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Big Gods

How Religions Transformed Cooperation and Conflict
Ara Norenzayan


On June
27, 1844, a man named Joseph Smith died at age 38 in the prairie town of Carthage, Illinois. Fewer than fifteen years earlier, he had experienced visions and subsequently established an obscure religious movement. Smith's movement was just one of hundreds of new religious movements that sprouted in nineteenth-century America and actively competed for adherents. This was a time and place of great religious inno­vation and fervor. When he died in 1844, Smith could not have known that he had founded what was going to be one of the most enduring religious movements in American history. Initially, the Latter Day Saints Movement had just a few dedicated followers. In the ensuing years, the church moved its headquarters to Utah and grew by leaps and bounds. The Mormon Church, as it is known today, is one of the fastest growing religions not just in the United States, but in the entire world. From its unremarkable origins as an obscure sect, and within a short time span of 170 years, the Mormon Church has spread to all corners of the globe, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Its membership now exceeds 15 million worldwide. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest a phenomenal growth rate of 40 percent per decade, which, in one estimate, approximates Christianity's expansion rates in the early Roman Empire. If the past trend continues, this growth will continue to increase exponentially, reaching the 100-million mark in just a few decades.

The rise of Mormonism is just a recent example of a broader pattern of history. Pentecostalism, a once obscure Christian "charismatic" sect established in Los Angeles in the early part of the twentieth century, has over 125 million followers worldwide and is fast becoming a contender to be the "third" force in Christianity, just behind Catholicism and Protestantism, soon displacing the venerable but demographically stagnating Orthodox branch. Like Mormonism, it is also one of the world's fastest growing reli­gions. On the whole, there are today nearly 2 billion self-proclaimed Chris­tians. Islam, with 1.3 billion people, is thriving too, and fundamentalist strains are making fresh inroads into all three Abrahamic faiths. Christian fundamentalism in particular is spreading like wildfire in places like China and Southeast Asia, and most of all, in sub-Saharan Africa. The United States—the world's most economically powerful society and a scientifically advanced one—is also, anomalously, one of the most religious. Over 90 percent of Americans believe in God, 93 percent and 85 percent believe in heaven and hell, respectively, and close to one in two Americans believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis. These facts and figures point to our first observation about religious evolution: despite many predictions of re­ligion's demise in the last 200 years, most people in most societies in the world still are, and have always been, deeply religious.

The second observation about religious evolution is equally important: religions have always been multiplying, growing, and mutating at a brisk pace. In one estimate, new religions sprout at an average rate of two to three per day. "Many are called, but few are chosen," says the Gospel according to Matthew (22:14). This "Matthew Effect" might as well refer to the iron law of religious evolution, which dictates that while legions of new religious elements are created, most of them die out, save a potent few that endure and flourish.

By one estimate, there are 10,000 religions in the world today. Yet, the vast majority of humanity adheres to a disproportionate few of them: just a handful of religions claim the vast majority of religious minds in the world. This is the third observation that flows from the first two: that most religious people living on the planet today are the cultural descendants of just a few outlier religious movements that won in the cultural marketplace. In the long run, almost all religious movements end in failure. Anthropol­ogist Richard Sosis looked at the group survival rates of a representative set of 200 nineteenth-century Utopian communities, both religious and sec­ular. He found a striking but overwhelming pattern. The average life span of the religious communes was a mere 25 years. In 80 years, nine out of ten religious communes had disbanded. Secular communes (mostly socialist) fared even worse: they lasted for an average of 6.4 years, and nine out of ten disappeared in less than 20 years.

This cultural winnowing of religions over time is evident throughout history and is occurring every day. It is easy to miss this dynamic process, because the enduring religious movements are all that we often see in the present. However, this would be an error. It is called survivor bias. When groups, entities, or persons undergo a process of competition and selec­tive retention, we see abundant cases of those that "survived" the compe­tition process; the cases that did not survive and flourish are buried in the dark recesses of the past, and are overlooked. To understand how religions propagate, we of course want to put the successful religions under the mi­croscope; but we do not want to forget the unsuccessful ones that did not make it—the reasons for their failures can be equally instructive.

As a typical case of high expectations but disappointing cultural re­silience, consider the Perfectionists of Oneida, New York. The Perfection­ists believed that Jesus Christ had already returned in the first century CE, which made it possible to enjoy God's Kingdom here on Earth. They practiced complex marriage, such that every adult man was married to every adult woman. Postmenopausal women introduced young men to the pleasures of sex. However, such hedonism was tempered by the practice of mutual criticism, in which every member of the community was regularly subjected to public criticism by a committee, or sometimes by the entire community. The commune lasted about 33 years, splintering soon after its leader, John Humphrey Noyes, unsuccessfully attempted to pass on the leadership of the commune to his son. The Perfectionists certainly could have done better! They did not last very long, although their exacting stan­dards survive on dinner tables to this day: some of their members estab­lished what became the giant silverware company Oneida Limited (their motto: "Bring Life to the Table").

While the overwhelming majority of religious movements in history share the fate of the not-so-perfect Oneida commune (and are forgotten by everyone), a few have stood the test of time, and even prospered at the expense of their less successful rivals. There is a deep puzzle lurking behind these winning religions. How is it that, for thousands of years, human be­ings have been able to organize themselves into large, anonymous, yet cohe­sive and highly cooperative societies?...