Post No.: 0477
Is religion an effective mechanism for encouraging more moral and pro-social behaviours and for enforcing compliance with the social rules or norms within a group?
Cooperation is the cornerstone for group cohesion and harmony. Within a small group where everybody knows each other by name directly, everybody would know anybody who commits a violation – the news would spread fast and so everybody has to be extra careful with his/her own behaviour to ensure a good reputation. Humans thus evolved to be highly sensitive and protective about their own reputations and highly attuned to recognising normative violations in others.
But within a group of above very roughly 150 people (‘Dunbar’s number’, which was also mentioned in Post No.: 0203), it becomes impractical to keep track of everybody’s reputations and so some people will essentially exist as anonymous strangers to each other who can violate norms whilst avoiding much of the reputational costs of doing so. Under the protection of anonymity, individuals are more likely to cheat and free-ride on the rest of the group, more likely to contribute less and take more, as people pursue their own individual interests. And without an explicit solution to this problem, groups that size or larger in the past simply couldn’t function – they would’ve either split into smaller hunter-gatherer tribes or collapsed altogether.
A solution that therefore culturally evolved was religious institutions. (Secular law enforcement, civil partnerships, etc., evolved some time later.) They arguably explain how people started to be able to live in groups of much larger than 150 people. Agriculture alone wasn’t enough.
And a major way they may promote ingroup cohesion and harmony despite the inborn limitations of the human species is via ‘supernatural deterrence’ – the threat of supernatural punishment influences behaviours. Even painting pictures of saints or gods onto walls can discourage people from urinating on them! Under the gaze or believed gaze of supernatural omniscient watchers, no one can hide their misdeeds or sins. Woof!
When people are reminded of the risk of supernatural punishment – in this life or the next – they’re less likely to violate cultural norms. Primed with the idea that ‘God is watching you’ or religious words, people become more equitable when playing the dictator game, even if their decision is made anonymously to other people i.e. even when there are no human-based reputational costs if they decided to behave less equitably. Primed with god-based reputational risks (e.g. places of worship, holy imagery or monuments, auditory calls to prayer, holy days), more people become cooperative, they’re less likely to cheat and they become more charitable and willing to volunteer – things that would be to the benefit of the overall group, even if it could be costly to the individual.
Religious and non-religious people are, on average, equally as charitable as each other, but introduce a salient religious prime and people – even some of those who consider themselves as non-religious – temporarily become more charitable; and of course religious people are exposed to more religious primes. The same with the consumption of pornography, where this consumption temporarily decreases when people are faced with a salient religious prime.
So even some of those who don’t consider themselves as religious will be affected by such primes. This might reveal that these people hold stronger religious beliefs than they consciously think, which might perhaps be in part due to their upbringing (e.g. recognising Jesus on a cross and understanding what this represents but not Shiva holding a trishula, and therefore being affected by the former as a prime but not the latter). Religions involve a lot of primes regarding morality, but one needs to dispositionally believe in the religion in the first place before those primes work on oneself – this is a ‘disposition by situation interaction’, as in the situation affects behaviours but one’s initial disposition matters too. So if someone doesn’t believe in a religion’s punishing god in the first place, then that religion’s moral primes (e.g. images of its religious figures) won’t work on them. Other methods of persuasion might work though i.e. secular methods might instil these morals in them instead.
Now regular attendance to religious congregations, or religious belongingness, is more influential for increasing neighbourliness and charitable giving than mere religious believing, but it’s also more influential for increasing one’s level of support for suicide attacks within religious sub-groups that are okay with such methods too. So, like belonging to any kind of tight group, there are advantages (e.g. for one’s well-being) as well as risks (e.g. reinforcing and gradually making more extreme certain views because of the echo chamber effect).
The threat of supernatural punishment is by far more effective than the enticement of supernatural reward – so priming a relatively vengeful and punishing, rather than a benevolent and forgiving, god in people’s minds is most effective to get them to obey a religion’s moral or ethical norms and increase cooperation. It also spreads trust because if you know that other people – even strangers – are worried about being supernaturally punished for cheating, violating norms or free-riding too, then you can believe that they’ll feel similarly deterred, and this reciprocation will reinforce that trustworthiness and cohesion in a society. This helps explain why supernatural punishment and morally-dependent afterlives are recurrent features of religions throughout time and place. Not all religions have or emphasise such features but those that did gave their groups a competitive advantage in the form of a more stable, cooperative, productive and prosperous populace. Fear is very emotionally persuasive!
Big, omnipresent and omnipotent gods generally come after societies grow large, to help keep large societies in line and in harmony – you don’t need big gods to make a large society but you need moralising ones that enforce social norms; at least until secular institutions and laws (and perhaps omnipresent technologies that watch, listen to and record everything we do?!) can take over the enforcement duties. (Criminals exploit anonymity yet innocent people should have their privacy protected – but enforcement won’t know who are criminal or innocent until they look. And that’s the dilemma of surveillance, at least in the context of secular government law enforcement as opposed to corporate profit maximisation. The dilemma for the latter is whether consumers, with clear understanding and consent, believe that their personal data is a fair trade for the services they receive?) The harshness and uncertainty of a particular environment also tends to correspond with the belief in severe moralising gods, possibly because it promotes the cooperation and cohesion necessary to survive in these tough places or because it is an effect of living in such environments?
Beliefs in gods, heaven, hell and karma can also bring people internal solace and deter feelings of personal revenge or resentment. Even though people evidently don’t always get what they deserve in this life – perhaps karma will be served in their next life? If afterlives punished the bad and rewarded the good or unfortunate then there’s no need for one to personally intervene with vengeance against another party, and possibly make matters worse within one’s group, fragment one’s group and thus make one’s own group weaker in the context of inter-group competition. Yet one can nonetheless feel there is justice being served in this otherwise unjust and unfair universe. Therefore beliefs in afterlives can possibly psychologically help us to more easily let go of both the people we loved (who we believe went to heaven) and the people we detested (who we believe went to hell).
Woof. So when what’s happened cannot be changed, leave it in the hands of God.