Religion: how martyrdom makes people believe

Posted: June 3, 2009 in society
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saint maurice martyrdomIf you wanna make people believe in your message, inflict some form of suffering or deprivation upon yourself – or at least make them think you do so. It’s a powerful strategy religions have applied for thousands of years.

An analysis of behavioural evolution, published recently by Joseph Henrich, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, shows that acts ranging from martyrdom to austerity being performed by religious leaders strengthen the beliefs of those following them. And the more costly the sacrificial behaviour, the more likely it is to be sincere and the stronger the credibility of the faith of those acting in faith – and vice versa.

None of this provides any proof for the content elements of people’s beliefs; the context just strengthens the imagination. And it still works – just look at the self-sacrifices on the social environments of suicide bombers. Vows of poverty or chastity also are putting their money where their mouth is and therefore too strengthen or at least maintain followers’ faith.

This phenomenon of people’s beliefs being strengthened by a leading example is probably similar to religious beliefs taking hold on some non-believers when helping out believers – perhaps they are impressed by their devotion. Once people believe, they are more likely to perform similar displays themselves.

Under the title Religions owe their success to suffering martyrs, the New Scientist explains that

Henrich created a mathematical model to test his ideas and showed that this self-reinforcing loop can stabilise a system of beliefs and actions, and help them persist through many generations (Evolution and Human Behavior).

This dynamic helps explain why so many religions involve costly renunciations. For example, Henrich notes that the persecution of early Christians by Roman authorities may have spread Christian beliefs by allowing believers to be martyred for their faith – the ultimate credibility-enhancing display.

But the theory of belief-reinforcing-loops is not just valid in religious contexts:

The principle applies to other social movements too. Studies of 19th-century utopian communes such as Hutterites and Shakers show that those making the strictest demands on their followers were most likely to persist, says Henrich. “You can see the changes in action. The number of those costly commitment rituals increases over time.”

Heinrich’s hypothesis still needs to be tested, but intuitively it makes perfect sense. If scientific proof can be found, the New Scientist article’s author ponders whether “churches that liberalise their behavioural codes may be sabotaging themselves by reducing their followers’ commitment”. The line of thought is that the dynamic of self-reinforcing-loops “may explain why strict evangelical Christian churches are expanding in the US at the expense of mainstream denominations”. My question though would be: what do the evangelical leaders sacrifice? They seem to be on the opposite track by amassing fame and fortune, which, if true, shows that believers (followers) can be led in many different ways.

Related articles (not all are accessible for free):


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