Diagram of a Memetic Virus
What is a virus? What makes it specifically a virus as opposed to a microorganism? For one thing, a virus cannot reproduce by itself. Microorganisms like amoebas, protozoa, and the cells in your body can do that on their own.
A virus is just a container for its own genetic material which injects it into microorganisms. Viral DNA or RNA simply consists of instructions which compel the infected cell to make more viruses, in order to infect yet more cells.
Viruses do not have to be biological! Everybody's heard of computer viruses. They are very small, simple programs which, if simply left sitting in storage media like a flash drive or CD, would be inert and powerless.
Like a biological virus, they cannot reproduce themselves, they need a host to do that. Computers in this case. The virus is simply instructions for a computer which compel it to make more viruses in order to infect more computers.
Some have more of a purpose than that. There are types which commandeer large numbers of computers to serve the interests of the guy who programmed it, such as bitcoin mining or sending out mass spam emails. This is called a botnet.
There are some which bring up fraudulent messages that look like legitimate system warnings, asking you to buy software from the company responsible for making that virus in order to fix a nonexistent issue. This is known as scareware.
Now, viruses can be biological and they can be software. In either case, if you boil it down to basics, it's just information designed to compel some sort of host to propagate it to more hosts, spreading faster than it can be removed.
So it should come as no surprise that there can exist viruses designed to do this to the human brain, consisting of information written down, recorded as audio or in some other format comprehensible to us.
One example is a chain letter. It includes a strong but unverifiable incentive if you send it to 5 friends, like "your crush will confess to you tomorrow". Of course that doesn't happen but because it's conditional on you sending it to five people, by the time you find that out, the author of the chain email has already gotten what he wanted from you; for you to spread it.
There's also an unverifiable punishment if you don't spread it which works the same way. Something like "If you don't send this to five people, a headless ghost girl will visit you in your bed tonight". By the time you realize that was a load of BS, you've sent the mail on to five more people.
There is often some sort of imminent time limit, like "send it within 24 hours" or "five minutes from when you see this", and the reward is conditional upon sending it within that period. This is to add urgency and prevent you from thinking too carefully about what the email is and what it's designed to do.
Then, there are often testimonials from people it has purportedly worked for. "I sent it to five of my friends, now I'm married to my crush!!" This is to create the appearance that it works and diminish your doubts.
Pyramid schemes aren't identical to this but share a great many of the same motivational methods. The unverifiable promise of future riches if you stick with the program and recruit as many friends and family into it as you can.
The testimonials from members who are either within the small percentage who actually did profit (and are being misrepresented as typical) or were coached to misrepresent how much success they had.
Often as they are true believers that they will eventually be rich anyways and do not want friends and family who warned them away from participating to have the satisfaction of being right, members are only too happy to live outside their means while boasting to anybody who will listen how successful they've been by sticking to the program.
This brings us to Abrahamic religions. You might say "hold on, don't you mean all religion?" I once thought this as well but remember that Eastern religions exist and by and large do not adhere to this formula unless you make it so loose and general as to be meaningless.
Abrahamic religions adhere to the formula described so far perfectly, and even improve on it in some areas. Christianity moreso than Judaism, and Islam/Mormonism moreso than Christianity.
- Founder claims world is ending imminently (1 John 2:18, Matthew 10:23, Matthew 16:28, Matthew 24:34)
- He wants you to sell or give away your belongings ( Luke 14:33, Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22)
- He wants you to cut off family who interfere, and leave your home/job to follow him (Matt. 10:35-37, Luke 14:26, Matthew 19:29)
- Unverifiable reward if you believe (Heaven, i.e. the carrot)
- Unverifiable punishment if you disbelieve (Hell, i.e. the stick)
- Sabotages the critical thinking faculties you might otherwise use to remove it (Proverbs 3:5, 2 Corinthians 5:7, Proverbs 14:12, Proverbs 28:26)
- Invisible trickster character who fabricates apparent evidence to the contrary in order to lead you astray from the true path (Satan)
- Targets children and the emotionally/financially vulnerable for recruitment (sunday schools, youth group, teacher led prayer, prison ministries, third world missions)
Islam goes a step further with additions like the promise of guaranteed passage to paradise for those who die fighting infidels, which begets aggressive expansionism. Judaism has the reward/punishment dynamic but not much else, sort of a prototype for what came later.
Of course groups structured like this are already known about. The modern word for them is "cult". In this case specifically a doomsday/messianic cult. While Christianity today no longer includes many of those practices (like requiring new converts to sell their stuff, rendering them materially dependent on the group and less likely to leave if they experience doubts) that's because once a cult grows to the point where membership numbers are sufficient to guarantee longterm survival, policies that were necessary to retain converts early on can be jettisoned (as they make tempting ammo for critics anyways)
Mormonism is much younger than Christianity, and so has not yet jettisoned many of the cult-like practices, which is why the general Christian public often identifies it as a cult. Scientology is younger than Mormonism and accordingly is still an obvious, full blown cult.
Despite their doctrinal differences, religions of this type can always be identified by the formula they share. In the same way that, even if nobody receives the Nigerian prince 419 email anymore, they can still tell that when a Dutch dignitary being exiled "needs help moving his fortune out of the country" and "some of it can be yours for a relatively slight transfer fee", it's still the same type of scam but with changed details.
Likewise, for every religion which uses this formula there is an unverifiable future reward if you join and don't leave (Heaven, being carried away by UFOs, whatever) an unverifiable punishment if you don't join or ever leave (left behind by UFOs as the Earth is destroyed, sent to Hell, etc.) a short term time limit to add urgency, both to convert yourself and to go evangelize so you can save as many other people as possible before "the end", testimonials from people who supposedly prayed and were healed, received a financial windfall or whatever else, etc. etc. etc.
It can be difficult or impossible for people in the religion to see it in this way. Aspects of how it's designed help put it as far beyond doubt as possible such that it's the absolute last institution that a believer would ever suspect as fraudulent.
As a result, describing it as an unusually successful end of the world cult will sound to them either like crazy talk or a deliberate attempt to be hurtful. They will see the verses supplied above as being misconstrued, because there is an "in-religion" rationale for each of them which the true believer feels is the actual meaning.
For instance, in Scientology there is a disconnection policy which urges members to cut off family members who are trying to extricate them from the church. We all know why. But the reason they give, which members take at face value, is that being around people low on the tone scale will inhibit their movement up the bridge, the Scientologist equivalent of spiritual growth.
So it goes for the Biblical verses I supplied. Someone still on the inside will perceive, interpret, and feel completely differently about them than a skeptic, even while being able to identify the true purpose of the exact same practices in religions they are not a part of. You can only see what stuff like that's really intended for from the outside.