On the face of it, it might not seem that computers could do much to simulate religion. And in way, that’s true – no computer program could model the subjective contours of, say, a profound religious experience. But religion is more than inner experiences. It’s also a social and cognitive phenomenon, one with many implications for observable real-world outcomes. For instance, it affects people’s voting patterns, their moral outlooks, and marriage and mating decisions. In turn, these decisions have a real impact on demographics, politics, conflict, and more.
When we use computer models to simulate religious behaviors and cognition, we’re dealing with these observable phenomena. We’re trying to understand how religious beliefs and commitments can affect social patterns and politics. We’re investigating how our evolutionary history may have shaped us to use ritual for social purposes. In asking these sorts of questions, we’re getting a better handle on what it means to be human – both in the past and in the uncertain future.