How did people become believers? Where did the rituals come from? And most of all, what purpose does it all serve?
Azim Shariff, a psychology professor and author, says, “For the vast history of our species, we didn't live in large groups. We lived in very small groups, about 50 people, groups that never really got larger than 150. And the reason for that is because from a genetic standpoint, we’re only built to be able to cooperate with as many people as we can know well. So when you start having anonymous strangers in groups, when you start having people whose reputation you’re unfamiliar with, what that means is that people can free ride on the group. They can cheat on the group with impunity. And when you start having large groups of free riders and cheaters in a group, it can't sustain itself. You need a level of cooperation between the people in a group for it to act and to work harmoniously. And so it was only in the last 12,000 years that we started getting groups that bubbled up from beyond 100, 150 people to 1,000, 10,000 people. And what that means is that it needed something more than just our genetic inheritance. It needed a cultural idea. It needed a cultural innovation to allow us to succeed in these larger groups. And so one of the things that my colleagues and I have been arguing is that religion was one of these cultural innovations.”
Reliability in trade
Shariff continues, “And we see really interesting examples of this - large trade networks that have existed in North Africa where you have people who have no way that they can know each other. They're from opposite ends of an entire continent. And yet simply because they have a common religion - in this case, Islam - they can trust that the other person is going to be a reliable trading partner. And so just knowing that other people are God-fearing believers is sufficient to act as a cue of trust.”
Shariff says it's possible to study the effects of religious practices on human behaviour just like you can study the effect of financial incentives or education.
“In a study, we had students come in and do a math task where we made it very tempting for them to cheat. And we wanted to see who would cheat. But we also collected data on what their view of God was. So we had them fill out their belief that their God is represented by various adjectives. And some of these adjectives were loving, comforting, kind, forgiving, and others were angry, vengeful, punitive, wrathful. And we wanted to see whether that made a difference. And indeed it did. We found that the more you believed your god to be on the punitive side of that spectrum, the less likely you were to cheat, whereas the more you believed your god to be loving, more likely you were to cheat.”