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Why Are Some Religions More Popular Than Others?

Researchers including Joseph Henrich and Ara 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.”

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