oe henrich leads a research team that has been visiting a
remote village in Fiji to run a deceptively simple game. Study
subjects are given two cups and a pile of coins and are asked to
allocate money to one cup meant for their own community and
to another cup meant for another village, based on rolls of dice.
Dr. Henrich, a professor of psychology and economics at
the University of British Columbia with a background in anthropology, and his team already have an idea how many coins
are likely to appear in each cup, based on information gathered
during interviews about local beliefs. “We’ve found in previous studies
that groups whose religious beliefs include gods that are capable of punishing them are less likely to cheat,” he says.
Dr. Henrich will run progressively more complex versions of the
game with his subjects, in conjunction with interviews. He’ll later correlate his results with those collected in nine other remote communities
around the world – tiny villages in countries such as Tanzania and the
Congo. His final results should offer some precise insights into the ways
religion impacts people’s choices and the way they tend to treat strangers
That data, in turn, will provide key pieces of evidence for the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium, or CERC, one of the
largest interdisciplinary research projects devoted to religion ever under-taken. The project is funded primarily by a six-year, $3-million grant
from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that was
awarded last spring to a group of professors from the Centre for Human
Evolution, Culture and Cognition, a collaborative venture between UBC
and Simon Fraser University.
CERC will bring together the work of dozens of Canadian and international researchers in the social sciences and humanities who, like
Dr. Henrich, study, analyze and document religions of the past and present from around the world. Over its six-year timespan, the project aims to
gain a better understanding of what religion is, how it is linked to morality, and why it plays such a ubiquitous role in human existence.
When people get along, they can start living in larger groups – with-
out stealing from, hurting or killing those outside their circle of close
family and friends – and build cities and civilizations. Academics have
long theorized that moralistic religions (where the gods can see you,
wherever you are, and would like you to behave) play an important part
in this, enabling humans to work together and prosper.
According to the project’s website, despite religion’s omnipresence
and centrality to human affairs, it remains, from an academic view-
point, one of the least studied and most poorly understood aspects of
human behavior. “In the past, people have done big, sweeping histori-
cal cross-cultural projects. But they tended to generalize, and they were
doing it all on their own,” says Edward Slingerland, principal investiga-
tor of the project and a professor of Asian studies at SFU. “The differ-
ence [here] is we’re doing it with a network of experts who are bring-
ing a range of expertise and materials, and we’re putting it all together
like a big puzzle.”
Using a range of research techniques, the researchers hope to answer
some of the inherently illogical phenomena religions bring about. For in-
stance, ancient societies that struggled to feed and clothe their people often
spent a great deal of seemingly unproductive time on devotional acts such
as sacrificial rituals and creating elaborate religious art – yet these cultures
often outlived those that were not religious. “Why did this behaviour get off
the ground and survive? You’d expect humans who didn’t do this kind of
thing would outperform those that did,” says Dr. Slingerland.
By the end of the project, the group hopes to have created a compendium of articles, books and a database of evidence that speaks to its main
question about the links between religions and morality. The researchers
will also investigate sub-themes such as why moralistic religions tend to
thrive, people’s views on atheism, the role of rituals, extremism and
violence between groups, how secular societies rise and fall, and how
natural disasters impact religion.
The research will employ techniques such as surveys, field studies and
text coding. (To fund on-the-ground projects such as Dr. Henrich’s multi-site project, CERC recently won an $800,000 grant from the John
Templeton Foundation.) The researchers involved come from psychology,
anthropology, history, religious studies and other disciplines. Social scientists will be driving key aspects of the project with their systematic
techniques, but humanities experts will play a pivotal role in offering experience with texts and looking at the “big picture,” says Dr. Slingerland.