The Atheist Bible

Chapter on Memes

The Atheist Bible / Chapter on Memes. © Fabian M. Suchanek


This chapter analyses strategies that religions have developed in order to survive. The chapter consists of the following sections:


Hoax Mails

A hoax mail is an email that warns of a non-existant threat. The following email, e.g., was sent out in 2006 Olympic Torch:
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 mail warns of a virus, but this virus does not actually exist. Still, fearful and well-meaning users sent the mail around in the millions. Why is this?

The mail has several elements that make it so successful:

Anybody who wishes to create such a Hoax email has to take care that it contains these successful elements. If an email instills fear in a credible manner, it is more likely to appeal to the more gullible people. These people will then propagate the email to other gullible people, who will again forward it, and so on — and within days the Internet is afloat with copies of the mail.

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


A meme is a statement or set of statements that spreads from person to person. One type of memes is a hoax email, of which we have just seen an example. But a meme can also be a belief (such as “There exist 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”). Under more general interpretations, it can also be a symbol (such as a swastika), a gesture, or any other imitable phenomenon Meme. In particular, a religion in the sense of this book is a meme.

The name “meme” was invented to ressemble the word “gene”. The reason is that memes and genes undergo very similar procedures:

Passing on
They can be passed on. For genes, this happens between one generation and the next. For memes this happens between one person and another person who adopts the meme. A hoax email, for example, is passed on by forwarding it to other people. A religious meme can be passed on by education or proselytism.
They can be modified. For genes, this happens through mutation. For memes, this happens by slightly changing the meme or by merging memes. A hoax email, for example, can be updated by a malicious receiver before forwarding it, or it can exist in multiple versions. Internet advertisers, e.g., use hundreds of different variants of a Facebook post in order to determine which one survives best The Ecomonist: Once considered a boon to democracy, social media have started to look like its nemesis, 2017-11-04. In the same way, religious memes exist in multiple variations. Once a variation becomes too different from the mother meme, it becomes a new denomination or a new religion. This has happened several times in history (see, e.g., the succession of the abrahamic religions).
They 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. Most hoax emails, e.g., die out after a few months, when all receivers have either been warned or already fell victim to it. For religious memes, we observe that hundreds of religions have died out this way. They have been overridden by more modern religions.
This makes it possible to study the life of memes much like we study the life of genes. Just like a gene, a meme can become extinct, be inherited, have reproductive success, mutate, and propagate. 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. The meme has its own existence. Much like an animal is only the host of a gene, a person is only the host of a meme.

Meme Selection

A meme is a set of statements that gets passed on from person to person. In this process, a meme undergoes natural selection: one meme can give rise to several slight modifications of itself. For example, the meme “Be fruitful and multiply” can give rise to
  1. “You shall have as many children as possible”
  2. “You shall have 1 child”
  3. “You shall have no children” well as many other variations.

Some of these variations will be passed on successfully to many other people, while others will die in their tracks. In the example, the meme Number 1 will produce many children, and most likely these children will again follow the meme. Thus, the next generation will see many followers, and the next-next generation even more followers. This is the strategy of the abrahamic religions: They encourage adherents to produce many children and thus they secure their own survival. The meme Number 3, in contrast, will not produce any children. Thus, the next generation will see 0 adherents of the meme. The only way to find adherents for the meme is through proselytism. There was indeed a religion that prohibited having children — the Shakers Shakers. If the abrahamic system and the Shaker system are run side by side, it is clear that after a few generations, there will be more adherents of the abrahamic system than of the Shaker system. This is indeed what happened: The Shaker system has only 3 adherents as of 2009 Sabbathday.

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 this religion so that it would expand quickly. In particular, the religion pays members to attract more members, which makes the religion grow. In this case, it is likely that the memes of Scientology were designed with a purpose.

In other cases, the memes may have evolved through natural selection: several memes were proposed, and the more successful ones survived. For example, 1500 years ago, there were several pagan religions on the Arab peninsula. Islam entered the stage as a proselytising religion: Its aim is to convert people to this religion. If a proselytizing religion is run side by side with a non-proselytizing one, it is clear wich side wins over time. However, it is not clear whether the proselytism meme was deliberately designed, or whether it was just taken over from Christianity. Thus, this particular meme may be an example for a strategy that came to dominate naturally.

In many other cases, the survival of a religion was not due to its evolutionary superiority, but due to political, military, or economical successes. For example, the spread of Christianity in Africa and the Americas is largely due to colonialism.

Some religions are also mixture models: Catholicism, for example, has the dogma that priests, monks, and nuns may not marry. This is a clear disadvantage from a meme-survival point of view, because the most pious cannot reproduce. So whoever came up with this dogma clearly did not aim at a maximum expansion of the religion. Then again, Catholicism also prohibits contraception and encourages reproduction among its adherents . This has the effect that Catholics traditionally have more children than, say, Protestants. Jesus did not talk of contraception. Thus, the prohibition of contraception might have been added later on, possibly also deliberately to aid the propagation of the religion. This makes it possible that Catholicism is a mixture model, where some memes were deliberately designed, and others were not.

If someone designes a meme deliberately, 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 look 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 evolved naturally, or whether it was designed deliberately. We will just note where a meme exists, and analyze its effect on the survival of a religion.

Meme Theories

We will now look into religious memes that are particularly successful. Not all religions have all of these memes. So, the theory is not that every religion has all of these memes. Rather, the theory is that these memes can help explain the success of certain religions. More precisely, the theory for each of these memes is:
If we take a religion with this particular meme, and a religion that does not have this meme, but is otherwise identical, then the former will prevail over the latter over the coming generations.
We will note with each meme the religions use it, and those that do not. We will treat nearly all religions that currently have more than 10 million adherents: Hinduism, Spiritualism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Islam, Taoism, and Christianity. We also include the Bahai Faith, but we do not treat Sikhism and Shintoism. For Spiritualism, we will take its most visible denomination, Spiritism. For Christianity, we will occasionally distinguish the denominations of Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Catholicism. We will also occasionally group the abrahamic religions together or the Chinese religions.

Technically, a religion is a set of statements. We would like to say whether the set includes the particular meme or not. However, it is difficult to say whether a religion includes a particular belief or not. Therefore, we will rarely talk about the religion itself. Rather, we will talk about their holy books or official lists of beliefs. We will also talk about particular interpretations of the religion: We will say that a particular interpretation of the religion includes a particular belief. As always, we will never single out the “true interpretation” 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”. The story is hilarious, and I can only recommend reading it. Here, we just give a summary:
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. The rules are a mixture of common sense and esoteric dietary guidance. Of course, no-one is actually allowed to see Hank. Furthermore, people 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 trust. 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. RationalWiki / Kissing Hank’s Ass

This story sounds patently absurd: Nobody would follow the religion of Hank, because Hank just promises lots of things, but allows nobody to verify them. And yet, the world religions work in much the same way: They also promise lots of things, but allow nobody to verify them or to criticise them. These are but two of the characteristics that religions have developed over time. We will discuss these and many others in the sequel.

Population control


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

For example, assume that a religious couple has 10 children, that it educates them religiously, and that these 10 children marry again religious people, and proceed in the same way. Then, after only 5 generations (roughly 100 years), the family can fill a village, and after 10 generations (roughly 200 years), they will be 20m people — conditions permitting. If this strategy is run next to a strategy that encourages people to have few children, then the fertility strategy will outnumber the other strategy exponentially fast.

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

Applies to: Judaism
In the Torah, God commands people to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” [Bible / Genesis 1:28]. This command resonates in all abrahamic religions. Consequently, the conservative strains of Judaism prohibit contraception Jewish views on contraception.
Applies to: Catholicism
Catholicism inherits the commandment to multiply from the Torah. It 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.
Applies to: 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." IslamQA / Encouragement to have a lot of children. Consequently, the current mainstream interpretations of Islam are strongly pro-family and regards children as a gift from God British Broadcasting Company / Religion / Islam / Islamic views on contraception. At the same time, contraception is allowed in most contemporary interpretations of Islam. This contradicts the above strategy. Yet, it was necessary to allow the practice of sex with slaves. The Hadith that regulate contraception (in its ancient form: the coitus interruptus) stem from fears that slave girls might get pregnant (Wikipedia / Islamic sexual jurisprudence, Sunan Abu-Dawud / Book 11 / 2166). We discuss past and current interpretations of Islamic sexual jurisprudence later.
Applies to: Spiritism
Man “may regulate reproduction according to his needs; but he ought not to hinder it unnecessarily” Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 693. Also, the world population will never become too numerous (ibid / § 687).
Applies to: Bahai Faith
The Bahai Book of Laws states that “the very purpose of marriage is the procreation of children”. Contraception is allowed, but viewed with reservations in the Bahai Faith Bahai Works / Laws / 1160.
Does not apply to: Hinduism
The Law of Manu says that the purpose of marriage is sex Law of Manu / 3 / 32. Yet currently, family planning is seen as ethically good by the majority of Hindus, and there is no opposition against contraception Dawn Stacey: What Do Religions Say About Birth Control and Family Planning? — Hinduism, 2016-04-20. At 2.50, the birth rate in India is lower than in most African nations.
Does not apply to: Chinese religions
These religions emphasize the importance of balance and harmony in 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 Dawn Stacey : What Do Religions Say About Birth Control and Family Planning? — Taoism, Confucianism, 2016-04-20.
Varied: Protestantism
Protestantism inherits the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” from the Torah. Yet, protestants have a wide range of opinions on contraception Protestant views on contraception.
Varied: Buddhism
There is no unifying stance for Buddhism on the topic Dawn Stacey : What Do Religions Say About Birth Control and Family Planning? — Buddhism, 2016-04-20. The Dalai Lama states that “married couples should have children unless there are compelling reasons not to”, but says that “family planning is important” Dalai Lama: Messages / Environment / The Natural World, and that some “countries must curb their population growth” Dalai Lama: Messages / Environment / Politics and Environment.

Prohibit Interfaith Marriage

In India [unknown source]
We have seen that it is beneficial for a religion to encourage large families. This strategy, however, works only if the offspring of such a family marries again within the religion. Therefore, one common strategy is to prohibit marriage across religions. People are not allowed to marry people of other faiths. The majority of large religions work this way Interfaith marriage.
Applies to: Judaism
The Talmud prohibits interfaith marriage Talmud / Mishnah / Kiddushin / 68b / 1. A diaspora religion such as Judaism would not have survived without this constraint.
Applies to: Hinduism
According to the Laws of Manu, marriage may happen only within one caste Laws of Manu / 3 / 13. Since non-Hindus do not belong to a Hindu caste, interfaith marriage is prohibited Interfaith Marriage. Hindu leaders have declared that “Marriage conducted between couples of different religions [...] would in fact amount to adultery” Jakarta Globe: Religious Leaders Present Conflicting Views on Interfaith Marriage, 2014-11-25. The vast majority of marriages are arranged marriages anyway Arranged marriage in the Indian subcontinent.
Applies to: Christianity
The Bible prohibits interfaith marriage (Bible / 2 Corinthians 6:14, Deuteronomy 7:3), although another verse seems to permit it (Bible / 1 Corinthians 7:12-14). Consequently, different denominations of Christianity have different views: Catholicism forbid interfaith marriage until 1917 Interreligiöse Ehe. Nowadays, it allows mixed marriages with a dispensation Canon Law / 1124-1125, but no ceremony of another religion is allowed (ibid / 1127 / § 2), and the children have to be raised as Catholics (ibid / 1125 / 1). Thus, the basic purpose of replicating the religion remains intact. Protestant denominations may have different view points. In Indonesia, Catholic and Protestant authorities are opening up to interfaith marriage Jakarta Post: NU, MUI dissent on marriage law petition, 2014-11-06. Orthodox Christianity forbids marriage with non-Christians, as I can testify from personal experience.
Applies to: Islam
The Quran prohibits marriage with non-Muslims (Quran / 2:221, 60:10). However, it allows Muslim men to marry women from the Abrahamic religions (Quran / 5:5). This model works under the assumption that the husband dominates the marriage. It allows Islam to spread also in non-Muslim lands. This regulation is the current mainstream interpretation of Islam. It is also the law in many Muslim countries — including moderate countries such as Tunisia Le Monde des Religions: Le droit d’épouser un non-musulman, 2017-05.
Applies to: Confucianism
I could not find references in the scripture of Confucianism on interfaith marriage. 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.” Jakarta Globe: Religious Leaders Present Conflicting Views on Interfaith Marriage, 2014-11-25.
Does not apply to: Spiritism
The “Spirits’ Book” mentions no such law.
Does not apply to: 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 is a remarkable consistency in reasoning: The credo “All religions are the same” is upheld even in the face of its implications. 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 Buddhist view of marriage. In Indonesia, Buddhist authorities have been ambivalent about interfaith marriage Jakarta Post: NU, MUI dissent on marriage law petition, 2014-11-06.
Unclear: Taoism
I could not find a unified stance in Taoism on the matter.

Shunning Homosexuality

One of the most effective strategies for the proliferation of a religion is to encourage large families. Obviously, homosexual people are an impediment to this strategy. Gay people do not reproduce. Therefore, the religion has an interest in prohibiting homosexuality. It is clear that this does not change a person from gay to straight. But social pressure may push the gay person to marry a partner of the opposite sex, and to found a family. For the procreation of the faith, it does not matter whether the person enjoys having a family or not, as long as they produce children.

Many religious memes may be the result of natural selection, and thus not necessarily explicitly designed by people. However, the prohibition of homosexuality may be explicitly designed. This is because homosexuality alone is unlikely to reduce the Darwinian competitiveness of a society: Only around 2-10% of the human population are thought to be homosexual Demographics of sexual orientation. Thus, 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 minds of ancient people (and many people today), it was not clear that homosexuality has a natural upper bound given by the genetic configuration of people. It was possibly perceived as a practice that could spread to everybody, much like the habit of drinking alcohol. Leaders who thought this way had an incentive to forbid homosexuality.

Applies to: Judaism
The prohibition of homosexuality is anchored in the Torah. It 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 is death [Bible / Leviticus 20:13]. However, Judaism no longer implements the death penalty.
Applies to: Catholicism
Catholicism inherited the punishment of homosexuals from the Torah. However, it also no longer implements the death penalty. It disapproves of homosexual acts, but welcomes people with homosexual tendencies Vatican: Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies.
Varied: Christianity
While the mainstream churches of Christianity do not allow homosexuals to marry, liberal Christians are supportive of homosexuals Religion and Homosexuality. Some of their churches allow homosexuals to marry.
Applies to: Islam
The Quran seems to condemn homosexuality (Quran/26:165-166, 7:80-81). Consequently, the vast majority of Muslims reject homosexuality, and it is punishable by death or imprisonment in many Muslim countries.
Applies to: Bahai Faith
The Bahai Faith views homosexuality as a distortion of nature, which should be controlled and overcome Bahai Works / Laws / 1222.
Applies to: Buddhism
In the words of the Dalai Lama, Buddhism shuns homosexuality Lifesitenews: The Dalai Lama, Like the Pope, Says Gay Sex is “Sexual Misconduct”, 2007-11-02. In Indonesia, Buddhist leaders have spoken up against homosexuality as well Jakarta Post: Religious leaders soften stance on LGBTs, 2016-02-19. However, Buddhism has harbored different views on the topic Buddhism and sexual orientation.
Unknown: Spiritism
Given the encouragement to reproduce, Allan Kardec most likely looked unfavorably upon gay people. At the same time, his “Spirits’ Book” makes no mention of homosexuality.
Varied: Hinduism
The Law of Manu condemns homosexuality Law of Manu / 11 / 175. Yet, Hinduism is a very heterogeneous religion, and comprises different opinions towards homosexuality Religion and Homosexuality.
Applies to: Taoism
Homosexuality was a common phenomenon in Chinese history. Hence, the Chinese religions did not take a uniform and explicit stance against homosexuality. However, opposition against homosexuality rose in medieval ages Homosexuality in China. Taoism explicitly condemns homosexuality: “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” The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts.
Applies to: Confucianism
This religion, likewise, condemns homosexuality Jakarta Post: Must not support LGBT to heal them: Religious leaders, 2016-02-18.
Does not apply to: 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” Religion and Homosexuality. Raëlism, likewise, is open to homosexuality Raelism.
God created Man in his image:
Intolerant, sexist, homophobic, and violent
Captain Atheist 2012

Sex only for procreation

Jesus and Mo
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 found a family? One strategy is to reserve sex only for the purpose of procreation. Since people have a natural drive for sex, this strategy ensures that people reproduce. For this goal, we have to prohibit the following: Consequently, most world religions have developed a rather strict sexual morale.
Applies to: Catholicism
The 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 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” [ibid ff], and “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception” [ibid/2270].
Applies to: Islam
Current mainstream interpretations of Islam generally encourage sex in the couple. They generally forbid anal sex Islamic sexual jurisprudence — presumably because it does not lead to conception. The Quran prohibits sex during menstruation, which is when the woman cannot conceive (Quran / 2:222). It also requests men and women to “guard their private parts”, which is sometimes interpreted as a prohibition of pornography (Quran / 24:30). Many interpretations of Islam prohibit masturbation based on Quran / 23:5-6 Islam and masturbation. The Quran also prohibits sex outside the couple, unless with sex slaves (Quran / 24:2-3). Abortion is currently mainly shunned Islamic sexual jurisprudence. Since people can have sex only in a marriage, and since people marry later and later, this has led to a kind of sex deprivation among younger people.
Applies to: Judaism and Christianity
A woman who is no longer a virgin when she marries is to be stoned to death (Bible / Deuteronomy 22:13-21). Sex outside wedlock also incurs the death penalty (Bible / Deuteronomy 22:22). 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” Religious views on masturbation. Based on these sources, conservative variants of Judaism and Christianity shun adultery, masturbation, adultery, and pre-marital sex. Jesus reportedly said “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery” [Bible / Matthew 5:27-28], which can be understood as a prohibition of pornography. Judaism even prohibits a man and a woman who are not married to each other from being in the same room alone Yichud.
Applies to: Buddhism
The second of the Five Virtues prohibits “sexual misconduct”, which is commonly interpreted as sex outside wedlock Buddhism and sexuality. Buddhism identifies sexual craving as one of the hindrances to attain insight (ibid), and Buddha says explicitly “So 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 Religion Facts: Homosexuality and Buddhism.
Applies to: Bahai Faith
For Bahai, “no sexual act can be considered lawful unless performed between lawfully married persons” Bahai Works / Laws / 1220. Hence, the faith condemns sex outside wedlock (ibid / 1157), pre-marital sex (ibid / 1212), masturbation (ibid / 1220), and abortion (ibid / 1154).
Applies less to: Hinduism
Hinduism is straitlaced in the sense that it traditionally prohibits intimate contact between unmarried men and women. Pre-marital sex and extra-marital sex are generally condemned (Vishnu Purana 3:11). The Laws of Manu stipulate that addressing a woman outside the village, or offering her gifts already counts as adultery Law of Manu / 8 / 356-357 — for which the penalty is death (ibid / 356). However, in Hindu traditions, the enjoyment of life (“kama”) is one of the fours goals of human life Kama. The Kama Sutra, a treatise on sex, explains in detail the best procedure to masturbate Religious views on masturbation. In the diversity of Hinduism, a spectrum of views on sexual freedoms thrived in ancient India Fornication.
Applies to: 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.” The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts, which means that “masturbations, premarital sexual conducts, adulteries, prostitutions, having sex with prostitutes, homosexual sex, etc., are all Sexual Misconducts”. I have not found a source for Confucianism or Chinese religions in general.
Applies to: Spiritism
Abortion is condemned Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 358, as is “Whatever hinders the operations of nature” [ibid / § 693]. In particular, sensuality shall not be given preference over reproduction (ibid / § 694).
Does not apply to: 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” Religion and Homosexuality. Raëlism, likewise, is open to all types of sexual acts, as long as they are consensual and between adults Raëlism.

Child Marriage

One of the most effective strategies for the proliferation of a religion is to encourage large families. One way to increase the number of children is to make people marry as early as possible in life. In particular, women have to be married as soon as they have reached puberty, so as to maximize the fertile period of her life that she spends with her husband. A woman who marries early is also 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. Hence, many religions support child marriage for women.
Applies to: Catholicism
The minimum age of marriage for a woman is 14 according to Canon Law Canon Law / Can. 1083 §1. In Western countries, a minimum age of 18 is generally legally enforced. However, in sub-saharan (Catholic) Africa, child marriage rates are between 38% and 46% UNICEF: Ending child marriage, 2012.
Applies to: Islam
The Prophet Mohamed married Aisha when she was 6, and had sex with her when she was 9 Aisha. The Quran says that Mohammed is the perfect role model to follow (Quran / 48:29, 33:21, 68:05). The book also explains how to divorce prepubescent girls (Quran / 65:1-4), which means that the book allows marrying them in the first place. Hence, the Quran does not prohibit child marriage. Many contemporary voices defend the practice Child Marriage in India. Child marriage is at 24% in the Middle East and North Africa UNICEF: Ending child marriage, 2012. It is also supported by the main Muslim groups in Indonesia. We discuss Muslim attitudes and interpretations on child marriage in the Chapter on Islam.
Applies to: Hinduism
The Laws of Manu set 8 years as a minimum age for a girl to marry Laws of Manu / 9 / 94. Indeed, 58% of women in India are married under the age of 18 UNICEF: Ending child marriage, 2012.
Applies to: Judaism
The Talmud encourages parents to have their daughter married as soon as she reached puberty Talmud / Sanhedrin / 76b. While child marriage was very common, it is rare today in the Jewish community Jewish views on marriage.
Applies less to: Bahai Faith
The Bahai Faith prescribes 15 as a minimum age Book of Laws / IV / C / 1 / c. However, the Bahai Faith also stresses obedience to the government (ibid / IV / D / 1 / m), and thus de facto the minimum age is as required by secular governments.
Does not apply to: Buddhism, Protestantism, Chinese Religions, Orthodox Christianity, Spiritism
I found no source that specifies the recommended or minimum age for marriage in these religions. In any case, child marriage is not prevalent in buddhist, protestant, taoist, confucian, and orthodox countries UNICEF: Protecting against abuse, exploitation, and violence — child marriage, 2006.



We have no evidence for any form of life after death. Hence, a religion could just teach that life ends with death. However, the religion can also teach that there is some transcendental life after death. Obviously, a religion that promises life 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 martyrs.Google
Applies to: Judaism
The Hebrew Bible is not clear on the question of life after death (Bible / Ecclesiastes 3:19-21, Ecclesiastes 9:4-6, Numbers 16:31-33, Psalms 146:2-4, Job 14:10-14, Daniel 12:2, Isaak 26:19). Still, Judaism knows the concept of life after death Afterlife. The human is resurrected to a new, infinite life in a beautiful place called “heaven”. The Talmud establishes resurrection after death as a fundamental principle of the faith, and says that those who doubt it shall not share it Talmud / Sanhedrin / 90a / 31, 39.
Applies to: Christianity
Jesus promises life after death (Bible / John 11:24, Matthew 5:20, Matthew 22:29-33), as does the book of Revelation (Bible / Revelation 20:6). The Nicene Creed affirmes the resurrection of the dead, saying “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.
Applies to: Bahai Faith
The Bahai Faith, likewise, sees a “spiritual world beyond the grave” Bahai Works / Laws / §1595.
Applies to: Islam
Islam has made the concept of Heaven very prominent Shahid. 10% of the Quran is concerned with promises of Heaven. Male martyrs even get large-breasted virgins (Quran / 78:33, 56:22-23, 37:48, 55:56, 37:48, 52:20). The Hadiths fuel speculations that the number of virgins is 72, but this has so far not been confirmed Houri.
Applies to: the Indian religions
Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs generally believe in reincarnation of the soul Samsara. In this model, the human is reborn onto this Earth after death. The rebirth can be either in a “better” position (say, as a king), or in a “worse” position (say, as an ant), depending on good and bad deed in one’s life (the “karma”). If the person advances spiritually to a sufficient degree, they can arrive in a final state called “nirvana”, which is the desirable outcome. In Hinduism, the Rig Veda says “as soon as he departs, he takes birth again” Aiteraya Upanishad / 2 / 1 / 4, and gives a hint at the relief from the cycle of rebirth as “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” Yajur Veda- Swetasvatara Upanishad / 4 / 6-7. The Laws of Manu, likewise, clarify that “a vicious man sinks to the nethermost (hell), he who dies, free from vice, ascends to heaven” Laws 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” Dalai Lama: Reincarnation.
Applies to: Spiritism
In this religion, the spirits aim to achieve perfection during several cycles of rebirth. The successful soul enters a “state of perfect happiness, as a purified spirit” Allan Kardec: The 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” Allan Kardec: The 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, “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.” [ibid / § 976]
Applies to: Taoism
Comparable to the Indian Religions, Taoism knows the cycle of rebirth Samsara. The Elder Lord talks of the “repeating births and deaths”, and says that “in order to be born as a human being, one must have the five virtues” The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts.
Applies less to: the Chinese Religions
The prevalent belief in Chinese religions is that every human being has a type of spirit, the “shen” Shen. This shen lives on after death, and becomes the object of ancestor workship Chinese folk religion. However, it is not clear to me whether this state is something desirable. Confucius does not speak about rebirth or resurrection in his Analects.
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 give their lives: If a man believes that Heaven awaits him when he dies, 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 and goes to Heaven. A religion that has this type of warriors will prevail in battles against religions that do not. History has shown us examples.
Applies to: Historical Catholicism
This religion has benefitted from people who are ready to sacrifice their lives in the Crusades. The warriors seriously believed that they would go to heaven if they died in the battles (Rolf Dobelli: The Art of Thinking Clearly). Hence, they had no hesitation to join the wars. The wars had several religious, economical, and political motivations Crusades, and ultimately served to establish the hegemony of the Catholic Church.
Applies to: Islam
The Quran promises Heaven to those who die fighting for Allah (Quran / 3:169-170, 9:111, 22:58). This has helped the military expansion of Islam (Wikipedia / Shahid, Istishhad). The Islamic State could uphold its grip on the Middle East also because it had fighters who were not afraid to die.


A person who died cannot report what happened to them. Hence, we can say arbitrary things about life after death — any such hypothesis 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 case of disobedience, then its adherents are more likely to obey. If, in contrast, a religion does not promise hell, then its adherents have less incentive to obey. They might just stray away from the religion. Hence, if we have one religion with hell, and one without, and if we run them side by side, the religion with hell will most likely prevail. Therefore, most religions that we encounter today have some form of hell. Since it does not cost anything to invent tortures in hell, the religions have been coming up with the most impressive forms of punishment, as we shall see.

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

Applies to: Chinese religions
In the Chinese religions, Diyu is a purgatory which serves to punish and renew spirits in preparation for reincarnation. Tortures include being fried in oil cauldrons, being put into a grinding machine and ground into a bloody pulp, tongues being ripped out, and freezing sinners into ice cubes that then break apart Diyu. For Confucianism, Confucius talks of a punishment from Heaven (Confucius: Analects / 6:28), even though he does not talk of hell. In Taoism, a person who does not follow the Tao will “fall into the restless and unlimited sufferings”. This is the Taoist hell. “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” The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts.
Applies to: Spiritism
In this religion, the spirits are subdued to punishments after death or in the next life Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 960, 965, 970, 973, 974. “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” [ibid / § 973]. However, different from the older 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” [ibid / § 970]. In addition, Spiritism knows the punishment on Earth in a cycle of 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.” [ibid / § 1013]
Applies to: Buddhism
The Buddha reportedly spoke of 16 hells. Avici is said to be the most horrible hell, where people are “roasted in an immense blazing oven with terrible suffering” Nakara. This torture lasts until all bad karma is used up, which can take several quadrillion years. Then, the being is reborn. This notion of punishment after death gave Buddhism a clear advantage over pre-existing systems in China, which had to refer to “fate” as an unclear, inscrutable power Wolfram Eberhard: Guilt and Sin in Traditional China, 1967. In addition, Theravada Buddhism explicitly punishes creating a schism in Buddhism as one of the 5 cardinal sins, thus aiming to secure the continuation of the faith.
Applies to: Hinduism
The religion shares the concept of hell with Buddhism Nakara. The Laws of Manu describe 21 hells Laws of Manu / 4 / 87-90, in which sinners are devoured by ravens, boiled in jars, and subjected to diseases (ibid / 12 / 75-80). Those who committed mortal sins pass large numbers of years through dreadful hells. After the expiration of that term of punishment, they are reborn. Different sins carry different types of rebirths: killing a Brahmana 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 [ibid / 12 / 54-74].
Applies to: Judaism
The early Jews were familiar with Gehenna, a valley where the non-Jews sacrificed their children in fire. Together with some biblical references (Bible / Daniel 12:2), this developed into the idea that all sinners will burn in fire: “He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna.” Pirkei Avot / 1.5. This hell is thought to last for at most 1 year Gehenna.
Applies to: Christianity
The New Testament of the Bible inherited the concept of Gehenna from Judaism, and improved upon it. While the Jewish Ghenna lasted for only one year, Jesus himself extended hell to eternity for the Christians. It is a place of “unquenchable fire” [Bible / Matthew 5:22, 18:8-9; Bible / Mark 9:43-49, Revelation 20:13] into which the body is thrown (Bible / Matthew 5:29, 5:30) 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; Bible / 2 Thessalonians], “raging fire” [Bible / Hebrews 10:27], “destruction” [Bible / 2 Peter 3:7] and “eternal fire” [Bible / Jude 7], and “burning sulphur” 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) Christian views on Hell. This physical view of hell was later abandoned in many (though not all) Christian denominations. Christianity also promises hell on Earth for those who trespass (Bible / Exodus 15:26, Deuteronomy 28:15-68), even though this seems to be revoked later on (Bible / Hebrews 10:18).
Applies particularly to: Islam
The Quran has perfected the threat of hell, mentioning the concept in total around 500 times Thomassen: Islamic Hell, 2009, in roughly every 7th verse, with detailed brutality. 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], 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 are constantly exchanged for new ones so that they can taste the torment anew [Quran/4:45], drink festering water and though death appears on all sides they cannot die [Quran/15:16-17], are linked together in chains of 70 cubits [Quran/69:30-32], wearing pitch for clothing and fire on their faces [Quran/14:50] have boiling water that will be poured over their heads, melting their insides as well as their skins, and hooks of iron to drag them back should they try to escape [Quran/67:7]. Their remorseful admissions of wrongdoing and pleading for forgiveness are in vain [Quran/41:24] Smith & Haddad: The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection, 1981.
Does not apply to: Wicca
In Wicca, there is no such thing as hell because Wiccans largely don’t believe in the concept of punishment or reward. Solitary Wicca For Life: Complete Guide to Mastering the Craft on your Own.
They say that Heaven will call us to account for our deeds after death. I say that we should first call Heaven to account for the hardship that it imposed upon us during our earthly lives without any apparent reason.
Arthur Schopenhauer, translated


Guilt is a powerful force. Thus, a religion that succeeds in producing guilt can steer a person very effectively. A common way in which this happens is that the religion first induces guilt, and then proposes itself as a way to obtain absolution from that guilt. As Albert Ellis argued: religions deliberately instill self-damnation in their adherents and then give these adherents guilt-soothing rituals to temporarily allay these kind of self-damning feelings. This way, the adherent feels thankful to the religion for removing a problem that it created in the first place.

Family Radio brochure
Applies to: Christianity
This religion knows the concept of the “original sin”, which by and large says that Adam and Eve, the mythical ancestors of humanity, contradicted God’s will and hence loaded sin on all of humanity Original sin. In the words of the Bible: “In sin did my mother conceive me” [Bible / Psalm 51:5], because “by the one man’s disobedience [=Adam] the many were made sinners” [Bible / Romans 5:19]. So just by being born, the human is already loaded with guilt. Christianity generalizes this by universally instilling guilt into everybody: “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 way to get rid of this guilt: by following Jesus, we will be liberated from that sin (ibid).
Applies to: Islam
This religion uses a variant of the scheme. The Prophet Mohammed is regarded as the perfect human. After all, God himself told him so (Quran / 68:4). Hence, any attempts to criticize him or his ideology is seen as an insult against his person. Anybody who says that Mohammed did not speak the truth is cast as an evil person who does injustice to the most just of all men. Thus, even non-Muslims can be made feeling guilty for criticizing Islam — a clear darwinian advantage for the religion.
Applies to: Hinduism
This religion sees being born into a lower caste as a punishment for sins in previous lives. Thereby, the “untouchables” live in guilt.
There are two other strategies to induce guilt: the push for perfection and thankfulness.
Sin is an imaginary disease
invented to sell you an imaginary cure.

Push for Perfection

A religion can get hold of a believer by inducing guilt. One way to do that is to come up a set of rules that exhaustively prescribe everything from ethical behavior to food and rituals. This exhaustiveness makes it hard for an ordinary human to uphold all of these commandments to perfection. If the rules are hard to uphold to perfection, then it is likely that the believer will violate one rule or the other in his life — earlier or later or even continuously. This entails that a sincere believer may find themselves in a conflict between their life and their belief. Unable to live a perfect life, they will find themselves in an enduring state of bad conscience. They are caught in the gap between how they are and how they know they should be. Thereby, the religion maintains a grip over the conscience of the believer. This is similar to the way in which totalitarian regimes control their subjects: The essential principle is to make laws that are impossible to obey [Christopher Hitchens: God is not great, p. 254].
Applies to: Christianity
Jesus, for example, says: “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery” [Bible / Matthew 5:27-28]. Since most men have looked at a woman in lust, this automatically makes them sinners. Similar is the instruction in the Old Testament to not even think of other gods — something that George Orwell would later call a thoughtcrime. Once a man feels guilt, he can confess his guilt — to God or to a priest Confession. Then, he is liberated from his guilt, and feels thankful to his religion. This way, the religion has created an emotional bond between the adherent and its god, even if the god did not lift a finger.
Applies to: Islam
The Quran prohibits numerous things: 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). These rules certainly had their purpose. However, nowadays, one of the effects is that adherents have more rules to follow, and thus more chances to break them. This makes it more likely that the believer feels guilt. The Quran goes on to say that God observes us continuously (Quran / 4:1, 50:17-18, 8:17), thus enforcing the effect. The release from the guilt comes through repentance (Quran / 2:160, 39:54, 3:135, 25:71, 6:54; Wikipedia/Confession). Through this mechanism, the religion first instills guilt, and then relieves it. This cycle creates an emotional bond between the believer and the religion.
Applies to: Spiritism
This religion calls upon adherents to abandon selfishness Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 895, and to practice abnegation in order to “combat the Predominance of the corporeal nature” [ibid / § 912]. Since every human is by nature selfish, this is a commandment that cannot be obeyed in perfection.
Applies to: Chinese religions
Far-Eastern societies are usually “shame societies”: they tend to use humiliation by the society to punish wrong-doers Shame society. For Confucianism, Confucius wrote: Lead the people with excellence, and put them in their place through ritual practices, and they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves [Confucius: Analects / 2:3]. This sense of shame can then be used to maintain a grip on the believer.
This effect is independent of the actual use of the rules for mankind.


A religion can induce guilt to bind a human to its belief system. One way in which this can be done is by saying that the religion, a god, or a prophet did something for humanity, and that, hence, humanity has to be thankful. This generates a feeling of obligation. The religion can then say that, out of this obligation, we have to follow the belief system.
Applies to: Christianity
This religion knows the concept of the original sin, which says that we inherited sin from our mythical ancestors Adam and Eve. Today, the concept of collectively inheriting a sin is less popular in Europe — partly because people no longer believe that Adam and Eve existed in the first place. Consequently, the idea of original sin is being re-interpreted in different ways Original sin. In the end, the word “sin” may no longer mean the “state of having committed an offense”. Rather, it becomes a pumpkin word, i.e., a word that evokes connotations, but has no concrete meaning. However, the basic idea stays: People should be thankful to Jesus because he “died for our sins” [Bible / 1 Corinthians 15:3], and thus liberated us from the original sin (in whatever sense). Thus, out of nothing, Christianity has created the need for thankfulness to their main prophet.
Applies to: Islam
The Quran talks repeatedly of the gifts that God gave 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 kind of fruit for us (Quran / 16:11). When people use these things, they are made to feel as if they were obliged to thank God for them (Quran / 39:7, 21:80, 40:61). Thus, by simply being alive, we have to be thankful. (Never mind that some human ethnicities have a built-in lactose intolerance and thus cannot drink the milk that God made for them Lactose intolerance). We discuss such psychological factors in Islam later.
God is the only being that doesn’t require existence in order to rule the world.
Charles Baudelaire

Heavy punishment

When a person disrupts society, the most effective way to stop that person is to kill them. Another quite effective solution is to amputate limbs of that person. This does not only stop that person, but also acts as a deterrent to others. The only things that could prevent us from doing so are compassion, conscience, or force. However, a religion claims to govern all three of them. Therefore, a religion can institute the death penalty or cruel punishment without any obstacles. Now, if we run 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 and more orderly society. This gives this religion a Darwinian edge over the other. Hence, most major religions that have survived until today have cruel punishments — at least in their scripture.
Applies to: Islam
The Quran requires 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 viewpoints are shared by a large proportion of the population in the majority of Muslim lands. Furthermore, the Quran 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). Thus, the Quran effectively supports kin punishment Wikipedia / Kin punishment.
Applies to: Judaism
The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for Murder, Adultery, Bestiality, Rape of a betrothed virgin, male-male sexual intercourse, not being a virgin on the night of one’s wedding, worshiping other gods, witchcraft, taking God’s name in vain or cursing his name, cursing a parent, kidnapping, and disobeying a parent Crime and punishment in the Bible. 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) BibleHub: Punishments. Penalties for lesser offenses include retaliation (the “eye for eye” principle) (Bible / Exodus 21:24,25), and striping (Bible / Deuteronomy 22:18-19, Deuteronomy 25:3). Based on this, Judaism has traditionally known the execution by stoning, burning, slaying, and strangulation Punishment in Judaism. Nowadays, the death penalty is less popular. Orthodox and conservative Judaism hold that capital punishment is correct in theory, but that it should not be applied in practice ibid. Reform Judaism opposes capital punishment (ibid). Today, Israel technically upholds the death penalty, but only 2 people have ever been executed Capital punishment in Israel.
Applies to: Christianity
This religion inherited the corporal punishments from the Old Testament. Jesus teaches clemency in these matters, but upholds the law in principle (Bible / Matthew 5:17-20). Paul approves of the death penalty, too (Bible / Acts 25:10-11; Romans 1:32). He also approves of punishing wrong-doers “by the sword” (Bible / Romans 13:4). In agreement with this, both secular and religious Christian rulers have been quite brutal over the course of history. They found no opposition in the scripture. Today, these practices ceased. In Catholicism, torture was abolished in 1965. However, still today, the US upholds the death penalty.
Applies to: Hinduism
The Laws of Manu require corporal punishment if all other punishments fail Laws of Manu / 8 / 58, 129, 139, 310, 320, 364. Beating is on order for punishing a wife, a son, a slave, a pupil, and a younger brother (ibid / 299). For adultery (which includes already touching a woman inappropriately, addressing her outside the village, or offering her gifts (ibid /356-357)), the penalty is death (ibid / 356) — except for Brahmanas. Brahmans cannot be put to death (ibid / 379). Likewise, Brahmanas cannot suffer corporal punishments (ibid / 124). Others can. For example, for “contaminating a maiden”, two fingers have to be cut off (ibid / 367). For injury, the punishment for the lowest case is amputation (ibid / 279). Intercourse across castes is punished by castration or death (ibid / 374). Other punishments are shaving with the urine of a donkey (ibid / 384). For insulting someone of a higher caste, the tongue is cut out (ibid / 270). Generally, amputation can concern can fall on “the organ”, the belly, the tongue, the hands, the feet, the eyes, the nose, and the ears (ibid / 124). Ways of executing criminals include devoration “by dogs in a place frequented by many” (ibid / 371), burning to death “on a red-hot iron bed” (ibid / 372), and burning “in a fire of dry grass” (ibid / 377). The Laws of Manu are of disputed authenticity. However, this does not change the fact that corporal punishment was used in the Hindu society much in the way that Manu said. Punishments included whipping, branding, mutilation, and execution Danda. Still today, India upholds the death penalty.
Does not apply to: 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 Dalai Lama, too, opposes the death penalty Dalai Lama: His Holiness the Dalai Lama Attends the Inauguration of the 80th Sivagiri Annual Pilgrimage in Kerala, 2012-11-25. Nevertheless, historically, most states where the official religion is Buddhism have imposed capital punishment for some offences Capital punishment / Buddhism.
Applies to: Confucianism
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.” [Confucius: Analects / 2:3]. He also explicitly shuns the death penalty, as it is recorded: “Ji Kang Zi asked Confucius [...] “Suppose I were to kill the unjust, in order to advance the just. Would that be all right?” Confucius replied: “[...] what is the need of killing?”” [Confucius: Analects / 12:19]. 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” Five Classics / The Classic of Rites / Wang Zhi / 47. The Five Punishments were tattooing, cutting off the nose, cutting off a limb, castration, and execution Five Punishments. The Book of Rites may have been compiled not by Confucius, but by later scholars Norman P. Ho: Confucian jurisprudence in practice. This, however, does not change the fact that it is today an integral part of Confucianism (ibid). Indeed, traditional Chinese law did use the Five Punishments Traditional Chinese Law.
Does not apply to: Spiritism
This religion postdates the Enlightenment. Hence, cruelty is considered “the instinct of destruction in its worst form”, which is “never necessary” Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 752. Education is to be given preference over “punishing wrong doing when done” [ibid / § 796]. The death penalty is also condemned (ibid / § 760 ff).
Does not apply to: Taoism
Laotse 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.” Laotse: Dao De Jing / 74, tr. Ellen M. Chen. On the contrary, “Heaven arms with love those whom it would not see destroyed” Laotse: Dao De Jing / 67, tr. Alan B. Taplow. Consequently, Taoism has a very weakly developed notion of punishment. This did not hinder traditional Chinese law from using amputation as a means of correction, though Traditional Chinese Law.


Religious education

Progressive Secular Humanist
Lawrence Krauss has made the following observation: Assume that a particular religion were not taught to children. Then an entire generation would grow up without knowing that religion. If that generation looks into the holy scriptures of this religion, they would find these scriptures baseless, absurd, and revolting — in much the same way that we always find scriptures of other religions baseless, absurd, or revolting. Thus, they would not adopt that religion even in their later life. Crucially, they would also not teach it to their own children. Thus, within a generation, that religion could be wiped out. Hence, all major religions that survived until today place 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.

Applies to: all major religions
Children are usually educated in the religion of their parents. We have discussed contemporary practices before.
Applies to: Bahai Faith
In the Bahai Faith, children under fifteen do not automatically inherit the faith of their parents Bahai Works / Laws / 512. At the age of fifteen, 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 Bahai Bahai Encyclopedia / Children. 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 children” Bahai Works / Laws / 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. Hence, only those religions that propagate themselves are left today. One particularly effective way to propagate a religion is to preach it to those who are feeble: These people 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 the weak will not have the big impact that could be achieved by targeting the mighty (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. Thus, the focus on the weak still pays off. This is not to say that people who help the poor would do so with bad intentions. Probably on the contrary. It is just to say 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.
Proști, dar mulți.
(They are dumb, but they are numerous)
Alexandru Lăpușneanu
Applies to: Christianity
The 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, kindergardens, grief management sites, migrant help centers, emergency relief services, or counseling services. In most cases, people who voluntarily work in these institutions do so with the intention to help. However, one unavoidable side effect is that the receivers of this work come into touch with the Christian brand. Christianity would certainly have less adherents if it did not constantly reach out to the weak and the poor.
Applies to: Islam
The Quran prescribes giving alms to the poor (Quran / 9:60, 9:5, 2:177, 2:215, 4:8). This rule serves foremost the weak members of society. One of the side effects is that the receivers of such donations will have a positive attitude towards Islam. In other words: the tradition of charity makes the religion more attractive to a larger number of people. The same goes for the Islamic State: it provided services to people — poor or not poor Islamic State. This makes the organization attractive. The Islamic Relief is another example of an organization that helps the poor while at the same time representing a religion. If its only goal were helping people, then there would be no need to carry the word “Islamic” in its name. The volunteers could just join the Red Cross organization. In not doing so, the organization spreads a positive image of Islam around the world. This, in turn, helps the religion. I am not saying this is bad, I am just saying it is happening.
Applies to: Judaism
This religion knows the concept of giving alms as Tzedakah Tzedakah. The Mishneh Torah discusses the practice in Chapter 10:7-14.
Applies to: Hinduism
The Laws of Manu tell us to perform works of charity, and to give when we are asked Laws of Manu / 1 / 226-232. Other holy scriptures, such as the Rigveda, the Upanishads, Chandogya Upanishad, the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana, likewise encourage charity Dana. This practice is known as Dana in Hinduism. 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 line Economy of India, Hinduism would not have been so successful if did not reach out to the poor.
Applies to: Spiritism
This religion encourages giving alms Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 888, even if in a measured form.
Applies to: Buddhism
Compassion is one of the four Buddhist virtues Karuna.
Does not apply to: Chinese religions
I could not find these concepts in the Analects of Confucius or in Taoist texts.
Religions are like glowworms. They need the dark to glow.
Philaletes in Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Dialog about Religion”

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 will lose adherents, and thus risk being run out by other religions. Therefore, all major religions historically punish apostates. The same goes for blasphemers (people who insult the gods) or for people who criticise the religion. A successful religion has to punish such people.
Applies to: Islam
There are different opinions on whether Islam punishes apostasy by death or not. Here, we just note that the Al-Azhar University (the Egyptian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs) Apostasy in Islam, all four schools of Sunni Islamic law The Economist: No God, not even Allah, 2012-11-24, and the majority of Muslims in Egypt, Jordan, and Nigeria (ibid) are of the opinion that apostasy has to be punished by death. They base their view (rightly or wrongly) on Quranic verses, which tell us to fight for the god of Islam (Quran / 25:52), to kill the unbelievers wherever we 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). This contempt extends to criticism of Islam: The Quran tells us that we are not allowed to question what Allah or the Prophet Mohammed have decided (Quran / 33:36, 5:101). When someone (Muslim or non-Muslim) criticizes the Prophet Mohammed in public, enough Muslims can be found who call for the death of that person Jyllands-Posten. In this way, nobody (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) is allowed to even think of criticizing Islam in public, thus shielding the religion from critical investigation.
Applies to: historical Judaism
The Torah tells us to kill apostates (Bible / Deuteronomy 13:6-10), to kill blasphemers (Bible / Leviticus 24:14, 16, 23) and to kill any prophets (Bible / Deuteronomy 13:1). Hence, historical interpretations of Judaism included the death penalty for atheism. This tenet was later dropped, and in contemporary interpretations of the religion, “there is no punishment for leaving Judaism” Apostasy.
Applies to: 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 his particular god is a sin that cannot be forgiven (Bible / Marc 3:29, Matthew 12:31). Therefore, the prevalent medieval interpretation of Christianity included the death penalty for apostates. The Inquisition burned thousands of people at the stake Inquisition. Apostasy remained a punishable offense in Catholic countries until the late 18th century Heresy in Christianity, and in 1826, Cayetanol Ripoll was the last person executed for doubting the Catholic teaching Heresy. Today, Christians live either in countries where they are not the majority (meaning that the state will not punish Christian apostates), or in secular countries (where people enjoy the freedom of religion). Therefore, contemporary interpretations of Christianity that call for the punishment of apostates are rare. Indeed, all mainstream churches have since changed their opinion on this topic.
Applies to: Hinduism
The religion is usually described as not having the concepts of apostasy or heresy (Wikipedia / Apostasy, Google search). However, the Laws of Manu withdraw all rights from a person who does not pray as prescribed Laws of Manu / 2 / 103, downgrade them to the lowest caste (ibid / 11 / 67), and banish them from town (ibid / 9 / 225). They furthermore declare that “forgetting the Vedas” (holy scriptures of Hinduism) is equivalent to drinking hard liquor Laws of Manu / 11 / 57, which, in turn, is a mortal sin (ibid / 11 / 55). The Mahabharata tell 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 / Section 34. To this day, atheists lack legal recognition in India Times of India: Indian atheists seek recognition in the land of a million gods, 2012-06-30. A member of parliament can openly call for the execution of apostates (International Business Times: India: MP Sakshi Maharaj vows death sentences for Hindus converting to Islam or Christianity, 2015-01-07, Wikipedia / Sakshi Maharaj).
Applies to: Buddhism
The Buddha himself teaches us 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 seems to indicate only otherworldly punishments. However, in Indonesia, Buddhist authorities have supported the punishment of blasphemy Jakarta Post: Religious groups at odds over blasphemy law, 2010-02-04.
Does not apply to: Chinese religions
Does not apply to: Spiritism
See next article for sources.

Shun apostasy

Everything else being equal, a religion that punishes apostates will perform better than a religion that doesn’t. Today, apostates can no longer be put to death in countries that implement freedom of religion. What remains in the religious belief systems is a general negative attitude towards apostates. All major religions condemn, shun, insult, threaten, or ridicule apostates.
Applies to: Christianity
The Bible prescribes death for the apostate. Apart from that, it tells us that “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). 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), because such people are “warped and sinful” (Bible / Titus 3:11). Jesus wishes that anybody who brings his followers “to stumble” be drowned (Bible / Matthew 18:6). Many contemporary interpretations of Christianity, in particular in the US, have extrapolated this to a general discrimination of atheists. Atheists are excluded from taking a public office in some US states, they are associated with criminality, they are excluded from family and friends, and discouraged as life partners. In Europe, in contrast, such interpretations are rare. In Indonesia, Catholic and Protestant authorities tend to be on the liberal side of the spectrum Jakarta Post: Religious groups at odds over blasphemy law, 2010-02-04 — quite possibly because the general spectrum in Indonesia is rather conservative.
Applies to: Islam
Individual verses of the Quran say that apostates will be tortured in eternity (Quran / 98:6) in hell and in this world (Quran / 3:56), that they may not be taken as friends, and they are “the worst of all creatures” (Quran / 98:6-7 among others). We may believe that these are only individual verses, but statistically speaking, one third of the Quran consist of insults, wraths, and threats against unbelievers. As a consequence, many major interpretations of Islam hold that apostates are dangerous and worthy of death, as we have discussed before — even if the death penalty is no longer carried out. In many Muslim lands, unbelievers are legally discriminated against, based on the respective interpretation of Islam.
Applies to: Hinduism
Apart from the punishments that the Laws of Manu prescribe for apostates, heretics may not be greeted Laws of Manu / 4 / 30, may not be given water (ibid / 4 / 89), and are generally the mark of darkness (ibid / 12 / 33). Hinduism prohibits apostates from marrying believers, thus implicitly shunning and excluding apostates.
Applies to: Buddhism
Buddhist authorities have requested punishment for blasphemy, as discussed in the previous article.
Does not apply to: Spiritism
This religion was born in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, and hence it argues that man has no “right to set up barriers against freedom of conscience” Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 836. It is also “a fail in charity” to “scandalise those whose belief is not the same as our own” [ibid / § 839]. As for the relation with non-adherents, the 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.”
To find out who rules you, simply find out whom you’re not allowed to criticize.


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.
Applies to: 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” Great Commission, i.e., the duty to bring Christianity to other people. Jehova’s Witnesses and the Mormons are particularly known for their proselytism.
Applies to: 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 Dawah.
Applies to: 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” Proselytism.
Unknown: Spiritism
This religion emphasizes the freedom of conscience Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 836. At the same time, we should “endeavour to bring back into the path of truth those who are led astray by false principles” [ibid / § 841]. This may be understood as proselytizing, in particular given Spiritism’s Christian heritage, but the text does not say so explicitly.
Does not apply to: Judaism
This religion is closely bound to the Jewish ethnicity, and does not aim to convert others to the faith.
Varied: Hinduism and Buddhism
These religions have seen proselytism in their history, but this is not a prevalent stance today Proselytism.
Unknown: Chinese religions
I have found no sources on this topic.

Keep the masses stupid

The more educated a person is, the more likely they are to start questioning their religion. Hence, if a religion encourages people to read and learn, it risks abolishing itself. This is what we observe for Protestantism. This denomination of Christianity believes that everybody should read the Bible for themselves. Hence, it has traditionally encouraged people to become literate and to read. Possibly as a consequence, countries with a protestant tradition (Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Germany) became educated and literate early on. Today, these countries are also the least religious ones.

Our theory says that religions that oppose education will be more successful. Unfortunately, it is unpopular today to be against education. Hence, a religion can no longer oppose education. On the contrary, most religions say they encourage education. However, we often find that these religions have worked against education in the past, or that they give education a low position in their instructions to believers.

Applies to: Catholicism
The Bible contains metaphors that praise the uneducated: It tells us that “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Bible / Matthew 5:3). This idea resonated in 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 trusting our own understanding (Bible / Proverbs 3:5). This general attitude had very palatable consequences: During the Roman Empire, literacy was widespread in Europe. However, when Christianity (in the form of Catholicism) took over, the literacy rate dropped, and remained low until the power of the Church declined Literacy. The Catholic Church actually prohibited that people read the Bible.
Applies to: Islam
The Quran does not contain verses that encourage people to become literate or to read books other than the Quran. On the contrary, the Prophet Mohammed himself was illiterate (Quran / 7:157, 158) and he made no effort to learn how to read — and the Quran presents him as the perfect role model to follow (Quran / 48:29, 33:21). According to the Hadiths (whose authority is disputed among Muslims), the Prophet Mohammed called himself “a guardian of the illiterates sent by Allah” (Bukhari, 3:34:335). Another Hadith (Sunaan Ibn Majah 5:4290) says that Allah loves illiterate people and hates educated people. He promises the first entry to Paradise to the illiterate Muslims and the last entry to the educated Muslims. The printing press, invented in the 15th century, arrived in the Muslim world only in the 18th century Global spread of the printing press. Today, literacy rates in the Muslim world are among the lowest in the world, and the education in the Arab world is centered around obedience.
Does not apply to: Judaism
The religion has put an emphasis on education ever since Jews were pushed into intellectual professions in the Middle Ages. Possibly as a consequence, Judaism witnesses a substantial number of apostates Jewish population.
Does not apply to: Spiritism
This religion was born in the aftermath of the Enlightenment. It holds that “It is only education that can reform mankind” Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 796.
Does not apply to: Confucianism
Confucius reportedly encouraged his followers to read 10,000 books. In his Analects, he emphasizes learning and reading (Confucius: Analects / 8:13, 17:8, 8:5).
So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in the praise of intelligence.
Bertrand Russell


The religious community can give material advantages to its members. The problem is that these advantages also come to people who just happen to live in the community, without actually sharing its values. These are the so-called free-riders. As Aldashev & Platteau explain: The collective character of religious activity implies a free-rider problem that is difficult to overcome by monitoring. However, the free-rider problem can be mitigated by the costly rituals that serve to screen out people whose participation would otherwise be low, while at the same time increasing participation among those who do join. As a consequence, the utility of group members can increase when apparently unproductive sacrifices are required. Aldashev & Platteau: Religion, Culture, and Development These rituals require quite some effort. The costly-signaling theory suggests that this effort pays off: If someone goes through the trouble of following the rules of his 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 Handicap principle. In this spirit, all religions have developed rituals that are physically unproductive, but serve to display commitment to the community. We list some of them next:
Applies to: Christianity
with wearing a cross, fastening, and going to church.
Applies to: Judaism
with wearing a kippa, eating only kosher food, and circumcising babies.
Applies to: Islam
with abstinence from alcohol and pork, eating only halal food, sacrificing lambs, and circumcising young boys.
Applies to: Hinduism
with a huge number of rituals that differ from region to region (Wikipedia / Saskara, Patheos: Hinduism / Rites and Ceremonies).
Applies to: Buddhism
with prayers, meditations, the restriction to vegetarian meals in some cases, and the celebration of Buddhist holidays such as Buddha’s Birthday.
Applies to: Taoism
with mediumship, trance, the exorcism of demons, and festivals that can involve hundreds of villages and can be very expensive.
Applies less to: Confucianism
Confucius recommended the worship of ancestors, and the religion knows temples and rituals for the dead, but it does not seem to have prominent rituals that serve no purpose other than showing the faith.
Applies less to: Spiritism
This religion knows rituals to get into touch with the spirits, but these seem to be driven out of a desire to contact these beings rather that showing faith. There exist Spiritualist Churches, though, which fulfil that purpose Spiritualism.

Intellectual Strategies


[unknown source]
In the terminology of this book, a religion is a set of beliefs. Such a system can make predictions about the world. The predictions can be verifiably true. In that case, the theory (or the sub-theory that makes these predictions) is a theory of science. The theory can also make false predictions. For example, Jehova’s Witnesses predicted the end of the world for 1914. When this failed to happen, they lost adherents. They updated their prediction to 1918, and later to 1925 — each time without success. Such false predictions make adherents leave the religion. They make the religion less competitive in comparison to other religions that do not make such predictions. Hence, making predictions is a tricky business for religions.

The safest strategy is if the religion makes no predictions at all. Equivalently, the religion can make only unfalsifiable predictions. 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.

Applies to: Christianity
The religion postulates the existence of a god, which is unfalsifiable. It also says that the end of the world is “near”. Since it does not predict a fixed date, this prediction is unfalsifiable.
Applies to: Judaism, Bahai Faith, Islam
All of them postulate the existence of a god, which is unfalsifiable.
Applies to: Hinduism and Buddhism
These postulate that bad deeds will have bad consequences (“Karma” theory), but are sufficiently vague to make this claim unfalsifiable.
Applies to: Confucianism and Taoism
These 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 concrete predictions can be derived from it.
Applies to: 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” Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 36.

Assume equivalence

If we encourage people to study different religions, they might become more critical towards their own religion. One strategy that religions have developed to avoid this is to claim that the other religions are just variants of one’s own religion.
Applies to: Christianity
There is a prevalent opinion in the West that all religions essentially believe in the Christian god, just in different forms. This is not true, but still a popular belief.
Applies to: Islam
Islam holds that all people are born Muslims, and that their initial true beliefs are then corrupted by society.
Applies to: Bahai Faith
The basic tenet of this religion states that all religions basically say the same thing, and that the Bahai Faith reunites them all.
Applies to: 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. For example, Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country. Hence, its constitution requires that people worship one “Supreme Being” (presumably the Muslim God). Now, the Island of Bali is part of Indonesia, but it is Hindu. Hindus worship several gods, or several facets of a godhead. To solve this problem, the supreme being was just added to the canon of Hindu gods, and Hindus on Bali worship the supreme being together with the other deities.
Applies to: 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” Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 976.

Claim an illusion

Religions have to explain to their followers why the other religions exist. One way to do that is to claim that these other religions are just wrong variants of one’s own religion. In addition, one can claim that the other religions have been deliberately created by the higher powers of one’s own religion. This turns the existence of the other religions into a proof for the power of one’s own spirits.
Applies to: Islam and Christianity
Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The Quran, in contrast, tells us that Jesus was not really resurrected. God only made it seem as if Jesus were resurrected (Quran / 4:157-158). Thus, God fooled the Christians.
Vice versa, Christians believe that the Quran cannot be divine, because it denies the divinity of Jesus. Rather, a prevalent Christian opinion was as follows: The Quran was falsified on the way down by the devil. God gave his message to the Prophet Mohammed, but the devil intervened and corrupted the message, so that it seemed to the Muslims that the message was divine while it was not. So the devil fooled the Muslims. Medieval Christian Views on MohammedCriticism of Muhammed / Middle Ages / Tultusceptru de libro domni Metobii
Applies to: Islam
Whenever another religion claims a miracle, Islam can say that these miracles were done by the Jinns — the spirits of Islam Jinn.
Applies to: Judaism
If a prophet from another religion performs a miracle, then this is done only by the Abrahamic God to test his followers (Bible / Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
Applies to: Christianity
The Bible urges Christians not to take miracles by non-Christian prophets as proof of existence for other gods (Bible / Revelation 19:20, Matthew 24), presumably in continuation of the previously mentioned Jewish principle.
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?

The only solution

A religion can bind its followers if it presents itself as the only solution to the problems of life, society, and philosophy. This typically takes the form of rhetoric questions or of claims. Examples are: Such hypotheses play on the fact that the question is easy, but the reply is complex. You cannot answer the above questions with a single word or a single sentence. However, since the religion typically provides a comprehensive moral framework and model of the universe and society, it can provide such a one-word answer. This makes the religion an attractive kill-it-all solution. This effect is reinforced if people know only one religion. In such settings, the religion can claim a monopoly on the solution of problems or on the meaning of words (“sense of life”). Unfortunately, this trick can also be played with any other ideology. It has been played, e.g., with Nazism as well (“Who else could help us now, if not Hitler?”).

In a variant of this scheme, religion is presented as the guarantor of moral decency. Apostasy is seen as a slippery slope towards drug consumption, pre-marital relationships, and moral hazard in general. Religious ideologues do their best to portray “the outside” as immoral and dangerous.

Applies to: most major religions
Most major religions have variously been presented as the only solution to the problems of life and society.

God’s glory

In our life, there will be bad things and good things. If a religion promises that there will be only good things, then it will lose those people who experience bad things. A religion will be more convincing if it can explain and justify both good things and bad things. One particularly successful strategy is to say that the good things come from the main deity, while the bad things happen with a deeper purpose. 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.
Applies to: Christianity
In popular interpretations of this religion, good things are ascribed to God or Jesus. When a bad thing happens, this is either (1) a punishment from God, thus showing the justness of God, or (2) a necessary condition to make something good happen, thus showing the ultimate benevolence of God, or (3) the fault of the human. It is never the fault of the god (Bible / John 9). This way, the name of the god is kept clear of all reproaches. The idea goes further: A popular belief goes that before heaven comes, we must experience disaster. Since we do, this is interpreted as evidence of the truth of Christianity. Believers will view any deterioration of the situation as confirmation of the prophecy, and any improvement as a gift from God [Ralf Dobelli: The Art of Clear Thinking / Chapter 12]. We discuss God’s benevolence in detail in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God.
Applies to: Islam
The Quran tells us that whatever good comes to us, is from God. Whatever bad happens to us comes from ourselves (Quran / 4:79). This way, God takes the glory for all positive things, while rejecting the responsibility for the negative things. 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 a proof for God. We discuss other psychological factors of Islam later in this book.
Applies to: 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 either in this life or in the next. Thus, whatever happens can be interpreted as a proof for 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.
Applies to: Spiritism
In this religion, earthly life is a trial Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 920. “If a righteous man undergoes misfortune, it is a trial from which, being bravely borne, he will reap a rich reward” [ibid / § 926] — most likely in the afterlife or 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 reap a rich reward, and God is also a good god). Hence, no matter what happens, God is always good.
In the United Kingdom, the adjectives “Royal” and “National” are often used synonymously. Note, however, that we talk about the “Royal Mint” (giving glory to the King), but about the “National Debt” (diverting blame from him).
William Cobbett, paraphrased


“Through deep study of ancient [Hindu] reli­gious li­tera­ture, they found 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

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. Today, it is shunned. If a religion prohibits slavery, it would never have gained popularity in ancient times. If it allows slavery, it risks being abandoned in modern times. Therefore, only those religions that are sufficiently vague in their moral tenets can survive through the ages.

This book does not say that the current interpretations of these religions would be false, or that the previous interpretation would be correct. The book just says that major religions have had different interpretations over time.

Applies to: Christianity
The Bible contains both the loving God (in the Old Testament) and the punishing God (in the Old Testament). Therefore, Christians could 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. Today, slavery is shunned — also based on Bible verses. We discuss other cases where Christianity changed its mind in the Chapter on Christianity.
Applies to: Catholicism
This denomination of Christianity has a harder time to adapt its tenets, because the Catholic Faith is defined explicitly and exhaustively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Still, also this leaves some leeway. For example, abortion is considered a sin. However, in 2015, the Pope declared that, for one year, priests would be allowed to forgive abortion. Thus, even though abortion remains forbidden, it became de facto easier for believers to perform it.
Applies to: Islam
The religion has seen different interpretations based on the translations of the Quran, the abrogation of verses, the dependence on context, the choice of Hadiths, the schools, and the interpretation of the Quranic verses. Followers of Islam had and have different opinions on slavery, the role of women, or apostasy.
Applies to: 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 Punishment in Judaism. However, Reform Judaism has declared retro-actively that “Both in concept and in practice, Jewish tradition found capital punishment repugnant” Annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: Resolution 1979, 1979-03-29.
Applies to: Hinduism
This religion is based on ancient books that have led to different view points. For example, the Laws of Manu present the caste system as the natural order of things (Laws of Manu / 1 / 87-91, Laws of Manu / 3 / 13). However, newer readings of ancient texts say that the caste system was never a part of Hinduism (see picture).
Applies to: Spiritism
While God’s laws are considered eternal, man’s laws change.
Vox populi, vox dei.
(The voice of the people is the voice of god.)
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