How religions spread like viruses


“Religions are sets of ideas, statements and prescriptions of whose validity and applicability individual humans can become convinced,” say Michael Doebeli  and Iaroslav Ispolatov at the University of Vancouver.

In other words, religions are memes, units of cultural inheritance just like songs, languages or political beliefs. Richard Dawkins proposed the idea that memes spread much in the same way that viruses do, using humans as hosts. Some get passed from person to person and can survive for many generations. Others die away and become rapidly extinct. The most successful adapt and thrive. Evolution acts on memes in the same way it acts on our genes.

That has given Doebeli and Ispolatov an idea: “We propose to model cultural diversification in religion using techniques from evolutionary theory to describe scenarios in which the reproducing units are religious memes.”

The model they use is relatively simple, including factors such as the rates of transmission of religious memes as well as the rate of loss,  but it generate some interesting results.

It predicts, for example, that new distinct religions should emerge as descendants of a single ancestor. Exactly this process has been observed many times in various religions such as the Catholic-Protestant split in the 16th century, and the ongoing fragmentation of a religious organisation in Papua New Guinea, which anthropologists are currently observing with interest.

This is an interesting piece of work and one that could lead to new detail in our  study of memes. Religious meme transmission rates are relatively easy to measure and change more quickly than other widespread memes such as languages. So there is plenty of data to play with.
But if ever an idea was likely to ruffle a few feathers, this is it. They’ll be spluttering over their coffee and donuts tomorrow morning in Dover, Pennsylvania.

Ref: A Model for the Evolutionary Diversification of Religions

11 Responses to “How religions spread like viruses”

  1. I don’t understand what is so new about this idea.

  2. ZEPHIR says:

    By Aether Wave Theory the formation of religions is simply by energy driven at the moment, when it becomes advantageous for driving portion of the resulting community. Therefore these communities are developing by common rules of matter cluster formation, like memems, bacteria/viral colonies, atom nuclei, planets and so on.

    This is general result of quantum behavior of Aether foam, which gets more dense when exposed to energy, like soap foam under shaking. The resulting dense blob of foam behaves like particle, which collects the another short wavelength energy waves and matter from its neighborhood like gravitational lens, until it becomes sufficiently large, so it will undergo a gravitational collapse or fragmentation.

    Between different particles a competitive behavior exists, because the clusters are evaporating like rain droplets: the faster, the smaller they are (Hawking’s mechanism).

    @trivendi: while idea is old, the article present a formal model of religion spreading, thus providing a new quality of understanding of it.

  3. Kent says:

    @ZEPHIR: Go lick your own perineum.

  4. Exactly, The idea is old but at the same time an interesting project nonetheless.

  5. Chris says:

    How are “non-religious” ideas modeled? With some ideas like Buddhism and such, the spectrum between religious ideas and “atheism” is sometimes best understood as a continuous spectrum. There are dogmatic atheists as well as non-dogmatic religious people.

    Also, does this model take into account birth rates? I’ve kind of understood worldview memes as being sort of integrated into evolutionary ideas, in that the strongest, most successful ones survive and are passed on to the next generation. Perhaps the low-birth-rate of atheists can explain the fact that there are much fewer of them than religious folk?

    Also, worldview memes, while subject to random drift, also have the ability to “return” to previous held ideas, since they are written down. This has no clear analogue into the idea of viral spreading, except for perhaps long-dormant spores.

  6. drtdiggers says:

    lol ZEPHIR

  7. Zephir says:

    Indeed, while AWT isn’t religion based, it doesn’t spread like virus.

    If nothing else, the people exhibit a great immunity against it.

  8. Kent says:

    @ZEPHIR: People have immunity against your AWT because you have a brain that only exists on the sub-millimeter scale and your scrotum only on the planck scale. I can tell you’re a guy that likes your perineum licked. How about I blow my Aether foam on your face?

  9. Zephir says:

    @Kent indeed, make love not war

  10. Snoo says:

    This was refreshing. I expected to see some Gen-X rant and rave about “people being morons for being religious yada yada”, but it was quite respectful. I’m agnostic myself and am quite tired of the paradox that I hear far more about religion from those who loathe it, than those who preach it.

  11. [...] the arxiv blog: Modelling the spread of religion with a model usually applied to viruses. Interesting… and sure to cause some controversy as [...]