Researchers look to prove that religion was ‘cornerstone to civilizations’


Seven years ago, social psychologist Ara Norenzayan gathered 125 participants at the University of British Columbia, asked them to solve a word puzzle and then handed them $10 with instructions to share it with a stranger.

As expected, some participants kept the whole sum and some split it 50-50 — but the surprising thing was how easily their generosity could be moulded by the subtleties of the word puzzle.

Participants who completed a puzzle peppered with religious words, such as “spirit,” “God” or “prophet,” largely decided to split the cash. Participants with neutral word puzzles, meanwhile, barely shared at all.

Even if they did not realize it, the belief in a “supernatural police” officer appeared to be inspiring subconscious outpourings of generosity, Mr. Norenzayan mused to reporters.

For decades, academia has largely ignored religion as irrelevant or at worst, parasitic. But a new — and controversial — theory holds that cities, agriculture and even society as we know it would never have taken hold if humanity had not believed a deity was keeping tabs. And now, with six years, $3-million and a travel schedule that will bring them to the most remote corners of the planet, a team of Vancouver researchers are out to prove once and for all that religion may be humanity’s greatest “cultural technology.”

“There is a view that religion is an ancient superstition that’s going to fall away,” said Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia and the lead of a massive Canadian project billed as world’s largest academic study of religion.

Written By: Tristin Hopper
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  1. Just because it was relevant then doesn’t make it relevant now. We’ve evolved since then.

  2. Do it again, dotting the puzzle with words like ‘police’, ‘mother’, ‘headmaster’ and let me know how you get on.

    And without information of the breakdown of who they did this with, the information is largely useless. You’ll get different results doing this outside a church as to outside a Dawkins lecture and different again when you put the puzzle to older people compared to younger.

    Also, why do these things never link to the data? Like my maths teacher always said, “Show your working out.”!

  3. I agree with all of the above. In the first place, what should be painfully obvious to this man is that he is gauging the psychology of modern man, not early man, in this test. People who have been conditoned by their religions early on probably do make the connections the good Dr. finds. This says nothing about primitive man or primitive societies.

  4.  I agree, but it doesn’t make the theory less interesting or valid. There are some big if’s here but if it’s true it’s true. In the end, it doesn’t provide any moral justification for religion in this time, quite the contrary.
    At the time a supernatural police might have been advantageous, but it’s
    role have long since been replaced by a physical police force that does
    a far better job.  

  5. Smacks of bias and desperation. Unconvinced; probably true in the uneducated world, much less so for the more fortunate. Indicates the religious still seek God’s brownie points. 

  6. I, myself, am partial to the theory that BEER was, in fact, responsible for all these goodies attributed to religion. See, for example, the “How Beer Saved the World” documentary. 

  7. Ironic if religion “started” civilization, but its elimination was needed to preserve civilization.

  8.  theory holds that cities, agriculture and even society as we know it would never have taken hold if humanity had not believed a deity was keeping tabs

    i don’t doubt this.  the question, for me at least, is what would cities, agriculture, society, and even science have been like without a belief that a deity was keeping tabs.

  9. Ancient social groups needed knowledge of seasons, day-length, times to sow crops, astronomical navigations for traders travelling with goods, and the wisdom acquired by the elders respected, so the benefit of it was available to the tribal groups within socially cohesive groups. This involved in communal efforts, and with individuals specialising in particular skills and trades. 
    Religions, then as now, provided the knowledge-gap-fillers, and the false authority of manipulative politics, which allowed elites to seize power and monopolise management and literacy skills to their own advantage.

  10. Ah, again psychology teaches us nothing we wanted to know about ourselves!

    As others have mentioned, I’d be curious to know just what the different puzzles were.  If you had puzzles with things like “mother”, “police”, etc, if it would get you the same result.  Or for that matter if your puzzle had things like “share” and “donnate” in it.

    Of course, they may have already done exactly this, I don’t know.  But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if secular/real-world authority figures may have a smaller impact than supernatural ones. 

  11. Well… if it turns out to be accurate, I’d argue that it would show that we just need better religions than the ones we have now.  Pastafarianism goes big-time!

  12. Could be accurate; I don’t want to reject it just because I don’t like the implication. But, I can think of another two explanations.

    Whether or not religion leads to morality, people commonly associate the two. So doing a word puzzle on religion could turn people’s thoughts to morality. Again, another study could test other words to see if that was the case.

    Or possibly more likely in my mind–the participants weren’t blithering idiots, saw that it was a test on religious values, and played along. If someone gave me a smattering of words like “climate,” “endangered” and “renewable” and then gave me a transparent sharing test, I’d do my best to make environmentalists look good. 

  13. There was a study that people behaved better when they believed they were being watched – for children, they were told that an invisible princess was watching. I think for adults they put in a security camera that wasn’t attached to anything. But this is hardly the cause for civilization arising.
    We depended on each other for survival long before we even conceived of cities. If you didn’t cooperate, your group would ostracize you, and your fitness level would decline. Those who cooperated were probably more successful – they were able to hunt large herd animals as well as being better able to defend their food stores. That behavior surely must have played a large role in the evolution of the cooperative species we are today.

  14. “Are out to prove once and for all” doesn’t sound like a team of scientists conducting research, more like a team of apologists trying to justify their preconceived notions.

    How about priming people subliminally with some other words like justice, fairness, friendship, children, hunger, poverty..?

    How about testing if religious words also make people less eager to share their assets with people they know to be from an out-group: another religion, ethnicity, nationality, educational background? How about sharing their assets with homosexuals, infidels, atheists, apostates? Career women vs. house viwes?

    We know already from other studies that religion fosters in-group loyalty and out-group hostility. That was great for Sumerians, but disastrous for the global community of 2012.

  15.  Completely agree that our moral foundations lie much further back into evolutionary history pulled into clear focus by the morality tests designed by scientists as well as natural moral behaviour and social do’s and don’ts observed in the wild. As far as the birth of cities and civilization Andrew Marr’s jolly good television series “A History of the World” recently explained that, of course, it was the discovery of agriculture that allowed nomadic people to settle down and with the extra food came a population explosion etc. etc. Chalk another one up to guys with facts.

  16. There are plenty of modern human groups who had religion and never developed agriculture. The Australians for one. What does that mean?

  17. From the article,
    Quote…”We have an idea that certain rituals and beliefs make societies more successful and more likely to expand at the expense of other societies”
    …. unquote.
    Yes but the same applies to weapons technology, from the use of bows & arrows, gunpowder even transport. But we need to move on.
    I fully agree that religion has helped to give birth to civilisation. but the time has come to cut the umbilical cord and throw away the afterbirth.

  18. One distinction that I think ought to be made more often is this: civilization x NEEDED y to thrive, and civilization x USED y to thrive. The proposition that supernatural concepts were used as a means of organization and supremacy should surprise no one. Yet here we are, people claiming that because religion was used, religion was necessary. Furthermore, the latter seems dubious and it cannot bridge the gap from religion was used then and religion ought to be used now.

  19.  As a sociology student, I feel I should say that sociology may not be nowhere near 100% reliable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an enemy of “hard” sciences. It is also most definitely *not* a tool to “prove” that religions are important and using it as such is both bad science and bad sociology.

    I know that most of you have a poor opinion of social sciences in general, but let me assure you that, as ColdThinker said, “Are out to prove once and for all” is *not* something you are allowed to say in any kind of sociology based context. Once again, it’s bad science and bad sociology.

    Also, I am just a student and my understanding of my own (future) field isn’t that impressive, but Alan4discussion’s explanations seem more plausible than what is proposed in this article. However, I do need to say that since what a society *does* is very much dependant on what a society, as a whole, *thinks*, it makes sense that those early societies’ beliefs shaped what technological achievements they were able to conceive and how they viewed morality. It doesn’t mean, however, that TODAY we still need religion. There are other social institutions that replaced religion, science itself being one of them.

  20. I hope proper control groups were set up so that the effects of a specific social control mechanism (in this case religion) could be differentiated from the effects of other causes of altruism

    Or is this another case of religious people making unsupported conclusions from inadequate evidence, because that would be unethical, and I wouldn’t want them to have that on their consciences.

  21. It is important to note that the proposed studies are not scientific studies. It does, however, already bear some of the hallmarks of pseudo-science.

    Arts faculties are directing this project. A great deal of the plan appears to cover simply gathering data selectively. A quick review of the available information on the projects aims and processes reveals a lot of closed-question suppositional starting points.


  22. “sociology may not be nowhere near 100% reliable”
    Assuming the double-negative was unintentional – In this case we appear to have an ideology based hypothesis which references the ‘sharing’ test. In that the spectrum of key words and their characterisation by researchers is narrow and anticipatory; the subjects backgrounds are of key relevance.

    ““That (a monotheistic moral autocrat god) makes it possible for people to bind themselves into larger units than was possible before.” – Slingerland.

    There we have the conclusion they intend to reach, when the ‘data’ is in.

    “When the database of CERC’s findings goes public in 2018, researchers will be able to select any historical period or region of the world and be provided with an itemized list of what the locals believed, how it affected their population size, agricultural prowess and military might — and even how they expressed their collective faith, right down to whether they circumcised their sons or got neck tattoos.” (my italics)

    Clearly this will be a devastating assemblage of ‘facts’ engineered into conclusions bravely cantilevered beyond all logical support.

    My response above does illustrate a couple of general implications for sociology of flawed scientific method. I agree with you that Alan 4’s remarks seem more likely. I’m not sure that

    “…it makes sense that those early societies’ beliefs shaped what technological achievements they were able to conceive”

    Possibly the pooling of information within one group might have helped. The mindset of acceptance of the status quo together with the lack of any concept of ‘progress’ would hinder innovation.

    Interesting that the ancient polytheist civilisations of the Indian subcontinent and eastern Asia are not seen to counter their hypothesis.

    I would be interested to discover the source(s) of their funding.

  23. Dreamweaver
    Also, I am just a student and my understanding of my own (future) field isn’t that impressive, but Alan4discussion’s explanations seem more plausible than what is proposed in this article. However, I do need to say that since what a society *does* is very much dependant on what a society, as a whole, *thinks*, it makes sense that those early societies’ beliefs shaped what technological achievements they were able to conceive and how they viewed morality.

    I think that once you start looking at specialisation, in larger societies, there are emerging “trade gilds”, with specialist knowledge, mixed with quackery, tradition. religion, and moral / business issues.
    These social / political / business, groups (warriors, metal workers, builders, boat-builders, carpenters, medicine men, astronomers/astrologers, scribes, priests etc) were rather like societies within societies with their own traditions and aspects of trade-secrecy and elitism.

  24. @OP:disqus  – Even if they did not realize it, the belief in a “supernatural police” officer appeared to be inspiring subconscious outpourings of generosity, Mr. Norenzayan mused to reporters.

    It seems to me, that in ancient societies, much of the “above subsistence level wealth”, was channelled into monuments and palaces or fortifications around the elite, and also into temples for the priests, who as part of, or in co-operation with, the elite, monopolised various forms of knowledge, to control the calendar of events and the population.  
    This does generate archaeological structures which are easy to find, whereas a more even less centralised distribution of wealth, tends to leave less in the way of measurable identifiable structures or records.

    Early archaeologists also made mistakes in believing that the earliest civilisations were in dry climates which best preserved study materials, where they were easy to find in the absence of decay and vegetation cover.

  25. Yes. Knowledge seen as power but also as a finite resource and ‘art’. No one was reaching rigorously verifiable conclusions (unlike our researchers).

    The idea that a single cosmic judge, rather than a societal judiciary, punishing aberrations is a more effective deterrant is contradicted by plenty of statistics; need I find the references?

  26. Once again, I agree with you. The thing is that even if these specialized fields had rules of their own, they would have to be “legitimated” in a larger scale by the generated consesus in a society, and that is where religion comes in, at least according to some theories. However, even if this was 100% certain, it doesn’t mean that civilization needs religion, only that civilization needs (at least to the authors of those theories) some mechanism to generate that consensus and explain reality.   That would happen precisely because of that specialization, because there would emerge a group of people (the churches), whose purpose would be to (poorly) explain reality, which is basically what you’ve said before.  And if the churches and elites would have a monopoly on what was legitimate or not, they could use it to forbid, allow or shape the way in wich less powerful groups existed. Of course, this would would not depend only on the relations of power between groups, but also on the physical environment of a given society. An “acceptable” example of the effects of religion in society was how loaning worked in the middle ages, Jews were the loaners because their religion, unlike catholicism, didn’t see usury (not sure if this is well translated, english is not my first language) as a sin.
    I think I’m not telling you anything you didn’t know already, you seem to know a lot more than me about these subjects, I’m just trying to clarify what I meant. In retrospect I think my “as a whole” was not a good choice of words.

  27. No, it was not intentional. I don’t believe you cant trust, at face value, the results of a subject in which your ideology can influence your results in such a manner, or in which your results can be interpreted in many different ways. What I think, and that is why I’m studying it, is that sociology can still help us understand how human society works, if we don’t develop a blind faith is this or that theory, this or that ideology. The good thing about it is that if a result can be criticized, it *will* be criticized. There is always someone with another opinion. And this project, in particular, does have many flaws, mostly those you already mentioned. Sadly, I am quite sure they will be taken seriously by some, yet even those that might agree that their proposal makes any sense, will probably admit their methodology is just awful.

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