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Does religion make us better?

A large research consortium explores the links between religious beliefs and morality.

Photography by Angus Fergusson.

Joe Henrich leads a research team that has been visiting a remote village in Fiji to run a deceptively simple game. Study subjects are given two cups and a pile of coins and are asked to allocate money to one cup meant for their own community and to another cup meant for another village, based on rolls of dice.

Dr. Henrich, a professor of psychology and economics at the University of British Columbia with a background in anthropology, and his team already have an idea how many coins are likely to appear in each cup, based on information gathered during interviews about local beliefs. “We’ve found in previous studies that groups whose religious beliefs include gods that are capable of punishing them are less likely to cheat,” he says.

Dr. Henrich will run progressively more complex versions of the game with his subjects, in conjunction with interviews. He’ll later correlate his results with those collected in nine other remote communities around the world – tiny villages in countries such as Tanzania and the Congo. His final results should offer some precise insights into the ways religion impacts people’s choices and the way they tend to treat strangers versus friends.

That data, in turn, will provide key pieces of evidence for the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium, or CERC, one of the largest interdisciplinary research projects devoted to religion ever undertaken. The project is funded primarily by a six-year, $3-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that was awarded last spring to a group of professors from the Centre for Human Evolution, Culture and Cognition, a collaborative venture between UBC and Simon Fraser University.

CERC will bring together the work of dozens of Canadian and international researchers in the social sciences and humanities who, like Dr. Henrich, study, analyze and document religions of the past and present from around the world. Over its six-year timespan, the project aims to gain a better understanding of what religion is, how it is linked to morality, and why it plays such a ubiquitous role in human existence.

When people get along, they can start living in larger groups – without stealing from, hurting or killing those outside their circle of close family and friends – and build cities and civilizations. Academics have long theorized that moralistic religions (where the gods can see you, wherever you are, and would like you to behave) play an important part in this, enabling humans to work together and prosper.

According to the project’s website, despite religion’s omnipresence and centrality to human affairs, it remains, from an academic viewpoint, one of the least studied and most poorly understood aspects of human behavior. “In the past, people have done big, sweeping historical cross-cultural projects. But they tended to generalize, and they were doing it all on their own,” says Edward Slingerland, principal investigator of the project and a professor of Asian studies at UBC. “The difference [here] is we’re doing it with a network of experts who are bringing a range of expertise and materials, and we’re putting it all together like a big puzzle.”

Using a range of research techniques, the researchers hope to answer some of the inherently illogical phenomena religions bring about. For instance, ancient societies that struggled to feed and clothe their people often spent a great deal of seemingly unproductive time on devotional acts such as sacrificial rituals and creating elaborate religious art – yet these cultures often outlived those that were not religious. “Why did this behaviour get off the ground and survive? You’d expect humans who didn’t do this kind of thing would outperform those that did,” says Dr. Slingerland.

By the end of the project, the group hopes to have created a compendium of articles, books and a database of evidence that speaks to its main question about the links between religions and morality. The researchers will also investigate sub-themes such as why moralistic religions tend to thrive, people’s views on atheism, the role of rituals, extremism and violence between groups, how secular societies rise and fall, and how natural disasters impact religion.

The research will employ techniques such as surveys, field studies and text coding. (To fund on-the-ground projects such as Dr. Henrich’s multi-site project, CERC recently won an $800,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation.) The researchers involved come from psychology, anthropology, history, religious studies and other disciplines. Social scientists will be driving key aspects of the project with their systematic techniques, but humanities experts will play a pivotal role in offering experience with texts and looking at the “big picture,” says Dr. Slingerland.

Back in 2006, when the Mahoney & Sons pub opened on the UBC campus, Dr. Slingerland started meeting there over beers on Friday nights with pals Mark Collard, of the archeology department at SFU, and Dr. Henrich and his colleague Ara Norenzayan. Dr. Slingerland says they’d tell their spouses, “I have a centre meeting.”

These social chats often veered into professional territory and the struggles the colleagues were all facing trying to define the role that religion plays in their research. “So we came up with this idea to study it more systemically and show just how little we know about this topic of how religion influences us,” says Dr. Norenzayan, a social psychologist at UBC.

At the pub, the four came up with the idea for the UBC-SFU Centre for Human Evolution, Culture and Cognition, which was launched in 2007 and had its first conference in the fall of 2008 on the topic of true interdisciplinary studies. Drs. Slingerland and Collard put out a book inspired by the conversations there, called Creating Consilience: Integrating Science and the Humanities.

The Friday night conversations then turned to the idea of a larger research project that would integrate it all. Dr. Slingerland agreed to take the lead on what would become CERC. The project’s funding got turned down the first time around, but after the money came through this past spring, participants held their first meeting in May in Vancouver. Some 70 researchers from UBC, SFU and the universities of Calgary, McGill, Toronto, Washington State, Stanford, Aarhus, Oxford and Tokyo have signed on.

This is all very new for religious studies, says Dr. Slingerland. The field has its roots in theology, one of the oldest academic fields that dates back to ancient times. But while theologians seek to understand the depths of their own particular religion – often as training for becoming a religious leader – religious studies developed in the 19th century with an impartial view of how religions of all kinds evolve, function and impact human culture.

However, it was and still is a discipline very much based in the humanities that looks at texts and cultural phenomenon to develop theories and draw conclusions. Under CERC, it will be much more than that. “We’re taking questions and theories that have been around for a while and focusing in on ways that they can be empirically tested,” says Dr. Slingerland.

With CERC only a few months old, many tie-in projects are still in the early stages. Dr. Henrich is currently finalizing the design of his multi-site study with the help of colleague Dr. Norenzayan. For his part, Dr. Norenzayan has run variations on the so-called dictator game – where one person divvies up cash with a stranger – to see whether prompting the person with religious words impacts the outcome. (It did: subjects allocated more money to strangers when they’d been “primed” beforehand through an exercise in which they had to unscramble sentences that contained words such as “god,” “sacred” and “divine.”)

In other research, Dr. Norenzayan surveyed Palestinian Muslims and Jewish Israeli settlers and found that those who regularly attended religious services – but not those who were the most devout spiritually – were the most likely to be in favour of hostility towards their enemies. His explanation: solidarity has many virtues, but it can easily turn to hostility towards those outside the community. Dr. Norenzayan is also interested in how people lose faith and how secular institutions like the legal system can replace religion to build social cohesion.

SFU’s Dr. Collard, meanwhile, is trumpeting the work of his postdoctoral student, Jessica Munson. She’s doing a study that tracks bloodletting rituals among ancient Mayan kings and queens, and has already shown that these bloody rituals increase during times of war. She is now going through databases of Mayan writings electronically to more fully track these costly religious displays. “No one has demonstrated systematically how widespread this practice was and who was doing it,” says Dr. Munson, who has partnered with a linguistics and Native American studies professor at the University of California Davis to cull the data.

Another researcher involved in CERC is Richard Sosis, a professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut. In past studies, he has analyzed texts from 19th-century U.S. communes and found that religious groups often thrived over secular ones. Many of these communes imposed obligations, such as making people give up their belongings or abstain from sex. “It would show that someone was devoted to the ideals of the commune and would be less likely to be a free-rider on the system, and that would keep the community afloat.” Looking ahead, Dr. Sosis wants to see how religions and rituals change with economic fluctuations.

UBC Asian studies professor Anne Murphy, an expert on Sikhism, has proposed a project looking at the practice of seva, or selfless service. For his part, Dr. Slingerland will be looking at monographs from ancient China to understand whether subjects were mind-body dualists – seeing their minds as separate from their bodies – and how that played into their beliefs. On a more general level, he would also like to start liaising with government leaders to have a conversation about religion and its role in politics and beyond.

“Policy makers tend to see the world through a secular lens,” says Dr. Slingerland. “But religion is front and centre in a lot of human conflicts, and it’s not going away.” He argues that even secular societies like our own are underpinned by leftover religious morals, but our institutions don’t operate with an understanding of how religious devotion works and how many people feel truly committed to their belief systems.

The researchers, meanwhile, feel that their work is sometimes misunderstood by the public and in academia. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re not trying to prove or disprove anything,” such as the existence of certain gods or the merit of particular religions, says Dr. Sosis.

They are also frequently quizzed about their own belief systems. “I always get asked that question,” says Dr. Norenzayan. “I think whether or not you believe is the least interesting question about religion.” He says good researchers simply bracket their beliefs and get to work.

Dr. Slingerland finds many religious studies researchers are, in fact, quite religious. But he says he doesn’t understand how their faith endures after they’ve done their historical research: “When you see how the sausages are made…” he says.

Dr. Slingerland’s work has not been without controversy. A 2008 article of his, “Who’s afraid of reductionism?” in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, triggered angry responses that condemned academics for taking the often magical and emotional topic of beliefs and boiling it down to science. “There is a very good reason for rejecting reductionism for its meaninglessness and viciousness,” one article claimed in response. Feedback from a SSHRC panel included concerns that the CERC project was not taking into account the lived experience of being religious. “I don’t understand the argument, but it’s a common one,” says Dr. Slingerland.

Inside the ranks, some humanities researchers also have quibbles with the project’s central questions and research approaches. Dr. Murphy, the Asian-studies professor at UBC, is concerned that Dr. Slingerland and his colleagues are oversimplifying and are blending the concept of god or gods with concerns about the afterlife – ideas she thinks can be quite separate, particularly in Eastern religions. “I want to talk about religions and not only talk about god,” she says.

In 2015, the CERC researchers will get together in Montreal to start putting some data on the table and see how far the project has come in answering substantial questions about faith, morality, civilization and cooperation. What they discover may not change the world, but it may just show how what we believe has already done so.

Diane Peters writes frequently about law and society. Her most recent full-length feature for University Affairs was a profile of law professor Constance Backhouse.

Diane Peters
Diane Peters is a Toronto-based writer and editor.
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  1. V. Ismet Ugursal / November 13, 2013 at 16:37

    Religions were invented for the purpose of controlling the naïve, i.e. the vast majority. Every religion makes use of two primary tools: the fear of its god (of course the only true one) and the indisputable argument that it knows exactly what that god wants. Consequently, the enforcers of every religion are by definition bestowed with the power to make decisions on god’s behalf, and providing or denying access to god as they see fit.

    Every religion claims its way is the only correct way to the only true god, and by definition all others are wrong and bogus. Every religion’s enforcers make sure the followers are prepared and do fight for their version of what is right. The objective is always the same: to expand the enforcers’ control. More control is more power, the primary aphrodisiac. It is no surprise that throughout history including the present day, religions caused division, hatred, distrust, wars and atrocities – all in the name of god. It is also no surprise that when individuals achieve intellectual and spiritual maturity, they dispense with religion recognizing the fallacy of religious enforcers’ claim on the inner track to god, and find their own way – some to God, some to the absence of god.

    Now, that didn’t require $3 million, did it?

  2. tynome / November 14, 2013 at 14:35

    Does religion make us better? I think that this is the best joke I have read in a long time.

  3. Gabriel George / November 22, 2013 at 14:29

    Religion is undoubtedly the main source of hatred and bigotry in the world. If religion makes us better, then why do secular societies thrive over religious ones?

    “Nations ranked according to the human development index which measures factors such as life expectancy, literacy rates, and educational attainment, the top 5 ranked countries are all secular–Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. The bottom 50 countries are all intensely religious. The nations with the highest homicide rates tend to be more religious; those with the greatest levels of gender equality are the least religious.”

    – Greg Graffin

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