Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Religious setting, not belief, makes you good

Church signTales are told about the Buddha’s profound compassion and about Christ’s universal concern for the underprivileged in society. Amidst an abundance of other examples, these stories describe some of the ways that religion is thought to function as a positive influence in society. Theorists such as Freud, Durkheim, and Turner have also portrayed religion in similar terms, suggesting its capacity to provide some form of social stability. Empirical research on the subject indicates a more complicated story, however, with some beginning to question the relationship between religious belief and positive social behavior. Instead, they suggest another aspect of religion that might play an even bigger role.

Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist working out of Aarhus University in Denmark, investigated this issue by conducting an economic experiment on the island of Mauritius. Not only is this island known for its great sociocultural diversity, but it’s also often cited as a paradigm of successful multi-ethnic cohabitation. Even with a populace that includes Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and members of many other faiths, relations between groups are generally good. Xygalatas considered the possibility that cues found in a religious environment have a greater effect than does an individual’s intrinsic religiosity (in this case, defined as the “intensity of belief and reported frequency of ritual practices”) on promoting cooperation in society.

To confirm that hunch, Xygalatas asked volunteers to participate in a type of economic game called a common-pool resource game. In this exercise, each participant must decide how much money to withdraw from a shared account. Although their decisions are made without any information about the other players, a cooperative spirit is still necessary – each person only receives the amount he or she requested if everybody’s requests together don’t exceed the total funds available. The test was conducted in pairs, with one volunteer situated inside of a Hindu temple and the other located in a nearby restaurant. All volunteers were scored for their self-reported degree of religiosity.

Xygalatas found that participants located in the religious environment behaved in a significantly more cooperative manner compared to those tested in the secular setting, on average claiming far less of the total funds available. When asked to justify their decision later, volunteers in the temple also evoked notions related to fairness far more frequently than those in the restaurant, who typically explained their choice in strategic terms. Moreover, these results could not be explained by differences in the level of religiosity, as neither group differed significantly from the other in this regard. Finally, differences in risk-aversion could also be ruled out because volunteers in both settings calculated similar expectations for the amount being requested by the other.

These observations led Xygalatas to conclude that, while religion may promote prosocial behavior, the underlying mechanism is more likely an artifact of contextual clues rather than a person’s intrinsic religiosity. Xygalatas first considers the possibility that a social aspect of religious environments might be responsible, noting that people often associate temples with community gathering. He is quick to point out, however, that the comparable social context of a restaurant should control for this effect. Ultimately, Xygalatas posits two alternative mechanisms, though he’s careful to acknowledge that they are probably not mutually exclusive.

On the one hand, semantic priming effects might trigger reminders about ethical doctrines or mythological narratives that stress the importance of fairness and equality. On the other hand, research in the cognitive sciences has long demonstrated our capacity to detect agents – other thinking beings – in the environment, which indicates that humans are sensitive to stimuli that suggest attention is being focused on them. And for good reason, too. Any attention directed toward an individual at the wrong time has potentially serious consequences for that person’s social reputation, and studies have shown that even a simple pair of eyes painted onto a wall has the capacity to significantly alter behavior. In light of this, Xygalatas notes that a religious settings is full of eyes, found in prominent statues and the images of various supernatural beings. Such icons themselves further prompt reminders of some actual god or another, ever-present and always watching somewhere nearby.

This study takes a few steps forward in clarifying the popular assumption that religion has a positive influence on social behavior. Many questions remain, of course. Which of the proposed mechanisms has a greater part in promoting cooperation? Can these results be replicated in other cultural contexts? Will painting eyes all over the walls in my son’s bedroom keep him from jumping on the bed when he should be asleep? No matter, if you diligently read the assignments for English in high school, only one conclusion to any of these questions can truly concern us. Wherever our cognitive abilities might take us, one can apparently never forget…Big Brother is watching.

Dimitris Xygalatas's work has also been covered at our sister blog on Patheos.com. Click here to see more.

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