Friday, November 14, 2014

Disrupting the Market for Souls

Last night at dinner with a group of officers from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, Oxford Professor and legendary evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins asked me to explain why I signed up to be a Trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Later I was asked to share those comments, so here they are:

From inside Silicon Valley, it may seem somehow unnecessary or obsolete to promote science. But it’s easy to forget how fortunate and enlightened we are here. The scientific method is ingrained in everything we do. Instead of A/B testing your apps to improve your conversion funnel, would you ever rely instead on prayer, ritual and miracles?

But in the world at large, and even our country, most people still do not value the proven theories of scientists, either because they themselves do not understand science, or because there is too much social and emotional pressure upon them to value faith over evidence-based beliefs.

Still, so what? Why invest my limited time and capital in a startup foundation that promotes science and secularism?

As I would for any startup investment opportunity, I naturally start my assessment by looking at the incumbents in the vibrant market for people’s souls, to see how vulnerable they are to disruption. And as I deconstruct the businesses of religion, here’s what I see:
  • The largest possible market -- 7 billion customers!
  • Awesome value proposition – immortality – that addresses the most basic human desire.
  • A recurring revenue business model.
  • A Net Promoter Score higher than Apple's, where their customers go door to door on their behalf and build schools to sell their product.
  • An impressively large and distributed field sales organization staffed by product evangelists (literally) who work for low wages.
  • Enormous government subsidies in the form of 100% tax relief, and similar government subsidies for all their customers!
  • Enormously high switching costs – customers who churn can lose their jobs, friends, even family, and in some countries their head.
The only drawback is product quality. Not only is immortality difficult to deliver, but the entire industry agrees that only one of the thousands of products on the market actually works. The good news is that customers pay prior to shipment, and there is no mechanism for rating product satisfaction.

That's a business I would want to own!

The downsides are simply economic externalities – costs that are mostly born by others. Some are obvious, like Jihad and the oppression of gays and women. But the most dangerous externality of all is more subtle, and that’s the marginalization of science.

Broun: "Lies straight from the pit of Hell"
To keep their customers, religions convince them that faith trumps evidence, and in so doing, they undercut whatever shot we have as a species to fight disease, poverty and global warming.  Medical doctors in the US are turning to prayer as treatment. 17 Americans die everyday for lack of a kidney because most of us want to keep our corpses in tact in order to enter Heaven. And when every other American believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old, we elect representatives who (at least pretend to) think that way -- like a President who outlawed federal funding to research new stem cell lines. Congressman Broun, a member of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee, called the Big Bang Theory and evolution “lies straight from the pit of Hell”. Representative John Shimkus rejected carbon emission regulations because God promised Noah in Genesis 8:21 that there won’t be a flood, so it's heresy to worry about rising sea levels. “Man will not destroy this Earth. God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.” Senator Inhofe, the next Chairman of the Senate's environmental oversight committee agrees with Shimkus on God's protection, and denies that Man is changing the climate.

Religions do this because science is the most formidable competitor they face. Science delivers a high quality product that works. Science has already doubled our life expectancy, and immortality is on the product road map.

The problem with science is that unlike religion, it has a terrible business model – it’s open source and free, with no premium paywall. That means science can’t afford a sales force, marketing materials, and lobbyists. Science competes against extremely well funded incumbents.

And yet, as a VC, I’ve divested myself from religion, and I’m investing my time and capital into science, and here’s why:
  1. The product is critical to our survival as a species.  That’s a strong value proposition.
  2. The internet accelerates the spread of information, providing a favorable macro trend.
  3. I look for what every VC is looking for, and that’s traction. Every survey shows a secular trend among young people today away from religion. Science can capitalize on this opening in the market.
But to pull this off, science needs:
market research, such as studies showing that atheists can be just as ethical and philanthropic as as others;
marketing materials, such as science curricula for schools;
sales people, such as biologists in the Bible Belt who can be mobilized to explain to school boards why Creationsim isn't science;
and customer support services that make people feel okay about expressing their honest beliefs to friends, family and co-workers (such as the Openly Secular campaign below).

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is taking on these functions on behalf of science. Our balance sheet is way smaller than the competitors but if we can raise more capital, we will disrupt this industry. Join us, and you will get the best return on investment you’ve ever seen.


  1. "The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is taking on these functions on behalf of science."

    The Richard Dawkins Foundation - [i]allegedly[/i] for Reason and Science - has been going since 2007, almost eight years now. Long enough to be established and to have produced tangible results.

    Could you tell me, and provide me with evidence of what the Foundation has achieved thus far to advance science? And what ongoing projects is it fostering for the advancement of science?

    And how do the size and costs of those projects measure against the Foundation's overall budget?

    In short, is there evidence that the Richard Dawkins Foundation actually works, effectively and efficiently?

    1. Saving the world takes time! But I share your impatience, which is why I have recently signed on to help.

      In addition to supporting other secular causes, the Foundation has produced some science curricula. (You can see a sample here: ) But I can tell you that we are now gearing up to significantly ramp up activities along the lines of what I mentioned at the end of my post.

    2. Anonymous8:10 AM

      8 years is NOT a long time compared to a competitor that dominates the market for centuries.
      Even if it takes 80 years, "you will get the best return on investment you’ve ever seen"

  2. It is an odd situation when facts are ignored.

  3. So atheists and agnostics in America have to "come out" for acknowledging their ability to process rational thought. Anyone just a little scared yet?

    1. Anonymous9:44 PM

      People who don't use rational thought should be. If the majority started thinking then religion would be on the endangered species list. That probably worries a lot of non-thinkers.

    2. Anonymous1:19 AM

      Wich do I believe : : 1. that the universe game into being through the actions of a deity of unknown origin or 2. it all began from nothing, expanding into nothing. ? DOH !

    3. Anonymous3:48 AM

      I think even if I have been wrong all these years and there actually is a Guy in the Sky or something to that effect, he/she/it would be really ticked off, after having given humans the ability to reason, to find them abusing it so badly. It's wacky enough that people actually believe some guy created the universe, but they also base their ideas of how he thinks on myths that are in some cases thousands of years old.

  4. That's a great post, thanks.

  5. Our Boston-based team has been working on a pro-secular (pro-atheist) comedy to counterbalance the recent influx of religious films. Where do we find funding to complete this project?

    1. I will contact you directly

    2. Anonymous3:57 AM

      Secularism is actually a little different from atheism..secularism is not promoting or opposing religion (or any particular religion) or giving it special privileges or anything like that. Usually it also means not promoting atheism or agnosticism either; it's more like just staying out of the religion business altogether, without taking a particular position. Most often it's used in reference to organisations, like governments, universities, etc. (There are surprisingly few secular governments even in this day & age, and even those that have laws requiring them to be secular don't follow those laws 100%.)
      Finn: this film sounds fun...I hope you're able to complete it. (Sorry I don't have any info re: funding.)

  6. Anonymous5:32 AM

    How about attending a local church and asking difficult questions of the Sunday school teachers and preachers? It's not like they can ask you to leave (they LOVE visitors). Take the battle of ideas into the "sanctuary" where they are hiding out, and indoctrinating the next generation!

  7. Stupid thing lost my first draft of this post. Basically, I'm not in favour of Religion in Government - in any form. IMO, the Founding Fathers mandated separation of Church and State for good reason.

  8. Anonymous7:49 AM

    Such a shame that we have to give way to "special" people who have the ability to communicate with an all powerful super being, we can't of course, whos existence cannot be verified, understood, reasoned or even questioned, that's faith they say.

  9. Why are there so many posters named "Anonymous"?

    1. Because they are legion. Also they don't forget, or forgive, or have real voices. Or something.

    2. Anonymous3:58 AM

      It's a trendy name. Like "Jennifer" in the '80s.

  10. Nice add Dave. :-)

  11. Lawrence8:43 AM

    David, great post! In addition to market research, marketing materials, sales people and customer support services, we need a marketing plan. Religion has great placement (churches, mosques, etc, many of great beauty), packaging (shawls, mats, neat little caps ...), etc. I suspect many believers are into religion for the community that is available for them to latch onto. Getting together for a meeting/social gathering with like-minded folk is a need that non-believers also have (especially while we are a minority group) and which is currently difficult to find. How about a series of interactive webcasts for non-believers hosted by some high profile people perhaps exploring the influence of religion in some key problems, local (eg school science teaching) or global to which all would be invited.