Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Sacrificial Urge

Praying

Atheists aren’t immune to an irrational tendency to make sacrifices to a higher power.

By Stephen Luntz

A study finds that atheists will offer sacrifices to appease a higher being even if they experience no benefit – or even a punishment.

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A tendency to sacrifice to gods or spirits is a common feature across cultures. “The ancient Greeks burnt pieces of beef as a sacrifice to the gods they wished to please. The Romans sacrificed fruit, cakes, wine, cattle and other domestic animals. The Mayas sacrificed humans, weapons and gold ornaments,” note Prof Paul Frijters of the University of Queensland and World Bank economist Dr Juan Barón in a paper published last year in Economic Record.

Frijters and Barón’s study found that atheists aren’t immune to an irrational tendency to make sacrifices to a higher power. Frijters believes that the study of game players provides evidence that most people have a belief in a reciprocal relationship with something abstract. For the non-religious this may be their nation, science or even the truth.

While we may regard such sacrifices as primitive, the most popular religions on Earth demand the sacrifice of time in prayer, and often financial contributions as well. “The societal cost of sacrifices is not just the sacrifice itself,” Frijters and Barón add. “The existence of sacrifices attracts religious interpreters who derive influence and wealth from their status as intermediaries between the deity and the agent, which itself can lead to an entrenched religious class.”

The study involved 393 participants in a game in which each player could invest tokens...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.