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Discerning devotion: testing the signaling theory of religion

Power, Eleanor A. (2017) Discerning devotion: testing the signaling theory of religion. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38 (1). pp. 82-91. ISSN 1090-5138

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Identification Number: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.07.003


Religious rituals often entail significant investments of time, energy, and money, and can risk bodily harm. Instead of being evolutionarily inexplicable, such costly religious acts have been argued to be honest signals of commitment to the beliefs and values of the community, helping individuals establish good reputations and foster trusting, cooperative relationships. Most tests of this hypothesis have evaluated whether religious signalers are more prosocial; here I investigate whether signal receivers actually perceive religious signalers as such. I do this with data collected over 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in two villages in South India, where Hindu and Christian residents engage in different modes of religious practice, including dramatic acts of firewalking and spirit possession as well as the more subtle but consistent act of worshipping at a church or temple each week. Each mode of religious practice is found to be informative of a distinct set of reputational qualities. Broadly speaking, in the long term, individuals who invest more in the religious life of the village are not only seen as more devout, but also as having a suite of prosocial, other-focused traits. In the short term, individuals who perform greater and costlier acts in the annual Hindu festival show a slight increase in the percent of villagers recognizing them as physically strong and hardworking. These results suggest that people are attending to the full suite of religious acts carried out by their peers, using these signals to discern multiple aspects of their character and intentions.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2016 Elsevier Inc
Divisions: Methodology
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BL Religion
Date Deposited: 24 Jan 2018 13:46
Last Modified: 20 Sep 2021 03:58

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