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A Need to Better Understand the Evolutionary Process of Beliefs about Gods' Concerns

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Title: A Need to Better Understand the Evolutionary Process of Beliefs about Gods’
Author: Ze Hong (ORCID: 0000-0002-5343-3008)
Institutional affiliation:
Department of Sociology, Zhejiang University, China
Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, USA
Email address:
Main text:
In their target article, Bendixen et al. (2022) make an important contribution to the
scientific study of religion by offering ethnographic evidence for the role of religious
beliefs in potentially solving important coordination and cooperation problems. Crucially,
the authors show that gods’ “concerns” are specific to the local socio-ecological contexts.
Such findings nicely complement the existing literature on moralistic, “Big Gods”
religious traditions and greatly expand our understanding of the global landscape of
religious beliefs. In the present commentary, I offer some reflections on the possible
explanations for their cross-cultural findings and suggestions for future work.
The authors are careful in drawing conclusions from their findings, and they make it clear
that 1) beliefs about gods’ concerns may not actually motivate cooperative behavior, and
that 2) there is a range of possible mechanisms from which these beliefs may arise. The
fact that people don’t always live up to their professed belief regarding gods’ concerns is
important, as it implies that there may be considerable private doubts about the veracity
of culturally transmitted information in human societies (Boyer, 2020). In fact, much
research on religious skepticism has amply pointed out that people do not always blindly
follow “received wisdom” (Goody, 1996; Purzycki & Sosis, 2019). If cultural
information about gods’ concerns do not reliably trigger cooperative behavior in game-
theoretic settings, then adaptive explanations (e.g., cultural group selection) for the
recurrence of these beliefs in diverse societies would be incomplete and unsatisfactory.
As the authors point out, the evidence on the behavioral consequences of beliefs about
gods’ concerns is mixed, yet it seems that at least in some contexts, these beliefs do help
solve cooperative dilemmas (Singh et al., 2021). Note that the much ethnographic
literature seems to suggest that supernatural beliefs (not necessarily involving agentive
gods) help regulate moral behavior: for example, the Azande believe that criminals could
be punished by “good magic” performed by the victims and/or their kinsmen, whereas
vengeance magic performed out of selfish spite would not only prove ineffectual but
would turn against the magician who employed it (Evans-Pritchard, 1937). An interesting
line of future work would be to investigate the socio-ecological determinants of people’s
degree of belief in gods’ concerns (or the potency of supernatural forces in general).
What are the conditions under which culturally transmitted information regarding gods’
concerns is believed by the local people and therefore deters defection? The large
literature on the cultural evolution of prosocial religions suggests that Big Gods religions
spread across the globe largely due to the content of their religious doctrines (i.e.,
supernatural punishment; Norenzayan et al., 2014), which raises the intriguing possibility
that there are some additional features of Big Gods religions (or societies in which Big
Gods religious arise) that make the supernatural punishment claims more credible.
Credibility-enhancing displays (Henrich, 2009) would be the obvious candidate here, but
I believe that this is a question that deserves more theorizing and empirical efforts.
In the Appendix, the authors admit that their data allow for a number of transmission
mechanisms for beliefs about gods’ concerns, including content biases and manipulative
signaling. Although the authors specifically suggest that spirits and gods are “difficult to
disprove” and therefore “less susceptible to skepticism”, many claims about supernatural
punishment (which does not necessarily involve personalized deities) for rule violation
and taboo transgression are empirically vulnerable at least in principle (Lee et al., 2009;
Parmar et al., 2013; Sharifah Zahhura et al., 2012; Tsegaye et al., 2021), and empirical
“data” play an important role in people’s confidence in such culturally transmitted
information (Hong & Henrich, 2021; Hong, forthcoming). In a series of studies, we have
suggested that the reason many individuals end up possessing factually incorrect beliefs
is partially because of biased information processing and transmission (Hong, 2022;
Hong, Slingerland & Henrich, forthcoming; Hong and Zinin, forthcoming). In the case of
beliefs regarding supernatural punishment, it could be that instances that “fit” these
beliefs (e.g., when an individual who commits a taboo transgression indeed becomes ill)
get preferentially transmitted whereas instances that do not “fit” the beliefs (e.g., when
nothing happens to an individual who commits a taboo transgression) get ignored. More
generally, future research could pay more attention to why some beliefs about gods’
concerns that are empirically falsifiable nonetheless persist in human societies. Content
biases and elite incentives likely play a role, but we also need to account for the fact that
individuals update their beliefs as a result of their everyday experiences.
In summary, Bendixen et al. (2022) offer an excellent starting point for an exciting line of
new research on the cognitive and evolutionary studies of religion. The authors may have
been a bit too careful in hedging their conclusions regarding the transmission mechanism
of beliefs about gods’ concerns, and I hope there will be more follow-up work that
illuminates the underlying evolutionary processes.
I thank Andrew Buskell for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this commentary.
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