Does religion nurture trust and cooperation, or create conflict? This question, which countless ULC ministers have already pondered, is the focus of an article recently published in a special edition of the magazine Science. Religious proponents view religion as an archetypal moral framework, while critics point out the long list of wars and other conflicts waged in the name of religion. As it turns out, religion does increase trust, cooperation, and stability within communities, but it also wreaks havoc on a larger scale by causing conflict between communities.
In the article, lead authors anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan and Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research explain that the pattern of stability within and conflict between communities occurs across history and cultures. “Moralizing gods, emerging over the last few millennia, have enabled large-scale cooperation and sociopolitical conquest even without war,” they write. To support their claim, they cite a number of studies on different peoples and periods of history, including cross-cultural surveys and experiments in scores of cultures.
The results suggest that people who participate most in religious ritual also cooperate best with other people. At least, they cooperate best with people within their own religious community. “Sacred values,” can “provide surprising opportunities for resolution,” among people who belong to the same religious milieu, write Atran and Ginges, adding that “participation in collective religious ritual increases parochial altruism,” or altruism amongst close-knit, homogeneous groups. In other words, religious devotion nurtures cooperation and solidarity among people who already have a lot in common with each other.
This level of cooperation is not prevalent amongst people who practice different rituals and share different values. While religion may nurture cooperation within religious groups, “groups most intensely involved in conflict have the costliest and most physically demanding rituals to galvanize group solidarity in common defense and blind group members to exit strategies.” Secular or humanistic social contracts, on the other hand, allow more flexibility and opportunity for defection. Additionally, while participation in religious ritual may encourage altruism within communities, it also seems to increase support for radical violence like suicide bombings.
Sometimes, this religion-based conflict can actually be exacerbated by misguided peace-brokering efforts. Atran and Ginges describe something called the “backfire effect,” in which well-meaning offers of money and other material goods inflame fundamentalist religious passions. In multiple cross-cultural studies they conducted, they found that offers of material incentives to compromise religious values actually increased anger and discord. A show of understanding of different religious values, they suggest, might prove to be a more successful diplomatic strategy.
If we take Atran and Ginges’s findings at face value, religious enthusiasts are right. Religion does promote social stability–but only within religious groups. It still seems to breed conflict between groups, and it doesn’t help to tell religious extremists “we’ll pay you to change your values.” The role of religion is beside the point, however. Religion shouldn’t have to be a source of conflict between communities, nor should it be required to create social stability within communities; one would think that humanity would be able to create harmony within and between communities without religion in the mix.