Religious rituals are adaptive BECAUSE they are onerous

September 22, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More

As evidenced by various posts at this site, I have long been intrigued by the idea that religious rituals are adaptive in that they constitute expensive displays of group loyalty. I recently found a 2004 article by anthropologist Richard Sosis, who has come to this same conclusion. His article, which was published in 2004 by American Scientist (Volume 92), is entitled “The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual.” Sosis holds that “rituals promote group cohesion by requiring members to engage in behavior that is too costly to fake.”  He thus argues that religious rituals are adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

Sosis begins his article by surveying various tedious or grueling religious rituals. His examples include ultraorthodox Jews who wear stiflingly hot clothing in the hot summer, but it also includes Moonies who shave their heads and “Jain monks of India [who] wear contraptions on their heads and feet to avoid killing insects.” The list also includes various types of surgical alteration including circumcision and Native American religious rituals that include icy baths, and one ritual that requires the person to lie motionless while being bitten by hordes of ants.

The questions raised by these rituals include A) why do people engage in such practices? and B) Is it “rational” to do such things to one’s self? Sosis relies upon the research done by “a new generation of anthropologists” in concluding that

The strangeness of religious practices and their inherent costs are actually the critical features that contribute to the success of religion as a universal cultural strategy . . . To understand this unexpected benefit we need to recognize the adaptive problem that ritual behavior solves.

Sosis writes that the primary adaptive benefit of religion “is its ability to facilitate cooperation within a group.” Communities face a big problem coordinating their activities, however, and they require social mechanisms that discourage free riding (people who partake of benefits offered by the group without earning those benefits by working with the group).

Sosis observes that humans are one of many animal species that engages in patterned behavior that can be described as ritualistic. Consider, for instance, the many courtship rituals in which other species engage, including the behavior of various birds, who engage in “bowing, head wagging, wing-waving and hopping (among many other gestures) to signal their amorous intents before a prospective mate.”

How do you filter out freeloaders? Amotz Zahavi (whose findings I discuss here in a post called “Shopping for Sex”) thoroughly researched the issue and found that costly signals are much more reliable than cheap signals. A classic example of a costly signal in the animal kingdom is the “stotting” of antelopes–they jump up and down in the presence of a predator rather than

Image by Rick Wilhelmsen at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by Rick Wilhelmsen at Flickr (creative commons)

running away.  Stotting has been determined to constitute a display of athletic agility. It is a particular antelope’s way of broadcasting to the predator that that antelope is athletically superior and likely to outrun the predator, so “don’t bother chasing me–go chase someone else.”

Among human animals, a cheap signal would be the use of mere words. Many religious rituals are costly, however, in that they require extraordinary amounts of time, practice and pain. Yes, many religious rituals to use words, but they usually require long strings of words that need to be memorized and chanted in just the right way. Religious rituals also require extended kneeling, as well as giving up one’s Sunday mornings every week. Whenever someone is willing to engage in these sorts of behaviors over a long period of time, the community can assume that this person is loyal to the religious community. In short, much of the behavior associated with religious rituals is “too costly to fake.”

In much the same way, religious behavior is also a costly signal. By donning several layers of clothing and standing out in the midday sun, ultraorthodox Jewish men are signaling to others: “Hey! Look, I’m a haredi Jew. If you are also a member of this group you can trust me because why else would I be dressed like this? No one would do this unless they believed in the teachings of ultra Orthodox Judaism and we’re fully committed to its ideals and goals.” The quality that these men are signaling is their level of commitment to a specific religious group.

Sosis indicates that the substantial amounts of time, energy and costs required to look like other members of religious communities “serves as effective deterrent for anyone who does not believe in the teachings of a particular religion.” If you’re willing to do these sorts of things on a regular basis, you’ve earned the trust of the group. Religious groups that rely on these ritualistic displays thus deter free riders.

Sosis makes a prediction of the “costly signaling theory of ritual”: Groups that impose the greatest demands on their members will elicit the highest levels of devotion and commitment.” He comments that this prediction is borne out in that churches that require the most of their adherents are growing their membership the most rapidly (e.g., Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses). He contrasts those demanding sects with the many liberal Protestant nominations that have been shrinking. He also cites research that “the most demanding groups also have the greatest number of committed members.” He measures commitment by observing “how much the group’s lifestyle differs from mainstream America.” He found that the most committed religious communities had the highest attendance rates. He compared this with the Roman Catholic Church. Back in the 1950s, 75% of American Catholics attended Mass every week, but there is been a steady decline since the permissiveness allowed by the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Now, only 45% of Catholics attend Mass every week.

Sosis also considers why human rituals are so often cloaked in mystery and supernatural claims. He points to the research of Pascal Boyer (see here) and Scott Atran, who have both pointed out that “the counter-intuitive nature of supernatural concepts are more easily remembered than mundane ideas,” and this allows the supernatural concepts to be more easily transmitted among members. Further, religious rituals promote greater cooperation than secular rituals because the religious rituals “ironically generate greater belief and commitment because they sanctify unfalsifiable statements that are beyond the possibility of examination. These unfalsifiable statements also tend to evoke pointed emotional reactions that better serve group cooperation and commitment.


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Category: Culture, Evolution, Human animals, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    In his Beginner's Guide to the Evolutionary Study of Religion, David Sloan Wilson summarizes research regarding the involvement of costly signaling with religious practices:

    Another mechanism for insuring cooperation within a group is by requiring commitments that are hard to fake, often because they are so costly that the only way to recoup the cost is by remaining in the group as a cooperator (Irons 2001, Sosis 2004). Numerous elements of religion that appear bizarre and dysfunctional to outsiders make sense in terms of costly signaling theory. For example, in a historical study of 19th century communal societies, Richard Sosis and Eric Bressler (2003) found that religious communes demanded more of their members than their secular counterparts, such as celibacy, relinquishing all material possessions, and vegetarianism. This cost had a collective benefit, however, since religious communes survived longer than their secular counterparts. Among religious communes, those that demanded the greatest cost survived longest, but this relationship did not exist for secular communes. Thus, there appears to be something about religious belief per se that makes costly signaling effective.

    As an additional test of costly signaling theory, Richard Sosis and Bradley Ruffle(2003,2004) conducted experiments on cooperative behavior in ongoing secular and religious Israeli kibbutzim (Sosis and Ruffle 2003,2004, Ruffle and Sosis 2007). Controlling for effects such as the age of the kibbutz, privatization, size of the kibbutz, and numerous other variables, religious kibbutzniks exhibited much higher levels of intra-group cooperation than secular kibbutzniks. Furthermore, religious males were more cooperative than religious females, whereas a sex difference did not exist in among the secular kibbutzniks. This pattern makes sense, based on the fact that Jewish ritual requirements are largely publicly oriented toward men and privately oriented toward women.

    In a third test of costly signaling theory, Richard Sosis, Howard Kress and James Boster collected data from 60 geographically dispersed societies on the cost of religious practices, intensity of cooperative food production and consumption, warfare frequency,

    and a number of other control variables (Sosis et al 2007). Warfare frequency—a strong indicator of the need for cooperation—was the strongest predictor of the costliness of a society’s male rites. Moreover, Sosis et al. discovered a relationship between the kind of warfare present within a society and the type of religious practice adopted as a commitment signal. Societies with a high degree of external warfare (against other cultural groups) adopted signals of group identity that resulted in permanent badges such

    as tattoos or scars. Permanent badges were avoided in societies marked by a high degree of internal warfare (within the same cultural grouping), since one’s enemy on one occasion might become one’s ally on another.

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