10/24/2012 03:45 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Ritual Is Power: Religion as Revolutionary Concept or Evolutionary Advantage?

Written by Matthew Piscitelli

Since the Age of Enlightenment leading social scientists have proposed that symbolic rituals, sacred practices and theological treatises are products of the past. In fact, for the last century, secularization has been considered a revolutionary step in the transformation of agrarian societies into modern industrial nation-states. However, one must only open a webpage to a media outlet or look at a newspaper headline to realize that the modern world is as religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.

Consider the backlash against the most recent inflammatory anti-Islam video or the impact that Mitt Romney's faith may have on his chances of winning the U.S. presidential election. In contemporary human society, religion and politics often collide -- sometimes with catastrophic results. There are many who believe that the modern world is on a downward spiral and that God is the answer. Nevertheless, terrorist attacks, toppled governments and warring factions heralded in the name of religion are not a modern phenomenon. Neither is religion's impact on human society always an entirely negative one. Such shifting social currents have a long history in human society and religion has often been responsible for dramatic cultural transformations.

Religion played a major role in the emergence of cultural complexity in the ancient world. For example, 5,000 years ago along the north central coast of Peru ancient inhabitants constructed the earliest public architecture in the New World. Within a small stretch of Peruvian coastline, 30 ceremonial centers with large-scale monumental architecture appeared over a 1,800 year time frame known as the Late Archaic Period (3,000-1,800 B.C.). Archaeologists have labeled the Late Archaic Period as the "cradle of Andean civilization" (Haas and Creamer) and many cultural characteristics of Andean archaeology have been attributed to the cultural developments of this time. Recent archaeological excavations at one Late Archaic site, Huaricanga in the Fortaleza Valley, have revealed that ritual practices were intimately linked to the emergence of incipient leadership and served as a base of power. Moreover, control over religious knowledge likely cemented the hold of early leaders over ancient populations by promoting a sense of group membership that facilitated the mobilization of labor forces to construct monumental architecture.

But does religion's pull on humanity have even deeper roots? I argue that ritual serves as a mechanism for promoting cooperation among members of a religion in order to achieve a common goal. Ritual practice, as a form of communication, signals to others that you identify with a particular set of beliefs. The subsequent trust that is built between those individuals provides the social glue necessary to accomplish common goals.

To understand the evolutionary importance of communication through ritual it is valuable to look to animal behavior for correlates. In the natural world it is often advantageous to send a dishonest signal. In other words, animals will fake their size, strength or overall vigor to scare away predators, to intimidate other members of the group, or to attract mates. However, the only signals that can be believed without a doubt are those that are too costly to fake, what evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi (1997) calls "handicaps." These behaviors may actually have a selective advantage. For example, springbok antelopes may jump up and down in one spot when encountering a predator. While it may seem more intuitive to simply run, by jumping in place the antelope signals to the predator that it is indeed strong enough and fast enough to escape. In most cases the predator will believe this communication because the signal is simply too costly to fake since dishonesty could result in death.

In a similar way, religious behavior is too costly to fake. The obligations placed on some religious practitioners such as abstaining from certain foods or self-mutilation serve as monitoring mechanisms that indicate a common purpose or set of beliefs. If this is the case, one might surmise that religious groups that impose the greatest demands will elicit the highest levels of devotion and commitment.

Several studies have shown that in the United States the most demanding religious groups have the largest number of committed members. In other words, those religions that place the most stringent obligations on its members experience higher attendance rates. Within the last 30 years, the Mormon Church, Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witness congregation have experienced striking rises in their numbers. While these sets of beliefs restrict caffeine, sex and sugar from their members, the more liberal Protestant religion has been experiencing a steady decline (Note: For this comparison scholars are considering proportional relationships, not overall membership numbers). Moreover, since the reforms in the Roman Catholic Church associated with Vatican II, American Catholics have cut their attendance in half. In the late 1950s, 75 percent of American Catholics attended weekly Mass while more recently that number dropped to only 45 percent (Finke and Stark). The biggest decline occurred in the 1960s when reforms to the religious practices made the Mass more accessible -- the liturgy was translated from Latin to English, the priest faced the congregation instead of the altar, and the participants could hold the Eucharist in their own hands.

I argue that religion and ritual serve as a social lubricant to promote collaborative action by establishing trust, belonging and commitment among individuals. Ritual, as a form of communication, signals intents and desires to other individuals. By grounding religion and ritual in a deep-rooted past supplemented by evidence from animal behavior studies, it is clear that religious practice has an adaptive advantage that has greatly impacted human history. As revealed by contemporary events religion still greatly impacts our social milieu. Perhaps we should once again consider ourselves Homo religiosus?

Matthew Piscitelli is an archaeologist pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since 2008, he has worked in Peru and dedicated his life to uncovering the country's rich, ancient past in order to preserve it for the future.

  • Finke, Robert and Rodney Stark, "The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy."
  • Haas, J. and W. Creamer, "Crucible of Andean Civilization: The Peruvian Coast from 3000 to 1800 BC"
  • Zahavi, Amotz, "The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle"