Religious Cohesion

Evidence is accumulating that religious rituals and belief, especially in moralistic supernatural observers, together strengthen social cohesion.  From the Economist:

To test whether religion might have emerged as a way of improving group co-operation while reducing the need to keep an eye out for free-riders, Dr Sosis drew on a catalogue of 19th-century American communes. … Dr Sosis found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year. … the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted … But the same did not hold true of secular communes. … Ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community – what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified. …

Dr Sosis has also studied modern secular and religious kibbutzim in Israel. … Within religious communities, men are expected to pray three times daily in groups of at least ten, while women are not. … The researchers’ hypothesis was that in religious kibbutzim men would be better collaborators (and thus would take less) than women, while in secular kibbutzim men and women would take about the same. And that was exactly what happened. …


Of the two groups shown the note, one was told by the experimenter that the student’s ghost had sometimes been seen in the room. The other group was not given this suggestion. … In short, awareness of a ghost – a supernatural agent – made people less likely to cheat. … Dr Wilson himself has studied the relationship between social insecurity and religious fervour, and discovered that, regardless of the religion in question, it is the least secure societies that tend to be most fundamentalist.

Many have suggested over the years that supernatural skeptics should create religious-like rituals to bind themselves together.  Apparently this strategy just does not work – at least not until we can credibly believe in a ritual-approving great friendly AI in the sky … (kidding).  I wonder: could ubiquitous surveillance also build social cohesion?

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/tim_tyler/ Tim Tyler

    Buddhists and Taoists have religious-like rituals to bind themselves together, and yet are “supernatural skeptics”, in that they typically do not believe in a supernatural god apart from nature. I am not clear about in what sense such a strategy “does not work”.

  • Caledonian

    That depends on the Buddhists and Taoists. For the vast majority of members of their various sects, the claim that they do not believe in a supernatural world is completely false.

  • http://extropolitca.blogspot.com Mirco

    I don’t know about taoists, but Buddhist belief about transmigration of souls and karma is equivalent to the “moralistic god”.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    Robin writes: “I wonder: could ubiquitous surveillance also build social cohesion?”

    Hm, a few historical cases leap to mind. Societies in which many or most members believed in the same god and the same basic religious doctrines–were they more socially cohesive than more-or-less secular societies like modern day France? I assume we’d have to look at places where other cultural factors were pretty much the same among the members of the community (all people were of one particular culture, same language, same government ruling them). For example, I could see Catholic France of the past being more cohesive than Catholic Europe in general, given in Europe in general there were different ethnic groups who were Catholic and had their different ‘takes’ on Catholicism.

    Were totalitarian states with intrusive surveillance more socially cohesive than states that respected the privacy of their citizens? One thought is these totalitarian states could be seen as not terribly moral by many of the citizens, and so the cohesive behavior by the citizens was grudging and perhaps undermined when the state’s eyes weren’t on people who didn’t like the state. The state’s ‘eyes’ wouldn’t be as omnipresent as those of God, who can peer into your soul.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/tim_tyler/ Tim Tyler

    Supernatural entities are not a focus of Buddhism or Taoism. Buddhism is about meditation and enlightenment, and Taoism is about living in harmony with nature. IMO, these eastern religions are proof of the concept that you can have the cohesive aspects of religion without reliance on supernatural entities.

  • burger flipper

    I think Mike Kenny hit it on the head: Christianity (at least) is ingenious in that people are culpable not just for their actions, but for their thoughts and feelings as well. And these are recorded, reviewed, and assessed.
    State watchers would only inspire fear of acting badly.
    God’s gaze is like the gizmo they used to hawk on tv: a small protrusion that can scramble the egg inside the shell.

  • anonymous

    Tim Tyler, Confucianism is relevant as well. It is very heavy on ritual, loyalty and ethical development (“rén”), but includes no supernatural observers per se, although ancestor worship and supreme deity (“Shàng Dì”) are a part of Chinese folk religion.

  • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com/ Katja

    A hypothesis: Social cohesion is a result of citizens sharing a desire to believe in something they all have a private tiny inkling would seem less definitely true if they thought about it much. They instinctively know belief becomes easier to humans if reinforced by those around, and also that their beliefs are more enjoyable to them than the alternative. Thus they have a strong interest in religious behaviour in others and in their own feeling of trusting loyalty to them. Thus they encourage it with enthusiastic participation and try to ensconce themselves in that part of culture utterly. If there was a ritual-approving great friendly AI in the sky, they would be safe, and could get back to non-cohesion; it’s the possibility that the sky is chockers with nihilistic real non-intelligence that brings cohesion.

    To test hypothesis, compare cohesion across other groups with beliefs of varying tenuousness and of varying importance to their believers.

  • Pseudonymous

    What is the effect on social cohesion of having different religions in the same society?

    I doubt it is a good one.

  • josh

    Do we like factions?

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon

    The notable thing about Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucians is that the rituals and interactions in question are held to have some fundamental connection to the reality of things, such as it is: they aren’t seen as arbitrary conventions, and thus aren’t there for the mere purpose of having rituals. The people believed involve that there is a point. I suspect that this is the real issue, not religion: the rituals and interactions (i.e., the contributors to social cohesion) need to be seen has having some real value in light of the way reality as a whole is.

    William Bainbridge has suggested that the relation between religion and social cohesion should be seen in terms of compensator theory (roughly, a compensator is an explanation promising some future benefit as a substitute for some benefit in the here and now); religions provide complex and highly general compensators. General compensators can be found in politics and elsewhere, but rarely on the scale and level of complexity you find in religious views. Arguably it’s this that Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism succeed at, by providing a view of the world in which the particular social interactions and rituals are genuinely of fundamental importance.

  • manuelg

    > Supernatural entities are not a focus of Buddhism or Taoism. Buddhism is about meditation and enlightenment, and Taoism is about living in harmony with nature. IMO, these eastern religions are proof of the concept that you can have the cohesive aspects of religion without reliance on supernatural entities.

    This is a very western view of Buddhism. Buddhism is not monolithic, as Christianity is not monolithic.

    The Buddhist tradition that I am most familiar with, Vietnamese Buddhism, supernatural entities are believed to exist, hauntings are believed to exist, and it is all found to be quite compatible with Buddhism.

    There is no reason to believe any two active Buddhist chosen from the world would be any less different than a Quaker Universalist and a Southern Baptist.

    I don’t have personal knowledge, but I have a hard time believing that Taoists are less diverse (granting that active Taoists may be less numerous).

  • manuelg

    > Supernatural entities are not a focus of Buddhism or Taoism.

    Dealing with this specific point, in the Chinese and Vietnamese traditions of Buddhism, the Bodhisattvas worship is more like Hindu Deva worship than even the worship of Roman Catholic saints, in a higher intensity in the focus on the supernatural aspects and powers.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Taoists have religious-like rituals to bind themselves together, and yet are “supernatural skeptics”
    What? I thought they were cuckoo for immortality potions.

    I wonder: could ubiquitous surveillance also build social cohesion?
    That reminds me of something.

    Razib on buddhism.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    The linked article is about a project called “Explaining Religion” which aims to do just that. It is interesting that the article at the end touched on the taboo possibility that this perplexing belief system is maintained via supernatural means.

    It does seem that they are focusing on group explanations, which as the article notes is odd because group selection is generally disparaged as a significant mechanism in evolutionary biology. Now you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, maybe some group selection mechanisms are important, but still for a phenomenon as widespread and universal as religion, one would hope for a stronger foundation than group selection.

    Robin has this theory that people are altruistic with respect to health issues because it indirectly and somewhat subtly redounds to the benefit of the person showing concern, via alliance effects. Health altruism is pretty strong and widespread, perhaps not as much so as religion but close. They do mention near the end a possible explanation for religion that has something of the same flavor.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    As far as the issue of surveillance, as the article said people who believe a ghost might be watching them were more honest. There was also a result, I think in Freakonomics, where just posting a picture of eyes above an honor-system treat jar made people less likely to cheat. So one might generally expect better behavior under surveillance, although I have heard claims that for example the widespread introduction of public cameras in English cities has not helped much with crime.

    People generally don’t like surveillance, but nobody complains about God watching them. There seems to be a qualitative and fundamental psychological difference in how we perceive the two systems.

  • Nick Tarleton

    There seems to be a qualitative and fundamental psychological difference in how we perceive the two systems conflicts a bit with one might generally expect better behavior under surveillance.

  • http://michaelgr.com Michael G.R.

    “I wonder: could ubiquitous surveillance also build social cohesion? ”

    Maybe, but at what price?

  • Eric

    Robin writes:
    Many have suggested over the years that supernatural skeptics should create religious-like rituals to bind themselves together. Apparently this strategy just does not work…

    Not sure that is accurate. The article states “Ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community – what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified”. If the secular groups realize that the ritual constraint is needed because belief in it leads to social cohesion, then it could be effective.

    Instead of ritual to please a god, have ritual to strengthen social groups.

  • http://adam.ierymenko.name/ Adam Ierymenko

    Perhaps “supernatural” beliefs are a space/energy saving mental placeholder for awareness of the higher-order requirements of social complexity.

    In other words: while the human mind is capable of comprehending the true origin and necessity of moral behavior, doing so requires high-level and relatively deep philosophical thought. Perhaps supernatural beliefs are a sort of mental shorthand for that; a kind of energy saving or data compression adaptation.

    If there is a genetic basis to religiosity or supernatural belief, it could be an example of the Baldwin effect:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_effect

    Perhaps some early humans learned to cooperate, and that learning was then “genetically encoded” by evolution into a neurological shorthand for cooperative morality that we call God.

  • itchy

    “Dr Sosis found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year”

    Your definition of “social cohesion” seems to be potentially loaded. To me, social cohesion is generally a good thing. It means cooperation, perhaps goodwill.

    But the study isn’t measuring cooperation, it’s measuring duration, so it’s neutral toward whether a commune’s continued existence is better or worse for its members.

    Using this measure, there was a whole lot of “social cohesion” in Alcatraz or the Tower of London or a Siberian prison camp.

    One of the central strategies of a “successful” religious group is to make its members fearful of leaving (or of even considering leaving). This makes for a group that might endure, but I wouldn’t call it cohesive, and it’s certainly not something for which skeptics should strive.