Fear of All Knowing, Judgemental Gods Makes Us More Sociable?

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by Neil Godfrey

The following article or letter has just appeared in NatureMoralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. (Or try this link.) Warning, however: high profile journals such as Nature are known to experience the highest retraction rate among scientific publications. Presumably this is because they attract readers (i.e. payers) by publishing articles sure to be popular even though their claims have not been properly tested or have an inadequate peer review process for determining final editorial decisions.

Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups.

To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers.

We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship.

Holding a range of relevant variables constant, 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 relative to both themselves and local co-religionists.

Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.



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11 thoughts on “Fear of All Knowing, Judgemental Gods Makes Us More Sociable?”

    1. Shiite v Sunni – a factor in rivalry for Middle East leadership v Zionism?

      Apparently self-financed Donald Trump has hinted at support for ISIS from Israel, which on balance gains from conflict between Muslims.

    2. Scientific and controlled questionnaires are in fact required. Christian nations like Australia supported very generously Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu peoples who have suffered horrendous natural disasters in the region (with a strong component of that support coming from the voluntary public contributions), and Australian government policy continues to support these peoples for a range of reasons, in particular regional stability and security.

      The Iranian government’s motive is seen less as a fear of Allah than it is regional power politics — vis a vis Saudi Arabia in particular.

      Prior to the disastrous Bremer administration and rise of al Qaida’s Zarqawi, most informed commentators were predicting that there would be no sectarian violence in the wake of the US invasion because up till then Shias and Sunnis often intermarried and were also found living in the same neighbourhoods. It took a sustained Zarqawi level of barbarism with mass murder attacks on crowded Shia mosques and market places(in the context of incompetent administrative efforts to push Sunni Baathists out and replace them with Shias) that led to the current sectarian conflict.

      Turkey is also a predominantly Sunni Muslim country yet they are actively opposing ISIS’s most effective adversary, the mostly Sunni Kurdish Peshmerga.

      The advantage of serious down-on-the-ground structured studies is that they can help us understand what is really going on, to cut through the multiple interpretations available to us at the more general level. Compare the popular view that the Muslim religion itself is the motivating factor in Islamist terrorism — the studies I have been posting show how scholarly research cuts through such simplistic misconceptions.

      1. Australia is a secular state. I suppose that the majority of Australians profess nominal allegiance to a Christian denomination, but that doesn’t make it a Christian country.
        Countries in the European Union are secular states, and they receive large numbers of refugees, e.g. from Syria.
        That’s a matter of politics and moral values, not of religion.

        The map of allies and foes in the Middle East is very much cut up along religious lines, whatever cause you propose. And sure, the US could have handled Iraq better, but you see religious rivalry erupt wherever a power vacuum develops: look at Yugoslavia, a country where Muslims and Christians coexisted for decades, until this coexistence was no longer enforced by the state.

        1. One can find so many contrary examples and involved variables when looking at the “general overview” of “world events” as the examples I provided indicate — your discussion of the Australian example confirms my point about alternative explanations for the data.

          As for the assertion that religious conflict breaking out wherever there is a power vacuum, this is simply contrary to so much evidence. Yugoslavia does not represent the general world condition. The Iraq example is a case in point: as I tried to point out, the removal of Saddam did not result in sectarian conflict.

          Pretty well all the advisors and experienced commenters were saying sectarian warfare would not be the result of the removal of Saddam.

          That sectarian divide only came about after a series of extreme efforts by Zarqawi to introduce sectarian warfare into Iraq. And this was only possible as a result of some seriously deliberate discriminatory policy by people of Christian background, not Muslims.

          Al Qaeda’s leaders even condemned Zarqawi for attacking fellow Muslims — Shia were brothers in Bin Laden’s and Zarwahiri’s eyes. The current rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including its extension into the Syrian conflict, is about power politics, pure and simple.

          Before Zarqawi’s campaign of terrorist bombings targeting hundreds of civilians Sunni and Shia intermarried — that does not happen as a result of a dictatorial rule unless the dictator enforced marriage, and Saddam never did that.

          We can’t let our gut distaste for religion guide our analysis. Scientific or otherwise serious scholarly research always has a place in understanding how the world works.

          1. Neil, I think that the scientific research (and I’m all for it) supports the view that religion forges alliances between population groups -against other groups – , even though they may be otherwise unrelated.

            Religion has a long memory, and the religious divide pops up – as a rule – when control to ‘keep the peace’ between religious groups fails. Your story about Iraq actually illustrates that point. People around the world are mobilized politically on the basis of their religion. Think of Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Rwanda, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, etc.

            I would agree that ‘religion’ as such is rarely the sole cause of violent conflict, even between highly religious cultures. But religious factors are important contributors to conflict, since religions are (the most?) important factor identifying a group/population; that is where the front line is drawn and the ‘license to kill’ is based on.

            1. Each one of your assertions — and each of the situations in each of the countries you listed — needs to be tested, to be examined in detail. It is the popular broad-brush conceptions about religion that need scrutiny. They cannot be assumed by just looking at the newspapers. My example of Iraq actually supplied some details that belie the “natural sectarian supports and divides” and it was very clear that no war between shias and sunnis would have happened without a lot of effort on the part of one renegade al qaeda supporter — contrary to the instructions of the al qaeda leadership. I fail to see how the details I mentioned about Iraq support your claims. The details I provided contradict them. Little details like that – it is always the details — raise questions about the popular assertions about religious conflict and biases. We are talking about promotion of civil cooperation — not simply some general sense of affinity. Race, economics, cultural dynamics of various sorts, history — there are variables that need to be isolated. And all countries need to be considered — not only those where we think our thesis is supported.

              1. I think detailed examples do show how many factors, like ethnic or political groups, and not just religion, are involved in various disasters, wars.

                However, I’d argue that historically, religion was strongly interconnected to ethnicities, nationalists, even racism. The God of the Old Testament for instance, favored Israel and the Jews. As his “chosen people.” And that Jewish God encouraged genocidal murders of rival nations, peoples.

                So the modern effort to create and defend a pure religion, separated from these destructive elements, would not reflect the destructive roots of religion. Roots that are still there, far more often than good Christians like to think.

                Granted, religion today is often more peaceful. And has distanced itself somewhat from many destructive elements. But only somewhat. Threats of violence for example, are still lurking just under the surface. Especially among religious conservatives, fundamentalists.

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