CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek

Birth of Religions

How are religions born?

A religion cannot come into existence from observation of nature alone. By definition, no scientific principle allows deducing the existence of gods, of certain moral values, or of a supernatural creation myth. This why no two peoples on Earth came up with the same religion by observing the same nature. Also, the overwhelming majority of religions (all except one from a believer’s point of view; all without exception from an atheist’s point of view) are not actually founded by a god. Religions are founded by people.

In the following, we investigate some psychological and natural factors that may lead to the foundation of a religion.

Personifying nature

When this meteorite hit Russia in 2014, even an atheist could consider something supernatural behind it.Aleksandr Ivanov @ Youtube
One of the earliest reasons for religiousness might have been the human desire to understand nature. Early humanity found itself in a hostile and unexplainable environment: rain, storm, and drought swiped over the land; summer and winter brought heat and cold; the sun would disappear and drown the world in darkness every night. In ancient times, these elements had much more power over humans than they have today.

When we speak about the entities of nature, the borderline between the inanimate and animate is actually porous. Watch the following sequence of sentences:

  1. The sun rises everyday.
  2. The sun has the habit of rising every day.
  3. The sun wants to go to the highest point at noon, and hence it rises continuously during the first half of the day.
In this sequence, we have gone from a purely physical description (“the sun rises every day”) to a description that involves intention (“the sun wants something”). The sun has thus received human-like attributes. We have actually personified the sun. From here, it is only a small step to 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 as possible.
  2. The sun gives us light, and hence it is our friend.
In the same way, early peoples personified the moon, the Earth, the stars, and the forces of nature. These entities were attributed human traits. Such attributes are unfalsifiable, in the sense that we cannot prove wrong that the sun has wishes. Such proof is beyond our means of validation. This makes the statements supernatural. Thus, the entities became gods in the literal definition of the word. Becoming a god is not a physical process. It just means that people ascribe supernatural attributes to an entity. Then, the entity fits the definition of a god.

Once it fell down, the meteorite does not look so scary after all.

in the Museum of Chelyabinsk/Russia

At first, the gods were most likely local to one particular mountain, one particular river, or one particular tree. Over time, the gods became more abstract. They were no longer personified visible entities of nature, but personified concepts. People knew the god of love, the goddess of beauty, and the god of war. Later, the gods became even more abstract. Today’s religions know the god of the Universe, or the gods of beginning, maintenance, and end.

Personifying natural entities is a very common phenomenon. We still do it today, read on.

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”

Anthropomorphic fallacy

Early humans personified the entities of nature, thus possibly giving rise to the first supernatural beliefs.

This way of thinking is not restricted to the early humans — even we do it all the time. The tendency to assume a human is called an anthropomorphic fallacy. Once people see patterns, they tend to infuse them with meaning, intention, and agency — a trait that Michael Shermer calls “agenticity”, Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance”, and Justin Barrett calls “hyperactive agent detection”. People always try to ascribe human attributes to things. Children, for example, often give human traits to cuddly toys and to physical objects. Even adults tend to talk about a computer like they talk about a friend. They will say things like “It did not want to read the CD” or “It tried to find the file” — even though a computer has neither desires nor intentions. In general, people tend to suspect that a computer has feelings and intentions — even though it is just a machine that executes an algorithm. This is known as the Eliza effect.

The two triangles, the box, and the circle in the Heider-Simmel experiment
Maybe the clearest example comes from a psychological study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel in the 1940s: People were shown an animation on the computer screen where a small triangle moves around a box, and repeatedly bumps into a larger triangle (see figure). When participants were asked to describe what they saw, nearly all resorted to human descriptions: “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 1.

This shows that people are quick to ascribe human attributes to inanimate things. Quite possibly, this is just the most convenient way to describe the world. It is easier to say “The triangle wants to protect the box” than to explain the pattern of movements of the triangle in terms of their coordinates. Once we use such descriptions for natural entities, it is only a small step to the belief in the supernatural.

Influencing nature

Some religious beliefs stem from a personification of the sun, the moon, and other natural entities.

Once we see the sun as a human-like entity, it is only natural to start talking to it: “Please, sun, come back and give us spring again!” This is, in every sense of the word, a prayer: a monologue with a supernatural (or supernaturally personified) entity. These monologues are not so different from modern prayers: A human talks to a supernatural entity and thinks that the entity listens or responds. Today, we know that the pleas to the sun had no effect. We also know that pleas to the modern gods have no effect. Still, people pray.

People do not just talk to the gods, they also perform rituals to appease them. Ancient people danced rain dances to convince the rain to come, made sacrifices to please the god of war, and asked shamans to talk to the gods to heal an illness. These rituals did little to appease the respective gods, of course. In the very same way, humans today sing to their god, sprinkle water on their babies to connect the babies to their god, light candles, use joss sticks, or circumcise their children. All of these are attempts to please the gods. Today, as in the past, these rituals have no effect on reality. They just give people the illusion that they can influence this world. We discuss later why people continue doing this.

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

Suspecting a mover

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

in the Historical Museum of Copenhagen/Denmark

One of the roots of religions may be the desire to influence nature. Another one may be our tendency to suspect a human mover behind the actions of nature.

Early humans thought, for example, that the sun was drawn across the sky by a chariot. This is only a natural assumption, because people could not understand how the sun would move otherwise. They could have said to each other: “The sun moves across the sky every day. How else could it move, if it were not drawn by a chariot?” — and the idea of the sun god was born. The sun god draws the sun across the sky every day.

In the very same way, people today turn to each other and say “The Earth and the Universe exist. How else could it have come into existence of not by an intelligent being?”. This reasoning is then used to prove the existence of a god.

Both reasonings are, of course, faulty: From the fact that we do not know how a certain thing in nature works, it does not follow that it would work the way that we imagine it. This holds even if we cannot imagine it any other way. Nature is not bound by what we can imagine.

This reasoning is one particular instance of an argument from ignorance. The less ignorance we have, the less likely we are to follow such an argument. Nowadays, we understand that the sun moves across the sky because the Earth turns around the sun. Therefore, there is less room in our thinking for the sun god. In general, the more a person knows about the universe, the less this person is inclined to suspect divine intervention.

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


People have invented human-like supernatural “movers” to explain the events of nature. But some events were still unexplained. For these, people have created stories. Examples from the Abrahamic religions are: In this way, people could explain different things in life coherently. The problem is, of course, that these explanations are not really explanations, in the sense that they do not compress information. If you learn such a story, you know nothing more about the real world than before.

Still today, humans have a tendency to “storify” events, i.e., to connect them into a coherent story with causality, as we have discussed before.

Many religious metaphors see humanity as children who listen to a “teacher”. I kept wondering who this “teacher” could be, until I realized that it is simply the first person who declares themselves so.
The Candid Atheist

Argument from ignorance

Early humans assumed that the sun was moved across the sky by a god. This is because they could not imagine how the sun would move otherwise. This way of thinking is known as an argument from ignorance: from the fact that we do not know how something works, we conclude that it must work the way we imagine it.

This argument is still applied in newer times to prove the existence of gods. Whenever we do not know how something works, we are ready to see it as a proof for the god that we have learned about from our parents. In these cases, the god literally falls from the sky. Here are examples:

Immanuel Kant
The philosopher proves the existence of God in his argument from morality as follows: “It is our duty to promote the highest good; and it is not merely our privilege but a necessity connected with the duty as requisite to presuppose the possibility of this highest good. [The surprise comes here:] This presupposition is made only under the condition of the existence of God, and this condition of the existence of God, and this condition inseparably connects this supposition with duty.” [quoted in Rejection of Pascal / Kant].
William Lane Craig
Craig writes on his Web site on “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.” 2
Hans Küng
The theologician 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.” [translated from Hans Küng: Der Anfang aller Dinge / p.142]
The God of the Gaps an entire category of arguments that use our ignorance to prove the existence of the supernatural. We discuss them in the Chapter on the God of the Gaps.
Such arguments are called “arguments from ignorance”: From the fact that we do not know something, we infer that it must be what we believe it is. This way of thinking is invalid — most notably because different people can believe different things. This is indeed what we observe concerning theological opinions: Everybody is convinced of his view, but nobody has more solid reasons that the other.
“I don’t know, therefore God”
is not a valid argument.

Suspecting intention

We have seen several psychological phenomena that may make people open to religious belief. Yet another one may be our tendency to seek for an intention, or “sense” in our environment. Douglas Adams describes this tendency as follows:
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. 3
This tendency to seek for an intention entices us to believe in some intentional being. We just refuse to believe that the things around us are random.

Veneration for the dead

The previous articles have argued that people started imagining supernatural entities in order to explain the forces of nature. There is another factor that may have led to the imagination of supernatural entities. Starting from around 27,000 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 would rise back to life in Heaven. The East Asian religions tend to believe that the dead become spirits, while the Indian religions assume a rebirth in this universe.

In all of these systems, we find a recurring belief in some form of life after death. This belief might first have stemmed from the continued love for the deceased. When a person dies, it is very hard to accept that that person no longer exists. Many people continue talking in their mind to their deceased family members. This can be a way to cope with the grief. It is also a consequence of our feelings for that person, which do not die when the person dies. Our feelings continue well beyond death. Thus, is it not reasonable to assume that this person continues, too — just in a different way? This is what most religions assume. It also helps to come to terms with our own death: our brain seems hard-wired to always expect and predict the next moment. This process continues to the end of life, and hence, we extrapolate life into death. We have thus invented the afterlife. Once that idea is around, it is obviously attractive: Nobody wants to die. Thus, the belief that there is something after death is comforting. Once a belief is comforting, people are more open to accept it.

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 us 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 life after death. Now, we come to a factor that applies to a much smaller group of people: those who report personal experiences with the supernatural. Such experiences can take several forms: some people believe that a god speaks to them. Other people report a sudden feeling of light and warmth. Again others (whom I have met) report a spiritual experience, but prefer not to talk about it. In their most prominent form, spiritual experiences inspire prophets to found a religion.

Such experiences can have several (natural) reasons:

Many of these spiritual experiences have taken place in the desert. The prophets of the abrahamic religions, e.g., all had their revelations in the desert. Under extreme heat, exhaustion, and dehydration, people can experience hallucinations. Dehydration, in particular, leads to a delirium. Such experiences can then be interpreted as spiritual experiences. This continues until today: “I’ve lived in Israel. It is my experience that anyone who talked to God and got some answers back spent some time living in the desert. Sun-stroke plus a diet of weird plants and scorpions apparently makes God answer the proverbial phone like nothing else.” [Assaph Mehr on]
Mental issues
Different psychological, mental, or physical issues can lead to a psychosis. This is an abnormal condition of the mind that usually involves a loss of contact with reality. A 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 (person believing that he or she has special powers or skills) [ibid]. The causes can be psychiatric disorders (such as schizophrenia or personality disorders), or medical conditions (epilepsy, nutritional deficiency). Temporal lobe seizures, in particular, can produce complex visual hallucinations of people, scenes, and animals. They are associated with hyperreligiosity. This phenomenon is called the Geschwind syndrome. It is not without reason that the ancient Greeks believed that epilepsy brought people in contact with the gods. Such troubles have been proposed as natural reasons for the religious experiences of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Saint Paul.
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 overwhelmed by the historical, cultural, and religious significance of the city that they start believing that God talks to them. This phenomenon is known as the Jerusalem Syndrome.
Feelings of deep happiness, sadness, thankfulness, relief, or other unctuousness can also make people believe that what they experience must be supernatural. Typically, people attribute their experience to the gods of their cultural environment (it is rare, e.g., that a Christian has a religious experience with any of the Hindu gods; or that a Buddhist has an experience with a Wicca god).
People sometimes idealize their past. For example, in SAT tests, students can score between 200 and 800 points. When asked their results a year later, they tend to boost their scores by around 50 points. Interestingly, they are neither lying nor exaggerating. They are simply “enhancing” the result a little — until they start to believe the new score themselves. [Rolf Dobelli: “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, chapter 45, translated by Nicky Griffin] In the same way, the prophets may have enhanced their experiences in retrospect — until they really started believing that they had a supernatural encounter.
When a person starts having religious experiences today, we usually do not take them seriously. New prophets rarely find acceptance. 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 prophets, however, such an experience could lead 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.


Some people report spiritual experiences where a god talked to them. Many of these people certainly acted in good faith — they seriously believed that they interacted with a god. Some people, however, might have reported the spiritual experiences just to assume the role of a prophet for their own benefit.

Adherents usually object to the idea that their own prophet could have been malicious. However, they are usually open to the idea that the prophets of other religions have been malicious. Therefore, we list several prophets here, so that everybody can find one that might have been malicious:

It is likely that the reader will have identified at least one of these prophets as fraudulent (usually of a religion other than their own). This shows that there are cases where a religion may have been founded by fraud. This is one more possibility for the creation of a religion.

Scott Adams
The only evidence that the prophets brought for God
were the voices in their own head.
The Candid Atheist


One more way in which religious stories can evolve is through mythologization, i.e., by converting a real story into a supernatural one.
The first example is taken from Andrew Dickson White’s book “A History of the Warfare of Science with Christendom” (1876). It involves a famous sixteenth century missionary, St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), who spent many years preaching in India, China, and Japan.

After the missionary’s death, stories of his power to perform miracles began to circulate. He was supposed to be able to cure the sick, raise the dead, turn sea water into fresh, and call fire down from heaven. There was even the fantastic story of how after having lost his crucifix at sea, it was miraculously returned to him by a crab.

Perhaps the most remarkable, and certainly the most useful, miracle ascribed to Francis Xavier was the gift of tongues. It was claimed that he spoke to various tribes with ease in their own languages. The legend was further developed to the point where it was claimed that when he addresses various native tribes at the same time, each heard the same sermon in their own native language! When this proselytizer was canonized (i.e. made a saint) seventy years after his death, the bull of canonization laid great stress on the new saint’s gift of tongues.

The problem with all these stories about Xavier’s gift of tongues is that we know that they are untrue. Throughout his missionary journeys, he and his fellow missionaries wrote many letters to friends and associates. Many of these are still extant today. In none of his letters do we find any reference to the numerous miracles attributed to him. In fact, throughout his letters he constantly referred to the difficulties he faces in the communication of his faith to the different tribes. He tells how he surmounted these difficulties: sometimes by learning just enough of a language to translate the main formulas of the church; by soliciting help from others to patch together some teachings for natives to learn by rote; by a mixture of various dialects; by using sign language; and by using interpreters. Xavier actually relates how, on one occasion, his voyage to China was delayed because his interpreter he had hired for the mission had failed to meet him. It is therefore clear that the miracles attributed to this missionary never happened. But references by Francis Xavier in his letters to the actual situation was quickly forgotten and popular memory had placed the mythological and legendary elements on center stage. 4

We may think that such strange mystifications happened only hundreds of years ago. Yet, that is not true. Here is a second, nearly contemporary example:
Mircea Eliade, in his book “Cosmos and History” (New York 1959) relates the story behind a legend from a small village in Maramureș, Romania. The legend tells the tale of a young suitor who was bewitched by a fairy, who threw him off a cliff a few days before he was to be married. His body was discovered by some shepherds, who took it back to the village. Upon arrival his fiance spontaneously broke into a beautiful funeral lament.

When a folklorist discovered that the story had only taken place about forty years ago, and that the heroine was till alive, he inquired from her regarding the legend. Her description differs substantially from the popular legend. She described a commonplace tragedy. There was no fairy and no spontaneous funeral lament. Her lover slipped off a cliff but did not die immediately. He was taken back to the village where he soon died. She participated in the funeral rites which included the customary ritual lamentations.

The collective memory of the village has stripped the story of all historical details and has embellished it with mythical elements. Amazingly, when the folklorist reminded the villagers of the authentic version, they repudiated it and insisted that the old woman’s mind and was destroyed by her grief. 4

In this example, a legend with a fairy and a miracle sprung up in a few years after the event — even while the protagonist was still alive. People had more trust in the legend than the protagonist herself. This shows how easily a supernatural legend can be created in spite of evidence to the contrary. Remarkably, these legends appeared not in prehistoric times, but at a time when writing and science were already known. We may assume that such myths evolved much easier when this was not the case.

Indeed, human history abounds of such myths. Some of the better known myths are:

Lady Godiva riding naked through the streets of Coventry to make a point against high taxes. Sadly, this event never happened. John Collier
In all of these cases, someone in the chain of hear-say started adding supernatural, magic, or simply false elements to a story. These elements were picked up and proliferated, giving rise to a conviction that something supernatural happened. We can easily illustrate this process in games of Chinese whispers: information gets quickly changed as it passes through different people. Now imagine this process taking place not between 5 friends, but between hundreds of people, over several centuries, and over different languages. This is one more way in which religious beliefs can be born. Some of these legends are shared by several different peoples across the globe — indicating that they stem from a time when these peoples still inhabited the same spot 5.

Perhaps surprisingly, humanity has still not overcome this tendency to mystify.

Mythologization today

One might think that the creation of myths belongs to the past. And yet, even today people are good at creating myths. Here is an example of a myth that I followed in the news:
The mysterious monk Die Welt: Unbekannter Kampfmönch jagt Kindern Angst ein, 2014-07-04
Rottweil is a small city in the South West of Germany. In 2014, a strange creature started appearing in the parks: A man clothed like a monk (pictured). Wherever he appeared, people got scared and ran away. Pupils had nightmares. One girl had to be hospitalized. Some people said the creature had a knife. Finally, even traces of blood were seen. Soon, the creatures was dubbed “the war monk”. More and more sightings were reported. The police investigated. 6

As it turns out, there was no war monk. There was simply a guy who dressed up as a figure from the video game “Assassin’s creed”. He turned himself in to the police the very same day. There was no knife and no blood. Contrary to reports, he just 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. 7

Other examples abound: Reality and fiction get mixed up in urban legends, and still scare people. Popular (but wrong) stories are:

A study on Facebook comes to the conclusion that even if they are baseless, conspiracy theories spread rapidly within communities. [...] Facebook users tend to choose and share stories containing messages they accept, and to neglect those they reject. [Furthermore] on Facebook, efforts to debunk false beliefs are typically ignored — and when people pay attention to them, they often strengthen their commitment to the debunked beliefs 8. One example is the beatification of Mother Teresa, an Albanian nun who worked for charity in India. For beatification, the Catholic Church requires a miracle. An Indian woman was found who was healed from cancer by praying to Mother Teresa. Even though the treating doctor insisted that the woman did not have cancer, and even though her husband explained that she was healed by conventional means, the Vatican still declared it a miracle, and went on with the beatification.

Thus, even today, legends can grow and spread. Imagine how much simpler this was in a a society where people could not read and relied mainly on oral tradition. Stories about the supernatural could emerge very easily.

Proliferation of Religions

How do religions spread?

We have seen that religious beliefs can be born from several phenomena — including spiritual experiences, a personification of nature, the desire to influence nature, or veneration for the dead. Now the question is how these beliefs spread from the people who first had them to other people.

A scientific idea can be developed independently by two different peoples. For example, different human societies figured out how to make iron, even though they did not know of each other. Several people have invented the telephone independently of each other. This is possible because a scientific theory is a description of nature. Since nature is the same everywhere, science is the same everywhere. Religion works differently. By definition, a supernatural belief has no reference in nature. Therefore, the same religious belief is rarely developed independently by several people. It is unlikely that two people come up with the same concept and name for the Sun god, for example. Likewise, people in India do not by themselves start to revere Jesus. They do so only if missionaries go there. Religious beliefs spread exclusively by human communication. They spread from one geographical region to another by people who travel there, and who share the new religion. 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


We have seen that the same religious concept cannot spontaneously arise in different places of the world. It has to be propagated by people. One of the simplest ways in which this can happen is through hear-say: People hear about stories and propagate them. Sometimes the stories change on the way.

We have seen several examples for hear-say propagation in the discussion about myths.


We have seen several ways in which a person can be convinced of the supernatural. Once someone is convinced that the supernatural exists, it is only natural that he wants to share this discovery with his peers. And so he goes and preaches his beliefs to others.

The person may believe that his religion leads him to paradise (or a comparable postmortal state), and that not believing leads to hell (or any analogon thereof). Then, this person has a true desire to “save” his friends and family from hell, and help them reach paradise. Sometimes, the duty to preach the faith is also part of the religion itself. Jehova’s witnesses, for example, are known for their extensive proselytizing efforts.

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 the 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 friends go to hell unless they become believers, then it is only natural that this person will proselytize them. However, there may also be more selfish cases of proselytism. These are cases where the believer has a material or social advantage from converting others to the faith.

Examples are:
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 ( 9; 10; 11). In Africa, followers of so-called super-pastors make tithes and other offerings in hope of winning blessings from on high 12. Some pastors have accumulated a wealth in the order of 150 million USD. 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 $9.3m in cash into South Africa, supposedly a payment for an arms deal on behalf of the Nigerian government [ibid]. Other pastors get rich on the tithes: “You tithe, he blesses. You keep the tithe, the curse is initiated” 13. Some of the more enterprising priests sell miracles. Blessed ballpoint pens help you pass exams. Miracle bricks will help you acquire your own home. [ibid] 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 in the hope of forgiveness for their sins, enlightenment, or spiritual purification. This generates a considerable income for the places that are visited. Here are examples: Africans who visited Temitope Balogun Joshua’s Christian services in Nigeria each spent 1700 USD upwards during their visit 12. Muslims who visit Mecca for the pilgrimage of Hajj easily pay around 5000 USD for the trip 14. In the early 2000s, pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy (the mystic saint Padre Pio’s pilgrimage site) brought the town in 57 million USD in revenue 15. Some 90 percent of Lourdes’ $23 million budget is derived from visitor donations [ibid]. In total, pilgrimage tourism is worth up to 8 billion USD a year globally [ibid]. This money comes from donations, but it is also spent in 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 religion that lend their support to these pilgrimage sites. They will try to keep up the myth that people were purified, or that actual healings took place.
Scientology recruiters
Scientology is a new religious movement, which lets new adherents pay a fee to receive the necessary preaching, training, or material. This fee is usually in the thousands of dollars. People who recruit new members get a commission of this fee. The organization 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”. 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.”. Indeed, the tax-exempt status of Scientology was revoked in 1958 on the grounds that “the founder of the organisation L. Ron Hubbard remains in complete control and receives substantial remuneration and perquisites both from the taxpayer and a network of affiliates”. In this case, the founder also had a direct financial interest in spreading his religion.
The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church is one particular denomination of Christianity. In the past, the church owned huge portions of land, and acted de facto as a feudal lord (see my trip to Arequipa). This land got confiscated in secular revolutions between 1789 and 1850. However, still today, the church is a multi billion dollar organization. The American Catholic Church alone spent 170 billion USD in 2010 on healthcare, schools and parishes. The Vatican Bank manages 700 million Euros of equity which it owns. It keeps gold reserves worth over 20 million USD with the US Federal Reserve. Money flows in from individual donations from Catholics, 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 in North America, meaning each week the Catholic Church pulls in $850m through donations from individual Catholics. 1617. The American branch of the Catholic Church spends several millions of dollars to victims of sex scandals 18, and several millions of dollars just disappear 19. Both Catholic and Protestant churches together own around 500 billion euros — just in Germany 20. If people stop believing in the message of the Church, this system will no longer work. Now 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 have a material interest that their adherents continue to pray and pay.
Ancient preachers
In many ancient religions, preachers took care of the believers. These were priests in the early Abrahamic cults, Shahmans in central Asia and America, and the Brahmins in India. In most cases, these preachers lived on the goods that the believers sacrificed. 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 that the people continued doing this. In fact, they were probably the ones who wrote this passage in the first place 21. Thus, preachers had an interest that people continued believing. The same is true for the priests of ancient Egypt, who asked people to give sacrifices so that the River Nile would flood. Of course, the River Nile floods annually anyway.
Current preachers
Still today, preachers take care of the believers in many religions. In Christianity, these are priests. In Islam, these are Imams. In Hinduism, these are preachers. Tribal religions usually have shamans. In many other religions, there exist analogous roles. In some cases, the preachers are sent deliberately to spread the faith (they are called missionaries). All of these people have a position of power over the believers: Depending on the denomination, they can have access to the confessions of adherents, forgive sins, celebrate weddings, declare fatwas, advise adherents, interpret the holy sources, tell them when or whom to marry, and hold sermons. Most importantly, they hold the authority to decide what is good and what is bad according to divine will. In most cases, the job also comes with a position of respect in the society of believers. In some variants of Judaism, rabbis are chauffeured in black Cadillacs and have private ritual baths built into their opulent homes [Deborah Feldman: Unorthodox]. In Raelism, adherents are asked to give a percentage of their income to their leader. Therefore, the preacher has a personal interest in maintaining and increasing the number of believers. If people stop believing, the preacher loses his societal position. 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 live on donations from the 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.
In all of these cases, the people who spread the religion have a personal benefit from increasing the number of adherents. Therefore, they have one more reason to spread the faith. This is not to say that this would be the only reason. The people might as well have altruistic motives. However, the material advantage could be one of the motivations.

This form of proselytism is one more way in which a religion can be spread.

It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.
Mark Twain


Progressive Secular Humanist
We have seen that a religion can spread only by transmission from one person to another one (or by books or movies or any other type of human communication). One way in which this happens is through the education of children. Children learn from their parents. If the parents are religious, the children will learn religion from them. 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 just trust your parents. And this is a good thing from an evolutionary perspective: Children don’t have to redo by themselves all the experiences that humanity has made through its existence; the children just learn them from their parents. 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. You never verify whether crocodiles really eat humans, and you never verify whether there is really a god — you just believe (Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion). In this way, religious thought becomes part of our mindset. Supernatural theories are mingled with natural theories and sometimes it is hard to spot the difference. In particular, religious theories can never be proven wrong by experience, because they are not falsifiable. Nobody can ever find out if they are wrong. Therefore, they continue unchallenged through the generations.

In many countries, the transmission of the religion is part of the state-sponsored educational system. In Japan, there are many Christian schools and universities with mandatory religious education. In Finland religious education is mandatory subject both in comprehensive schools (7-16 years) and in senior/upper secondary schools (16-18/19 years). In Germany, most states teach Christianity in public schools. In Greece, students at Greek Orthodox schools typically learn the basics of the Greek Orthodox faith. In Poland, children typically learn about Catholicism in school. In Romania, a majority of religious classes focus on the Romanian Orthodox faith. In Turkey, the state ensures that children are first exposed to accepted interpretations of Islam before exposing them to other religious teachings. In the United States, religious education is often provided through supplementary “Sunday school”, “Hebrew school”, catechism classes, etc. . In the UK, the law requires that “each pupil in attendance at a community, foundation or voluntary school shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship” of a “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” for community schools . In all of these countries, children are taught religious concepts at young age. Since the religious classes usually stand side by side with the secular classes, children cannot see the difference between the two. They are thus led to accept religious concepts as part of their world view.

In most religions, the transmission to the children is part of the religious system itself, and it ensures the proliferation of the religion.

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


We have seen different ways in which a religion can proliferate. One more way in which a religion can spread is societal domination. This happens whenever a group of adherents of one religion becomes dominant in a society — for example if that group invades the society in a 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 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. Christians and Jews under Muslim rule had to pay a special tax. While these people could still theoretically stay with their previous religion, the tax increased the incentive to convert to Islam.
Christian domination
Christianity has a long history of violent expansion in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Still today, the Christian nations have a dominating role in the world. They no longer force people to convert to Christianity, but they 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. This does not directly spread Christianity, but it makes its concepts and philosophy known to a large audience. For example, we can assume that a random middle class person in India is more likely to know who Jesus is than a random middle class person in the US to know who Shiva is.
Dominating religion
In general, the dominating religion of a country has some advantages over the other ones. Implicitly, the dominating religion is understood as the norm, which defines the morality, the world view, and the social codes of the society. Anyone who differs from that norm has to explain themselves. They may encounter suspicion or discrimination. For Christianity, this phenomenon is known as the “Christian Privilege”. Such a dominance does not directly convert others to the prevalent religion, but gives that religion an advantage if ever someone considers changing their religion.
Restrictive laws
Still today, some countries recognize only a handful of religions. Indonesia demands that people declare themselves as one out of six religions; Egypt’s draft constitution makes room for only three faiths; 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 teach. Technically, this forces nobody to adhere to any of these religions. However, if you don’t, you risk having trouble when you ask for your passport, want to marry, have your religion on equal footing in schools, or receive other 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 by domination. State Atheism, e.g., installed atheism by force in some communist countries. In some cases, people were physically forced to abandon their religion. In other cases, people could still theoretically believe what they wanted, but religious symbols, authorities, and teachings were removed from society. This gives an advantage to atheism. Still today, fundamentalist interpretations of religions are usually frowned upon in Western Europe. The general culture edges people away from literal interpretations of their faith.

Imposition of Religions


There are several ways in which people can come to hold religious beliefs. One of them is imposition from above: people are just forced to adhere to a specific religion by the authorities or higher classes of the country. This was maybe most obvious in medieval Europe, when basically everybody had to be Christian. Abandoning Christianity was persecuted as heresy. The Catholic Inquisition tortured and killed thousands of people in an effort to convert them to Christianity — in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Little changed after the wars between Protestantism and Catholicism in the 16th century: It was agreed that every region would follow the religion of its leader. This de facto imposed a religious denomination on the citizen. Still today, religion is sometimes imposed from above, most notably in some Muslim countries. In such places, people who wish to leave the religion risk death. Such a system makes all underlings adherents of the religion and thus spreads the religious thought to these people.

There are several reasons why the ruling classes of a country may find it convenient to make their subordinates follow a particular religion, and we discuss them in the following.

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 Inka rulers clearly identifies the sun and the moon as the parents of the first king.

in the de Osma Museum in Lima/Peru

The leaders of countries can have several motivations for imposing a religion. One motivation is to justify their own rule through the divine. Here are examples:
Chinese Mandate of Heaven
In China, the emperors had a “Mandate of Heaven”, which gave them divine right to rule. According to this belief, heaven bestows its mandate to a just ruler, the Son of Heaven . Thus, the emperor had an interest in his subjects’ religiosity.
Japanese Emperor
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. 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 a descendant of the gods, though 22.
Inka Kingdoms
In the Inka empire, the king was assumed to be the son of the Sun god (see picture). In order for the population to accept this reasoning, the population has to believe in these gods.
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. 23
Medieval Kingdoms
In medieval Europe, the kings usually declared that they were installed by God. This was based on the Bible, which declares that any government was 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.
Today’s Monarchies
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 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
The pope, likewise, derives his power directly from Jesus (who is, in the Christian faith, divine) 24. 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” 24. He “hold[s] upon this earth the place of God Almighty” 25.
Such identification of the ruler with the divine makes the people believe that their ruler is not a normal human, but in a different category altogether. If they ever come to see that their leader is a normal human, they will ask why the leader is not a different human — or why they themselves could not rule just as well. This happened in the early republics (Switzerland among them), where people ruled themselves. To avoid this, the kings in the other places had an interest that his underlings believed his story of his divine provenance. 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 Corea. 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” / p. 299

Unholy alliances

Political leaders may find it convenient to impose religion for a number of reasons. In some cases, the worldly leader makes a deal with the religious leader in order to cement each other’s authority.

Examples are:

Render unto Cesar
Jesus 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 to justify the rule of the state authorities, and to tell people to pay their taxes. A church that tells people to pay their taxes is very useful to the government. Furthermore, the Bible tells Christians to obey the government (Bible / Romans 13:1-7). Consequently, the government will be very happy to promote this religion. Thus, this rule is a win-win deal for the church and the government. The analogon in Hinduism is the idea that kings are sanctified, and that they get a 6th of every income 26. Again, a king who supports this religion is in a win-win situation.
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity
Constantine the Great was a Roman emperor who converted to Christianity around 313 CE. He set out to decriminalize Christianity, to establish Christianity 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. He might have used Christianity to consolidate his power, he might have sought the help of the Christian God as the most powerful among many gods, or he might have genuinely believed in Christianity (2728). No matter which motives played a role, Christianity did help Constantine consolidate his power, because he assumed a divine mandate for his reign. For his Christian subjects, Constantine becomes the embodiment of the righteous king David. And once he consolidates his power by conquering [...] also the Greek East where there are many more Christians [...], he is in this amazing position of having a theology of government that he can use to consolidate his own secular power. And it works both ways. The bishops now have basically federal funding to have sponsored committee meetings so they can try to iron out creeds and get everybody to sign up. 29
Confucianism was the state religion of China until Communism arrived. This was convenient for both sides, because Confucianism teaches loyalty to the authorities (Confucius: Analects / 17:8) — a principle known as Zhong.
The Reichskonkordat is a treaty between the Holy See and Germany negotiated during its transition into Nazi Germany. The treaty guarantees the rights of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. At the same time, it requires bishops to take an oath of loyalty to the Governor or President of the German Reich. The treaty was ratified in 1933 and remains in force to this day. It is clear that this treaty works both ways: On the one hand, it consolidates the power of a religious organization in a country (guaranteeing, e.g., religious teaching in state-funded schools). On the other, it makes sure that religious leaders will not openly oppose the government. Reportedly, the only high-rank Nazi official that was ever excommunicated by the Catholic Church was Joseph Goebbels — for marrying a Protestant woman (Christopher Hitchens: God is not great / p. 288).
Ottoman Empire
Religious classes were a core member of the Ottoman nobility and a key element of the central and provincial administration. They were 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. The Ottoman Empire is thus a good example of a kind of religious/political equilibrium. 23
In all of these cases, the worldly leaders had an interest in spreading and imposing the religion, because it consolidated their power. 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.

Oppressing lower classes

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 class. Disadvantaged people (such as the poor, the slaves, or women) can be made to believe that their role is foreseen by the gods. People who suffer can be made to believe that they will be rewarded in the hereafter. In this way, people will not ask questions. They are also discouraged to revolt, because a revolt against the societal order would be a revolt against the divine order. In this way, the religion provides a way to cement the social status quo.

Here are examples:

Christian Slavery
From 1619 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, hundreds of thousands of Africans were brought to North America into slavery. Over time, the slaves were introduced to the Christian faith. Many believed Christianity was a good form of social control over slaves 30, because it justified slavery. For the slave-holding class, the Bible was very important for them as a warrant for what they understood to be their right to own slaves, to own people. And they preached it that way, that the Bible says that they were to be slaves, they were to be obedient slaves, that that was God’s will. 31 Preachers told their slave converts that they owed absolute obedience to their owners, just as they did to God. This worked to the slaves’ disadvantage, on the whole, as religion offered support for punishment of slaves’ misdeeds. The cruelty of slave owners was much less likely to be punished, nor did the missionaries question the justice of the slaveholding system. Anglican missionaries worked especially hard to ensure that their religion supported the orderly, hierarchical world of slave labor, meeting the needs of their white planter supporters. 32 However, Biblical stories of Moses freeing the Jews also inspired the slaves in their quest for freedom. Several preachers, most notably the Quakers, held that slavery was inhumane and against the will of God. In 1965, only 100 years after the American Civil War ended slavery in the US, the Second Vatican Council also condemned slavery. Islam, too, was (and sometimes is) used to justify slavery.
The Hindu Caste System
In India, the society was (and, to some degree, is) stratified into “castes”, i.e., social classes that each come with certain privileges and duties. This system is based on a Hindu legend, which says that “the social classes of people emerge from a primordial being. From the mouth come the Brahmans — the priests and teachers. From the arms come the Kshatriyas — the rulers and soldiers. From the thighs come the Vaisyas — merchants and traders. From the feet come the Sudras — laborers. A fifth group describes the people who are “untouchable”. These untouchables are outcasts — people considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings” 33 34. They are not allowed to eat or sit with other people, they have no access to the public properties and resources of villages (wells, ponds, temples, etc.), and they are often kept in bonded labor. The Laws of Manu specify that hurting a person from the higher caste carries a penalty of 100 years in hell 35. Furthermore, the lower castes can be punished by amputation or execution, while the highest caste is immune to this. It is clear that this stratification benefits the higher caste. Thus, the higher castes had an interest in imposing this variant of Hinduism. Today, discrimination based on caste is illegal in India, and it is disputed to what degree the caste system can be justified on religious grounds.
Women’s rights in Islam
In all mainstream interpretations of Islam, women had and have less rights than men. Women cannot marry non-Muslims, while men can (Quran 5:5); men can have several wives while women cannot have several husbands (Quran 4:3); men are ordained as the “keepers” of women, and women are required to be obedient (Quran 4:34); men can beat their wives if they are not obedient (Quarn 4:34); men can use women as sexual slaves (Quran 23:1-11; 70:29-30); men can have sex with their wives whenever they want (Quran 2:223); and a woman’s word weights half of that of a man in court (Quran 2:282). It is clear that these rulings benefit men. Thus, men had an interest in keeping up this belief system. Today, these interpretations are disputed.
In all of these cases, religion was or is used to justify the oppression of certain social classes. Today, it is disputed whether this oppression is really the true interpretation of the respective religion or not. Many people will argue that it is not. This does not change the fact that the ruling classes found it useful to spread their particular interpretation of the religion in order to subdue the other social classes.


Leaders can have several motivations to impose a religion. One more reason is that a religion can implant common values and beliefs in a society. This way, the religion can unify a people culturally and intellectually. It is thus not without reason that, in his book “Il Principe”, Niccolò Machiavelli recommends the king to foster religious faith in his country.

Kings strove for religious unity in their lands, regarding it as the foundation of political unity. They thus came to equate orthodoxy with obedience and religious dissent with rebellion.[...] Those inhabitants 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. 23.

Examples are:

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. 23
Other European countries
Modern European nations were [...] were built upon the principle that a crucial cement holding states together consisted of a shared religion, and that religious division undermined social and political unity, if only because religious dissenters were perceived as potential traitors. [K]ings strove for religious unity in their lands, regarding it as the foundation of political unity. [...] The varieties of confessional 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. 23
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 was to gain wide significance much later and exert 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 a religious elite and used Islam in order to consolidate a Saudi national identity, and thereby reinforce its own legitimacy. 23
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 they 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. 23
The United States
The US is officially a secular country. Its constitution says the state may not interfere with religion. However, in the wake of the cold war, the phrase “In God we trust” became an official motto of the US, in an effort to distinguish the country as a Christian nation from the atheist socialist world.
State religions Smurfy @ Wikipedia
Muslim Countries
Recent history offers us examples (Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Iraq) showing that political rulers use 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. 23
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

Priests 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. Several factors can work in this direction:

A religion can be used to create a common identity of the people, and to create an us-versus-them feeling. Identification with one’s country is the crucial ingredient for a war, because otherwise people would not know how to distinguish friends and foes. Still today, a large part of wars is fought along religious lines.
Ethical justification
Religion holds the claim to the highest ethical authority. This means that if a religious leader justifies a war, then his adherents will have no moral scruples 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 soldiers to go to war . More recently, 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 the soldiers. The 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 to use religion for wars is to promise heaven to those fighters who die. This strategy has been used extensively in the Crusades, where victims were celebrated as martyrs. The strategy was and is also used in Islam. The Quran grants people who die for the cause of Islam a place in heaven. Male martyrs get large-breasted virgins, according to Quran 78:33 and 56:22. No wonder this is perceived as an encouragement. As Richard Dawkins has argued, “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!”.
As Jared Diamond has argued: 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 or resisting attacks. The belief in a common religion thus gives the society a Darwinian advantage over other societies — which can help explain why all societies that are in existence today know religion.

Justifying Laws

Rulers have several reasons to love religion. One reason is that the religion can be used to justify the moral code of the society. 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. The fact that the laws are arbitrary was maybe one of the best kept secrets of the rulers.

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 reasonable ones (“do not kill”) and idiotic ones.

Philosophy: while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be.
Bertrand Russel
The Atheist Bible, next chapter: Following a Religion


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  2. Reasonable Faith / God and the Flying Spaghetti Monster
  3. Douglas Adams: Parrots, the Universe and Everything
  4. Pascal’s wager / The Oral Tradition
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  21. / 14
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  25. Pope Leo XIII: Praeclara Gratulationis Publicae, 1894
  26. Laws of Manu / 2 / 302 - 308
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  28. BBC / Christianity and the Roman Empire
  29. Shaye I.D. Cohen: Legitimization Under Constantine
  30. Thoughts of a Living Christian: Christianization of African Slaves, 2012-05-20
  31. National Public Radio: Why Did African Slaves Adopt the Bible?, 2007-01-24
  32. / Slavery and African American Religion
  33. National Geographic: Discrimination against India’s lowest Hindu castes, 2003
  34. Laws of Manu / 1 / 87-91
  35. Laws of Manu / 11 / 207