Saturday, 12 March 2016

Are The Religious More Cooperative?

The regular February Manchester meeting was was replaced with a celebratory evening at the Manchester Conference Centre to mark Darwin’s birthday on 12th February.   The Darwin Day Celebration spanned the evening and was attended by 142 visitors including a number of Muslim families.  There were a range of exhibits from Water Aid, Amnesty International, Population Matters, Hominid Evolution, Natural V’s Supernatural, digitart, LGBT and several Manchester schools displayed projects on evolution and Charles Darwin available throughout the evening .  At 7.30pm children from Abraham Moss and Alma Park Primary Schools provided individual presentations on Darwin’s work and this was followed by a group song on evolution to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down”.  The children were extremely enthusiastic in their delivery and their teacher Paula Hayes has to be commended for the smooth direction of the acts.

Dr Susanne Shultz then presented an outline of contemporary research and thinking on evolutionary biology and on the studies that she directs at the University of Manchester in light of the wider question of whether religious societies are more co-operative.  

Susanne touched upon a number of strands of research.  She talked about her own research into the factors that make primate societies distinctive and why humans have been able to develop large complex societies.  There has been a positive correlation over evolutionary time between brain size and the level of societal co-operation and thus group living.  Human cognition allows for the appreciation of art, and enables us to dance, to write, to make music, to communicate and to cooperate.  Susanne explored whether religion was a by product of human cognitive advancement in that it meets both individual and group level needs.  On an individual basis people get a sense of belonging and can be provided for materially through the religious system which provides security.   In addition, it has been shown that membership has health benefits and communal activities activate positive hormonal changes in the form of endorphins.  The group benefits relate to bonding and cooperation and provide a mechanism for punishing cheats.  Susanne highlighted that there are always costs and benefits associated with membership of such groups.  The costs can be associated with a particular dress code, punishments or abstinences and these can also signal membership.  People are prepared to pay this price for membership and belonging and for rules to exclude dishonest members.  Susanne touched upon similar evolutionary traits in the animal world, where some animals develop highly distinctive or costly characteristics to be part of an exclusive group, e.g. the peacock’s distinctive plumage.  Sosis (2002) has examined communal societies and how long these societies lasted.

Susanne focused on whether religious groups were more cooperative than non-religious groups as analysed by the findings of the World Social Values Survey.  This survey examined how religious and non-religious groups viewed anti-social behaviour, helping others, and volunteering and how they viewed outside groups.  The  survey found that religious groups were more cooperative but were less open to people from groups other than their own.  

Suzanne pointed out that it has been empirically accepted that religious societies are more cooperative.  However a number of recent studies are serving to counter this.  For example, Decetey (2015) found that non-religious children were kinder than religious children.  Suzanne also referred to her own work in this area which argues that primates have inherent characteristics of cooperation that we have evolved these tendencies and that religion is not the only method by which groups can cooperate.  She suggested a number of other ways of providing the positive benefits of religious membership.  The positive feelings associated with religious rituals are also found in other ritual activities such as football audience participation.  In addition, the individual benefits relating to security associated with religious membership can be met by modern day welfare state systems: religious membership levels have fallen in western societies with their introduction.   

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