The Atheist Bible, CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek


Hoax Mails

In this chapter, we will analyze how religions survive throughout the ages. For this, we will use a rather daring comparison: We will argue that religions survive in a society much like hoax emails do.

A hoax mail is one that warns of a non-existent threat. One example is the “Olympic Torch” email, which was sent around in 20061:

You should be alert during the next days: Do not open any message with an attached file called “Invitation”, regardless of who sent it.

It is a virus that opens an Olympic Torch which “burns” the whole hard disc C of your computer. This virus will be received from someone who has your e-mail address in his/her contact list, that is why you should send this e-mail to all your contacts. It is better to receive this message 25 times than to receive the virus and open it.

This is the worst virus announced by CNN, it has been classified by Microsoft as the most destructive virus ever. This virus was discovered by McAfee yesterday, and there is no repair yet for this kind of virus.

This virus simply destroys the Zero Sector of the Hard Disc, where the vital information is kept.

This email warned of a virus, but the virus did not actually exist. Nevertheless, fearful and well-intentioned users sent the email around by the millions. Why is this?

The email has several elements that made it so successful:

This section will argue that religions work in much the same way: They warn of an inexistent danger (i.e., hell or its variants) and ask people to propagate the message. In the same way that we have just analyzed what makes a hoax email successful, we will now analyze what makes a religion successful.


In everyday language, the word meme usually refers to an Internet meme — a captioned picture or video that is spread widely through social media2. However, the word predates the Internet, and was coined in 1976 by the British biologist (and militant atheist) Richard Dawkins3. In its original meaning, a meme is an idea (or, in our terminology, a statement or set of statements) that spreads from person to person2. A hoax email is only one type of meme; a meme can also be a belief (such as “There exists a male and a female god”), a moral value (such as “Two women should not marry”), or a rite (such as “Every Sunday I go to church”). In this way, a religion can be understood as a collection of memes about the supernatural, moral values, rites, etc.

The word meme was intended to resemble the word gene. In the very same way that a gene is hosted by a living being, a meme is “hosted” in the minds of one or more individuals. Memes and genes also undergo very similar processes:

Passing on
Both genes and memes can be passed on. For genes, this happens through reproduction, with the genes passing from parent to offspring. For memes, this happens through sharing from person to person. A hoax email, for example, is passed on as recipients forward it to other people. A religious meme can be passed on through education or proselytism. For example, children in Abrahamic households learn from their parents that there is one God, and will likely go on to pass this belief down to their own children.
Both genes and memes can be modified. For genes, this happens through mutation, as we have already seen. For memes, this mutation happens as the meme merges with others or changes over time, whether on purpose or by happenstance. Similarly, a hoax email can be modified by a receiver before forwarding it, or it can exist in multiple versions. Internet advertisers, for example, use hundreds of different versions of a Facebook post in order to determine which one has the best survival rate4. In the same way, religious memes can be modified. For example, Jesus Christ modified the perception of the god of Judaism by declaring himself the son of God[Bible: Matthew 16:15–17]. Once a mutation of a religious meme becomes too different from its original version, it ignites a new denomination or a new religion. In our example above, the modification introduced by Jesus (as well as later modifications introduced by Saint Paul and others) gradually changed the Jewish belief system until it became a separate religion called Christianity. Such splits have happened several times in history, most notably in the succession of the Abrahamic religions.
Both genes and memes can die out. For genes, this happens if the host does not reproduce. For memes, this happens if the host does not succeed in transmitting the meme to another person, or if the other person does not accept the meme. Most hoax emails, for example, die out after a few months, once all receivers either refuse to forward it or have already fallen victim to it. For religious memes, we observe that hundreds of religions have died out in this way, from the religion of the Aztecs to the religion of the Ancient Romans or the religions of the Mesopotamians. In some cases, adherents were prevented from passing on their faith, or were outright killed (as in the case of the Aztecs). In other cases, another religion gradually superseded the other one (as in the case of the Ancient Romans).
It is important to note that both genes and memes are abstract entities, not individual animals or persons. So, when we say that a meme survives, we do not mean that some person survives, but that a particular thought, email, rite, or belief survives through the generations. Much like an animal is only the host of a gene, a person is only the host of a meme.

Genes and memes themselves are not agents. They do not actively modify themselves and do not intentionally strive to survive. Rather, they are phenomena that undergo modification and that may, by virtue of these modifications, continue to exist (or not). Genes are modified by mutation; memes are modified by people. This can happen purposefully, such as when a hacker designs a new hoax email based on another one, or when a religious authority takes a decision in a matter of theology (the trinity of the Christian god, for example, was decided by the Council of Constantinople in 360 CE). It can also happen gradually, such as when a meme is dismissed or ignored with increasing frequency (such as the tradition of animal sacrifice during Eid al-Adha among Muslims in the Western world) or when a meme rises in popularity (such as the stigmatization of caste discrimination in Hinduism).

Religiosity doesn’t seem to be in the genes. It should rather be treated as a cultural phenomenon. It can spread, trend, but also decline.

Meme Selection

As we now know, a meme is a set of statements that gets passed on from person to person. In this process, a meme can give rise to several slight modifications of itself. For example, the Abrahamic religious meme “Be fruitful and multiply” (first found in the Hebrew Bible[Bible: Genesis 1:28]) may inspire modified memes such as:
  1. “You shall have as many children as possible”,
  2. “You shall have one child”,
  3. “You shall have no children”,
as well as many other variations.

Some of these variations will be passed on successfully, while others will not. In the example above, the meme “you shall have as many children as possible” will likely result in the production of many children. These children will be raised within and follow the given religion, and most likely abide by the meme themselves. In this way, each subsequent generation will have more religious believers than the previous one. This is the strategy of the Abrahamic religions: They encourage adherents to produce many children, thereby securing the religions’ survival.

The meme “you shall have no children”, in contrast, is not likely to result in the production of any children. In this example, there would be no next generation to pass on the meme, or, in fact, any memes of the religion. In this way, the main method of finding new adherents would be proselytism. There is indeed a religious denomination that prohibits procreation — the Shakers5. If the mainstream Abrahamic religions and the Shaker religion were to be examined side by side, one would postulate that after a few generations there would be more adherents of the Abrahamic religions than of the Shaker religion. This is indeed what happened. As of 2023, the Shaker religion has only two adherents6.

The religions that we have today are a small fraction of all religions that have existed throughout human history. The ones that we are left with have survived because they have more effectively adapted to attract and hold the allegiance of many people.
Armin Navabi in “Why there is no god”

Meme Design

One way to think about religious memes is to imagine that they have been deliberately designed to survive. For example, it is widely believed that the founder of Scientology deliberately constructed his religion so that it would expand quickly. In particular, Scientology pays members a reward if they manage to attract a new member.

In other cases, memes may have evolved through natural selection, in which only the most well-adapted memes survived. For example, in Roman times, the land of Israel was home to many preachers of different religious convictions. Among these, Jesus Christ stood out and his message became the foundation of a world religion. We can hypothesize that, in addition to his personal charisma, several elements made his message more successful than that of the other preachers: Jesus explicitly taught his adherents to spread the faith, he had an attractive vision of an imminent coming of God, he proposed the concept of an eternal hell, and he taught his adherents that they were all loved by God. While these elements might have made his message appealing, it is unlikely that Jesus designed them deliberately in an effort to make his ideology spread more effectively. (If his goal had really been to spread his message as far as possible, he would have avoided the confrontation with the Roman authorities that led to his execution.) Rather, for all we can tell, Jesus taught his message because he really believed in it. We can thus hypothesize that some memes were designed deliberately with the aim of proliferating the religion, while others arose naturally and merely happened to proliferate the religion as a side-effect.

If someone deliberately designs a meme with the spread of the religion in mind, then this meme cannot be God-given. Hence, someone who designs a meme and then claims it to be divine is malicious. Since the following descriptions of memes may sound as if they were designed deliberately, it may appear as if we are reproaching maliciousness to the prophets and believers. This is, however, not the case. During our analysis, we will not care whether a particular meme was designed to facilitate the spread of the religion or whether it came about naturally. We will just note where a meme exists and analyze its effect on the survival of a religion.

The story of Hank

James Huger tells a story that exemplifies some of the memes that religions have developed. The story is called “Kissing Hank’s Ass”, and we give a summary here:
Two adherents of Hank knock at the door of a stranger. The “Hankites” explain that Hank is a philanthropist who wants to give everyone one million dollars. However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that there are many conditions attached. The basic requirements are that everyone must kiss the ass of Hank. Furthermore, everyone must live according to Hank’s rules, which are a mixture of common sense and esoteric dietary guidance. Of course, no-one is actually allowed to see Hank and people will only get the million dollars after they have left town. Unfortunately, Hank’s rules forbid people who have left town from communicating with those in town, so people still in town must take everything on faith. People who decline Hank’s generous offer will get the shit kicked out of them by Hank while his loyal followers laugh and enjoy the spectacle.
This story sounds patently absurd. Nobody would follow the religion of Hank because Hank promises lots of things but allows nobody to verify them. And yet, the world religions work in much the same way. They also promise many things but allow nobody to verify or criticise them. These are only two of the strategies that religions have developed over time. We will now discuss these and many of the others.

Meme Theories

We will now look into those religious memes that have been particularly successful. Not all religions have each of these memes, and so our hypothesis is not that every religion will have all of these memes, but rather that the presence of a meme within a given religion can help to explain how said religion prevailed over time. More precisely, the theory for each of these memes is:
If we compare a religion with this meme and a religion without this meme (but that is otherwise identical), then the former will more successfully replicate over generations.
For each meme examined we will note the religions that use it and those that do not. We will examine nearly all religions that currently have more than 10 million adherents: Hinduism, Spiritualism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Islam, Taoism, Christianity, and the Bahai Faith. For Spiritualism, we will consider only its most visible denomination, Spiritism. For Christianity, we will occasionally distinguish between the denominations of Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Catholicism. We will also occasionally group the Abrahamic religions together, as well as the Chinese religions and Indian religions.

Technically, a religion is a set of statements, some of which are supernatural statements (i.e., basically unfalsifiable statements). Ideally, we would state whether or not this set of statements includes a particular meme. However, there are usually different interpretations of a religion, and these may differ in whether or not they count the meme among their beliefs. Therefore, we will rarely talk about the religion itself. Rather, we will talk about its holy books, official statements of beliefs, individual documented interpretations, and, where this has been established by scholars, historical mainstream interpretations of the religion. For example, we will not say that some meme is part of Christianity. That would be too sweeping a claim. Rather, we will say that the meme is mentioned in the Bible, that it has been officially adopted by the Catholic Church, or that it belonged, for example, to the common interpretation of Christianity in Medieval times (if that has been scholarly established). As always, we will never single out the “true interpretation” of a religion.

Population control


One of the most successful strategies for the proliferation of a religion is to encourage adherents to have many children. If this strategy is combined with the prohibition of interfaith marriage and the religious education of children, it is almost guaranteed to lead to an exponential growth of followers as long as resources are available.

Hence, most major religions (1) encourage having children and (2) restrict contraception.

Appears in: Judaism
In the Hebrew Bible, God commands people to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” [Bible: Genesis 1:28]. The Hebrew Bible also recounts the story of Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground and was therefore punished by God (presumably because he did not use the semen for procreation)[Bible: Genesis 38:8–10]. The Talmud allows contraception only for pregnant women, nursing women, and women younger than twelve years of age[Talmud: Yevamot 12b]. To this day, the conservative and orthodox strains of Judaism prohibit contraception.
Appears in: Catholicism
Catholicism inherits the commandment to bear children and the prohibition of contraception from the Hebrew Bible. Its Catechism reasons that God commanded us to reproduce, and hence holds that “every action which [..] proposes [...] to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” [Catechism of the Catholic Church: § 2370].
Appears in: Islam
The Quran encourages men to “go into your wives as Allah has commanded” [Quran: 2:222], because “Your wives are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth, when or how you will” [Quran: 2:223]. The Prophet Mohammed reportedly said “Marry those who are loving and fertile, for I will be proud of your great numbers before the other nations”[Abu Dawud: 2050]. Consequently, the current mainstream interpretations of Islam are strongly pro-family and regard children as a gift from God7. While the Quran includes nothing on contraception, the hadith that regulate contraception (in its ancient form: the coitus interruptus) discourage it in sexual relations between husband and wife[Abu Dawud: 2170] (though it was historically permitted for sex with enslaved concubines[Abu-Dawud: 2171-2173] ).
Appears in: Spiritism
According to the Spirits’ Book, man “may regulate reproduction according to his needs; but he ought not to hinder it unnecessarily”[Spirits’ Book: § 693]. The book also holds that the world population will never become too numerous [Spirits’ Book: § 687].
Appears in: Bahai Faith
The Bahai Book of Laws states that “the very purpose of marriage is the procreation of children”, and that contraception, while “not necessarily immoral in principle”, constitutes “a danger to the very foundations of our social life”[Lights of Guidance: 1160].
Does not appear in: Hinduism
The Law of Manu states that marriage “has sexual intercourse for its purpose”[Law of Manu: 3/32]. The Vedas stipulate that Hindus should marry, and that sexual relations are meant to be for procreation. However, Hinduism also knows the human aim of kama, which refers to fulfilment of sensual and sexual pleasure8. Currently, family planning is seen as ethically good by the majority of Hindus, and there is no opposition to contraception9. At an average of 2 children per family, the birth rate in India is low by international standards10.
Does not appear in: Chinese religions
Chinese religions generally emphasize the importance of balance and harmony within the individual, the family, and society. Since having too many children can upset this balance, family planning has been a valued part of human sexuality in both Taoism and Confucianism 11. Regarding the need to procreate, the Confucian philosopher Mencius (Mèngzĭ) simply remarked that it is important to have children 12.
Varied: Protestantism
Protestantism inherits the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” from the Hebrew Bible. Yet, the Lutheran Churches and the Assemblies of God, some of the largest Protestant denominations today, allow contraception, recognizing that sexual union serves not only procreation 1314.
Varied: Buddhism
There is no unifying stance on procreation and contraception in Buddhism 15. The current Dalai Lama states that “married couples should have children unless there are compelling reasons not to”, but also says that “family planning is important” 16 and that some “countries must curb their population growth” 17.

Prohibit Interfaith Marriage

We have seen above that it is beneficial for a religion to encourage large families. This strategy, however, works only if the offspring of such a family marries within the religion. Therefore, marriage across religions is often prohibited.
Appears in: Judaism
The Talmud prohibits interfaith marriage, saying “neither shalt thou make marriages with them [the Gentiles]”[Talmud: Mishnah/Kiddushin/68b/2]. This commandment is still followed to this day. A diaspora religion such as Judaism would not have survived without this constraint.
Appears in: Hinduism
According to the Law of Manu, marriage may happen only within one caste[Law of Manu: 3/13]. Since non-Hindus do not belong to a Hindu caste, interfaith marriage is prohibited by default. Indeed, Hindu leaders in Indonesia have declared that “Marriage conducted between couples of different religions [...] would in fact amount to adultery” 18.
Appears in: Christianity
Some verses of the Bible prohibit interfaith marriage, saying “do not be yoked together with unbelievers”[Bible: 2 Corinthians 6:14] and “do not intermarry with them”[Bible: Deuteronomy 7:3], although another verse seems to permit it, saying that “the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband”[Bible: 1 Corinthians 7:12-14]. Consequently, different denominations of Christianity have different views: Catholicism forbid interfaith marriage until 1917. Nowadays, it allows mixed marriages with a dispensation[Canon Law: 1124-1127]; no ceremony of another religion is allowed, and the children have to be raised as Catholics. Thus, the basic purpose of replicating the religion remains intact. Orthodox Christianity forbids marriage with non-Christians, as the author of this book can testify from personal experience.
Appears in: Islam
The Quran prohibits marriage with non-Muslims, saying “do not marry polytheistic women until they believe”, and “[believing women are] not lawful wives for the disbelievers”[Quran: 2:221, 60:10]. However, it allows Muslim men to marry women from the pre-Islamic Abrahamic religions[Quran: 5:5]. Under the assumption that the husband dominates the marriage, this law allows Islam to spread also in mixed marriages. This is the current mainstream interpretation of Islam. It is also the law in most Muslim countries — including more secular countries such as Tunisia19.
Appears in: Confucianism
Confucius does not discuss interfaith marriage in his writings. However, in the 2014 hearing of the Supreme Court of Indonesia on the matter of interfaith marriage, the Supreme Council for Confucian Religion in Indonesia (Matakin) stated that “A marriage should be conducted to achieve happiness and continue the blood line. No political view, ethnicity, understanding, culture or even religion can stop it. However, an interfaith wedding cannot be conducted with a Confucian ceremony.” 18
Does not appear in: Spiritism
The “Spirits’ Book” mentions no such law.
Does not appear in: Bahai Faith
According to the Bahai Faith, all religions are inspired by God, and therefore interfaith marriage is allowed [Book of Laws: IV/C/1/h]. This differentiates the Bahai faith from other mainstream religions, which also sometimes claim that all people believe in the same god, but then do not draw the consequence of allowing interfaith marriage.
Undefined: Buddhism
There is not much information in traditional Buddhist texts on marriage. Contemporary Buddhism seems to consider marriage a secular affair. In Indonesia, where marriage is allowed only according to the rules of the religion of the spouses, and religious rulers are thus asked to state their position on the matter, Buddhist authorities have refused to give their view on the legality of interfaith marriage20.

Shunning Homosexuality

Homosexuality has often been considered an impediment to procreation and, therefore, the proliferation of a religion. Consequently, from an evolutionary perspective, a religion has an interest in prohibiting homosexuality. Though it is clear that this prohibition does not change a person from gay to straight, social pressure may push someone to marry a partner of the opposite sex and to found a family. For the continuation of the faith, it does not matter whether the person enjoys having a family or not, as long as they produce children.

We have seen that some religious memes may come to dominate naturally, , however, the prohibition of homosexuality appears to have been purposefully designed to promote the spread of the religion. This is because homosexuality alone (presuming that no homosexual ever reproduces, which in and of itself is a false assumption) is unlikely to reduce the Darwinian competitiveness of a society: Only around 2-10% of the human population is thought to be homosexual. In other words, a society can well survive even if homosexual people do not have children. (This is actually why homosexuality has survived Darwinian selection until today in the first place.) However, in the past (and still today, even), homosexuality was likely perceived as a practice that could spread, much like the habit of drinking alcohol. Religious leaders who thought this way thus had an incentive to forbid homosexuality, in order to ensure the continued success of their religion.

Appears in: Judaism
The prohibition of homosexuality is anchored in the Hebrew Bible, which states that: “[A man] shall not lie with another man as [he would] with a woman, it is an abomination”[Bible: Leviticus 18:22]. The punishment for homosexuality was death[Bible: Leviticus 20:13]. Today, Judaism no longer implements the death penalty, though homosexuality is still shunned in Orthodox Judaism. .
Appears in: Catholicism
Catholicism inherited the punishment of homosexuality from the Hebrew Bible. However, it also no longer implements the death penalty. Though it still considers homosexual acts “grave sins” and homosexual tendencies “objectively disordered”, it commands that people with homosexual tendencies be “accepted with respect and sensitivity”21.
Varied: Christianity
While the mainstream churches of Christianity do not allow homosexuals to marry, liberal Christians are supportive of homosexuality , with some of churches allowing same sex marriage, as we will see later.
Appears in: Islam
The Quran appears to condemn homosexuality, decrying “men lusting after fellow men”[Quran: 26:165-166, 7:80-81]. Indeed, the vast majority of Muslims today reject homosexuality22, and it is punishable by death in 12 Muslim countries 23.
Appears in: Bahai Faith
The Bahai Faith views homosexuality as a “distortion of nature, which should be controlled and overcome”[Lights of Guidance: 1222].
Appears in: Buddhism
In the words of the current Dalai Lama, homosexuality is “sexual misconduct”24. In Indonesia, Buddhist leaders have spoken up against homosexuality as well 25.
Unknown: Spiritism
Given the encouragement to reproduce, Allan Kardec most likely looked unfavorably upon homosexuality. At the same time, his “Spirits’ Book” makes no mention of it.
Appears less in: Hinduism
The Law of Manu appears to condemn homosexuality as an “unnatural offence with a male”, but prescribes only a bath in response[Law of Manu: 11/175]. Indeed, hardly any condemnation or bias against homosexuality exists in other Hindu sacred literature. Hinduism assumes that people are born with different penchants due to their previous lives, and thus same‐sex desires are seen as a “previous life conditioning” rather than a matter of choice 26.
Appears in: Confucianism
Confucianism places great value on the marriage between husband and wife, on giving birth and raising children, and on child piety. In this spirit, the prevalent interpretations of the religion condemn homosexuality2728.
Does not appear in: Taoism
Traditional Chinese society did not strongly object to, and even tacitly allowed, male homosexuality29. Today, Taoism knows a rabbit deity who protects homosexuals, and a temple dedicated to this deity draws thousands of adherents per year30.
Does not appear in: Some new religions
The Wiccan “Charge of the Goddess” states in the words of the goddess that “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”[Charge of the Goddess]. Raëlism, likewise, does not condemn homosexuality[Intelligent Design: Raelism and Homosexuality].
Man created God in his image:
Intolerant, sexist, homophobic, and violent

Sex only for procreation

As we’ve seen, one of the most effective strategies for the proliferation of a religion is to encourage large families. Now, how can one best entice people to do this? One way is to prohibit sex and sexual pleasure outside of procreation, including: Consequently, most world religions have developed a rather strict sexual morale.
Appears in: Catholicism
The Catholic Church follows the strategy to the T. It teaches explicitly that “Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes”[Catechism of the Catholic Church: § 2351] (quite possibly, we may hypothesize, because those who wrote the passage never had any of it). Consequently, “masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action”, the “carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman [...] is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons”, “Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials”, “Prostitution is a social scourge”, and “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception”[Catechism of the Catholic Church: § 2270]. Jesus reportedly said “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery”[Bible: Matthew 5:27-28], which is understood as a prohibition of pornography in Catholicism and conservative variants of Christianity.
Appears in: Islam
Current mainstream interpretations of Islam generally encourage sex between husband and wife. At the same time, the Quran prohibits sex during menstruation, the time in a woman’s cycle during which she cannot conceive[Quran: 2:222]. It also requests men and women to “guard their private parts”[Quran: 24:30, 23:5-6], which traditionalist interpretations today read as a prohibition of pornography and masturbation31. The Quran also prohibits sex outside the couple, except for with enslaved concubines[Quran: 24:2-3].
Appears in: Judaism
According to the Hebrew Bible, a woman who is found to not be a virgin upon her marriage is to be stoned to death: “If the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.”[Bible: Deuteronomy 22:13-21]. Sex outside of wedlock also incurs the death penalty[Bible: Deuteronomy 22:22]. Like in Islam, Sex during menstruation is forbidden[Bible: Leviticus 18]. Ejaculation in general is considered unclean[Bible: Leviticus 15:16-18]. Judaism calls this the sin of “spilling semen in vain”. Based on scripture, today conservative variants of Judaism shun masturbation and pre-marital sex. Orthodox Judaism even prohibits a man and a woman who are not married to each other from being in the same room alone, under laws called Yichud.
Appears in: Buddhism
The second of the Five Virtues of Buddhism prohibits “sexual misconduct”, which is commonly interpreted as sex outside wedlock. Buddhism identifies sexual craving as one of the hindrances to attaining insight, and the Buddha says explicitly that “one [...] should avoid sensual desires”[Pali Canon: Khuddaka/Sutta Nipata/Kama Sutta/4.1]. At the same time, Buddhism does not traditionally place great value on procreation like many Western religions.
Appears in: Bahai Faith
For Bahai, “no sexual act can be considered lawful unless performed between lawfully married persons”[Lights of Guidance: 1220]. Hence, the faith condemns sex outside wedlock[Lights of Guidance: 1157] and pre-marital sex[Lights of Guidance: 1212], as well as masturbation[Lights of Guidance: 1220] and abortion[Lights of Guidance: 1154].
Appears in: Spiritism
Within Spiritism, abortion is condemned[Spirits’ Book: § 358] as is “Whatever hinders the operations of nature”[Spirits’ Book: § 693]. In particular, sensuality shall not be given preference over reproduction[Spirits’ Book: § 694].
Appears less in: Confucianism
Historically, Confucianism taught people to repress human desire, including sexual impulse. It held that the primary purpose of sex was procreation. Female virginity was highly valued; premarital sex was strictly forbidden for women, and a woman could be executed for adultery. Men, on the other hand, were allowed to have concubines and engage in commercial sex.29
Appears in: Taoism
The Elder Lord says “If a sexual conduct happens, but it is not between a man and a woman who are married to each other, it is a Sexual Misconduct”[Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts], which means, according to the commentary, that “masturbations, premarital sexual conducts, adulteries, prostitutions, having sex with prostitutes, homosexual sex, etc., are all Sexual Misconducts”.
Appears less in: Hinduism
Some ancient Hindu texts condemn extra-marital sex and masturbation, stating “Let not a man gratify his desires with unnatural objects [or] think incontinently of another’s wife, [...] for such a man will be born in a future life as a creeping insect. He who commits adultery is punished both here and hereafter [...] and when dead he falls into hell.”[Vishnu Purana: 3:11]. The Law of Manu stipulates that addressing a woman outside the village, or offering her gifts also counts as adultery[Law of Manu: 8/356-357] — for which the penalty is death. At the same time, the Kama Sutra (a text from the 3rd century BCE) describes masturbation, homosexual acts, and bi-sexual acts, indicating that sexual attitudes were not as conservative as the holy texts suggest8.
Does not appear in: Some new religions
The Wiccan “Charge of the Goddess” states, in the words of the goddess, that “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”[Charge of the Goddess]. Raëlism, likewise, is accepting of all sexual acts as long as these are consensual and between adults[Intelligent Design: Sexual Freedom and No Obligation].
If homosexuals had a book that called for religious people to be stoned, how long would it take to be classified as hate speech?
WFL Atheism

Child Marriage

One way to increase the number of children within the family is to encourage or force women to marry at a young age in order to maximize sexual activity during the fertile period of women’s life, after she has reached puberty. Hence, many religions support child marriage for women.
Appears in: Catholicism
According to Canon Law, the minimum age of marriage for a woman is 14[Canon Law: Can. 1083 §1]. In Western countries, a minimum age of 18 is generally legally enforced. However, in sub-Saharan Africa (which is Catholic and Muslim), child marriage rates are between 38% and 46% 32.
Appears in: Islam
According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Mohamed married one of his wives (Aisha) when she was just six years old, and had intercourse with her when she was nine[Muslim 8:3311][Bukhari: 5:58:234][Bukhari: 3896][Bukhari: 5158]. The Quran says that Mohammed is the perfect role model to follow[Quran: 33:21]. In its advice for divorce, the Quran also discusses how to divorce girls who have “yet to menstruate”[Quran: 65:1-4], which means that the book allows marrying prepubescent girls in the first place. Today, the group of Muslim countries has the highest rate of child marriage when compared with developed countries and with non-Muslim developing countries, according to the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC)33. However, not all interpretations of Islam allow the practice, and the OIC, for one, opposes it34.
Appears in: Hinduism
The Law of Manu allows for a girl as young as eight years of age to marry: “A man aged thirty years, shall marry a maiden of twelve who pleases him, or a man of twenty-four a girl eight years of age”[Law of Manu: 9/94]. Indeed, 58% of women in India are married under the age of 1832.
Appears in: Historical Judaism
The Talmud states that “He who [...] marries [his children] just before they attain puberty — of him Scripture saith, And thou shalt know that [thou do] not sin ”[Talmud: Sanhedrin 76b]. It also describes how a girl who is younger than eleven “may go ahead and engage in relations in her usual manner [with her husband], since it is assumed that a minor who is less than eleven years old cannot become pregnant”[Talmud: Yevamot 12b]. However, child marriage is rare today in the Jewish community, and the minimum age for marriage in Israel (the only Jewish country) is 1835.
Appears less in: Bahai Faith
The Bahai Faith prescribes 15 as a minimum age for marriage[Book of Laws: IV/C/1/c]. However, it also stresses obedience to the government[Book of Laws: IV/D/1/m], and thus the minimum age as required by secular governments.
Does not appear in: Buddhism, Protestantism, Chinese Religions, Orthodox Christianity, Spiritism
For Confucianism, the Book of Rites seems to suggest an age of 30 for marriage: “When he is twenty, we call him a youth [...]; when he is thirty, we say 'He is at his maturity', he has a wife”[Book of Rites: Quli Shang, 12]. Child marriage is not prevalent in Buddhist, Protestant, Taoist, Confucian, and Orthodox countries36.
In general, a woman who marries at a young age is less likely to be educated. She is also less likely to educate her children. This, in turn, plays into the hands of the religion as well, as less educated people are less likely to challenge their religion.
There’s a Jewish law for everything. The Torah offers a punishment for every crime, no matter how insignificant. But what about child abuse? The Torah talks about men who have sex with other men, and men who have sex with animals. But there is nothing said about the sexual abuse of children.
Deborah Feldman in “Unorthodox”



A religion that promises life after death will be more successful than a religion that doesn’t. Hence, most religions today promise some form of life after death.

Some interpretations of Islam promise 72 virgins to male Muslims in Heaven. One of them was kind enough to come into the Atheist Bible. That makes it 71 then. b0red @ Pixabay
Appears in: Judaism
The Hebrew Bible is not entirely clear about what happens after death. Kohelet, a son of King David, wonders (rightly, from an atheist perspective): “the same fate awaits both animals and humans: As one dies, so dies the other. [...] All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”[Bible: Ecclesiastes 3:19-21]. Other passages are similarly vague[Bible: Ecclesiastes 9:4-6, Numbers 16:31-33, Psalms 146:2-4, Job 14:10-14, Daniel 12:2, Isaak 26:19]. Nevertheless, the Talmud establishes resurrection after death as a fundamental principle of the faith, and makes clear that those who doubt it shall not share it [Talmud: Sanhedrin/90a/31, 39].
Appears in: Christianity
Jesus promises life after death (“at the resurrection people will [...] be like the angels in heaven”) [Bible: Matthew 22:29-33, 5:20, John 11:24] , as does the book of Revelation [Bible: Revelation 20:6]. The Nicene Creed also affirms the resurrection of the dead, stating “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”[Nicene Creed]. Consequently, Catholicism incorporates the belief in the afterlife [Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1/2/3/11].
Appears in: Bahai Faith
The Bahai Faith postulates a “spiritual world beyond the grave”[Lights of Guidance: §1595], though not a physical resurrection.
Appears in: Islam
The concept of Heaven is very prominent within Islam. From a sample of 100 verses taken at random from the Quran, 10% were concerned with promises of Heaven. The book promises “Gardens of perpetual bliss”[Quran: 13:23] with “a running spring”[Quran: 88:10–16] and “rivers of milk” [Quran: 47:15]. Men receive large-breasted virgins called houris[Quran: 78:33, 56:22-23, 37:48, 44:54, 55:58, 55:56, 55:72, 55:74, 56:35, 37:48, 52:20]. A Hadith details how there will be 72 for every Muslim man[at-Tirmidhi: 2562].
Appears in: the Indian religions
Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs generally believe in reincarnation of the soul. In this model, the soul is reborn onto this Earth after death, either in a “better” position (say, as a king) or in a “worse” position (say, as an ant), depending on the good and bad deeds committed in one’s life (the “karma”). If a person advances spiritually to a sufficient degree, they can arrive in the desired, final state of “nirvana”. In Hinduism, the Rig Veda states that “as soon as he departs, he takes birth again”[Aiteraya Upanishad: 2/1/4], and hints at relief from the cycle of rebirth: “When he sees the other, the lord of all, whom all devotees worship, and realizes that all greatness is his, then he is relieved of his misery” [Swetasvatara Upanishad: 4/6-7]. The Law of Manu, likewise, stipulates that “a vicious man sinks to the nethermost (hell), [while] he who dies, free from vice, ascends to heaven”[Law of Manu: 7/53]. For a Buddhist, according to the Dalai Lama, “it is necessary to accept past and future rebirth”, and “once we achieve liberation from the cycle of existence by overcoming our karma and destructive emotions, we will not be reborn”38.
Appears in: Spiritism
In this religion (as in the Indian religions), the spirit aims to achieve perfection during several cycles of rebirth, and once successful, enters a “state of perfect happiness, as a purified spirit” [Spirits’ Book: § 170]. The final state is eternal happiness, consisting “in knowing all things; in feeling neither hatred, jealousy, envy, ambition, nor any of the passions that make men unhappy”[Spirits’ Book: § 967]. Different from the other Abrahamic religions, Spiritism has taken care that the happy spirits do not suffer from the sight of the sinners being punished in Hell, “because they know that it will have an end; they aid those who suffer to become better, and lend them a helping hand. To do this is their occupation, and is a joy for them when they succeed.” [Spirits’ Book: § 976]
Appears in: Taoism
Taoism, likewise, knows a state of “spiritual immortality”, where the death of the body has no impact on the soul, which continues to live39.
Appears in: the Chinese Religions
The prevalent belief in Chinese religions is that every human being has a spirit, the “shen”, which lives on after death and becomes the object of ancestor worship.
Many adults never outgrow their childhood fear of death. Because the thought of death is so distressing to some people, it is not surprising that they try to invent a way out. The fairy tale that Christians have invented is called heaven, and they have also formulated the concept of eternal life. The Christian fabrications are, of course, entirely different from the heaven and God of all other religions, because all of them are imaginary. Egyptians believed something silly involving pyramids and sun gods and so on. Greeks believed in the river Styx and Hades and so on. Muslims believe in their 72 virgins and so on. It is all gibberish, but people believe in their fantasies quite passionately.

Heaven for Martyrs

The promise of Heaven can make people adhere to a religion. It can also supply the religion with warriors who are ready to sacrifice their lives: If a man believes that Heaven awaits him upon death, he will be much more willing to go to war for his faith. In his thinking, he has nothing to lose: Either he wins the battle, or he dies, becomes what is called a martyr, and goes to Heaven. A religion that has this type of warriors is more likely to prevail in battles against religions that do not.
Appears in: Historical Catholicism
This religion has historically benefitted from people who were ready to sacrifice their lives for their faith. One example are the Crusades — military expeditions between 1095 and 1291 that aimed to conquer Jerusalem and its surroundings from Muslim rule. The warriors believed that they would go to heaven if they died in battle40, and, therefore, they had less hesitation in joining the war. While the wars had several religious, economical, and political motivations, they ultimately served to establish the hegemony of the Catholic Church. Today, in contrast, the Church insists that “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war”[Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2307ff].
Appears in: Islam
The Quran promises Heaven to those who die fighting for Allah: “Never think of those martyred in the cause of Allah as dead. In fact, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for”[Quran: 3:169-170, 9:111, 22:58]. We can hypothesize that, in the 8th century CE, this belief helped the military expansion of Islam during what is known as the Islamic Golden Age. Still in the 21st century, the Islamic State was able to uphold its grip on the Middle East also because it had fighters who were not afraid to die41.


A person who has died cannot report what happened to them. Therefore, religions can say arbitrary thing about life after death and it can never be falsified. Some religions use this to tell people that if they do not follow the rules of the religion, they will be tortured after death in a place called Hell. It is clear that if a religion promises Hell in cases of disobedience, then its adherents are more likely to obey. Therefore, most religions that we encounter today have some form of Hell, and they have come up with the most impressive forms of punishment, as we shall see.

The idea of hell also satisfies the human desire for justice.

Appears in: Buddhism
Buddhism knows several hells, both hot and cold42. The most fearful hell, according to the Buddha, is Avici — the “unmitigated hell”[Pali Canon: Sutta Piṭaka/Khuddaka Nikāya/Itivuttaka/§89]. In Avici, the evil-doer is tortured, with red-hot iron stakes and copper cauldrons, axes, excrement, hot ashes, fire, and swords, until all bad karma is used up[Pali Canon: Sutta Piṭaka/Majjhima Nikāya/Devaduta Sutta/130]. Then, the being is reborn.
Appears in: Hinduism
The Law of Manu describes 21 hells[Law of Manu: 4/87-90], in which sinners are devoured by ravens, boiled in jars, and subjected to diseases[Law of Manu: 12/75-80]. Those who committed mortal sins spend many years passing through these dreadful hells and then, after the expiration of their term of punishment, are reborn. Different sins carry different types of rebirths: killing a Brahman lands you in the womb of a pig; thieves become cannibalistic creatures; for stealing grain a man becomes a rat; and for stealing pearls you become a goldsmith[Law of Manu: 12/54-74]. The Bhagavadgita, too, say that “demoniacal men” will “fall downwards into a foul hell”[Bhagavadgita: 16.16, 16.20-21].
Appears in: Jainism
Jainism knows several hells (called Narakas)[Tattvartha Sutra: 3:2], where, similar to Buddhism, bad karma is destroyed. Common interpretations hold that there are seven hells, each named after its predominant substance (gravel, mud, smoke, etc.). The hells are situated in the lower levels of the universe, below the human realm (which is itself below the heavenly realm).
Appears in: Judaism
The early Jews were familiar with the valley of Gehenna outside of Jerusalem, where Canaanites (and later Israelites) sacrificed their children by fire to the gods[Bible: Jeremiah 7:31]43. The sacrifices of Gehenna, together with the later claim in the Hebrew Bible that “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake — some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt”[Bible: Daniel 12:2], developed into the Jewish belief that all sinners will burn in fire. Sinners go to Gehenna (hell) immediately after their death, where those who have sinned (but who have not led others into sin) remain for twelve months44.
Appears in: Christianity
The New Testament inherited the concept of Gehenna from Judaism and developed it further. While the Jewish Gehenna lasted for only one year, Jesus extended Hell to eternity. It is a place of “unquenchable fire”[Bible: Matthew 5:22, 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-49, Revelation 20:13] into which the body is thrown[Bible: Matthew 5:29-30] after sinning[Bible: Matthew 5:22, Revelation 20:30]. Hell has “weeping and gnashing of teeth”[Bible: Matthew 8:12; 22:13], “everlasting destruction”[Bible: Romans 2:7-9; 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter 3:7], “raging fire”[Bible: Hebrews 10:27], “eternal fire”[Bible: Jude 7], and “burning sulphur”. Hell is where “the devil, the beast, and false prophet” will be “tormented day and night for ever and ever”[Bible: Revelation 20:10, Lukas 16:19-31] along with those who worship the beast or receive its mark [Bible: Revelation 14:11]. This physical view of hell was later abandoned in favor of a more abstract concept of suffering in many (though not all) Christian denominations.
Appears particularly in: Islam
As the last of the Abrahamic religions to develop before the Enlightenment, Islam has perfected the threat of Hell over earlier concepts from Judaism and Christianity. In fact, the Quran mentions the concept, with detailed brutality, in roughly every 7th verse. Hell contains flames that crackle and roar[Quran: 25:14]; fierce, boiling waters[Quran: 55:55]; scorching wind; and black smoke[Quran: 56:42-43]; and it is roaring and boiling as if it would burst with rage[Quran: 67:7-8]. Its wretched inhabitants sigh and wail[Quran: 11:106], their scorched skins constantly exchanged for new ones so that they can taste the torment anew[Quran: 4:45]. They drink festering water and, though death appears on all sides, cannot die [Quran: 15:16-17]. They are linked together in chains of 70 cubits[Quran: 69:30-32], wear pitch for clothing, have their faces covered with fire [Quran: 14:50], have boiling water poured over their heads that melts their insides as well as their skin, and are dragged back should they try to escape by hooks of iron[Quran: 67:7]. Their remorseful admissions of wrongdoing and pleading for forgiveness are in vain[Quran: 41:24].
Appears in: Spiritism
In this religion, the spirits are punished after death or in the next life and “it is utterly impossible to describe the mental tortures that are the punishment of some crimes; even those by whom they are experienced would find it difficult to give you an idea of them” [Spirits’ Book: § 960, 965, 970, 973, 974]. However, different from the older, pre-Enlightenment religions, Spiritism prescribes a more abstract punishment. The “sufferings are as various as are the causes by which they are produced”, and include “envy”, “regret, jealousy, rage, despair”, “remorse and indescribable moral anguish”, and being tortured by the “inability to satisfy [one’s] cravings”. In addition, Spiritism recognizes punishment on Earth in the form of re-incarnation: “Purgatory [is] physical and moral suffering; the period of expiation, it is almost always upon the earth that you are made by God to undergo your purgatory, and to expiate your wrong-doing.”[Spirits’ Book: § 1013]
Appears in: Chinese religions
The Chinese religions inherited the concept of hell from Buddhism45. In the Diyu, as hell is known, the dead are punished by physical tortures appropriate to their crimes. In Taoism, a person who does not follow the Tao will “fall into the restless and unlimited sufferings”, and “When they are released from such sufferings, they will be reborn as animals or other inferior beings”, “they will be born in uncivilized places, their lives will be short, or they will be physically disabled. They will be poor, homeless, and suffer from coldness; they will not be able to live peacefully; if they get any money or properties, those things will be stolen or robbed by others”. Worst of all, “their spouses will be ugly, adulterous, and greedy”[Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts].
Hell exists only for those who fear it.
Fabrizio de André

Emotional bondage

When someone helps us, we feel indebted to this person, and we will feel obliged to do them a favor in return. This mechanism is also used in some religions: The religions claim that God did something for the people, and then demand thankfulness to God and obedience to his laws in return. In this way, the religions bind the adherents emotionally to their god and their rules.

It is interesting to note that, in the cases we list below, there is no scientific evidence that God ever performed the acts he claims gratitude for. Thus, the religions are creating a feeling of indebtedness and obedience out of nothing.

Appears in: Judaism
The Hebrew Bible tells us that God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the land of Israel[Exodus 13–17]. God then demands constant remembrance of this act: “praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”[Deuteronomy 8:10], “[do] not forget the Lord your God. You were slaves in Egypt, but he made you free and brought you out of that land”[Deuteronomy 8:15], “remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there”[Deuteronomy 24:18]. In return, God demands that people follow his laws: “remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully [my] decrees”[Deuteronomy 16:12], “remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there [...] therefore [...] observe the Sabbath day”[Deuteronomy 5:15], “the Lord brought us out of Egypt [and] commanded us to obey all [his] decrees”[Deuteronomy 6:20-25]. In this way, adherents are constantly reminded that they owe their freedom to God. They are thus indebted to him, and have to be thankful to God, and follow his laws. We will later see that the slavery in Egypt and the exodus to Israel most likely never happened in reality. Thus, the Hebrew Bible creates an emotional bondage of adherents to the god out of thin air.
Appears in: Christianity
This religion knows the concept of the “original sin”, which, by and large, is the notion that Adam and Eve, the mythical ancestors of humanity, contradicted God’s will and hence loaded sin on all of humanity. In the words of the Bible: “In sin did my mother conceive me”[Bible: Psalm 51:5], because “by the one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners”[Bible: Romans 5:19]. In other words, just by being born, a person is already saddled with guilt. Christianity extends this guilt to everyone: “there is no one righteous, not even one; [...All] have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one”[Bible: Romans 3:10], and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”[Bible: Romans 3:23-24]. It is a fortunate coincidence, then, that Christianity provides the only absolution of this guilt: by following Jesus, a person will be liberated from that sin [Bible: John 3:16]. This is coupled with the idea that Jesus “died for our sins”[Bible: 1 Corinthians 15:3], thereby liberating us from the original sin. Thus, out of nothing, Christianity has made people indebted to their main prophet.
Appears in: Islam
The Quran talks repeatedly of the gifts that God has given to mankind: God sends rain to give life[Quran: 16:65], causes the cows to produce milk to drink[Quran: 16:66], made dates so that we can eat[Quran: 16:67], and taught the bee to make cells[Quran: 16:68] so that man may have food[Quran: 16:69]. God also produces corn, olives, date-palms, grapes and every other fruit for us[Quran: 16:11]. When people use or consume these things, they are made to feel as if they are obliged to thank God for them[Quran: 39:7, 21:80, 40:61]. Thus, by simply being alive, we are already indebted to God. If we do not bow to the power who gave all these gifts, we are considered ungrateful . That said, the current scientific explanation for the existence of cows, dates, and olives does not involve any divine intervention.
God is the only being that doesn’t require existence in order to rule the world.
Charles Baudelaire

Push for Perfection

© Family Radio, fair use for commentary
Guilt is a powerful force for control, and a religion that succeeds in producing feelings of guilt in its believers can steer them very effectively. A common way in which this happens is through the establishment of rules that are impossible to obey in perfection. It is thus likely that the believer will violate rules — earlier or later or even continuously. This means that sincere believers may find themselves in an enduring state of bad conscience, caught in the gap between how they are and how they think they should be; no matter what they do, it is never good enough. Thereby, the religion maintains a grip over the conscience of its adherents. This is similar to the way in which totalitarian regimes control their subjects 47.

Once that state of guilt has been put in place, the religion proposes itself as a way to obtain absolution from that guilt. As the American psychologist Albert Ellis argued: religions deliberately instill self-damnation in their adherents and then provide guilt-soothing rituals to allay these feelings48. In this way, the adherent feels grateful to the religion for having removed the problem that it created in the first place. The Iranian-Canadian author Armin Navabi argues similarly: People are told that they are inherently sinful, and that the only way to become good is by giving over control of their life to faith49.

Appears in: Christianity
Jesus says: “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery”[Bible: Matthew 5:27-28]. Since most people have looked at someone in lust, this automatically makes them sinners. Similar is the instruction in the Ten Commandments to not covet what belongs to your neighbor[Bible: Exodus 20:17] — something that would amount to a thoughtcrime in George Orwell’s terminology In Christianity, once someone feels guilt, they can confess their actions to God or to a priest. Then, they are liberated from their guilt, and feel thankful to their religion. In this way, the religion has created an emotional bond between the adherent and its god.
Appears in: Islam
The Quran talks of numerous prohibitions: taking unbelievers as friends[Quran: 3:28], doubting the Quran[Quran: 5:101, 33:36], sexual pleasures outside marriage, not praying [Quran: 9:71], eating pork[Quran: 16:115], looking at the other sex[Quran: 24:31], and not covering up[Quran: 33:59]. In conservative interpretations of the faith, these rules are complemented by an elaborate system of rules (the Sharia) that penetrates everyday life from marriage to prayer and daily hygiene, including how to use the restroom50. These rules certainly had their purpose at the time of their institution. However, nowadays, one lasting effect is that adherents have a litany of rules to follow, and thus more chances to slip up. This makes it more likely that a believer will feel guilt. Furthermore, the Quran states that God observes us continuously[Quran: 4:1, 50:17-18, 8:17], thereby enforcing these feelings. And it is not just God who watches, but the community as well: Islam knows a culture of “commanding right and forbidding wrong”5152, in which adherents are tasked with ensuring the compliance of others. The release from guilt is achieved through repentance[Quran: 2:160, 39:54, 3:135, 25:71, 6:54]. Through this mechanism, the religion first instills guilt, and then relieves it. As we saw in Christianity, this cycle creates an emotional bond between the believer and the religion.
Appears in: Spiritism
This religion calls upon adherents to abandon selfishness[Spirits’ Book: § 895] and to practice abnegation in order to “combat the predominance of the corporeal nature”[Spirits’ Book: § 912]. Since every human is by nature selfish, this is a commandment that cannot be obeyed in perfection. Repentance and prayer then alleviate these failings[Spirits’ Book: § 997].
Appears in: Judaism
Judaism knows a catalog of 613 commandments derived from the Torah[Talmud: Makkot 23b]. While the Talmud is sure that their number must be 613, it does not list them. A popular listing, the Sefer Hamitzvot, prohibits astrology, cross-dressing, tattoos, wearing a mixture of wool and linen, shaving, settling in Egypt, straying after illicit pleasures, kindness towards idol worshippers, forgetting Amalek’s Deed, tearing out hair, non-kosher food, lending with interest, borrowing with interest, cursing a leader, working on Shabbat, provocative behavior, out of wedlock intimacy, and others53. Given that the list is quite comprehensive (and not universally agreed on), it is highly likely that an adherent will violate one or more of these commandments. Luckily, Judaism also provides the remedy for such transgressions: Yom Kippur is an annual day devoted to communal repentance for sins committed over the course of the previous year54. Again, we find a cycle of condemnation and absolution that binds adherents to their faith.
This effect is independent of the actual use of the rules for mankind.
Sin is an imaginary disease
invented to sell you an imaginary cure.

Heavy punishment

When a person does not obey societal rules, the most effective way to prevent that person from reoffending is to kill them. Another quite effective solution is to amputate limbs: a person without hands can no longer steal, injure, or kill. Such punishment also acts as a deterrent to others. And because religion governs compassion, conscience, and morality, it can institute the death penalty or cruel punishment as it sees fit.

Now, if we compare two religions side by side, one that has cruel punishment and one that doesn’t, it is clear that the religion with cruel punishment will have a more obedient following, and thus a competitive edge over the other. For this reason, most major religions that have survived until today have cruel punishments — at least in their scripture.

Appears in: Islam
The Quran specifies cutting off the hands of a thief[Quran: 5:38], flogging for adulterers[Quran: 24:2], crucification for “those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger”[Quran: 5:33-34], beating for consistently disobedient women[Quran: 4:34], and the death penalty for those who kill a Muslim[Quran: 4:92-93]. Up to this day, these punishments are approved of by the majority of the population in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and by large pluralities in other Muslim-majority countries55. Stoning as a judicial sentence exists in nine Muslim countries, and five Muslim countries have amputation as punishment in their law books56. At the same time, not all interpretations of Islam allow for such punishments, as evidenced by the proportions of Muslims who oppose them55. The Quran also stipulates that if someone was murdered, then someone from the kin of the murderer (who is otherwise unrelated) has to be killed in revenge [Quran: 2:178], although this is no longer implemented.
Appears in: Judaism
The Hebrew Bible prescribes the death penalty for prophets of other gods[Bible: Deuteronomy 13:2–10], prophets whose prophecies do not come to pass[Bible: Deuteronomy 18:20–22], seers[Bible: Leviticus 20:27], sorceresses[Bible: Exodus 22:18 ], those who follow other gods[Bible: Deuteronomy 17:2–7], sons who consistently disobey their parents[Bible: Deuteronomy 21:18–21 ], and women who falsely claim to be a virgin before marriage[Bible: Deuteronomy 22:13–21]. It also prescribes death for blasphemy[Bible: Leviticus 24:10–16 ], working on Sabbath[Bible: Exodus 31:14–15], sexual relations with a virgin engaged to someone else[Bible: Exodus 31:14–15], rape of a betrothed virgin[Bible: Deuteronomy 22:25–27], adultery with married women (both parties are to die)[Bible: Leviticus 20:10], marrying one’s wife’s mother[Bible: Leviticus 20:14], sexual relations between males[Bible: Leviticus 20:13], bestiality[Bible: Exodus 22:18], murder[Bible: Genesis 9:6], smiting a parent[Bible: Exodus 21:15], and cursing a parent[Bible: Exodus 21:17] . The techniques to employ are stoning[Bible: Exodus 17:4], hanging[Bible: Numbers 25:4, 2 Samuel 21:6-9], burning [Bible: Leviticus 21:9], stabbing[Bible: Exodus 19:13, 32:27; Numbers 25:7; 1 Kings 2:25,34; 19:1; 2 Chronicles 21:4, and crushing [Bible: 2 Samuel 12:31]. Penalties for lesser offenses include retaliation (the “eye for eye” principle) [Bible: Exodus 21:24-25], and lashing[Bible: Deuteronomy 25:3]. Based on this, Judaism has traditionally known execution by stoning, burning, slaying, and strangulation[Talmud: Mishnah Sanhedrin 7]. Today, the death penalty is less popular. Israel, the only Jewish country, has the death penalty in its laws, but executed the last person in 1962.
Appears in: Christianity
This religion inherited corporal punishment from Judaism. Jesus teaches clemency in these matters, but upholds the law in principle, saying “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law [...] Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law”[Bible: Matthew 5:17-20]. Paul likewise approves of the death penalty, saying “If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die”[Bible: Acts 25:10-11, Romans 1:32]. In agreement with this, both secular and religious Christian rulers have been quite brutal over the course of history. Today, however, these practices have ceased. In Catholicism, torture was abolished in 1965. Catholicism also opposes the death penalty since 2015, Anglicanism since 1988, and Orthodoxy since 1989.
Appears in: Hinduism
The Law of Manu requires corporal punishment only if fines and admonitions fail[Law of Manu: 8/58, 129, 139, 310, 320, 364]. Beating is on order for punishing a wife, a son, a slave, a pupil, or a younger brother[Law of Manu: 8/299]. For adultery (which includes touching a woman inappropriately, addressing her outside the village, or offering her gifts[Law of Manu: 8/356-357]), the penalty is death[Law of Manu: 8/356] — except for Brahmans. Brahmans cannot be put to death[Law of Manu: 8/379], nor can they suffer corporal punishment[Law of Manu: 8/124]. Others can. For example, two fingers are to be cut off for “contaminating a maiden”[Law of Manu: 8/367]. For injury, the punishment for the lowest caste is amputation[Law of Manu: 8/279]. (Generally, amputation may be of “the organ”, the belly, the tongue, the hands, the feet, the eyes, the nose, and the ears[Law of Manu: 8/124].) For insulting someone of a higher caste, the tongue is cut out [Law of Manu: 8/270]. Intercourse across castes is punished by castration or death for the members of the lower caste[Law of Manu: 8/374]. Ways of executing criminals include devoration “by dogs in a place frequented by many”[Law of Manu: 8/371], burning “on a red-hot iron bed”[Law of Manu: 8/372] or “in a fire of dry grass”[Law of Manu: 8/377]. The Law of Manu is of disputed authenticity. However, this does not change the fact that corporal punishment was used in Hindu society much in the way that Manu said: Punishments included whipping, branding, mutilation, and execution57. Still today, India upholds the death penalty.
Appears de facto in: Chinese religions
Confucius explicitly shuns punishment, saying “If you [...] control [people] by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves.”[Analects: 2:3]. He also explicitly shuns the death penalty, saying “What is the need of killing?”[Analects: 12:19]. For Taoism, Laotse similarly writes: “To replace the executioner and kill, Is like chopping wood in place of the master carpenter. To chop wood in place of the master carpenter, Rarely one does not hurt one’s own hand.”[Dao De Jing: 74]. On the contrary, “Heaven arms with love those whom it would not see destroyed”[Dao De Jing: 67]. However, the Book of Rites (one of the Five Classics) states that “In all determining on the application of any of the five punishments, it was required to decide according to the judgment of Heaven”58. The Five Punishments were tattooing, cutting off the nose, cutting off a limb, castration, and execution. These punishments were indeed used in ancient China until 600 CE, when they were replaced by beatings and forced labor, with the death penalty remaining in place up to this day59.
Does not appear in: Buddhism
The Buddha says: “He [the layman] should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should he incite another to kill. Do not injure any being, either strong or weak, in the world.”[Pali Canon: Sutta Pitaka/Khuddaka Nikaya/Sutta Nipata/Sn 2.14]. The current Dalai Lama also opposes the death penalty60.
Does not appear in: Spiritism
As this religion postdates the Enlightenment, cruelty is considered “the instinct of destruction in its worst form”, and “never necessary”[Spirits’ Book: § 752]. It holds that education should be given preference over “punishing wrong doing when done”[Spirits’ Book: § 796]. The death penalty is also condemned[Spirits’ Book: § 760 ff].


Religious education

© Bill Flavell at the Atheist Alliance International
The American Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has made the following observation: Assume that a particular religion was not taught to children, and therefore, that the entire generation grew up without knowledge of that religion. If that generation were to then look into the holy scriptures of the religion, they would probably find them baseless, bizarre, or even revolting. More than likely, they would not adopt that religion even in their later life, and crucially, they would also not teach it to their children. Thus, within a generation, the religion could be wiped out. Change, Krauss proposes, is always just a generation away61.

Following Krauss’s logic, it makes sense that all major religions that have survived until today have placed a great importance on teaching the principles of the religion to children.

As we have seen before, children can easily made to believe almost anything. If the child later finds out that a particular teaching was wrong, the child will stop believing in it. However, since religious claims are usually unfalsifiable, the child will never find out. Therefore, educating children religiously is one of the most effective methods of spreading the faith.

Appears in: all major religions
Children are usually educated in the religion of their parents. We have discussed contemporary practices before.
Appears less in: Bahai Faith
The Bahai Faith differs from the other world religions in that children under 15 years old do not automatically inherit the faith of their parents[Lights of Guidance: § 512]. At the age of 15, Bahai children are free to reaffirm that they are Bahai or, without stigma, to leave the Bahai Faith. Neither their parents nor their community may compel them to be Bahai62. Yet, this free choice is to some degree utopic, because “schools must train the children in the principles of religion, so that the Promise and the Threat recorded in the Books of God may prevent them from the things forbidden”[Lights of Guidance: § 479].
Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them.
Hypathia of Alexandria

Target the weak

A religion aims to propagate itself. Here, “aims to” is to be understood in the Darwinian sense, meaning that all those religions that did not propagate themselves have died out. One particularly effective way to propagate a religion is to preach it to people who are susceptible, such as: The above will be more susceptible to a religion than people who are educated, healthy, well-integrated, and happy in their lives. It is true that targeting susceptible people does not have the same impact as targeting the powerful (such as the kings, government officials, or TV channel operators). However, even if the vulnerable are not mighty, they cannot be ignored if their numbers are large. This is not to say that people who help the vulnerable do so with bad intentions, merely that one of the side-effects of this help (intended or not) is that the religion appears more attractive to a larger number of people.
Appears in: Christianity
This religion often associates itself with helping the weak, the “fallen”, the elderly, the ill, and the poor — following biblical teachings[Bible: Matthew 6:1, Luke 11:41]. Therefore, many Christian denominations run hospitals, orphanages, schools, kindergartens, grief management sites, migrant help centers, emergency relief services, or counseling services. We may assume that people who voluntarily work in these institutions do so with good intentions. However, one unavoidable side effect of this work is that the receivers of this help come to view Christianity favorably. Christianity would certainly have less adherents if it did not constantly reach out to the weak and the poor.
Appears in: Islam
The Quran prescribes giving alms to the poor[Quran: 9:60, 9:5, 2:177, 2:215, 4:8]. Regular almsgiving is even one of the five pillars of Islam, known as Zakat. However, the predominant view is that Zakat is only ever to be given to Muslims63, or to those who can be won for Islam[Quran: 9:60]. Thus, Zakat serves (also) the goal of attracting new adherents, as well as keeping adherents in the faith.
Appears in: Judaism
This religion knows the concept of almsgiving as Tzedakah. However, like Islam, it has historically largely been restricted to recipients within the faith64.
Appears in: Hinduism
In Hinduism, charitable donation is known as Dana. The Law of Manu tells us to give when we are asked[Law of Manu: 1/226-232]. Other holy scriptures, such as the Bhagavadgita[Bhagavadgita: 7:20-22], likewise encourage charity, stating “alms given to one who does nothing in return [...] is accounted pure”. We can hypothesize that this tradition helps maintain social stability and the religious status quo. In a country such as India, where 20% of people live below the poverty line65, such a system most likely helps maintain social stability (and Hinduism with it).
Appears less in: Spiritism, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism
All of these religions know the concept of compassion towards the less fortunate. However, charity appears to be neither limited to adherents of the faith nor used to spread the faith66.
Catch people at their worst. Grief counseling sites, sexual assault survivor sites, bankruptcy sites. Target the nones. Isolate the target. Convince them that only your church cares about them.
Madalyn Zimbric

Punish apostasy

The act of abandoning a religion is called apostasy. Apostates may become atheists or adherents of other religions. Naturally, a religion that takes a light stance towards apostasy risks losing adherents and risks being outnumbered by other religions. Therefore, all major religions have historically punished apostates. The same goes for blasphemers (people who insult the gods) or for those critical of the religion.

Today, the punishment of apostates is no longer be implemented in countries that support freedom of religion. What remains, however, is a general negative attitude towards apostates. All major religions today condemn, shun, insult, threaten, or ridicule apostates.

Appears in: Historical Judaism
The Hebrew Bible tells us: “The fool says in his heart: There is no god. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” [Bible: Psalms 14:1]. It also tells us to kill apostates[Bible: Deuteronomy 13:6-10], blasphemers[Bible: Leviticus 24:14-23], and prophets[Bible: Deuteronomy 13:1]. Hence, historical interpretations of Judaism mandated the death penalty for apostasy. However, this tenet was later dropped, and in contemporary interpretations of the religion, there is no punishment for leaving the faith.
Appears in: historical Christianity
Christianity inherited the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy from Judaism. Jesus affirms the validity of previous laws in principle [Bible: Matthew 15:4], and Paul also approves of them[Bible: Romans 1:25-32]. Jesus also clarifies that blasphemy against God is a sin that cannot be forgiven[Bible: Matthew 12:30-32, Mark 3:28–30, Luke 12:8–10]. He notes in particular that “if anyone causes one of those who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”[Bible: Matthew 18:6]. Paul encourages us to watch out that none of us “has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God”[Bible: Hebrews 3:12]. He also tells us to warn the heretic twice, and then to “have nothing to do with them”[Bible: Titus 3:10-11], because such people are “warped and sinful”. Based on such verses, the prevalent medieval interpretation of Christianity was that apostasy had to be punished by death. Accordingly, the Inquisition burned thousands of people at the stake. Apostasy remained a punishable offense in Catholic countries until the late 18th century. (In 1826, Cayetano Ripoll was the last person executed for doubting the Catholic teaching.) In 1965, however, the Catholic Church suddenly determined that everybody has the right to religious freedom — quite possibly because Christians had become themselves the largest persecuted religious minority in the world67. Still, apostates (or atheists) are routinely discriminated against in Christian countries, especially in the US: Atheists are excluded from taking a public office in some US states, are associated with criminality, are excluded from family and friends, and discouraged as life partners.
Appears in: Islam
The Quran says “let there be no compulsion in religion”[Quran: 2:256]. However, this verse was historically interpreted so as to apply only to Dhimmis, i.e., to non-Muslims under Muslim rule 68. For Muslims, Islam has historically punished apostasy by death68 (based on Quranic verses that ask adherents to kill unbelievers wherever they find them [Quran: 2:191-193], to strike off their heads[Quran: 8:12], and to fight until all religion is for the god of Islam[Quran: 8:39]). Beyond that, approximately one quarter of the Quran consists of insults, wraths, and threats against unbelievers, who are “the worst of all creatures”[Quran: 98:6-7, 8:55, 45:31, 6:157, 2:98, 4:76-77, 16:27, 2:91, 2:99, 4:101, 2:254, 5:45, 63:4, 80:42, 9:125, 4:61, 9:28, 6:39, 2:99, 24:55, 2:64-66, 5:58-60, 7:166]. The view that apostates should be killed is shared by the Al-Azhar University (the Egyptian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs) (which validated a Sharia that requires the death penalty for apostates69), all four schools of Sunni Islamic law70, the majority of Muslims in Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan, and large pluralities in the other Muslim-majority countries71. Indeed, 12 Muslim countries punish apostasy by death. Even in more liberal Muslim countries (and even in Western countries), apostates face social exclusion, harassment, and worse. However, there are different opinions on the question of what to do with apostates, including the opinion that they are free to leave Islam72.

Criticism of Islam, likewise, is shunned. The Quran prohibits questioning what Allah or the Prophet Mohammed have decided[Quran: 33:36, 5:101]. Blasphemy is considered a crime in the vast majority of Muslim-majority countries73 and all four schools of Sunni Islamic law hold that blasphemy incurs the death penalty74. Even in non-Muslim countries, criticism of Islam can lead to death threats. In this way, nobody (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) can take it lightly to criticize Islam in public, which shields the religion from critical investigation.

Appears in: Hinduism
The Law of Manu withdraws all rights from a person who does not pray as prescribed[Law of Manu: 2/103], downgrades them to the lowest caste[Law of Manu: 11/67], and banishes them from town[Law of Manu: 9/225]. Furthermore, it declares “forgetting the Vedas” (holy scriptures of Hinduism) equivalent to drinking hard liquor[Law of Manu: 11/55-57], which, in and of itself, is a mortal sin. Heretics may not be greeted[Law of Manu: 4/30], may not be given water[Law of Manu: 4/89], and are generally considered to be the “mark of darkness”[Law of Manu: 12/33]. The Mahabharata tells us that “The rejection of one’s own creed, the practice of other people’s creed [are] acts that no one should do”[Mahabharata: Santi Parva/34]. In any case, Hinduism prohibits apostates from marrying believers, thus implicitly shunning and excluding apostates. To this day, atheists (who include many apostates) lack legal recognition in India75, and a member of parliament can openly call for the execution of apostates76.
Appears in: Buddhism
The Buddha teaches that “should anyone say of me: “The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones” [then] he will wind up in hell”[Pali Canon: Majjhima Nikaya/Maha-sihanada Sutta/21]. This statement seems to indicate only otherworldly punishments for apostates, however, in Indonesia, Buddhist authorities have supported the punishment of blasphemy also in this world77.
Does not appear in: Spiritism
This religion was born after the Enlightenment, and hence it argues that man has no “right to set up barriers against freedom of conscience”[Spirits’ Book: § 836]. It is also considered “a fail in charity” to “scandalize those whose belief is not the same as our own”[Spirits’ Book: § 839]. As for the relation with non-adherents, the Spirits' book says: “Let those who consider the facts in question as unworthy of their attention abstain from studying them; no one would attempt to interfere with their belief; but let them, on their part, respect the belief of those who are of a contrary opinion.”
Together, the prohibition of apostasy and interfaith marriage, the encouragement to produce many children are what Thilo Sarrazin calls a “Sperrklinkenautomatik” (ratchet mechanism): the number of adherents of the religion can only increase.
Every true scripture only gains from criticism.
Mahatma Gandhi


Like a hoax mail, a religion will be successful only if it propagates itself. One way to do this is to encourage people to spread the religion. This activity is called proselytism, and it is part of some religious belief systems.
Appears in: Christianity
Jesus tells us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”[Bible: Matthew 28:16-20], and to “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation”[Bible: Mark 16:14-18]. From these verses, mainstream interpretations of Christianity derive what is called “the great commission”, i.e., the duty to bring Christianity to other people. Jehova’s Witnesses and the Mormons are particularly known for their proselytism.
Appears in: Islam
The Quran tells us to “Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious”[Quran: 16:125]. Inspired by this verse, today’s Islam knows “dawah”, i.e., the duty to invite other people to Islam.
Appears in: Bahai Faith
Proselytism is a part of the religion [Lights of Guidance: Teaching]. Bahais who venture into countries to spread the faith are called “pioneers”.
Does not appear in: Spiritism
This religion emphasizes the freedom of conscience[Spirits’ Book: § 836], and is not interested in proselytizing78. At the same time, we should “endeavor to bring back into the path of truth those who are led astray by false principles”[Spirits’ Book: § 841].
Does not appear in: Judaism
This religion is closely bound to the Jewish ethnicity and does not aim to convert others to the faith.
Does not appear in: Hinduism and Buddhism
These religions do not proselytize79.

Keep adherents uneducated

The more educated a person is, the more likely they are to question everything, including their religion. Hence, if a religion encourages people to read and learn, it risks contributing to its own demise. Our theory thus proposes that religions that oppose education will be more successful. However, it is unpopular today to be “against” education and few religious leaders will state that they oppose education. However, we often find that when the original scriptures do not encourage literacy, the historical or contemporary interpretations don’t either.
Appears in: Historical Catholicism
The Bible tells the story of the Tree of Knowledge[Bible: Genesis 2-3]: God punishes Adam and Eve, the mythological progenitors of mankind, for eating from a tree whose fruit gives knowledge; i.e., he punishes them for striving for knowledge. The Bible also encourages us to believe in God with the heart rather than the mind (or our own formulations of understanding)[Bible: Proverbs 3:5]. These are isolated passages, but they were mirrored in the historical disdain for literacy during the reign of the Catholic Church in Europe: The literacy rate remained below 20% during the Middle Ages, only rising once the Church lost power during the Enlightenment80. Until the 20th century, the Catholic Church censored books and even prohibited people from reading the Bible on their own, without guidance from a Priest. This later changed, and since 1992, the Church “forcefully exhorts all the Christians [...] to read the divine Scriptures”[Catechism of the Catholic Church: 133].
Appears in: Islam
The first word that the Prophet Mohammed reported to have heard from the angel Gabriel was “iqra” — an instruction that is often translated as “read!”[Quran: 96:1-5]. However, Mohammed was known to be illiterate[Quran: 7:157, 7:158], and thus the instruction is alternatively translated as “recite!”. Mohammed made no effort to become literate — and the Quran presents him as “an excellent example for whoever has hope in Allah”[Quran: 33:21]. Consequently, the Quran does not contain verses that actively encourage people to become literate or to read books other than the Quran. While it does encourage reasoning, it prohibits questioning the faith[Quran: 33:36, 5:101].

Nevertheless, education, higher learning, and science flourished in the Muslim world during the Golden Age of Islam from the 8th century to the 14th century. The end of the Golden Age, however, saw an increased influence of the idea that divine revelation is superior to other types of knowledge. The natural sciences, critical questioning and art were downplayed81. The printing press, invented in the 15th century, arrived in the Muslim world only in the 18th century82. As of 2016, 25% of people in Muslim-majority countries are illiterate, compared to 13% in other developing countries and 2% in the developed world83. This extend to India as well, where Muslims are the religious group with the highest illiteracy rate at 20% (comparable only to the illiteracy rate among members of the groups traditionally called “Untouchables”)84.

Appears less in: Judaism
The religion has traditionally put a large emphasis on education. Sometime around 65 C.E., Jewish high priest Joshua ben Gamla issued a religious decree that every Jewish father should send his young sons to primary school to learn to read in order to study the Torah. Over the next few centuries, a formal school system attached to synagogues was established81. During the Middle Ages, Jews were prohibited from owning land and were excluded from guilds in in Europe, which pushed them into more intellectual professions such as trade and moneylending85. To this date, education remains an important value for Jews86, and Jews are the most highly educated of the world’s major religious groups81. Only the ultra-orthodox Jews focus mainly on religious education at the expense of secular education87.
Does not appear in: Spiritism
This religion was born after the Enlightenment. Hence, it holds that “It is only education that can reform mankind”[Spirits’ Book: § 796].
Does not appear in: Confucianism
The first sentence of his Analects is “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned?”[Analects: 1:1]. This theme is repeated throughout the book[Analects: 8:13, 1:6, 2:15, 5:28, 7:6, 7:19, 8:12, 8:17, 12:15, 16:9, 17:6, 19:13].
So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in the praise of intelligence.
Bertrand Russell


Most religions have rituals, i.e., ceremonies that are performed with the goal of pleasing or interacting with the supernatural. These rituals fulfill important social functions: they create a feeling of community, manage anxieties, and give meaning to one’s environment88. A religion that offers such rituals is thus more attractive than a religion that does not.

There is a second raison-d'être for rituals that has to do with the fact that the religious community can give material advantages to its members. The problem is that these advantages also come to those who just happen to live in the religious community without actually sharing its values and commitments. These are the so-called “free riders”. The free-rider problem is difficult to overcome by monitoring alone. However, it can be mitigated by the costly rituals: they serve to screen out people who are not sufficiently committed to the community89. The costly-signaling theory90 suggests that this effort pays off: If someone goes through the trouble of following the rules of his or her religion in every detail, then they signal trustworthiness, responsibility, seriousness, and commitment to the group. The more effort the rules require, the stronger the signal.

The strongest signal of all is suffering91: If you suffer physical harm for your religion (by fasting, self-mutilation, persecution, or martyrdom), then this is the clearest signal to others that you are a true believer. This is because physical suffering is one of the phenomena that even the most meta-physical of thinkers have to accept as truth (lest they be exposed to it). Your suffering convinces not just others, but also yourself: As soon as you undergo elective harm for your religion, you have to believe in it. Otherwise, you would have to admit to yourself that you have been fooled.

In this spirit, all religions have developed rituals that are physically unproductive, but serve to display commitment to the community.

Appears in: Christianity
fasting, and publicly displaying one's faith through public prayersand church attendance.
Appears in: Judaism
public prayers, religious clothing (most notably the kippah, a skullcap worn by men), weekly rest on Saturdays (Shabbat), dietary laws, male circumcision, and various festivals.
Appears in: Islam
abstinence from alcohol and pork, the veil for women, eating only halal food, male circumcision, daily prayer, almsgiving, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca.
Appears in: Hinduism
worshipping, bathing, yoga, meditation, chanting, pilgrimage, festivals, and rites of passage.
Appears in: Buddhism
prayers, meditations, honoring the Buddha or a Buddha-figure by offerings, for example.
Appears in: Taoism
burning of Joss papers, and festivals.
Appears in: Confucianism
worship of ancestors, ceremonies for life-marking events, as well as festivals.
Appears in: Spiritism
séances, i.e., rituals that serve to get into touch with the spirits.
The anthropologist John Tooby hypothesizes that people prove their loyalty to the religious community not just by following costly rituals, but also by professing “costly” beliefs. These beliefs are costly in the sense that they are so incoherent that only a true believer would profess them (such as “God is one and three at the same time”). He hypothesizes that preposterous beliefs are more effective signals of coalitional loyalty than reasonable ones. The Canadian-American cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker agrees and argues that there are zones of life beyond the immediate experience: the distant past, the unknowable future, and the metaphysical. People have no way of finding out what happens in these zones, any beliefs about them are difficult or impossible to falsify. In any case, any claim about these zones makes no discernible difference to a person’s life. Therefore, these zones are areas where people can profess beliefs that serve not to communicate a fact, but to show adherence to a community or ideology. Whether these beliefs are literally true or false is the wrong question to ask. The function of these beliefs is to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and gives it a moral purpose92.
Anyone can say that rocks fall down rather than up, but only a person who is truly committed to to the brethren has a reason to say that God is three persons but also one person.
Stephen Pinker in “Enlightenment Now”

Alliances with political power

Some religions have developed the strategy of allying with the ruler or ruling class of their society. In this scheme, the religion justifies the authority of the ruler and, therefore, the ruler has an interest in making his subjects adhere to the religion. In this way, both religion and power mutually assure their own survival:
Appears in: Christianity
Christianity was originally a minority religion in the Roman Empire, and Christians were even persecuted for their refusal to worship the Roman Emperor. However, Jesus laid a basis for the co-existence of religion and state by proclaiming “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” [Bible: Mark 12:17]. After the Roman emperor Constantine the Great legalized and popularized Christianity (313 CE), it gradually became the majority religion in Europe. Since then, kings and emperors from Constantine himself to the medieval European kings (such as Louis XIV of France) and even modern monarchs (such as the king or queen of England) have used this Bible verse and others to justify their rule .
Appears in: Chinese religions (historically)
These religions know a “Mandate from Heaven”, which gives the emperor the divine right to rule93. This divine right was installed in 1000 BCE, and most likely ceased, at the latest, with the introduction of state atheism in the Chinese Revolution of 1949 .
Appears in: Historical Hinduism
Hinduism knows the concept of divine kings, i.e., kings who have a divine power and authority[Law of Manu: 7:8]. To keep this divine authority, the kings fostered good relationships with the priests (Brahmins) who had, themselves, an interest in the survival of the religion. Today, India is a republic and thus has no king.
Does not appear in: Bahai Faith
Like the Bible, the scripture of the Bahai Faith offers a path for co-existence of religion and secular authority: Its Book of Laws stresses obedience to the government[Book of Laws: IV/D/1/m]. However, being a smaller religion, the Bahai Faith did not yet have the occasion to ally with a secular government.

Intellectual Strategies


In the terminology of this book, a religion is a set of statements, some of which are supernatural. Such a set of statements can be used to make predictions about the world. The problem is that these predictions may turn out to be false. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the end of the world in 1914. When this failed to come about, they updated their prediction to 1918, and later to 1925 — each time without success. Such false predictions make adherents leave the religion, and, therefore, the safest choice for a religion would be to make no predictions whatsoever. This, however, would make the religion uninteresting and meaningless. Another option is to make only very vague predictions. For example, Christianity has been predicting for 2000 years that the end of the world is “near”[Bible: 1 Peter:4-7]. This prediction seems to be sufficiently vague enough to be plausible, while at the same time sufficiently interesting enough to be attractive. Technically, the statement is unfalsifiable. Unfalsifiable predictions have the advantage that nobody can find out whether they are wrong. Hence, most religions that have survived until today make only unfalsifiable predictions. (This is also what makes them a religion in the first place, according to the definition we use in this book.)
Appears in: Christianity
This religion postulates the existence of a god, which is unfalsifiable. It also claims that the end of the world is “near”. Since it does not predict a fixed date, this prediction is unfalsifiable.
Appears in: Judaism, Bahai Faith, Islam
All of them postulate the existence of a god, which is unfalsifiable.
Appears in: Hinduism and Buddhism
These religions all postulate that bad deeds will have bad consequences (the Karma theory), possibly in another life. This is an unfalsifiable claim.
Appears in: Confucianism and Taoism
These religions postulate the existence of a supra-system, called “Tao” or “Heaven”. This supra-system is called powerful, ordered, awe-inspiring, and un-describable — but no falsifiable predictions can be derived from it.
Appears in: Spiritism
Spiritism is based on purported physical manifestation of spirits. Thus, its statements are falsifiable (it suffices to ask the spirits again and get a different answer). However, Spiritism, too, falls back on the unfalsifiable for the definition of its world model: “What appears like a void to you is occupied by matter in a state in which it escapes the action of your senses and of your instruments”[Spirits’ Book: § 36].
- A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage!
- Great, show me!
- Oh, she’s an invisible dragon.
- Then show me the footprints!
- Good idea, but this dragon floats in the air...
- Let’s hear her breathe!
- She does not actually make any sounds that can be perceived by the human ear...
- Then let’s spray-paint the dragon and make her visible!
- She’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick...
- Then what is the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, inaudible, floating dragon and no dragon at all?
a variant of “The Dragon In My Garage” in Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”

Assume equivalence

Religions typically take care to educate people about their own religion. However, there are many religions, and adherents may thus be tempted to explore (or even convert to) the alternatives. Therefore, the religion must explain why it is the only true religion among the many. One strategy is to claim that the others are just variants of one’s own religion.
Appears in: Christianity
There is a common opinion in the West that all religions essentially believe in the Christian god, just in different forms. The Catholic Church alludes to this belief by saying that “from ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power [of God] which hovers over the course of things”95.
Appears in: Islam
Islam holds that all people are born with a natural faith in God[Quran: 30:30], and that their initial true beliefs are then corrupted by their parents and society[Sahih Muslim: 2658e]. Furthermore, the messages of all prophets before the Prophet Mohammed have been corrupted by the devil[Quran: 22:52].
Appears in: Bahai Faith
This religion holds that all religions basically serve the same purpose, and that the Bahai Faith unites them all[Lights of Guidance: 1701].
Appears in: Hinduism
This religion encompasses so many different beliefs, gods, and traditions, that it is a prevalent opinion that other religions are just special cases of this system. The Buddha, for example, is sometimes considered an incarnation of Krishna. Allah, likewise, is sometimes identified with Brahman96. The Bhagavadgita explains that whoever worships another god just worships a form of appearance of the Hindu god Krishna[Bhagavadgita: 9:23].
Appears in: Spiritism
Spiritism argues that “all religions teach you that the souls of the departed continue to see you; but they regard your afflictions from another point of view”[Spirits’ Book: § 976].
We’re Hindus. Your theological and philosophical distinctiveness will be added to our own. Your god will be added to our pantheon. Resistance is futile.
Jayesh Lalwani on

Claim an illusion

Religions have to explain to their followers why other religions exist. One way to do that is to claim that these other religions are just wrong variants of one’s own religion. Alternatively (or in addition), one can claim that the other religions have been deliberately created by the powers of one’s own religion. Thereby, the existence of the other religion becomes proof for the power of one’s own spirits.
Appears in: Judaism
If a prophet from another religion performs a miracle, then “the Lord your God is testing you”[Bible: Deuteronomy 13:1-5]. Thus, a miracle by any non-Jewish prophet is nothing more than proof of the power of the Jewish God.
Appears in: Christianity
Jesus predicts that “false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders”[Bible: Matthew 24:11,24]. In this way, Christians can believe that any prophet who appears and performs miracles is nothing more than proof of Jesus' prediction. Jehovah’s Witnesses, a denomination of Christianity, maintain that the non-Christian religions were created by the devil97 (§ 6.15). Thus, their existence mainly testifies the power of the devil.
Appears in: Islam
Whenever another religion claims a miracle, Islam can say that these miracles were done by the Jinns — the spirits of Islam. As for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Quran tells us that Jesus was not really resurrected. God only made it seem as if Jesus was resurrected [Quran: 4:157-158]. Thus, the apparent resurrection is really just a proof of the power of Allah.
So there are a billion Muslims who think that all the Christians are delusional. And there are two billion Christians who think all the Muslims are delusional. Would you consider, at least for a moment, the possibility that all three billion of you are delusional?

A meaning of life

The Israeli history professor Yuval Noah Harari hypothesizes91 that a religion (or, in fact, any ideology) has to provide a kind of story that explains the world. This story must have two properties:
  1. It must be bigger than the life of an individual person, i.e., it must encompass a nation, the world, or the universe.
  2. It must provide a role for the individual believer. Each individual person must have an important contribution to that big story.
As it so happens, the major religions all have a meme that satisfies these desiderata:
Appears in: Abrahamic religions
The Abrahamic religions offer several stories that give people a reason to live, and all of them reserve an important role for the individual. One story goes that God created humans to praise him. And so, every single human is called to serve that one higher being. Another story goes that life is a big test for the afterlife: God cares about each individual and wants to see whether each particular person deserves going to Heaven. Yet another story goes that God has a big plan for humanity, in which we all must play our part.
Appears in: Indian religions
The Indian religions hold that we exist to go through a cycle of rebirths until we are finally pure enough to reach Nirvana. Again, the story is of cosmic dimensions, and yet there is a chance to reach Nirvana for every single one of us.
Does not appear in: Confucianism
Confucius was mainly concerned with worldly behavior and goals. He is believed to have said: “to put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate ourselves; and to cultivate ourselves, we must first extend our knowledge”[Four Books: Great Learning § 4].
Appears in: Taoism
Taoism holds that humans should live in balance with the Tao (the universe), and that the spirit of the body joins the universe after death98. In this way, every single person is connected to the universe as a whole.
From an atheist perspective, the idea that we have any sort of cosmically vital role is absurd, given the size and scope of the universe and the unimportance of our planet in it49. In the words of David Hume: The life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster99.
Most people who seek their identity are just like children who seek a treasure. They find only what their parents have hidden for them.
Yuval Noah Harari in his book “21 lessons for the 21st century”

God’s glory

A religion has to explain why bad things happen to good people. One particularly successful strategy is to say that good things come from the main deity, while bad things happen because the deity pursues a deeper purpose, which cannot be understood by humans. This way, the glory of the deity can only increase. If something good happens, it shows the power and benevolence of the deity; if something bad happens, it shows that the deity is so smart that it can do things whose positive effect we cannot see. Thus, reality works like a double-acting reciprocating pump: both bad things and good things (forward and backward movements) increase the belief in the deity. Such a theory is, of course, unfalsifiable, because it just reconciles a posteriori whatever happened with the supposed intention of the deity. It can never be used to predict what will happen.
Appears in: Christianity
In popular interpretations of this religion, good events in life are ascribed to God or Jesus. A bad event can be explained in various ways: (1) it is a mysterious act of God that we do not understand[Deuteronomy 29:29]; (2) God makes the event happen so that something good can happen ultimately[Bible: John 9:3]; and (3) it is part of the disasters that were predicted to happen when the end is near[Bible: Matthew 24:7-8, Mark 13:7-9]. In this way, believers will view any deterioration of the situation as confirmation of the prophecy, and any improvement as a gift from God40. We discuss the problem of evil in detail in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God.
Appears in: Islam
The Quran tells us that “whatever good befalls you is from Allah and whatever evil befalls you is from yourself”[Quran: 4:79]. This way, God takes the glory for all positive things while rejecting the responsibility for the negative. Problems in life also have their purpose: they are a test of one’s belief [Quran: 2:155-157]. Thus, everything that happens, good or bad, can be seen as proof of God. We discuss other psychological factors of Islam later in this book.
Appears in: Buddhism and Hinduism
These religions believe in Karma, i.e., the idea that good deeds will entail good things in life, and bad deeds will entail bad things, either in this life or in the next. This is assured by a supra-system, which issues these rewards and punishments. Thus, whatever happens can be interpreted as proof of the existence of this supra-system. If something good happens, this shows that the supra-system rewards good people; if something bad happens, this shows that you must have done something bad in the past, and that this is your punishment.
Appears in: Spiritism
In this religion, earthly life is a trial[Spirits’ Book: § 920-926]: “If a righteous man undergoes misfortune, it is a trial from which, being bravely borne, he will reap a rich reward”, most likely in the afterlife or in a different incarnation. Thus, either God bestows happiness upon us (in which case he is evidently a good god), or he bestows sorrows upon us (in which case we will later reap a rich reward, and God is still a good god). Hence, no matter what happens, God is always good.
Any god deserving worship would not want it.
Any god wanting worship would not deserve it.


“Through deep study of ancient [Hindu] religious literature, they showed that all such practices [oppression of women, child marriage, and caste rigidity] were contrary to true religion.”

in the Palace Museum in New Delhi, India; click to enlarge

Finally, we come to a phenomenon that is not exactly a meme (in the sense of a belief that is perpetuated), but rather a characteristic that has allowed religions to survive.

Religions typically present themselves as eternal value systems. However, the values of society change. For example, slavery was accepted during much of humanity’s history while now it is shunned. If a religion had prohibited slavery, it would never have gained popularity in ancient times; if it allows slavery today, it risks being abandoned. Therefore, only those religions that are sufficiently vague in their moral tenets can survive through the ages.

Appears in: Christianity
The Bible contains both the loving God (in the Old Testament) and the punishing God (in the Old Testament). With this, Christians can find support for different theses in their book. For example, slavery was once completely accepted and defended as the normal state of affairs based on Bible verses that lay down laws for slavery (for example, “when a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and [...] the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money”[Bible: Exodus 21]). Today, slavery is shunned, also based on Bible verses. In particular, the 7th Commandment “Thou shalt not steal”[Bible: Exodus 20:15] is interpreted so as to prohibit slavery[Catechism of the Catholic Church: § 2414]. We discuss other cases where Christianity changed its mind in the Chapter on Christianity.
Appears in: Islam
This religion has seen different interpretations based on different translations of the Quran, the abrogation of verses, the dependence on context, the choice of Hadiths, and the schools and interpretation of the Quranic verses. With this, adherents of Islam had and have different opinions on child marriage, the veil, slavery, women’s rights, and apostasy, and all are convinced that their position is supported by the holy book.
Appears in: Judaism
The Hebrew Bible abounds with instructions to execute criminals by stoning, hanging, burning, stabbing, and crushing. Judaism traditionally used stoning, burning, beheading, and strangulation. However, Reform Judaism has declared retroactively that “both in concept and in practice, Jewish tradition found capital punishment repugnant”100.
Appears in: Hinduism
This religion is based on ancient books that have led to different viewpoints. For example, the Law of Manu presents the caste system as the natural order of things[Law of Manu: 1/87-91, 3/13]. So does the Bhagavadgita[Bhagavadgita: 1.40-43, 4.13, 18.41-44]. However, newer readings of ancient texts say that the caste system was never a part of Hinduism66 (see picture).
Appears in: Spiritism
The Spirits' Book says “Humans [...] must modify their laws because they are imperfect, but God’s laws are perfect”[Spirits’ Book: §616-618]
Vox populi, vox dei.
(The voice of the people is the voice of god.)
The Atheist Bible, next chapter: The Abrahamic Religions


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