In this article, I will attempt to argue that the mechanisms used by religions for their own propagation inevitably foster intolerance and extremism.
I will attempt to show that over time, the tendency to extremism in religions can only increase.
First, it will be necessary to understand the mechanism by which religions propagate themselves. In order for a religion to take root and grow, it must A) provide better incentives than another to its promoters and B) establish barriers to keep its promoters from switching to another religion.
A) Methods of Acquisition of Promoters
The mechanisms for the propagation of religious beliefs have evolved over time as can be seen from a study of ancient and modern religions.
- Explanatory Religions
Early religions seem to have been explanatory in nature, and their main function appears to have been that of explaining physical phenomena and how the world came into existence.
The earliest religions of almost all ancient civilizations – be they the Greek, the Indian, the Chinese, the Anasazi or the Maya – seem to have developed mythological explanations of the workings of the world.
This rich mythological framework could have provided work for story-tellers and bards, hence spreading through their art.
So their earliest mechanisms for growth probably involved monetary incentives for artists and other individuals for promoting religious fictions that explained the workings of nature.
As humanity developed the means to travel over larger distances, these stories would have spread.
The religions that would have been most likely to survive would have been the ones with the most powerful stories and the best narratives.
With the advent of agriculture, as humans began to live in settlements with a high population density, a new mechanism for propagation would have become more effective and rewarding for a religion’s promoters.
- Organized Religions
With static populations in highly populated areas like cities and towns, religions would have begin to market themselves through religious organizations that maintained places of worship or organized religious events. These would have helped them reach more people within a town or city, just like a store in a busy street corner or a fair in a fair ground sells more goods than a push cart vendor pushing his wares through the streets of a town.
Individual story-tellers would never have been able to generate a sufficient surplus to build similar edifices or organize large scale events. So religions that could create organizations that could pull in earnings from a large number of adherents, enough to pay for the creation of a professional class of promoters – professional priests – would have become more successful.
Fictions such as “If you contribute V to do W at place X or before deity Y at time T, you will have a better chance of succeeding at Z” would have been used to induce people to pay money for the services of the promoters and to travel to meet the promoters at regular intervals. The earnings from such service offerings would then have been used to maintain the organizations, set up edifices or organized events which would have served to further propagate the religion.
What is important to observe is that once religions evolved the ability to generate sufficient income to sustain a priesthood, they could grow exponentially, because the more priests they had, the more people they could convince of the truth of their religious fictions. And the more people they convinced, the more they would earn from the consumers, and the more priests they could pay for. This cycle would repeat with increasing rates of growth and the largest religion in any location would grow into a monopoly.
The tendency for the larger organization to win (network effects) would have sufficed to provide such religions with a defensive barrier against new religions.
You can take the case of the new religions Jainism and Buddhism in India. Neither could take broad-based and permanent root in India because the Hindu religion with which they were in competition had at all times a larger organization and many more followers. Once they had lost political patronage, the new religions receded in popularity rather precipitously.
Owing to the network effects of size that make it hard to displaced established organized religions, challengers to organized religions invariably required political support from the top namely the direct support of the king. Examples include the support of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten to the monotheistic cult of the Aten in Egypt, the support of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in the case of Buddhism in India and the support of the Roman Emperor Constantine the First in the case of Christianity in Europe.
So a class of religions then came into existence which could displace religions that relied on priestly orders alone by the use of political patronage.
These were religions that in addition to wielding priestly orders of their own, propagated themselves through symbiotic relations with political powers.
- Political Religions
Such religions would have had to provide some value to political power. Political power was typically increased through war between political entities (in the past) and through political projects that are attractive enough to mobilize the support of large numbers of people (in the present).
The number of soldiers that can be raised for war would have been dependent on:
- the degree to which such soldiers are not dissuaded by fear of injury or death,
- the rewards that may be gained by the soldiers from war spoils, and
- the motivation to make the effort in the service of a cause.
The number of volunteers that can be raised for a political project would have been dependent on:
- the rewards that may be gained by the volunteers from the outcome, and
- the motivation to make the effort in the service of a cause.
Religions that rely on this strategy for propagating themselves increase all the above incentives by a) helping people overcome the fear of death and fear of defeat or financial loss, by b) sanctioning benefits to their adherents (including allowing rapacious actions) in war or in a political cause and by c) providing people with an excuse to go to war or engage in a political cause (providing them something to fight for).
To do that, they would have had to take recourse to one or more of the following fictions:
- Religious fictions promising after-life insurance in return for their efforts
- Religious fictions promising divine help for their projects
- Religious fictions permitting greedy behaviour during the project
- Religious fictions that lead to the exclusion of other religious/political groups
- Religious political projects
Let’s examine each of these in turn:
Feature 1: Religious fiction of a desirable after-life
The Norse religion promised Norsemen that death in war gave a Viking a ticket to Valhalla – the hall of the heroic dead.
In the Christian religion, there is a place where souls are believed to go if they’ve been good in their lifetimes,and it’s called Heaven. Souls of religious martyrs are pictured as ending up there: “Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God … They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” (Bible, Revelation 20:4). Some people also seem to interpret the verse “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Bible, Matthew 10:39) as a promise of good things in the afterlife for someone who gives up his/her life for religious reasons.
In the religion of Islam, there is a concept of a paradise or Jannah (the garden of paradise). It might be possible to interpret the following “Did ye think that ye would enter Heaven without Allah testing those of you who fought hard (In His Cause) and remained steadfast?” (Qur’an, sura 3 (Al-i-Imran), ayah 142) as a promise that fighting in the cause of Islam shall lead to benefits in the afterlife. The hadiths also apparently consider Jihad to be one of the 8 doors to entering Jannah.
Such beliefs can have a huge effect on the decision making process of a person considering going to war for a religious cause or a political entity claiming to represent a religious cause.
The person would have two alternatives:
- Staying away from war and facing social disapproval.
- Going to war, risking dying or returning rich from plunder.
The first alternative would entail no risk of death, but there would be the pressure of disapproval from social circles (especially in societies with a strong concept of honor). The second alternative would be very risky because the worst-case outcome would be death.
The second choice would therefore be a logical choice only if the rewards-to-risks ratio were more palatable than the disapproval involved in the first choice. The risks in the second choice (dying in war) would feel more acceptable if there were an enticement attached to the worst-case scenario (the enticement of heaven after death).
As a result, a religion which sanctioned or rewarded dying for a cause would be able to raise larger armies of soldiers for a political leader than a religion that didn’t.
The benefit to the religion would be support for propagation of the religion by the political leaders and their soldiers.
Feature 2: Religious fiction promising divine help in a project
Just as religious fictions promising a felicitous afterlife serve to bring more soldiers to the battlefield, religious fictions promising victory in war help to keep more soldiers on the battlefield (prevent them from abandoning the fight and running away).
This is because the more a soldier believed that their side would win, the lower would be their expectation of desertion by their buddies, and lower the chances that they themselves would desert. Consequently an army of soldiers confident of winning would have a higher chance of really winning (all else being equal) and a lower chance of defeat and death.
The above effect has been explained mathematically using game theory in an earlier post on this blog.
Essentially, you can build a game theoretic canonical form representation of an army of 2 soldiers as shown below.
In a war, the benefits to each soldier can be modeled as a bi-matrix (normal-form game) as follows:
|soldier 2 fights||soldier 2 flees|
|soldier 1 fights||5, 5
|soldier 1 flees||0, -5
|Normal form or payoff matrix of a 2-player, 2-strategy game|
The first of the two numbers in the matrix represents the payoff to soldier 1.
The second of the two numbers in the matrix represents the payoff to soldier 2.
(The soldiers win something (represented by 5 points) if their army wins; they win nothing if their army loses; and they lose their life (represented by -5 points) if they do not flee and their army loses; we assume the army wins if both soldiers do not flee and loses if one or both flee).
If soldier 1 trusts soldier 2 not to flee the battlefield, the best strategy for soldier 1 is to stay and fight as well (since he will then get more benefits than if he flees).
If soldier 1 does not trust soldier 2 to stay on the battlefield (if he suspects that soldier 2 will run away), then the best strategy for soldier 1 is to run away himself (so that he does not remain on the battlefield and get killed).
So, this model shows that if two equal 2 man armies meet on a battlefield, the one whose soldiers trust each other more will win.
So, religions of a certain kind can supply two of the most important needs of a political leader keen on fighting a war – finding soldiers and keeping soldiers.
To do these, they need to have a good story of the afterlife, and they need to credibly promise victory in war.
An early Jewish holy book (carried forward into the Bible) called the book of the Judges contained stories of wars that were won as promised by god. In the stories, the Jews are shown as losing wars when not true to their religion, and winning them when true.
In the case of Islam, something similar can be seen after the defeat of the Muslim army in the Battle of Uhud in 625 A.D. After the loss, the prophet Muhammad is said to have explained the loss as follows: “Allah did indeed fulfil His promise to you when ye with His permission Were about to annihilate your enemy,-until ye flinched and fell to disputing about the order, and disobeyed it after He brought you in sight (of the booty) which ye covet. Among you are some that hanker after this world and some that desire the Hereafter. Then did He divert you from your foes in order to test you but He forgave you: For Allah is full of grace to those who believe.”
Feature 3: Religious fictions promising divine sanction for harmful actions
One other feature of certain religions that could have helped political leaders was religious sanction for crimes that would otherwise not receive social sanction. There are examples of horrific massacres (justified through the premise of permission from the divine).
In the Christian and Jewish traditions is the story of a Jewish prophet by the name of Moses requesting the Jews not to spare anyone from a community of people called the Midianites (that had attempted to involve the Jews in their religious practices) after they had been defeated. Moses says: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Bible, Numbers 31:17-18).
Muhammad is also reported to have participated in a massacre of a Jewish tribe (the Banu Qurayza) living in Medina after the successful defense of Medina by his army. Ibn Ishaq, a Muslim historian writes: “Then they surrendered, and the Apostle confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Harith, a woman of B. al-Najjar. Then the Apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah Huyayy b. Akhtab and Ka`b b. Asad their chief. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900.” (After that, the Jewish women and children were divided up among the Muslims that had participated in the siege, and Muhammad himself selected one of the women, Rayhana, for himself).
In the Indian epic, The Mahabharata, the deity Krishna repeatedly sanctions the killing through treachery of his enemies, ensuring the victory of the political leaders he is aligned with, though in the process violating all the rules of war and justice.
In all these cases, a religion enabled a political force to breach ethical norms and overcome natural human tendencies to forgiveness and compassion in its pursuit of political benefits – such as the complete elimination of an enemy, control over their lands and resources, and sex slaves as rewards for soldiers (in the Jewish and Muslim stories), and the winning of a kingdom through dishonest means (in the Hindu story).
These are not just fictions from a distant past. The same fictions permit organizations like ISIS to act in an extremely inhumane manner to the present day.
Feature 4: Exclusion of other religious/political groups
Feature 4 is the most troubling of all. It appears that extreme religious views benefit a political symbiote more than moderate religious views.
That’s because more inclusive views do not create political projects capable of emotionally impelling a large mass of people to support to a political symbiote.
So, for example, more inclusive religious fictions would not generate the conflict required for expansion of a religious system at the cost of other religious systems.
Less inclusive religious fictions could, on the other hand, drive a large number of people to join a political project, leading the group participating in the project to dominance over more inclusive groups.
An example can be seen in the case of the house of Saud. Ibn Saud was the first king and founder of the third Saudi Arab kingdom (modern Saudi Arabia).
He positioned himself as the promoter of the teachings of a cleric – Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab – who rejected the veneration of Muslim saints and their tombs.
Ibn Saud’s opponents in the Rashidi tribe of Arabia, who held a less strict view of Islam, would not have had any quarrel with Ibn Saud’s followers, and so would not have had a cause to use to muster large numbers of warriors to make war on Ibn Saud.
On the other hand, since Ibn Saud’s followers could be and were roused to righteous anger against the Rashidi tribe’s “decadent” religious views, making it possible to muster them in large numbers for the political project of the Saudi royal family.
Subsequent events have shown that more and more extreme religious fictions have been invented by political forces (the Taliban and then ISIS) to successfully displace more tolerant religious fictions in their areas of influence.
In India too, a similar process can be observed in Islam in Kashmir and in Hinduism mainly in North India.
In the case of Hinduism, one extremist religious fiction is the belief in the inadmissibility of cow slaughter (and older and even more damaging fiction that’s dusted and rolled out at every election is the belief that Ram’s birthplace lay right under a mosque).
Any group of Hindus that believes that it is up to individuals to decide if they should or should not consume a meat product such as beef might would have no quarrel with people who consumed beef.
On the other hand, a group who believed that the killing of a cow constituted a religious slight to Hindus would be able to motivate opposition to those who consumed beef. If a political symbiote identified such a conflict-generating fiction and aligned their political project to it, they could then be propelled to power through it.
Let’s take another example, this time to do with Christianity.
Let’s say there is one group of Christians that believes that the most important religious fictions in the Bible happened to be the injunction to love others and to turn the other cheek to an assailant. Such a group would be able to coexist peacefully with people of other religious persuasions.
However if a group believed that the most important religious fictions in the Bible were the Christ-is-necessary-for-the-afterlife-insurance-to-work fiction (“no one comes to the Father but through the Son”), the command to propagate the religion (“go ye to all the world and preach my gospel to every people”) or even the monotheistic fiction (“there is no one like you, Lord, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears”) would find it easier to generate conflict with people around the world possessed of different viewpoints from theirs. The engendered conflict could be exploited by a political symbiote seeking a political project.
So, this imbalance of political utility in favour of extremism is bound to give rise to a tendency in all religions to slide in the direction of more extreme views.
I suspect such a shift being involved in the rise of ISIS (through its symbiotic relationship with Salafism in the middle east).
I suspect such a shift having helped the rise of the fortunes of the BJP (through its symbiotic relationship with right-wing Hinduism).
I suspect such a shift in the rise of Trump (his symbiotic relationship being with white Christian conservatives).
Feature 5: Religious Political Projects
Many religions provide their own political projects.
Judaism is clearly associated with the political project of occupation of a portion of the land of Israel/Palestine.
Islam has concepts such as that of the Dar ul Islam and Dar al Harb which create a political project of domination of political entities with the goal of spreading the teachings of Islam.
B) Barriers to Exit
So far, I have talked about the ways in which religions acquire promoters. Religions also deploy a number of methods to erect barriers to keep promoters from leaving a religion.
Here are some of the barriers used:
1. Network Effect Barriers
As I have described above, once organized religions reach a certain size, their resources and the number of promoters invested in them allow them to maintain a higher rate of acquisition compared to a smaller religious organization. This forms a kind of barrier to promoters leaving, in that either social opprobrium (from the majority of the people around being promoters of the larger religion) or the fact that they are more likely to encounter promoters from the larger religion leaves them more likely to remain with the larger religion.
2. Consistency Bias Barriers
Humans are prone to consistency bias. They do not like to be seen as fickle. So once someone asserts a belief (to themselves or to someone else) they are bound to find it very difficult to change their mind about it.
Religions from the middle-east generally use this to their advantage, by prescribing periodic meetings of promoters where the promoters affirm their adherence to the fictions of a religion.
Christianity has its ‘creed’. Islam has the ‘shahada’. Judaism has the ‘shmah’. In Christianity and Judaism, the frequency of affirmation of the creed is weekly. In Islam, the frequency is (for the extremely religious) five times a day.
When a person recites an absolute assertion such as the creed, shmah or the shahada before a large number of witnesses, it becomes difficult for the person to allow themselves to be seen to be changing their minds about it.
I doubt Hinduism has an equivalent, and the closest I could see right-wing Hinduism come to it is with cries such as “Jai Shri Ram” and weekly meetings in “shakas” which might help erect barriers to exit using consistency bias.
3. Legal / Penal Barriers
Islamic law in many jurisdictions prescribes the penalty of death for the “crime” of leaving the religion.
Can we measure the degree of extremism of a dominant group’s religious fictions? It appears that while a direct measure might not be easy to come up with, we might be able to find proxy measures for the same.
A proxy for the extremism of religious fictions might be the number (as a fraction of the population) of members of minority religions who succeed in living in any area.
As the favoured religious fictions of a dominant religion become more extreme, they should lead (by the mechanisms described above) to the elimination of more people of other religions from those areas.
So, in Gujarat, the reduction of the number of people professing Islam and other religions in Hindu-dominated localities of Ahmedabad might serve as a measure of the increase in extremism of those areas.
Similarly, in parts of Kashmir where the majority religion is Islam, and in Muslim majority areas of countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh, the populations of non-Muslim minorities remaining might provide a proxy for the degree of extremism in the flavour of Islam in general use.
A proxy for the strength of the barriers to exit might be the rate of people giving up that religion in mixed-religion marriages in which both spouses decide to become promoters of one and the same religion.
I have argued above that in order to displace established organized religions, it becomes necessary for religions to propagate themselves through symbiotic relationships with amenable political players. A pressure to move in the direction of more extreme (less inclusive) views results from the need to provide political symbiotes with political projects that can result in large-scale mobilisation.
In other words, by the principles of natural selection, religions are forced to morph into more virulent / harmful / intolerant forms.
About the author
Cohan Sujay Carlos is a researcher at Aiaioo Labs with a keen interest in history, economics and artificial intelligence.