Eleanor Power wants to know how religious belief, practice, and identity interact and shape both the social and economic lives of individuals as well as the structure of the groups that those individuals form. (Image credit: Eleanor Power)

Religious individuals commit a great deal of time, energy, and money to the fulfillment of their faith: tithing, fasting, going on pilgrimage, attending religious ceremonies, getting possessed, spending time in prayer. How can we explain these investments and the beliefs that underlie them?

Anthropologist Eleanor Power has conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in South India among Hindus, Catholics, and Protestants to try to understand such religious acts and their social consequences. By gathering detailed records of people's religious practice, reputational standing, and social support networks, she is able to trace out the ways in which religious practice influences how people are perceived, and how they relate to one another. Her research shows that those who invest more in the religious life of the village are not only seen as more devout, but also seen as having a suite of prosocial traits. Perhaps more importantly, religious action has a bearing on peoples' relationships: people are more likely to go to a person for support if that person worships regularly or if he/she undertakes costly ritual acts. Furthermore, those religious individuals have more reciprocal relationships, suggesting that they are better able to access the social support so necessary to one's wellbeing.

Many of these supportive bonds link people who worship together: co-participation in rituals increases the likelihood of a support tie between individuals, and at the group structural level results in denser community clusters. This project provides strong support for the signaling theory of religion and the wider work on the evolution of religion.