I’m extremely skeptical of evolutionary psychology claims in general so I’ve been skeptical that religion was some sort of special glue for cooperation as humans evolved. Yes, it’s likely that religious groups helped some people unite together as we still see that happening today. However, as we see also in modern times, religious groups can create conflict with those who are not in their religious group. Thus, my guess would be that religion both fostered cooperation and conflict depending on the particular social structure you are examining.
A new anthropological study by Arthur Joyce and Sarah Barber found that religion actually created more conflict than unity in their assessment of several Mexican archaeological sites. According to Science Daily:
So when religion was mixed with politics it bolstered conflict in various regions during this historical time period. Sounds pretty similar to what happens today! As lead author Arthur Joyce remarks:
Their study viewed archaeological evidence from 700 B.C. to A.D. 250, a period identified as a time of the emergence of states in the region. In the lower Verde, religious rituals involving offerings and the burial of people in cemeteries at smaller communities created strong ties to the local community that impeded the creation of state institutions.
And in the Valley of Oaxaca, elites became central to mediating between their communities and the gods, which eventually triggered conflict with traditional community leaders. It culminated in the emergence of a regional state with its capital at the hilltop city of Monte Albán.
“In both the Valley of Oaxaca and the Lower Río Verde Valley, religion was important in the formation and history of early cities and states, but in vastly different ways… given the role of religion in social life and politics today, that shouldn’t be too surprising.”
It isn’t surprising to me and shouldn’t be to anyone who doesn’t live under a rock. This study offers some counter evidence to claims of religion being used as some special ingredient that makes humans get along. Religion can help with cooperation as it brings people together with their shared belief system. However, that same belief system can provide inspiration to hurt or ostracize other people. Nuance is critically important when we are dealing with scientific claims and I’m glad this study can help bring some balance to our understanding of how religion impacts society.
Featured image from Wikipedia