Why Are Some Religions More Popular Than Others?

By Bridget Alex | October 24, 2018 1:00 pm
Kaaba shrine

The Kaaba, a shrine at the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca, considered the most sacred spot on Earth by Muslims. (Credit: By ESB Professional/Shutterstock)

Why isn’t Mickey Mouse a god?

This is a serious question for researchers studying the evolution of religion, and it offers some insight into the question of why some religions have persisted while others haven’t.

The so-called Mickey Mouse problem is an oft-cited, catchy critique of the idea that religion is merely a by-product of the way our brains evolved. According to this view, natural selection favored human ancestors with certain mental capacities, including our tendencies to seek patterns and think about other peoples’ thoughts (theory of mind). These cognitive adaptations, which helped our ancestors survive and reproduce, also made people prone to supernatural beliefs.

Scientists criticizing the cognitive by-products explanation don’t deny it. Rather, they say it’s just the start of the story. “It’s a really important element, part of the picture of what we need to know,” says Ara Norenzayan, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

But there’s more to explain when it comes to the state of religion today, like why Mickey Mouse or Santa Claus are not worshiped, why Christians don’t believe in Zeus, and why particular religions have spread prolifically.

We can conceive of a talking mouse or ancestor spirits, but only some of these stories became beliefs. And of the myriad beliefs, even fewer became worldwide religions. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism are followed by roughly 75 percent of the global population. What made these religions, with billions of believers, so successful while others fizzled?

From By-Products to Believers

To address these shortcomings, Norenzayan and others have added to the by-products hypothesis. They say, yes, evolved cognitive abilities predisposed people to develop supernatural beliefs. But to stick around, there needs to be something more.

For example, some beliefs are easier to remember and pass on than others. Memory experiments (here, here) have shown that people recall stories or concepts that slightly deviate from expectations — one or two supernatural elements — better than mundane or wildly fantastical tales. Moderately counter-intuitive content captures your attention and sticks in your head.

This finding explains why certain folktales persist through the ages. But it doesn’t explain how supernatural stories become religious beliefs, with deeply committed devotees — why Christians are willing to die for Jesus, but not characters (Mickey) or other culture’s gods (Zeus).

One idea is that deeply-held beliefs require some sort of buy-in. Evolutionary anthropologist Joseph Henrich of Harvard University has proposed that religious commitment emerges from costly rituals like fasting, donation, celibacy and martyrdom. When people see other members of their own community, especially prestigious ones, make these sacrifices, they’re more likely to accept the underlying beliefs. This stems from our inherent tendency to learn by imitation and follow tradition, even when the reasons are unknown.

Scaling Up Society and Religion

The natural and social processes described above have spawned a multitude of religious beliefs across time and space. But only some have stuck around for centuries or millennia, with billions of believers today. Researchers including Henrich and Norenzayan have studied what gives some religions “sticking power,” while most remain marginal or disappear.

Their work suggests successful religions have had deities and rituals promoting cooperation among practitioners. This quality became increasingly important after about 10,000 years ago, when small forager tribes began to settle together in massive agricultural civilizations. For the first time in human evolution, communities comprised strangers who had to routinely interact and trust one another. Some groups developed beliefs, like gods who punish wrongdoers. They say this promotes prosocial behaviors, or acts that benefit others at a personal cost. Societies with prosocial beliefs were more successful than other groups; hence, those religions spread and persisted through what anthropologists call cultural evolution.

This idea explains the prevalence of certain religious beliefs. As Norenzayan put it, why “the distribution of religions [is] so uneven and skewed towards moralizing gods and moralizing religions.” At the same time, it offers one solution to another problem, which is large-scale cooperation. Psychologists and anthropologists have long puzzled over the fact that civilizations work, that thousands of strangers will cooperate and even sacrifice personal welfare for the “greater good” of society.

Many world religions solve the cooperation conundrum (at least among their followers) by believing in Big Gods — powerful, all-knowing deities, concerned with morality — and supernatural punishments, like hell and karma. With such beliefs, people abide by social rules and norms, even when no human eyes are watching. Fear of supernatural surveillance keeps them in check.

So the claim here is: Big societies developed big gods and/or supernatural punishment because these beliefs promoted cooperative behavior among followers. Because this is science and not speculation, though, the hypothesis should bear predictions, which can be confirmed or denied through observations, experiments and theoretical simulations.

And it does. For instance, if the theory is correct, bigger societies should have punitive, knowledgeable gods. This prediction is confirmed by observations: A study reviewing 186 societies found that large societies more commonly have deities that punish moral transgressors, whereas the deities of small societies are generally unconcerned with mortal affairs.

Another prediction is individuals who believe in religions with big gods and supernatural punishment will behave more prosocially. This prediction is supported by experimental economic games, which measure people’s willingness to share with strangers. Based on nearly 600 participants from 8 diverse societies, people who believe in punishing, moralizing gods are more generous towards geographically distant strangers that share their religion.

Numerous studies have also shown that being implicitly reminded of religion increases prosocial behavior. For instance, in one experiment participants were told to unscramble five words into a four-word sentence, making a list such as “dessert divine was fork the” into “the dessert was divine.” Some lists contained religious primers — the words spirit, divine, God, sacred, or prophet — while others had neutral words. After the word game, participants were given ten $1 coins, and instructed to keep as many as they would like, knowing the remainder would be given to a stranger. Subjects given religious primers gave away an average of $4.56, whereas those who saw neutral words gave less, an average of $2.56.

However, a third group of subjects saw words related to secular institutions enforcing good behavior: civic, jury, court, police, and contract. This group gave an average of $4.44, suggesting secular monitoring words have the same effect as religious primers.

Which brings us to an important point: Religion, with Big Gods and supernatural punishment, is just one solution to the problem of cooperation.

“There could be other institutions, other mechanisms. Societies figure out other ways to get people to cooperate at large scale,” explains Norenzayan.

Secular institutions can also encourage and enforce prosocial behavior. Looking across cultures in the past and present, there are certainly large societies that “work” without religion policing their rules. Over 1 billion people today do not belong to a religion. Most of them follow the rules just fine.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Everybody can have a mother but few can have a masculine father. Add Paradise (or cow excrement – tastes differ) and the Giant Flying Spaghetti Monster (Pastafarians) is yours to expect. If sugar doesn’t do it for you, Berkley horse hot sauce is also for sale.

    Management is a good place to be, but one must first invent the corporation.

    • Daniel San

      Ramen brother Al!

  • OWilson

    We tend to constrain the definition of “religion” to a belief in a superhuman Deity.

    But beliefs can encompass secular, and political philosophies also, like belief in the State for example.

    Either way, it can be, and has been the glue which has held societies together for generations.

    It’s main weakness is that it requires a closed mind, and a certain level of denial of reality.

    As civilization progresses, and new human knowledge becomes widespread, it must become weaker, as the dogma is questioned, and the glue no longer exists, for better or worse. :)

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Come back! Come back! IT’S A HYPOCENTER!

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Subjects given religious primers gave away an average of $4.56” Try Scotsmen, Koreans, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, East Indians, the Dutch…
    Charity is prepaying as sex worker who promises to do others. In the past 30 years, name one charity that has solved its favorite, ah, challenge

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    And this article is a missive of one of the world’s largest false religions, Darwinism.

    • rayster

      A failed tu quo que argument. Darwinism is science (observation, reason, empiricism, rationality, theory, experiment, analysis, consensus) not religion (authority, personal revelation, feelings, dogma, scripture, irrationality).
      Look up scientific method.
      Btw, all religion IS science!

      • Jeffrey A Jones

        Use it every day! Show me the experiment that creates a living cell (or any simple part of such) that can be scientifically replicated. Show me the transitional species between the distinct species that exist today. By definition, many if not most had to be viable or ‘evolution’ could not have slowly progressed. Show me the math that allows a simple protein of 100 amino acids from a pool of say, 20 requisite building block amino acids to stack up (hint; the rejected stacks of failed proteins stacked incorrectly would fill a cube 20-light years on a side and would require a universe trillions of times older than its current assumed age). Show me the scientific, reproducible experiment that creates a simple protein. ‘Consensus’ is a scary word when applied to science. It expressly implies no room for question, effectively shutting down real science.
        I am afraid I just don’t have enough faith to be a Darwinian atheist.

        • rayster

          Science does not claim to have all the answers. It does paint religion (faith, wishful thinking, feigned certainty, etc.) into smaller and smaller corners. Many scientists expect to discover the secret of chemical evolution that may have lead to the first living organisms.
          Presuming some supernatural being participated in this process is called the “god of the gaps” argument, and is fallacious.
          “Faith” (believing in something without evidence) is anathema to science.

          • Jeffrey A Jones

            Uh . . . expecting to discover the secret of chemical evolution without any evidence it exists sure sounds like blind faith to me. I again using the scientific principles of entropy and probability have to reject spontaneous formation of life and spontaneous and massive natural progression from disorder to order, have to reject the hypothesis of Darwinian evolution.
            We must agree to disagree but I really appreciate you keeping the dialog on a high plane.

          • Joe Cogan

            Again, evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life. And you also clearly have no idea what entropy means, or how probability works.

          • Jeffrey A Jones

            You are probably right. My 47 years as a practicing (award winning) mechanical engineer are probably an illusion.

          • Jeffrey A Jones

            And I know I am definitely on the right track when folks revert to ad hominem attacks as a substitution for facts. Apply entropy and probability to evolution and my contention still stands. And were are all the transitional inter-species? There should be trillions for every transition instead of the current zero.. Still have to go with the science and observable facts.

          • Joe Cogan

            It is not an ad hominem to point out that your remarks indicate that you have no familiarity with the subject matter, it is an observation. There are many examples of transitional fossils that will turn up with a simple Google search for the term. And for some reason, scientists don’t share your take on probability and entropy wrt evolution. Again, a simple Google search will turn up plenty of articles explaining why this is, and where your misunderstanding is.

          • Jeffrey A Jones

            we will agree to disagree. I am very confident in my understanding of the science and math (have used them every day for decades to do my job and they work every time) and am supported by a pretty large group of real scientists.

          • Joe Cogan

            I beg to differ. You are supported by a vanishngly small percentage of scientists, almost none in relevant fileds, and almost all of whom have a religious agenda, not a scientific one, on the topic at hand.

          • Steve Weber

            Such people gain the praise of the world proving in their eyes “facts” of the evolutionary theory. But they all succumb to death. Then what? Terror racks their soul when they arrive to a place of spirits where millions now exist awaiting the resurrection and the final judgement. Their pride and popularity on earth becomes nothing without their riches, false belief systems, and the loss of control over others. They now realized there is a God who will judge them, and that the devil has deceived them in their pride. Too late.

          • Larry Knight

            As an agnostic, I can assure you terror does not rack my soul, especially given that the “soul” does not exist. Talking about false belief systems, just where does your book of divination record its theology on death and resurrection?

            In Matthew 19:28, Jesus claims his disciples (including Judas) will sit on heavenly thrones judging the tribes of Israel. Since you claim God will judge humanity, haven’t you promoted Jesus’ disciples to gods?

          • Jeffrey A Jones

            Well, in your ignorance of the Bible you have stumbled on a truth; humanity’s future is to become part of the God family, brothers of Christ. They will be kings and priests, ruling along side of their Brother, Christ. So in that sense they will be Gods, member of the God family. And no man knows whether Judas will be in the Kingdom. We don’t know if he was spiritually converted or just enamored with the idea. The Bible is very clear that EVERY man will be given the chance to choose God’s way, whether in this life or upon resurrection into the millennium when Satan and his evil system will b3e put away and where the vast majority of humans will hear the Truth for the first time and be given a chance to accept it.

          • Larry Knight

            “The god of the gaps.” Fewer gaps and less need for this mythological being. Soon, only the most gullible will worship a fictional god.

          • Jeffrey A Jones

            I have no idea what you are tying to say there but I guess it makes sense to someone!!

        • Hirk

          Look up Rupert Sheldrake and Morphogenesis. He took over where Darwin left off and filled in the blanks.

          • Joe Cogan

            Darwin never said that, and Sheldrake is a crackpot. Thanks for playing.

        • Arpit Solanki

          It’s like Richard dawking explaining what is evolution to creationist Wendy wright. And answer of Wendy wright is: SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE

          • Jeffrey A Jones

            Wise lady!

        • Joe Cogan

          Evolution is about how life diversified, not how it originated, so you don’t even know what it is that you’re criticizing. All transitional species are viable by definition, so what you’re asking makes no sense. Please cite your source for the math, which is nonsense, because chemistry isn’t random. The Miller-Urey experiments from the 1950s answer the last question. Your problem isn’t a lack of faith, it’s a lack of knowledge. (That, and you’re reading nonsense from Creationists.)

    • Joe Cogan

      It’s a pity there’s no cure for stupid.

  • benboy73

    If you don’t believe in evolution or the scientific method, why are you reading this article and disparaging those who do believe in those things? Do you feel a compulsion to insult people who don’t follow your system of beliefs? It would seem non-religious people don’t have a lock on arrogance, pride, and ill will.


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