Field of Science

Can Religion Explain Prosociality and Can Science Explain Religion?

Today, a philosophical diversion on the evolution of religion. Specifically I was thinking about the metaphorical evolution of religion and the Darwinian evolution of the human mind with a predisposition to the mystical. I was reminded about this topic and a Science article from some time ago when I saw a review for The Evolution of God a new book by Robert Right. My thesis on the topic is that as long as religion infers a survival advantage upon a group then evolution will select individuals whose minds are wired to be religious; or as society changes rapidly religion itself will evolve in a cultural respect. In this recent NYRB article Can Science Explain Religion? Allen Orr reviews Right's book with positive and critical remarks, an excerpt:
 In The Evolution of God, he [Right] both surveys the history of religion and, more important, offers a new theory to explain why this history unfolded as it did.

According to Wright's theory, although religion may seem otherworldly—a realm of revelation and spirituality—its history has, like that of much else, been driven by mundane "facts on the ground." Religion, that is, changes through time primarily because it responds to changing circumstances in the real world: economics, politics, and war. Wright thus offers what he emphasizes is a materialist account of religion. As he further emphasizes, the ways in which religion responds to the world make sense. Like organisms, religions respond adaptively to the world.

More formally, Wright argues that religious responses to reality are generally explained by game theory and evolutionary psychology, the subjects of his previous books. Subtle aspects of the human mind, he claims, were shaped by Darwinian natural selection to allow us to recognize and take advantage of certain social situations. The most important of these—and the centerpiece of Wright's theory—are what game theorists call non-zero-sum interactions. Unlike zero-sum games, wherein one player's gain is another player's loss, in some games both players can win; hence "non-zero-sum." The classic example is economic trade. In a free market, trade occurs when both parties benefit from exchange (otherwise they wouldn't engage in it).
Again, this theory doesn't seem new at all. It is, to my perspective, obvious that religion co-evolved with early humans precisely because religious tendencies in a society inferred an evolutionary advantage upon the group. Wright's basic theory is that due to historical circumstance the optimal strategy suggested by game theory has moved religion towards tolerance and conciliation. Religion changed its fundamental tenants throughout history in order that it would continue to instill advantages on its society. So, then this leads to the question, does religion and the church as an institution encourage prosociality or is it a self-serving system?
The Good Samaritan Jacopo Bassano
The Good Samaritan [painting by Jacopo Bassano, d. 1592, copyright 2006, The National Gallery, London]
Modern society has developed into a complex system in which people must work together. A cynical perspective is that people work together only in exchange for money or services with the ultimate goal of only helping themselves. There is nothing altruistic about the interactions. Yet, altruism is rampant. Another person helping another person with no aim other than to help can be described as a prosocial act. Prosociallity is defined as the quality of being beneficial to all parties and consistent with community laws and norms. Psychologists and evolutionary psychologists are seeking the answers as to why people engage in prosocial behavior, even at a cost to themselves in certain cases. Norenzayan and Shariff explain the issue in The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality (Science 2008, a link to the article on the Science website is here. The Science link to the article will not be available to those who do not have a Science subscription. You would expect that an article about prosociality would be available to all in line with its prosocial topic, but that's situational irony for you. The direct link to the PDF posted above was from the author's web page and it may not be stable). The article abstract:
We examine empirical evidence for religious prosociality, the hypothesis that religions facilitate costly behaviors that benefit other people. Although sociological surveys reveal an association between self-reports of religiosity and prosociality, experiments measuring religiosity and actual prosocial behavior suggest that this association emerges primarily in contexts where reputational concerns are heightened. Experimentally induced religious thoughts reduce rates of cheating and increase altruistic behavior among anonymous strangers. Experiments demonstrate an association between apparent profession of religious devotion and greater trust. Cross-cultural evidence suggests an association between the cultural presence of morally concerned deities and large group size in humans. We synthesize converging evidence from various fields for religious prosociality, address its specific boundary conditions, and point to unresolved questions and novel predictions.
The authors run various experiments to determine in what situations people exhibit prosocial behavior. For example they ask when the average person would stop to help someone fallen on the sidewalk. Would a religious individual be more inclined to help that same fallen person, just as in the bible parable the good Samaritan? In the authors own words:
In several behavioral studies, researchers failed to find any reliable association between religiosity and prosocial tendencies. In the classic “Good Samaritan” experiment (22), for example, researchers staged an anonymous situation modeled after the Biblical parable—a man was lying on a sidewalk appearing to be sick and in need of assistance (Fig. 1, image above). Participants varying in religiousness were led to pass by this victim (actually a research confederate) on their way to complete their participation in a study. Unobtrusively recorded offers of help showed no relation with religiosity in this anonymous context (22). Only a situational variable whether participants were told to rush or take their time—produced differences in helping rates. Other behavioral studies, however, have found reliable associations between religiosity and prosociality, but under limited conditions. In one study (23), researchers compared levels of cooperation and coordination between secular and religious kibbutzim in Israel. In this economic game, two members of the same kibbutz who remained anonymous to each other were given access to an envelope with a certain amount of money. Each participant simultaneously decided how much money to withdraw from the envelope and keep. Players only kept the money they requested if the sum of the requests did not exceed the total amount in the envelope. If it did, the players received nothing. The results showed that, controlling for relevant predictors, systematically less money was withdrawn in the religious kibbutzim than in the secular ones (23).
In the conclusion the authors of this study on prosicoalty find evidence that prosociality is a bounded phenomenon. It more likely to be exhibited in situations where it helps in maintaining a favorable social reputation within the ingroup. It seems that evolution has enforced this self-serving ingroup behavior in some cases and evolution has also enforced purely altruistic behavior in other cases. The human mind certainly doesn't evolve on human time scales so it is up to religious groups to evolve their beliefs. Hopefully religious groups can continue to move towards tolerance, but in the meanwhile atheists will wonder why we need religion to move forward at all.

Norenzayan A, & Shariff AF (2008). The origin and evolution of religious prosociality. Science (New York, N.Y.), 322 (5898), 58-62 PMID: 18832637


  1. Sound review, thank you! You might be interested in the Evolutionary Religious Study website, which is featuring a network of scholars, data and studies (including the one you reviewed) on the topic.

    Best wishes!

  2. Ugh, evolutionary psychology. Biggest load of tripe since, well, tripe.

    Might want to give this a look:

  3. Anonymous your point is well taken. From that link, 'Evolutionary psychology is at its worst (but most entertaining) when they create these imaginative after-the-fact "just so stories," making unfalsifiable claims that are not based on the data collected.' Which may be true and thus this is a diversion for me and not my science, however, there are certainly intelligent people in the field discovering valid points about human nature.

  4. These are the conversations that I miss.


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