The coevolution of sacred value and religion

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Sacred value attitudes involve a distinctive profile of norm psychology: an absolutist prohibition on transgressing the value, combined with outrage at even hypothetical transgressions. This article considers three mechanisms by which such attitudes may be adaptive, and relates them to central theories regarding the evolution of religion. The first, “deterrence” mechanism functions to dissuade coercive expropriation of valuable resources. This mechanism explains the existence of sacred value attitudes prior to the development of religion and also explains analogues of sacred value in non-human species. The two remaining mechanisms, “assurance” and “coalitional,” are more likely to have been involved in the cultural evolution of specifically religious behavior. In the assurance mechanism, sacred value attitudes increase the cost of ideological commitments, making them more reliable as signals of a cooperative disposition. In the coalitional mechanism, sacred value attitudes make it dangerous for third parties to dissent from a social norm, and thus discourage competitor ideologies. While both these mechanisms are compatible with major accounts of the evolution of religion, different theories suggest a greater or lesser emphasis on one mechanism or the other.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)252-271
Number of pages20
JournalReligion, Brain and Behavior
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • evolution
  • religion
  • Sacred value
  • signalling

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