Natural Selection in the Viral Spread of Religion
By Steve Gillman
What does religion have to do with natural selection? Many
writers have commented on and speculated about evolutionary causes
for religious tendencies in the structure of the brain itself.
This isn't about that.
The perspective presented here is one of natural selection
operating in the realm of ideas. What causes some ideas to survive
while others don't? What causes some religions to survive? To
understand this, let's first look at the way evolution works
in the natural world.
Natural selection is not about the "best" surviving
according to some standard of "best" that we choose.
It is very simply about the best replicators passing on their
genes. In other words, a gene line with low intelligence, disease,
and violent tendencies, may "win" the evolutionary
contest simply because of an inherent stronger sexual urge, which
results in more babies.
There is a form of natural selection that can be seen at work
in the realm of ideas as well. Here also, we cannot expect the
good ideas to always survive and spread. Our personal values
are not the most important element of natural selection, even
in ideas. The ability of ideas to replicate is part of what determines
which will still be around later. As a result, it is not uncommon
to see ideas which are clearly bad for human life spreading like
This is a good metaphor for a number of reasons. Viruses cannot
survive and replicate without a host. The same is true of ideas.
Viruses can damage and even kill their hosts, and this too is
true of ideas. Interestingly, viruses which are too deadly to
their hosts, could put their own survival is at risk, because
if they kill all of hosts, they would eliminate their own existence
There is an obvious parallel to the latter idea in human thought
today, particularly in religious ideas. It's possible they are
so dangerous they'll eliminate themselves by way of eliminating
the human race. Religious ideas have killed millions in the past,
but have been limited in their killing power. Today's weapons
(nuclear bombs, biological weapons) make it less certain that
humans will survive religious thinking.
Since people can choose what to believe, why do they choose
such bad ideas? Why do religions survive? Religions typically
do not accept evidence as a standard of belief, nor allow new
evidence to alter belief. Both of these approaches prevent a
better understanding of the world and of morality, and often
result in great harm to human life.
Yet they spread anyhow. Why? Just as with any virus, it is
because of effective "strategies" of replication. The
following are some of those possible strategies.
1. Create high birth rates among believers. This has been
an important element for the spread and perpetuation of many
bad ideas. Parents naturally pass the virus (their beliefs) to
their children. If a religion says having children is good, that
contraception is bad, or anything similar which results in a
higher birth rate, it is more likely to continue into the future.
2. Appeal to the desires of believers. There is an unfortunate
tendency for humans to believe things because they want to believe
them, sometimes in disregard to the truth. Thus if a religion
includes elements such as a paradise for believers after they
die, it is more likely to survive and spread.
3. Create a system to spread the word. All things being equal,
religions which encourage believers to convert others will do
better than those which don't. For example, a religion which
requires all young men to spend some time trying to convert others
can grow very quickly, like a plague.
4. Use fear. Threaten believers for a lack of belief and they
are more likely to continue believing, which increases the likelihood
of the religion spreading. This explains the calls for death
to those who denounce their religious belief or speak against
the god of the faith. Also, stating that some authority, whether
book or man, is the voice of God creates a fear of criticism
or honest exploration of the faith. This helps perpetuate the
ideas, protecting them from change.
5. Use recorded ideas. There have probably been hundreds of
religions which have come and gone, leaving no trace for us to
study. Writing down (or filming or recording) the stories and
tenets of a religion gives it a life of its own in a way, apart
from the usual host. The book or other record becomes not just
a source of authority, but a carrier in its own right. It can
be sent out to do the dirty work, just as infected blankets were
sent into the wilderness of Native America to spread the smallpox
6. Using social conformity. The pressure to conform to those
around us is strong, so to the extent that religions can fill
the very real need for association with others, they can keep
their beliefs protected and perpetuated. Isolation from those
of other faiths (or no faith) may be an important part of this
strategy as well.
The above strategies are not limited to religion. They could
be and have been used by other belief systems. At the moment,
however, the primary danger to the world is religious faith.
My hope is that this look at the role of replication strategies
in the natural selection of ideas can be used to find ways to
prevent the spread of the many evil ideas of religions, including
what may be the most damaging, the idea that belief should be
a matter of faith.
The page, "Bad Religion,"
continues this look at religion, with some thoughts on whether
there is hope for slowing or stopping the spread of religion,
and how that might be accomplished.
Better yourself today! Install these powerful hypnosis audios
in your computer right now, or put them on MP3s or CDs for later.
Low cost, high quality audio hypnosis sessions for increasing
creativity, overcoming fears, motivating yourself, quitting bad
habits and more. Hundreds to choose from.
Check them out here: