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Indirect Reciprocity and Reputation Management in Religious Morality Relating to Concepts of Supernatural Agents

Journal article
Authors Andreas Nordin
Published in Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion
Volume 3
Issue 2
Pages 125-153
ISSN 2049-7555
Publication year 2015
Published at Department of Cultural Sciences
Pages 125-153
Language en
Keywords reputation, indirect reciprocity, moral, mutualism, full-access agents, strategic information
Subject categories Religious Studies, Evolutionary Biology, Psychology, Social Anthropology, Sociology


Concerns with reputation are found in relation to human notions about rank, honour, religious morality and sacred values. In cognitive and evolutionary approaches to religion, such as “adaptivist” and “by-product” theories, concepts of reputation imply slightly different significances and pragmatic functions. From an “adaptivist” perspective, belief in supernatural punishment supports commitment enhancement and can relate to the promotion of intra-group competition, especially in the absence of concerns about reputational pressure. Alternative accounts, found in “by-product” approaches to religion, suggest that the attribution of moral notions to supernatural agents derives from human cognitive systems devoted to social interaction and cooperation entailing reputation monitoring. More profoundly, in altruist and mutualist models of human cooperation and morality, reputation implies different functions and, by consequence, reputation in “adaptivist” and “by-product” theories is awarded different degrees of importance. The aim of this article is to analyse a predominant type of religious morality by focusing on the conceptualisation of supernatural agents and the function of reputation monitoring. I shall compare altruist and mutualist accounts and adopt the latter to complement our understanding of the social cognitive machinery that underpins the relevance and attribution of moral notions to supernatural agents. I shall argue that concern with reputation is closely linked with the cognition of supernatural agents because: (a) according to mutualistic theories, indirect reciprocity and reputation hold a significant position in cooperation and morality, and this has consequences for how religious morality ought to be modelled; and (b) supernatural agents are supposedly “full-access agents” that are aware of “strategic information” because they are omniscient agents that know everything of importance for a believer’s reputation and the dynamics of indirect reciprocity in which the believer takes part.

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