From human sacrifice to Santa Claus: the cultural evolution of religious beliefs

Even if December 25th is more about Santa Claus than Jesus Christ in your family, UBC’s Edward Slingerland says that Christmas and other religious holidays remain crucial for society.

“Holidays help us express and affirm our cultural values,” says Slingerland, who recently launched the world’s largest study on the evolution of religion with colleagues at UBC and SFU. “So as culture changes, whether through immigration or evolution of attitudes, our holidays will evolve as well.”

“That time spent strengthening bonds with family, friends and community, has real meaning for people and is important for social cohesion,” says Slingerland, who is a professor in UBC’s Dept. of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition.

Slingerland is primary investigator for one of the largest research grants ever awarded to a Canadian social science and humanities scholar, a $3-million award to establish the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC), centered at UBC. Slingerland calls religion one of the least studied and most misunderstood aspects of human life.

“While recent literature has positioned religion as something dangerous or disposable, our hypothesis is that religion has been key to the evolution and success of large-scale societies,” says Slingerland. “As our world becomes more diverse and interconnected, understanding people’s deeply held religious beliefs is increasingly important for reducing conflicts and grasping the dynamics that make societies more cohesive.”

The project brings together more than 50 top researchers from around the world—including Oxford and Harvard—and fields such as religious studies, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, biology and economics. It is likely the first time that scholars from such a wide variety of disciplines have been brought together on a single research project, says Slingerland.

CERC has a number of flagship projects. Researchers are working to create world’s largest database of human cultural history—from the earliest archeological records to today—organized by historical time, geography, ecology and a host of social variables that will allow researchers to test sophisticated and detailed hypotheses about the evolution of religious culture.

Another project will trace the cultural evolution of religious rituals, from human sacrifices to pilgrimages to holy sites, and explore the underlying social conditions that caused these rites to appear, persist and change. “These studies will help to understand how cultural beliefs and rituals have mutated over time, just as genes have evolved.”

One of the key questions Slingerland and his collaborators are exploring is the evolution of conceptions of supernatural beings from largely amoral beings, typified by the Greek gods, to the morally concerned gods of the world’s major world religions, such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.

The UBC-led team believes the cultural evolution of these sorts of beliefs and practices helped groups transform from subsistence to urban societies with large populations. According to Slingerland, these include costly displays, which signify commitment to group values, rituals that bring people together with movement and song, and the grounding of values in ideas such as God’s will or the law of karma.

“If God cares if you are being honest in your economic dealings and being faithful to your spouse, and a good person to your neighbor, you are more likely to be good,” he explains. “Our hypothesis is that groups that hit upon this package of religious beliefs and practices were able to bind people in a powerful way that has helped them to flourish and expand, at the expense of less cohesive groups.”

In addition to a historical team led by Slingerland and SFU’s Mark Collard, the Ethnographic-Experimental team, led by UBC psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Joe Henrich, will conduct studies on populations around the globe, including more than 10 ethnographic field bases in North American, Asia, Europe, and Africa, including small-scale societies in Fiji, the Congo, and Tanzania.

“Right now, more than 90 per cent of social psychology research is being done on North American college students, which are poor representatives for the global population,” says Slingerland, citing research by Henrich, Norenzayan and UBC psychologist Steve Heine.

“By testing our hypotheses across a wide variety of cultures we will gain a better understanding of cross-cultural differences, gain greater certainty concerning claims about psychological universality, and provide much greater understanding of how religion functions in society today.”

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