Of Course Religious Communities Cooperate. But Maybe…

Religion is puzzling.

Religion – at least the organized religions with which people in the West are familiar – cause people to do odd things, such as adopt (or, at least, appear to adopt) a large number of false beliefs, engage in rituals that are at best useless and at worst costly, and give up their resources to strangers.

Probably because these things all seem strange from an evolutionary point of view, scholars have spilled considerable ink trying to explain religion, both its component parts (supernatural belief, costly ritual) and the whole enchilada. Book length treatments include, in no particular order, Religion Explained (Boyer), The Belief Instinct (Bering), The God Delusion (Dawkins), Breaking the Spell (Dennett), and Darwin’s Cathedral (Wilson).

Arguably the predominant argument surrounding religion goes something like this. People with religious beliefs are less likely than people without religious beliefs to lie, cheat, steal, or mix dairy with meat because they are afraid of supernatural punishment. Doing less of (at least the first three of) these things is good for the individual — because supernatural-agent-believing-in people get punished less than they otherwise would for breaking rules – and for the group – because there is less welfare-destroying behavior than there would be if people didn’t believe in punitive gods.

Of course a link exists between religion and cooperation, if only insofar as members of organized Western religions really do tend to cooperate with their co-religionists. Members of religious organization cooperate in any number of ways, of course, from bake sales to fund renovations of the nave to cooperative child care to going on Crusades.

And there are data supporting a link between religion and cooperation using various techniques. For example, some have investigated the issue by looking at individual differences. Atkinson and Bourrat (2011), for instance, looked at people’s self-reported religious beliefs and their self-reported endorsement of a number of items relating to morality. (For instance, people’s views on whether lying is never, sometimes, or always justified.) They conclude:

The results we present here are consistent with and provide support for specific predictions of the supernatural monitoring and fear of supernatural punishment hypotheses. As predicted by both theories and consistent with our Hypothesis 1, individuals who professed belief in God rated moral transgressions as less justifiable than those who did not. Consistent with Hypothesis 2 and the supernatural punishment hypothesis, stronger beliefs about the unjustifiability of moral transgressions were present in individuals who professed belief in heaven or hell. And consistent with Hypothesis 3 and the supernatural monitoring hypothesis, among those who believe in God, those who professed belief in a personal God rated moral transgressions as less justifiable than those who professed belief in a Spirit or Life Force.

But maybe the cooperative face of religion isn’t the whole story, or even the main story. After all, people organize themselves into all kinds of cooperative groups that have few features of organized religions (supernatural beliefs, rituals, etc.). Perhaps people organize themselves into religious groups for some other reason and then, by virtue of finding shared interests, cooperate toward common goals.

A new paper now in press in Evolution and Human Behavior by #cough# Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban with the laconic title, “What predicts religiosity? A multinational analysis of reproductive and cooperative morals” diverges from the dominant religion-is-for-cooperation view.

We used the same database that Atkinson and Bourrat used, but our interest was in the possibility that people used religious organizations less as a locus of cooperation, generally, but more as a means of advancing their reproductive goals. Previous work showed strong relationships between religious variables such as church attendance and planned church attendance with self-reported sexual behavior and attitudes, such as sociosexuality – i.e., roughly, promiscuity – and moral views on stuff pertaining to sex and reproduction, such as views on abortion, birth control, and pre-marital sex. So, we looked at the relationships among religiosity, reproductive morals, and cooperative morals drawing on the vast amount of data available from many nations in the World Values Survey.

As one might have guessed, both the cooperative items and the reproductive items correlate reasonably well with the religious items. Still, just looking at these relationships, we find that, internationally, the relationship between cooperative morals and religious items was about one quarter of the size of the relationship between reproductive morals and religious items.

Though this suggests to us that the reproductive issues might be driving participation in religion, in themselves these relationship don’t settle much because both accounts of religion allow, in principle, for other relationships to exist. One could imagine that religion was for cooperating, but then once cooperative religious groups form, they take on systematic properties, such as moralizing sexual behavior. So, the next step is to run analyses in which we regress religiosity measures on both the reproductive items and the cooperative morals items. When we ran these analyses, we found that the coefficients on the relationship between reproductive morals and religion stayed about the same but the coefficients on the relationship between cooperative morals and religion were mostly eliminated, in some cases becoming slightly negative. This pattern existed, with variations on the theme, worldwide.

In short, while there is, for sure, a relationship between cooperative morals and religiosity, this relationship is attenuated or eliminated when controlling for reproductive morals, and this attenuation occurs pretty much everywhere we have looked.

This is not to say, of course, that various aspects of religion might not have evolved because of their role in facilitating cooperation. I myself am skeptical of such accounts for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, for reasons I’ve discussed before, natural selection should punish systems that give rise to false beliefs about supernatural punishment in favor of systems that give rise to true beliefs. Still, these patterns of data suggest to us that people might be joining religion because of religion’s role in facilitating their favored reproductive strategy.

So of course religious groups cooperate, and often do so effectively and successfully. But maybe people join religious groups for reasons that go beyond cooperation per se, having more to do with the role religion plays in people’s sexual and reproductive behavior.

07. October 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 14 comments

Comments (14)

  1. Nice post, Rob – thanks. One question: one of your last comments is, “Still, these patterns of data suggest to us that people might be joining religion because of religion’s role in facilitating their favored reproductive strategy.” Can you share any thoughts on why religions might facilitate specific reproductive strategies in, what your analyses indicate, is a reasonably cross-culturally robust manner?

    • The short version is: we don’t know. Religious groups in developed countries tend to do two things that are especially useful for people engaging in a high-commitment/high-fertility strategy, things that are either harmful or not-so-useful for people engaging in low-commitment/low-fertility strategies: (1) they provide moralistic communities that monitor and punish promiscuous conduct and (2) they provide club goods especially useful to families with young children. We don’t have an explanation for either of those two facts, but our view is that individuals in developed societies are simply faced with this reality, and they adjust their affiliations with religious groups to fit their own reproductive strategies. As for why these groups need to be *religious*, again, we don’t know. It might have to do with the strategic/Rawlsian distinction that you know I like. It seems to us that one possibility is that people find religious authority especially useful when trying to press widely contested moral regimes on their wider social groups. Cooperative morals are not widely contested — almost everyone agrees that lying and stealing are wrong and that there are many circumstances in which such behaviors should be punished. But in developed countries, reproductive morals are widely contested; there is tremendous variance in reproductive patterns and in views on abortion, pre-marital sex, etc. So, when people try to impose a contested moral regime on others who don’t agree with the regime, maybe it’s a useful strategy to say: Don’t blame me for trying to impose costs on your lifestyle; bring it up with the Big Guy. But, again, in the paper we focus mostly on just the empirical patterns we uncovered as opposed to trying to give the sort of explanation you’re after.

      • this article (and this comment in particular) is on the right track, but I would disagree that religion is fundamentally puzzling at all. An evolutionary explanation of religion is dead on arrival unless parent-offspring conflict is explicitly invoked (Steven Pinker made the same mistake when talking about parenthood from an evolutionary perspective in The Blank Slate. He was wrong, for once, and he never mentioned P-OC).

        This becomes very obvious when we replace “religion” with “a record of what parents did to win the parent-offspring conflict over many generations of DIRECT descent.” Then everything falls into place, including why kin altruism is greater in tribal societies than Kin Selection theory traditionally predicts.

        We need to get over the idea that gods are fake; most were real, mythologized grandparents/ancestors. Chinese religion is a very obvious example of this: filial piety. If parents manipulate (consciously or not) their children to produce a maximal amount of offspring, and the manipulated children pull the same codified strategy on their children, then, from a genes-eye view, it is actually worth being manipulated (including loss of mate choice, etc). Your genes last more generations.

        The key to P-O conflict is that children should be manipulated into treating eachother as 100% related (the closer to 100%, the more effective the religion), which in turn should make first cousins seem 50% related etc.

        A common “atheist belief” is that gods became more vague as humans gained higher understanding of their environment. Demonstrably false. Gods became more vague any time tribes coalesced, and the new “made-up” ancestor would often be a vague ancestor of both tribes’ real ancestors. In Jewish religion, an unpronounceable god took the place of Baal, Ashtoreth and other tribal gods, allowing the tribes to coalesce.

        Further historical evidence: religion has always been anti-civilization (unless a religion was created within a civilization). The reason can be explained by the fact that religion has no (or very little) effect when a mobile population is rarely in the vicinity of extended kin. In fact, the least mobile (the very rich and very poor) should be the most religious in a civilization. They are. And this undermines the philosopher’s idea that rulers use religion to manipulate society. No. They really believe, because transmission is not disrupted.

        Richard Dawkins had the right idea when he came up with memes to counter inane group selection theories of religion. But he failed to remember that genes themselves only work on behalf of the phenotype if other genes are forcing them to, and for completely selfish reasons. In other words, genes always try to find a way to be ultra-selfish again, even if it destroys their chances of getting into the next generation. So if religion is “cruel” to the phenotype, it doesn’t follow that religion is propagating for its own gain at the expense of the phenotype. Genes do this all the time, and Dawkins should have stuck to a completely gene-centerd view of religion.

  2. Hope a review of Ara Norenzayan’s new book appears in the journal, if not also your critical reflections on the blog.

  3. Might you also predict that religions which did not strongly moralize sex (if this is really the main appeal) would be less likely to attract followers, and thus be more likely to die out over cultural evolutionary time?

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  6. Great article, but, maybe you could further elaborate this point “natural selection should punish systems that give rise to false beliefs
    about supernatural punishment in favor of systems that give rise to true
    beliefs.” It seems to me that you can not judge beliefs as being true or false. What matters is, if the believer believes they are true. From that one can begin to gather data as to the adaptability of said belief.

    • I’m not quite sure what you mean here. Take the belief, “If I lie, then a supernatural agent will punish me.” I assume that belief is false. Agents who, as a consequence of that belief, don’t lie – potentially giving up the strategic advantages of lying – do worse, on average, than agents without the false belief. (These latter types lie whenever doing so has a positive expected value, taking into account the mundane chance of detection, size of punishment, etc.)

      • I don’t buy that line of argument, at least in most cases, because the reason someone does not lie is mostly an afterthought of the brain. So a religious person will say they don’t lie, out of fear of eternal damnation. Then they have a child who loses faith, becomes an atheist, and doesn’t lie, “just because lying is wrong.” More often then not, both actions probably stem from an inheritable biological constitution that is working fundamentally the same on both people.
        There is evidence that people will start cheating if they don’t believe in free will any more, but this may simply be a temporary confusion at some level of the brain. They probably wont spend the rest of their lives manipulating people, because of their new-found belief.

  7. I just stumbled on this blog. I’m a religious reactionary who hates modern culture and also had the misfortune of having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I explained the connection between religion and evolution here:


    The link between religion and cooperation depends on sexual morality since cooperation can’t be sustained without sexual morality. If men are competing for women, they will not cooperate.

    One point I didn’t mention in my article above is that a strong patriarchal god fills the role of the virtual alpha-male of a society, so such a god can provide stable values for a society for a long time. (Machiavelli makes much the same point in “Discourses on Livy”.)

    • you don’t understand evolution. I am not trying to be insulting, but your blog shows that you do not understand the theory. Also, cooperation, in terms of evolution, only lasts over generations if the cooperation is a form of competition, with losers and “winners”.

      As an example: At the level of genes, female bonobos bond with other females in order to position themselves higher in a hierarchy, which gives them higher dibs on better mates. If you read my comment above, you will see that religious cooperation is a highly selfish form of child manipulation, from the gene’s eye view of evolution.

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