Beliefs about the fate of humanity and the soul after death may structure behaviours of religious groups. Here we test theories from religious studies: that belief in an imminent apocalypse co-evolved with and facilitated revolutionary violence, whereas belief in reincarnation caused people to acquiesce to existing social orders and withdraw from political activism. We test these hypotheses by building a cultural phylogeny of historical Islamic sects and schools from the seventh to twentieth centuries and use phylogenetic comparative methods to show that these two types of belief display distinct relationships with intergroup violence. There is substantial evidence that apocalyptic beliefs co-evolved with revolutionary violence, whereas reincarnation beliefs were evolutionarily stable in peaceful groups. In both cases, violence precedes the emergence of beliefs, which suggests that conditions that generate revolutionary violence changed beliefs rather than beliefs generating violence. We also found that apocalyptic beliefs are associated with accelerated group extinction, although causal relationships cannot be determined.
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This research received no specific grant from any funding agency. We thank L. Matthews for his advice on defining religious taxa and M. Syed for his helpful comments on the manuscript and the dataset.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Basava, K., Zhang, H. & Mace, R. A phylogenetic analysis of revolution and afterlife beliefs. Nat Hum Behav 5, 604–611 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-01013-4
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