I think VisiCalc was the first killer app. It was superseded, spreadsheet-wise, by Lotus 123, which was eventually beaten out by Excel (with its ally, vaporware). I think Lotus is still around somewhere, but has only a small number of users. And there are other spreadsheets around, but at present, Excel is the big boy. Excel’s dominance is partly a matter of marketing (I alluded to vaporware, but there are other ways its been well-marketed), partly a matter of Microsoft making it work with other programs (the whole Office suite), and partly a matter momentum (at least now). But the important thing is that software, like living creatures, evolves, and often for the same reason.
I was thinking of that yesterday while attending a bris. I realized that in some ways, religions are like spreadsheet software, or any other product for that matter. One of the reasons there are (relatively) few Jews in this world is marketing… the biggest Jewish holiday (Yom Kippur) involves lack of eating for 24 hours. As to big events in the life of a Jew, well, let’s just say that a bris not entirely inspirational, even when the mohel is very good. Then there’s the whole issue of conversion – if a non-Jew wants to become a Jew, its possible, but it takes effort.
Christianity, at least the early version (which has become what we call Catholicism – and yes, I know I’m glossing) was set up to make converts easily. This was done by mostly by Paul, who came around and decided that some of the rules God put out and Jesus adhered to were un-necessary (e.g., being kosher, circumcision, etc.). Also, somewhere along the way (Paul again?) the whole communist nature (see the story of Ananias and Saphira, not to say the way Jesus and his disciples lived) of the faith disappeared. As with kibbutzim, it served to bring in a dedicated core, but but wasn’t good for growth once that core group was achieved. Additionally, becoming a Catholic is easy relative to becoming a Jew, and Catholics prosletyze. One other thing… Catholics described the rewards of Heaven, and punishment of Hell. (For Jews, the afterlife concept seems rather nebulous.)
Protestant Christianity took marketing a step further. The service was made easier to follow and more interesting, conversion was made easier, the Heaven and Hell thing has become a bit more central, etc.
Islam has some parallels with Protestant Christianity (the afterlife is defined much better, conversion requires only uttering the shahada, the faith actively seeks converts, etc.), as does the LDS. (I realize the LDS considers itself Christian, but it does have a whole additional theology.) Some of the steps these faiths have taken to attract converts sometimes backfire (again, with LDS – the practice of retroactively baptizing the dead doesn’t necessarilly lead to more living adherents, though I realize that’s not the point).
But, in any case, quite ironically (at least to me) given the views of some of their proponents, religions evolve.
Update. Its been pointed out that perhaps this post reads as offensive to people of faith. Its not intentional. My intention was to point out that over time, religions (at least those that have thrived) have become more sophisticated, adopting traits that work and losing traits that do not. Hence, if you look at a religion as a species, there is evolution. And I felt that was ironic because there are many people of faith who do not believe in evolution.