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Social support networks and religiosity in rural South India


In recent years, scientists based in a variety of disciplines have attempted to explain the evolutionary origins of religious belief and practice13. Although they have focused on different aspects of the religious system, they consistently highlight the strong association between religiosity and prosocial behaviour (acts that benefit others). This association has been central to the argument that religious prosociality played an important role in the sociocultural florescence of our species47. But empirical work evaluating the link between religion and prosociality has been somewhat mixed811. Here, I use detailed, ethnographically informed data chronicling the religious practice and social support networks of the residents of two villages in South India to evaluate whether those who evince greater religiosity are more likely to undertake acts that benefit others. Exponential random graph models reveal that individuals who worship regularly and carry out greater and costlier public religious acts are more likely to provide others with support of all types. Those individuals are themselves better able to call on support, having a greater likelihood of reciprocal relationships. These results suggest that religious practice is taken as a signal of trustworthiness, generosity and prosociality, leading village residents to establish supportive, often reciprocal relationships with such individuals.

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Figure 1: Social support networks of the adult residents of Teṉpaṭṭi and Aḻakāpuram.


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The author is grateful for the hospitality of the villagers of Teṉpaṭṭi and Aḻakāpuram, the support of faculty and students from the Folklore Department at Madurai Kamaraj University, and the suggestions of R. Bird, R. Sosis, J. Holland Jones, T. Luhrmann, S. Thiranagama, E. Ready, S. Bowles, L. Fortunato and participants in the IRES graduate student workshop. Fieldwork was funded by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (BCS-1121326), a Fulbright–Nehru Student Researcher Award, the Stanford Center for South Asia, and Stanford University. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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E.A.P. designed the research, collected the data, analysed the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Eleanor A. Power.

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The author declares no competing interests.

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Power, E. Social support networks and religiosity in rural South India. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0057 (2017).

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