In this blog, I have tried comparing religion to a communicable disease, focussing on how a particular sect of religion can be seen as an multi-drug resistant strain of a harmful microbe.
To eradicate any communicable disease from a nation, let us say, there is first a nation-wide attack of measures. This is usually followed by surveys telling you the info on the more difficult zones in the nation that deserve special attention. Towards hitting the target of eradication, mopping up activities, i.e door to door attack is done to eliminate unidentified cases. Same holds for religion, if we want to relieve humanity from the right/ tendency/compulsion claimed by theists to do evil/injustice/wrong in the name of religion. For new atheist movement to reach its goal, we need to realise, in depth about the variety of ways theism strengthens itself. It is well known how religion feeds on hope, fear, desire for immortality, politics etc. I will here concentrate on the less well studied appetite of religion
Going by the statistics, christianity and islam are the religions, whose evils impede human development the most and about whom rationalists are best aware of. The main bulk of the new atheist movement should obviously be directed at them. But there are other religious sects in the world, which we need to be aware of, in order to understand the problem in full.
There is a rather unpopular yet growing and prospering section of islam, the ismaili sect.
There are elaborate ways in which they differ from the usual sunni muslims that you come across. I will limit my discussion on the aspects of this sect that make it especially more formidable to new atheist movement, mostly from their Indian population.
The most peculiar feature of the sect is that they have a dynamic religion. Though koran continues to be their main scripture, its interpretation is not exactly the job of the common ismaili anymore. Even their religious head, the Imam (analogous to the pope) issues guidance that often clearly contradicts the quran. His word is final, a word that is always supposed to change with time, with the needs of the modern world, a word that is the voice of allah for them.
The characters of this Imam deserve mention as he is far less pathetic as the typical pope himself. The pope is a way towards atheism for many born-christians, but this guy tends to be a man even an atheist would admire, except for his religion of course. He works for a very long tenure, sometimes elected even as a teenager and working for as long as his body would permit. He makes sure he selects the best guy in his blood line before his death, as simple as that! No complicated procedures. The current guy is a workaholic, and moves round the world for his followers, making life easy for them through massive funds and political associations. Its not disgusting for a man, who who is indifferent to the big questions of mankind, to say no to reason, in exchange of a ray of hope and support like him, at every point in life. He allows a special case where a messenger of god satisfies needs of the ordinary, helpless follower, both the spiritual and earthly ones!
Over the years, their theology has evolved (unusual to use that word for a religion, but its true) out of the words of their Imam. There is no alarming suppression of women, who attend the mosques (in western clothes too, nobody objects!) and are encouraged to study and work as they like. Women can be very learnt and working women or even activists for the upliftment of their sect. It wont be much wrong to say that whatever oppression/suppression of women is left is way lower than that in most religions of most regions of the globe.
The Imam encourages education, "proper" morals and hardwork in his messages every now and then. Not surprising, they might actually be considered the most developed groups of muslims in India. They have been denied reservations in eductional institutions (currently allowed for other groups of muslims) and jobs unlike other muslims, solely because of their prosperity. In India, you will find a homeless beggar from virtually every other religious group in india, but not this one. These people love each other so much, they wont allow you to stay on streets jobless even if u insist. There are independent scholarships for any level of education, right upto the smallest educational expenses. There are health benefits no governent or private organisation will provide you. Countless compulsions that the typical muslims struggle to follow are totally abandoned. The month long fast is also optional, and the strict restrictions during the month of ramadan have been compromised to his/her individual comfort.
Then why not leave alone Happy little clan?
Well the answer to this question comes from another question, alteast partly.
"why after all this education, modernization, these guys don’t turn atheists at the same rate as would be expected by anyone who has known the association of atheism with economic prosperity, higher education, intelligence, lack of poverty ?" I dont have statistics to support but I have seen other religions to have an idea that the rate is considerably less when compared to christianity or sunni islam which supposedly are the most formidable ones. And thats simply because an important force driving an theist towards atheism - the disgust of the ethics and practices in their religion, is relatively deficient when u are an ismaili-born.
I said they promoted education, but it is a distorted one (when it comes to the big concepts). They have affiliated schools were the teachers can be predominantly the ones of the sect. Now if you thought that removal of creationism from school textbooks will do, think again. For they will teach the creationism of other religions (hinduism in indian text books, for instance) as fairy tales to be learnt to get through exams and tell you a different interpretation of darwinism altogether, one that "seemingly" fits into their dynamic religion, if you don’t reason deep enough. They will add a bit of history to their advantage and blame christianity for "misunderstanding" darwin and that darwin went to heaven for his contribution to biology (that never conflicted with religion in the first place) It works for an ordinary student, who may not choose a biology related field in future to care about these questions.
If you thought that those guys who joined the other non-affiliated schools had escaped, wait! They have a more fool proof way of indoctrination, the one that I propound is stronger than the one the sunni muslims adopt. They have this concept of "night religious school". And it really is a school, with classes, subjects, exams and all. Here they don’t force the lines of koran to be mugged in toto as is done with other muslims. In fact, quran is not brought into the scene by anyone. "quran studies" is a subject apart from other handful. They teach you the meaning of quran and the words of their head in the context that is more acceptable by the young mind. So as the actual lines of the scripture aren't read, an ordinary student never knows of the highly unethical elements of koran that the atheist world knows about.
If you guess that a fraction of students will avoid these classes due to boredom, wait. First, the parents are gonna force them into being regular to these, till the students get used to it. And sooner or later they figure out that atleast partly, they are fun. To add to that, it’s a good hangout for an evening, you can do all silly juvenile stuff before and after the class. Kids are treated as kids and not as soldiers of allah. And they try all novel and modern ways of teaching. A lot of students end up loving this night schools more than the routine day schools.
For those enthusiastic students who go out of the syllabus and try to read and interpret the actual quran and compare it with the teachings they have already received, there are backup measures already in place. Firstly, they are never taught arabic. And obviously they live in parts of the world where arabic isn't a language you would learn, or be taught otherwise. The next usual option of "appropriate interpretation" being urdu, the language related to arabic, for an indian sunni muslim, isn't an option for ismaili students to study religion. Here comes the benefit of being a minority, there is no specific language for their theology, worldwide. They gain the language of the area. For India it is gujrati, the language of the Gujrat state. The prayer is obviously in gujrati. They being "forward" also adopt english in bigger cities. So this allows a lot of opportunity to mistranslate it. Mistranslation is the rule, because the ones who will bother to translate are the "dynamic" followers you see! A simple change of style of presentation will make the prophets more great and less questionable, no need to change the basic fairy tales (who can disprove them anyways).
Next, perhaps the most basic, is that before any student reads the actual quran, he is likely to be well indoctrinated in the point that the sunni muslims are wrong in that the word of mohammad is final. That the absolute truth was meant to be the words that carry from the mouths of the descendants of mohammad over the centuries. There goes any chance of beating them with their scripture! So hard for atheists to teach the theists about the parts of a single old book, now these guys have several unwritten editions of koran they will point at our face for us to disprove! Not far fetched to say everyone of them has an edition of his own, given the liberal nature of religion. Who will succumb in this sect to think of atheism? A multidrug resistant mutant you see!
Accomodationists might argue, why not leave them alone?
This group doesn’t differ from other extremist, intolerant religions in a few aspects, most important of them being the constant pointing that their faith is supreme and all the rest of them are going to hell. Now isn't it too greedy for such a small group to expect they alone will go to heaven? They wont allow marriage with other religions, even with sunni muslims and but the damage is only social if u go against this. And given their minority, some degree of inbreeding is inevitable, especially when cousin marriage is encouraged to solve the problem of finding a bride/bridegroom from scattered areas of the globe. I don’t have links to reports saying so, but cerebral palsy, certain genetic disorders are indeed curiously common among ismailis. Their education isnt gonna help them avoid it, but the problem might be lessened given their growth and spread. But they are relatively friendly guys who will keep their feelings of righteousness, to a great extent to themselves, and, no jehadi feelings. They will not allow other theists into their mosques. In this aspect, they are worse than the christians and hindus. All this is enough for them to be atleast wrong in thought, as wrong as any racist/casteist.
All the good social work they do, most of them do it for being one of the "famous frogs" of their well. And others will do it for better place in heaven. They have charity, education, prosperity, yes, but all of them with their share of hollowness. Hardly any of their prosperity, goes into doing good to the world outside their sect. In essence, it is a relatively harmless (if harm is supposed to mean an active move) resistant strain of a microbe that will raise its generations by filling a biomass of irrational crap. Everyday they spend hrs in the mosque (double or even triple to that of the typical sunni muslims we know of) doing all sorts of stupid rituals apart from the usual prayer, whose only good purpose is to bind them together. There wont be threats if u refrain from this wastage of time, but there will be ridicule and social outcasting (even greater if u study in those affiliated day schools for most of your friends would be ismailis, the family and family friends would already be ridiculing you and your parentage). Their unity, which by making them close to each other, repels them from not only sunni muslim sect and other religions, but from reason as well. It matters less if they help u educate yourself to compete with the world without knowing what evolution and big bang say. While a lot of accomodationists feel that religion is a problem that is on a serious and self perpetuating decline with increasing literacy, levels of education and prosperity, this stands out as an exception as I am yet to know of the existence of person below poverty line or an illiterate. This is one example where education, intelligence, charity, prosperity all co-exist with a fanatic religion.
So I sum up that its primarily a model for understanding how the disease called religion strengthens itself. Religion is similar to infectious disease in that it has a carrier state too! Its not scientific to be careless about the carriers who go wild and spread with their resistance plasmid and their ability to aquire formidable mutations! If we have to see scienctific thinking win in every human's mind, these rare sects will pose a big problem in "mopping up" activities in eradication of religion. And its not necessary for them to remain a minority, for they are growing well. Multi-drug resistance was once an exceptional concept, not the case now!