The Evolution of Christianity:
Tracking the Meme Complex
Christianity, as a meme complex has evolved a set of survival and reproduction strategies that will be examined in this write-up. Please note that meme theory is still theoretical. Using meme theory is not meant to offend, it is simply the most accurate way to describe the descent with modification that occurs when ideas travel from person to person. For those of you who take offense to having your religion described as a self-replicating entity in the ideosphere, please feel free to send me your feedback, or perhaps even create a counter-node in response (which I will link to, if you so desire).
First, we will look at Darwinian propagation tactics used by the core meme. We will then see what non-zero sumness and game theory have to say about the meme complexity and vast pervasiveness. Finally, we will look at how different strains of basic Christianity evolved to fit their respective environmental niches.
The Reward and Punishment Strategy
Let us turn our attention now to the survival and reproduction tactics used by the basic meme. It would seem that a large driving force behind Christianity is the heaven and hell reward and punishment memes. It is impossible to come up with a better reward or a worse punishment. As such, Pascal's Wager, leads one to make the natural conclusion that it is in an individual's best interest to be Christian, just on the off chance that Christianity happens to be valid.
Pascal's Wager, however, is not correct, as it does not take the multitude of Christian denominations into account. Each sect claims to be the correct one. Pascal's Wager is thus rendered moot because the different sects are mutually exclusive, thus the chance that the individual has randomly picked the "correct" religion approaches the limit of zero as more and more factions of Christianity (not to mention other religions) are created.
Interestingly, Pascal's Wager has prompted a response from some Christian denominations. Realizing that saying the equivalent of "we're right and all the other versions of Christianity (not to mention other religions) are wrong (and their followers are going to hell)," devalues not only those other types of Christianity, but their own type as well, some denominations changed their rules. Vatican II, for example, radically changed papal law such that not only were forms of Christianity other than Catholicism recognized, but Jews and Muslims could also now get into heaven. Interestingly, while these changes were targeted at Pascal's Wager, the effect is minimal, if not negligable. As long as there still exist multiple versions of Christianity that claim others will go to hell, the logic behind Pascal's Wager still holds.
Regardless, most of the people in the real world are not as educated as those who log onto Everything2. It seems safe to say that many, if not most, Christians are not familiar with Pascal's Wager, let alone its rebuttal. As such, one naturally concludes that the heaven and hell concept has helped the spread of Christianity, although the degree to which it has done so remains debatable.
The Missionary Strategy
Throughout history, one of the things Christianity has done remarkably well has been to spread. The Bible teaches that all non-Christians will go to hell. From my experience, the vast majority of Christians have good intentions--they mean well--and so they will do all they can to save the "damned." In this section, I will highlight some of the forces behind such amazingly exponential growth.
To begin, Christianity starts close to home. From day one, Christians are taught to bring up their children as they were raised. In older times, this consisted of the man of the house reading stories from the Bible and taking the children to church. Modern-day Christians, however, have found that tools such as sunday school are much more effective and efficient indoctrination tools.
At times, it has proven effective to ban birth control in order to increase the population of Christians. The Catholic church has, throughout history, also issued mandates encouraging Catholic families to have as many children as possible, so as to increase their numbers.
Then there is the more active recruitment that occurs. Televangelism, missionaries to Africa, the Crusades, the born-again movement, and going door-to-door are only a few of the strategies that have evolved. Catchy phrases, Christian rock, and tie-ins to other groups have also helped the spread.
Game Theory and Non-Zero Sumness
Christianity has been successful for other reasons as well. Throughout history, cultures that were primarily Christian tended, on the whole, to do better than those that were not. There is actually a large amount of logic involved in why this is the case.
To begin, Christianity automatically imparts a consistent and shared moral infrastructure among the members of a predominately Christian culture. As such, individuals save large amounts of time and have an established code of conduct that they can expect other members of the society to follow. Living in a Christian culture, it is perfectly acceptable to assume that your neighbor will neither make love to your husband or wife nor murder you in the middle of the night (among other things). And if your neighbor does act as such, then society has clearly acceptable methods of response (The murderer shall surely be put to death). This allows the society to reach greater levels of complexity faster and easier.
For an example, let us imagine an island inhabited with two warring societies. Society A, which believes in Christian morality is opposed to Society B, which has less or no morality. Now, the members of Society A trust each other, and thus they are able to present a unified front. Members of Society B, however, as there is no established moral code, cannot trust each other.
Only one of these two societies is going to survive, which makes the battle between them a zero-sum game. However, the members of each society, without realizing it, are actually playing non-zero sum games with the members of their respective society. Game theory is now involved. Basically, each member of Society A's fate is now shared (either most/all of them survive, or they all die at the hands of the opposing society). This causes what would otherwise be an totally altruistic action from you to the members of your society (charging in the front lines into battle) to transform into being in an individual's self-interest (because if his society dies, then he dies). Christianity, which encourages these seemingly altruistic actions through the use of it's moral code, thus gives Society A an edge over Society B (see: the Crusades).
On a side node, the efficiency of Christianity as a meme-complex is remarkable. The heaven and hell component memes serve not only to encourage people to be Christian, but they are also reused in encouraging Christians to follow the prescribed code of morality. This presents an interesting moral dilemma where seemingly altruistic actions are actually self-serving attempts to seek reward in the afterlife. Such discussions, however, are outside the scope of this write-up.
Specialization and Individualization
Christianity is as diverse as it is effective. It has been remarkably proficient at reinventing itself in order to fill the empty nooks and crannies of the ideosphere. The Judeo-Christian god of the Old Testament was a vengeful, angry god. The primitive people of that time period were able to be scared into believing in that type of god. However, as cultures evolved, and trade spread, an ever-increasing flow of ideas introduced people to other religions that had loving gods. In response, Jesus and the New Testament revamped Jehovah's image into a Trinity that was much softer and more palatable than the old way for its followers. In fact, Christians are no longer bound by Old Testament law.
Orthodox Christians developed services and rituals to fit specific languages and cultures. There are at least half a dozen orthodox versions of Christianity. Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism are closely related, but distinct breeds. The Amish are one of many different forms of Christian literalism. The Catholic Church spread through political influence, a set of rigid dogmas, and an effective hierarchical structure.
The trend over time has been towards liberalism. The Unitarian Church and Nondenominational Christians are an example of this trend. Advertising campaigns with the slogan, "Not a sermon, just a thought" reflect this trend. Some evolutionary offshoots of Christianity (the Mormons) have now diverged so much that they no longer consider themselves Christian at all.
All of this descent with modification has caused Christianity to become one of the most entrenched and far reaching religions that the world has ever seen.
A small disclaimer: I am not Anti-Christian. I believe in much of what the Bible and Jesus said as examples of what we should all aspire to be. Unfortunately, today, many people have perverted Christianity into something that, while more accessible to the masses, has lost most of its original meaning. Christianity is a force for good, as it causes so many people to do good things in the world. While not being Christian myself, I encourage people to read the Bible. One can find much truth there.
Thanks (in alphabetical order) to aphexious, mr100percent, Quizro, TheBooBooKitty, and Tiefling for helping me to grapple with big ideas.