Presentation is loading. Please wait.

Presentation is loading. Please wait.

The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual

Similar presentations

Presentation on theme: "The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual"— Presentation transcript:

1 The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual
Richard Sosis’ The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual Summary by Brad R. Huber

2 Introduction Many religious acts appear peculiar to the outsider. Moonies shave their heads (Not now, perhaps in the past) Clergy dress in outfits that distinguish them from the rest of society. E.g., Bishops at Conference of Canterbury


4 Many peoples also engage in some form of surgical alteration:
Australian aborigine adolescent boys have a bone or stone inserted into the penis. Daughters are circumcised Ritual scarification of Nuer How can we understand such behavior?


6 Behavioral ecologists assume that natural selection has designed our decision-making mechanisms.
Given environment “X”, what behaviors would increase the likelihood of an individual’s survival and reproduction? So, why would we engage in religious behavior that seems so counterproductive?

7 Indeed, some religious practices, such as ritual sacrifices, are a conspicuous display of wasted resources., E.g., Kwakiutl Potlatch Why has natural selection favored a psychology that believes in the supernatural and engages in the costly manifestations of those beliefs.


9 Ritual Sacrifice A new generation of anthropologists have begun to provide some explanation: The “strangeness” of religious practices and their inherent costs are actually the critical features that contribute to the success of religious as a universal cultural strategy. We need to recognize the adaptive problem that ritual behavior solves.

10 William Irons suggested that a universal dilemma is the promotion of cooperation with a community.
Irons argues that the primary adaptive benefit of religion is its ability to facilitate cooperation within a group---while hunting, sharing food, defending against attacks, and waging war. Although everyone is better off if everybody cooperates, this ideal is often very difficult to coordinate and achieve.

11 Cooperation requires social mechanisms that prevent individuals from free riding on the efforts of others.


13 Ethologists have recognized that ritualistic behaviors served as a form of communication.
The vibration of a rattlesnake’s tail is a powerful threat display to other species. Courtship rituals---such as bowing, head wagging, wing waving and hopping---to signal amorous intents before a prospective mate.


15 Irons’ insight is that religious activities signal commitment to other members of the group.
Through its ability to signal commitment, religious behavior can overcome the problem of free riders and promote cooperation within the group. It is a robust way to secure trust.

16 Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi observes that it is often in the best interest of an animal to send a dishonest signal---perhaps to fake its size, speed, strength, health, or beauty. The only signal that can be believed is one that is too costly to fake, which her referred to as a “handicap”.

17 Zahavi argues that natural selection has favored the evolution of handicaps.
For example, when a springbok antelope spots a predator it often stots---jumps up and down.

18 Why would an antelope waste precious energy that could be used to escape the predator? And why would the animal make itself more visible to a predator? The reason is that the springbok is displaying its quality to the predator---its ability to escape. The springbok is believed because the signal is too costly to fake.

19 Religious behavior is also a costly signal.
Wearing layers of clothing and standing out in the midday sun signals to other ultra-orthodox Jewish men that they are members of this group and can be trusted. The quality these men are signaling is their level of commitment to a specific religious group. Adherence to a set of religious beliefs entails a host of ritual obligations and expected behaviors.


21 The significant time, energy and financial costs involved in some ritual practices serve as effective deterrents for anyone who does not believe in the teachings of a particular religion. As a result of increased levels of trust and commitment among group members, religious groups minimize costly monitoring mechanisms that are otherwise necessary to overcome free-rider problems

22 Benefits of Membership
One prediction of the “costly signaling theory of ritual” is that groups that impose the greatest demands on their members will elicit the highest levels of devotion and commitment. This may explain a paradox: Churches that require the most of their adherents are experiencing rapid rates of growth: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Seventh-day Adventists Jehovah’s Witnesses


24 The costly signaling theory of ritual also predicts that greater commitment will translate into greater cooperation within groups. 19th-century communes faced an inherent problem of promoting and sustaining cooperation because individuals can free ride on the efforts of others.

25 Sosis and Eric Bressler used commune longevity as a measure of cooperation.
Compared to their secular counterparts, religious communes did indeed demand more of their members such as celibacy, the surrender of all material possessions. Communes that demanded more of their members survived longer, overcoming the fundamental challenges of cooperation.


27 The costly signaling theory of ritual was also evaluated within modern communal societies.
The kibbutzim provided an ideal opportunity to examine this hypothesis. For 100 years, these communes lived by the dictum, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

28 The majority of the 270 kibbutzim are secular; fewer than 20 are religiously oriented.
Because of debt, the kibbutzim are moving in the direction of increased privatization and reduced communality. In the 1980s, we found out that the religious kibbutzim were financially stable while the secular ones were not.

29 The success of the religious kibbutzim is especially remarkable given that many of their rituals inhibit economic productivity. For example, Jewish law does not permit Jews to milk cows on the Sabbath. And fruits are not allowed to be eaten for the first few years of the tree’s life, agricultural fields must lie fallow every seven years, and the corners of fields can never be harvested---they must be left for society’s poor.

30 Although these constraints appear detrimental to productivity, the costly signaling theory of ritual suggests that they may actually be the key to the economic success of the religious kibbutzim. Sosis and Economist Bradley Ruffle developed a game to determine whether there were differences in how the members of secular and religious kibbutzim cooperated with each other.

31 The game required individuals use self-restraint---cooperation.
Religious kibbutzniks were more cooperative with each other than secular kibbutzniks, and male religious kibbutzniks were more cooperative than female members.


33 Why? Male rituals are largely performed in public, and those men who attended synagogue regularly were the most cooperative. Why are human rituals often cloaked in mystery and the supernatural? Cognitive anthropologists Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer point out that the counterintuitive nature of supernatural concepts are attention-arresting and more easily remembered than mundane ideas This facilitates their cultural transmission.

34 For example, Totemic animals that can talk Dead ancestors who demand sacrificial offerings and visit the living Incorporeal beings capable of being in all places at all times Transmutation of wine to blood Believers verify supernatural concepts “emotionally”.

35 Unfortunately there is also a dark side to religious unity.
If the intra-group solidarity that religion promotes is one of its significant adaptive benefits, then religion has probably always played a role in intergroup conflicts. One of the benefits for individuals of intra-group solidarity is the ability of unified groups to defend and compete against other groups.

36 5. Kibbutz: Socialism on a Human Scale (07:03; From the Video Unstable Utopias: The Global Spread of Socialism; Films on Demand)

Download ppt "The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual"

Similar presentations

Ads by Google