Relationship Between Religion And Morality Essay Titles

The Relationship Between Religion and Ethics Essay

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To answer this question, we must first understand what both ethics and morality are. As ethics is defined as the philosophical study of morality, those who study religion get their moral precepts from what they believe God says should be done. This perspective is not at all unexpected, because all religions apply a perspective on morality. Morality is defined as beliefs concerning right and wrong, good and bad- beliefs that can include judgements, values, rules, principles, and theories. Morals are what help us guide our actions, define our values, and give us reason for being the person that we are. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, over 228 million Americans classified themselves as practicing some type of religion. Due to…show more content…

These religious codes of conduct, such as the Ten Commandments, are generally very broad statements, elucidating only general principles that may be inconvenient to apply to each specific case. Some religious moral codes may also contradict one another. These contradictions compel religious believers to decipher religious directives or to draw out the implications of particular views- this is otherwise known as doing ethics. When conflicts such as moral contradictions and inconsistencies arise, conversations including ethics and moral reasoning is the only way to solve these inconsistencies. Those who are genuine devotees of a certain religion may question if their religion’s moral instructions make sense according to one another. In these distinct cases, intelligent resolution of the claims can only be sorted out by putting in place an unbiased standard that can classify the competing viewpoints. This is where ethics comes in as the neutrality in the form of critical thinking, proficient arguments, and careful analysis. Any beneficial conversations about morality that occur between those who practice religion and those who do not, or those with different religions, must incorporate a common set of ethical concepts and a shared procedure for resolving issues and making judgments, all of which ethics provides. It is also understood that in these conversations moral positions on the issues

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The relationship between religion and morality has long been hotly debated. Does religion make us more moral? Is it necessary for morality? Do moral inclinations emerge independently of religious intuitions? These debates, which nowadays rumble on in scientific journals as well as in public life, have frequently been marred by a series of conceptual confusions and limitations. Many scientific investigations have failed to decompose “religion” and “morality” into theoretically grounded elements; have adopted parochial conceptions of key concepts—in particular, sanitized conceptions of “prosocial” behavior; and have neglected to consider the complex interplay between cognition and culture. We argue that to make progress, the categories “religion” and “morality” must be fractionated into a set of biologically and psychologically cogent traits, revealing the cognitive foundations that shape and constrain relevant cultural variants. We adopt this fractionating strategy, setting out an encompassing evolutionary framework within which to situate and evaluate relevant evidence. Our goals are twofold: to produce a detailed picture of the current state of the field, and to provide a road map for future research on the relationship between religion and morality.

Keywords: cognitive science of religion, moral foundations theory, prosocial behavior, cultural evolution

It is simply impossible for people to be moral without religion or God.

—Laura Schlessinger (quoted in Zuckerman, 2008)

Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.

—Richard Dawkins (2006, p. 348)

The question of whether or not morality requires religion is both topical and ancient. In the Euthyphro, Socrates famously asked whether goodness is loved by the gods because it is good, or whether goodness is good because it is loved by the gods. Although he favored the former proposal, many others have argued that morality is dictated by—and indeed unthinkable without—God: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” (Dostoevsky, 1880/1990).1 Echoing this refrain, conservatives like to claim that “declining moral standards” are at least partly attributable to the rise of secularism and the decline of organized religion (see Zuckerman, 2008).

The notion that religion is a precondition for morality is widespread and deeply ingrained. More than half of Americans share Laura Schlessinger’s belief that morality is impossible without belief in God (Pew Research Center, 2007), and in many countries this attitude is far more prevalent (see Figure 1). In a series of compelling recent studies, Gervais and colleagues (Gervais, Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011; see also Gervais, 2011, 2013a, 2014a; Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012b, 2013) have demonstrated strong implicit associations of atheists with immorality. Although these associations are stronger in people who themselves believe in God, even atheist participants intuitively view acts such as serial murder, incest, and necrobestiality as more representative of atheists than of other religious, ethnic, or cultural groups (Gervais, 2014a).2 Unsurprisingly, atheists explicitly disavow this connection, with some even suggesting that atheists are “the moral backbone of the nation . . . tak[ing] their civic duties seriously precisely because they don’t trust God to save humanity from its follies” (Dennett, 2003). Other nontheists have taken a softer line, arguing that moral inclinations are deeply embedded in our evolved psychology, flourishing quite naturally in the absence of religious indoctrination (Pyysiäinen & Hauser, 2010).

Although there is no shortage of lively polemic, scientific investigations of the connection between religion and morality have so far produced mixed results. The interpretive difficulties are exacerbated by imprecise conceptions both of “religion” and “morality.” It is not clear that these terms are used in the same ways by those between, or even within, seemingly opposing camps. To make progress on this issue, we require a more precise specification of which human virtues are under consideration and which features of religion might be thought to influence their expression. Our aim in what follows will be to sort out some of the conceptual confusions and to provide a clear evolutionary framework within which to situate and evaluate relevant evidence.

We begin by highlighting a set of conceptual limitations hampering contemporary academic discourse on this topic. In our view, many current investigations suffer from (a) a failure to fractionate “religion” and “morality” into theoretically grounded units; (b) ethnocentric conceptions of religion and morality; in particular, (c) sanitized conceptions of prosocial behavior, and (d) a tendency to conceptualize morality or religion as clusters of either cognitively or culturally evolved features rather than both. To circumvent these problems, we advocate a cross-culturally encompassing approach that fractionates both religion and morality while carefully distinguishing cognition from culture. A thoroughgoing exploration of the religion–morality relationship must seek to establish the evolved cognitive systems that underpin the astonishing diversity of cultural concepts, norms, and behaviors that are labeled (perhaps arbitrarily) “religion” and “morality.” Accordingly, drawing on moral foundations theory (MFT; e.g., Graham et al., 2013), we outline sets of cognitive systems commonly associated with these concepts and consider whether their evolutionary histories might be somehow entwined. We go on to consider the quite separate question of whether the evolution of religions as cultural systems has selectively favored moral values of various kinds. In the process, we provide a comprehensive review of research on the religion–morality relationship.

Conceptual Lacunae and Confusions in the Religion and Morality Debate

Despite the confident claims of many contemporary commentators, we believe the relationship between religion and morality is poorly understood. In our view, this is because debates about religion and morality are marred by a set of interrelated conceptual lacunae and confusions. Our aim in this section is to enumerate these shortcomings and to highlight some of their serious consequences.


History can be written at any magnification. One can write the history of the universe on a single page, or the life cycle of a mayfly in 40 volumes.

—Norman Davies (1997, p. 1)

Just as history can be written at any magnification, the relationship between religion and morality can be explored at any granularity. At the extremes, one can treat “religion” and “morality” as monolithic entities and attempt to characterize their relationship, or one can study the influence of a particular theological doctrine (e.g., predestination) on some highly specific moral outcome (e.g., tithing). The challenge is to adopt a pragmatic and theoretically defensible scale of analysis. One problem with the coarse-grained (monolithic) approach is that religion, like the constellation Orion in the night sky, may not reflect a real natural structure but may instead comprise a more or less arbitrary gathering of disparate features. Researchers in the discipline of cognitive neuropsychiatry view psychiatric syndromes as culturally and historically contingent constellations of symptoms, and argue that the unit of investigation should be the symptom (e.g., delusions) rather than the syndrome (e.g., schizophrenia; Coltheart, Langdon, & McKay, 2011). Likewise, progress in understanding the relationship between religion and morality may require fractionating these hazy concepts into more basic units.

Many authors have attempted to identify the fundamental elements of religion. Saroglou (2011), for instance, has put forward a detailed psychological model of the “Big Four religious dimensions,” providing an illuminating taxonomy of core components of religiosity that integrates numerous previous formulations in the psychology and sociology of religion. In brief, for Saroglou, to be religious entails

  • 1

    Believing: Holding a set of beliefs about transcendent entities (e.g., personal gods, impersonal life forces, karmic principles).

  • 2

    Bonding: Having self-transcendent, emotional experiences, typically through ritual (whether private or public, frequent or rare), that connect one to others and to a deeper reality.

  • 3

    Behaving: Subscribing to certain moral norms, and exerting self-control to behave in accordance with these norms.

  • 4

    Belonging: Identifying and affiliating with a certain community or tradition.

Note that any one of these dimensions could pick out phenomena that would not ordinarily be classed as “religious.” For instance, “Father Christmas” is a person who manifestly transcends ordinary physical laws, yet few would describe belief in this supernatural being as “religious” (J. L. Barrett, 2008). Much the same could be said about ritual, which is often understood to be a religious trait but is also prominent in nonreligious (e.g., military) settings (and, as Bloom, 2012, notes, even ardent atheists seek out transcendent experiences, whether through drugs or meditative practices). Moreover, Saroglou himself points out that religious affiliation is just one of many ways people can satisfy a need to “belong.”

These considerations point to the arbitrariness of the “religion” designator. Tendencies to postulate bodiless agents such as ghosts and gods and to participate in rituals may seem to warrant some overarching label, but in reality their cognitive causes may be quite unrelated. For example, afterlife beliefs and rituals may be explicitly connected by more or less shared systems of meaning, expressed in discourse at social events like funerals and wakes; and they may form part of larger cultural systems that are transmitted across populations and handed down over generations. But the psychological mechanisms that generate and underpin afterlife beliefs may operate quite independently from those inducing us to perform rituals (Boyer, 2001; Whitehouse, 2004). We should not, therefore, expect the different component features of “religion” each to bear the same connection to morality.

Moreover, according to a prevailing conception in moral psychology, morality—perhaps like religion—comprises a suite of largely independent mechanisms that, although often connected by narratives, doctrines, songs, and other culturally distributed networks of ideas, are the outcomes of quite distinct psychological processes and functions. Thus, both religion and morality can be endlessly assembled and reassembled in culturally and historically contingent ways. Like the constellations of the astrologer’s imagination, these assemblages of psychological and behavioral traits and tendencies may be artificial, contingent, and arbitrary, rather than grounded in any stable underlying regularities (Boyer, 2001; Norenzayan, 2014).

One notable feature of Saroglou’s model of religious dimensions is that it categorizes morality as a key dimension of religion: “Religion not only is particularly concerned with morality as an external correlate but also includes morality as one of its basic dimensions” (Saroglou, 2011, p. 1326). This stipulation implies that any inquiry into the effects of “religion” as a whole on “morality” as a whole may be a circular, and therefore futile, enterprise.

Descriptive Ethnocentrism

If moral psychology is to contribute to the psychology of religion, it will have to describe a moral domain as expansive as that of the Gods.

—Graham and Haidt (2010, p. 143)

When a newspaper headline reads “bishop attacks declining moral standards,” we expect to read yet again about promiscuity, homosexuality, pornography, and so on, and not about the puny amounts we give as overseas aid to poorer nations, or our reckless indifference to the natural environment of our planet.

—Singer (2002, p. 7)

In a recent interview, the Hon. Rev. Fr. Simon Lokodo, Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity, indicated that he viewed the heterosexual rape of young girls as preferable to consensual homosexuality:

Lokodo: I say, let them do it but the right way.

Interviewer: Oh let them do it the right way? Let them rape children the right way? What are you talking about?

Lokodo: No I am saying, at least it is [the] natural way of desiring sex. (O’Brien, 2013)

From a contemporary Western liberal perspective, there is a chilling irony to the fact that Lokodo’s ministerial portfolio involves upholding moral values and principles (see What could be more immoral than the rape of a child, a manifestly harmful act? Is it conceivable that Lokodo’s opposition to homosexuality is morally motivated?

One obstacle to a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between religion and morality is the tendency of researchers to privilege their own cultural perspective on what counts as a “moral concern.” Opposing such ethnocentrism is not the same as advocating cultural or moral relativism: We need take no stand here on whether absolute moral standards exist, or whether it is appropriate for citizens of one society to judge the moral standards of another. Our concern is with descriptive rather than prescriptive ethnocentrism. There are those who consider appropriate sexual behavior to be of paramount moral importance, and those, like Peter Singer, who think there are more pressing moral concerns. Whatever our ethical evaluations, however, a cross-cultural enquiry into the relationship between religion and morality must expand the moral domain beyond the typical concerns of individuals in Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010), and must consider the effect of religion on any domain that is accorded at least local moral significance. For our purposes, therefore, a moral behavior is not necessarily a behavior that we advocate, but a behavior that is undertaken on putative moral grounds.

We also view descriptive religious ethnocentrism as problematic. In our view, the great variety of culturally distributed concepts and customs that garner the label “religion” are canalized and constrained by a finite, yet disparate, set of biologically endowed cognitive predispositions (Baumard & Boyer, 2013b; Xygalatas & McKay, 2013). As these predispositions constrain, rather than determine, the types of religious systems that different cultures construct, there is enormous cultural variability in their expression, with some traditions emphasizing conformity of belief (orthodoxy) over conformity of practice (orthopraxy) and vice versa (Laurin & Plaks, 2014; Purzycki & Sosis, 2013).3 In short, the religious constellation may look quite different from one cultural perspective than it does from another. This may help to explain why “religion” has proven so notoriously difficult to define in a way that merits scholarly consensus (Asad, 1983; Saler, 2000). To avoid this problem, we should resist the assumption that the core features of “religion” in our own culture (the brightest stars in the constellation from one’s own cultural—or academic—standpoint) are the most important or valid.

Sanitized Conceptions of Morality and Prosociality

Ingroup generosity and outgroup derogation actually represent two sides of the same coin.

—Shariff, Piazza, and Kramer (2014, p. 439)

A frequent consequence of Western liberal ethnocentrism is a sanitized, “family friendly” conception of morality. If Simon Lokodo’s ministerial portfolio seems ironic, this may be because of a Western liberal tendency to equate morality with “warm, fuzzy” virtues like kindness, gentleness, and nurturance, in short, with “niceness.” Thus, many scholars who write about the relationship between religion and morality frame the key question as “Are religious people nice people?” (Morgan, 1983) or “Does religion make you nice?” (Bloom, 2008; see also Malhotra, 2010). In many situations, however, what seems the “right” course of action may not be particularly “nice” (e.g., is it nice to punish criminals?); moreover, in certain cultures (e.g., Nazi Germany), “niceness” may even be cast as a vice rather than a virtue (Koonz, 2003). To identify morality with “niceness” is thus to ignore a plethora of moral concerns, motivations, and behaviors.

To illustrate why such sanitizing is problematic scientifically, we note that the most prominent contemporary hypothesis in the literature on religion and morality is the “religious prosociality” hypothesis. Although many papers on “religious prosociality” appear to equate the notions of morality and “prosociality” (e.g., Norenzayan, 2014; Norenzayan & Shariff, 2008; Preston, Ritter, & Hernandez, 2010), some imply that morality is a subcategory of prosociality (e.g., Galen, 2012), whereas others indicate that prosociality is a subcategory of morality (e.g., Preston, Salomon, & Ritter, 2014). In all of these cases, however, prosociality is used to denote voluntary behaviors that intentionally benefit others at personal cost (e.g., helping, comforting, sharing, donating, volunteering)—in other words, “nice” behaviors (notwithstanding that the motivation to engage in the behaviors may be purely egoistic; Saroglou, 2013). Although this usage reflects both popular parlance and a venerable social scientific tradition (Batson & Powell, 2003), we view it as highly confusing.

The problem is that behavior that benefits certain others (and so is “prosocial” in this standard sense) may be detrimental to the wider social group. And conversely, behavior that benefits the group may be harmful to at least some of its members. For example, torture is a powerful mechanism for enforcing and stabilizing social norms, yet torture is often unambiguously detrimental to the recipient. The irony is that behaviors that are literally “prosocial” insofar as they further the interests of a particular social group (e.g., “prosocial aggression”: Sears, 1961; “altruistic punishment”: Fehr & Gächter, 2002, and Shinada, Yamagishi, & Ohmura, 2004; cf. B. Herrmann, Thöni, & Gächter, 2008) may be “antisocial” in the standard social psychological usage (e.g., by harming the norm violator).

This is not even to consider behavior that extends across group boundaries. Some personally costly acts are intended to benefit the ingroup by harming other groups (Choi & Bowles, 2007, refer to such behavior as “parochial altruism”; see also Bernhard, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2006; Bowles, 2009; De Dreu et al., 2010). If attendance at religious services predicts support for suicide attacks (Ginges, Hansen, & Norenzayan, 2009), is this evidence for “religious prosociality” or evidence against it? In social psychological terms, it is clearly the latter, but we regard this usage of the term as unhelpfully sanitized. As the saying goes, “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” (Seymour, 1975). In an otherwise highly illuminating recent article, social psychologists Jesse Preston and Ryan Ritter referred to cooperation with both ingroup and outgroup members as “prosociality,” while noting that helping outgroup members can give that group a competitive advantage in survival and so indirectly harm the ingroup. Here, behavior that was explicitly acknowledged to harm the ingroup was labeled “prosocial” (Preston & Ritter, 2013). In a different example, Blogowska, Lambert, and Saroglou (2013) found that self-reported religiosity predicted helping of a needy in-group member and also physical aggression toward a member of a moral out-group (a homosexual person). Blogowska et al. described the latter behavior as “clearly and unambiguously” antisocial (p. 525). We argue that this behavior can be reconstrued as (literally) prosocial—after all, if homosexuality is a norm violation from the perspective of a religious group, then behavior that punishes this violation serves to enforce the norm and thus promotes and protects the interests and values of the group.

If the relationship between religion and morality is to be explored within an encompassing evolutionary framework (as we intend), the notion of prosociality should assume a literal rather than sanitized meaning (i.e., “furthering the interests of the relevant social group” rather than “nice”) within an expansive moral domain. As we will describe later, we advocate a strategy of scientific pluralism where morality is concerned. In our view, sanitized prosociality (“caring” or “niceness”) is a core moral domain, but should not be solely identified with “morality.”

Cognitive Versus Cultural Levels of Explanation

Efforts to fully characterize the relationship between religion and morality are limited by a tendency for researchers to conceptualize morality or religion as bundles of either cognitively or culturally evolved traits rather than both. For example, Bloom (2012) has attempted to refute the claim that morality requires religion using evidence of (proto)moral behavior in infant humans and in other primates. This argument operationalizes morality at the level of evolved psychological systems, but operationalizes religion as a set of cultural notions. To the extent that “religion” is assumed to refer to some cluster of features that must be culturally learned, this argument may have something to commend it, but at least some of the psychological states that Bloom considers religious (e.g., “spirituality”) are rooted in very early emerging cognitive capacities (J. L. Barrett, 2012). So, in principle, it should be possible to investigate the relationship between at least some aspects (or “building blocks”) of religion and morality in infancy and perhaps also in nonhuman primates.

One way of avoiding this problem is to disambiguate epigenetic, cognitive–developmental, and social–historical processes in the formation of religious and moral traits (Whitehouse, 2013). For example, a capacity to empathize with the pain of others may be genetically canalized in the development of infant neural structures, but environmental cues also shape the organization of neural networks and even the gross morphology of the brain. The interaction of genetic and epigenetic factors in the maturation of empathizing capacities may follow different developmental pathways in different individuals, resulting in quite different outcomes at the level of cognitive and behavioral patterns in adulthood. At a still higher level of complexity, the environment in which brains and cognitive systems develop is itself canalized by social structures comprising culturally distributed rules and algorithms for “proper” or “normal” behavior in given social settings, counterbalanced by population-level decision making on the ground that may deviate from tradition and consequently update its edicts. Processes at all these levels contribute to the nature and targets of empathy in society, influencing people’s willingness to tolerate harming behaviors such as warfare, enslavement, capital punishment, and torture, and calibrating what counts as justice or wanton cruelty. The same principles apply to the development of religious traits. For example, a genetically canalized tendency to process information about mental and mechanical events via quite different neural structures may undergird the cognitive developmental pathways for mind–body dualism (Bloom, 2004), but this tendency is also shaped and constrained by cultural concepts and their histories. When asking, for example, how notions of bodiless agents might impact the development of empathy, we need to specify the level(s) at which the impact is hypothesized to occur and trace its repercussions at all levels on both sides of the religion–morality equation.

Religion and Morality: A New Approach

In order to circumvent these limitations and avoid these problems, we propose a new approach to the religion–morality debate that not only fractionates both religion and morality but is careful to distinguish the different levels at which explanation is required. This will provide the basis for more precise questions about the relationship between the fractionated components of religion and morality, respectively.

A comprehensive explanation in evolutionary terms of any causal relationships between our fractionated components of the categories “religion” and “morality” would need to attend to four main types of questions, commonly known as Tinbergen’s Four Whys: a causal why, concerning the psychological mechanisms that produce a particular causal relationship between religion and morality; a developmental why, concerning the processes by which the relationship emerges in the growth and maturation of individuals; a functional why, concerning the adaptive value of the relationship in comparison with others; and an historical why, concerning the phylogeny of the relationship, its appearance via a succession of preceding forms (cf. Tinbergen, 1963).4 Evolutionary theorists standardly categorize the causal and developmental whys as forms of “proximate” explanation, and the functional and phylogenetic whys as forms of “ultimate” explanation (see Mayr, 1961). In this context, “ultimate” does not mean final or superior, but refers to the evolutionary forces that sustain the psychological or physiological mechanisms in question. Thus, if the pigmentation of butterfly wings in industrial areas becomes darker over successive generations (Haldane, 1927), it is because darker variants have a selective advantage in smoke-stained environments, but that does not dispense with the need to explain the physiological mechanisms by which individual butterfly wings acquire their coloration, darkness, and hue.

Tinbergen’s Four Whys have been illustrated concisely using the structural properties of the human hand:

In answering the question “Why does the human thumb move differently from the other fingers?” the answer might be in terms of the differences in skeletal arrangements and muscle attachments (a causal answer); or in terms of the embryology of the hand, and how the finger rudiments grew out (developmental); or in terms of the utility of an opposable thumb for holding things (functional); or in terms of our descent from monkey-like ancestors which had opposable thumbs (evolutionary). These answers are all correct, but together they provide fuller understanding. (Hinde, 2005, p. 39)

In considering human traits, however, the situation is often complicated by the extent and variability of cultural overlays. In some cases, these are quite literally overlays—for example, in cold environments, human hands may be overlaid by clothing, such as gloves or mittens.

Our general theoretical approach melds recent theorizing in disciplines such as moral psychology and the cognitive science of religion. According to this approach, religious and moral cultural representations are triggered and constrained by implicit, intuitive cognitive systems in much the same way that the morphologies of human hands and feet shape and constrain the morphologies of gloves and shoes (see Figure 2). To become culturally widespread, shoes must fit the basic morphology of human feet, while also satisfying other biologically endowed preferences (e.g., preferences for comfort and/or gait; Morris, White, Morrison, & Fisher, 2013). Similarly, successful religious and moral cultural representations—including notions of supernatural agents and realms, ritual practices, and various behavioral prescriptions and proscriptions—must resonate with (“fit”) biologically endowed cognitive structures and preferences (or clash with them in attention-grabbing and memorable ways; see Boyer, 2001). But such structures may, in turn, be subject—given sufficient time scales—to genetic modification under the selection pressures imposed by culturally evolved practices and preferences. A cultural preference for small feet in women may make it more likely that females with such feet are chosen as sexual partners or less likely that they become victims of infanticide (Newson, Richerson, & Boyd, 2007). So just as shoes adapt to the needs of biologically endowed feet, so feet may need to adapt to fit cultural prescriptions. And in the same way, certain universal features of our biologically evolved cognitive architecture and our culturally evolved religious and moral representations may result from complex processes of coevolution. At the risk of mixing metaphors, our minds can be thought of as “fertile ground” for certain cultural representations, “seeds” that “take root in individual human beings . . . and get those human beings to spread them, far and wide” (Dennett, 2006, p. 2). To analyze these various processes correctly, however, it is vital that we disambiguate at which levels selection acts on which traits.

Figure 2

Cultural representations (e.g., propositions, prescriptions, and practices [ovals; green]) are triggered and constrained (arrows; blue) by foundational cognitive systems (“religious foundations” in blue [on the y axis] boxes and “moral...

Given this complex interplay between sets of evolved cognitive systems and cultural elements (some of which may be arbitrarily designated “religion” and some arbitrarily designated “morality”), what can it mean to investigate the relationship between religion and morality? In what follows, we begin by fractionating, first, morality and, then, religion into elements that are thought to be recurrent features of human evolved psychology. We then consider whether there is evidence that any of the fractionated elements of religion have a biologically evolved connection to the fractionated elements of morality. We will argue that there is scant evidence for this at present. We then consider the cultural evolution of the religion–morality relationship. Here we argue that cultural evolution has served to connect the fractionated elements of religion and morality in a cascading myriad of ways, and it is at this level primarily that the religion–morality debate might be most fruitfully focused in future.

Fractionating Morality: Moral Foundations

For the purposes of fractionating morality, we import what we regard as the dominant model in contemporary moral psychology: moral foundations theory (MFT; Graham & Haidt, 2010; Graham et al., 2013; Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Haidt, 2012; Haidt & Graham, 2007, 2009; Haidt & Joseph, 2004, 2007). MFT is an avowedly pluralistic theory of morality. Whereas some prominent theorists have favored a “monistic” conception of morality, whereby all moral norms reduce to a single basic moral concern such as “care” or “justice” (e.g., Gray, Young, & Waytz, 2012; Kohlberg, 1971), others (e.g., Berlin, 2013; Gilligan, 1982) have argued there are two or more fundamental, mutually incompatible, and incommensurable moral values. MFT falls within the latter tradition, proposing that the rich array of culturally constructed moral norms and institutions are triggered and constrained by several universal and innate psychological systems—the eponymous moral foundations.

Moral foundations theorists have highlighted five core foundations, giving rise to the following pan-human principles: (a) care–harm: harming others is wrong, whereas treating others with kindness and compassion is right; (b) fairness–cheating: people should reap what they sow and not take more than they deserve; (c) in group loyalty–betrayal: what is good for the community comes above selfish interests; (d) respect for authority–subversion: we should defer to our elders and betters and respect tradition; and (e) purity–degradation: the body is a temple and can be desecrated by immoral actions and contaminants.

Moral foundations theorists claim that each of these principles is written into our distinctively human nature, arising from the normal operation of evolved cognitive mechanisms. On the other hand, the moral foundations are conceived as constraining, rather than determining, the types of moral systems that humans construct. One of the major contributions of the moral foundations approach has been to highlight the cultural and political variability in the expression of these foundations. Some cultures construct their moral norms and institutions on a comparatively small subset of foundations.5 For example, whereas the moral orders of most traditional societies are broad, the moral domain in WEIRD cultures (Henrich et al., 2010) is built largely on the first two (“individualizing”) foundations, focusing on the protection of individuals from harm and exploitation (Graham et al., 2013). Meanwhile, a number of studies have found that political liberals value the individualizing principles of care and fairness more than conservatives, whereas conservatives value the “binding” principles of loyalty, authority, and sanctity more than liberals (e.g., Graham et al., 2009; Graham, Nosek, & Haidt, 2012).

Although MFT is not without its critics, we regard it as the most fully developed, integrative, and comprehensive theory of morality currently available. Much criticism to date has focused on MFT’s pluralism (Graham et al., 2013). Some critics (monists) dispute pluralism per se. For example, Gray et al. (2012) have argued that concern about interpersonal harm is the distilled essence of morality, and thus that care/harm is the one true moral foundation. Many moral judgments, however, are difficult to understand “through the lens of intention and suffering” (Gray et al., 2012, p. 103). Consider Simon Lokodo’s judgment that homosexuality is immoral. Many have argued that homosexuality is harmful, for instance, harmful to families or to society more generally (e.g., Bryant, 1977). But Gray et al.’s dyadic model of morality explicitly predicts greater concern for immoral acts that cause direct suffering than those that do not. Few could doubt that the rape of a child causes more “direct suffering” than private consensual sex between same-sex partners. Whereas Gray et al.’s monistic perspective has to shoehorn all moral judgments into the same category, MFT’s pluralism enables concern for rape victims and opposition to homosexuality to be viewed as the expression of different moral foundations—the former the expression of the “care” foundation and the latter founded in “binding” concerns for the welfare of the group and perhaps for bodily purity.

To cite another topical example, the social media service Facebook recently attracted criticism for allowing users to post graphic footage of beheadings, while prohibiting photos of videos containing nudity (including images of breastfeeding in which the baby does not totally obscure the nipple or in which the non-nursing breast is in view; see Clark, 2013). Given the amnesty for posting images of violent murder, it is difficult to see the proscription on breastfeeding images “through the lens of interpersonal harm” (Gray et al., 2012, p. 110). A final example concerns moral judgments of suicide, the self-directed nature of which poses an apparent problem for Gray et al.’s dyadic model. One might argue that people who commit suicide harm others (e.g., loved ones) as well as themselves, and that the harm to others is the source of disapprobation when suicide is concerned. However, a recent study by Rottman, Kelemen, and Young (2014) casts doubt on this explanation. Participants read a series of fictitious (but ostensibly real) obituaries describing suicide or homicide victims, and made a series of ratings (including rating the moral wrongness of each death). Whereas perceived harm was the only variable predicting moral judgments of homicide, feelings of disgust and purity concerns—but not harm ratings—predicted moral condemnations of suicide. Thus, contrary to participants’ explicit beliefs about their own moral judgments, suicide was deemed immoral to the extent that it was considered impure.

Other critics of MFT’s pluralism have not questioned the idea of pluralism per se, but have objected to MFT’s particular brand of pluralism. However, proponents of MFT do not claim that their list of five foundations is exhaustive, but have actively sought out arguments and evidence for others (e.g., research is currently underway to evaluate the additional candidates of liberty–oppression, efficiency–waste, and ownership–theft; Graham et al., 2013; Iyer, Koleva, Graham, Ditto, & Haidt, 2012). Moral foundations theorists have put forward their own celestial analogy to describe the process of identifying foundations:

There are millions of objects orbiting the sun, but astronomers do not call them all planets. There are six (including the Earth) that are so visible that they were recorded in multiple ancient civilizations, and then there are a bunch of objects further out that were discovered with telescopes. Astronomers disagreed for a while as to whether Pluto and some more distant icy bodies should be considered planets. Similarly, we are content to say that there are many aspects of human nature that contribute to and constrain moral judgment, and our task is to identify the most important ones. (Graham et al., 2013, pp. 104–105)

Using the fairness foundation for illustration, Graham et al. (2013) provide five criteria that any “aspect of human nature” must satisfy to qualify as a moral foundation. First, the relevant moral concern must feature regularly in third-party normative judgments, wherein people express condemnation for actions that have no direct consequences for them. Fairness certainly satisfies this requirement—as Graham and colleagues note, gossip about group members who violate fairness norms (e.g., who cheat, free ride, or neglect to reciprocate) is ubiquitous in human groups, with some authors even suggesting that gossip between third parties evolved as a mechanism for detecting and dissuading cheating and free riding (e.g., see Ingram, Piazza, & Bering, 2009). Second, violations of the moral principle in question must elicit rapid, automatic, affectively valenced evaluations. LoBue, Nishida, Chiong, DeLoache, and Haidt (2011) found that children as young as 3 years old reacted rapidly and negatively to unequal distributions of stickers, particularly personally disadvantageous distributions.

For Graham et al. (2013), these two criteria establish the “moral” quality of the foundations. Their last three criteria relate to foundationhood per se. First, foundational moral concerns should be culturally widespread. In terms of fairness, a preference for interactions based on proportionality is certainly widespread (Baumard & Boyer, 2013a; Gurven, 2004), and people from a diversity of cultures appear more interested in relative than absolute benefits (Brosnan & de Waal, 2005; Henrich et al., 2005). According to Graham et al., a society has yet to be identified in which reciprocity is not a prominent moral concern. Second, there should be indicators of innate preparedness for foundational concerns. Evidence that capuchin monkeys will sometimes forgo a food reward delivered by an experimenter who has previously paid another monkey a more attractive reward for equal effort (Brosnan & de Waal, 2003) suggests that fairness concerns are found in at least some nonhuman primates. Moreover, developmental studies show that young infants are sensitive to inequity. For example, Sloane, Baillargeon, and Premack (2012) found that 21-month-old children expected an experimenter to reward each of two individuals when both had worked at an assigned task, but not when one of the individuals had done all the work. Baumard, Mascaro, and Chevallier (2012) found that 3- and 4-year-old children were able to take merit into account by distributing tokens according to individual contributions.

Finally, an evolutionary model should clearly specify the adaptive advantage conferred by the candidate foundation upon individuals who bore it in the ancestral past (as Graham et al., 2013, note, a good evolutionary theory will not invoke biological group selection without adducing a great deal of additional support). Fairness meets this criterion nicely. For example, Baumard, André, and Sperber (2013) have compellingly argued that fairness preferences are adapted to an environment in which individuals competed to be selected and recruited for mutually advantageous cooperative interactions (see also Trivers, 1971).

Fractionating Religion: Religious Foundations?

Just as it is possible to decompose the category “morality” into a set of theoretically grounded elements, “religion” can be fractionated into distinct components with stable cognitive underpinnings. Research in the “cognitive science of religion” has not sought to demonstrate the universality of any particular religious representations, such as various notions of ancestors, punitive deities, creator beings, or sacrifices, blessings, and rites of passage. Rather, the aim has been to show that the great variety of culturally distributed dogmas and practices that have been collectively labelled “religion” are shaped and constrained by a finite but disparate set of evolved cognitive predispositions—what we might call “religious foundations.” These foundations comprise a set of evolved domain-specific systems, together with the intuitions and predispositions that those systems instill (see Baumard & Boyer, 2013b; also see Figure 2). Barring pathology—itself a valuable source of insight into natural cognition (Coltheart, 1984; Ellis & Young, 1988)—such tendencies emerge in all human beings without the need for deliberate instruction or training, even if their expression in development may be “tuned” by cultural environments (McCauley, 2011).

Although Saroglou (2011) provides a valuable synthesis of previous taxonomies of core religious dimensions, in our view, the dimensions he settles on (Believing, Bonding, Behaving, Belonging) do not correspond well to evolved cognitive systems, so are not good candidates for religious foundations. For example, Saroglou’s Believing dimension encompasses belief in “divine beings” and belief in “impersonal forces or principles” (p. 1323). There are at least two important and potentially dissociable supernatural concepts here: the notion of supernatural agency, on the one hand (e.g., gods, spirits, angels, “ancestors”), and the notion that our actions in this life have proportionate (Baumard & Boyer, 2013a), supernaturally mediated consequences, on the other. These consequences may be mediated by supernatural agents, as when gods bestow rewards or dispense punishments in this life or the next; but they may also reflect the impersonal unfolding of a cosmic principle (e.g., Saṃm.sāra). Moreover, supernatural agents are not necessarily in the business of attending to our behaviors and implementing relevant consequences—as we shall review, gods vary in their concerns with human affairs in general and with moral issues more specifically. In view of these various considerations, one could posit not one but two distinct dimensions of supernatural belief here: (a) supernatural agency, and (b) supernatural justice. Rather than take this route, our preference is to specify a small subset of evolved cognitive systems that, jointly or in isolation, would account for why these dimensions are cross-culturally and historically recurrent.

Here we discuss five strong candidates for religious foundationhood: (a) a system specialized for the detection of agents; (b) a system devoted to representing, inferring, and predicting the mental states of intentional agents; (c) a system geared toward producing teleofunctional explanations of objects and events; (d) a system specialized for affiliating with groups through the imitation of causally opaque action sequences; and (e) a system specialized for the detection of genetic kinship. Like proponents of MFT, we do not claim that this list is exhaustive, and future research may suggest alternative, or additional, candidates (when relevant, we discuss current alternate views). Our commitment, born of doubt that there is any “distilled essence” of religion (Gray et al., 2012), is primarily to a pluralistic approach. Nevertheless, based on an extensive review of the cognitive science of religion literature, the following represent the most plausible candidates for universal religious foundations, on current evidence.

Hyperactive Agency Detection

According to error management theory (Haselton, 2003; Haselton & Buss, 2000; Haselton & Nettle, 2006; D. D. P. Johnson, Blumstein, Fowler, & Haselton, 2013; McKay & Efferson, 2010), in any domain characterized by a recurrent asymmetry in the fitness costs of relevant errors, natural selection should favor the evolution of cognitive systems that minimize the more costly error(s). This logic has been used to undergird an influential claim in the cognitive science of religion. Guthrie (1993) has argued that for humans in the ancestral past, mistaking an agent (e.g., an approaching predator) for an inanimate object (e.g., a tree rustling in the wind) was more costly than the converse error. Humans should therefore be equipped by natural selection with biased agency-detection mechanisms—what J. L. Barrett (2000, 2004, 2012) has termed “Hyperactive [or hypersensitive] agent-detection devices” (HADDs).

HADDs are often described as perceptual mechanisms, devices biased toward the perception of agents in ambiguous stimulus configurations. A by-product of their functioning would be a tendency toward false positives (e.g., perceiving representations of human or animal figures in arbitrary collections of stars, or “faces in the clouds”; Guthrie, 1993). A broader conception of HADDs includes attributions of nonrandom structure (Bloom, 2007)—such as naturally occurring patterns and events with no clear physical cause—to the activity of agents. In other words, HADDs are a suite of hypothetical devices specialized for perceiving either agents or their effects. A corollary of these “proper functions” (Millikan, 2005) would be the postulation of unseen, or fleetingly visible, supernatural agents. Such notions, once posited, would be attention grabbing, memorable, and thus highly transmissible because of their resonance with intuitive cognitive structures such as HADDs (J. L. Barrett, 2000; J. L. Barrett & Lanman, 2008). Indeed, just as the cultural success of high-heeled shoes may owe to the fact that they function as supernormal stimuli (insofar as they exaggerate sex specific aspects of female gait; Morris et al., 2013), notions of supernatural agency may represent supernormal stimuli for evolved agency-detection mechanisms.

At present, the evidence for a connection between supernatural concepts and beliefs and agency cognition is mixed. On the one hand, Norenzayan and colleagues (Norenzayan, Hansen, & Cady, 2008; Willard & Norenzayan, 2013) have found that tendencies to anthropomorphize (e.g., to rate natural scenes using agentic concepts) predict paranormal beliefs (i.e., Psi, precognition) but not belief in God (at least not for Christian participants, who may view anthropomorphism as akin to idolatry and may therefore suppress it). Similarly, Van Elk (2013) found that whereas paranormal beliefs were strongly related to a tendency to erroneously identify walking human figures in point-light displays (see also Krummenacher, Mohr, Haker, & Brugger, 2010), traditional religious beliefs were not. However, in a follow-up priming study, van Elk, Rutjens, van der Pligt, and van Harreveld (in press) found that participants’ religiosity moderated the effect of supernatural priming on agency detection, such that religious participants perceived more agents and responded faster to face stimuli following supernatural primes than nonreligious participants. Meanwhile Riekki, Lindeman, Aleneff, Halme, and Nuortimo (2013) found that religious believers showed more of a bias than nonbelievers to indicate that photographs of inanimate scenes (e.g., furniture, buildings, natural landscapes) contained face-like images. In all of these studies, agency detection was a measured variable. As far as we are aware, to date, no published study has investigated whether manipulating cues of agency (e.g., watching eyes; see The Cross-Cultural Prevalence of Supernatural Punishment Concepts) can increase religious belief. Given the hypothesized causal route (whereby agency detection biases predispose humans to acquire beliefs in religious concepts), this may be a fruitful avenue for future research.

Theory of Mind (ToM)

Notions of supernatural beings as psychological entities with beliefs, preferences, and intentions—intentional agents—are also likely to be compelling for humans in light of their expertise in representing, inferring, and predicting the mental states of others (ToM; Baron-Cohen, 1995; Mitchell, 2009; Premack & Woodruff, 1978). Recent studies demonstrate a robust relationship between such “mentalizing” capacities and religious cognition (see Gervais, 2013b). For example, functional MRI experiments with religious participants have shown that religious belief (Kapogiannis et al., 2009) and improvised prayer (Schjoedt, Stødkilde-Jørgensen, Geertz, & Roepstorff, 2009) engage neural networks subserving ToM capacities. Moreover, supernatural believers rate the random movements of animated geometric objects as more intentional than skeptics do, and evince stronger activation of ToM-related networks while viewing such animations (Riekki, Lindeman, & Raij, 2014). Finally, Norenzayan, Gervais, and Trzesniewski (2012) found that autistic participants expressed less belief in God than did matched neurotypical controls. In follow-up studies using nonclinical samples, these authors found that higher autism scores predicted lower belief in God, a relationship mediated by mentalizing abilities.

ToM is also thought to play an important role in afterlife beliefs. It has been suggested, for example, that people spontaneously infer that dead relatives and friends are still present, even in the absence of cultural inputs to support such ideas. Bering and colleagues conducted experiments with children (Bering & Bjorklund, 2004; Bering, Blasi, & Bjorklund, 2005) and adults (Bering, 2002) in which participants were presented with scenarios in which specified agents (puppets in the case of the child studies) experienced various sensations, emotions, and thoughts prior to death (e.g., before being gobbled up by a crocodile-shaped puppet). Participants of all ages tended to make “discontinuity judgments” with respect to sensorimotor and perceptual capacities—for example, inferring that a dead agent would immediately lose the ability to walk, taste, smell, and feel hungry. At the same time, however, participants tended to reason that higher level cognitive functions, such as memories, emotions, and beliefs, would continue to function normally, such responses being coded as “continuity judgments” (E. Cohen & Barrett, 2008). Interestingly, this pattern was stronger in younger children, such that continuity judgments across all faculties gradually diminished with age; however, this pattern has not been replicated in some other studies (Astuti & Harris, 2008; Harris & Gimenez, 2005).

Bering’s (2002, 2006) explanation for these psychological findings hinges, in part, on what he calls the “simulation constraint hypothesis” (see Hodge, 2011, for a review). The idea is that although we can simulate the loss of perceptual capacities like sight and hearing simply by covering the relevant organs (the eyes and the ears), we cannot simulate the absence of thoughts, desires, memories, and so on. The proposal is akin to positing a “hyperactive” ToM, which makes it easier to represent minds as persisting, irrespective of what happens to the body (for related ideas, see Bloom, 2004, 2007). Even people who hold explicitly extinctivist beliefs (e.g., who are adamant, when questioned, that personal consciousness is terminated at death) make a striking number of continuity responses with respect to emotional, desire, and epistemic states (Bering, 2002, 2006). The root of this, Bering argues, is that humans have dedicated cognitive machinery for reasoning about mental states, which, unlike our capacities for reasoning about the mechanical and biological properties of bodies, cannot conceptualize total system failure.

If Bering (2002, 2006) is right that humans are incapable of simulating the absence of higher level cognitive functions, and if this putative incapacity is what underlies “continuity judgments,” then one would expect to observe a similar pattern in other scenarios involving a complete lack of sentience or experience. For example, participants should be unable to fully appreciate that people lack conscious experiences when under general anesthesia, or that inanimate objects such as carpets and kitchen utensils lack such experiences. Although we think this is implausible, it is an empirical question whether continuity judgments can be elicited in such scenarios. We note in this connection that recent research on prelife beliefs in Ecuadorian children indicates that, until about 9 to 10 years of age, they ascribe several biological and psychological capacities to their prelife selves; moreover, older children, who ascribe fewer capacities to themselves overall, are still more likely to ascribe certain mental states—in particular, emotional and desire states—to their prelife selves than other mental states (e.g., perceptual, epistemic states; Emmons & Kelemen, 2014).

Teleofunctional Explanations

Another foundational cognitive predisposition where religion is concerned may be a tendency to favor teleofunctional reasoning. Research by Kelemen and colleagues (e.g., Kelemen, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2004) suggests that children display a broad inclination to view objects and behaviors of all kinds—including features of the natural world—as existing for a purpose. For instance, when confronted with multiple accounts of why rocks are “pointy,” children tend to reject explanations that appeal to the effects of long-term erosion by wind and rain, and instead prefer functional accounts such as “rocks are pointy to stop elephants sitting on them.”

Although it may be tempting to think that this teleological bias is attributable simply to acquisition of a creationist worldview (e.g., regular retellings of the Genesis story), several lines of evidence suggest otherwise. For instance, Evans (2001) has found that, irrespective of their community of origin (whether Christian fundamentalist or nonfundamentalist), young children prefer “creationist” explanations of natural phenomena; only later in development do the children of nonfundamentalists diverge from the position that natural phenomena result from nonhuman design. Research conducted with nonschooled Romani adults, who are unfamiliar with scientific accounts of evolutionary origins, arguably demonstrates the persistence of teleological intuitions into adulthood (Casler & Kelemen, 2008). Moreover, elderly patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that erodes semantic memory (including scientific schemas), are more likely to accept and prefer unwarranted teleological explanations than healthy participants (Lombrozo, Kelemen, & Zaitchik, 2007). Finally, university students (Kelemen & Rosset, 2009), and even actively publishing physical scientists (Kelemen, Rottman, & Seston, 2013), demonstrate increased acceptance of teleological explanations of natural phenomena when their information-processing resources are limited. These results suggest that an underlying tendency to construe the world in functional terms is present throughout life (Kelemen & Rosset, 2009). If so, this tendency may render notions of intelligent supernatural designers, who have created the world and everything in it for a purpose, especially compelling (Kelemen, 2004).

Ojalehto, Waxman, and Medin (2013) present an intriguing “relational–deictic” interpretation of this putative teleological bias. According to these authors, although many teleological explanations that children favor may seem “unwarranted” (Kelemen & Rosset, 2009; Kelemen et al., 2013) from a Western, scientific perspective, this is a culturally infused stance. Thus, just as our tendency to speak of the sun as “rising” reflects our particular geocentric perspective on the relation between the earth and the sun, and does not (anymore) represent our abstract beliefs (Purzycki, 2013), an utterance such as “rainclouds are for giving animals water” may reflect an appreciation of the perspectival relations among living things and their environments rather than a deep-seated intuition about context-independent purpose in nature. To the extent that this relational-deictic stance represents a cognitive default, however, it may still serve as a strong foundation for religious cultural notions. In particular, although we agree with Ojalehto et al. (2013, p. 169) that “teleological statements do not necessarily signify a commitment to an intentional creator,” we think it plausible that tendencies to view the world in functional terms—whether the functions in question are intrinsic to entities or relationships—may make notions of purposeful creator beings especially resonant. Recent evidence that acceptance of teleological explanations is related to belief in God, as well as to belief in Nature as a powerful “being” (Kelemen et al., 2013; see also Willard & Norenzayan, 2013), is consistent with this suggestion.

The “Ritual Stance”

Humans often imitate each other without knowing why—that is, with little or no understanding of how the actions contribute to goals. Causal opacity of this kind is a hallmark feature of ritualized behavior. In rituals, the relationship between actions and stated goals (if indeed they are stated at all) cannot, even in principle, be specified in physical–causal terms (P. A. Herrmann, Legare, Harris, & Whitehouse, 2013; Whitehouse, 2011). Social anthropologists have often observed that ritual participants are powerless to explain why they carry out their distinctive procedures and ceremonies, appealing only to tradition or the ancestors. But of considerable interest, too, is the fact that nobody has any difficulty understanding the anthropologist’s question, when she asks what the rituals mean. People know that ritualized actions can be invested with functions and symbolic properties even though they may struggle on occasion to identify what those may be, often pointing the hapless researcher in the direction of somebody older or wiser (Humphrey & Laidlaw, 1994; Staal, 1989).

Imitation of causally opaque behavior is a distinctively human trait. None of the other great apes shows a marked interest in devising highly stylized procedures and bodily adornments and using these to demarcate and affiliate with cultural groups. Although chimpanzees and other primates do engage in social learning, they attend preferentially to technically useful skills that transparently contribute to proximal end goals (Call, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2005). Because rituals lack overt usefulness, most animals would not see any value in copying them. Yet by meticulously conforming to arbitrary social conventions, human groups bind themselves together into cooperative units facilitating cooperation on a scale that is very rare in nature.

From an evolutionary perspective, deriving the benefits of group living requires a means of identifying ingroup members (the ones you should cooperate with) and out-groups (people you should avoid or compete with). One solution is to have a distinctive set of group conventions or rituals (of course, there are other means too, e.g., humans use language to communicate about group identity). When a set of rituals is performed frequently enough, it becomes easy to identify unauthorized innovations, and so the group’s beliefs and practices can be standardized across substantial populations (Whitehouse, 2004).

One of the many clues that ritualistic behavior is written into our species’ evolved biological makeup is the fact that it emerges early in development (Nielsen, 2006). Even infants show considerable interest in causally opaque behavior and will try to copy it (Gergely, Bekkering, & Király, 2002). Indeed, the willingness to copy arbitrary conventions is essential for acquiring language requiring us to accept that arbitrary utterances refer to stable features of the world around us, not because there is a causal relationship between the sound and the thing it refers to, but simply because that is the accepted convention. The human tendency to copy causally opaque behavior is sometimes called “overimitation” (Whiten, McGuigan, Marshall-Pescini, & Hopper, 2009). Psychologists have known for some time that if you show children an unnecessarily complicated way of retrieving an object from a box, they will copy not only the causally necessary behavior but also the useless frills (Lyons, Young, & Keil, 2007). One possibility is that overimitation evolved to help children acquire complex technical skills in the absence of a fuller understanding of their underlying causal structure (Schulz, Hooppell, & Jenkins, 2008). Another possibility is that overimitation is designed to help children learn arbitrary group conventions or “rituals.” Such behavior may be motivated by a desire to belong, rather than to learn anything technically useful (P. A. Herrmann et al., 2013; Kenward, Karlsson, & Persson, 2011). This view is supported by recent research showing that priming ostracism threat increases the propensity to imitate causally opaque action sequences (Watson-Jones, Legare, Whitehouse, & Clegg, 2014).

Kinship Detection

Inclusive fitness theory predicts that organisms will behave in ways that preferentially benefit kin, with more benefits conferred as the degree of genetic relatedness between the actor and the recipient increases (Hamilton, 1964). Mechanisms for recognizing and calibrating kinship are critical for such behaviors to evolve and can be classified as one of two broad types: those that exploit direct, phenotypic cues (e.g., visual similarity to self), and those that exploit indirect, contextual cues (e.g., coresidence early in life; DeBruine et al., 2011; Penn & Frommen, 2010). According to Lieberman, Tooby, and Cosmides (2007), cues indicative of kinship are taken as input by two separate motivational systems. The first regulates altruistic behaviors toward kin (Krupp, Debruine, & Barclay, 2008), whereas the second regulates sexual attraction and aversion, thereby avoiding the deleterious consequences associated with close inbreeding (Bittles & Neel, 1994).

As Pinker (2012) points out, kin recognition in humans depends on cues (in particular, linguistic cues) that others can manipulate:

Thus people are also altruistic toward their adoptive relatives, and toward a variety of fictive kin such as brothers in arms, fraternities and sororities, occupational and religious brotherhoods, crime families, fatherlands, and mother countries. These faux families may be created by metaphors, simulacra of family experiences, myths of common descent or common flesh, and other illusions of kinship.

Cultural manipulations of kinship detection machinery may be rife in ritualistic behavior. As Saroglou (2011) notes, religious rituals serve to bond ritual participants together. Such rituals may accomplish this, in part, by incorporating a range of kinship cues. First, many religious rituals involve artificial phenotypic cues of kinship—similar costumes, headdress, face paint, and so forth. Second, social synchrony is a key feature of many religious rituals, and has long been hypothesized to promote group cohesion (e.g., Durkheim, 1915/1965; Turner, 1969/1995). Recent experimental studies confirm that synchronic movement increases cooperation among participants. For example, Wiltermuth and Heath (2009) found that participants who engaged in synchronic behaviors (e.g., walking in step, synchronous singing and moving) contributed more to the public good in subsequent group economic measures than control participants. Fischer, Callander, Reddish, and Bulbulia (2013)

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