The daily news offers countless examples of the ways religion influences behavior, but the specific characteristics people attribute to their gods may be the most important factor in deciding their actions. Belief in an all-knowing, punishing god encourages cooperation with strangers, say researchers from the University of British Columbia. In fact, faith in such gods may have been necessary to the development of modern-day states.

Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of societal complexity has dramatically expanded while cooperation increased as well. According to the authors, communal agreement, most usually stimulated by genetic relatedness, reciprocity, and partner choice, should falter, not bloom as people increasingly deal in fleeting transactions with unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups.

So how did the large-scale cooperation we see today develop? 

For that we can thank the belief in an all-knowing God who will punish us if we do not cooperate with and interact fairly within wider social circles, the authors hypothesize.

Mine or Yours?

To test this idea, they played a couple of games with people from far-flung locations around the world. Specifically, the research team enlisted the help of 591 people from Brazil, Fiji, Mauritius, Siberia, Tanzania, and Vanuatu; their religious beliefs included animism, ancestor worship, Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism. Led by Dr. Benjamin Purzycki, a research fellow at the Center for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture, the team conducted extensive interviews before the games began.

To play, an individual participant was given money and a two-color die. The researchers instructed the participant to roll the die and drop some coins in their own pot if one color came up. However, if the other color came up, the money was supposed to be placed in a pot for an unknown person who shared their religion in another community. In a second round, the participant was to drop coins into either the cup of a local co-religionist or a distant co-religionist. No one watched as each participant played the game.

Counting the coins in each pot, the researchers discovered participants in both games were more likely to play by the rules and dole out more coins to others if they believed in a god who knew about people’s thoughts and behavior, and punished for wrongdoing. By comparison, those who believed in a god who rewarded good behavior were not quite so equally inclined to play fair.

Based on these results, Purzycki and his colleagues say religious beliefs may have been a major contributing factor in the development of highly complex social organizations. Apparently, fear of supernatural punishment helps us remain on the earthly straight and narrow.

Source: Puczycki BG, Apicella C, Atkinson QD, et al. Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality.