Religion from the perspective of game theory

Religion serves many purposes, but I’ve come to believe that one of the most important is helping people cooperate with each other. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Many religions label behaviors that serve the community as “good” and those that are overly self-serving or detrimental to others as “evil”. Individuals are often cast as having a “light side” and a “dark side” or dual influences from “god” and “satan”. Religion helps and encourages people to engage in the former type of behaviors.

Robert Wright realized that we can insightfully describe this using the language of game theory.

Specifically, some situations are “zero-sum” or “win-lose”, meaning that one person’s gain is the other’s loss. For example, if there is only one rabbit to eat, then if I eat it, you go hungry.

Other situations are “non-zero-sum” or “win-win” meaning that cooperation results in gains for both people. For example, if we can only catch rabbits by working together, then cooperation is what allows us both to eat — cooperation leads to abundance.

Humans are equipped to handle both types of situations. If we sense a zero-sum situation, hormones like cortisol flood our body and we become protective, aggressive, and narrow-minded. If we sense a non-zero-sum situation, hormones like oxytocin flood our body and we become generous, caring and creative.

I’ve come to believe that one of the key insights at the core of all successful religions is that nearly every situation can been seen as non-zero-sum. In other words, we can nearly always apply creativity to find win-win solutions (which generate abundance) even if a situation at first seems clearly win-lose. The key hurdle is that our ability to be creative and generous depends on our non-zero-sum hormones being activated. In other words, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy where believing that a situation is win-win is required to put us in the right state of mind and body to figure out what set of actions will make it win-win.

Viewed in this light, many (even most?) religious and spiritual practices are ways of maintaining that community-oriented, win-win mindset. For example, an emphasis on forgiveness helps us return to a cooperative stance with a person who has betrayed our trust. A practice of gratitude inspires us with past examples of generosity and abundance. A weekly gathering helps us stay connected and aware of the community which we all depend on.

It makes sense to me that successful religions became successful in part because they helped communities cooperate and create more win-win solutions leading to abundance, relative to religions which were less effective at promoting cooperation and whose communities thus missed out on valuable opportunities.

The Dalai Lama has often said, “My religion is kindness.”

I’ve come to believe that this has a sound basis in mathematics.