Here’s an item that should come as no surprise to anyone:
The article discusses a paper by Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges that describes religion as strongly fostering cooperation within human social groups, as a means of competing more successfully against other groups. We read:
Across history and cultures, religion increases trust within groups but also may increase conflict with other groups, according to an article in a special issue of Science.
“Moralizing gods, emerging over the last few millennia, have enabled large-scale cooperation and sociopolitical conquest even without war,” says University of Michigan anthropologist Scott Atran, lead author of the article with Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research.
“Sacred values sustain intractable conflicts like those between the Israelis and the Palestinians that defy rational, business-like negotiation. But they also provide surprising opportunities for resolution.”
As evidence for their claim that religion increases trust within groups but may increase conflict with other groups, Atran and Ginges cite a number of studies among different populations. These include cross-cultural surveys and experiments in dozens of societies showing that people who participate most in collective religious rituals are more likely to cooperate with others, and that groups most intensely involved in conflict have the costliest and most physically demanding rituals to galvanize group solidarity in common defense and blind group members to exit strategies. Secular social contracts are more prone to defection, they argue. Their research also indicates that participation in collective religious ritual increases parochial altruism and, in relevant contexts, support for suicide attacks.
They also identify what they call the “backfire effect,” which dooms many efforts to broker peace. In many studies that Atran and Ginges carried out with colleagues in Palestine, Israel, Iran, India, Indonesia and Afghanistan, they found that offers of money or other material incentives to compromise sacred values increased anger and opposition to a deal.
… This dynamic is behind the paradoxical reality that the world finds itself in today: “Modern multiculturalism and global exposure to multifarious values is increasingly challenged by fundamentalist movements to revive primary group loyalties through greater ritual commitments to ideological purity.”
We’ve been making this point here for years: religion is a strongly adaptive feature of human social and cognitive architecture, an innate propensity for which is almost certainly the result of the action of group-level selection in our evolutionary history. As I’ve argued in these pages, I suspect (with sadness, given that I’m an unbeliever myself) that secularism is strongly maladaptive for human groups (see this post, and the comment thread here, for example).
The authors of the linked article nevertheless express hope that a better understanding of this dynamic may enable negotiators to work around it:
But Atran and Ginges also offer some insights that could help to solve conflicts fueled by religious conviction. Casting these conflicts as sacred initially blocks standard business-like negotiation tactics. But making strong symbolic gestures such as sincere apologies and demonstrations of respect for the other’s values generates surprising flexibility, even among militants and political leaders, and may enable subsequent material negotiations, they point out.
I doubt it. Have, for example, the West’s repeated prostrations before the global Ummah brought us anything but contempt? Have they brought us any closer to harmony in the Middle East? It hardly seems that way. Nor have well-intentioned pow-wows between the leaders of incompatible faiths ever achieved much of anything at all, so far as I can make out — as predicted by Pollack’s Law of Interfaith Dialogue (as first articulated back in May 2010):
To the extent that dialogue between any two religions is necessary, it is unproductive, and to the extent that it is productive, it is unnecessary.
I see no reason to imagine this principle will be superseded anytime soon.