God And The Sacred
By Scott Atran
Foreign Policy, August 6,
Edited by Andy Ross
Religion can produce solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens
are willing to kill or die for a common good. But religion can also hinder a
society's ability to work out differences with others. That's the mess we
find ourselves in today.
Across history and cultures, religion has
often knit communities together under the rule of spiritual beings whose
description is logically contradictory and empirically unfalsifiable. These
miraculous features make lasting impressions on people and increase the
likelihood that they will be preserved and passed on. The greater the
investment in outlandishness, the better. Adherence to such beliefs incurs
costs that identify true believers, which builds trust and galvanizes group
Even secular countries and movements feature sacred songs
and ceremonies or promote claims that providence or nature bestows equality
and inalienable rights. These sacred values act as moral imperatives that
inspire sacrifices in cooperative endeavors.
revolutionaries, and terrorists all make use of this logic, generating
outsized commitment that allows them to resist materially stronger foes. But
the same logic can make religious and sacred beliefs impervious to
compromise. Offering people material incentives to compromise sacred values
can backfire, increasing stated willingness to use violence. Strong symbolic
gestures work better among militants.
Most scientists are staunchly
nonreligious. But the idea that we can simply argue away religion has little
factual support. People are less prone to think religiously when they think
analytically, but seemingly contrary evidence rarely undermines religious
belief. Belief in gods and miracles intensifies when people are aware of
death or face danger.
Inclusive concepts such as humanity arguably
emerged with the rise of universal religions. Early Christianity became the
main religion of the Roman Empire through a social process grounded in
trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during
epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested
in the religion. Professing a world religion is correlated with greater
fairness toward strangers.
When competing interests are framed in
terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades or
centuries. Disputes then become existential struggles. Secular issues become
sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments.
Such values are processed in the brain as duties rather than utilitarian
calculations. Violations of sacred values trigger sentiments of moral
The more antagonistic a group's neighborhood, the more
tightly that group will cling to its sacred values and rituals. The result
is enhanced solidarity, but also increased potential for conflict toward
other groups. Modern global multiculturalism is increasingly challenged by
fundamentalist movements aimed at reviving group loyalty through greater
ritual commitments to ideological purity.
In an age where religious
and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort
to understand them.