Meeting 4.6 – Evolution of Religious Practice

The group met on 21 April to talk about the evolution of religious practice.

In applying evolutionary theory, it’s important to start with a few methodological questions. Biology looks at inheritance and variation of genes, selected for as genes (and possibly gene assemblages: individuals, populations, lineages). We can ask similar questions in the context of religions. Note that the issue “what is religion?” may be as unanswerable as “what is life?” Our methodology looks at lower-level issues.

Clearly, religious behaviors (including doctrines and practices) undergo inheritance and variation. Units of selection are somewhat problematic, but we can easily measure number of “believers” and persistence of belief – where belief has no stronger connotation than “those who behave thus.” Self-reporting data is easiest to collect, but often a poor proxy for other data, so we must be careful.

It is possible for us to bracket questions of ontological reality (e.g., Do supernatural entities exist? Are there objective morals?) and ask how natural selection acts on human behaviors related to religion. The controversial step (as often in theology as in evolutionary biology) comes when you step from hypothetical selection (X would lead to Y) to historical statements (Y was caused by X) and explanatory reduction (X is sufficient to explain Y). We can do all three, but it’s important to note when you are doing each as they require different epistemological standards.

What traits might be amenable to analysis?

The group came up with a number of answers, mostly outcomes. Within a religious group, members have measurable: fecundity (number of offspring), life expectancy, prosociality or in-group altruism (see below), education level, and income.  We challenged ourselves to come up with earlier causal factors – such as doctrines or behaviors that affected those outcomes. They included: dogmatic belief, epistemic structures (ways of knowing), entry costs (to join and remain, for example tithing), educational structures and value on education, use or rejection of reproductive technologies, and belief in supernatural policing.

What are some adaptation narratives we might investigate?


Norenzayan, Ara (2013) Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton. pp. 1-12, xiii.

Dr. Norenzayan teaches Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is famous for adaptation narratives related to religion, prosociality, and credibility displays.

What is prosocial?

In evolutionary psychology, the word usually indicates behaviors considered unambiguously positive for the group, often at expense to the individual (a.k.a. in-group altruism). Examples include tithing/paying taxes, policing, and self-restraint (re: tragedy of the commons. In our context, it is important to ask what work the word “positive” does in the definition. If positive is defined as “leading to higher fitness,” then we might as well replace “prosocial” with “adaptive.” But then we cannot be surprised when – or claim to have given new evidence for – prosociality as an adaptation.

Mormonism (CJCLDS) and Christian Science were both founded in the US in the mid 19th century. The former has 10-15M adherents worldwide, the latter ~85K. Can we explain the difference?

How do we use terms like religion, denomination, sect, cult, and church as units? Does our choice of units affect our study?

Norenzayan argues that kin selection and reciprocity allowed the formation of large social groups, transforming human societies from groups of hunter-gathers into civilizations over the last ~12,000 years. Reciprocal altruism requires some form of regularity – always interacting with the same individuals – or signaling – signs of who will cooperate – to work. Reliable signaling can be achieved through costly signaling and punishment of free-riders. But punishment is a costly behavior. If you outsource punishment, who will punish the punishers if they abuse their authority? (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? –Juvenal) Large cooperative groups provide a puzzle and appear to have occurred only once, in humans.

Norenzayan differentiates between big gods, with universal moral concern and small gods (or spirits). The small gods of hunter-gatherer societies are often local and unconcerned with morals. [Note that Norenzayan characterizes the evolution of “religions” as the evolution of supernatural agents from animism to monotheism. This was proposed by Auguste Comte in the early 19th century. We should not take for granted either the sequence of events or the characterization. I think they may be accurate, but I’d like to see more research done.]

THESIS: “Prosocial religions, with their Big Gods who watch, intervene, and demand hard-to-fake loyalty displays, facilitated the rise of cooperation in large groups of anonymous strangers.” p.8

Belief in Big Gods may no longer be necessary, once institutions are in place for policing, leading to the modern secular societies. [But note the successful big secular societies also have high coefficients of relatedness.]

We noted – without reading the entire book – that the correlation between big cultures and big Gods fits well with Auguste Comte’s (early 19th century) idea of a progression of religions – animism to polytheism to monotheism to adherence to impersonal principles.  It fits less well with actual history.  Comte’s progressivism was out of favor in sociology by the mid 20th century. Monotheisms (and henotheism) appear to be older and more common than was previously thought. Animism is a dubious category. Highly civilized cultures with dense populations in India and China have never been monotheistic.  Even in the history of the west, classical cities arise in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean prior to the popularity of Christianity (or Mithraism or the cult of Sol Invictus).  If we connect Big God to Plato, then we’ll have to admit that it is not a moral enforcer…  So, there may be support that Big Gods act to police big cultures, but we can’t say they regularly occur together.

We also noted that Norenzayan cites Emil Durkheim and other Functionalist sociologists, but not their critiques by conflict theorists (e.g., Marx) and Individualists/Interactionists (e.g., Weber), also very successful in sociology. Functionalists (like group selectionists) think that groups are an important unit of selection and the function of phenomenon for the group is the relevant factor in study.  Individualists (like gene selectionists) focus on smaller units of selection and emphasize the utility of individual interactions for that unit – either person or gene.

Norenzayan proposes these rules:

  • Watched people are nice (prosocial) people. There seems to be good evidence for this, but it’s important to ask: how are we using “prosocial”?
  • Religion is more in the situation than the person. This seems, a priori, a preference for functionalism.  Also, how are we using “religion”? Is this not true (if you are a functionalist) for all groups).
  • Hell is stronger than heaven. It seems clear that humans are risk averse. The idea that hell is punishment and heaven reward, but as they are often (perhaps adaptively) presented that way, we’ll let it ride.
  • Trust people who trust in God. Belief in a monitor is a good signal that people will behave as though monitored.
  • Religious actions speak louder than words. This draws on the idea of “costly signalling” in biology.
  • Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods. Group size is a costly display.
  • Big Gods for Big Groups.
  • Religious groups cooperate in order to compete. This appears to be the central claim and we saw it more as a foundational assumption than a conclusion.  If you believe adaptation is the strongest force and that group selection is an important part of that, this will be a logically necessary consequence for all groups, not just religious groups.

We wrapped up by asking

How do we differentiate between features of religions, correlates of religions, and functions of religions?

What makes a trait a function? Being adaptive? Having been adaptive?

This appears to be a major issue for evolutionary biology in general and harder to answer in complex systems like human societies. One of us felt the problem was too complex to be tractable, perhaps because of the presence of supernatural souls. Another felt that the only way to tell if it was tractable was to experiment and see what correlations could be uncovered.

For more discussion see the Spring 2011 discussions at the University of Arizona.


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