Ara Norenzayan: Religion and Prosociality

11 Apr

This is a lecture given by Ara Norenzayan describing some of his findings about the sociology behind religious beliefs.

Some of the things he touches on briefly in his lecture (which he said he goes into more depth in his book Big Gods):

Whether religions are the result of a cognitive byproduct model or an evolutionary/sociological adaptation/benefit model. The cognitive byproduct model I first read about in Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, though psychologists and sociologists are coming more in line with the evolutionary adaptation model of religion (though the two aren’t necessarily in opposition). The adaptation model of religions is where religion isn’t a fluke of human cognition, but was specifically selected for by evolution. Or rather and more simply, that religious people had more reproductive success than the “non-religious” (whatever that would mean in the Pleistocene). And, it wasn’t just any old religion; it had to be a religion that promoted prosociality.

As an example of a successful religion vs. an unsuccessful religion, Norenzayan compares the Mormon church with the Oneida Perfectionists, who both started around the same time in the same location in the US. Mormonism had a growth rate of about 40% per decade (about the same rate as original Christianity), while the Oneida perfectionists only lasted about 30 years before disbanding; the remnants went on to become a silverware company.

Norenzayan then lists some reasons for why religions become successful:

  • moralizing god spread over increasing individualism to combat the observation that proximity + diversity = war
  • extravagant displays or synchronous behaviors/rituals
  • inculcate self control
  • moral realism: Our morality is the true morality
  • high fertility rates

Norenzayan also mentions that the more abstract ones conception of god is, the less they think said god cares about morality and/or punishes bad behavior. So someone who believes in a completely abstract “ground of being” god more than likely also believes that this god doesn’t care too much about morality. Whereas someone who believes in a god that cares a great deal about morality simultaneously believes that said god is also much more anthropomorphic. At one end of the spectrum is the god of the philosophers/Sophisticated TheologiansTM, at the other is the god of fundamentalists.

Other points:

* Small foraging societies typically don’t have moralizing gods. Big societies generally have moralizing gods. Causal or correlational?

* Economic games and small/big religions: Big religions, that is, the world religions, show more cooperative behavior in economic games. Small religions are more selfish. Again, causal or correlational?

* Belief in god in and of itself doesn’t correlate with any behavior in monetary generosity (belief in god per se doesn’t lead to moral behavior; you need to go to church to reap the benefits! And you get those same benefits being an atheist in church). Though in the context that Norenzayan was mentioning this fact, it was in the context of religious priming. Just declaring theism didn’t make someone more cooperative, but religious priming does. On the other hand, being non-religious makes you sort of impervious to religious priming; though secular priming has the same cooperative effect on the non-religious.

* Prosocial behavior correlates with a belief in a punishing god. Belief in a forgiving god correlates with cheating. Same for hell/heaven belief, respectively (though belief in hell seems to make people less happy).

* Religions are also correlated with extreme rituals for possibly belief in belief (i.e. costly signaling) reasons.

* Religious communes last longer than secular communes; religious ones are more strict. Again… causal or correlational?

* The more that the state/secular institutions provide the things that religion usually provides, the less religious that society. I’ve also read about similar things.

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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in cognitive science, economics/sociology, religiosity


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