The Evolution of Religion and Morality Project

The Evolution of Religion and Morality Project

Exploring the link between Big Gods, Potent Rituals, Large-Scale Cooperation and the Origins of Complex Societies


This project was designed to explore the relationship between certain elements of religions, like supernatural beliefs and rituals, and prosocial behavior. More specifically, do different elements of supernatural agents (e.g. fear of supernatural punishment, attributed breadth of knowledge, attributed concerns) moderate or mediate the impact of belief in those agents on prosocial behavior? When effective secular judicial institutions are present, do they reduce the impact of belief in those agents? How do cognitive systems affect commitment to supernatural agents? By combining a battery of tasks, many of which assess elements of religion, with both experimental tools and social network measures we aim to address these questions. By gathering these data in many places around the world, we will be able to begin to tease apart the underlying mechanisms and boundary conditions of religiously motivated prosociality. Of course, the work will also address when and where religious elements like supernatural agents and rituals are not connected to prosociality at all.

This project is a collaboration with the Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture at the University of British Columbia. For more information, please click here.

Protocols, datasheets, and supporting documents (zip)

R Script for Purzycki, et al. (2016). Nature. (zip)

As the evolutionary sciences of religion and cooperation mature, there is a greater need for rich, comparative ethnographic and cross-cultural psychological research that draws on evidence going beyond samples of university students, or dated, qualitative ethnographic or state-based datasets to test hypotheses. Our international team came together to design and execute a large cross-cultural study to examine a range of contemporary concerns in the evolutionary and cognitive sciences of religion, with particular focus on whether and how religion contributes to the expansion of prosocial behavior. Dubbed the ‘Evolution of Religion and Morality Project’, this team also sought to provide the foundations for similar, future research and ensured that data, methodological protocols, and analytical scripts are publicly available to researchers. A report utilizing this data set was subsequently published in Nature. Over the next few years, we will continue expanding the dataset to include more variables, more sites, and more experimental conditions. The current available datasets include a sizable portion (591 participants x 86 variables) of the first wave of data collection that occurred during the summer months of 2013.

The Evolution of Religion and Morality Project

Wave1 and 2

For Wave II, we sampled in 15 socio-ecologically and religiously diverse societies. We aimed to replicate our previous findings that belief in punishing and monitoring gods helps to curb local favouritism by deploying the same protocol in additional societies and, moreover, by deploying a different economic game, namely the Dictator Game (DG). Furthermore, we aimed to extend the previous research by examining the outstanding questions about the role of beliefs in punishing gods in the treatment of religious outgroups.

Findings from Wave II are presented in Lang et. al. (2019): Moralizing gods, impartiality and religious parochialism across 15 societies

The dataset used for the current analyses together with protocols, hypotheses and R code can be found at the Open Science Framework Project Site.

Experimental dataset (xlsx) and protocols (zip)

We are also pursuing an additional project of quantifying and explaining the religious gender gap, see the OSF Project Site for the pre-registration and literature review.