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Material insecurity predicts greater commitment to moralistic and less commitment to local deities: a cross-cultural investigation



The existential security hypothesis predicts that in the absence of more successful secular institutions, people will be attracted to religion when they are materially insecure. Most assessments, however, employ data sampled at a state-level with a focus on world religions. Using individual-level data collected in societies of varied community sizes with diverse religious traditions including animism, shamanism, polytheism, and monotheism, we conducted a systematic cross-cultural test (N = 1820; 14 societies) of the relationship between material insecurity (indexed by food insecurity) and religious commitment (indexed by both beliefs and practices). Moreover, we examined the relationship between material security and individuals’ commitment to two types of deities (moralistic and local), thus providing the first simultaneous test of the existential security hypothesis across co-existing traditions. Our results indicate that while material insecurity is associated with greater commitment to moralistic deities, it predicts less commitment to local deity traditions.
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Material insecurity predicts greater commitment
to moralistic and less commitment to local deities:
a cross-cultural investigation
Adam Baimel, Coren Apicella, Quentin Atkinson, Alex Bolyanatz, Emma
Cohen, Carla Handley, Joseph Henrich, Eva Kundtová Klocová, Martin Lang,
Carolyn Lesogorol, Sarah Mathew, Rita McNamara, Cristina Moya, Ara
Norenzayan, Caitlyn D. Placek, Monserrat Soler, Thomas Vardy, Jonathan
Weigel, Aiyana Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas & Benjamin Purzycki
To cite this article: Adam Baimel, Coren Apicella, Quentin Atkinson, Alex Bolyanatz, Emma
Cohen, Carla Handley, Joseph Henrich, Eva Kundtová Klocová, Martin Lang, Carolyn Lesogorol,
Sarah Mathew, Rita McNamara, Cristina Moya, Ara Norenzayan, Caitlyn D. Placek, Monserrat
Soler, Thomas Vardy, Jonathan Weigel, Aiyana Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas & Benjamin Purzycki
(2022) Material insecurity predicts greater commitment to moralistic and less commitment
to local deities: a cross-cultural investigation, Religion, Brain & Behavior, 12:1-2, 4-17, DOI:
To link to this article:
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Informa
UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis
Published online: 06 Apr 2022.
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Material insecurity predicts greater commitment to moralistic and
less commitment to local deities: a cross-cultural investigation
Adam Baimel
, Coren Apicella
, Quentin Atkinson
, Alex Bolyanatz
Emma Cohen
, Carla Handley
, Joseph Henrich
, Eva Kundtová Klocová
Martin Lang
, Carolyn Lesogorol
, Sarah Mathew
, Rita McNamara
,Cristina Moya
Ara Norenzayan
,Caitlyn D. Placek
,Monserrat Soler
,Thomas Vardy
,Jonathan Weigel
Aiyana Willard
,Dimitris Xygalatas
, and Benjamin Purzycki
Centre for Psychological Research, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, United Kingdom;
Department of
Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA;
Department of Linguistic and Cultural
Evolution, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany;
School of Psychology, University
of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand;
Social Science Sub-Division, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL, USA;
School of
Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom;
Wadham College,
University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom;
Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State University, Tempe,
Arizona, USA;
Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA;
LEVYNA, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic;
Brown School, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis,
Missouri, USA;
School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand;
Department of
Anthropology, University of California-Davis, Davis, California, USA;
Centre for Culture and Evolution, Brunel
University London, London, United Kingdom;
Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, Canada;
Department of Anthropology, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, USA;
Department of
Anthropology, Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey, USA;
Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley,
Berkeley, California, USA;
Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA;
Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA;
Department of the
Study of Religion, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
The existential security hypothesis predicts that in the absence of more
successful secular institutions, people will be attracted to religion when
they are materially insecure. Most assessments, however, employ data
sampled at a state-level with a focus on world religions. Using
individual-level data collected in societies of varied community sizes
with diverse religious traditions including animism, shamanism,
polytheism, and monotheism, we conducted a systematic cross-cultural
test (N= 1820; 14 societies) of the relationship between material
insecurity (indexed by food insecurity) and religious commitment
(indexed by both beliefs and practices). Moreover, we examined the
relationship between material security and individualscommitment to
two types of deities (moralistic and local), thus providing the rst
simultaneous test of the existential security hypothesis across co-
existing traditions. Our results indicate that while material insecurity is
associated with greater commitment to moralistic deities, it predicts less
commitment to local deity traditions.
Received 25 March 2020
Accepted 27 August 2021
Religious commitment;
existential insecurity;
moralistic gods; cross-
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (http://, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
CONTACT Adam Baimel
Supplemental data for this article can be accessed at
2022, VOL. 12, NOS. 12, 417
1. Introduction
As there is an immense diversity in the form, frequency, and intensity of religious commitments,
scholars of religion have long been interested in answering the related questions of when, in
what ways, and with what intensity people demonstrate commitment to their gods (e.g., Atkinson
& Whitehouse, 2011; Cohen et al., 2003; Finke & Stark, 2005; Norenzayan, 2016; Power, 2017b; Pur-
zycki & Sosis, 2011; Rappaport, 1999; Solt et al., 2011; Xygalatas et al., 2013). Moreover, researchers
have taken on the challenge of developing accounts of how specic cultural variants in religious
commitments come to spread and persist at the expense of others, resulting in the modern land-
scape of religious commitments that is dominated by the worldreligions (e.g., Baumard & Che-
vallier, 2015; Norenzayan et al., 2016). And, an emerging cultural evolutionary synthesis posits that
the key to accounting for variation in religious commitments is to consider the adaptive benets
that varied forms of religious commitments may provide to adherents in the face of varied
socio-ecological challenges (Purzycki & McNamara, 2016).
One such prevalent variant in religious systems is the extent to which they are moralistic(i.e., tra-
ditions [that] are characterized as those that emphasize adherence to prosocial norms under the threat
of punishment by knowledgeable deities explicitly concerned with how we treat each other;Purzycki
et al., 2018, p. 1). Cross-cultural evidence indicatesthat beliefs in these moralistic deities promote intra-
group cooperation (e.g., Lang et al., 2019;Purzyckietal.,2016a) and that they may have evolved in
response to the socio-ecological threats to cooperation associated, for example, with living in harsh
or resource-scarce regions (e.g., Botero et al., 2014;Snarey,1996). Bentzen (2019) provides global evi-
dence for how largely unpredictable and potentially devastating ecological threats such as the frequency
of earthquakes support the persistence of commitments to moralistic world religions over time (see also
Sibley & Bulbulia, 2012 for a test of how natural disasters contribute to religious change following an
earthquake in New Zealand). Taken together, the evidence suggests that in times of duress or insecurity,
individuals are prone to seeking out commitment to certain types of religious traditions.
In a cross-national analysis of 191 societies, Norris and Inglehart (2011) provide evidence that
existential insecurity (i.e., a perceived vulnerability to societal and personal risks and threats) is a
fundamental determinant of the relative strength of religious fervor (in terms of commitment to
religious values and practices). In this account the existential insecurity hypothesis of religious
commitments public demand for and participation in transcendentreligious traditions (i.e.,
those that provide a sense of condence and predictability in a threatening and uncertain world)
is greater when existential security is low. When existential security is provided by other means
(e.g., eective secular institutions in welfare states), the demand for transcendental religious tra-
ditions that have otherwise provided solace from existential problems decreases. Thus, this hypoth-
esis potentially provides a cohesive account of religions persistence in developing societies and the
relative waning of religious fervor in industrialized societies with wider access to resources. Indeed,
even in industrialized societies, religious commitment is positively correlated with income inequal-
ity such that those living at lower rungs of the ladder (i.e., in more uncertain circumstances) are
more devout than more nancially secure others (e.g., Solt et al., 2011). In support of the existential
security hypothesis, these results suggest that religious commitments, heightened in times of need,
may alleviate some eects of living under uncertain conditions (perhaps by virtue of providing a
sense of condence and predictability in uncertain times or, for example, practices that sustain
social support networks in religious communities; see Weigel et al. in this issue).
The crux of Norris and Ingleharts(2011) hypothesis is that certain religious systems oer their
adherents specic absolution from the trials and tribulations of uncertain life circumstances some-
thing special that is not on oer from aliation with other cultural groups. This leads to the predictions
that (1) insecure individuals should exhibit stronger religious commitments than secure individuals,
and (2) religious commitments, specically, rather than norm compliance to other types of cultural
institutions, should adaptively increase under uncertain and insecure conditions. In support of this
view, Henrich et al. (2019) observed that variability in prior exposure to war in Sierra Leone, Uganda,
and Tajikistan positively predicted years-later membership and active participation in Christian and
Muslim but not non-religious social organizations. In addition to providing further evidence
that individuals seek out religious commitments in insecure times, this work points to how moralistic
religious traditions may have culturally evolved to exploit the psychological states created by uncer-
tainty and existential threats as a means to more eectively disseminate themselves(Henrich et al.,
2019, p. 129). In times of need, adherents seek out moralistic deities who oer help and protection.
These omnipotent deities, however, are usually also punitive and omniscient, and thus communities
of adherents may inadvertently benet from the cooperative eects of commitments to moralistic
deities. In insecure times, as commitments to moralistic deities increase and communities accrue
the parochial cooperative benets of these specic variants in religious beliefs and practices, they
may head into more inter-group conict creating a feedback loop that will drive the cultural evolution
of religions(Henrich et al., 2019, p. 133).
This view stands in stark contrast to some accounts of how secure/insecure living conditions shape
religious commitments. For example, Baumard and Chevallier (2015) propose that moralistic tra-
ditions and their focus on less immediate benets emerge as a result of living in safer, less harsh,
and less insecure environments. In a test of this hypothesis, Purzycki et al. (2018)examinedwhether
materially secure individuals attributed their deities with more moralistic qualities and found no
reliable evidence for this hypothesis. That being said, it remains an open question as to whether or
not commitments to traditions that dier in their moralistic-nessvary as a function of secure/inse-
cure living conditions. Indeed, examinations of the contributions of insecurity to religious commit-
ments often employ large-scale survey data made available by research institutions such as Gallup and
the World/European Value Survey. Although these datasets are valuable for testing these predictions,
they are limited by their lack of sampling from non-state societies. Consequently, the sampling from
nation states and adherents of world religions (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism) leaves
the existential security hypothesis of religion largely untested amongst most of the worldsreligious
diversity especially with regards to local traditions in non-state societies preventing direct tests of
how insecurities moderate commitments to traditions that vary in their moralistic qualities.
To address these concerns, we conducted a systematic cross-cultural examination of the indi-
vidual-level contributions of perceived food security (an index of existential/material security) to
variation in religious commitments directed at two types of deities in a large sample of partici-
pants from 14 societies that vary in community size (from hunter-gatherer groups to fully-market
integrated urban samples). Moreover, our examination takes into further consideration the vari-
ationintheform of religious commitments. Across traditions, people express religious commit-
ment in a wide variety of ways. One major dimension of this variation is a dierential emphasis on
belief and practice (e.g., Cohen et al., 2003;Purzycki&Sosis,2011)
mitment in terms of both belief and practice. In brief, we employed a diverse cross-cultural
sample to assess (1) the relationship between two forms of religious commitment (mentalthe
strength of beliefand behavioralthe frequency of ritual performance/participation), and (2)
the relationship between material insecurity and commitment to (3) two classes of deities (4)
holding other demographic variables constant (i.e., age, sex, years of formal education, and num-
ber of children).
2. Methods
2.1. Pre-registration and open access
The data for this study is part of a larger dataset generated by The Cultural Evolution of Religion and
Morality project (Lang et al., 2019; Purzycki et al., 2016a,2016b). Focal variables were selected from
the larger dataset and analytical strategy planned after data collection but prior to the lead author
receiving access to the data. All but two of these pre-selected variables, however, were excluded
from further analysis for reasons of insucient variation within sites and/or problematic coding
dierences between sites and waves of the data collection. Our pre-registration document is publicly
available at; and data and R scripts for analyses at
2.2. Sample and deity selection
Across two waves of data collection, 2,027 individuals from 14 populations participated in the larger
(see Table 1 for demographics). Two target deities were selected following pretest interviews
with an additional sample of locals. If collecting separate samples was not feasible, these participants
would return at a future time to participate in the larger study. In these interviews, participants were
asked to free-list up to ve deities, to rank these deities in order of their importance, to rate the
extent of these deitiesknowledge, and how punitive/rewarding they are believed to be. From
these ratings, at each site, we selected a moralistic deity (i.e., one that was high in moral interest
and knowledge/punitiveness) and a local deity (i.e., one that was salient across participants but
was rated relatively lower in moral interest, knowledge, and moral concern). Extensive post-test
analyses of the selected deities and their believed attributes suggest that, by and large, participants
did indeed distinguish between these deities along the intended dimensions (for more details, see
Lang et al., 2019; Purzycki et al., 2016b;2018).
Note that we recruited participants primarily on the basis of being associated with the moralistic
gods of their sites. At the majority of the sites, the most salient moralistic deity was the Christian God.
At predominantly Hindu sites (i.e., Lovu, Mauritius, and Mysore), researchers selected Shiva. At the
Inland Tanna, and Tyva sites, the moralistic deities were Kalpapan,andBuddha Burgan (Buddha),
respectively. By design, the identities of the local deities were more varied (see Table 1). At the Hua-
tasani and Kananga sites some participants were unfamiliar with and/or did not believe in these local
deities identied by the pretest samples (Apus and Kadima, respectively), and thus, some participants
were asked about dierent deities (Catholic saints and ancestral spirits). At the Lovu and Samburu
sites, researchers did not identify and thus did not ask questions about local deities.
2.3. Commitment measures
Commitment was assessed with the following questions asked about each deity:
(1) How often do you think about [moralistic/local deity]?
(2) How often do you perform activities or practices to talk to or appease [moralistic/local deity]?
We consider responses to the rst item a measure of mental commitment and the second behav-
ioral commitment. Responses were recorded on a 5-point frequency scale (1 = very rarely/never, 2
= a few times per year, 3 = a few times per month, 4 = a few times per week, 5 = every day or mul-
tiple times per day). The distribution of responses at each sampling site are presented in the sup-
plemental Figures S1 and S2.
2.4. Material insecurity and demographics
We created an index of material insecurity by averaging responses to four items asking participants
about future food security: Do you worry that in the next [month/six months/year/ve years] your
household will have a time when it is not able to buy or produce enough food to eat?(1 = yes,0
=no; Hruschka et al., 2014). While perceived food security or lack thereof is but one aspect of the
existential insecurities potentially facing participants across samples; it is a face-valid indicator of
ones perceived capacity to be able to meet ones basic needs and is comparable across the range
of economic systems represented in this dataset. Responses to these four items were strongly cor-
related (cross-sample α= 0.89, 95% CI = [0.88, 0.90]). To determine the unique eect of material
security on commitment when controlling for other factors expected to covary with either religious
Table 1. Means (standard deviations) for focal variables by site.
Sample/Site Wave MG LG N Males Material Insecurity Age Yrs. Formal Ed No. of Children
Cachoeira (Brazil) II Christian God Ogum 274 83 0.86 (0.29) 34.19 (12.87) 8.58 (4.02) 1.81 (1.92)
Coastal Tanna I + II Christian God Tupunus 178 88 0.28 (0.36) 35.14 (14.33) 7.76 (4.22) 2.62 (2.06)
Huatasani (Peru) II Christian God Apus/saints 94 37 0.79 (0.30) 38.51 (15.92) 8.96 (3.80) 2.47 (2.04)
Inland Tanna I + II Kalpapan Tupunus 112 57 0.28 (0.38) 36.25 (15.40) 0.68 (2.04) 3.39 (3.35)
Kananga (DRC) II Christian God Kadima/ancestor spirit 200 79 0.84 (0.34) 38.09 (14.46) 9.51 (3.32) 4.49 (2.98)
Lovu (Fiji) I Shiva 76 24 0.83 (0.34) 44.56 (16.94) 8.77 (3.78) 2.24 (1.59)
Marajó (Brazil) I Christian God St. Mary 77 37 0.86 (0.24) 34.12 (13.08) 8.00 (3.53) 2.18 (2.56)
Mauritius I + II Shiva Nam 245 144 0.36 (0.38) 36.93 (15.80) 8.84 (3.57) 1.34 (1.72)
Mysore (India) II Shiva Chamundeshwari 165 94 0.10 (0.28) 33.56 (12.34) 13.35 (5.42) 0.91 (1.10)
Samburu (Kenya) II Christian God 40 12 0.64 (0.42) 51.27 (12.48) 0.70 (1.76) 8.43 (4.13)
Sursurunga (New Ireland) II Christian God Sirmát 163 73 0.57 (0.41) 37.60 (14.13) 7.51 (2.63) 3.01 (2.49)
Turkana (Kenya) II Christian God Ancestor spirit 247 91 0.20 (0.29) 38.03 (16.38) 0.48 (1.23) 3.96 (3.85)
Tyva Republic (Russia) I Buddha Burgan Spirit masters 81 23 0.47 (0.28) 33.53 (12.52) 15.44 (2.29) 1.70 (1.43)
Yasawa (Fiji) I Christian God Ancestor spirits 75 34 0.50 (0.40) 38.04 (15.91) 9.66 (2.42) 2.00 (2.07)
2027 876 0.51 (0.43) 36.82 (14.87) 7.68 (5.27) 2.66 (2.84)
Notes: Wave I data were collected in the summer of 2013, and Wave II data were collected in 2015. See also Soler, Purzycki, & Lang, this issue and Cohen et al., 2017 for an account of why the Brazilian
sites exhibit the highest insecurity. MG = Moralistic God; LG = Local God.
commitments or material insecurity or both, we adjusted the eects of material insecurity for the
eects of age, sex, years of formal education, and number of children (see Vardy et al. in this issue
on how sex dierently predicts commitment to moralistic and local gods; and also Purzycki et al.,
2018). By-site summary statistics are presented in Table 1. For ethnographic information about the
selected deities, religious commitments, and local context at each eld site see Lang et al. (2019) and
its associated supplemental materials.
2.5. Models and analytical strategy
Reviewers of earlier drafts of this report identied limitations in our pre-registered analytical strat-
egy. The most important of which was our pre-registered plan to dichotomize responses into low/
high categories of commitment and then use logistic regressions to model the data. Rather than
accepting the information loss associated with creating binary outcome variables, our focal models
instead employ ordinal regressions to model the data more appropriately in their original format.
This decision, however, came at the cost of dropping one of the commitment outcomes we had
identied in our pre-registration.
This items response format varied between sites and waves of
data collection, which made cross-sample models of this variable untenable (at least without recod-
ing, which would, in turn, make an ordinal regression untenable). While the type of response model
we employ (ordered-logit) is a departure from our pre-registered plans (logistic), the models are
otherwise similarly specied. The review process identied additional and sensible model specica-
tions, which we also include and discuss where relevant.
In line with our pre-registered model specications, our focal Bayesian mixed-eect ordinal
regressions (cumulative logit-link; Bürkner & Vuorre, 2019) estimate the association of food insecur-
ity to commitment (mental or behavioral; independently modeled) to two types of deities (local/mor-
alistic). In doing so, these models can provide insight as to whether and in what ways insecurity is
associated with how participants allocate their commitments between the two deity types. Given
that sampling occurred in 14 populations, commitment is modeled with a varying-intercept for
site; and as each commitment item was asked twice (once for each deity), a varying-intercept for par-
ticipant is also included. Insecurity was estimated as varying by sampling site. Models included simple
eect covariates for age (years, mean centered), sex (1 = female, 1 = male), years of formal education
(mean centered), and number of children (mean centered). In the supplemental materials we report
results of models with andwithout covariates. There, we also report resultsof models where insecurity
is treated as a simple eect. In what follows, we focus on the model estimated predictions of the inter-
action of deity type (local/moralistic) and food insecurity in predicting mental and behavioral reli-
gious commitments. Priors were set as weakly-regularizing: simple eects Normal(0,1); variance
components for varying eects Exponential(1); and the correlation matrix of the variance com-
ponents LKJCorr(4) (Lewandowski et al., 2009).
Across all model specications, four sampling
chains converged (R
< 1.01 for all parameters; 1500 warmup; 4000 samples), and eective sample
sizes were high. All analyses were conducted in R(R Core Team, 2017) and Bayesian models were
executed using the brms (Bürkner, 2017) compiler for RStan (Stan Development Team, 2017). The
summaries of which are presented in the supplemental materials (Tables S1 and S2). In the main
text, we focus on the predictions generated by these models with regards to the association of material
insecurity to mental and behavioral commitment to local and moralistic deities in these samples.
3. Results
3.1. Commitment descriptives
3.1.1. Is commitment dierent across deities?
Mental commitment was greater for moralistic deities than the local deities, and especially so at
Christian sites (see Figures S1 and S2). At the non-Christian sites (e.g., Inland Tanna, Mysore,
Tyva Republic), the extent of mental commitment was more diusely distributed for both deities.
Similarly, behavioral commitment was more frequent toward moralistic deities than toward local
deities, again especially at Christian sites (see Figure S2). However, the extent of this dierence
was more variable for behavioral commitment than it was for mental commitment (e.g., at Yasawa).
Recall that participants were typically selected based on their association with the moralistic gods.
In some contexts, everyone was associated with the moralistic deity by default. Sometimes, the belief
in these two deities were in harmony or syncretically interwoven, but in others, there were religious
markets and/or antagonism if the two deities came from dierent religious traditions (see Purzycki,
et al. present volume for further discussion). Hence, the observed dierence in commitment to
moralistic and local deities may stem from preexisting antagonisms at some sites.
3.1.2. Is there a dierential emphasis on behavioral and mental religiosity?
Can we see some traditions more consistently emphasizing either belief or practice? Figure 1 pre-
sents the by-site and deity distributions of responses as well as the correlations between mental and
behavioral commitment. With few exceptions (Cachoeira, Yasawa, and Samburu), the relationships
between these two forms of commitment were positively associated across sites and deities. At
Cachoeira and Samburu, mental commitment for the moralistic deities was near the ceiling. At
Yasawa, behavioral commitment for the moralistic deity was relatively quite low (although this is
potentially capturing consistent and relatively unvaried weekly church attendance). Across sites,
the relationship between belief and practice was consistently positive for the local deities.
3.2. Accounting for religious commitment
Figure 2 presents the predicted probabilities for each type of commitment to both deity types at low
(1 SD) and high (+1 SD) material insecurity. Predictions were made from models that included
both demographic covariates (age, sex, years of formal education, and number of children) and in
which the parameters for insecurity were estimated as varying by sampling site (the associated
model summaries can be found in the last columns of Tables S1-S2). The gure illustrates the fol-
lowing focal results:
(1) Moderate commitment to either deity type is infrequent, with predicted commitment concen-
trated at the lowest and highest options (representing no/minimal and maximal commitment).
(2) Mental and behavioral commitment to moralistic deities is greater than commitment to local
(3) Material insecurity is associated with greater commitment to moralistic deities.
(4) Material insecurity is associated with less commitment to local deities.
In detail, the results show that for both deity types, response options indicative of more moderate
levels of commitment were chosen less frequently and show no clear dierence between deities.
Across all model specications and commitment types, the average predicted probability of report-
ing maximal commitment (response level = 5) to the moralistic deity was 9 times greater than for
the local deity (moralistic deities = 0.60; local deities = 0.07). Likewise, the average predicted prob-
ability of reporting minimal commitment (response level = 1) to the local deity was 7.88 times
greater than for the moralistic deity (moralistic deities = 0.08; local deities = 0.65). These results
are consonant with results reported in section 3.1.1(including the caveats mentioned there).
Figure 2 also illustrates that the dierence in commitment to these two types of deities is greater
when existential insecurity is higher than when it is lower. With greater insecurity, the predicted
probability of maximal mental commitment to the moralistic deity increases by about 1.17 times
(1 SD = 0.66, +1 SD = 0.78) while minimal mental commitment to the local deity increases by
about 1.21 times (1 SD = 0.54, +1 SD = 0.66). Similarly, with greater insecurity the predicted
probability of maximal behavioral commitment is about 1.26 times greater for the moralistic deities
(1 SD = 0.42, +1 SD = 0.53) while the predicted probability of minimal behavioral commitment to
the local deities is about 1.24 times greater (1 SD = 0.62, +1 SD = 0.77). Put simply, while most
participants were maximally committed to the moralistic deities and minimally committed to the
local deities the extent to which this is the case is associated with reported insecurities in ways
consonant with the predictions of existential insecurity hypothesis of religious commitment.
That is, greater commitment to moralistic deities was associated with greater insecurity. Also,
these results indicate that commitment to the local deities is (even) less likely at higher levels of inse-
curity. Taken together, these results provide evidence that existential insecurities are associated with
dierences in both the strength and type of religious commitments to which individuals adhere.
3.2.1. Testing alternative model specications
As mentioned above, the review process identied two additional analytical strategies. The rst
replaced the repeated-measures structure of the above-reported models with multivariate analysis
(multiple response ordinal regression models). In so doing, this analysis tests the associations
between insecurity and each type of commitment to each deity independently of the others. In con-
trast, the repeated measures models presented above considers commitment to both types of deities
simultaneously. Despite this dierence, this alternative modeling strategy remains (in our view)
tenable as the existential insecurity hypothesis may very well predict that each type/form of inse-
curity is independently related to insecurity. The results of which indicate that material insecurity
is unrelated to commitment when modeled this way (see Figure S3). Thus, in these samples,
Figure 1. By-site and deity correlations between mental and behavioral commitment. Notes: At the Lovu and Samburu sites, no
local deity was identied. Local deity data from the Kananga, Sursurunga, and Yasawa sites are not presented due to insucient
variation in commitment (oor eects). Error bars are 95% condence intervals.
insecurity seems to be related to how individuals distribute their commitments between the exam-
ined deities rather than the extent of their commitments to either.
Another set of model specications included deity type as a varying intercept rather than par-
ticipant to account for the repeated measures. In these models, insecurity was estimated as varying
by deity type as well as by site. Model summaries are presented in Table S3. The pattern of predic-
tions estimated from these models largely corroborate our focal results but with some between-
sample variability in the magnitude of commitment change (see Figures S5 to S8). Taken together,
these additional results provide some indication of the stability of this pattern of results in these
diverse populations.
4. Discussion
We employed a diverse data set in an examination of the prevalence, form, and demographic cor-
relates of religious commitment across cultures in a novel test of the existential security hypothesis.
Our results indicate that, across sites, commitment to (as indexed by time spent thinking about and
time spent performing rituals for) moralistic deities is greater than to the less-moralistic local
deities. Furthermore, of all the examined deities, the Christian God was consistently the target of
the most commitment (at least with regards to how we indexed commitment in our analyses). Inter-
estingly, the current data suggest that this might very well be at the expense of local traditions as
Figure 2. Predicted probability of commitment to local and moralistic deities. Notes: Predicted probabilities of commitment were
estimated from ordinal regression models with a random-intercept for sampling site, individuals, and a by-site varying eect of
material insecurity (covariates = age, sex, formal education, number of children held constant at their means; see last column of
summary tables S1-S2). Bars are 95% credible intervals around each prediction. Black points illustrate commitment at low inse-
curity (1 standard deviation) and gray points high insecurity (+1 standard deviation).
commitment to local deities was most distinct from that of the moralistic deities at Christian sites
(see also Purzycki et al., this issue, on the interaction between belief in moralistic and local deities).
This dataset still only brushes the surface of the diversity of the targets of religious commitment.
That being said, these deities were selected based on their moralistic-qualities and local salience
and thus the dierences in the levels of commitment observed (at least in how we measured com-
mitment in this dataset) are notable.
In a cross-cultural test of the existential security hypothesis of religion (Norris & Inglehart,
2011), we nd that greater food-related insecurity is associated with greater commitment to mor-
alistic deities. Greater security,however, was not associated with a weakening of all religious com-
mitments as would be predicted by the existential security hypothesis. Although commitment to the
moralistic deities was lower amongst more secure participants, commitments to local traditions
were greater. Thus, these results suggest that the contributions of material security to religious com-
mitment might be better understood as shaping the kinds of religious commitments individuals
uphold under dicult life circumstances rather than only the strength of their overall devotion.
When feeling insecure, commitments to moralistic deities believed to have sucient powers to
help solve problems might serve an anxiolytic purpose (Norris & Inglehart, 2011), but when secure,
adherents may be freer to explore other features of their local religious traditions. Moreover, this
overall pattern of results held across two types of religious commitment (mental/behavioral) and
the inclusion of other demographic controls. Importantly, however, our results do not hold for
all examined modeling strategies. In particular, we nd no clear association between insecurity
and commitments towards these two types of deities when they are modeled independently of
each other. That is, this evidence suggests that insecurity in these populations is better understood
as being associated with how individuals allocate their commitments between these two deity types
rather than associated with the strength of commitment to either of them independently.
Our results could be amenable to alternative interpretations. For instance, it is altogether poss-
ible that moralistic traditions thrive in and/or play a role in creating materially insecure places.
However, in an analysis of a sub-sample of the current data, Purzycki et al. (2018) found no evi-
dence that the extent to which deities are attributed with moralistic qualities covaries with material
insecurity. Another interpretation may be that all of the mental and behavioral commitment
demanded by moralistic traditions makes individuals feel more insecure. Nevertheless, given the
growing body of research on how unpredictable, harsh, and insecurity-inducing socio-ecological
conditions promote greater religious commitment and behavior (e.g., Bentzen, 2019; Botero
et al., 2014; Henrich et al., 2019; Lang et al., 2015), we favor our current interpretation that the
psychological experience of insecurity orients individuals towards particular kinds of religious com-
mitments (i.e., primarily commitment to moralistic traditions).
The question, however, as to whether people explicitly seek out these moralistic deity traditions
because these deities are moralistic, because they are believed to be powerful, or both, remains an
open question for future research. Previous work suggests that in times of need, individuals seek out
deities that are specically believed to have capacities for ameliorating/inuencing adverse life cir-
cumstances (e.g., Kay et al., 2010). And thus, in times of need, individuals may not be seeking out
moralisticdeities per se, but rather omnipotent ones. Research indicates that insecurity promotes
and stabilizes harsher norm enforcement within communities (e.g., Gelfand et al., 2017), and mor-
alistic deities may be particularly potent norm enforcers (e.g., Lang et al., 2019; Purzycki et al.,
2018). The moralistic deities targeted in our samples, however, were selected for being both omni-
potent and moralistic, and thus we cannot rule out these dierences here. But importantly, both of
these accounts might account for why we nd that insecurity is associated with increased commit-
ments to specically moralistic deities and not all targets of devotion. Rather than seeking out
specic deities, insecure individuals may seek out traditions explicitly oering support and respite
from stressful conditions. As one example of how religious institutions in these populations help
secure social safety nets, Weigel (this issue) discusses how involvement in the Pentecostal church
in the Congo is related to prosocial sharing (at a cost to the self) amongst community members.
When food security is low, church community members generate informal insurance amongst
themselves by spreading risk through their cooperative networks. More broadly, we cannot ignore
that the traditions and associated deities examined here have long local histories, many of which are
antagonistic in ways that likely have implications for how individuals experience, express, and/or
signal their religious commitments as well as their insecurities (and the source thereof).
Indeed, another possibility is that in many societies moralistic traditions are practiced in
ways that are antagonistic towards local traditions, forcing more vulnerable individuals to
eschew the latter. Those who experience high insecurity are typically more socially vulnerable,
and therefore might still believe in local spirits but cannot take the social risk of expressing these
commitments because of antagonism between moralistic and local traditions. In Mauritius, for
example, the local deity that we asked about is often appeased by black magic ceremonies. Although
most people practice those ceremonies at least some of the time, there are strong normsand even
legislationagainst doing so. For individuals with resources, being accused of dealing with those
spirits may have reputational costs, but for those with no resources, it might be devastating, as it
might cut othe only resources left to them, which is their social support network. For a wider
discussion of the relationship between the deities examined here, see Purzycki et al. (this issue).
This is a particularly interesting avenue for future research as most of the worlds adherents to
local religious traditions have been challenged with the (often antagonistic) presence of world reli-
gions like Christianity. Moreover, there is sparse empirical evidence regarding what ways and with
what consequences individuals navigate the demands of adhering to multiple religious systems. In
this vein, our results tentatively suggest that individual-level commitments to dierent traditions
may be quite exible and adaptive in light of diering socio-ecological conditions (Purzycki &
McNamara, 2016).
Indeed, the results of this study might suggest that commitments are exible such that they need
not uctuate homogenously. In these samples, greater insecurity was most clearly related to lower
behavioral commitments to local deities and greater of both forms of commitments to moralistic
deities; whereas the dierences in mental commitments to local deities at dierent levels of insecur-
ity were less pronounced. This potentially highlights how mentally committing to varied deities at
the same time may come at a low cost, while it is dicult, and perhaps especially so under insecure
conditions, to commit resources (e.g., time) to the practices associated with dierent traditions. In
such cases, individuals seem to adaptively allocate their resources to bolster their commitments to
moralistic traditions, perhaps by virtue of the believed (e.g., divine intervention/salvation) and/or
actual benets of doing so (e.g., through the anti-anxiolytic eects of ritual participation combined
with the cooperative benets of regular participation in collective ritual practices; e.g., Lang et al.,
2020; Power, 2018).
Our cross-cultural approach is correlational and cross-sectional. Moreover, the data presented
here are not necessarily representative of responses in the broader communities from which our
participants were sampled (except the Inland Tanna site where almost the entire community was
sampled). Indeed, sampling methods were mixed across eld sites, with some sites drawing par-
ticipants from places of religious worship, others randomly asking participants on the street,
others going door to door throughout specic neighborhoods. Importantly, these sampling
methods may have dierentially restricted the range of observed religious commitment (i.e.,
sampling at a place of religious worship is likely to draw from a population of relatively com-
mitted individuals). Furthermore, participants were primarily recruited on the basis of their
adherence to moralistic god traditions; this selection process may have reduced the appearance
of adherence to many local god traditions, and this should at least temper condence in the
stark contrast between commitment across both deities. Thus, insecurity could come to relate
to religious commitments more clearly (and perhaps, quite dierently) in a broader sample of
these populations. Furthermore, in the interest of cross-culturally documenting the ebbs and
ows of religious commitment, there is an obvious need for more rigorous longitudinal data.
That is, an account of the patterns of religious commitment can greatly benet from in-depth
eorts to document and account for the change in prevalence and forms of religious commitment
within societies (Power, 2017,2018; Purzycki, 2013b, 2016). Indeed, while the current work pro-
vides evidence for some cross-culturally stable relationships, longitudinal data would allow us to
more stringently test hypotheses regarding the dynamics of religious commitments and their
relationship to insecurity. Moreover, our analyses considered only one form of insecurity
food insecurity. Future research will certainly benet from considering the relationship between
alternative forms of insecurity (resource access vs safety concerns, and/or quality/quantity of local
social services, for example) that can also vary in intensity and duration (acute vs chronic stres-
sors) and forms/targets of religious commitments.
In stark contrast to predictions regarding how commitments to moralistic traditions should be
greater in saferenvironments (Baumard & Chevallier, 2015), we nd that it is commitment to
moralistic (not local) traditions that is greatest in more insecure times. Admittedly, dierent
hypotheses may be devised at the group and individual level regarding these associations, and future
work should clarify the levels at which these correlations might develop. In their classic study of the
existential security hypothesis, Norris and Inglehart (2011) hypothesized that material insecurity
increases religious commitment to transcendentreligious traditions. Our results indicate another
dimension of between-tradition variability that might account for the types of religious commit-
ments associated with material insecurity. That is, with greater insecurity, individuals invest
more deeply in moralistic religious traditions sometimes at the expense of less-moralistic ones.
Looking forward, our results might predict that waning commitments to world religions that
might accompany more certain living conditions may very well be accompanied by a resurgence
in local, or even alternative religious commitments.
1. Data from one additional site (Hadzaland, Tanzania) were excluded from all our present analyses as responses
to the focal items were not measured comparably to the other sites.
2. Participants were rst asked to indicate whether they performed activities to talk to or appease either deity
(yes/no). If participants said yes, they were also asked to indicate how often. If participants said no, they
were not asked the follow up frequency question but we coded this a neveron the frequency scale.
3. At the time of pre-registration, we had identied a third item (How frequently do you worry about what
[moralistic/local deity] thinks about you?). However, responses to this question were recorded on dierent
scales between sites and waves of data collection. We thus excluded this variable from our analyses.
4. The use of weakly regularizing priors systemically protects against overtting of the model to the data during
parameter estimation and undertting (i.e., not learning enough from the data) which often leads to poor pre-
dictions (McElreath, 2015, p. 166).
The overarching project was made possible by a SSHRC partnership grant (#895-2011-1009) and the John Templeton
Foundation (grant ID #40603). The project reported in this manuscript was directly supported by grants from the
Understanding Unbelief Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation (grant ID #60624) and the Consequences
of Formal Education for Science and Religion project (#TIF0206) funded by the Issachar Fund. These grants were
awarded to AB and BGP, who express thanks to Jon Lanman and Cristine Legare for their encouragement. AB
acknowledges support from the Templeton World Charity Foundation (grant ID #TWCF0164) and BGP acknowl-
edges support from the Aarhus University Research Foundation. We are thankful for Adam Barnett for being so
This work was supported by John Templeton Foundation: [Grant Number 40603,60624]; The Issachar Fund: [Grant
Number TIF0206]; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada: [Grant Number 895-2011-1009];
Templeton World Charity Foundation: [Grant Number TWCF0164].
Author contributions
AB and BGP initiated this study, preregistered the project, planned the analysis, and wrote the
manuscript. AB wrote all R code, conducted all analyses, and made all graphs. J.H., A.N., and
B.G.P. conceived the overarching study. C.L.A., Q.D.A., A.B., E.C., E.K.K., C.H., C.L, S.M.,
R.A.M., C.M., C.P., B.G.P, M.S., T.V., J.L.W., A.K.W., and D.X. collected data. M.L. and B.G.P.
managed the dataset and team communication. All authors provided feedback on the manuscript.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author(s).
This work was supported by John Templeton Foundation: [Grant Number 40603,60624]; The Issachar Fund: [Grant
Number TIF0206]; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada: [Grant Number 895-2011-1009];
Templeton World Charity Foundation: [Grant Number TWCF0164].
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