Belief in a ‘moralising’ god that could punish those who misbehave may have helped diverse groups co-operate as societies grew, study says
- Researchers recruited a total of 2,228 participants from 15 ‘diverse populations’
- Included Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, forms of animism, ancestor worship
- They found those who believed in more punitive god were fairer in decisions
Belief in a god capable of doling out punishment may once have been the glue that held large societies together.
In a new study, researchers attempted to investigate the pro-social effects of religious belief beyond the close-knit community.
Through interviews and behavioral experiments with thousands of volunteers from 15 different schools of thought, the team concluded that the evolution of ‘moralizing gods’ likely aided cooperation between people from different groups.
Belief in a god capable of doling out punishment may once have been the glue that held large societies together. In a new study, researchers attempted to investigate the pro-social effects of religious belief beyond a close-knit community. Stock image
WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE IN GOD?
Thinkers have been pondering why people believe in god for centuries.
One popular theory cites ‘cognitive and social adaptations’ as the reasoning behind belief in god.
For example, ‘cognitive decoupling,’ or the common phenomenon of attaching behaviors or actions to someone who isn’t in front of us could explain why people are religious.
It is a small leap from being able to imagine the mind of someone we know to imagining an omnipotent, omniscient, human-like mind – especially if we have religious texts which tell of their past actions.
Religious activities make our brains feel good, encouraging us to repeat them.
In addition, household norms tend to encourage people to be religious.
In the study published to Proceedings of the Royal Society B, an international team of researchers recruited a total of 2,228 participants from 15 ‘diverse populations.’
This included religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism as well as forms of animism and ancestor worship.
Non-religious groups were also taken into account, such as foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists, and wage labourers.
Participants were presented with two experimental games.
In one, they anonymously selected one of two cups designated for different recipients, and rolled a two-colored die to determine where they should place a coin.
‘Since the allocations were made in private, only the participants knew their decisions and they could distribute the endowment according to their preferences (rather than die rolls), reflecting in- and/or outgroup biases,’ the researchers explain.
For the second game, the participants anonymously allocated 10 coins between two recipients.
The team also incorporated reminders of punishing and monitoring moralizing gods, relatively less moralistically punitive and knowledgeable local gods, secular authorities (e.g. police), and a control condition, the study notes.
According to the researchers, people were more likely to allocate a bigger share of coins either to themselves or members of their same religion.
But, those who believed in a more strongly punitive god were much fairer in their choices.
The experts say this reflects processes that have taken place on a societal scale throughout history, too.
According to the team, the findings ‘support the idea that the cultural evolution of supernatural agents into punishing and monitoring gods who care about interpersonal, normative conduct may have played a role in the extension of the cooperative circle beyond kin-networks and local ingroup interests.’