Everyone seems to have a “theory” of religion. About 20 years ago Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge published A Theory of Religion, which utilizes a “rational choice” framework, and engages in deduction to make some predictions. As it happens, I believe many of the predictions have not been born out exactly (to be precise, it seems that the supply-side model of religion works best in only a particular type of society, of which the United States may be the best case). A little over 10 years ago David Sloan Wilson published Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, which attempted to resurrect an organismic metaphor for human societies and a functionalist rationale for the emergence of religious institutions. That is, religion emerges and persists because it maintains and allows for particular functions essential for a society. Wilson’s book was heavy on description because the field was nascent, at least in its newest iteration. Though it is true that intuitively the idea is appealing, scientifically for various reasons it had gone into some disrepute, with evolutionary theories of society in general.
In Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t, the author reports on the relatively robust cognitive research which suggests that there is a disjunction between reported beliefs of people of the gods they believe in, and the mental models that people hold in their heads about the gods that they can conceive. Humans may ascribe omniscience to gods, but their behaviors and narratives when pushed off any script suggest that they don’t take this at face value in any deep manner. Or, more accurately, they can’t really construct a plausible model of the universe where gods are omniscient. Similarly, though there is a wide range of high-level religious ideas across denominations, from the spare monotheism of Islam, the de facto* polytheism of Hinduism, to the marginalization of gods in Theravada Buddhism, the author’s field work in Sri Lanka suggests that in fact the average peasants’ conception of supernatural agents was surprisingly uniform across religious groups.
This is unsurprising. Both Scott Atran in In Gods We Trust and Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained develop in detail the evolutionary anthropological raw material from which religious phenomenon seems to be constructed. The abstruse and arcane manner of theological and metaphysical speculation which elite religious practitioners engage in is to a great extent a function of the reality that prosaic human cognition is highly limited and constrained. Perhaps the most surprising revelation of this body of research for me is that ofttimes believers in a particular creed are not quite clear on the details of their own religious profession. As I am an atheist who has never really had any belief in gods in any deep manner this took me by total surprise, but then, I had no intuition to go on. But, after realizing this fact I became much more skeptical of the idea that “Christians are x because the Bible says….” or “Islam is x because the Koran says….” As per Kahneman’s scheme in Thinking, Fast and Slow, much of religious phenomena probably bubbles up from system 1, but the preoccupation of elite institutional religion is geared toward system 2 (not to go off on a current events tangent, but this might explain why so many notionally conservative Christians are willing to put their orthodoxy to the side and support Donald Trump, he appeals to their system 1 instincts).
Around 2007 I basically stopped reading much about the anthropology of religion. Despite this my internet footprint in this area was large enough that I got a review copy of Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion (answer: it doesn’t). But I stopped paying much attention because it didn’t seem like much was changing on the margin. The cognitive and evolutionary anthropologists had laid the ground-work for understanding the basic individual foundations of religious belief. Some thinkers were attempting to develop a model of religion which was more high-level, where religious identity serves as “meta-ethnic” markers (e.g., Peter Turchin). And, theorists in cultural evolution and human behavioral ecology were attempting to push forward models where religious identity served as drivers of inter-group competition.
But for me the essential element has always been individual scale empirical results. Some of Arya Norzenzayan’s research projects that I’ve seen, reported in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, goes in the right direction, though I was still not sure as to the generality or robustness of some the results of his group (a lot of one-off psychological research does need to be put under a high level of scrutiny). But now with a new paper in Nature I am starting to be convinced.
…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.
The top-line result is displayed in the figure above. In short those who held beliefs about moralistic gods were more altruistic, more ethical, toward co-religionists. This confirms a deep human intuition. Recall that historically atheists were held in suspicion because they were perceived to be unethical, and even today in the United States most Americans view atheists unfavorably. Though these results don’t say anything about atheism (it seems unlikely any of the respondents were atheists!), it does suggest that moralistic gods do nudge many people toward particular behaviors, so they logically infer that removing the god from the equation would result in the converse.
Some of you may take from these findings deep and wide-ranging conclusions as to the utility of religion in the modern world. Or, you may rebel against accepting that moralistic gods really could make people more altruistic. I would suggest that people not draw too much from one single study, but rather see this as one of the first empirical steps toward understanding the relationship between religion and prosocial behavior in a cross-cultural and controlled context. Too many of the economic analyses of religion have focused on data sets amenable to econometric analysis, while detailed ethnographic studies were often too qualitative and theory poor. This research programs combines empirical richness with theoretical rigor.
Many “new atheists” and religiously convinced will continue to ignore this research, because it will (possibly) challenge their deeply held notions. Basically, they believe they know all their needs to be known about religion. In contrast, there are those of us who believe that there’s a lot we don’t know, for we haven’t bitten of the apple and are not as the gods.
* I make the qualification because I am aware that many Hindus would vociferously assert their religion is monotheistic fundamentally. I’m not interested in technical details, but rather wish to emphasize that Hinduism has traditionally been more accepting of a multiplicity of god-heads, even if the ultimate source is unitary in a monistic understanding of the universe.