Vladimir Dinets

Russian version

This article was first written in Russian in 1990. At that time, no scientific journal or popular magazine in Russia would dare publish it. Since than, many new publications using similar approach have appeared, the most famous being the memes theory. However, I believe that this text will still be of interest to historians, culturologists, and clergy, as well as to general public.

Resonn is rebel to God.
(Reason is a rebellion against God)
Geoffrey Chaucer. Canterbury Tales

The history of humankind during the last 5000 years was full of dynamic, and, at first glance, unexplainable events: various religions suddenly appeared, rapidly spreaded, and then sometimes disappeared into the oblivion within the lifetime of one-two generations. A religion can conquer the minds of millions of people, only to be swiftly replaced by another, sometimes sharply different, one; can be extremely successful in some country, but leave almost no trace among its neighbors. In this preliminary study, we'll try to understand the hidden laws and moving forces of this process, using the terminology of evolution theory, microbiology and epidemiology. Such an unusual approach is justified by the existence of certain analogies between religions and biological infectious agents; some of these analogies will be discussed in the following chapters.

1. Microevolution of religions.

Let's use the word microevolution to define the process of gradual change of religious ideas on the level of their carriers, the human beings.

1.1. Populations and strains of religions.

Since early age, any person born into a society is learning this society's moral rules and values, mythology, and ideology in general. If the society is religious, this ideology is mostly based on its religion. All religions have special methods of facilitating this process, such as systems of religious education and various initiation ceremonies. Many of these rules and myths are consumed during childhood, and make their way deep into the subconscious. This early exposure is similar to the first contact of a newborn baby with the microbial environment, when the microflora of the intestines is being formed.

As each baby has unique parameters of the gastrointestinal tract, and different levels of tolerance to various microbes, a microbial community in each person's system is unique, slightly different from anybody else's. In the same way, psychological uniqueness of each person means that everybody's religious views and ideas are unique; everybody has his or her own version of religion. We'll use the term strain for such "individual religions". The parameters of each person's religious strain, as well as microbial community, are also influenced by unique outside factors - the religious views and microbes of parents, teachers, friends, and the community in general. So, the religious strains of people living in each human community, such as a village or a country, are consistently different from those of other communities. We'll call such sets of strains populations.

1.2. Resistance and tolerance. Virulence.

Typically, a religious person, when subjected to propaganda of a religion different from his own, developes a negative or even aggressive reaction. Such cases of being resistant to one infectious agent in presence of another infection or a non-infectious disease are well-known in microbiology; a textbook example is the resistance to malaria among people with sickle-cell anemia. For a person to become tolerant to a new religion, certain conditions must be present: the old religion must be degraded, and the new one must be highly virulent. Later we'll discuss why certain religions do obtain such characteristics.

2. Macroevolution of religions.

Let's use the word macroevolution to define the changes in whole populations of religions, as well as replacement of one religion by another.

2.1. Adaptation.

In any human society, a religion can be spread in different ways: by force (such as after a conquest), or naturally, by active carriers (missionaries) or in areas of contact with another society. In all cases, the new religion gradually changes, adapting to local mentality, political and economical situation, the remaining elements of the old religion and so on. Eventually, a new religion evolves. Any of the major religions of the world is composed of numerous local sub-religions, for which the term "subspecies" seems applicable. Even the most formalized and conservative religions cannot avoid it: for example, the Russian Orthodox Church became noticeably different from Greek Orthodox within few years from the conversion of Russia into Christianity.

This process doesn't stop even after the total victory of the new religion over the old one. But it slows down noticeably as soon as other religions and heresies are expelled from the society, because the competition ceases to exist, and the selection of the most virulent individual strains, which is so important during the initial spreading, virtually stops. As the process of adaptation slows down, the new process becomes inevitable - the degradation of religion.

2.2. Degradation.

After a religion have succeeded in completely subduing a society, it starts to loose virulence with each generation. In virology, such effect is well-known, and sometimes used to create a vaccine by repassage of virus many time from one chicken embryo to another. Another important part of degradation process is the increase in the number of mutations (we'll use the word mutation for the individual strains so distinct that they are seen as new versions of the religion by people themselves). Various social factors can contribute to degradation of the religion; the typical examples being drastic changes in the economy, or immoral behavior of the clergy). Dogmatization of religious practices and ideas provokes people with non-conformist mentality to start thinking seriously or even critically about the myths and taboos of the religion.

Often a religion is rapidly degrading in its core range, but remains virulent in more remote areas, where it is still expanding or competing with other religions. Catholicism, deeply degraded in Europe, was remained successful in colonies for centuries. It's not unusual to see the most virulent strains migrating into such areas, such as hundreds of young American missionaries heading to countries with Catholic or non-Christian population.

As the mutations build up, they lead to the formation of sects, and sometimes to schisms (although schisms can also be caused by other factors). Sects are groups of people carrying very distinctly mutant strains; they often see themselves as an opposition to state-supported religion, as the only "true believers", or claim to be returning the religion to its early days of high virulence and adaptability. These claims are sometimes substantial, because these new strains do resemble the ancestral form, although they never fully succeed in recreating it, because, just as in biological evolution, it is impossible to return to the past stage. So, no matter how many sects claim to be recreating the early Christianity, none will ever be able to re-create it authentically.

We know from epidemiology that small, highly active groups of carriers are particularly effective in spreading new infections. It took the crew of Santa Maria only few weeks to start a catastrophic epidemic of syphilis in Europe. We can see the same effectiveness in some cases that a new subspecies or species of religion is carried by an active group of apostles. Naturally, mutating and sect-forming is one of the most common ways of the originating of new religions; two others will be discussed later.

2.3. Conversion. Expansion. Psychotropic abilities of religions.

Normally, a person cannot have two religions at the same time. If such cases become widespread (such as in Roman Empire or present-day China and Japan), it is a sign of a deep crisis of the society, and of serious degradation of its main religions. Such a society can be an easy prey for a new, highly virulent religion. However, a religion needs more than good adaptability and virulence for successful expansion; psychotropic abilities are particularly important.

Many infectious agents are capable of changing host behavior to increase the possibility of spreading to other hosts. Probably the best known example is rabies virus, which changes the behavior of its natural hosts, carnivorous mammals, in such a way that its spreading through bite becomes more likely. Although few parasites of vertebrates have developed such abilities, they are typical for diseases of invertebrates, particularly arthropods. In the same way, many religions promote intolerance and military aggression or missionary activity. Early Islam and modern-day Mormons are obvious examples. These characteristics do not always lead to success in competing with other religions. The militant religion of Vikings was one of the reasons for their raids; but these raids resulted in their contact with Christianity and ultimately conversion to it. There is no "absolute weapon" in evolution; any trait can be good or bad for a species' survival, depending on situation.

In addition to psychotropic abilities, a religion must be able to exploit the social structure of the society. The early Christianity was so successful because, being basically a religion of slaves, it was also profitable for the elite. Later it successfully adapted to being a state religion by becoming much more universal; and eventually evolved into Protestant subspecies which are specifically adapted for industrial, free-market society.

2.4. Relictual religions.

When a new religion replaces an old one, the latter usually becomes isolated in small groups of its most devoted carriers, or in remote human populations, such as in high mountains. These groups find themselves in the same position as sects; their beliefs are subjected to brutal selection. Hosts with less robust strains inevitably leave the enclaves in an attempt to avoid oppression from the rest of the society. In such enclaves, the religion can persist for an unbelievably long time without much degradation.

The intolerance of the adepts of new religions often causes the carriers of the relictual one to migrate; that's how Zoroastrians from Persia ended up in India. Eventually, such enclaves disappear one by one, despite desperate struggle; but it can take hundreds, such as in case of Christian communities of Cappadokia, or even thousands of years. The record probably belongs to Samaritans, a tiny mountain sect in Palestine - these people have been practicing their own religion, similar to Judaism, for 3000 years, all these time being surrounded by enemies, and seem to be gradually giving it up only now.

Sects of major religions sometimes end up becoming relicts - the mountains of Siberia are still full of small colonies of Old-Believers, expelled from European Russia in the 19th century. They successfully survived the crisis of deeply degraded Russian Orthodox Church after the revolution.

Just as every biological species chooses between different strategies in its fight for survival, each religion can place its bet either on long survival in isolated communities, like Kuru fever and many other little-known tropical diseases, or on risky expansion and constant change, like flu viruses.

Sudden shifts from one strategy to another are uncommon but possible; as in spectacular outbreaks of HIV or early Christianity, which had long persisted as a little-known sect in Dead Sea caves before emerging to bring the world to its knees.

Hinduism was once so successful in India that it became dependent on its unique social structure and lost any ability for self-propagation in other societies. But recently its new strains have suddenly spread throughout the West. This epidemic seems to be mostly over, but it lasted long enough for these new versions of Hinduism to become highly distinct - in fact, they became new religions. As we'll see in the next chapter, evolving into simplified versions is a widespread way of the origination of new species of religions.

3. The origin of species.

The most typical ways of origination of new religions are:

Almost always, two or more of these processes are at work. As we have already discussed the first two, let's look at the other three.

3.1. Polyploidization.

If a religion is circulating in a society for a long time, its mythological system always tends to become more and more complicated. This process can lead the creation of giant pantheons, such as the Ancient Greek or Hindu. The resulting image can be so different from the original that the religion becomes hardly recognizable. We'll call this process polyploidization - a term used in biology for situations when new species form by simple multiplying of the number of the chromosomes in cells.

Even religions claiming to be monotheistic cannot avoid polyploidization. Christianity, for example, have replaced the single God with Trinity, then added a multitude of saints, archangels, demons etc. The cult of Madonna became widespread in Catholic countries, while St. Nicolas became more popular than Christ himself in some Orthodox ones. Currently, Christianity and Islam are typical polytheistic religions. Hinduism have evolved from its ancestor, Brahmanism, almost entirely by polyploidization.

3.2. Hybridization.

Hybridization of religions is so widespread that its elements can be found in almost all religious societies. It can be spontaneous, or result from an intentional invention. Kabir and his followers created Sikh religion by merging Islam with Hinduism. Spontaneous hybridization of Christianity and animistic religions produced many bizarre cults in all parts of the world, from Siberia to Haiti.

The frequent occurrence of hybridization is the main obstacle to the creation of tree-like classification of religions, similar to biological systematics.

Even if there is no full-scale hybridization, myths and ideas always flow between religions, particularly when a new religion is in process of replacing and old one. This flow of ideological elements resemble the little-understood phenomena of gene transfer between species, suspected to play a major role in microbial evolution.

3.3. Degeneration.

Polyploidization eventually makes a religion too complicated, and difficult for new converts to understand. In this case its expansion is often carried on by simplified versions, easy for comprehension, highly universal and virulent. Early Christianity and Islam were, in fact, simplified versions of Judaism; their success have later been repeated, on smaller scale, by numerous Hinduism derivatives, such as Krishnaism.

In biology, this process of simplification is well known as degeneration. It was important in the evolution of most parasites, and some other groups, such as many flowering plants.

As it was already mentioned, the evolution of any religion is usually a combination of two or more processes. For example, the participants of hybridization are sometimes not the mainstream religions themselves, but their degenerative versions. This is how Manichaeism and later Bahai'i have first appeared.

3.4. Global religions. Monotheism and polytheism. Religious wars and demographic explosion.

For many centuries, until approximately 2000-3000 B.C., the numerous existing religions were probably relatively similar to each other. They were limited in their distribution to single ethnic groups, and most changes were caused by wars and migrations. This situation could be seen, until very recently, in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and North-Eastern Asia.

As the first states formed, trade routes gained increasing importance, and life styles of entire continents were changed by agriculture and primitive industry, this balance was lost. Mass migrations, psychological changes, and development of complicated social structures had the same impact on the existing religions, as geologic or climatic changes can have on previously stable ecosystems. Competition intensified, mutations became more frequent, and new, highly virulent religions evolved, armed with simple, easily understandable ideas, picturesque mythologies, and universal adaptations in general. Waves of Zoroastrism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Christianity and Islam rolled over entire continents, eventually replacing native religions from most parts of the world - including many places where lifestyle have not changed much since prehistoric times. Strikingly similar phenomena occurred in the epidemiology of humankind: for many centuries, local infections are gradually being replaced by successive waves of global epidemics: smallpox, plague, typhus, then flu etc.

The "globalists" were not always successful. In India, Buddhism vanished almost without a trace in the sea of closely related Hinduism. Mari tribes of Volga Valley, sandwiched for many centuries between Islam and Christianity, managed to keep their ancient faith. Flu is still rare in Amazon basin, where native respiratory infections prevail.

Most of these "global religions" were more or less monotheistic. Extreme degeneration of pantheon provided them with high adaptability. For the same reason, most recent global epidemics were caused by viral diseases: being extremely simple in comparison to bacteria, viruses can adapt more rapidly to local environment.

However, as soon as the expansion slows down, the process of polyploidization begins; that's why no religion could ever remain strictly monotheistic for more than 100-200 years.

As competition between religions intensified, something previously unheard of appeared: religious wars, the ultimate instrument of fighting for survival. Even now, the majority of the world's ongoing conflicts are, at least in part, caused by religious intolerance.

Another important tool in the competition is the control over reproduction of host species. In order to compete successfully with others, a religion must ensure the survival and proliferation of host human population.

At the times when the human population of any area was controlled by natural factors, religions tried to make it healthier by promoting family values and opposing health hazards. Those that failed to do so, notably Manichaeism, did not survive themselves. Nowadays, when the rate of population growth is determined voluntarily by population itself, most religions quietly abandoned their strict moral requirements and turned to fighting contraceptives and family planning lessons in schools.

Unfortunately, in their attempt to win by numbers, Islam and Catholicism have contributed to the democratic explosion. All achievements of science, economy and democracy have been neutralized in many countries by rapid growth of population. Many countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa are worse off now than a century ago, and there is no hope for them in the future, because there resources have been consumed by excessive population.

The three extant global religions would likely displace all others, if not for some factors which have only became active in the last few centuries.

4. External factors in the evolution of religions.

4.1. "Acts of God".

As much as biological evolution, the evolution of religions is influenced by countless external factors, sometimes randomly operating. The history of Christianity in China is a good example: in the 7th centuries, the country was on the verge of declaring Nestorianism its state religion. But an emperor (T'ai Tsong) died, and his successor, U Tsong, started a campaign against all foreign religion, including Christianity, Manichaeism and Buddhism. In the late 13th century, during the rule of Hubilay, Christianity began to rise again, but was suppressed after 1326, when nationalistic Ming dynasty seized power. Its third chance came much later, during the pro-Chistian Taiping Rebellion, but the rebellion, on verge of success, was suppressed by Western intervention.

This story of changing fortunes brings to mind the turbulent early history of smallpox vaccination - originally almost prevented from being used by the opposition of some governments and religious institutions. If they won, smallpox virus would possibly avoid its eventual eradication.

Since the 18th century, non-religious "ideological infections" and the rise of Atheism became important factors in the evolution of religions.

4.2. Ideological infections.

The startling similarities in the distributional and historical patterns of politico-ideological infections, such as Communism, and religions, were apparent even for some early observers. Global religions behave in a particularly similar way, because they tend to be as politicized and totalitarian as any political faith system.

The relationships between these ideological and religious infections are as diverse as the relationships between bacterial and viral ones. Often, and ideology tries to suppress religions to avoid competition, but it is no less common for an autocratic ideology to develop symbiotic relationship with Christianity or other religion. The oppression can sometimes help a degraded religion by creating competitive environment. In the 19th century, the Russian Orthodox Church have evolved into a highly specialized parasite, completely depended on its symbiotic relationship with the government. As the monarchy became increasingly unpopular, the Church got into deep, almost lethal crisis in the early 20th century, but 70 years of violent oppression revived it, and made ready to its impressive backslash after the fall of Communism.

Such diverse relationships are also common in epidemiology: Neisseria gonorrhoeae, for example, is often symbiotic with Treponema pallidum, and can sometimes survive inside Treponema cells during the attempted medical treatment.

In many societies, totalitarism and lack of democracy can cause the outbreaks of religions, just as HIV virus causes the development of secondary infections by destroying the immune system (in the case of religion - the ability of independent thinking and critical approach to the ideological environment).

Some ideological infections have been remarkably successfull in the short term, but they have low survival rate, probably because they are much more recent phenomena than religions, and didn't have time to develop some universal and very effective adaptations, such as promise of immortality.

As ideological infections collapse, some of their ideas and methods can be utilized by religions. As the Masons became extinct in the USA, their ceremonies and business practices were incorporated by Mormons. Just as joining a Masonic society in the 19th century, or Communist Party in modern China, becoming a Mormon can bring you excellent career opportunity, great business contacts, even a Green Card.

The long co-evolution of religions and politico-ideological infections results in their growing similarity. During the last few centuries, national ideologies became increasingly replaced by global ones. On the other hand, most "young" religions, starting from Islam, have attempted to control or even replace all social and political structures in infected societies.

4.3. Atheism and the evolution of religions.

Unfortunately, humans are born without immunity to religious infections. Anthropologists have yet to find a society, primitive or advanced, with no religion at all. For atheism to appear, certain conditions must be met, such as the presence of free scientific thought, and the degradation of dominant religion. Atheism have first appeared in Ancient Greece, but it became widespread only in the last 200 years.

Rapid changes in lifestyle, growing exposure of general population to science and education, and increasing diversity in popular mentality made it difficult for global and locals religions to adapt successfully. After thousands of years of successful evolution, they suddenly began to lack universality. As the most educated groups of people became increasingly familiar with science and history, some of them managed to get rid of religious infestation completely, or maintain it in a light form. Christianity was more influenced than Islam and Buddhism, not only because some Christian countries were the first to develop modern science and industry, but also because it seems to be the most degraded of all three global religions.

The propagation of Atheism have had only very limited success. It looks like only part of the population is capable of developing effective immunity and getting rid of religious infection completely. Others, even when isolated from potential sources of infection, immediately create new, bizarre surrogates, from various "health systems" to UFOs and conspiracy theories. The long-term success of Atheism is still under question.

5. Prophylactics of religions.

The only known method of preventing religious, ideological and pseudo-scientific infections is good education. Its main goal should be teaching independent thinking, and critical approach to any information. Such immunization in early age can sometimes be surprisingly effective, even when combined with religious education. This approach have forced the religions in many Western countries to evolve into ordinary businesses, offering standard "soul insurance" and cheap socializing opportunities.

Unfortunately, no effective treatment exists for adults. If the infection is present in a light form, some progress can be made, but in most cases the prognosis is morbid. Religious infestation can severely alter the person's behavior, sometimes resulting in death of infected individual (such as in rejecting blood transfusion), other people (as in terrorist attacks on abortion clinics), or even inflicting injury on the person's own children, such as in circumcision.