Religion as a subtle mechanism for cooperation

Religion can be thought as a cultural innovation that, millennia ago, helped the emergence of communities larger than just a few hundred people. The ancient were, presumably, discouraged of ripping others off because the rule of gods would come after them — and of course one could not escape them. Gods were the ultimate punishers.

Similar line of thinking would apply to rituals as well. Participating in them could be seen as a proof that someone can be trusted. The more extreme the ritual is, the harder it would be to fake one’s commitment to the faith.

As much as one should keep in mind though that there is no definitive evidence to support these hypotheses, they might get you reflecting on interesting questions about human civilizations.

What is the “job” of religion? Why have religions been so widespread? Are there alternatives? What competes with it? What has been changing? What is invariant?

I first came across these hypotheses while listening to an episode of a podcast by NPR. The episode is titled Creating God. I have compiled below the most interesting excerpts. Enjoy!

A cultural innovation that made larger groups possible

Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, said:

For the vast history of our species, we didn’t live in large groups. We lived in very small groups of about 50 people, groups that never really got larger than 150.

And the reason for that is because, from a genetic standpoint, we are only built to be able to cooperate with as many people as we can know well. When you start having anonymous strangers in groups, when you start having people whose reputation you are unfamiliar with, people can free ride on the group. They can cheat on the group with impunity. And when you start having large groups of free riders and cheaters in a group, it cannot sustain itself. You need a level of cooperation between the people in a group for it to act and to work harmoniously.

It was only in the last 12,000 years that we started getting groups that bubbled up from beyond 100-150 people to 1,000-10,000 people. What that means is that it needed something more than just our genetic inheritance. It needed a cultural idea. It needed a cultural innovation to allow us to succeed in these larger groups.

One of the things that my colleagues and I have been arguing is that religion was one of these cultural innovations.

Shankar Vedantam, the podcast host, added:

And not just religion in general. It was one specific aspect of religion — the idea of a supernatural punisher also known as God.

For additional detail on this idea, see this 2016 paper, Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality by Benjamin Grant Purzycki et al.

Costly signaling prevents free riders in religion

Later on the conversation, Shankar Vedantam provoked:

One of the challenges, of course, is that, if I am a religious person, I now think of religion as being a marker of my willingness to trust the next person who’s also a religious person. [Because of this] there is an incentive for people to cheat.

For people to say, “I’m actually a religious person, I deeply believe in this God”, when in fact they don’t, because they just want to take all these [trust] advantages that come from religious faith.

And this brings us to the idea of rituals and the idea of costly rituals. […] Why would you have the development of costly rituals, in some ways, as a precondition to how religion ends up enforcing cultural norms?

To which Azim Shariff answered:

This is one of the really great examples of how evolutionary theory can inform our understanding of religion. Things that were previously mysterious about religion now make sense from an evolutionary perspective.

In evolution, there is this concept of costly signaling. They have a hard-to-fake signal which serves as a reliable cue of something you’re trying to demonstrate. The classic example of this is peacock feathers, which is a sexual display. Only the healthiest [male] peacocks can have the large plumage because of how costly it is to other aspects of the peacock’s life. It can’t fly very fast, can’t run away very much. It [also] makes it very visible to other predators.

That may be seen as an unrelated example but, if you look at the costly rituals that happen in religion, those are indications to other people in your group that you are a true believer. You are showing a costly indication that you are a believer. It is a hard-to-fake signal. If you weren’t a true believer, you wouldn’t go through all that effort.

They then mentioned a few other examples:

Effort like following the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience in Catholicism. “We don’t see them as restrictive rules, we see them as freeing”.

Keeping kosher in Judaism. “When I eat I know that I am a Jew”

And wearing a veil or headscarf in Islam. “I use it to identify myself. I use it to be a symbol of who I am”

You have trustable cues, credibility-enhancing displays of people’s genuine religiosity, which indicates that you actually can trust them.

Rituals affect group bonding

Shankar Vedantam says he came by two interesting studies on rituals:

One of them by Nicholas Hobson, he found, along with other colleagues, that if you ask for a group of people to perform a novel ritual — even when they are completely meaningless — it has the power to increase trust among fellow members who are performing this novel ritual. (My note: here is another follow-up paper by the same group).

The other study is by Panagiotis Mitkidis and he showed along with his colleagues that extreme rituals often a bigger effect on promoting moral behavior, not among the performers of the ritual but on observers.

Azim Shariff comments:

And so you would ask: why did fire-walking emerge? Why did circumcision emerge? Why did any of these painful rituals? There are many, many more examples of really terrible painful rituals. Why did they emerge? It’s not random. The ones that have been preserved exist because they have this impact on our psychology that allows groups to cohere around each other. That allows this communication between members of the group that encourage trust between them.

Functional opacity hides our own motives from ourselves

Shankar Vedantam then explores the conflict between what evolutionary thinking says are the motives to be religious and what religious individuals say are their own reasons:

I want to take a closer look at one of these rituals. To underscore the difference between the way believers think about religious practices and Azim’s theory.

Jainism, a small South Asian religion, has lots of rituals that ask for sacrifices, like fasting. Jainism is somewhat similar to Hinduism and Buddhism, in that one of its core tenets is non-violence. Jains are strict vegetarians and each year they observe a holiday called Paryushana. It is a week-long practice where practitioners limit their consumption of both food and water. The purpose of Paryushana is to repent for one’s sins over the past year. These are seven days when he nourishes his soul, rather than his body.

[Believers report] it gives [them] a better perspective on the struggles other people face in the world. “I can feel that without food we are nothing, so that way I can help other people when they are hungry”.

Now, of course, most religious people who make such sacrifices don’t see what they are doing as costly signaling. She is not fasting in order to communicate to other jains that she is a trustworthy member of the group. She is saying, “I’m a devoted person, my religion calls on me to make the sacrifice.”

So I asked Azim about the difference between an evolutionary theory of rituals and how believers think about their behavior.

Azim Shariff:

Again, I just want to clarify the difference between how people think in an individual way and the effect this has at a group level. For example, let’s say your religion commands you to take a very costly and difficult pilgrimage, for example, that involves maybe physical difficulties or, you know, financial difficulties. The people who are embarking on that pilgrimage are not thinking to themselves, “What I am doing is a costly signal to other members of my religion”. They are saying, “I am just a devout person, my religion calls on me to do this thing, and that’s why I am doing it”.

So there is a difference between how this might work in some ways at a community level, at a society level and how the individual practitioner thinks about it. The individual practitioner, the individual peacock isn’t thinking, let me grow beautiful feathers because that sends a costly signal.

This is something we can call functional opacity. People are not aware of these ultimate reasons, the ultimate evolutionary reasons why they are engaging in this behavior. They are aware of what we could call the proximate reasons, the immediate reasons, what they believe is the reason they are doing it for.

They are doing because their god asks them to do it, but, really, the reason that there is a belief that god would ask you to do that, the reason why that belief exists in the first place is because it serves that functional purpose.

They are in acting rituals that serve larger hidden purposes that are very functional for their societies but to them is just what their religion tells to do.

Extremists and values that are immune to trade-offs

Next, anthropologist Scott Atran talks about extremists:

What we find, and this is not just true for the Islamic State, this is true for people who are willing to sacrifice their lives and kill others at the same time across the board. It is also true for movements that are peaceful but where the people who are driving these movements are willing to shed their own blood — for example, the civil rights movement or movements like Gandhi’s movement in India.

They are committed to a set of values which are sacred, values which are immune to tradeoffs. For example, you would not trade your children or your religion or your country for all the money in China.

And when you have these kinds of values which you will not trade off and which are not subject to the standard constraints of material life, things that occurred in the distant past (or in distant places that are sacred) are actually more important than things in the here and now.

They are also oblivious to quantity. It doesn’t matter if I kill one or a thousand or no one, as long as my intention is good and righteous. Once they lock into these values, they are immune to social pressures. These values are not norms. That is, even if your best friends, your family, your loved ones are against you, you will not see an exit strategy.

They have only one identity. They will fight and die not just for that group but for every single individual in that group. Once this happens, we also have other measures which show they develop a sense of invincibility and actually perceive themselves, their own bodies, to be much bigger than they actually are. And they perceive the other group to be much weaker.

Azim Shariff adds:

We engage in wars. The question is, does religion enhance your side’s ability to triumph in those wars? And the thing that religion adds is more than any other factor I can think of aside from perhaps family.

Religion allows people to be bound together in a way that allows them to die for and kill for each other. This ability to form very cohesive, very tight coalitions, as well as to introduce sacred values, things that people are willing to fight for beyond all “utilitarian” or “rational” calculus, allows religion to make people better fighters. So, yes, religion does contribute to our warlike nature, but it does so in a very culturally adaptive way.

The nation state has been playing a similar role to religion

Shankar Vedantam:

When I think about what will cause people to fight and die, you no longer need religious faith. You can have nationalism. You can have patriotism — people willing to die for the flag.

When it comes to trust, you and I don’t have to belong to the same religion anymore. We can both agree — you can sell a house to me and I can buy a house from you — because we both believe that there are institutions organized by the state that will ensure that you will actually sell the house to me and I will actually give you money for it.

I put my money in a bank every month, and I actually only see a bunch of digits on a piece of paper. But I trust that the bank at some level is actually holding onto my money. And I have absolutely no idea what religion the bankers belong to. Are these all examples of how modern societies have come to essentially displace the need for religion?

Azim Shariff:

Yes, I think so.

In terms of these other -isms that people are willing to fight and die for, it is important to know that the idea of sacred values extends beyond just religious values. There are non-religious things that we sacralize. As soon as you sacralize something, it allows people to fight and die for it, right?

We have a fertile psychological meadow that’s ready to sacralize things. And you just have to find the right key to fit into that lock.

A grain of salt

Personally, I don’t take at face value all the ideas defended by the speakers in the episode. As much as they sound very plausible at surface, solid inference in social science and history is very hard — and I haven’t read all their papers yet.

Assuming they are pointing in the right direction, the concept of functional opacity, for instance, should give everyone pause for thought. That humankind may be engaged in such massive collective delusion must be sobering!

If true, is this collective delusion simply accidental? That is to say, a convenient and useful accident at the societal scale that emerged from the faith of individuals. Or is the collective delusion actually necessary for society to function properly? In other words, believers must be deceived as individuals otherwise the whole schema would not be as effective? The fact that there is a conflict between what their theory professes and what religious individuals think they are doing sounds to me as evidence to the argument of an accident.

August 2018