Simulating Religions as Adaptive Systems

  • Connor WoodEmail author
  • Richard Sosis
Part of the New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion book series (NASR, volume 7)


Religious communities exhibit many features of complex adaptive systems (CASs). They are open systems whose global features nonlinearly emerge from the interactions of their components, are complexly internally structured, and must adaptively respond to continual perturbations in their environments. This chapter presents a system dynamics model (SDM) of a generic religious organization represented as a CAS. The simulated community extracts energy from an ecological resource base and expends energy on distinct, mutually exclusive goals: reproduction, energy-seeking, and ritual. Although energy that is spent on ritual cannot be spent on utilitarian objectives, ritual performance increases the perceived legitimacy of the religious system, thereby motivating higher levels of cooperation. Low levels of perceived legitimacy can trigger a switch to a charismatic version of authority. In experiments, we found that many simulated communities maximized their populations by outstripping their resource base shortly before collapsing, in a classic example of boom-and-bust ecological overshoot. However, certain communities showed greater longevity if the Charisma parameter was maximized. We interpret our results to suggest that increasing social flexibility in response to crises of legitimacy may contribute to the resilience of certain types of social, including religious, systems.


Complex adaptive system Religion Ritual Charisma Resource overshoot Supernatural beings Structural hierarchy 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Mind and CultureBostonUSA
  2. 2.University of ConnecticutStorrsUSA

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