Field of Science

Why religious communes succeed and secular ones fail

Here's an interesting graph. It's from a study comparing religious and secular communes in 19th century USA. Michael was talking about this study in the comments so I thought it would be nice to show the data and talk it through.

It looks at how long each commune lasted, and compares it with the onerous commitments (everything from giving up certain kinds of food, to abstaining from sex, to cutting ties with the outside world) that each commune demanded from its members.

There's two things to notice here. First, the religious communes lasted a lot longer than the secular ones. Second, the more 'costly requirements' imposed, the longer the commune lasted - but only for religious communes, not secular ones.

What's going on here? Well, the idea is that the 'costly requirements' allow potential members to send a signal. If you are prepared to put up with all the arbitrary rules that make your life difficult, then that's good evidence that you really, really want to be part of the group. It's a classic 'costly signal'.

So why doesn't it work for secular communes? Sosis argues that religious rituals are more powerful, because of the supernatural connection (p230):

Thus, it appears that the relative success of religious communes is a result of religious rituals and constraints being imbued with sanctity, whereas the rituals and constraints of secular communes are not consecrated. As Rappaport (1971) stated, “to invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity”

I think that's part of the explanation. A costly commitment has to be justified if people are going to accept it as a price of group membership. For religious communes, it's fairly straightforward. You can argue it's what the god demands - and who can prove otherwise?

For secular communes, there has to be a 'real world' justification. If you are going to ask people to hand over their possessions, you'd better have thought through your rationalization pretty well.

You can see this in Sosis' data. 90% of secular communes have five or fewer costly commitments, whereas half of religious communes have six or more. Secularists simply aren't attracted to this kind of mentality. It's a tough sell.

But I also think there's something else going on here. For people to join a group and stay in it, they have to get something out of it. Crucially, they have to get more out of it than they put in.

For the religious, there's a lot to gain from being in a religious commune. Typically, they might feel that they'll be rewarded by their god in this life or the next. And, arguably, the stricter the group the more rewards they might feel they're going to get.

For the secular, all rewards are solely in the material realm (I don't mean possessions, I mean rewards like being among friends you can trust). And the potential payoff from group membership has to be greater than the costs of membership.

After all, that's the whole point of costly signalling. It acts to screen out people who aren't really committed to the group. For the secular, there just isn't very much point to being a commune member. It's a religious idea, which has been taken up by idealistic secularists only for them to see their vision fail.


Sosis, R., & Bressler, E. (2003). Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion Cross-Cultural Research, 37 (2), 211-239 DOI: 10.1177/1069397103037002003

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. ... whereas half of secular communes have six or more.

    Shouldn't that be 'religious' communes?

  2. BTW, here is a link to a post about an explicitly atheistic Utopian town:

    I don't know if it was in the study or not but it is an interesting bit of history.

  3. The interesting question, to me at least, is if this is true extrapolated to larger societies.

    Are more restrictive, highly religious societies more stable/better survivors? There are some historical examples that seem to imply they may be...

  4. Thanks JD - fixed. A wonderful story about Liberal, MO - first I've heard of it.

  5. Intercaostal, I've seen evidence hinting that the extrapolation of religious 'in-group' ideas to out-groupers - a key feature of the three monotheisms - helped establish large civilisations. However, it's largely speculative. But a good topic for a post! I'll try and dig it out.

  6. Interesting study.

    What would be more interesting is to see the number of followers/members in the commune plotted against the onerous commitments.

    I suspect that it would be a downward sloping graph be it in a religious or non religious community.The number of commitments required to hit the 0 might vary for the religious and non religious.

    I suspect the reason for long life of religious communes with stiffer rules is that they attracted a different group of people in the first place.They had more tolerance for 'strictness' and so are less likely to freak out of the group.This would explain why they last long.Any membership is restrictive in some sense.Ones who can tolerate restrictions more are the ones likely to continue as members.Makes heuristic sense.Right?

  7. Dheeraj Kattula - Partially, maybe. But I thin there's more to it than that - people raised in a more "rule bound" society will turn out differently than those raised in a "looser" society - probably in ways more conducive to social stability.

    So, how should secular societies (not just small communes, nations too) become 'rule-bound', so they will last longer?

  8. Hi Tom, again a post we agree on! :-)

    What struck me with the study from Sosis and Bressler was the process of cultural evolution in progress. As the US are giving religious freedom and the state doesn't privilege or discriminate certain groups, there are hundreds of religious groups (variants) evolving, with the enduring and fertile spreading. Voila - you have a dynamic, religious market and a (relatively) high-fertile population.

  9. Michael, religious diversity seems to work in the US, but not in other parts of the world. One potential reason for this is that, in the US, diversity is mostly within a religion, whereas in the rest of the world it's between religions.

    When everyone has the same 'word of god' to work from, but just differs in the spin, that might add to the attractiveness. But when there's disagreement on the fundamentals, it has a negative effect.

    Anyway, the point is that the US is seeing large numbers of non Christian immigrants. So diversity might start to act against belief in the US.

    A prediction from me, anyway!

  10. Hi Tom, I'd say that religious diversity "works" (stimulating each other competitively) not only in the US, but also i.e. in India, Lebanon, Israel and (according to Kaufmann) increasingly in Europe, where Christians tend to rediscover their religiosity as they increasingly encounter Muslims, Jews and other religious people. Nevertheless, I agree with you on a point: Up to now, only the US managed to build a society with strong, non-discriminating religious freedom. In all other cases, majority religions are favoured by the state discriminating against the minorities.


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