In contrast with tribal and archaic religions, world religions are characterized by a unique emphasis on extended prosociality, restricted sociosexuality, delayed gratification and the belief that these specific behaviours are sanctioned by some kind of supernatural justice. Here, we draw on recent advances in life history theory to explain this pattern of seemingly unrelated features. Life history theory examines how organisms adaptively allocate resources in the face of trade-offs between different life-goals (e.g. growth versus reproduction, exploitation versus exploration). In particular, recent studies have shown that individuals, including humans, adjust their life strategy to the environment through phenotypic plasticity: in a harsh environment, organisms tend to adopt a ‘fast' strategy, pursuing smaller but more certain benefits, while in more affluent environments, organisms tend to develop a ‘slow' strategy, aiming for larger but less certain benefits. Reviewing a range of recent research, we show that world religions are associated with a form of ‘slow' strategy. This framework explains both the promotion of ‘slow' behaviours such as altruism, self-regulation and monogamy in modern world religions, and the condemnation of ‘fast' behaviours such as selfishness, conspicuous sexuality and materialism. This ecological approach also explains the diffusion pattern of world religions: why they emerged late in human history (500–300 BCE), why they are currently in decline in the most affluent societies and why they persist in some places despite this overall decline.