Be afraid. Be very afraid. Our civilisation may depend on it.
Complex modern societies may have grown and prospered thanks to a pervading fear of moralistic, all-knowing and, above all, punitive gods.
So concludes a team led by anthropologist Benjamin Purzycki of the University of British Columbia, Canada, after some clever game play with members of a range of religions and societies.
Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, ancestor worshippers, it matters not a jot. Believers widely respond to fear of reprisals from a supernatural being. And this fear can help drive model behaviour.
Purzycki’s team picked 591 religious people from eight different societies around the world – coming from diverse backgrounds including hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, wage labourers and small business owners. They then tested their altruism towards strangers who were members of their own religion.
Licence to cheat
The participants rolled dice and, according to the outcome, put money into one of two pots. One would be paid to them or a co-believer within their community, the other to a distant stranger who shared their religion.
But they were allowed to cheat with impunity. And how much they cheated suggested how much they were driven by self-interest as opposed to common regard for their fellow believers in distant lands, which was related to how much they feared a common god.
Afterwards, the players were asked about their gods. “The higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers,” wrote Purzycki and colleagues.
Fearful believers gave around five times more cash to co-religionists than those with a more relaxed god, who cheated – and profited by not sharing the money.
Putzycki says this is good evidence that social cohesion is built on such fears.
“Moralistic, punitive and omniscient deities appear to push cooperation and fairness beyond one’s local in-group,” he says. Such god-fearing societies prosper and drive out others, a fact, he says, that partly explains the ubiquity of religions with such gods.
Dominic Johnson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, agrees. “Conceivably, societies were only able to make the step from small to large societies with the help of gods to facilitate and sustain cooperation among large groups of strangers,” he says.
Johnson says the paper is “a major contribution” to the growing recognition of the anthropological and evolutionary role of moralising gods.
He sees it as an antidote to the arguments of atheists such as Richard Dawkins. Far from being a poison in society, religion emerges as an evolutionary adaptation that provides societies with “a powerful way of promoting cooperation”, he says.
Perhaps, says Purzycki, such influences still play out in addressing 21st century problems that require society-wide cooperation. He singles out Pope Francis associating the Vatican with environmentalism. In an encyclical last year, the pontiff attacked a “collective selfishness” in which “we have come to see ourselves as entitled to plunder [nature] at will.” God is still watching – and judging.
Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature16980