About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The cultural evolution of religion

As promised in my previous post, I would like to bring to people’s attention one of the best reviews of scientific investigations of religion as a social phenomenon, a paper published in Science (3 October 2008) by Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff of the University of British Columbia. The article is chockfull of fascinating, empirically based, insights into the relationship between religion and prosocial behavior, and is a must read for anyone seriously interested in this topic. Here, I will point to some of the highlights that will hopefully stimulate discussion and direct reading of Norenzayan and Shariff’s paper.

First off, let me clear the field of an obvious source of what I think is rather fruitless discussion. The authors begin by summarizing three models of the evolution of religion: the evolutionary group selection scenario (religion as an adaptation for group living), the cultural by-product scenario (religion derives from the necessity of a theory of others’ mind and sensitivity to one’s reputation), and the cultural group selection scenario (where competition among social groups favors the spread of costly practices to maintain in-group cohesion). I have said repeatedly that we simply do not have the empirical data to seriously test genetic-evolutionary explanations for most human behaviors, so I am completely neutral about alternative scenarios that deal with that aspect of the problem. Moreover, following Jablonka and Lamb (2005), I count cultural inheritance as a legitimate form of evolutionarily relevant inheritance. This means that any of the above scenarios (or a combination thereof) may have occurred without major involvement of genes, by direct transmission of cultural practices.

Ok, that being out of the way, let’s take a look at what Norenzayan and Shariff say. To begin with, they debunk the oft-repeated claim that religiosity increases charitability. It turns out studies that have made that link are entirely based on self-reporting, a notoriously unreliable source of behavioral evidence. When one looks into experimental studies of the issue, the picture changes dramatically. A series of “Good Samaritan” studies found that people’s actual (as opposed to self-reported) charitable behavior shows no correspondence whatsoever with the degree of religious belief. Secular people are just as likely (or not) to help someone in distress as are religious people. Interestingly, however, researchers have been able to show that a strong link between religiosity and prosocial behavior does emerge, but only when there is a self-reputation enhancing egoistic motivation: religious people are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior if they know that there is a good chance that their reputation in the group will be positively affected.

Perhaps one of the most interesting sets of experiments reported by Norenzayan and Shariff concerns what happens when people are reminded of a morally watchful authority -- religious or secular. In a control group that was not “primed” with a god-like concept, people behaved selfishly (most pocketed an available sum of money without sharing). When participants were primed with a god reminder, however, the modal behavior switched to fairness (they split the money). So, does religion trigger altruistic behavior after all? Nope. Here’s the kicker: people that were primed with reminders of a secular moral authority were just as altruistic as the religiously primed ones! It isn’t religion, it is the presence of a moral authority that does the trick.

Another spectacular finding deals with the effect of religiosity on group survival. Researchers have mined historical information on hundreds of communes that were started in the United States during the 19th century, some religious, some secular (mostly of socialist inspiration). Once again, a prima facie interpretation of the data would seem to give credence to the idea that religion is good for sociality: at any given point in time, religious communes were four times as likely to survive to the following year as their secular counterparts. However, more in-depth analyses revealed that one needs to be weary before jumping to conclusions: it turns out that the real predictor of commune longevity was not religiosity, but the number of costly requirements for membership! The more costly it is to belong, the more likely members are to stick with it (that’s also why it’s better to subscribe to an expensive gym if you really want to motivate yourself…). The overall difference between religious and non-religious communes was simply due to the fact that the latter, on average, imposed much less costly requirements. (Note that “requirements” here does not just mean monetary ones, but also engaging in rituals, church attendance, constrained sexual practices, and so on. Still, perhaps atheist organizations should start asking their membership for a sizable percentage of their income, just as many fundamentalist denominations do.)

Finally, Norenzayan and Shariff looked into another interesting prediction that people have made about the relationship between religion and prosociality. According to standard theory, the two original sources of moral behavior are kin selection (you help your relatives because they carry some of your genes) and reciprocal altruism (where there is an expectation of favors being returned). The problem is that these two mechanisms begin to break down for groups that are much larger than about 150 individuals (all that our neocortex can keep track of). What then? The hypothesis here is that gods kick in as a supplementary and increasingly important moral lever. If so, then there should be a positive relationship between the size of a society and the moralizing of their gods. Sure enough, researchers found that although most societies do not, in fact, worship gods that dictate morality, all large groups switch to moral-dictating deities. Does that mean that religion is, after all, necessary for the stability of human groups? Again, no, because modern secular social contract-enforcing institutions (police, courts, etc.) efficiently replace the original function of “big gods,” as plainly demonstrated by the case of most western societies, which are both highly secular and stable.

Norenzayan and Shariff end with one further cautionary statement to people who insist that religion must be good for society, and a direct quote here is best: “Religious prosociality is not extended indiscriminately; the ‘dark side’ of within-group cooperation is between-group competition and conflict.” In this age of holy wars and cross-cultural clashes, it is indeed hard to underestimate the destructive power of religion.

Literature Cited

Jablonka, E. and M. J. Lamb (2005). Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.


  1. Sounds like another fascinating study. The outline you give suggests, though, not that religions do not lead to pro-social behaviour but, more weakly, that they include certain elements that mean they are one way to increase pro-social behaviour. Not the only way nor necessarily the best way. I'll be very interested to see how DS Wilson responds.

  2. I know that many religious folks still believe this claim about religion's (or at least their religion's) being a prerequisite for morality, but lately I've been hearing more of another claim (even from otherwise liberal-minded people), one which has (at least superficial) support from psychological research: that religious folks are happier than non-religious folks. [See, e.g., The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by research psychologist and professor of psychology Sonja Lyubomirsky.]

    But, just to add force to Konrad's observation, I doubt (based on personal experience) that many religious folks would be bothered by this study's findings. After all, unless its policies are truly Orwellian, no state is as watchful, judgmental, or intrusive into one's privacy as the Deity that they imagine. In other words, they would argue that their belief system delivers the "presence of moral authority" motive much more strongly than any liberal, secular state ever could, and they might even be right about that!

    Regardless, I prefer to take my chances with the liberal, secular state — especially given the quality of "morals" defined in the Abrahamic religious traditions, which are still promoted and defended today by our more orthodox religious citizenry.

  3. The overall impression I have got from reading the happiness studies is that happiness is actually correlated to an understanding of one's position in the universe and to being a part of a supportive community. Committed theists and atheists seem to get much the same bonus from the first side of things, and lots of socially active people get the community benefit. I suspect the lift some people account for in terms of religion originates with these variables.

  4. Excellent review Massimo -especially for us that cannot get access to the original research. I will link and quote your post as soon as I find the time!

  5. mufi,

    "they would argue that their belief system delivers the "presence of moral authority" motive much more strongly than any liberal, secular state ever could."

    Well, yes, but the data show that the effect of the moral authority is the same, regardless of whether it is religious or secular.

  6. I recall reading about a German study, in which theism (by self-identification) was yoked with church attendance for theists, and humanism was yoked with subscription to a certain humanist magazine. Both groups scored high in the happiness index, while seemingly less committed theists and humanists scored lower. I believe the suggestion was that degree of certainty was a contributor to overall sense of well-being.

  7. Massimo,

    Even though the effect of moral authority is the same (which I do not doubt), it seems plausible to me that the cause may be more pervasive (or invasive) in religious communities, given the theology of divine omnipresence (the religious version of Big Brother).

    But I feel obliged to add that: (a) the set of morals themselves differ between religious and secular communities (perhaps most notably regarding sex); and (b) affiliation is one thing and piety is quite another, such that (in my experience) it's not uncommon to meet religious individuals who appear more fervent in public than in private, or when their guard is down (i.e. even though God is supposedly watching in any and all situations).

    Konrad & Paul,

    I'm not a psychologist, so I'm only going on the memory of Lyubomirsky's book. Suffice it to say, I was impressed enough by the book's endorsements
    and her research-based approach to read it through. Perhaps I'll delve into a serious analysis of the chapter on religion and spirituality at some point, but for now, I'm just reporting the take-home message I got from that portion; viz. that religious belief in itself (and not just group membership) correlates strongly with happiness. (Lyubomirsky herself is not religious, btw.)

  8. Mufi, the problem with talking about religious belief 'an sich' is how to measure it. Very often it is measured by... church attendance, i.e. participation in a group. Even when researchers go on reports of religious belief of the "Would you rate your religious beliefs as: 1) Held with certainty, 2) Weak and wishy-washy or 3) Non-existent" type there remains the problem of the confound that answers of type 1 will strongly correlate with church attendance etc. So, one needs to control for that and, from what I've seen, most often the methodology is lacking in just this respect. What is most annoying, however, is when the problem is not with the methodology but with the interpretation. For example I recall one New Scientist article (OK, so this is not a proper example) headlined 'religious belief makes people happy' over a detailed discussion out of which it became clear that, actually, committed, socially-active humanists are every bit as happy. You might as well have an article stating that red Ferraris go really fast (and then adding that, actually, Ferraris of any colour go as fast).

  9. I know some of you hardline anti-religious people are uncomfortable talking about it, but spirituality is an obvious hidden correlate in the happiness studies. Of course it is tremendously difficult to measure, but it seems very plausible that it promotes happiness simply given the universal similarities in people's description of it. How spirituality correlates with religion in practice is of course an open question. But many religions declare themselves as mediators of spirituality, and so the plausibility of a link between religion and happiness may come through this implication.

  10. I'm hardly hardline anti-religious. More soft and fuzzy anti-religious. I'm willing to accept religion so long as it practiced between consenting adults.
    The point about spirituality is an important one but, if we are to look at it in separation from religious practice, we have to try and clarify what it is. And I really am not sure how to do that.

  11. Joanna,

    but if by "spirituality" one means concern with non-material (but not supernatural) things, like moral values and concern for others, then I'm sure many humanists would consider themselves spiritual. Spirituality in that sense is not the province of religion.

  12. I agree that spirituality is hard to define, let alone measure, but if we agree that it is an important hidden correlate, then we have to try. Of course it is not confined to religious people. It is a natural part of the human condition, but it tends to grow when cultivated. Religion is one of the things that can set out to cultivate it. Religion has two components, beliefs and practices. A lot of people focus on the belief aspect, but the practices are probably more important, at least for putative positive aspects of religion. Some religious practices actively cultivate spirituality. So do some secular ones, eg, hiking alone somewhere stunningly beautiful.

    One approach is to start with a set of people that are widely accepted to be spiritual, with as diverse a set of beliefs as possible. See what qualities they share, compared to the majority of humanity. Then you could try to design a survey that captures those qualities, choosing those that are as far as possible belief-free. For example, how comfortable are you sitting alone in solitude and silence for an extended period of time?

  13. Since I cited Lyubomirsky's book, I feel obliged to add some more caveats to my earlier report...

    Firstly, she offers 12 activities that, based on scientific research, suggest one can increase one's happiness (albeit, only within the 40% share that is given to intentional activity - the rest's being given to genetic and circumstantial factors). Practicing Religion & Spirituality is only Activity No. 11, and she explicitly advises readers to pick and choose from the 12, as befits one's temperament and tastes. She even offers a quiz to help readers decide which ones to focus on. In other words, No. 11 is only 1/12 of the given ways to increase happiness, and is (as far as I can tell) not a necessary one. In some cases (my own history comes to mind), the activity may even decrease happiness.

    It's true what I said about Lyubomirsky's interpretation of the studies - "that the fact that religious people are happier than the nonreligious" has to do with "the substance of their religious and spiritual beliefs - with God, with living life in accordance to their holy texts, with the sanctity of life, or with the sense of meaning that religious faith gives their lives", and not merely "with the simple fact that their religions bring them into contact with other similarly minded and caring people." I don't like it, but she's the expert in the field, and I am not. (Remember Massimo's essay on trusting experts in their respective fields?)

    But that brings me to my second caveat, in Lyubomirsky's own words:

    "...those of you who do not believe in God may still be able to sanctify ordinary things on earth. If you think of your work as a calling (divine or not), if you perceive your children as blessings, if you understand love as eternal, or if you believe that the body is holy, you are imbuing aspects of life with sacred or divine qualities. Sanctification, it turns out, can provide motivation, meaning, and sanctification."

    Okay, that might still sound too religious for some of us, but I think I can relate somewhat to what she says here; e.g. I cherish my loved ones, my health, and my ideals - perhaps as much (or even more so) as any fervent Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc. I tend to use weaker terms than "holy" and "sacred" (let alone "divine"), but that seems to me more a matter of linguistic taste (for which there is no accounting, right?).

  14. >>Secular people are just as likely (or not) to help someone in distress as are religious people.

    "Secular" is not a good distinction from the evolutionary perspective. Pre-mythic was the tribal structure, not the "secular" structure of modernity. Compared to the tribal structure the mythic structure does solve many tribal problems( as the book seems to say ).

    As the studies say, mythic structures helped transcend the kinship identity of tribes to an identity of common belief. Thus society grew from 50-150 people to millions of people. But to say that modern structures are a replacement for mythic structures isn't correct. Evolutionary structure is cumulative. Mythic structures and Modern structures serve very different purposes,

  15. Joanna, if you can't define the word "spiritual", then you can't even begin to test for it, as you don't know what you're testing for. This is why definitions are so important.

  16. I will try to define spiritual, but first I want to stress that any definition coming from a single person (in this case me) is highly questionable. Everybody’s interpretation of spirituality is colored by their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Coming up with a consensus view of spirituality, and then going on to find ways to measure it, is a huge task of itself. I think it is essential, though, in order to study religion as a social and psychological phenomenon. The scientific approach draws much of its power from reductionism. Religion is such a many-faceted and varied conglomeration that it is essential to tease apart its components and understand their natures and effects separately.

    Spirituality deals with strictly subjective aspects of human existence. This makes it a tricky topic for objective scientific study, but lets start with definition alone. At its core, I would define spirituality in terms of subjective feelings of wonder and awe at the mere fact of existence. With this comes heightened awareness of every aspect of the human experience, dissolution of the petty dominance of the ego, and a feeling of unity with aspects of reality outside the “self”, whether this goes by the name of God, the universe in general, or anything else. Spirituality does not require any form of belief whatsoever.

    Spirituality is a natural part of the human condition, whether somebody is “religious” or not. Although it occurs spontaneously, it can also be cultivated and refined. This is where religious practices come in, since many (eg, prayer, meditation) do exactly this. So it is possible that the subset of nominally religious people who take these practices seriously have a heightened spirituality, which is a plausible candidate cause of many of the putative benefits of “religion”, including happiness and morality. If this is true, then “non-religious” people who also apply discipline to the cultivation of spirituality gain the same benefits. This is what Lyubomirsky's passage on sanctification seems to be saying. I would add that the core is not just to pay lip service to these great things and assess how they fit in to where you stand now, but to apply some discipline, train the mind, and cultivate them so that they play a larger part of your life. It is possible that organized religion helps provide this discipline, at least for some individuals.

  17. it turns out that the real predictor of commune longevity was not religiosity, but the number of costly requirements for membership! ... The overall difference between religious and non-religious communes was simply due to the fact that the latter, on average...

    Actually not so. Surprisingly the analysis shows that the relationship between commitment and longevity only holds for the religious communes, not the secular ones.

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

    I have more on the Norenzayan & Shariff paper at: http://bhascience.blogspot.com/2008/10/religion-situations-but-not-religion.html

  18. Tom,

    I'm not sure that's really surprising. The longevity of the secular communes might have been simply too short, and -- more importantly -- their variation in membership requirements too little -- to have a measurable effect. Regardless, the main point of difference between the two kinds of communes still holds.

  19. Woops! That last quotation of Lyubomirsky above should have ended with "satisfaction" (not "sanctification").

    BTW, she defines "spirituality" as a "search for the sacred" — that is, "a search for meaning in life through something that is larger than the individual self." She also specifies that "the majority of spiritual people also define themselves as religious" and that "Spiritual people are relatively happier than nonspiritual people, have superior mental health, cope better with stressors, have more satisfying marriages, use drugs and alcohol less often, are physically healthier, and live longer lives."

    Please note that she's dealing with statistics here and mentions exceptions (e.g. "people who strongly believe that prayer can cure their ills are less likely to exercise and are less involved in their own health care" [Physical activity, along with meditation, is a part of Activity No. 12.], not to mention other, more violent forms of religious extremism). I know that I have some exceptions in mind.

    But these observations do raise concerns for me about whether nonreligious individuals have the same access to these benefits (i.e. aside from any concerns about the impacts on happiness of secular beliefs themselves). After all, in my experience, grouping naturalists and humanists into "religious" communities is like herding cats. There may well be other benefits to such rugged individualism (e.g. an avoidance of group-think and petty political conflicts), but it does suggest that we tend to forgo the same level of communal support that religious individuals derive from their institutions.

    IOW, the inherent weaknesses of the go-it-alone approach to spirituality (as Lyubomirsky defines it) might well explain at least some of the statistical gap between religious and nonreligious groups in the study of happiness. (However, I'd like to see a study that includes a control group comprised of unaffiliated believers in the supernatural - just to confirm that they do not own spirituality so much as promote it in a more organized fashion.)


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