The Echoes of the Mind (97-3-1) Cooperation


In the 21st century, finding reciprocity and peer pressure insufficient motivations, social psychologists have increasingly pointed their fingers at religion for the reason that humans cooperate in large groups. God supposedly incites cooperation in life through threat of retribution in the afterlife. This hypothesis emanates from a failure of scholarship, both historically and psychologically. Humans were cooperating on a large scale well before the invention of retributive gods.

Conflict between groups is the strongest force for social cohesion. Individual exposure to violence engenders cooperative behaviors and community participation. War begets cooperation. In contrast, as history has shown, religion often leads to social schisms.

While war has many negative legacies for individuals and societies, it appears to leave a positive legacy in terms of local cooperation and civic engagement. ~ Czech economist Michal Bauer et al

More mundanely, reciprocity greases the mental gears for cooperation. As highly altricial, gregarious creatures, cooperation and conformity pay dividends that cannot be sustained otherwise.

Inducement to cooperation is both carrot and stick. Punishment during childhood and stories of what happens to transgressors illustrate what may happen to those who stray from the socially acceptable path. From reef fish to simians, many animals promote cooperation by excluding free riders (microbes and plants as well).

The establishment and enforcement of norms afford sufficient reliability that strangers may be trusted to some extent. Religion helps on that score only to the extent that it provides tribal identification. On the other hand, even today, after millennia of moralizing religion, punishment has not proved adequate to quell cheating. Further, moralizing religion and moral behavior are not the bedfellows they are commonly assumed to be; a topic we come to shortly.