When will the violence between religions end? Will Christians, Muslims and Jews ever be able to get along and live in peace? They've been killing each other for thousands of years and it seems there's no end in sight.
This week we got to witness yet another example of this ageless fact when ultraconservative Salafi Muslims in Egypt decided to burn down a Christian church. Their logic? They claimed the Christians had kidnapped a Christian woman who had converted to Islam. Twelve people were killed in the conflict. These are the same guys who cut off a man's ear for allegedly befriending a prostitute (note that there was no trial ... they just decided he was guilty).
I'd like to think that this barbarism is just a relic. We all have hope that in the not-too-distant future the moderates will win the day, the extremists will be put in jail, and we'll all live as one big happy world where everyone can worship (or not) in peace and with respect for other faiths.
It's pure bullpucky. It will never happen.
The church burning in Egypt illustrates the fundamental problem: religions evolve as the centuries pass, and the religions that evolve the most aggressive theologies are the ones that spread. Suppose there are two religions: the first one has a live-and-let-live philosophy, and the second one tells its followers to kill members of the first religion. Which religion will have more followers a century later?
The religions that survive today have been passed down through hundreds of generations and thousands of years of this sort of "cultural evolution." They have out-survived thousands of other religions. And within each major religion there have been tens of thousands of sects and branches that were also evolving and competing.
As with every evolutionary process, nice guys finish last. Only the toughest, most aggressive religions are still around. And one of the "good tricks" of cultural evolution is the idea that other religions must be destroyed. Each major religion has evolved the idea that it is the "true" faith and all others are an affront to its particular god and theology.
We can see this in the basic tenets of all three of the surviving Abrahamic religions. Jews, Christians and Muslims have a core belief that they have the one true faith, and that all other faiths must be destroyed.
Most of the time these religions are kept in check by governments. They're forced to spread their faith through non-violent proselytizing. But let the government break down for even a short time, and the highly-evolved Intolerance Meme rears its ugly head and people die.
Anyone who thinks we can rid religion of the Intolerance Meme, that religions could learn to get along, doesn't understand the true power of memetic evolution (the way ideas change and evolve across society and down through history). Religious intolerance is an integral and inevitable part of religion. Memetic evolution virtually guarantees that religions must try to destroy one another. "Survival of the fittest" implies extinction of the unfit, and religions that tolerate one another are unfit.
It's that simple. And that's why I can say with confidence that Jews, Muslims and Christians will be able to coexist some day – the day they all become atheists.