Who benefits from religious conversions

Religious conversion: Christianity probably spread from above

Small societies with strong political organization adopted Christianity more quickly. This is what a working group led by Joseph Watts from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man in Jena reports on the basis of a study on a total of 70 cultures on Pacific islands. As the team reports in "Nature Human Behavior", religion in the cultures observed mostly followed the classic patterns of interpersonal exchange. According to this, people in small cultures convert faster because they know a larger proportion of the population - and thus more people who have already converted. Larger communities, on the other hand, usually consist of self-contained subgroups with less exchange between them.

According to the researcher, the extent to which a society is politically organized also plays a major role. "Influencers" involved in such political structures influence the religious practices of entire strata of the population as soon as they convert. In European history, too, the public acceptance of the new faith by a ruler, as in 496 by the Frankish king Clovis, was seen as a strong signal that the people would adopt the new practices. In contrast, Watts' group found no evidence for the thesis that greater social inequality led to the egalitarian idea of ‚Äč‚ÄčChristianity spreading faster through the lower classes.

The Austronesian islands of the Pacific adopted Christianity relatively recently, so cultural, social, and demographic data from that period are still available. Watts and his team used the information to trace the spread of Christianity from 1668 - when the first missionary landed on one of the islands studied. The study is not only of historical interest, writes Nicole Creanza of Vanderbilt University in Nashville in a comment for "Nature Human Behavior," but also sheds light on the very topical question of how ideas spread in human societies.