Religion, Altruism, and Social Capital

43 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2009

Date Written: October 1, 2007


Many people participate in religion "for the community." This motive can be better understood, first, by taking from the recent "social capital" literature the insight that social ties are economic assets, and second, by using the analytical tools of game theory to show how social capital can be interpreted as a matrix of interpersonal attitudes and expectations that facilitate cooperation in "reciprocity games." Among these attitudes and expectations are (a) stability of social ties or loyalty, (b) trust or expectation of reciprocation, and (c) altruism. Religions promote stable social ties through regular worship, and trust through the teaching of moral rules that serves as a behavioral filter. They also try to promote altruism but whether they succeed is not readily observable. However, an evolutionary argument suggests that natural selection will have favored religions that know how to encourage in their members altruism towards co-religionists, though not necessarily towards outsiders.

Keywords: religion, game theory, altruism, evolution, social capital, reciprocity, Christianity, church

JEL Classification: C78, D23

Suggested Citation

Smith, Nathanael, Religion, Altruism, and Social Capital (October 1, 2007). Available at SSRN: or

Nathanael Smith (Contact Author)

University of Central Arkansas ( email )

201 Donaghey Ave.
Conway, AR
United States

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