Religion is not the only route to behavior modification, but it is highly effective

While the effects associated with morality can be found in components that make up religious systems, religion is not unique at inducing these effects. For example, as we have previously discussed, the idea of a social monitoring agent, such as God, with the capacity to punish moral transgressions is effective at inducing compliance behavior in populations. Yet social monitoring in secular institutions, such as CCTV and the police, is another means of achieving this end.

Consider as a further illustration of the sharing of sacred values and participation in collective action in religious traditions. Sharing sacred values associated with a particular religion promotes in-group solidarity and derogation of perceived out-groups. Some primatologists have argued that moral behavior ultimately derived from the tendency of humans to be social. Specifically, collaboration and other prosocial tendencies enabled people to obtain benefits from group living. In other words, humans are inherently groupish. Thus, religious morality may well hinge upon the human tendency for parochialism.

One well-established finding is that moral-based values increase this propensity for in-group solidarity. The renowned sociologist Emile Durkheim noted this type of social cohesion in groups of people who believed in the same values and claimed that, especially when they acted together, there was a kind of “collective effervescence.” Other research has suggested that groups performing synchronized actions are especially likely to feel bonded with one another.60,61 It is therefore unsurprising that many religious traditions are replete with collective ritual actions entailing synchronized movements that enhance group cohesion.

Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse proposes that certain kinds of rituals exploit the human tendency to benefit kin who share genetic relatedness preferentially. This tendency has evolved because it has clear evolutionary benefits, and humans are therefore attuned to recognize and preferentially treat others who are similar and share similar experiences. For instance, one reason why religious rituals serve to bond participants together is that they contain a range of kinship cues, such as similar costumes, headdresses, face paint, as well as similar movements that give rise to shared experiences.62

This groupishness and effervescence are not, of course, limited to groups who are affiliated by religious values. For example, Libyan revolutionaries justify fighting (which they perceive as morally righteous) because they regard their comrades as closer than brothers. This suggests that in addition to the effects of shared ritual action, the effect partly derives from an extension of evolved kinship systems to benefit family members.63 Massive political rallies likewise maximize the effects of synchronized activity, which contributes to feelings of collective effervescence, such as the protests against the immigration ban in the U.S. during Trump’s administration in 2017.

In sum, the components of religious systems exert effects on adherents, such as building solidarity, increasing out-group derogation, and modifying behaviors in response to potential supernatural punishment. Yet, these effects are not unique to religious systems and may be achieved through other means.

Key points

  • • CSR showcases the natural foundations of religious and moral systems.
  • • The CSR approach to studying the relationship between religion and morality is distinctive because it fractionates the category of religion into recurrent features, asks specific questions at measurable units of analyses, and investigates the effect of the relationship at the individual and societal level.
  • • Research on religion and morality in CSR points to two broad conclusions. First, religious systems and prosociality are underpinned by a limited number of predispositions and biases that can be traced back to our evolutionary history. Second, while religion is not the only means to ensure conformity, it is a highly effective means of behavior modification.
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