Costly signaling, power and religious behavior, or What can we learn from the Skoptsy?


Maciej Potz, University of Łódź, Poland

Date and Time

February 10, 2022 12:00 PM


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The focus of religion & politics research has been predominantly on the impact of religious actors on democratic and non-democratic political systems and religion-inspired political behavior. But to better understand the political significance of religion, it is necessary to look below this institutional level and adopt a micropolitical perspective which incorporates insights from fields such as behavioral ecology, social psychology or cognitive science to study the internal politics of religious communities.

Why is religion, despite its costly requirements and uncertain rewards, such a potent factor of mobilization? How does it legitimize claims for power and status? Why do religious groups significantly outlast secular ones? To address some of these questions, I examine political systems of communitarian religious groups – including the American Shakers and Russian Skoptsy – through the lenses of costly signaling theory of religion. This evolutionarily-informed theoretical framework contributes to the explanation of seemingly irrational and costly ascetic and ecstatic religious behavior not only as signals of commitment, but also as bids for power and status. The added value of such micropolitical study of religious communities is that it may shed light on the complex relationship between religion and political power in the early stages of human social development. But it also contributes to our understanding of some modern religio-political phenomena, such as various form of political sacrifice, including suicidal terrorism.

Maciej Potz
Maciej Potz is a professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Systems, Faculty of International and Political Studies, University of Łódź, Poland. He earned his Ph.D. in 2006 from the Silesian University in Katowice and his post-doctoral degree from the University of Łódź in 2017, both in Political Science. His primary area of interest is religion and politics, with special focus on theocracies (as a Foundation for Polish Science scholar, he studied Shaker and Mormon theocracies in the USA in 2009 and 2012) and political strategies of religious actors in contemporary democracies, especially in Poland and the USA. His other research interests include political theory (especially theory of power and democratic theory), comparative politics and, most recently, evolutionary political science.

Maciej Potz published three monographs: (i) Granice wolności religijnej [The Limits of Religous Liberty] 2008 (2nd ed. 2015), Wrocław: FNP, on religious freedom, church-state relations and confessional politics in the USA; (ii) Amerykańskie teokracje. Źródła i mechanizmy władzy usankcjonowanej religijnie [American Theocracies. The Sources and Mechanisms of Religion-Sanctioned Power] 2016, Łódź: UŁ, theorizing theocracy as a type of a political system and emprically exploring North American theocracies; (iii) Political Science of Religion: Theorizing the Political Role of Religion, 2020, London: Palgrave MacMillan – a theoretical framework for the analysis of religion’s impact on politics. He also authored several journal articles, including in Religion, State and Society, Journal of Political Power, Politics and Religion and Studia Religiologica.

Maciej Potz has taught political science-related courses in the University of Lodz and, as guest lecturer, at other European universities, including University of the West of Scotland in Glasgow, Buskerund College and NTNU (Norway), University of Joensuu (Finland), University of La Laguna (Spain). He participated in a number of international conferences, including “XXI World IAHR Congress in Erfurt (2015), IPSA World Congresses of Political Science in Santiago (2019), Madrid (2012) and Poznań (2016), APSA Annual Meeting (forthcoming in 2021).  

The research project he will be pursuing at Stanford, entitled Costly signaling Under His Eye: explaining the commune longevity puzzle, uses costly signaling theory of religion to explore the determinants of cohesion and longevity of (communitarian) religious groups. It also proposes a novel political interpretation of signaling behavior. Over the next three years, he will head a research team undertaking an empirical study (funded by National Science Centre of Poland) of power and status in Catholic religious orders.

*If you need any disability-related accommodation, please contact: Shannon Johnson ( by February 3, 2022.

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