Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

A phylogenetic analysis of revolution and afterlife beliefs


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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Time-calibrated reconstruction of the phylogeny of Islamic sects.
Fig. 2: Inferred transition rates between states of eschatological belief and intergroup violence.
Fig. 3: Survival probability of sects with reincarnation belief, apocalyptic belief, revolutionary violence or religious violence (i.e., traits investigated in our coevolution analyses) versus sects without the trait (belief/violence against time).

Data Availability

All codes and sources can be found in Supplementary Data 1. The nexus file of the reconstructed phylogeny is available in Supplementary Data 2.

Code Availability

Source code for BayesTraits software is available at and is released under GNU General Public License v.3.0.


  1. 1.

    Peoples, H. C., Duda, P. & Marlowe, F. W. Hunter-gatherers and the origins of religion. Hum. Nat. 27, 261–282 (2016).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Purzycki, B. G. et al. Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. Nature 530, 327 (2016).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Ginges, J., Hansen, I. & Norenzayan, A. Religious belief, coalitional commitment, and support for suicide attacks: response to Liddle, JR, Machluf, K., and Shackelford, TK (this issue). Understanding suicide terrorism: premature dismissal of the religious-belief hypothesis. Evol. Psychol. (2010).

  4. 4.

    Ginges, J., Hansen, I. & Norenzayan, A. Religion and support for suicide attacks. Psychological Sci. 20, 224–230 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Whitehouse, M. Dying for the group: towards a general theory of extreme self-sacrifice. Behav. Brain Sci. 41, E192 (2018).

  6. 6.

    Sosis, R., Kress, H. C. & Boster, J. S. Scars for war: evaluating alternative signaling explanations for cross-cultural variance in ritual costs. Evol. Hum. Behav. 28, 234–247 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Ginges, J. & Shackleford, C. Self-sacrifice for a cause: the role of ideas and beliefs in motivating human conflict. Behav. Brain Sci. 41, e203 (2018).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Johnson, D. D. The wrath of the academics: criticisms, applications, and extensions of the supernatural punishment hypothesis. Religion Brain Behav. 8, 320–350 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Bushman, B. J., Ridge, R. D., Das, E., Key, C. W. & Busath, G. L. When god sanctions killing: effect of scriptural violence on aggression. Psychol. Sci. 18, 204–207 (2007).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Rothschild, Z. K., Abdollahi, A. & Pyszczynski, T. Does peace have a prayer? The effect of mortality salience, compassionate values, and religious fundamentalism on hostility toward out-groups. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 45, 816–827 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Graham, J. & Haidt, J. Sacred values and evil adversaries: a moral foundations approach. in The Social Psychology of Morality: Exploring the Causes of Good and Evil (eds Mikulincer, M. & Shaver, P. R.) 11–31 (American Psychological Association, 2012).

  12. 12.

    Juergensmeyer, M. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global rise of Religious Violence (Univ. California Press, 2000).

  13. 13.

    Juergensmeyer, M. The logic of religious violence. J. Strateg. Stud. 10, 172–193 (1987).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Sosis, R., Phillips, E. J. & Alcorta, C. S. Sacrifice and sacred values: evolutionary perspectives on religious terrorism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

  15. 15.

    Wessinger, C. in The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature (ed. Collins, J. J.) Ch. 25 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014).

  16. 16.

    Walliss, J. & Aston, J. Doomsday America: the pessimistic turn of post-9/11 apocalyptic cinema. J. Religion Pop. Cult. 23, 53–64 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Bromley, D. G. & Wessinger, C. in The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (ed. Wessinger, C.) Ch. 10 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

  18. 18.

    Lincoln, B. in Religion, Rebellion, Revolution: An Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Collection of Essays (ed. Lincoln, B.) 277 (Springer, 1985).

  19. 19.

    Cook, D. Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic (Darwin Press, 2002).

  20. 20.

    Bowering, G. et al. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013).

  21. 21.

    Kenney, J. T. in The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (ed. Wessinger, C.) Ch. 35 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

  22. 22.

    Gallagher, E. V. in The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (ed. Wessinger, C.) Ch 2 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

  23. 23.

    Juergensmeyer, M. Global Religions: An Introduction (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003).

  24. 24.

    Wojcik, D. in The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (ed. Wessinger, C.) Ch. 4 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

  25. 25.

    Ellwood, R. S. in America’s Alternative Religions (ed. Miller, T.) Ch. 41 (State Univ. New York Press, 1995).

  26. 26.

    Velji, J. in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (eds Jerryson, M. et al.) Ch. 14 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

  27. 27.

    Daftary, F. The Ismā’īlīs: Their History and Doctrines 2nd edn (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  28. 28.

    Tucker, W. F. Mahdis and Millenarians: Shi’ite Extremists in Early Muslim Iraq (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008).

  29. 29.

    Mahalingam, R. Essentialism, culture, and power: representations of social class. J. Soc. Issues 59, 733–749 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Jost, J. T. et al. Belief in a just God (and a just society): a system justification perspective on religious ideology. J. Theor. Philos. Psychol. 34, 56 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    White, C., Baimel, A. & Norenzayan, A. What are the causes and consequences of belief in karma? Religion Brain Behav. 7, 339–342 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    White, C. J. & Norenzayan, A. in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (ed. Olsen, J.) 1–63 (Elsevier, 2019).

  33. 33.

    Willard, A. K., Baimel, A., Turpin, H., Jong, J. & Whitehouse, H. Rewarding the good and punishing the bad: the role of karma and afterlife beliefs in shaping moral norms. Evol. Hum. Behav. 41, 385–396 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Procházka, S. The Alawis. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2015).

  35. 35.

    Obeyesekere, G. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth (Univ. California Press, 2002).

  36. 36.

    Crone, P. The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).

  37. 37.

    Abouheif, E. A method for testing the assumption of phylogenetic independence in comparative data. Evol. Ecol. Res. 1, 895–909 (1999).

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Kelsay, J. in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (eds Juergensmeyer, M. et al.) Ch. 19 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).

  39. 39.

    Syed, M. in Just War in Religion and Politics (eds Neusner, J. et al.) 135–162 (2013).

  40. 40.

    Firestone, R. Jihād: The Origin of Holy War in Islam (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).

  41. 41.

    Collard, M., Shennan, S. J. & Tehrani, J. J. Branching, blending, and the evolution of cultural similarities and differences among human populations. Evolution Hum. Behav. 27, 169–184 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Sosis, R. & Alcorta, C. Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: the evolution of religious behavior. Evol. Anthropol. 12, 264–274 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Sterelny, K. Cultural evolution in California and Paris. Stud. Hist. Philos. Sci. C 62, 42–50 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Wilson, D. S. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Univ. Chicago Press, 2003).

  45. 45.

    Matthews, L. J., Edmonds, J., Wildman, W. J. & Nunn, C. L. Cultural inheritance or cultural diffusion of religious violence? A quantitative case study of the radical reformation. Religion Brain Behav. 3, 3–15 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q. D., Bulbulia, J. & Gray, R. D. Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature 532, 228 (2016).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Bulbulia, J., Gray, R. D. & Atkinson, Q. D. Christianity spread faster in small, politically structured societies. Nat. Hum. Behav. 2, 559–564 (2018).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Gaiser, A. Muslims, Scholars, Soldiers: The Origin and Elaboration of the Ibadi Imamate Traditions (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).

  49. 49.

    Lapidus, I. M. Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century: a Global History (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).

  50. 50.

    Cook, M. A. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001).

  51. 51.

    Bearman, P. J. (ed) Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill, 2012).

  52. 52.

    Norenzayan, A. et al. The cultural evolution of prosocial religions. Behav. Brain Sci. 39, e1 (2016).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Power, E. A. Discerning devotion: testing the signaling theory of religion. Evol. Hum. Behav. 38, 82–91 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Renfrew, C., Zubrow, E. B. & Audouze, F. The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994).

  55. 55.

    McBrearty, S. & Brooks, A. S. The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. J. Hum. Evol. 39, 453–563 (2000).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Powell, R. & Clarke, S. Religion as an evolutionary byproduct: a critique of the standard model. Br. J. Philos. Sci. 63, 457–486 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Johnson, D. & Krüger, O. The good of wrath: Supernatural punishment and the evolution of cooperation. Political Theol. 5, 159–176 (2004).

    Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Sosis, R. in Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter our Understanding of Religion vol. 1 (ed. McNamara, P.) 61–86 (2006).

  59. 59.

    Turchin, P. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

  60. 60.

    Sosis, R. & Bressler, E. R. Cooperation and commune longevity: a test of the costly signaling theory of religion. Cross Cult. Res. 37, 211–239 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Atran, S. Genesis of suicide terrorism. Science 299, 1534–1539 (2003).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Kalyvas, S. N. The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).

  63. 63.

    Berman, E. Radical, Religious, and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism (MIT Press, 2011).

  64. 64.

    Kirby, K. R. et al. D-PLACE: a global database of cultural, linguistic and environmental diversity. PLoS ONE 11, e0158391 (2016).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Turchin, P. et al. Seshat: the global history databank. Cliodynamics (2015).

  66. 66.

    Gray, R. D. & Watts, J. Cultural macroevolution matters. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 7846–7852 (2017).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  67. 67.

    Maddison, W. & Maddison, D. Mesquite 2. A Modular System for Evolutionary Analysis (2007).

  68. 68.

    Slingerland, E. et al. Coding culture: challenges and recommendations for comparative cultural databases. Evol. Hum. Sci. 2, e29 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  69. 69.

    Gaiser, A. Source‐critical methodologies in recent scholarship on the Khārijites. Hist. Compass 7, 1376–1390 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    Lewinstein, K. Making and unmaking a sect: the heresiographers and the Ṣufriyya. Studia Islamica 76, 75–96 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  71. 71.

    Fritz, S. A. & Purvis, A. Selectivity in mammalian extinction risk and threat types: a new measure of phylogenetic signal strength in binary traits. Conserv. Biol. 24, 1042–1051 (2010).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  72. 72.

    Orme, D., et al. The caper package: comparative analyses of phylogenetics and evolution in R. R package version 1.0.1 (2018).

  73. 73.

    Meade, A. & Pagel, M. BayesTraits v.3.0.1. (2017).

  74. 74.

    Pagel, M., Meade, A. & Barker, D. Bayesian estimation of ancestral character states on phylogenies. Syst. Biol. 53, 673–684 (2004).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  75. 75.

    Pagel, M. & Meade, A. Bayesian analysis of correlated evolution of discrete characters by reversible-jump Markov chain Monte Carlo. Am. Nat. 167, 808–825 (2006).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  76. 76.

    Paradis, E. & Schliep, K. ape 5.0: an environment for modern phylogenetics and evolutionary analyses in R. Bioinformatics 35, 526–528 (2019).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  77. 77.

    Wickham, H. ggplot2: Elegant Graphics for Data Analysis (Springer, 2016).

  78. 78.

    Pagel, M. Detecting correlated evolution on phylogenies: a general method for the comparative analysis of discrete characters. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 255, 37–45 (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  79. 79.

    Kass, R. E. & Raftery, A. E. Bayes factors. J. Am. Stat. Assoc. 90, 773–795 (1995).

    Google Scholar 

  80. 80.

    Currie, T. E., Greenhill, S. J., Gray, R. D., Hasegawa, T. & Mace, R. Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific. Nature 467, 801–804 (2010).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  81. 81.

    Therneau, T. M. & Lumley, T. Package ‘Survival’. Survival Analysis (CRAN, 2014).

  82. 82.

    Kassambara, A., Kosinski, M., Biecek, P. & Fabian, S. R Package ‘survminer’ (version 0.4.8) (2020).

  83. 83.

    Maddison, W. P., Midford, P. E. & Otto, S. P. Estimating a binary character’s effect on speciation and extinction. Syst. Biol. 56, 701–710 (2007).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  84. 84.

    Beaulieu, J. M. & O’Meara, B. C. Detecting hidden diversification shifts in models of trait-dependent speciation and extinction. Syst. Biol. 65, 583–601 (2016).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  85. 85.

    Davis, M. P., Midford, P. E. & Maddison, W. Exploring power and parameter estimation of the BiSSE method for analyzing species diversification. BMC Evol. Biol. 13, 38 (2013).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information




Conception: K.B. and R.M.; data collection: K.B. and H.Z.; data analyses and visualization: H.Z.; writing: K.B., H.Z. and R.M.; and editing: K.B., H.Z. and R.M.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hanzhi Zhang.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Stavroula Kousta.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information, Supplementary Tables 1–10 and Supplementary References.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

Supplementary Data.

Supplementary Data 2

Nexus file of phylogeny.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Basava, K., Zhang, H. & Mace, R. A phylogenetic analysis of revolution and afterlife beliefs. Nat Hum Behav 5, 604–611 (2021).

Download citation


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing