Central Research Questions

Are religious beliefs and behaviors linked to within-group solidarity and cooperation?

This central question will be broken down into a set of related sub-questions, ranging in scope from cognitive processes at the individual level to broader group dynamics and cultural and historical processes:

  • Are religious beliefs derived from an overprojection of Theory of Mind (ToM), and can we document a link between strength of ToM and religiosity among contemporary subjects using neuroimaging and other experimental techniques? Is overprojection of ToM is a basic building block of religious belief?
  • Are “religious” supernatural beliefs fundamentally different from beliefs in other supernatural agents, such as Santa Claus, and is this difference linked to their social function?
  • How do rituals work, cognitively and socially? Does ritual participation or devotional practice deepen commitment to the group? Do we find different styles of rituals (e.g., imagistic vs. doctrinal) functioning cross-culturally in the predicted manner?
  • Are adherents of modern world religions with the predicted package of key elements more prosocial and cooperative in, for example, situations that involve impersonal trust, honesty, and fairness? How do these adherents compare to atheists and to believers in the traditional or local religions that have dominated human history?
  • Is religious cooperation inherently parochial, and how does it relate to out-group hostility? What are the implications for both international relations and religiously diverse societies such as Canada?
  • What combinations of elements are necessary to make a person deeply religious and morally committed, acting in ways motivated by supernatural beliefs or metaphysical frameworks? Are people natural believers, or is cultural transmission crucial?
  • Do we find religious beliefs functioning as hypothesized in historical cultures throughout the world? Have moralizing gods and afterlife beliefs coevolved with complex societies? Are religious beliefs crucial for supporting moral judgments?
  • How have environmental factors such as drought, plagues, earthquakes, and hurricanes influenced religious beliefs and the spread of new religions? Does existential insecurity create fertile ground for certain kinds of religiosity and greater cooperation?
  • How do strong secular institutions—ones that mitigate existential insecurity and galvanize cooperation without supernatural beliefs—impact the evolution of religion? Could such institutions supplant religion, or generate new evolutionary pathways linked only to personal fulfillment? Do stronger secular institutions drive cultural evolution from a focus on vengeful, authoritarian deities to loving and gentle gods?
  • What impact on decision-making does making a value or belief “sacred” (i.e., linked to God or the metaphysical structure of the universe) have? How do such “sacred values” complicate international relations and the resolution of international conflicts?
  • Holding secular institutions constant, are less religious countries less cooperative and less economically productive? If religiosity makes citizens more civic-minded and economically productive, what are the implications for public policy?
  • Why do religious groups splinter into sub-groups, and what factors influence the differential survival of religions?