Just how much does society owe religion?

Sensemaking / Just how much does society owe religion?

For Oxford zoologist Robert May, religion has played an integral role in building cooperative societies. But what is its role in a globalised world?

29 Sep 2011

For Oxford zoologist Robert May, religion has played an integral role in building cooperative societies. But what is its role in a globalised world?

There’s one major problem in evolutionary biology left unresolved, and that is how on earth we organised ourselves in cooperative societies. There are big benefits to us all in society. The only problem is that the group as a whole is vulnerable to those who make the most of these benefits without paying the cost. Prairie dogs and hunter-gatherers alike could deal with this because the ‘pack’ was mostly made up of relatives.

But what happened once we started aggregating in bigger groups – in towns and cities? It’s an unsolved problem how we came to organise in ways which have been so good for us.

There are interesting experimental games in evolutionary biology where, if everyone plays fair, everyone wins; if a few cheat, they may prosper, but more commonly everyone loses… Crucially, however, if you identify cheats and punish them, this leads to cooperation. All that’s needed is the altruism of people to organise and pay for that individual to be punished, for the benefit of the group as a whole.

How much better, then, to have a punisher who acts but isn’t in the game! Someone whose role it is to promote good behaviour. Others have suggested that ultimately the origins of gods derived in a constructive way to permit cohesion of large aggregates of humans behaving well to each other.

As for society today, I see compassionate, non-fundamentalist religion as a good thing – when it’s working well. It is hugely important in getting us to come together to sustain the planet. We can’t go on having indefinite exploitation of the planet. Religion got us started on this cooperative road. So too, I think, if religion isn’t part of the solution, there is no solution.

Of course, it’s even more effective if religions work together. Cooperation ought to be one of their core values.

Understanding each other

At the core of the British Council’s work in cultural relations is the belief that creating opportunities for people to understand each other better, work together more and learn from one another is crucial to building secure, more prosperous and sustainable futures for us all.

The British Council is not a faith-based organisation, but belief, faith and worldview underpin many of the cultures we work with. If we were to avoid or ignore the role belief plays in an increasingly globalised world, we run the risk of marginalising many of the people we should be engaging.

At the forums we convened in Nigeria and Ethiopia, we realised that engaging with people around their worldview had potential impact far beyond our climate change programme. In fact, we have been working directly or indirectly on projects relating to belief, community and culture for many years. We are now in the process of developing a new strand of work, Belief in Dialogue, which aims to acknowledge the complex identities of individuals within diverse communities worldwide and build capacity for global citizenship.

At the first African Interfaith Forum on Climate Change in 2010, the leaders crafted and endorsed a declaration that stated: “Faith leaders have a crucial role to play in pressing for changes in behaviour at every level of society.” The British Council’s cultural relations work has helped to make this a reality in their communities, and is now building on that experience, by creating opportunities worldwide for dialogue and engagement across cultures and communities.

Christine Wilson is an Adviser in Education and Society at the British Council.

Robert May is Professor of Zoology and Emeritus Fellow at Merton College, Oxford University, and a former President of the Royal Society.

Photo: Ryan McVay / Thinkstock

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