the immune response. Other viruses directly affect the host. Regardless, I think that's torturing the analogy a bit too much. The main point still stands.

    As to you claim about religion and war, this is an often trotted out trope that really has no bearing in fact. I've written about this before. See here for the details:

  4. Lenny, you are right, the virus comment wasn't important. I didn't word it correctly either. MOST symptoms are the result of the immune system response, as I understand it....I didn't read the link you sent me yet, but I have a hard time believing that my statement has no bearing in fact. Consider the crusades, the witch hunts, the burning of heretics, fundamentalist terrorism, etc..... I will read your article though.....

  5. Lenny, I read your article. I will have more to respond as I think your treatment was EXTREMELY one-sided. You left out soooo much information you had the opportunity to include. Here is what I wrote in the comment section of that post: I wouldn't quote Schumacher. I've read his stuff. No thank you. We can get into a long discussion about why, but I am not going to offer that up right now. Just understand that in my opinion he should not be quoted in your defense of religion. Cavanaugh, on the other hand, is worth quoting. The problem here is that you quote his opinion of Hitchens' views. I think it would be wise to be include more of Cavanaugh's opinions on this matter---he does not defend religion. He is casting doubt on agreed upon definition of religion. He admits that atrocities are done in the name of religion, he just doubts if that "religion" is really "religion."

  6. I'm just wondering, with these violence being attributed to religion, what is the rate of crime, killings and wars between religion-related and non-religion related or secular.

    1. Ken,

      Basically, 6% of the world's conflicts are rooted in religious conflict and if you factor out Islam, it drops to just over 3%. You can hear the stats in my podcast here:

    2. That's what I thought. The problem is crimes and immorality such as adultery or rape are being sensationalized or magnified when committed by someone religious or a Christian. Maybe I should start recording all the crimes reported locally and in the world news and present it whenever I hear "religion causes war and violence" thing.

      I admit that being religious and a Christian doesn't guarantee someone from committing these crime. But saying religion is "THE" cause of majority of the violence, crime, wars, etc. is just unacceptable. There may be lots of it but it's incomparable with the rate of secular crime.


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