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Religion as Showing Off


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Atheist Republic (News)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): n.d.

According to Psychology Today, there is an argument to be made that religion is about showing off.

The article states that altruistic acts in some forms have been hard for scientists to explain. These speculations become especially true in the instances of the kinds of self-sacrifice that make humanity seem heroic in some manner.

The people who give to others without a thought for any other hand-back to themselves. This seems at odds with the evolutionary point of view. There is a theory called Costly Signaling Theory. It tries to make some sense of the extreme forms of altruisms.

As reported, “The term Handicap Principle has often been used as a synonym for ‘Costly Signaling Theory.’ This reflects the origins of the theory in research on animal communication. Some animals ‘handicap’ themselves with extremely costly biological features that only individuals in excellent condition can afford to maintain.”

The examples given are the plumage of a peacock or the antlers of an elk. They are handicaps, very materially expensive. The theory proposes that the honest signals of oneself via handicaps can be hard to fake but that this can then have some long-term benefits for us. 

It continued, “Costly signaling is very much about truth in advertising. A ‘low-quality’ signaler who attempts to fake a high-quality signal will deplete whatever resources that he may have available, leaving the signaler in such a vulnerable position that the strategy will prove to be counterproductive. “

But if someone is a high-quality signaler, this individual has the resources to burn this signalling. It becomes adaptively beneficially in comparison to the costs of the signalling. The big example is public magnanimity.

Those who are willing to give a lot. It provides the individual a sense of social status among their peers. The argument from Costly Signaling Theory would be that the display shows the person to be of a higher social status than the others, which means the display may not be entirely selfless.

There is anthropological evidence that individuals who have a history of being magnanimous are rewarded by others when times get tough, and laboratory studies by psychologists have also demonstrated that charitable donations and other acts of kindness are most likely to take place when the behaviors are easily observed and recognized by others,” the article explained.

Many researchers view the conspicuous displays as potential advertisement of personality traits to potential mates. Some research confirmed males display altruism in front of attractive members of the opposite sex. Women did not do the same thing.

The article stated and asked, “It’s no secret that young men are notorious for engaging in foolish, risky behavior. How could this predilection for recklessness have evolved in young men?”

Attention is directed to some of the early human societies, where adulthood comes from a man’s standing in front of the social group. This could not masculinity reset through leaving one group and joining another one.

“For this reason, high-risk competition between young males provided an opportunity for ‘showing off’ the abilities needed to acquire resources, exhibit strength, and to meet challenges to one’s status. Consequently, heroic or even recklessly daredevil behavior was rewarded with status and respect—assuming, of course, that the young man survived the ordeal,” the article said.

One anthropologist, Kristen Hawkes, founded the Show-Off Hypothesis. It is the idea well-replicated within the hunter-gatherer societies research. The men use the risky hunting strategies in order to garner the greater sexual access to the women of the world.

It is costly and a form of heroism in the sexual selection arena. Many experts in the evolutionary psychology field see apparent true heroism as giving advantage to some individuals. The heroism in war time is one example of this.

More can be seen in the signaling in the capitalistic societies with the wasteful spending of resources not essential to the survival or even for comfort of the individual ridding themselves of the resources in costly displays, signaling.

The article described, “A series of seven studies, confirmed that wearing brand label clothing does indeed increase perceptions of a person’s wealth and status, and that this perception leads to all sorts of advantages.”

Individuals who wear the expensive brands will get more compliance in requests and will get better jobs with higher salaries. They get better outcome in some social scenarios and can be more successful in the solicitation of donations from others. People buy expensive environmentally friendly products to see of higher status in the eyes of others. This then leads to ideas about religion and social status, and costly signaling.

“Religion has long been thought of as a social mechanism for enforcing cooperation within cultural groups. One of the ways in which it may successfully accomplish this is by using religious commitment as a costly signaling device,” the article said, “All religions have rituals, taboos, and other requirements that can be very costly in terms of time, money, or effort. Fasting, tithing, frequent and lengthy prayer and/or religious services, and dietary requirements that are difficult to follow require a good deal of commitment.”

That is, the commitment to religion is a signal to the efforts and values of the group. These become hard to fake within the group. Because the people within or the members of the group want to see you as a worthwhile and contributing member of the group. Analysis of communal societies apparently show this to be true, especially for those to have survived a long time. There are costly memberships with religion as one big cost.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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