Who benefits from religion?
Call religiosity beliefs and practices respecting gods, along with the cultural and psychological architecture that supports religion. Religiosity presents a striking evolutionary problem. From a biological perspective, it would appear that humans should have developed allergies to religion. The burdens that religion imposes — its opportunity costs, resource outlays, and risks — appear in vivid contrast to nature's thrift. We should have evolved to recoil from religion, as Richard Dawkins recoils from religion, yet religiosity is commonplace. Naturalists interested in the evolution of humans are faced with a “cost problem” (Atran 2002; Bulbulia 2004b; Dennett 2006).
Surprisingly, given the ubiquity of religiosity, little is known about the evolutionary dynamics that sustain its propagation (Dennett 2006; Wilson 2002). Increasingly, naturalists are approaching religiosity as an evolved commitment-signalling device (see Alcorta & Sosis 2005; Bulbulia 2004a.; Cronk 1994; Iannaccone 1992; Irons 1996a, 1996b, 1996c, 2001; Schelling I960, 2001; Sosis 2003). On this view, religion is the effect of systems elaborated by genetic and culture selection and conserved from the benefits these systems bring to those who are religious. Signalling theory holds that religion enables motivated cooperators to discover each other amid opportunists who would exploit them. Religion evolved to support stable, mutually reinforcing cooperative exchange.
This new position echoes past observations. Theorists of religion have long noticed that the pomp and ritual expressions of religion, and the affective delirium that accompanies it, enhance coordination and solidarity.