Why do religious beliefs vary so broadly? I’m not talking here about the near-cosmic diversity in the content of religious belief, number and identity of deities, or types of practice. Rather, I’d like to consider why some individuals seem fervently devout while others seem devoid of any superstition.
This question informs the bigger issues of how religions arise and spread, wax and wane, and what effects they have on contemporary society. One popular idea holds that religious belief enhances trust and cooperation within societies. Congregations often take an interest in the welfare of their members, and of others outside the flock. And religious texts contain injunctions in favour of neighbourly love and against homicide, theft and greed.
For many, belief in an all-seeing deity acts to deter bad behaviour. Many genuinely struggle to understand how atheists might be “good without gods”. I wrote last year about a study showing that being reminded of secular police presence can erode much of the mistrust the devoutly religious feel against atheists. When the cops are on the job, believers lighten up.
If the chief function of religion is to establish and enforce cooperative behaviour, then perhaps religions flourished by building healthy, cooperative and fair societies? These societies, in turn, succeeded commercially and in competition with their neighbours. Leaving those neighbouring societies to adopt the successful religion or something similar, or to wither and succumb.
As prominent Evolutionary Psychologist and co-author of a new study (more on that later), Robert Kurzban writes:
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.
But scholars differ on the importance of cooperation. Where some studies support a link between religiosity and cooperative morality, many others fail to find such links. Perhaps other functions of religion act in equally, or more important ways?
Perhaps religion flourishes by influencing reproduction? Religious teachings often concern themselves – sometimes creepily so – with matters of sex, reproduction, parenting and family life. One need only keep half an eye on the U.S. Republican Party to see what I mean by ‘creepy’. But were aren’t immune to reproduction-fixated politicians here, are we Reverend Nile?
Perhaps religion functions to enhance reproductive success? The Abrahamic religions and some animistic African practises, for example, obsess about the certainty with which a father can know that the children his wives bear also inherit his DNA.
Religious doctrine about marriage, contraception, fertility and gender roles might serve to support parents, or at least to enhance fertility. Since the dawn of agriculture, which also spurred the rise of major religions, families and societies that have grown fast have tended to supplant their slower-growing neighbours. Religious practices that supported their flock to ‘go forth and multiply’ would have outpaced their less reproductively-obsessed competitors.
In 2008, Jason Weeden, Adam B. Cohen and Douglas Kenrick suggested that religious attendance in the U.S.A. is a form of reproductive support. In a sample of over 20,000 people, religious attendance trumped other moral issues, as well as well-known demographic correlates such as age and gender, as predictors of religiosity. They suggested that individual commitment to investing in having and raising children (as opposed to enjoying a freer and more varied sex life and family arrangements) spurs greater in religious attendance. And attendance promotes marriage, monogamy and high investment in child rearing on believers.
The U.S.A. is only one country, however, and a rather odd one at that. Two recent international studies have extended tests of the links between religion, cooperative morality and reproductive morality to much larger and more diverse samples of people.
First, in 2011, Quentin Atkinson and Pierrick Bourrat showed that00089-9/abstract) cooperative morals such as ‘Avoiding a fare on public transport’, ‘Cheating on taxes if you have a chance’ or ‘Married men/women having an affair’ correlated with religious devotion in a sample of over 200,000 adults from 87 countries (from the immense ‘World Values Survey’ database).
They found that:
- Those who believed in deities were less likely to rate moral transgressions as justifiable than non-believers.
- Those who believed in heaven / hell also held stronger beliefs about the unjustifiability of moral transgressions.
- Believers in a personal God rated moral transgressions as less justifiable than those whose belief centred on a deity as a Spirit or Life Force.
They interpreted this finding as support for the idea that religions enhance cooperation by imposing an idea of ‘supernatural monitoring’ and ‘fear of supernatural punishment’.
The brand-new paper, by Jason Weeden (again) and Kurzban used the same World Values Survey data, but split the moral transgressions into those that concerned cooperation (e.g., fare evasion, tax evasion, receiving stolen goods) and those that concerned sex and reproduction (e.g. affairs, abortion, contraception, premarital sex).
How subjects answered questions about transgressing cooperative morals still correlated with religiosity, but the correlation between religiosity and ‘reproductive morals’ was about four times as strong and far more consistent across countries. But tellingly, when both cooperative and reproductive attitudes were put into the same statistical model, the effect of the cooperative attitudes disappeared while the effect of reproductive attitudes remained intact. It seems that the forms of morality most directly related to religiosity concern reproduction rather than cooperation.
So, belief in all-knowing deities with the power to condemn you to hell seems to shape people’s attitudes to abortion and extra-marital activity. But it doesn’t make you less likely to fiddle your taxes or drive when you’ve had a drink too many.
This study adds to the emerging picture that religious institutions, practices and doctrines take their shape from human nature. That makes it no concidence that young people often stray from the flock during periods of sexual experimentation and promiscuity, and that many return when they start families. Savvy pastoralists know this, providing creches, mothers’ groups and Sunday schools, making it easy for young families to attend services.
And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that theocrats so often bang a ‘Family First’ drum.
Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.