Re: Religion Explained -- Almost

From: Mark Walker (
Date: Tue Jul 17 2001 - 10:27:50 MDT

In his review Robin Hanson wrote:
"...why not just postulate that humans evolved a tendency to gullibility
about the supernatural, in order to signal our cooperativeness?

That is, it may be hard to fake a tendency toward supernatural belief, and
such beliefs may tend to make you more cooperative, for fear of punishment
by moralistic supernatural observers. If so, it can be in your gene's
interest for you to tend to hold such beliefs, even if that sometimes
induces wasteful actions. (Your genes might, for example, just tip the
balance toward believing in entities that violate ontological assumptions.)
Supernatural beliefs would then be a credible signal of cooperativeness.
Irrationality would be a signal, similar to the way emotional expressions
can signal commitment, or they way people seem prone to overestimate their
own abilities, in order to impress potential allies.

Perhaps Boyer will think my proposed modification to be of little
consequence relative to his main purpose of explaining the sorts of
religious beliefs that people have. And as I said, Boyer deserves credit for
substantial progress on just this question. But I think religion will not
really be explained until we have an answer to the crucial question of why
people seem so much more willing to take fiction for fact in this area."

    I am not sure from your summary, but I take it that perhaps the most
plausible development of your hypothesis is that supernatural beliefs are a
credible signal of intragroup cooperativeness as opposed to intergroup
cooperativeness. As a corollary, we might suppose that differences in
religious belief discourage defection to other groups. A skeptic might
wonder whether this can be so given that conflict over religious differences
seems such a heavy price to pay. The obvious rebuttal is that groups that
did not employ as developed a system of signalling cooperativeness did not
survive. Let's hope that modern forms of rationality tip the scales in our
favour! One way to confirm the 'social cohesion hypothesis' would be to look
for instances of intragroup (defined by adherence to a single religion)
break-down. Looking at the historical record this view ought to favour a
higher incidence of conflicts spawning new religions. In other words,
religious differences are said to spawn numerous wars, but it may be the
case that regularly wars spawn religious differences.

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