The Atheist Bible, CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek

Founding of Religions

This chapter of the Atheist Bible looks more closely into the processes that give birth to religions, that spread religions , and that may motivate rulers and ruling classes to impose religions upon their subjects. The chapter consists of the following sections:

Birth of Religions

How are religions born?

There is no scientific principle that can be used to deduce the existence of gods, supra-systems, or supernatural creation myths from the observation of nature. This is because, by definition, supernatural claims are unfalsifiable. This why no two peoples on Earth came up with the same religion by observing the same natural phenomena. While there are similarities in early religions, such as the belief in a divine sun or in a god of thunder, these beliefs are never identical in the way mathematical laws, for example, are identical across cultures. We will now explore several factors that may have contributed to the creation of religions.

Personification

When this meteorite hit Russia in 2013, even an atheist could consider something supernatural behind it.CC-BY Aleksandr Ivanov
One of the earliest reasons for religiousness might have been the desire to describe nature. As early humans faced harsh environments, the changing of the seasons, and the movement of the sun, they developed their own understandings of these natural phenomena. In this process , they may have crossed the borderline between the inanimate and animate relatively easily. For example, take the following sequence of sentences:
  1. The sun rises every day.
  2. The sun has the habit of rising every day.
  3. The sun wants to go to the highest point of the sky at noon, and hence it rises continuously during the first half of the day.
In this sequence, we have gone from a purely physical, inanimate, description (“the sun rises every day”) to one that involves intention (“the sun wants to go to the highest point of the sky at noon”). This is the moment in the sequence where the sun receives human-like attributes. In other words, we have personified the sun. From there, it is only a small step to assigning the sun further human attributes:
  1. The sun rises because it wants to give us light and warmth, and this can be achieved best by rising as high in the sky as possible.
  2. The sun gives us light, and hence it is our friend.
In the same way, early peoples likely personified the moon, the Earth, the stars, and the forces of nature by endowing them with human traits. Such attributes, however, are unfalsifiable in the sense that we cannot disprove that a star has some undetectable wants, feelings, and reasoning capabilities, and simply consciously chooses to conform to the laws of nature. It is this unfalsifiability that makes these types of personifying statements supernatural, and thus, the entities gods in the literal definition of the word. Becoming a god, then, is not a physical process. It just means that people have ascribed supernatural attributes to an entity.

Now that it has fallen, the meteorite does not look so scary after all.

in the Museum of Chelyabinsk/Russia

At first, gods were most likely personifications of one particular mountain, river, or tree, for example 1. Once societies became larger, people tended to abandon local gods in favor of gods whose power encompassed a larger territory, such as a kingdom or trade basin2. These gods were no longer only personified entities of nature, but now included personified concepts, such as the god of love, the god of beauty, and the god of war. In today’s world religions, the gods have become even more abstract, and now include the god of the Universe, the gods of beginning, maintenance, and end, or other equally abstract concepts.
All major religions and mythologies stem from early humanity’s attempt to understand what we now call astronomy, geology, and the atmosphere.
Bill Lauritzen in “The Invention of God”

Anthropomorphism

The attribution of human traits to inanimate objects or events is called anthropomorphism3. As we have seen, the personification of the entities of nature may be what gave rise to the first supernatural beliefs. But anthropomorphism was not restricted to the early humans — it is a common human phenomenon to this day.
The two triangles, the box, and the circle in the Heider-Simmel experiment
The first scientific study of anthropomorphism was conducted by the Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider and the German American psychologist Marianne Simmel in the 1940s. In their study, people were shown an animation on a computer screen, in which a small triangle moved around a box, repeatedly bumping into a larger triangle (see figure). When participants were asked to describe what they saw, nearly all resorted to giving the shapes human attributes: “The big triangle wants to protect the box, and fends off the small triangle”, “The small triangle is angry at the big one and tries to get into the box”, or “The triangles fight over the box” — even though there was no intentional being involved 4.

The experiment showed that people have a tendency to infuse events and objects with meaning, intention, and agency — a trait that the American science writer Michael Shermer calls “agenticity”, the American cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance”5, and the American psychologist Justin Barrett calls “hyperactive agent detection”6. People also tend to suspect that a computer has feelings and intentions — a phenomenon known as the Eliza effect.

Several reasons have been proposed for the human tendency to anthropomorphize. Heider and Simmel, for example, proposed that describing the moving objects in their study in purely geometrical terms would have been difficult, long, and barely comprehensible. Therefore, their participants resorted to human characteristics to describe the objects. In the terminology of this book, these human characteristics can be understood as auxiliary notions that simplify the discourse. The idea that anthropomorphisms are mainly simplifications of discourse was also brought forward by the English biologist Charles Darwin, the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb, and the above-mentioned Daniel Dennett. There may also be psychological reasons for anthropomorphizing. People may tend to anthropomorphize because notions of human characteristics are more easily available to them (as opposed to technical notions); because they are primed by cultural experiences where anthropomorphisms abound; because they perceive a similarity between the objects they describe and themselves; or because they tend to see the world in an egocentric fashion7. Michael Shermer has argued that the tendency of detecting an agent when there is none may have had evolutionary advantages (i.e., it is better to avoid an imaginary predator than be killed by a real one) 8.

When adults anthropomorphize inanimate objects, they are mostly aware that they are using the human characteristics as a mere metaphor to describe the object or event at hand. However, they may also really believe that some inanimate objects have intentions (in the sense of mutable internal states that lead to a certain behavior). In this case, they commit what is called the anthropomorphic fallacy, not much different from when humans may have first personified the natural phenomena around them.

Influencing nature

Some religious beliefs stem from a personification of the sun, the moon, and other natural entities. Once we see the sun as human-like, it is only natural to start trying to influence it, perhaps by talking to it: “Please, sun, come back and give us spring again!” This communication is , in every sense of the word, a prayer: a monologue with a supernatural (or supernaturally personified) entity with the intention of obtaining favor from that entity. These monologues are not so different from the prayers of today’s world religions: A human talks to a supernatural entity and thinks that the entity listens or responds . Today, we know that the pleas to the sun have no effect on its behavior. We also know that pleas to the gods of today will go unanswered. Still, people pray.

People do not just talk to gods, they also perform rituals to appease them. Humans have danced rain dances to convince the rain to come, made sacrifices to please the god of war, and asked shamans to heal an illness on behalf of the gods. Of course, these rituals did little to bring rain, appease an abstract god, or heal an illness. In the very same way, adherents of today’s major religions sing to their god, sprinkle water on their babies, light candles, or burn joss sticks . Today, as in the past, these rituals have no effect on reality. They just give people the illusion that they can control the uncontrollable. While an illusion, however, it may be better than nothing for many people : T he rituals make anxieties about unpredictable events more tolerable and more meaningful, especially when they are performed together with other people 9. Furthermore, once the ritual is established, people may be afraid to abandon it for fear of losing the perceived benefit, however rare, small, or hypothetical as that benefit may be.

What is the difference between worshipping the sun and worshipping God?
The sun actually exists.
anonymous

Explaining nature

In the European religions of the Bronze Age, a divine horse pulled the sun across the sky.

in the Historical Museum of Copenhagen/Denmark

Early humans most likely personified the objects of nature in order to talk about them and to them. This process may have been further driven by the human desire to explain the workings of nature (which is itself driven by the necessity to predict the events of nature) . For these explanations, people may have resorted to stories about the supernatural entities . Some human civilizations of the Bronze Age, for example, believed that the sun was drawn across the sky by a chariot (pictured).

Other examples can be found in the Abrahamic religions:

With such stories, people could explain different, seemingly unexplainable phenomena of life. From a technical point of view, of course, these explanations are not really explanations: they do not compress information. In other words, if you learn such a story, you still know nothing more about the real world than you did before. No true prediction becomes possible that is not possible also without these stories . On the contrary, the stories make many other predictions that are outright false: speaking many languages is a bad thing; women deserve suffering during childbirth; there is a chariot in the sky; etc. This is because the stories are what we have called “ghostifications”: they spin a supernatural story around an observable natural phenomenon. This story does correspond to the observations (the sun does indeed move across the sky), but it adds in new entities and assumptions that have nothing to do with reality.

People may have originally come up with these stories because they could not explain the phenomena in any other way. How else could the sun move, they might have reasoned, if it were not drawn by a chariot? This method of deduction is called the argument from ignorance: If we do not know the reason for something, and we can imagine one, we assume that what we imagine is true. This reasoning is, of course, invalid: Just because we do not know how something in nature works, it does not follow that it must work in the way that we imagine it — even if we cannot imagine it any other way. Nature is not bound by our imagination.

Today, for example, we understand that the sun moves across the sky due to the Earth’s revolution around the sun. With this knowledge, there is less of a need to attribute the sun’s movement to a sun god. In general, the more a person knows about the universe, the less they are inclined to suspect divine intervention.

God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Arguments from ignorance

We have seen that early humans created stories about the natural phenomena they observed (such as that the sun was moved across the sky by a god), most likely because they could not imagine how such a phenomena would otherwise occur. This is an invalid way of reasoning known as an argument from ignorance . This type of argument is still applied by people across the world today. Whenever we do not know how something works, some people are ready to see it as a proof for the supernatural. In these cases, a god literally falls from the sky. Here are some examples:
Immanuel Kant
The German Enlightenment philosopher argues as follows for the rationality of a belief in God: “The whole course of our life must be subject to moral maxims; but this is impossible, unless [...] reason connects [...] all conduct that is in conformity with the moral law [to] an issue either in this or in another life [...] that is in conformity with our highest aims. [In other words, Kant held that rational people must desire a moral and happy society (what he calls “our highest aims”), but cannot do so unless they believe that moral actions actually lead to such a society. The surprise comes here:] Thus, without a God and without a world, invisible to us now, but hoped for, the glorious ideas of morality [...] cannot be the springs of purpose and action...” 10.
William Lane Craig
The contemporary American philosopher writes on his website about “reasonable faith”: “The inference to a Designer is not an inference to any particular deity. This is not to say that we can infer nothing about the Designer of the universe on the basis of the specified complexity of the cosmos. [The surprise comes here:] Principally, what we can infer is that there exists a personal, and, hence, self-conscious, volitional being of inconceivably great intelligence who designed the universe.” 11
Hans Küng
The Swiss theologian writes in his book “The Beginning of All Things”: “What is the purpose of it all? Where does it come from? From nothing? Does nothingness explain anything? Can that satisfy our reason? [The surprise comes here:] The only serious alternative, which reason cannot prove (like so many things), but for which there are solid reasons, [is] an answer that is quite reasonable: The whole does not stem from a big bang, but from an origin: from this creative reason of reasons, which we call God, the creator.” 12
These are just a few examples of arguments that fall in a category known as “The God of the Gaps” . They all argue that God must exist because we cannot imagine any other explanation for this or that phenomenon of nature. Of course, these arguments are as invalid as the argument that the sun must be drawn across the sky by a chariot. Just because we do not know something, we may not infer that it must be what we believe it is.
“I don’t know, therefore God”
is not a valid argument.
the Candid Atheist

Suspecting intention

Humans sometimes anthropomorphize inanimate objects. One consequence of this tendency is that humans are more ready to assume that some event is caused by an intentional being than the evidence suggests6. In other words, we refuse to accept that the events around us are the results of inanimate (and largely random) processes , instead tending to believe that they are caused by someone or something, on purpose — a phenomenon called promiscuous teleology13.

Religion can satisfy this search for a purpose in several ways:

In all of these cases, religion responds to our (innate) search for an intention behind the events of life. One hypothesis is thus that humans invented religions to satisfy this need.
So this man starts to ask himself questions. “This world”, he says, “so who made it?” Now, of course he thinks that, because he makes things himself. So he’s looking for someone who would have made this world. He says, “Well, so who would have made this world? Well, it must be something a little like me. Obviously much much bigger. And necessarily invisible. But he would have made it. Now why did he make it?” Now we always ask ourselves “why?” because we look for intention around us; because we always intend— we do something with intention. We boil an egg in order to eat it. So we look at the rocks, and we look at the trees, and we wonder what intention is here even though it doesn’t have intention.

Veneration for the dead

Another factor that may have led to the imagination of supernatural entities is the veneration for the dead. Starting from around 34,000 BCE, we find that humans buried some of their dead with grave goods. We may interpret this as a sign for the belief that the dead would live on after their burial. Our earliest explicit mention of this belief dates to 2400 BCE, when the Pyramid Texts described the pharaoh’s ascent to heaven. Today, the large monotheistic religions believe the same: the dead will rise back to life in heaven . The East Asian religions believe that the dead become spirits, while the Indian religions assume a rebirth in this universe. Native American, Māori, and African cultures believe in a transcendent soul14.

In all of these systems, we find a recurring belief in some form of life after death. One possible reason for this is that some people may have dreamed about the deceased . The fact that dead people can appear in dreams could have been the origin of the belief in a transcendent soul14.

Another reason for the belief in a life after death could be psychological: our brain seems hard-wired to always expect and predict the next moment. This process continues to the end of life, and hence, we keep predicting what will happen to us in the moments that follow. In this way, we extrapolate life into death15. We have thus invented the afterlife.

Once that idea took hold, it was obviously attractive: Nobody wants to die. On the contrary, the fear of death is deeply ingrained in humans by the process of natural selection. And thus, the belief that there is some life after death could be a mechanism of psychological self-protection against that fear1617.

Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea for those who are about to become ancestors.
Steven Pinker in “How the mind works”

Spiritual experiences

We have seen several psychological factors that may entice people to believe in the supernatural. These factors apply more or less to everyone: all people wonder about the nature of the universe, and all people wonder about death. But there are some factors that aren’t universal, and apply to a much smaller group of people: those who report personal experiences with the supernatural. In some cases, such spiritual experiences have inspired prophets to found a religion.

Such experiences can have several (natural) explanations:

Dehydration
Many of these spiritual experiences have taken place in the desert. The prophets of the Abrahamic religions, for example, all had their revelations in the desert. Under extreme heat, exhaustion, and dehydration, people can experience hallucinations. Dehydration, in particular, can lead to delirium18. Such experiences may then be interpreted as spiritual in nature.
Mental issues
Different psychological, mental, or physical issues can lead to what is called psychosis. This is an abnormal condition of the mind that usually involves a loss of contact with reality19. Psychosis can result in hallucinations (sensory perceptions in the absence of external stimuli), delusions (false beliefs that a person holds on to, without adequate evidence), or megalomania (a belief that he or she has special powers or skills). The causes of psychosis can be psychiatric disorders (such as schizophrenia or personality disorders), or medical conditions (nutritional deficiency). Epilepsy, too, may cause psychosis and hallucinations20. It is not without reason that the ancient Greeks believed that epilepsy brought people in contact with the gods. Temporal lobe epilepsy, in particular, is associated with the Geschwind syndrome — a clinical diagnosis that can show itself in hyperreligiosity and irritability21. Such troubles have been proposed as natural reasons for the religious experiences of the Abrahamic prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Saint Paul 22.
Jerusalem Syndrome
People can also develop fantasies when they are overwhelmed by something. For example, every year, a dozen or so people who visit Jerusalem are so overcome by the historical, cultural, and religious significance of the city that they start believing that God is speaking to them. This phenomenon is known as the Jerusalem Syndrome23.
Dreams
As we have discussed above, dreams about the dead may have given rise to the belief in a transcendent soul14. More generally, dreams have often been interpreted as signs of the supernatural: The ancient Greek philosopher Plato thought that dreams were divine messages24, and the same concept can today be found in Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Spiritism25.
Idealization
People sometimes idealize their past, remembering it as better than it really was. For example, students can score between 200 and 800 points for each section of an SAT test. When asked their results a year later, they tend to boost their scores by around 50 points for each section. Interestingly, they are neither lying nor exaggerating. They are simply “enhancing” their results a little — until they start to believe the new score themselves26. In the same way, the prophets may have enhanced their experiences in retrospect — until they really started believing that they had had a supernatural encounter.
Other spiritual experiences
People may also have “truly supernatural experiences” in the sense that they perceive something as supernatural. The American neuroscientist (and militant atheist) Sam Harris has proposed the following explanation for this phenomenon27: No information from the outside world (except olfaction) runs directly from a sensory receptor to the cortex (the part of the brain where consciousness is conjectured). There are always intermediate points on the path, where information from other areas of the brain is factored in before the information reaches our conscious . This type of signal distortion is at the heart of the working of certain drugs. It could also induce experiences that are perceived as supernatural.
When a person starts having religious experiences today, we usually do not take them seriously. New prophets rarely find acceptance28 (Wikipedia maintains a list of messiah claimants, most of whom are not successful 29). On the contrary, when someone says that God talks to them, we usually subject them to psychological treatment. Likewise, people with the Jerusalem Syndrome are not usually seen as prophets. Rather, they are hospitalized. At the time of the Abrahamic prophets, however, such an experience could have led to the foundation of a religion — for reasons that we discuss in the Chapter on Following Religion.
People who talk to God are OK.
If they say that God talks back to them, watch out.
anonymous

Fraud

Throughout history, people have reported spiritual experiences in which a god spoke to them. Many of these people certainly acted in good faith, seriously believing that they had interacted with a god. However, it is just as possible that some reported a spiritual experience merely for their own benefit.

Adherents of any religion usually object to the idea that their own prophet could have been dishonest. However, at the same time, they are usually open to the idea that the prophets of other religions may have been dishonest. Throughout history, the following prophets have been accused of being dishonest :

If we accept that one or more of these prophets were malicious, then we see that fraud can be one more way in which a religion can be founded.
The only evidence that the prophets brought for God
were the voices in their own head.
The Candid Atheist

Mythologization

One way in which religious stories can evolve into religions is through mythologization, in other words, by converting a real story into a supernatural one.

One example is the story of the sixteenth century missionary Francis Xavier (1506-1552), who spent many years preaching in India, China, and Japan. Many miraculous claims circulated about him, one of which was that he had the “gift of tongues”. It was claimed that over the course of his travels he spoke to various tribes with ease in their own languages. It was even claimed that when he addressed various tribes at the same time, each heard the same sermon in their own language. This was, in fact, one of the reasons for his canonization, as mentioned in the Bull of Canonization issued by Urban VIII on August 6, 16233637. In reality, however, we know from his letters that he struggled with foreign languages and was barely able to express the creed, commandments, and prayers in Tamil and other native languages. Instead he relied on impromptu translators, and was never completely sure he had accurately communicated his message38. In this way, Xavier thus acquired a supernatural gift mainly through hearsay.

Lady Godiva riding naked through the streets of Coventry to make a point against high taxes. Sadly, this event never happened. CC0 John Collier
Indeed, human history abounds of such myths. Lady Godiva (pictured) was an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who was married Leofric, Earl of Mercia. Legend has it that, in order to convince her husband to reduce the oppressive taxation on his tenants, she rode naked through the streets of Coventry. This story, however, dates to the 13th century, with no earlier accounts of the tale appearing before then 39. Other well-known myths include tales of a monster in the Scottish Lake Loch Ness, or “El Dorado”, a mythical gold city located in the Americas. In all of these cases, someone along the way likely started adding supernatural, magical, or simply false elements to a true story. These elements were picked up and proliferated, giving rise to a conviction that something magical had happened. This process can be easily illustrated with the “telephone game”, in which a message is whispered from person to person. In the game, as in reality, we find that the final message rarely corresponds to the initial one. Information changes quickly as it passes through different people, intentionally or unintentionally. Now imagine this process taking place not between five friends, but between hundreds of people, over several centuries, and across different languages. It is only natural that the story would be altered, and entirely possible that it would have acquired supernatural elements. For example, it’s easy to envision how a popular warrior, who really existed, came to be glorified over the centuries and then deified. This is indeed one way in which the Indian god Krishna could have been conceived40.

Mythologization today

One might think that the creation of myths belongs to the past. And yet, it happens even in modern times. One recent example is the beatification of Mother Teresa, an Albanian nun who lived 1910-1997 CE and worked for charity in India. For beatification, the Catholic Church requires a miracle. In this example, an Indian woman was found healed from cancer after praying to Mother Teresa. Even though the treating doctor insisted that the woman had not had a full-grown cancer to begin with, and even though her husband explained that she had been healed by conventional means, the Vatican still declared it a miracle, and went on with the beatification41.

Myths are quickly created even in non-religious contexts. Here is an example of a myth that appeared on the news in Germany in 2014:

The mysterious monk Screenshot Die Welt, 2014-07-04
In 2014 in Rottweil, a small city in southwest Germany, a strange creature started appearing in the parks: a man clothed like a monk (pictured). Wherever he appeared, people got scared and ran away. Children had nightmares; one girl had to be hospitalized. Some said the creature had a knife. Finally, even traces of blood were seen. Soon the creature was dubbed “the war monk”. More and more sightings were reported, and the police began an investigation. 42

As it turns out, there was no “war monk”. There was simply a man who dressed up as a figure from the video game Assassin’s Creed. He turned himself in to the police the very same day he was first noticed. There was no knife and no blood. And contrary to reports, he had only walked through the park once. Since dressing up as a monk and going through a park is not a crime, no charges were brought against him. 43

We thus see that reality and fiction can get mixed very quickly. One reason has been proposed by the American cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer: he conjectured that stories are memorized more easily if they contain a minimally counter-intuitive concept, i.e., a concept that is slightly counterintuitive but not entirely absurd 44: a house made not of stone, but of gingerbread; a man who is in every aspect a human, but with supernatural strength; etc. This hypothesis has since been confirmed in scientific studies45. Since stories with such minimally counterintuitive elements have a higher chance of being remembered, they also have a higher chance of being passed on. Supernatural stories, in particular, benefit from this bias13, possibly explaining their persistence.

Proliferation of Religions

How do religions spread?

We have seen that religious beliefs can be born from several phenomena, including spiritual experiences, the personification of (or desire to influence) nature, or the veneration for the dead. Now the question is: How do these beliefs spread between and among groups of people?

Unlike most religious beliefs, a scientific idea, at its core, may arise independently among different peoples. This is only possible because a scientific theory is simply a factual description of nature. Take for example the invention of iron working, which happened independently in several distinct geographic regions. This was possible, in part, because nature, and therefore science, is the same everywhere. Religion works differently. By definition, a supernatural belief has no proof in nature, and, therefore, is rarely developed independently by several peoples. And though groups may have beliefs with shared or overlapping themes, it is unlikely that they will match exactly (e.g., on the name of the Sun God). . Likewise, groups with their own religious beliefs do not by themselves spontaneously begin to revere Jesus Christ. They do so only if Christian missionaries intervene. In other words, religious beliefs spread exclusively by human communication. They spread from one geographical region to another by travelers, by books, and (in modern times) through the Internet. We will now discuss different ways in which this can happen.

By far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe would have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place.
Richard Dawkins

Proselytism

We have seen several ways in which a person can be convinced of the supernatural. Once someone is convinced that the supernatural exists, she or he may want to share this discovery with their peers. And so the person goes and preaches the beliefs to others. This is what we call proselytism.

The person may also believe that this religion will lead them to paradise (or a comparable post-mortal state), and that not believing leads to hell (or any analog thereof). In this case, it is possible that this person has a true desire to “save” their friends and family from hell and help them reach paradise.

For some religions, the duty to preach the faith is part of the moral framework of the religion itself . This is most visible for Jehova’s witnesses, who are known for their extensive proselytizing efforts. However, technically, that duty is also part of Christianity and Islam.

Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents or tribal elders tell them. It is not surprising, then, to find religious leaders in every part of the world hitting upon the extra authority provided them by their taking on the title “Father”.
Daniel Dennett in “Breaking the spell”

Self-serving proselytism

If someone honestly believes that his or her friends go to hell unless they become believers, then it is only natural that this person will proselytize for this end . However, there may also be more selfish cases of proselytism. These are cases in which the believer acquires a material or social advantage from converting others to the faith.

Examples of people and institutions that benefit from the faith of others are:

Televangelists
Televangelists are people who preach the (Christian) faith via television, mainly in the US. Some of these preachers are accused of accumulating tax-free donations from believers to finance their own lavish lifestyle. They make millions of dollars every year, and spend it on Rolls Royce cars, houses, or private jets 464748.
African super-pastors
In Africa, followers of so-called super-pastors make tithes and other offerings in the hopes of winning blessings from on high 49. Some pastors have accumulated wealth in the order of $150 million. Ayo Oritsejafor, who leads the Christian Association of Nigeria, was embroiled in a recent scandal when a private jet he had leased out was found to be carrying $9 million in cash into South Africa, supposedly a payment for an arms deal on behalf of the Nigerian government. In Zimbabwe, pastors get rich on the tithes, declaring: “You tithe, he blesses. You keep the tithe, the curse is initiated” 50. Some of the more enterprising priests sell miracles. Blessed ballpoint pens help you pass exams. Miracle bricks will help you acquire your own home. These people have a financial interest in people following them. Hence, they have one more reason to spread the word of their religion.
Pilgrim sites
Pilgrims visit places that have a special sacred status for many reasons, including for spiritual purification, enlightenment, or in the hopes of forgiveness for their sins. These pilgrimages generate a considerable income for the places that are visited. For example: Africans who visited Temitope Balogun Joshua’s Christian services in Nigeria each spent upwards of $1700 during their trip for travel and accommodation expenses49. Similarly, Muslims who visit Mecca for the pilgrimage of Hajj easily pay more than $10,000 for travel and accommodations, but also to businesses around the holy site, travel agencies, and the Saudi government51. In the early 2000s, pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy (the site of the mystic saint Padre Pio) brought in roughly $57 million in revenue for the town 52. The town of Lourdes in France (where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared) receives tens of thousands of dollars per year from visitor donations. In total, pilgrimage tourism amounts to more than $8 billion a year globally. This money comes from donations, but it is also spent on hotels, restaurants, transportation, services, entrance fees, and tourism shops. In these cases, the shrines, churches, towns, and cities have a financial interest in promoting the legends and religions that lend their support to these pilgrimage sites. Therefore, it is in their interest to maintain the myth of their locations.
Scientology recruiters
Scientology is a new religious movement that lets new adherents pay a fee (usually in the tens of thousands of dollars) to receive the necessary preaching, training, or study material. People who recruit new members get a commission of this fee, and the organization itself advertises that recruiters can make a living just from these commissions: “You send your preclear into a nearby org, and she buys an Academy Training package for $8,000. You receive a 15% commission on those services, which is payable when she arrives at the Org to do them ($1,200). If you were to send 20 preclears a year into the org for similar packages, you would have $24,000 in income just from selecting your public to train”. 53 This way, recruiters also have a financial interest in spreading the religion. Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, is suspected of having founded the religion for his own financial benefit. In a 1953 letter, shortly before founding the religion, he wrote “On a longer look, however, something more equitable will have to be organized. [...] And we could [...] make enough money to shine up my operating scope. [...] It is a problem of practical business. I await your reaction on the religion angle.”54. In this case, the founder also had a direct financial interest in spreading his religion.
The Catholic Church
Catholicism is one particular denomination of Christianity. In medieval times, the Church made a fortune selling indulgences, i.e., certificates that assure the liberation from hell for people or for their late loved ones. One peddler of these certificates, Johann Tetzel, frightened congregations into paying up by conjuring visions of their dead parents wailing for mercy while being tortured by the demons. This practice ceased with the Reformation in the 16th century. However, still today the Church is a multi-billion-dollar organization. The American Catholic Church alone has a budget of $170 billion . The Vatican Bank owns €700 million of equity, including gold reserves worth over $20 million with the US Federal Reserve. Money flows in from individual donations, government grants, the Church’s own investments, and corporate donors. According to Georgetown University, the average weekly donation of an American Catholic to the church is $10. There are 85 million Catholics in North America, meaning each week the Catholic Church pulls in approximately 850 million. 5556. The American branch of the Catholic Church spends several millions of dollars to victims of sex scandals 57. In Germany, the Catholic and Protestant churches together own around €500 billion in assets 58. This system pays the salaries for priests, bishops, and staff, as well as housing and the daily operations of the State of the Vatican. Hence, these people all have a material interest that their adherents continue to pray and pay. If people stop believing in the message of the Church, this system will no longer work.
Ancient preachers
In many ancient religions, some figureheads took on the care of believers, including priests in the Israelite cults, Shamans in central Asia and the Americas, and the Brahmins in India. In most cases, these preachers lived on the goods that the believers brought as sacrifice. The Bible exemplifies this, saying “You are to give the right thigh of your fellowship offerings to the priest as a contribution” [Bible: Leviticus 7]. Obviously, these priests had an interest in people continuing to bring them offerings. In fact, it is possible that they were the ones who wrote this passage in the first place 59. The same goes for the Brahmins in Hinduism who lived mainly off the donations of the faithful 40, and the priests of ancient Egypt, who asked people to give sacrifices so that the Nile River would flood. Of course, the Nile floods annually anyway.
Today’s preachers
“A giver is always beloved”

in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Still today, preachers take care of their believers: priests in Christianity , Imams in Islam , preachers in Hinduism, and shamans in indigenous religions . All of these people have a position of power over their believers. Depending on the denomination, they can have access to the confessions of adherents, forgive sins, formalize marriage, declare fatwas or excommunications, advise adherents, interpret the holy sources, and hold sermons. Most importantly, they hold the authority to decide what is good and what is bad according to divine will. The job also comes with a position of respect within the religion. In some cases, this respect translates to financial donations: In some variants of Judaism, rabbis are chauffeured in black Cadillacs and have private ritual baths built into their opulent homes60. In Raelism, adherents are asked to give a percentage of their income to their leader61. In the Balkans, preachers organize weddings and baptisms, and can be paid in cash by the recipient of these ceremonies — with a sum that can be fixed at the preacher’s discretion. In such cases, the preacher has a personal interest in maintaining and increasing the number of believers. If people stop believing, the preacher loses their societal position and financial bonuses. Going further, the preacher often has no regular income outside his religious role. Christian priests, for example, are often paid exclusively through the Church. Preachers of many other religions also live on donations from adherents. If the number of adherents decreases, the livelihood of these preachers is endangered. Thus, every preacher also has a financial interest in maintaining and increasing the flock of believers.
This is not to say that preachers are only motivated by self-interest . However, material advantage can be one of their motivations.
It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.
Mark Twain

Tradition

We have seen that a religion can spread only by human communication from one person to another one, be it orally, by books, movies, or the internet. One way in which this happens is through the education of children. In large part, children learn from their parents. So, if the parents are religious, the child will likely follow suit. This is one of the most prevalent ways in which religion spreads. As Richard Dawkins observed, the vast majority of people follow the religion of their parents — instead of any of the other available religions.

The mechanism behind this phenomenon is simple: As a child, it is usually a good idea to follow what your parents tell you. For example, if your parents tell you “Crocodiles are dangerous, because they can eat people!”, then your best bet is to avoid crocodiles. You would not go and verify that theory by experiment — you would just trust your parents. And this is a good thing from an evolutionary perspective. Children have the benefit of all the experiences of those who came before them. Now imagine that the parents tell the child “There is an invisible being in the sky who wants you to avoid pork meat”. Then, in the very same way, a child will believe this theory. They will never verify whether crocodiles really eat humans, or whether there really is a god who forbids the consumption of pork. They will just believe 62. For some theories (such as the theory that premarital sex causes poverty[Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts]), the children may eventually find out that they are wrong, and will abandon them. However, religious theories can never be proven wrong. This is because they are not falsifiable . Therefore, these religious theories continue unchallenged through the generations.

In many countries, the transmission of religion is also a part of the state-sponsored educational system, such as it is in Algeria, Indonesia, Tunisia, Germany, and the UK. In the UK, specifically, the Education Act of 2002 requires “religious education for all registered pupils at the school” . In all of these countries, children are taught religious concepts at a young age. And since the religious classes are usually run side by side with the secular classes, children do not learn to see the difference between the two. They are thus led to accept religious concepts as part of their worldview.

In most religions, the transmission of religious beliefs to children is part of the religious system itself, ensuring the proliferation of said religion.

It takes 20 years to grow a Baptist
and 20 minutes to lose one.
Daniel Dennett

Domination

Religion can also spread through societal domination. This happens when a group of adherents of one religion becomes dominant in a society, such as when one group invades another during war , becomes the elite of that society, or becomes the role model for that society . Whenever this happens, the society becomes more open to the new, dominant religion and will eventually adhere to it. Different from imposition, this transition happens through soft factors — even though the difference between the two forms is arguably gradual.

Particular instances of this phenomenon are:

The Muslim Expansion
Between 622 and 1800, Muslims conquered the land between Spain and India. During this “Golden Age of Islam”, the display of religious symbols (other than those of Islam) was forbidden; church bells were not allowed to ring; proselytism for any religion other than Islam was prohibited; non-Muslim men could not marry Muslim women; and Christians and Jews under Muslim rule had to pay a special tax as material proof of their submission (the Jizya[Quran: 9:29]). Furthermore, non-Muslims were not allowed to enter the holy cities of Mecca or Medina (a restriction that is still upheld today). The Sharia further stipulated that non-Muslims were to wear special signs on their clothing, not build new churches, not walk in the middle of the street, and not be greeted like Muslims. Jews, in particular, were required to wear distinctive clothing in the Islamic World beginning in the 8th century — a practice later adopted by medieval Catholic Europe and more recently by the Nazis63. These practices were codified in the Pact of Umar. While non-Muslims could still theoretically continue to practice their own religions, they thus had no lack of incentive to convert to Islam. And even if those who converted did not truly believe in their new faith, they would still behave like Muslims, and pass these practices onto their children, who would eventually come to truly adhere to the faith64.
Christian domination
Christianity has a long history of violent expansion in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. This violence has largely ceased. However, still today, Christianity exercises cultural dominance: the Christian nations have a disproportional presence in television, politics, economy, music, art, and culture all over the world. Western telenovelas, for example, are popular in many parts of the world. Western pop music is known around the world. And while this does not directly spread Christianity, it makes its concepts and philosophy known to a large audience. For example, we can assume that a random television consumer in India is more likely to know who Jesus is than a random television consumer in the US to know who Shiva is.
Dominating religion
In general, the dominant religion of a country will have some advantages over the non-dominant ones. Implicitly, the dominant religion is understood to be the norm, which defines the morality, the worldview, and the social codes of that society. Anyone who differs has to explain themselves, and may encounter suspicion or discrimination. For Christianity, this phenomenon is known as “Christian Privilege” . Such a dominance does not directly convert others to the religion but rather gives that religion an advantage if ever someone should ever consider changing their religion.
Restrictive laws
Still today, some countries recognize only a handful of religions. Indonesia, for example, demands that people declare themselves as one of six religions; Egypt’s constitution makes room for only three faiths; and in Israel, marriage is celebrated by state-approved religious institutions. In countries with religious education in schools, only a handful of denominations are usually allowed to be represented. While these laws do not force anyone to adhere to some religion, they do make life difficult for those who don’t. For the non-adherents, is more cumbersome to apply for a passport, to marry, to have equal representation in school, or to receive services from the state. Thus, these systems have the effect of mainstreaming citizens into the accepted religions.
State atheism
Although not a religion, atheism was also sometimes spread in a very similar way to religion. During the Cold War, several communist countries established atheism by force. In some cases, people were physically forced to abandon their religions. In other cases, people could still theoretically believe what they wanted, but religious symbols, authorities, and teachings were removed from society altogether. Similar observations still apply to China today, where the state recognizes some religions but not others65, and actively suppresses some. These types of pressures give an advantage to atheism: when a religion cannot spread freely, it risks dying out. Even in the liberal democracies of Western Europe, there is a soft pressure to abandon fundamentalist interpretations of religions. These are usually frowned upon, and so the general culture edges people away from literal interpretations of their faith.

Imposition of Religions

Imposition

As we have seen, religion can spread through societal domination, which is when a religion comes with so many societal advantages that people start adhering to it. However, a religion can also be outright imposed. This, of course, does not square well with our modern understanding of faith, which holds that it is impossible to force a person to believe in something they don’t believe in. Yet, as we will later argue, a belief in the theological statements of a religion is not necessary for said religion to prosper. It is fully sufficient if, by virtue of being forced, adherents profess their adherence to the religion, follow the rites and rules, and pass this religion on to their offspring. In effect, such a society will be indistinguishable from one in which people are true believers. Furthermore, offspring, having been exposed to only the imposed religion, may really come to believe.

This was maybe most obvious in medieval Europe, when Christianity was imposed upon basically everyone, and abandoning the faith was persecuted as heresy. Christianity was also brought by force to colonized nations. The Catholic Inquisition tortured and killed thousands of people in an effort to convert them to Christianity — in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Still today, religion is sometimes imposed by the state, most notably in some Muslim countries. In 12 Muslim-majority countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, and others), apostasy is punishable by death. Such a system makes all citizens adherents of the religion.

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Grace of God

The genealogical tree of the Inca rulers clearly identifies the sun and the moon as the parents of the first king.

in the de Osma Museum in Lima/Peru

Leaders and heads of nations can have several motivations for imposing a religion upon their subjects. One is to justify their own rule through the religion. Here are examples:
Chinese Empire and Chinese religions
In China, the emperors had a “Mandate of Heaven”, which gave them the divine right to rule. According to this belief, Heaven bestows its mandate to a just ruler who is the Son of Heaven. Confucianism, in particular, was convenient for the Chinese government, because Confucianism teaches loyalty to the authorities[Analects: 17:8] — a principle known as Zhong. It is to be assumed that the mandate from Heaven ceased with the installment of (atheist) communism in China in 1949.
Japan and Shinto belief
Shinto belief held that the Japanese Imperial Family was the offspring of the sun goddess Amaterasu. The Japanese Constitution of 1860 declared the Japanese Emperor sacred. However, when Japan was defeated by the allies in the Second World War, the emperor was forced to give up his divine status. He is still considered a descendant of the gods, though 66.
Indian monarchs and Hinduism
Hinduism knows the concept of divine kings, i.e., kings who have a divine power and authority. The Law of Manu declares that kings are sanctified, that they get a 6th of every income[Laws of Manu: 2:302-308], that the first king was created by God[Law of Manu: 7:3], and that kings are divine[Law of Manu: 7:8]. Different from the Christian god, the Hindu gods are not necessarily perfect beings, and are capable of sin. Hence, a simple claim of divinity did not confer unassailability. Rather, the king was obliged to maintain a good relationship with the priests (the Brahmins) in order to have the support of the people and maintain his divinity.67 India was colonized by the British in the 19th century, and became independent (and a republic) in 1947.
Inca Empire and the Inca religion
The Inca Empire ruled the Andes Mountain chain from roughly 1200 CE on. The Inca religion held that the emperor was the descendant of the male Sun god Iti and the female moon god Mama Quilla (see picture). This descendance did, unfortunately, not protect the Inca emperor from the invasion of the Europeans, who captured, tortured, and killed him in 1533 CE.
Constantine the Great and Christianity
Constantine the Great was a Roman emperor who converted to Christianity around 313 CE. At the time he set out to decriminalize Christianity, to establish it as the official religion in the Roman Empire, and to persecute variants of Christianity other than his own (most notably the Gnostic Christians). His motives are not entirely clear, though. He may have been using Christianity to consolidate his power. He may also have been seeking the help of the Christian God as the most powerful among many gods or using the Christian God to seek a pardon for his wrongdoing. Or perhaps he genuinely believed in Christianity. No matter his motives, Christianity did help Constantine consolidate his power and he assumed a divine mandate for his reign. For his Christian subjects, Constantine became the embodiment of the righteous king David. He further consolidated his power by conquering the Greek East (a region with many Christians) and putting in place a system where government theology and secular power were in support of the other. He thus had an interest in the success of Christianity, and sponsored episcopal committee meetings, where the bishops formalized the creeds of the religion.68
Medieval European Kingdoms and Christianity
In medieval Europe, kings such as Louis XIV of France declared that they were installed by God. This was based on the Bible, which declare that any government is installed by God[Bible: Romans 13:1-7]. The divine will was invoked as legitimation for the absolutist authority the monarch wielded. This is also known as the “divine right of kings”, that is, the endorsement of God for the monarch’s reign. Jesus also said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”[Bible: Mark 12:17]. This verse has been used from Roman times to Medieval times to to tell people to pay their taxes.
Nazi Germany and Christianity
The Reichskonkordat was a 1933 CE treaty between the Holy See and Germany negotiated during its transition into Nazi Germany69. The treaty guaranteed the rights of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. At the same time, it required bishops to take an oath of loyalty to the Governor or President of the German Reich. It is clear that this treaty benefited both parties: On the one hand, it consolidated the power of the religion in the country (guaranteeing, for example, religious teaching in state-funded schools). On the other, it made sure that religious leaders would not openly oppose the government. The treaty remains in force to this day.
Today’s European Monarchies and Christianity
Today, the kings and queens of the following countries say they rule “by the grace of God”: Denmark, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and hence all Commonwealth countries. The British King or Queen is not just the head of state of the Commonwealth countries, but also the head of the Anglican Church, the official Church of England.
The Pope and Catholicism
The pope is not just the head of the Catholic Church, but also the political leader of a State. He also derives his power directly from Jesus (who is, in the Christian faith, divine) 70. He has the “supreme and universal primacy, both of honour and of jurisdiction, over the Church of Christ” as the “guardian of [Jesus'] entire flock in His own place”, and the “Vicar of Christ [, a title] which he bears in virtue of the commission of Christ and with vicarial power derived from Him” 70. He “hold[s] upon this earth the place of God Almighty” 71.
Thailand and Buddhism
The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand mixes palace buildings and temples.
In Thailand, Buddhism is the majority religion. Buddhism and the monarchy are closely intertwined: The king assumes the title of “the Buddhist upholder”, and vows to provide protection and maintenance for Buddhism. He has every interest to do so: In a reflection of the traditions of ancient India, the king is considered a “Devaraja” or living god.
Afghanistan and Islam
In order to overcome the profound sense of tribal identity among Afghan people , the first Afghan king (1880) took the title of “Protector of the nation and of the religion”. Ruling by “grace and will of Allah”, he fulfilled the dual role of leader and interpreter of Islam and Islamic law. He also decided that he was the only person habilitated to declare the jihad, because he wanted to guard against the possibility of fatwas for jihad being issued by religious figures close to his enemies. 72
The Ottoman Empire and Islam
Religious classes were a core member of the Ottoman nobility and a key element of the central and provincial administration. They submitted to the power of the sultan but obtained in return ample economic privileges in the form of lucrative functions, tax exemption, and religious endowments that controlled vast tracts of land. 72
Morocco and Islam
The King of Morocco, too, derives his authority from his descendance to the Prophet Mohammed73. The constitution styles him as the “Commander of the Faithful” and the protector of Islam74.
Such a link between the ruler and the divine gives the ruler an untouchable authority that other humans cannot acclaim to . If a ruler is ever perceived as less than divine, it is likely that people will begin to wonder whether they’d be better served with another leader. Hence, the rulers had an interest that his underlings believed his story of his divine authority. Hence, he had an interest that his subjects follow the religion. Hence, he took care that people were religious.
Reportedly, Christian missionaries had a hard time preaching their faith to refugees from North Korea. The whole idea of an infallible and all-powerful redeemer, they said, struck them as a bit too familiar.
Christopher Hitchens in “God is not great”

Oppression

The rulers of a country or region can have several motivations to impose a religion. One of them is that the religion can consolidate and justify the dominance of a particular social class and the oppression of another. If the oppressed people also adhere to the religion, they can be made to believe that their lesser role is established by the gods.

Here are examples:

Slaves in Christianity
From 1619 until the end of the American Civil War in 1865, hundreds of thousands of Africans were brought to North America and forced into slavery. Over time, the slaves were introduced to the Christian faith — perhaps out of a desire to expand the reach of Christianity, but certainly also because, at the time, Christianity justified slavery. For the slave-holding class, the Bible was a warrant for what they understood to be their right to own slaves. They preached that the Bible said that slaves had to be slaves, that they had to obey, and that this was God’s will75. Preachers, too, supported the idea that slaves owed absolute obedience to their owners, just as they did to God. They also justified the punishment of the slaves’ misdeeds, which could be of unimaginable cruelty. Anglican missionaries worked especially hard to ensure that their religion supported the orderly, hierarchical world of slave labor, meeting the needs of their white plantation supporters 76. The Catholic Church condemned individual instances or aspects of slavery, but upheld slavery in principle, stating as late as 1866 that “slavery itself is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law”, and maintaining it in the Canon Law of 1917. Meanwhile, Biblical stories also inspired slaves in their quest for freedom, such as the story of Moses freeing the Jews from Egyptian rule. Several preachers, most notably the Quakers, held that slavery was inhumane and against the will of God. America abandoned slavery in 1865. 100 years later, in 1965, the Catholic Church also decided that slavery was now contrary to divine law.
Slaves in Islam
The Quran knows slaves as “people whom your right hand possesses”[Quran: 24:32, 16:71, 2:178, 16:75]. It does not contain a punishment for capturing slaves, or for keeping slaves. And indeed, Arabs traded slaves starting from the Islamic Golden Age in the 8th century until the 19th century without seeing any contradiction to Islam7778. The religious sources thus clearly suited them. The Quran also allows men to have sex with an unlimited number of female slaves[Quran: 23:5-6, 70:29-30, 4:24] — a practice that gave rise to the use of sex slaves in harems78 and that clearly suited the harem holders. Slavery was phased out in the 19th and 20th century in the Muslim world under Western pressure7877. As it was never colonized, Saudi Arabia was the last Muslim country to abolish slavery, in 1962. In 1990, the “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam” outlawed slavery 79. This is justified based on verses that urge kindness towards slaves[Quran 4:36, 9:60, 24:58], and that reward the freeing of a slave[Quran: 90:13, 4:92, 5:92, 58:3M]. If everyone frees slaves, taking new slaves is allowed only during war, and war ceases, the argument runs, slavery is abolished.77 Today, all interpretations of Islam except for the most extremist ones prohibit slavery.
The “untouchables” in Hinduism
Hinduism knows the concept of castes, i.e., social classes that each come with certain privileges and duties[Bhagavadgita: 1.40-43, 4.13, 18.41-44][Laws of Manu: 1.87-91]. This system was implemented in different variations throughout the history of India and remnants of it are still in place to this day. In all variations, the members of the higher castes have more privileges than the members of the lower castes, let alone the “untouchables”. In ancient times, the Brahmins (members of the highest caste) could not be physically punished. Still today, untouchables are beaten, humiliated, raped, and killed daily in India, often with tacit support by police, village councils, and government officials80. It is thus clear that this stratification benefits the higher castes.
Women in Islam
Historical interpretations of Islam gave women less rights than men, based on scripture that says that women should be obedient to their husbands, and a number of other verses [Quran: 4:34, 4:3, 2:221, 60:10, 2:228, 4:11, 2:282, 33:33]. To this date, no mainstream interpretation of Islam gives women the same rights as men. For example, while Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim women, women do not have the same option. Male dominance is enshrined in laws across much of the Arab world81, and the majority of Muslims in Muslim-majority countries still enforce a wife’s obeyance of her husband 82. Like other systems of power, it is clear that those in power, in this case men, are eager to uphold the belief system.
Jews in Christianity
According to the Bible, the Jewish people accepted the responsibility for Jesus’s execution by chanting “His blood be on us and on our children!”[Bible: Matthew 27:24–25], a charge echoed in Saint Pauls letters[Bible: 1 Thessalonians 2:14–15]. These passages allowed early Christianity to deflect the blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans (with whom it needed a cordial relationship during Roman times) onto the Jews. It held that the entire Jewish people will be eternally and collectively responsible for the killing of Jesus (an idea called Jewish deicide)83. Although some secular and ecclesiastical authorities protected the Jews, the Church Fathers, theologicians such as Thomas Aquinas, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 CE), religious education, and papal bulls (“Cum nimis absurdum”, 1555) all promulgated Antisemitism (hatred of Jews)84. Martin Luther, the initiator of the Protestant strain of Christianity, condemned Jews as a “whoring people [...] full of the devil’s feces”85. In this general climate of antagonism, Jews suffered discrimination, persecution, expulsions, massacres, and brutal executions with hundreds of thousands of victims throughout the Middle Ages84. This had an economic advantage for the Christians: First, they could plunder the Jews' belongings86. Second, since usury was prohibited for Christians, Jews served as money-lenders, and their extermination erased any debt towards them87. Jews also served as collective scapegoats for catastrophic events88, including the Black Death — a claim that must have been convenient for the rulers at the time, as it allowed them to explain the pandemic without challenging their authority. After millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust in the early 20th century, the Catholic Church formally renounced the charge of deicide89, and the Lutheran Churches distanced themselves from Martin Luther’s Antisemitic teachings90.
Jews in Islam
Early verses of the Quran confirm the Biblical story of God’s preference for the Jews[Quran: 2:47ff], and stipulate respect for the Jewish people[Quran: 2:47, 2:62, 5:69, 2:256]. However, verses that were revealed later91 accuse the Jews of worshipping rabbis[Quran: 9:31], breaking the convenant with God, denial of Mary, and boasting to kill Jesus[Quran: 4:153ff]. The Quran calls Muslims not to take them as guardians[Quran 5:51], but to “fight those who do not believe in Allah [...] from among those who were given the Scripture, until they pay the tax, willingly submitting, fully humbled”[Quran: 9:29]. As many Quranic verses, these verses are subject to intense debate today, as to whether they applied to an individual context or are general commandments. Be that as it may, they correspond to how the early Muslims treated Jews: Mohammed himself conquered a Jewish tribe (the Qurayzah), killed the men, and sold the children and women to slavery even though the tribe already surrendered3233. In the Muslim empires from the Islamic Golden Age to the Ottoman Empire (i.e., from the 8th century to the 20th), Jews lived as Dhimmis, i.e., as second-class citizens who had to accept the dominance of Islam, had to pay a special tax, could not marry Muslim women, could not own Muslim slaves (although the reverse was allowed), received less blood money in case of murder, could not build new places of worship (only repair existing ones), and had to wear distinctive clothing (as formalized by the Pact of Umar in 634 CE)92. (While this is hailed as a “protection of the Jews” by modern apologists, Muslims would be appalled if the same treatment were bestowed upon them today in non-Muslim lands.) This system clearly benefitted the Muslim majority. To this date, Antisemitism is widespread among Muslims in Europe93 and in Muslim lands, with more than 70% of people in Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Turkey holding unfavorable attitudes towards Jews94. A major bone of contention today is the establishment of the state of Israel in previously Palestinian (Muslim) lands, and Israel’s occupation of (and settlements in) the Palestinian West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the State of Palestine since 2005, authored a book saying that the Jews were fundamental partners in orchestrating the Holocaust95, and Hamas, the organization governing the Gaza Strip of the Palestinian territories, vows to remove Israel by armed resistance96. Indeed, Hamas and other Palestinian groups continue to launch violent assaults against Israel97.
Palestinians in Judaism
In the Hebrew Bible, God promises the land of Canaan to the Jews[Bible: Exodus 6:4, 23:31, Numbers 31:1-15, Deuteronomy 1:6-8Joshua 1:4, Ezekiel 47:13-20, Genesis 15:18–21], a claim that is echoed in the Quran[Quran: 5:20-26, 17:100-104]. This story has given rise to the idea that today’s region of Israel and Palestine was the God-given homeland of the Jews. It gave Jews a religious motivation to emigrate there from the 19th century on, and to establish the Jewish state of Israel on what were previously Muslim Palestinian lands. Today, the story is used to justify the occupation of the West Bank by Israel98 and the establishment of Jewish settlements there99. In the occupied territories, the Palestinians are encircled by 9-meter-high concrete barriers100, under a permanent military rule “without rights, without equality, without dignity and without freedom”, according to the UN101, where extrajudicial killings, collective punishment, and torture are “regularly practiced” by the Israeli authorities. The occupation of the land clearly suits the Israelis who settle there, as well as the government of Israel102.
Religion is a pretty smart business model. It sells you an invisible product, and blames it on yourself if the product does not work.
anonymous

Unification

State religions: Christianity (blue), Islam (green), Buddhism (yellow) CC0 Smurfy, legend and Antarctica removed
We’ve seen that leaders can have several motivations to impose a religion. Another is that religion can implant common values and beliefs in a society. As Jared Diamond has argued: A shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem how unrelated individuals can live together without killing each other — providing them with a bond not based on kinship 103. Shared rituals, stories, and terminology foster a sense of belonging and unity. This sense of unity, in turn, facilitates collaboration, sharing, and trust104.

Examples are:

Poland
In Poland, identification of the nation with Catholicism came only after the invasion of the Swedes around the middle of the 18th century. The conflict between the two countries did not begin as a religious war, yet it became one in due course. Resenting the Swedish occupation, the Poles began to recast the war in religious terms, viewing the struggle against the Protestant invaders as a war against heretics in defense of Catholicism . 72
Other European countries
In medieval Europe, Kings strove for religious unity across their kingdoms, regarding it as the foundation of political unity. They thus came to equate orthodoxy with obedience and religious dissent with rebellion. Those subjects who did not subscribe to the official creed and church of their polity could not claim all the privileges of full citizenship, and against them the harshest regimes could bring the charge of treason when they felt threatened. Christianity had thus succeeded in supplying governments with official ideologies, and in providing large, geographically dispersed communities with common symbols and values that became a defining aspect of political identity. 72
Saudi Arabia
The puritanical Islamist movement created by Ibn al-Wahhab (1703-1792) was not important in his own time. Yet, because he was linked to the Seoud tribe that was striving to take hold of power by conquering the Arabian deserts, his doctrine later gained wide significance, having considerable effects on the Islamic world during the second half of the twentieth century. The Seouds, indeed, succeeded in uniting diverse tribal groups into a movement that eventually conquered most of Arabia and established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The Saudi royal family, which is essentially a secular polity, then co-opted the religious elite and used Islam in order to consolidate a Saudi national identity, thereby reinforcing its own legitimacy. 72
Iran
Shi’ism in its present form (Twelver Shi’ism, in particular) was largely conceived by the Safavid rulers of Iran as a convenient ideology of nation-building vis-à-vis the rival Ottoman Empire. It gave Iran a specific ideological distinction and national identity. As part of the official ideology, the Safavids cursed the first three caliphs considered holy by the Sunnis and claimed descent from the Seventh imam, which gave them impeccable religious credentials. The consequences of this split between two main strands of Islam, now viewed by each other as heretics and enemies, have been carried over into the present time. 72
The United States
The US is officially a secular country in that its constitution says the state may not interfere with matters of religion. However, in the wake of the cold war, the phrase “In God we trust” became an official motto of the nation in an effort to distinguish the country as Christian, differentiated from the atheist socialist world they were fighting against .
Muslim Countries
Recent history offers us examples (Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Iraq) of political rulers using Islam as a readily available ideology and instrument of legitimacy to deflect criticisms, entrench their power and privileges, or bolster their nationalist credentials. At the same time, the decision to oppose the state on the grounds that it is insufficiently Islamic belongs to anyone who wishes to exercise it. Thus, while the ruler increasingly presents himself as the true guardian of the faith with accounts to give only to God, the radical opposition portrays him as a decadent, impious, and sinful monarch who has strayed away from the true path of Islam. 72
Other countries
Religion (or a denomination thereof) currently largely defines the identities of Iran, Israel, the US, and many other countries. In around 30 countries, one religion is the state religion (see figure).
— Do atheists mind having “In God We Trust” on their money?
— If atheists had enough votes to put “Religion is bunk” on their money, would theists mind? They would. So they should be able to generalize from that.
Charles Clack (rephrased)

War Morale

A priest in World War 1 in the Italian army.

in the Blue Palace in Pisa/Italy

Kings and rulers have several reasons to support religion. One reason is that religion can be used to uphold the morale in a war. As Jared Diamond has argued103: Religion can give people a motive for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or at resisting attacks.

Several factors can work in this direction:

Identification
A religion can be used to create a shared identity, and an us-versus-them feeling. Identification with one’s country is the crucial ingredient for a war, because otherwise people would not be able to distinguish friends from foes . Still today, war is often fought along religious lines.
Ethical justification
Religion holds the claim to the highest ethical authority. This means that if religion is the justification for war, then adherents will have no moral dilemma fighting in it. This mechanism was at work during the crusades with Christianity, during the conquest of the Maghreb with Islam, and during the conquests by the Islamic State. Maybe less known is that it was also at work during the Second World War with Buddhism: When Japan conquered China, Buddhist priests encouraged the Japanese soldiers to go to war . More recently, in 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church supported Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Moral support
CC0 Remas6
Religious ceremonies and personnel can be used to encourage and appease soldiers. In the Second World War, both sides used Christian priests to fulfill the spiritual needs of their soldiers. For example, German soldiers had “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”) written on their belts. If this were true, it would be rather macabre in retrospective.
Promise of heaven
The most basic (and maybe most effective) strategy in which religion is wielded in warfare is its promise of heaven to those who die in battle. This strategy has been used extensively throughout history, such as during the Crusades, when victims were celebrated as martyrs. The strategy was and is also used in Islam, in which the Quran grants people who die for the cause of Islam a place in heaven. In some readings of the scripture[Quran: 78:33, 56:22], male martyrs can expect large-breasted virgins awaiting them. No wonder this is perceived as an encouragement.
The promise of heaven immunized people against fear, since many of them honestly believe that a martyr’s death will send them straight to heaven. What a weapon!
Richard Dawkins

Justifying and enforcing laws

In ancient societies, the legal code was often ascribed to the gods. In this way, the arbitrariness of the law is hidden, and questions are avoided.

In a similar vein, a religion can help establish rules of conduct, such as food rules, hygiene rules, or societal rules. Whenever it was too complicated to explain or justify a rule, an appeal to religion could be made. Once a god wants something, no questions are asked. This has been used to establish numerous rules, both intuitive ones (“do not kill”) and less intuitive ones (“the underwear is the most sacred of all things in the world”).

Once a rule is in place, religion can help enforce it: people are much more likely to follow a rule when they believe that someone (even invisible) is watching them104. This effect is amplified when people fear a (supernatural) punishment for not obeying. Religion is thus a potent mechanism to enforce rules. It is not without reason that the Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli recommended the king to foster religious faith in his country, as “a kingdom without the fear of God must fall to pieces”105.

Evolutionary reasons

We have listed several reasons why rulers may have found it convenient to impose a religion upon their subjects. In short, it is easier to rule people who adhere to a shared religion than it is to rule over a society with diverse worldviews. A more effective governance, in turn, may translate into a competitive advantage for the society. 103. For example, in war, a society that believes its warriors will go to Heaven has a competitive advantage over a society that fears death; a society that shares values and procedures is more efficient at reaching its goals that a divided society; a society that believes in transcendence may be more ready to engage in work that will be finished only generations later; a society that believes its laws are sacred may be more inclined to follow them; a society where people are willing to collaborate and share will be more successful than a society filled with distrust; etc. These advantages of religious belief may have nurtured a process of natural selection, where more religious societies prevailed over the less religious ones13104.

The same goes for the individual. Historically, people who were open to religious belief may have been fitter for their environment than the less religious. They may have been less afraid of death, and enjoyed psychosocial comfort through satisfying explanations of the world and a better integration in society. Religious people may also have had better health and higher fertility than comparable groups without strong religious convictions13. While these phenomena do not prove the truth of religious beliefs, they do show how religion has granted an evolutionary advantage to its adherents, which may be one more reason for its existence and proliferation.

Today, the evolutionary advantages of being religious are less evident. It turns out that the most successful societies (in terms of wealth, life expectancy, peacefulness, rule of law, and happiness) are more atheist — a phenomenon that we will explore later on.

The Atheist Bible, next chapter: Following a Religion

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