Religion binds people culturally across geographic borders

Religion is a ‘super-ethnic identity’, binding people from different backgrounds, beyond national borders.
- Dr Michael Muthukrishna
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People who share the same religious beliefs have unique, common, cultural traits, that persist across geographic and political boundaries.

This is the key finding from new research by York University (Canada), the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of British Colombia.

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, set out to test whether people who share the same religious beliefs and commitments, could share cultural values despite geographic distance.

To do this, the researchers used a tool called the Cultural Fixation Index (CFst) which is designed to measure the psychological and cultural distance between societies. Using the CFst statistical technique, the authors applied responses from 243,118 individuals across 88 countries who had completed the World Values Survey between 2005 to 2019.

They found that people who affiliated with a world religion displayed unique patterns of cultural traits and were more culturally similar, both within and across countries, than those who do not share a religion.

The authors also found that while religious groups do differ from non-religious groups, the degree in cultural differences varied. Christians, Jews and Buddhists were quite similar to non-religious groups among many dimensions. However, the distance between Hindu, Druze and Ancestral Worshipping groups and non-religious groups was large.

The authors note that despite living in different national cultures, people who do not affiliate with a religion share cultural traits to a degree, providing future avenues for research in this area.

Commenting on the research, co-author Dr Michael Muthukrishna from the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE said: “Religion is sometimes assumed to be a source of conflict, but one evolutionary hypothesis is that it is also a source of large-scale cooperation - cooperation and conflict are two sides of the same coin.

“Religion is a ‘super-ethnic identity’, binding people from different backgrounds, beyond national borders. We find evidence for this hypothesis: people in different countries are culturally similar to their fellow citizens, but also to people in distant lands who share their religious identity and commitment.”

Behind the article

Cultural similarity among coreligionists within and between countries, Cindel J. M. White, Michael Muthukrishna, Ara Norenzayan, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2021, 118 (37) e2109650118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2109650118