God And The Sacred

By Scott Atran
Foreign Policy, August 6, 2012

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 solidarity.

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.

Insurgents, 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 outrage.

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.

AR  Right.