The Cultural Evolution of Religion

Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais

in Creating Consilience

Published in print December 2011 | ISBN: 9780199794393
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199919338 | DOI:

Series: New Directions in Cognitive Science

The Cultural Evolution of Religion

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This chapter examines the hypothesis that religions facilitate costly behaviors that benefit others. Although sociological surveys reveal an association between self-reports of religiosity and prosociality, psychological experiments measuring religiosity and actual prosocial behavior suggest that this association is context-specific—it emerges primarily in situations in which reputational concerns are heightened. Experimentally induced religious thoughts reduce rates of cheating and increase generosity among anonymous strangers. There is an association between an apparent profession of religious devotion and greater trusting behavior in economic experiments. When internal or external threats to group survival are high, groups motivated by religion appear to outlast those motivated by secular ideologies. Finally, across cultures, there is an association between the cultural presence of morally concerned deities and large group size in humans, suggesting that moralizing religions might have played a cultural role in buffering large cooperative human societies from collapse due to freeloading. The evidence indicates that religious prosociality is extended under specific conditions only, and might have emerged as a result of a complex but predictable interplay between innate psychological tendencies and cultural evolution.

Keywords: religion; supernatural beliefs; cultural evolution; cooperation; altruism; supernatural monitoring; science and religion

Chapter.  12086 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy

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