Viruses of the Mind

I think chain emails and computer viruses are one of the most fascinating sociological phenomena of the internet age. My favorite computer virus was around a decade ago, it was just an email that asked the user to delete a particular crucial file from their operating system (for some bogus reason) and spread the email to others (to help them too). I saw it and thought ‘what an absolute piece of genius – a virus writer that is programming the people to deliver the payload’.

Why wouldn't you spread this? -- h/t Apostate's Chapel

The image above is from Apostate’s Chapel. Its not as bizarre as it looks. In fact it seems to me that this is exactly how evangelical religion works.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend about why I thought Christianity was a potent religion. Unlike its theological parent it incorporates the commandment to evangelize and provides a theological reason for doing it (to receive blessings and grace and to save people from eternal torment). All other things being equal, if you have a population split 50:50 between two religions, one evangelical and one not, I’d expect over time the evangelical religion to win out. This is one reason why the fundamentalist mega-churches are bigger than the mainstream Methodist chapels.

This is simple evolutionary dynamics, of course.

I have two questions that I’m fascinated by in this.

  • Do these theological mutations (like becoming super-evangelical) happen by accident, or did someone sit down and plan it with the aim of beating the less evangelical religion?
  • What would a constructed religion (conreg?) look like that deliberately tried to optimize its spread?

My sense is that at least part of the second question can be seen in Scientology, but I’d be interested to know anyone else’s thoughts.



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2 responses to “Viruses of the Mind

  1. The complication is that a “ConReg” must adapt to perceived pressure from modern ideas and sound modern == that is, part of the mass culture. In that way, flexibility must be part of the formula.

  2. ian

    I agree with the sounding modern thing. That’s where scientology does well I think. Back when Christianity was emerging, a very common criticism was that it wasn’t old. And if things weren’t old they weren’t reliable. One of the reasons the Romans left Judaism alone for so long was its (purported) age. Now, I think you’re right, a veneer of science at least is needed. (Though various recent ‘new age’ and pagan spiritualities do a good trade by pretending to derive from ancient rites or native religions).

    But I’m not sure I agree with the flexibility thing. I think at some point people like to be told what to think. My ideal conreg would be flexible, but I have a nasty feeling it would get out-evolved by something that was more rigid and dogmatic.

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