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The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual

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Figure 4. Relative cooperation by members of a group . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Why do Hari Krishnas shave their heads? Why do Mormons abstain from coffee, tobacco and alcohol? And why do so many religious groups have strict initiation rites, ranging from bathing in icy water to painful scarification, hair plucking and genital mutilation? In other words, why all the ordeals and sacrifices? Most attempts to explain religious rituals and taboos have focused on the spiritual benefits of these practices, but anthropologist Richard Sosis thinks there's a more fundamental reason. They signal commitment to the group, and prevent those who are uncommitted from gaining the benefits of membership. After all, who but a believer would engage in these costly acts?

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