Evolution of religions

by Marcus Loane

How did religions start? They were an attempt to explain the forces of nature by projecting human-like attributes on to them. There was a sun god, a moon god, a river god, a god of thunder and lightning. Rituals developed to try and influence the forces of nature. For example performing a particular dance may have been followed by rain one day. We humans are pattern seeking animals and one of them may have come to the conclusion that the dance was pleasing to a rain god. Some of the more intelligent humans realised if they claimed to have a special relationship with a god they could make any assertion backed up by their god's authority. Hence the role of the priests. Becoming a priest was a sure fire way to win friends and influence people. Then there were war gods used to justify rape and pillage and general nastiness towards one's enemies. In Judaism, people living in barbaric times created the barbaric Biblical god in their own image and used it to justify genocide. They were the Chosen People much like Hitler's Aryans and destroying their enemies by any means seemed right to them. After all, God was on their side. Today, Biblical historians have concluded that Judaism at one time had multiple gods, until the time when the priests of the storm/volcano god Yahweh gained enough political and religious power to declare that their god was not only the most powerful god, but was the only one.

I have already mentioned the idea of religions evolving and I want to expand on that. It is almost tautological but it is worth saying:

Religions that have doctrines which help them to spread will be the most successful.

This will be true regardless of the truth of the doctrines. I use the word doctrine to mean anything that a religion teaches. For example:

"Allah is the one true God"
"When you die, you come back as someone else"
"The world was created in a cosmic egg"
"The gods have a special purpose for you"
"You must make new converts"
"Jesus is the son of God"
"You can have a relationship with Jesus"

If for example a religion or cult (all religions started off as cults) has a doctrine which encourages its followers to commit suicide, it will not get very far. There are real life examples of this in the news every so often, for example the Peoples' Temple sect killed themselves at the behest of its leader the Reverend Jim Jones.

What doctrines are required for the successful spread of religious belief from person to person? In another article I described the successful (for the religion) strategy of encouraging the religious teaching of children and forbidding contraception. Another useful doctrine is the promotion of faith (which I define as belief without evidence). "Faith as a virtue" goes hand in hand with other doctrines because it discourages the propensity to demand evidence for fantastic claims. Another related doctrine is "doubt is a sin" which has a similar effect. Any religion which promoted doubt as a virtue would not get very far if its doctrines were false. On the other hand false doctrines can flourish if they are presented as a package with "faith is a virtue" and "doubt is a sin". Doctrines group together in mutually supportive packages, reinforcing one another.

If doctrines were true then they would be able to stand up to scrutiny and scepticism (like scientific theories). The fact that they need to be promoted alongside "faith as a virtue" and "doubt is a sin" suggests they really are false.

Inherited disease

I have already talked about the vertical transmission of religious belief down the generations. A major factor in how well a religion spreads is how fast its followers reproduce. Islam is the fastest growing religion today. Its followers tell us that with great pride, but it is a result of Muslims having so many children. In some areas it is common for Muslims to have ten or more children. Religion could be regarded mainly as an inherited disease.

Any religion that encourages childhood indoctrination by constant repetition has attained an evolutionary trick that will help it spread. Religions use what works to help them propagate. They might include doctrines that purport to care about what is true or harmful but they (the religions as evolving entities) do not care about what is true or harmful. All they care about (from the evolution of religions point of view) is what gets them transmitted to more minds.

Infectious disease

There is also horizontal transmission from one adult to another: any religion that encourages its followers to evangelise and get new converts will spread better than a religion that teaches for example "god will reveal himself to people without any evangelisation necessary". For horizontal transmission to work, the ideas must have a bait or hook. They can for example offer easy answers to difficult questions like "why do we exist?", "does life have a purpose?". They can appeal to aspects of our evolved psychology, for example proposing a parent-like god who watches over us, or a way to escape the natural fear of death. Many religions use a childish punishment/reward choice: "you will be punished eternally but if you do X you will be rewarded eternally". The more vicious the punishment and the more inviting the reward, the better the religion will spread because of its emotional impact. In the past, heresy was often punishable by torture or execution and it still is in parts of the world today. That is another feature which will help the survival of a set of doctrines.

The truth of the doctrines is irrelevant to the successful spreading of them.

Religions often splinter into subgroups with subtle and not so subtle differences in doctrine. This is analogous to mutations in biological evolution. Those subgroups which just happen to have new doctrines which help spreading (eg. "you must evangelise"), will be the ones that dominate. Those subgroups which just happen to have new doctrines which are detrimental to spreading (eg. by encouraging secrecy) will be less successful. That is evolution in action. The truth of the doctrines is irrelevant to the successful spreading of them.

A religious belief system encourages its adherents to recruit others, both children and adults, who are taught to recruit more in turn. The belief systems, by their effects on those they inhabit, can be viewed as getting themselves replicated from person to person, like a virus - they spread simply because they can.

The most successful religions remaining today will be those with the sort of doctrines and features outlined above.

So next time you hear that religion X has the most followers (a fairly close tie between Islam, Roman Catholicism and Hinduism) or is currently the fastest growing religion in the world (Islam), remember it says nothing about its truth or its value or harm to society.

Marcus Loane