The Psychosocial Roots of Religion

An international study published in Nature aims to explore religion’s role in expanding and refining beneficial social values such as cooperation, mutual trust, and fairness. The study’s premise alone is of tremendous interest to me as both a secular humanist and a science buff, but the abstract is even more intriguing.

Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups. To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers.

We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship.

Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists. Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.

Unfortunately, unless you are already subscribed to Nature, or are willing to spend $32 to purchase the full text of the study, the above summary will have to suffice. The possibility that religious beliefs might have served a crucial role in our survival of a species might explain religion’s continued prevalence among most of humanity — and why even nonreligious people still feel some compulsion to believe in something, or to still go with the motions of their religious community.

This information might also help us secularists to devise alternatives to religion that address the need for community, social norms, group loyalty, and other values that most people rely on faith for; such substitutes already exist in the form of groups like Ethical Culture, Unitarian Universalism, and various secular humanist organizations.

Of course, prosociality is not all it is cracked up to be if it extends only to those who share one’s belief system, as the study’s results indicate. Being cooperative, trusting, and altruistic only to your own in-group is not an optimally ethical situation, especially in our increasingly pluralistic and globalized world.

Alas, I await more research before hedging my bets on this hypothesis, but I find the idea compelling. What are your thoughts?


2 comments on “The Psychosocial Roots of Religion

  1. FYI to counterbalance this, you may want to read “The Lucifer Principle” which delves less into religion and more into the evil things people do in the name of collectivism, which can often take religious expression. It deals with the psychology of the hive-mind, of the ant colony, of humans as members of a collective.

    • Interesting timing, as I overheard this book being referenced in an audiobook about human morality (Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels Of Our Nature”, which I strongly recommend to you in turn!)

      Thank you for piquing my interest in it further.

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