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Christianity spread faster in small, politically structured societies

Nature Human Behaviourvolume 2pages559564 (2018) | Download Citation


Over the past 2,000 years, Christianity has grown from a tiny Judaic sect to the world’s largest religious family1. Historians and social scientists have long debated whether Christianity spread through a top-down process driven by political leaders or a bottom-up process that empowered social underclasses2,3,4,5,6. The Christianization of Austronesian populations is well-documented across societies with a diverse range of social and demographic conditions7. Here, we use this context to test whether political hierarchy, social inequality and population size predict the length of conversion time across 70 Austronesian cultures. We also account for the historical isolation of cultures and the year of missionary arrival, and use a phylogenetic generalized least squares method to estimate the effects of common ancestry and geographic proximity of cultures8. We find that conversion to Christianity typically took less than 30 years, and societies with political leadership and smaller populations were fastest to convert. In contrast, social inequality did not reliably affect conversion times, indicating that Christianity’s success in the Pacific is not due to its egalitarian doctrine empowering social underclasses. The importance of population size and structure in our study suggests that the rapid spread of Christianity can be explained by general dynamics of cultural transmission.

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The authors thank S. Passmore for assistance with the PGLS-spatial analyses, and A. Powell for comments. They also thank the John Templeton Foundation (28745), Templeton Religion Trust (TRT0153) and Marsden Fund (UOA1104) for funding. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany

    • Joseph Watts
    • , Oliver Sheehan
    • , Joseph Bulbulia
    • , Russell D. Gray
    •  & Quentin D. Atkinson
  2. Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Joseph Watts
  3. School of Psychology, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

    • Oliver Sheehan
    • , Russell D. Gray
    •  & Quentin D. Atkinson
  4. School of Humanities, Faculty of Arts, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

    • Joseph Bulbulia
  5. Research School of the Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

    • Russell D. Gray
  6. Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Quentin D. Atkinson


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J.W. and Q.D.A. designed the study. J.W. and O.S. developed the coding scheme and coded the data. J.W. ran the analyses. J.W. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joseph Watts.

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    Supplementary Note, Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Tables 1–10, Supplementary References 1–184

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