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Religious people 'more likely to be viewed as generous and trustworthy'

Going to church or temple regularly can leave a greater impression than 'more dramatic public ritual acts [that] involve enduring serious pain'

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 23 August 2016 19:05 BST
An act of religious devotion in southern India
An act of religious devotion in southern India (Eleanor Power)

People who regularly attend religious services are more likely to be seen as an upstanding member of the community than those who take part in more dramatic displays of religious devotion – such as walking over hot coals, being stabbed with a spear or becoming possessed – according to a new study.

Dr Eleanor Power, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, spent two years living in two Tamil villages in southern India studying a mix of mainly Christians and Hindus.

She found people were more likely to be viewed as generous, hard-working, trustworthy and a source of good advice if they often went to church or temple – even by atheists or people of a different faith.

The findings suggested that religious practice could be “an honest signal” of an individual’s commitment to society, Dr Power suggested.

But, perhaps unexpectedly, it was the everyday signs of religious belief, rather than potentially dangerous rituals, that were more important from a social perspective.

“The fact that regular worship is not eye-catching and crowd-drawing, as possession and ritual are, actually serves as its guarantor,” Dr Power wrote in the journal Evolution & Human Behaviour.

“That people continue to worship week upon month upon year, despite its relative subtlety as a signal, makes regular worship a seemingly unassailable marker of devotion and, as the results presented here show, pro-sociality.

“Public rituals comprise a wide range of acts, from making a small offering at a nearby temple, to carrying a scalding firepot in a procession.

“More dramatic public ritual acts can require a long period of fasting and abstention, entail non-trivial monetary costs, involve enduring serious pain, and risk bodily harm.

“In comparison, worshipping at a church or temple may seem to be a rather trivial commitment of time, but the cumulative investment over the course of months and years is substantial.”

Becoming possessed increased the chances of being seen as devout by other people, but also decreased the likelihood of being regarded as hardworking and was not associated with other good characteristics.

“The results presented here draw particular attention to the signal value of regular worship,” Dr Power wrote.

“While dramatic ritual acts may draw the biggest crowds – whether of local onlookers or of research scientists – it is often the subtle act of regular worship that draws the biggest reputational benefits.

“Regular worship is more strongly associated with many of the reputational qualities than the weighted tally of ritual acts, particularly the qualities of generosity and good character, the two most clearly pro-social qualities under study here.

“The generally stronger effect of regular worship can be attributed to the accumulation of many months and even years’ worth of demonstrations of religious commitment. This consistent reminder of a person’s religiosity appears to offer more convincing evidence of a person’s prosociality than sporadic, often one-off dramatic ritual acts.”

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