Religion helps Groups Cohere



I am still trying to explain how 3 atheists, particularly Jonathan Haidt, led me to religion. In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt asserts this: “There is now a great deal of evidence that religion does in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.” I won’t get into free rider problems here. You will have to read the book to get this. The key is that Haidt claims religion gives groups an evolutionary advantage.


Remember Haidt is a scientist. He bases his theory on scientific data, not faith. First, he looked at studies of the history of 200 communes in the United States by anthropologist Richard Sosi. As we all know there are many kinds of communes but what they all have in common is that they are experiments in living cooperatively. In order to survive they have to be able to bind the members of the commune together. This is a key concept. I also want to remind you, as Haidt did not, that the word “religion” comes from the Indio-Asian word religio, which means connection or linkage. Binding in other words. That’s what religions do. That is the common thread. Religion connects people together and even, I would argue, connects us to the world. I have blogged about this earlier.


Communes were often founded by people who wanted to reject the common moral matrix (this is a Haidt expression) in favor of different principles. Many of them were religions but not all. Some were down right evil. Like the Charles Manson commune. Sosi wanted to know why some communes lasted longer than others. He found some very interesting evidence. Only 6% of secular communes were still in existence 20 years after they were founded while 39% of the religious communes made it that long. That figure jumped out at me. Why would that be? Was God on their side? Neither Sosi nor Haidt claimed that.


Sosi looked at all kinds of factors to try to find the common thread. He found that the common factor to the successful ones was that they demanded costly sacrifices from their members. That seems counter-intuitive doesn’t it? People had to give things up to stay in the commune. Things like giving up alcohol, or tobacco, or food for a time, or traditional clothing. The members had to make a sacrifice to stay. This caught my eye even though Haidt did not mention it either. That is this: I have always been struck by the fact that most religions emphasize sacrifice. Some of them to me seem crude. Like sacrificing animals in the Old Testament. Or even people in some other bloody religions like those of Central America. Christianity of course offered the ultimate sacrifice of God’s son. I have always wondered why sacrifices are important or even good. I am still not sure of the answer. I draw to your attention that it is surely no accident that the words “sacrifice” and “sacred” have a common root.

Commenting on the research of Sosi, Haidt said, “For religious communes the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.” That to me seemed crazy, but the world of religion is crazy. Sosi had the scientific data to back it up!

But that was not all. Sosi found that secular communes that also demanded a sacrifice were not helped by it. Haidt described the situation this way: “Sosi argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized.” There is that word again.

According to anthropologist Roy Rappaport, “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of necessity.” After all who would agree that one can’t eat the food of animals with cloven feet unless there was some religious reason for it. It otherwise makes no sense. If people make a rational evaluation of customs often they don’t add up and are dismissed. With a religious support such irrational customs can be accepted and many members of the commune refuse to follow and eventually the commune breaks up. Ritual practices avoid that problem Even though rational atheists like the 4 Horsemen for example, would reject the practices because reason does not support them. Such practices can establish cohesion in the group to such an extent that it can survive. In fact, according to Haidt, such practices solve one of the hardest evolutionary problems, namely, how can you get cooperation among a group where they are not kin. If they are kin then even if you don’t get to pass your genes along, your genes are passed along by the kin!

This is how, as Haidt put it: “irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group; function…Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds to the arbitrariness of the practice.”

Getting back to natural selection. Haidt argues, based on Sosi, that

Gods really do help groups cohere, succeed, and outcompete other groups. This is a form of group selection…Religions that do a better job of binding people together and suppressing selfishness spread at the expense of other religions, but not necessarily by killing off the losers. Religions can spread faster than genes, as in the case of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, or Mormonism in the nineteenth century. A successful religion can be adopted by neighboring people or by vanquished populations.”


Haidt touts David Sloan Wilson who was able to “merge the ideas of the two most important thinkers in he history of the social sciences: Charles Darwin and Emile Durkheim. Wilson showed how they complete each other.” Darwin’s idea was group selection. In other words, how groups could be selected to survive by possessing a trait that made it easier for them to survive and pass on their traits to their offspring. That is what an evolutionary advantage is. Wilson then used Durkheim’s definition of religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices” that unites members into “one single moral community.” Religions create cohesive groups that can function like an organism. And that helps them to survive. That is the evolutionary advantage religion gives to groups.

5 thoughts on “Religion helps Groups Cohere

  1. i get the feeling you are looking for a way to become religious. is this old age?
    overall it looks like pretty straight forward sociology of religion.

    as for mr. haidt, how is it that at this time he can still talk about thomas jefferson and MORALS WITHOUT talking about jefferson as a slaver?
    did i miss something?

    1. I think we all have religious longings. Perhaps we have more as we approach the end. I have never found entirely satisfying religion. As I have blogged earlier, I find Buddhism attractive. Just today I met a good mutual friend who mentioned Alain de Botton a writer we both admire. He said religions are like a buffet table. He likes to take a little of this and a little of that to make a nourishing meal. Similarly, Yann Martel in Life of Pi talks about trying out various religions. Why do we have to confine ourselves to just one?

      You are right of course that Haidt is delving into sociology of religion. Is that a bad thing? I don’t get the Jefferson reference? Jefferson is no hero. Who is? But how is that relevant here?

      1. i would suggest a possible difference between religion and spirituality.
        haidt is advertised as as psychologist. my impression is that it was as much sociology as psychology.
        as for jefferson he lays him out as a one of three moral psychologies in his book. i thought it significant that once again jefferson was mentioned without any discussion of his slave holding status, and that it was a touch ironic that this could occur in the context of a person with strong views about morality.

        1. with further perusal……….
          what you seem to be saying is that your preference is a kind of syncretic technology of religious beliefs, which is all fine and good of course. this is what we call new age religion, something of an iteration of hippy dippy shit from 50 years ago.

          the problem is that it doesn’t get close to a religion per se and therefore doesn’t qualify as something that could function to either divide people or bring them together. and i thought that was the object of the whole kiss my ass. otherwise why are we bothering to have another discussion of religion. common ass sociology of religion has been discussing this since durkheim; like a hundred years already.

          this is why i thought maybe, like all of us who are “senior”, you were unconsciously wishing for some sort of secure bridge to the other side, although i doubt that there is anything but this side.

          1. Actually the notion of religion I propose has been around for much more than 50 years. I goes right back to the root of the word more than thousand years ago. The problem is that the word “religion” has been hi-jacked by many so-called religions that in my view should not qualify because they divide us rather than unite us. You are right about Durkeim. He is a patron saint of this view of religion.

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