Description of measures and results from Church attendance and alloparenting: an analysis of fertility, social support and child development among English mothers

Many aspects of religious rituals suggest they provide adaptive benefits. Studies across societies consistently find that investments in ritual behaviour return high levels of cooperation. Another line of research finds that alloparental support to mothers increases maternal fertility and improves child outcomes. Although plausible, whether religious cooperation extends to alloparenting and/or affects child development remains unclear. Using 10 years of data collected from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), we test the predictions that church attendance is positively associated with social support and fertility (N = 8,207 to N = 8,209), and that social support is positively associated with fertility and child development (N = 1,766 to N = 6,561). Results show that: (i) relative to not attending, church attendance is positively related to a woman's social network support and aid from co-religionists, (ii) aid from co-religionists is associated with increased family size, while (iii) fertility declines with extra-religious social network support. Moreover, while extra-religious social network support decreased over time, co-religionist aid remained constant. These findings suggest that religious and secular networks differ in their longevity and have divergent influences on a woman's fertility. We find some suggestive evidence that support to mothers and aid from co-religionists is positively associated with a child's cognitive ability at later stages of development. Findings provide mixed support for the premise that ritual, such as church attendance, is part of a strategy that returns the high levels of support, fertility and improved child outcomes. Identifying the diversity and scope of cooperative breeding strategies across global religions presents an intriguing new horizon in the evolutionary study of religious systems.This article is part of the theme issue ‘Ritual renaissance: new insights into the most human of behaviours'.