Religion puzzles the nonbeliever in part because it seems to lack utility. How can belief in supernatural agents and costly practices such as ritual sacrifice produce practical benefits?

Utilitarian and non-utilitarian theories of religion have been debated ever since it became an object of scholarly inquiry. Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology, argued that religion has great “secular utility”, which is reflected in his definition of religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things…which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Yet many other scholars, past and present, argue that religion is a functionless byproduct of mental processes that evolved for other purposes, or even a cultural parasite that spreads for its own good at the expense of its human hosts. The so-called New Atheists are especially insistent that “religion poisons everything”, to quote the subtitle of the late Christopher Hitchen’s book God is Not Great.

Advances in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective are largely supportive of Durkheim’s view. Evolutionists treat religions as collections of beliefs and practices that evolve by cultural evolution. Any given element of religion might or might not be adaptive. For example, a belief in supernatural spirits might adaptively increase cooperation if participants believe that such spirits will punish those who do not comply with community rules. This would be adaptive for the whole group, but other religious beliefs might adaptively benefit some individuals or factions within the group at the expense of others, or adaptively benefit the spread of the cultural trait at the expense of both individuals and groups. These would also count as adaptations in the evolutionary sense of the word, even though they disrupt the workings of the group.

If a given cultural trait is not adaptive, it might be a byproduct of traits that are adaptive in non-religious contexts, an adaptation in past environments that has become mismatched to the current environment, or a functionless product of random drift. These are the major hypotheses that must be evaluated to explain the genetic or cultural evolution of any trait. All of them are plausible, and examples of all will be found in a sufficiently large collection of traits. The growing consensus of evolutionists who study religion is that most enduring religions are impressively adaptive at the group level. Durkheim was largely correct, and modern evolutionary science provides a stronger foundation for group-level functionalism than it ever had before.

Two years ago, I received funding from the John Templeton Foundation to conduct a unique test of the secular utility of religion in collaboration with Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 and sadly passed away last June. Lin (as she wanted to be called) received the prize for showing that, under certain conditions, groups of people are capable of managing shared resources such as irrigation systems, forests, and fisheries (called common-pool resources, or CPR), avoiding the tragedy of overexploitation. Lin labeled the enabling conditions institutional design features. Her results were based on a worldwide database of CPR groups, which she analyzed from the perspective of political science, game theory, and (increasingly throughout the development of her thought) evolutionary theory.

Very briefly, the design features that increase the efficacy of CPR groups include: 1) A clear demarcation of the resource and the group authorized to use it; 2) Mechanisms that make benefits proportionate to costs, so unfair inequity within the group is avoided; 3) Decision-making that is by collective choice, which might be a consensus process or some other process regarded as fair by group members; 4) The ability to monitor agreed-upon behaviors; 5) Graduated sanctions in response to deviant behavior; and 6) Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are fast and regarded as fair by members of the group. In a multi-group society, there should also be 7) enough local autonomy for the group to manage its own affairs and 8) relationships with other groups that reflect the same principles as the within-group relationships listed above.

As an empirical matter, groups that possess these design features tend to do a good job managing their CPRs, sometimes for many centuries. Theoretically, the design features make sense from the perspectives of political science, game theory, and evolutionary theory. All of this has been established without any reference to religion. When we ask how religion contributes to or detracts from the design features, one possibility is that the design features are typically implemented by secular mechanisms and that religion only gets in the way. A second possibility is that religion is vital for the implementation of the design features and that secular mechanisms are ineffective. A third possibility is that religion is needed for some of the design features more than others. A fourth possibility is that some groups rely upon religious mechanisms for a given design feature, but that secular mechanisms work equally well for other groups. What do our results actually show?

Despite all of the attention that CPR groups have received on the basis of Lin’s work, the question of how religion contributes to or detracts from the design features has received little attention. That is what we received support from the John Templeton Foundation to do. Three colleagues supported by the grant, Michael Cox, Yasha Hartberg, and Sergio Villamayor-Tomas, undertook the heroic task of finding and coding 48 case studies of CPR groups to evaluate “what religion has to do with it” for each of the design features. We are now beginning to write up our results, enabling me to provide a preliminary report.

Most of the case studies involve groups from traditional societies whose religious beliefs and practices are more likely to involve ancestors and animal spirits than the major religious traditions that emerged during the last few thousand years. This adds an extra layer of interest, because our study can potentially shed light on how the major traditions arose and what they provided that tribal religions might have lacked. Most of the CPRs in the sample are forests but other resources such as farmland, fisheries, water, and wildlife are also included. All of the continents inhabited by humans are represented.

Our most basic finding is that religion contributes to the implementation of most of the design features, at frequencies ranging from a low of 14% (for local autonomy) to 100% (for proportionality). Religion often defines both the boundaries of the resource (through natural and manufactured objects that are regarded as sacred) and the authorized users. Religious offices and rituals define duties and rights of use. Decisions about resource use are made by religious leaders and/or orchestrated by religious procedures that are accepted as fair by members of the group. Supernatural agents are perceived to play a large role in monitoring and punishing deviant behavior. Conflicts over resource use were rarely reported in the case studies, in part because the groups were so well-regulated, but when conflicts occurred they were usually resolved through religious offices and procedures.

Analysis is complicated by the fact that some design features are discussed by the authors of the case studies more frequently than others. For example, rules governing the appropriation of resources were described in 46 of the 48 case studies, of which 42 were prescribed religiously. This is 91% of the cases for which information was provided and 88% of the full sample. Social monitoring was described in 18 of the case studies, of which 15 involved supernatural agents or religiously sanctioned human monitors. This is 83% of the cases for which information was provided but only 31% of the full sample. It is highly likely that monitoring took place in most or all of the groups but was frequently overlooked by the authors of the case studies. In any case, our conclusion that religion figures importantly in implementing the design feature of monitoring is more provisional than for the design feature of appropriation. Despite these complications, it is clear that the elements of religion often play a positive role in the design features required for traditional societies to successfully manage their CPRs.

Our analysis of the data is only beginning and some questions, such as the relative efficacy of religious mechanisms vs. secular mechanisms for particular design features, will be difficult to answer. However, we think that some important conclusions can already be drawn from our preliminary results.

First, our results provide no evidence that religion “poisons everything”. This and other less inflammatory portrayals of religion as primarily lacking in secular utility are increasingly at odds with what is known scientifically about religion. Most evolutionists who study religion are converging on this conclusion using many sources of information, as I stated at the beginning of this essay. Our study adds to the consensus by showing how the elements of religion contribute to design features that have been shown to enhance secular utility without any reference to religion.

Second, the fact that our study is one of the first to systematically study the role that religion plays in the institutional design features reveals a blind spot in the academic community studying CPR groups. It is common for scientists and policymakers of all stripes to discount the importance of religion—especially tribal religions—as so much hocus-pocus and to implement policies that are purely secular. In some of the most detailed case studies, such as the water temple system of Bali studied by anthropologist Steve Lansing and his associates, the secular rules and regulations implemented by well-meaning policy advisors are demonstrably worse than the traditional rules and regulations orchestrated by elements of religion. Indeed, a disturbing trend of our sample of 48 case studies is that traditional rules and regulations that work well are being eroded by modern rules and regulations—which might be either secular or religious–that work poorly. I look forward to reporting on this trend in more detail in the future.

Finally, our preliminary results provide new insights for the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. One current idea is that religion is not required for the governance of small-scale society and only becomes necessary when groups become large and mechanisms of direct monitoring and punishment break down. At this point, a particular conception of “moralistic high Gods” evolves to provide a solution to the monitoring and punishment problems. The fact that the ancestors and spirits of small-scale societies are frequently not moralistic and sometimes are downright malevolent is used to argue that they do not play a role in the governance of the society. Our results weigh against this scenario on two counts. First, ancestors and spirits don’t need to be moralistic to play an important role in a moral system. It is clear from the case studies in our sample that the elements of religion play an important role in the governance of CPR groups in small-scale traditional societies. Second, the elements of religion can play a role in all of the design features, not just those associated with monitoring and punishment. If there is an empirical correlation between the advent of large-scale societies and the advent of moralistic high gods, then it might require a different explanation than the one that is currently being advanced.

I end this essay with a comment on the John Templeton Foundation, which is sometimes criticized by the so-called “New Atheists” for attempting to create a scientific front for a religious agenda. It was John Templeton’s opinion that religious and spiritual traditions contain great wisdom that could be further enlightened by science. The foundation that he created is dedicated to exploring a positive symbiosis between science, religion and other “Big Questions” that have been pondered by philosophers and intellectuals throughout the ages. It has arguably accomplished more along these lines than all of the federal agencies of the developed nations combined. Our study begins to demonstrate that the elements of religion indeed contain great wisdom, even for something as mundane as the governance of common-pool resources. I thank the John Templeton Foundation for supporting research that I wouldn’t even bother applying to more conventional agencies to fund.

Published On: March 18, 2013

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .


  • D Gee says:

    My interest is in reversing the decline of (an) established religion. A start point would be to recognise that its longevity (5000yrs) would infer that religion has utlity irrespective of which faith inhabits that space in a given society. The challenge is in part to understand that utility and adapt the expression of faith to generate better-valued outcomes, esp in a society that is now organised primarily around secular delivery systems. Something that traditional “priests” will find near-impossible.

  • D Gee says:

    Sorry, muddled. Should be “an establihed faith” not religion, and “its longevity” references religion in general rather than any one faith.

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