Humans often make their greatest exertions and sacrifices, including killing or dying for ill or good, not just to preserve their own lives or kin and kith but for an idea—the abstract conception they form of themselves, of “who I am” and “who we are.” This is the “the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only” of which Hobbes wrote in Leviathan.
At least since the rise of chiefdoms and state-level societies, religion has been the locus of this privilege and power of absurdity. For Hobbes, as for countless other religious and nonreligious thinkers, from Augustine to Kierkegaard and Galileo to A. J. Ayer, the “incomprehensible” nature of core religious beliefs, such as a sentient but bodiless deity, renders them immune to empirical or logical verification or falsification.
Religious consensus over values does not primarily involve fact checking or reasoned argument but ensues from ritual communion and emotional bonding whose symbolic signposts channel and coordinate cognitions and emotions toward preparedness for action. Costly commitment to idiosyncratic and apparently absurd beliefs and associated values, cued by sartorial and corporeal markers (e.g., veils, beards, and especially more indelible marks, such as the zabiba on the forehead of pious Muslims generated by repeated friction with the prayer mat), can deepen trust by identifying cooperators while galvanizing group solidarity for common defense.
Although all religions have a “marked idiosyncrasy” and bias in their moral message, the more belligerent a group’s environment, the more proprietary and costly the commitment and display regarding the group’s sacred values, rituals, and identifying markers, which groove and deepen the cultural niche. This channels and increases in-group reliance but also disbelief, distrust, and potential conflict toward other groups.
By contrast, fully reasoned social contracts that regulate individual interests to share costs and benefits of cooperation can be less distancing between groups but also more liable to collapse: awareness that more advantageous distributions of risks and rewards may be available in the future makes defection more likely. Even ostensibly secular nations and transnational movements usually contain important quasi-religious rituals and beliefs.
Thus, while the term “sacred values” intuitively denotes religious belief, in what follows, sacred values refer to any preferences regarding objects, beliefs, or practices that people treat as both incompatible or nonfungible with profane issues or economic goods, as when land or law becomes holy or hallowed and as inseparable from people’s conception of “self” and of “who we are.” This includes the “secularized sacred,” as, for example, in political notions of “human rights” or in the transcendent ideological “-isms” that have dominated political life ever since the Enlightenment’s secularization of the universal religious mission to redeem and save “humanity” through political revolution (liberalism, socialism, anarchism, communism, fascism, etc.; Gray.
Our previous research indicates that when people act in defense of sacred values, they act in ways that cannot be reliably predicted by assessing material risks and rewards. This feature holds even when taking into consideration modifications and constraints on instrumental rationality, such as cognitive limitations on gathering and processing information desire to avoid cognitive dissonance or conform to group thinking, lack of cultural awareness, intrinsic indivisibility of resources, or other psychological biases and ecological constraints. Of course, concern with instrumental and deontic (i.e., rules and obligations) matters interact in the real world to motivate the actions of individuals and groups, and any explanatory or descriptively adequate account must be able to model and predict this interaction (for recent proposals on “devoted realism” in geopolitics.
Nevertheless, acts by devoted actors are not chiefly motivated by instrumental concerns, or at least those of which people are usually aware. Instead, they are motivated by sacred values that drive actions independent from or all out of proportion to outlays and outcomes. Devotion to some core values may represent universal responses to long-term evolutionary strategies that go beyond short-term individual calculations of self-interest but that advance individual interests in the aggregate and long run; in nonliterate societies these may be encoded as preferences of spirits and deities. This may include devotion to children, to community, or even to a sense of fairness.
Other such values are clearly specific to particular societies and historical contingencies, such as the sacred status of cows in Hindu culture or of the Sabbath or Jerusalem in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Sometimes, as with India’s sacred cows or sacred forests, what is seen as inherently sacred in the present may have a more materialistic origin, representing the accumulated material wisdom of generations who resisted individual urges to gain an immediate advantage of meat or firewood for the long-term benefits of renewable sources of energy and sustenance.
Yet despite the long-standing material advantages associated with these values, unconditional devotion to sacred values in a rapidly changing world can also be materially disadvantageous: for example, when a hitherto closed commons suddenly becomes an open commons, then continued cultural commitment to values for protection of the commons may be highly maladaptive by facilitating extinction of native conservationists in areas now open to exploitation by foreign extractors.
Of course, the evolutionary rationale in devotion to children can be understood in terms of genetic kin selection: individuals are ephemeral, but promoting welfare of children and other kin ensure propagation of many of the individual’s genes. Moreover, imagined kinship applied to larger sociopolitical groups (brotherhoods, motherlands, etc.) exploits the cognitive and emotional concomitants of this evolutionary rationale in myriad ways that may be adaptive or not (much like the food and sex industries exploit our evolutionary proclivities in favor of nourishment and reproduction. From a historical vantage, evolutionary-based tendencies of kin selection and parochial altruism are often co-opted in state-level societies and transstate movements with dominant religions—and (ever since the French Revolution) also with salvational transcendental secular ideologies—in the creation of devoted actors.
Our empirical studies in multiple cultures and distressed zones across the world indicate that sincere attachment to sacred values entails (1) commitment to a rule-bound logic of moral appropriateness to do what is morally right no matter the likely risks or rewards rather than following a utilitarian calculus of costs and consequences; (2) immunity to material trade-offs coupled with a “backfire effect” where offers of incentives or disincentives to give up sacred values heighten refusal to compromise or negotiate; (3) resistance to social influence and exit strategies which leads to unyielding social solidarity and binds genetic strangers to voluntarily sacrifice for one another; (4) insensitivity to spatial and temporal discounting, where considerations of distant places and people and even far past and future events associated with sacred values significantly outweigh concerns with here and now; and (5) brain-imaging patterns consistent with processing obligatory rules rather than weighing costs and benefits and with processing perceived violations of such rules as emotionally agitating and resistant to social influence.