Good thoughts, good words, good deeds

How to build a religion (and then watch it fade).

[soundtrack for this post: theme from 2001… play it in your head]

The New York Times has a piece today about Zoroastrians. The religion is fading, almost certainly to extinction. After more than 3,000 years, one of the most important monotheistic religions is going to go away.

We can learn an important lesson about ideaviruses from religions, because they are in many ways the original (and longest-lasting) examples of the genre.

If you want to build a religion that spreads, here are some things to build into it:

  • Bias for evangelism
  • Sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders
  • Presumption that insiders are ‘right’ or ‘blessed’ or ‘advantaged’
  • Proscription against intermarriage without conversion
  • Forbid one gender to work outside the home
  • Central hierarchy that maintains the faith and settles disputes
  • Offer significant (very) long-term benefits to believers

Very few organizations have the ability to deliver on all of these opportunities, but in the secular world, many brands do most of them. This works for Harley-Davidson (and certainly the Hells Angels). It works for the latest teenage trends. It works for some politicians. It even works for some computer operating systems and languages.

According to the Times, the Zoroastrians are fading away because they believe being good is just about enough and didn’t build enough of the elements of an ideavirus into their culture. As they traveled the world, their attitude and hard work rewarded them with success and the ability to mix with other cultures. As a result, they were successful as a people but a failure as a long-term growing religion. It’s a fascinating choice, isn’t it?