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Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Persistence of Belief, Part III: Religion is Good for the Group

Previously ("The Persistence of Belief, Part I: The Future of Religion"), I noted that at least three streams of thought inform the current debate about why belief and religion persist. I have already discussed how some believe that religion is an accidental byproduct of a separate (but adaptive) evolutionary process ("The Persistence of Belief, Part II: Religion is a Natural Accident"). In this post, I focus on the work of cultural evolutionists who argue that religion persists because it has helped human groups adapt to various evolutionary pressures. In a future post, I explore the argument that religion persists because it helps us manage and regulate our emotions ("The Persistence of Belief, Part IV: Religion is Good for Us").

Religion is Good for the Group

Lying at the heart of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the argument that variation among biological traits (phenotypic variation) confers different rates of survival and reproduction within the environment in which a particular species exists (differential fitness) and since some traits can be passed from generation to generation (fitness heritability), those associated with greater fitness are more likely to be passed down than those that are not. Beginning in the 1960s, a consensus developed among evolutionists that selection occurs only at the individual level. Although they conceded that selection at the group level was possible, they believed it unlikely, and cautioned against offering a group level explanation when an individual one would do just fine.

Curiously, though, not only did Darwin believe that group selection was possible, he also thought it likely:
When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same circumstances, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other… The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. Obedience… is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes.
Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson was one of the few who agreed and spent most of his professional life attempting establish that group selection can and has occurred. He believes that group selection occurs when “selection within groups is suppressed,” and selection between groups becomes “the primary evolutionary force," which can happen when groups function like a single organism or unit. How can functioning as a single organism favor the survival of some groups over others? Back in 2007 the journalist, Robin Henig, nicely summarized Wilson’s perspective:
Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?
To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.
When it comes to human groups, Wilson argues they are more likely to survive if their members adhere to a set of norms that organize them in such a way that practices that are considered morally right align with the group’s welfare and those that are considered morally wrong align with those that detract from it. Put differently, human groups whose collective morality encourages members to engage in pro-social behaviors will enjoy a higher level of “fitness” than will groups whose collective morality does not, all else being equal. Wilson is not the first to make this argument. That honor again belongs to Darwin:
It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.
The problem, of course, is that “on an individual level, to make sacrifices for the benefit of another individual is a disadvantage in terms of one’s own reproductive success," and it is here that Wilson believes religion plays a role. He argues that religious beliefs can incentivize people to sacrifice some pleasures for the good of the group. Wilson believes that secular institutions are incapable of operating with the same efficiency because they lack low-cost enforcement mechanisms, such as supernatural surveillance and divine punishment. And he is quick to point out that it doesn't matter whether God (or another supernatural force) actually exists. All that matters is for a particular human group to believe that one does and that this deity not only places demands on them but will punish them if they fail to do so.

For a number of years, Wilson was a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. Folks like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others were (and still are) highly critical of his perspective. Nevertheless, it has slowly gained support and now influences the work of many others, such as the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the biologist Peter Richerson and his frequent co-author, the anthropologist Robert Boyd, the psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff, and the anthropologist Joseph Henrich. Henrich in particular, has drawn on experimental and empirical research to expand and refine Wilson’s insights in order to construct a theory that seeks to explain the wide-spread persistence of prosocial religions, that is, religions whose beliefs and practices promote wide-spread cooperation. As Norenzayan et al. explain:
[The] cultural evolutionary process selects for any psychological traits, norms, or practices that (1) reduce competition among individuals and families within social groups; (2) sustain and increase group solidarity; and (3) facilitate differential success in competition and conflict between social groups by increasing cooperation in warfare, defense, demographic expansion, or economic ventures. This success can then lead to the differential spread of particular religious elements, as more successful groups are copied by less successful groups, experience physical or cultural immigration, expand demographically through higher rates of reproduction, or expand through conquest and assimilation. It was this cultural evolutionary process that increasingly intertwined the “supernatural” with the “moral” and the “prosocial.”
Moreover, while cultural evolution can select for non-religious cultural practices, religions that promote such beliefs and practices are particularly well-positioned to benefit from the process. A key reason is that many include a belief in “Big Gods,” that is, “powerful, morally concerned deities who… monitor human behavior.” In fact, anthropological, archeological, and historical evidence indicates that as we move from a relatively small scale societies to larger, more complex ones, Big Gods become more common, morality and supernatural beliefs become more systematic, related rituals become increasingly organized and regular, supernatural punishments increasingly focus on violations that benefit the group, and the scope of supernatural rewards and punishments related to key social norms grow (e.g., heaven, hell, salvation, and karma) (Details on their perspective appear in the "appendix" below).


In short, the “adaptive story” told by cultural evolutionists is not only plausible but compelling, and as we have seen, it enjoys considerable empirical support. The following graph captures the essence of this perspective:

On the surface, this perspective appears friendly to religious belief. After all, it argues that human groups vary in terms of their moral systems (“phenotypic” variation) with some being more adaptive in terms of natural selection than others (differential fitness), meaning that moral systems with higher fitness are more likely to be passed down to subsequent generations (fitness heritability). Add to this the fact that moral systems grounded in religious beliefs tend to exhibit higher fitness levels than secular ones, and it is not difficult to take the additional step of seeing a divine hand at work in the background. Wilson does not take such a step (he considers himself an atheist), and there are undoubtedly some who would argue that religion cannot possibly be true because its persistence can be explained solely in terms of natural processes. But, as I noted in an earlier post, "all beliefs have a causal explanation," including atheistic ones, and no explanation “can settle the question of whether [a particular] belief is true or not.”

Appendix: Details of Cultural Evolution

As noted above, cultural evolutionists argue that evolution selects for any psychological traits, norms, or practices that (1) reduce competition among individuals and families within social groups (i.e., intragroup cooperation); (2) sustain and increase group solidarity; and (3) facilitate differential success in competition and conflict between social groups by increasing cooperation in warfare, defense, demographic expansion, or economic ventures (intergroup competition). This can then lead to the differential spread of particular religious elements, as more successful groups are copied by less successful groups, experience physical or cultural immigration, expand demographically through higher rates of reproduction, or expand through conquest and assimilation.

Religion and Intragroup Cooperation

Substantial evidence has been found that a positive association between religion and within-group prosociality exists. For example, available evidence exists that prosocial religions cultivate processes that encourage people suppress selfish pursuits in the interest of the group and promote self-control which is strongly associated with prosocial behavior. And social scientists have long documented the positive link between religiosity, charity, and volunteerism for both religious and secular causes.

Because much of this research is limited to the U.S. and relies on self-reports, Henrich and his colleagues conducted experimental studies that found a positive association between adherence to Islam or Christianity and prosocial behavior in fifteen different societies. Other experiments that primed participants with religious thoughts have shown that “religious reminders reduce cheating, curb selfish behavior, increase fairness to strangers, and promote cooperation in… societies shaped by prosocial religions” although the effect disappears for nonbelievers. Interestingly, the threat of punishment by moralistic gods who are aware of human thoughts and actions has been found to be positively associated with prosocial behavior in a wide variety of societies. In fact, a belief in a God who punishes exerts a greater positive effect on prosocial behavior than a belief in one that forgives unconditionally ("Do Mean Gods Make Nice People?").

Religion and Group Solidarity

Available research indicates that there is a positive relationship between religion and group cohesion. Fr instance, participation in collective religious rituals can help build feelings of interpersonal trust and mutuality. Scholars also point to how seemingly “costly” rites and rituals can signal commitment to the group, limit free-riding, promote a feeling of kinship among non-kin members, and draw distinct boundaries between who belongs to a group and who does not. Social scientists have long been puzzled why some religious groups embrace costly practices, such as vows of poverty, painful initiations, dietary restrictions, and dress codes, that offer few if any (obvious) benefits and often invite scorn from outsiders. Research has found, however, that many of these practices help signal commitment to the group. That is, although religious beliefs can easily be faked, some practices promote group cohesion because they are simply “too costly to fake.”

Costly rites and rituals also help limit free-riding, which can undermine the collective activities of groups like faith communities because it reduces the average level of participation, enthusiasm, energy, and so on. In religious groups that place high demands on their followers, only those who are fully committed to the group join or at least stick around for the long term. This leads to an increase in the average level of participation, which in turn leads to higher levels of enthusiasm and energy.

Religious rituals also appear to help promote fictive kinship, such that they include “people across ethnic, linguistic, and geographic boundaries” and often use the language of kinship to refer to one another. In fact, experimental research has found that participation in “synchronous song and dance” produces greater trust, more cooperation, and greater feelings of “being on the same team” among participants.

Finally, certain rites and rituals better distinguish group boundaries, which can help promote both intragroup cohesion and intergroup antagonism. Unfortunately, this last aspect can facilitate the dark side of prosocial religions, which can lead to intergroup intolerance, conflict, and violence.

Religion and Intergroup Fitness

It is more difficult to establish an association between religion and intergroup fitness. Nevertheless, evidence does exist that is consistent with the hypothesis that some religious beliefs help “facilitate differential success in competition and conflict between social groups by increasing cooperation in warfare, defense, demographic expansion, or economic ventures.”

For example, available evidence suggests that, on average, religious beliefs contribute to group longevity. Studies of communes have found that religiously-based ones last longer than others, and there is a strong correlation between religiously-based restrictions (e.g., dietary, sexual, outside communication) and group persistence. Put differently, stricter (and typically religious) communes tend to last longer than more lenient (and typically secular) ones. Group longevity is also a function of higher fertility rates, and people of faith tend to reproduce at higher rates.

There is a correlation between certain religious beliefs and economic success (see Barro and McCleary). For instance, countries with stronger beliefs in heaven and hell experience faster economic growth rates, and there is evidence that religious beliefs that promote certain types of family structures have historically contributed to the development of psychological traits that are typically associated with development (see the Economist 2019). In a similar vein, Robert Woodberry has demonstrated that the presence of Protestant missionaries in 142 non-European countries that is a strong predictor of democracy. Why? Because Protestantism has long held that the Bible is the Word of God and that it is important for people, including women and other minorities, to be able to read the Bible in their own language. And this led Protestant missionaries to be catalysts for literacy, education, printing, newspapers, and so on, which in turn were mechanisms for the development of democratic rule. Finally, a recent experiment involving 6,276 individuals in 320 Philippine villages found that participation in an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program that consisted of 15 weekly half-hour sessions led to an increase in household income relative to a control group (see Bryan, Choi, and Karlan 2018 & Lau and Wydick 2018).


Barro, Robert J., and Rachel M. McCleary. 2003. "Religion and Economic Growth across Countries." American Sociological Review 68(5):760-81.

Bryan, Gharad T., James J. Choi, and Dean Karlan. 2018. "Randomizing Religion: The Impact of Protestant Evangelism on Economic Outcomes." NBER Working Paper Series, February (Working Paper 24278):1-78.

Darwin, Charles. 1878. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd ed. New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company.

Economist. 2019. "Medieval Catholicism nudged Europe towards democracy and development." The Economist (November 23, 2019).

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Henig, Robin Marantz. 2007. "Darwin’s God." The New York Times Magazine (March 4):36-43, 56, 62, 77-78, 85.

Henrich, Joseph. 2016. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. "The Weirdest People in the World?" Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(2-3):61-83.

Lau, Lincoln, and Bruce Wydick. 2018. "The “Protestant Work Ethic’ Really Does Fight Poverty." Christianity Today, (June).

McCleary, Rachel M., and Robert J. Barro. 2019. The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara, Azim F. Shariff, Will M. Gervais, Aiyana K. Willard, Rita A. McNamara, Edward Slingerland, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. "The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39:1-19.

Purzycki, Benjamin Grant, Coren Apicella, Quentin D. Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Rita Anne McNamara, Aiyana K. Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. "Moralistic Gods, Supernatural Punishment and the Expansion of Human Sociality." Nature 530:327-30.

Richerson, Peter J., and Robert Boyd. 2005. Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schulz, Jonathan F., Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich. 2019. "The Church, Intensive Kinship, and Global Psychological Variation." Science 366(6466):eaau5141.

Shariff, Azim F., and Ara Norenzayan. 2011. "Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior." The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21(2):85-96.

Shariff, Azim F., and Mijke Rhemtulla. 2012. "Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates." PLoS ONE 7(6):e39048.

Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Woodberry, Robert D. 2012. "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy." The American Political Science Review 106(2):244-74.

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