A new study suggests religion and the belief in an omnipresent, all-knowing God has played a key role in the development of modern-day states.
Beliefs about omnipotent, punishing gods, a defining feature of religions ranging from Christianity to Hinduism, appear to have expanded cooperation among far-flung peoples, say researchers.
The University of British Columbia lead study has been published in Nature.
The research, an international collaboration among anthropologists and psychologists, looked at how religion affects humans’ willingness to cooperate with those outside their social circle.
Researchers interviewed and performed behavioral experiments with nearly 600 people from communities in Vanuatu, Fiji, Brazil, Mauritius, Siberia, and Tanzania whose religious beliefs included Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, animism, and ancestor worship.
“Certain kinds of beliefs involving gods who are aware of human interactions and punish for moral transgressions can indeed contribute to the evolution of human co-operation,” said lead author Dr. Benjamin Purzycki.
“If you think you’re being watched, and expect to be divinely punished for being too greedy or thieving, you might be less inclined to engage in anti-social behavior towards a wider range of people who share those beliefs.”
Results show that believers in all-knowing gods who punish for wrongdoing are more likely to behave fairly towards anonymous, distant “co-religionists” — those who share beliefs about gods and rituals, but may not belong to the same religious organization.
When people act this way, the study suggests, they are engaging in behavior that can support key features of modern-day societies such as large, co-operative institutions, trade, markets, and partnerships.
“Religious beliefs may have been one of the major contributing factors in the development and stability of highly complex social organizations, such as states,” said Purzycki.
The study included interviews along with two games that involved the distribution of coins to participants or other believers based locally or in distant communities. In these games, participants were supposed to use a die to determine who would get the coins.
However, as anonymous players, they could override the die and give coins to whomever they wished.
For both games, participants were more likely to play by the rules and dole out more coins to distant believers if they reported that their gods knew about people’s thoughts and behavior, and punished for wrongdoing.