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Religion as a subtle mechanism for cooperation


Here’s a great episode of the podcast Hidden Brain: Creating God.

I don’t really take at face value all the ideas presented there. I haven’t read the papers yet, but some of the theories do sound like having a fair amount of survivorship bias – I’d guess they’re likely stretching some of their claimsSocial science is really hard. Many definitive experiments are simply impossible to set up (as we cannot go back in history). So we often need to rely on observational studies (with all their limitations).


Some parts of the episode do seem worth highlighting and thinking deeper. Religion is obviously a key piece in the puzzle that is our reality! It has been playing such a central role in our society across centuries.

Their discussion may help us reflect on many relevant questions: What is the job of religion? Why has it worked so well? Are there alternatives (and competition)? What has been changing? What is invariant?

The key excerpts from their conversation are as follows:

This should be an informative one. Let’s go!

Religion as a cultural innovation that has helped larger groups

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

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

And the reason for that is because, from a genetic standpoint, we’re only built to be able to cooperate with as many people as we can know well. So, when you start having anonymous strangers in groups, when you start having people whose reputation you’re 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 can’t 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 a hundred, 150 people to a thousand, 10,000 people. And 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 host, adds:

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


My main homework here is to learn what are the actual shreds of evidences of breakdowns when ancient groups become larger than 150.

Costly signaling supposedly prevents cheaters

Later on the conversation, Shankar Vedantam provokes:

One of the challenges, of course, is that, if I’m 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, there [also] 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 answers:

So 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.

So, 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 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 mention 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”

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

Functional opacity hides our own motives from ourselves?

Then, Shankar Vedantam goes on exploring 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’s 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. […] It gives her 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’s 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 sort of the effect this has at a group level. So 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’m doing is a costly signal to other members of my religion. They’re saying, I’m just a devout person, my religion calls on me to do this thing, and that’s why I’m doing it.

So there’s 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.

There’s something we can call functional opacity. That 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 the reason they’re doing it for.

They’re 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. And so they’re 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.

Is humankind really unknowingly engaged in such massive collective delusion?

If so, is the collective delusion simply accidental? That is to say, a very convenient and useful accident at the societal scale that emerged from the faith of individuals in something more powerful than themselves?

Or is the collective delusion actually necessary for society to function properly? In other words, we (believers) need to be deceived as individuals, otherwise, the whole schema wouldn’t be as effective? If so, was the potential collective delusion intentionally baked into religion by some sort of mastermind?

The fact that there is this conflict between what the theory profess and what individuals think they are engaged with sounds to me as an evidence to the argument of an “accident”. But I need to dive deeper into this to have a more informed opinion.

The power of synchrony

The episode then goes through some interesting research about rituals.

Shankar Vedantam:

I came by two interesting studies recently. One of them by Nicholas Hobson, he found along with other colleagues that novel rituals, even when they are completely meaningless, you ask for a group of people to perform a novel ritual, it has the power to increase trust among fellow members who are performing this novel ritual.

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.

He’s probably talking about the following papers:

Azim Shariff:

Yeah, so one of the leaders in this type of extreme ritual research is this anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas, who has done this really interesting research on fire-walkers. And what you find is that: when you have observers watching people undergoing these rituals, their actual heartbeats synchronize with the people engaging in the rituals, and the more you have this synchronization, the more people feel like they are part of a group.

And so you’d 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 we have, 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.

So another example is this work on what is called synchrony – which is engaging in actions at the same pace in the same rhythm of others. You have this in terms of hymn singing, but you also have this in terms of marching, that is often used in military drills, for the same the reason. When you’re engaging in an action in rhythm with somebody else, that creates the psychological connection that makes people feel fused as a group.

I found the following papers by Dimitris Xygalatas that may be of interest:

Hinduism scholar Shubha Pathak then comments:

Often a text or a chant, a mantra, will start with the syllable om. And I think the reason why that is: not only does it have the significance of standing for a particular god in his totality or her totality, but you have this column of sound that gives you a sense of vastness. I think it’s sort of similar to what happens when you have two singers singing at the exact same frequency. You start to have these beats in the room. With om, it creates something around you, I think, that makes you feel like you’re part of something.

This whole idea rings as intuitively true. Most people surely got goosebumps when watching the concert of their favorite band or shouting in support of their national team along thousands of other spectators.

I am not so sure about the specifics, but again – read the damn papers!

War and religion

Moving on to the next theme, Anthropologist Scott Atran says:

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. And it’s 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. That means values which are immune to tradeoffs. For example, you would not trade your children or your religion, probably, 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’re also oblivious to quantity. It doesn’t matter if I kill one or I attract one or a thousand or no one as long as my intention is good and righteous. And once you lock into these values, they’re immune to social pressures. They’re 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. And they will fight and die not just for that group but for every single individual in that group. And 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’re going to 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. And so 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 adaptive - culturally adaptive way.

Other institutions that might compete with religion

Shankar Vedantam:

When I think about what will cause people to fight and die, you now 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 know, it - 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:

So, yes, I think so. So in terms of these other isms that people are willing to fight and die for, it’s important to know that the idea of sacred values extends beyond just religious values. There are non-religious things that we sacralize. So as soon as you sacralize something, it allows people to fight and die for it, right? So 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.

(Tasting) food for thought!

If we are to believe them, what is the job of religion in our current secular western societies?

If it is less needed for purposes of the collective, how does it play out then? Are the perceived individual reasons enough? What else is in there?

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