Belief in a wrathful god helps bind together civilizations, according to a new research study.
An international team of researchers found that societies that believe their deity is punitive and all-knowing behave more honestly and generously — at least toward others who share their fear of god.
“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 Benjamin Purzycki of the University of British Columbia.
“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.”
The researchers surveyed the religious attitudes of nearly 600 people who live in eight diverse cultures — including communities in Brazil, Fiji, Siberia and Tanzania — and found that participants whose gods were omniscient and concerned with morality gave more money to others who shared their religious views.
This held true even when those believers were strangers from another community — but not for those whose deities were less concerned with moral behavior and weren’t believed to be all-knowing.
The participants included hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, herders, farmers and workers in modern economies.
The researchers concluded that cooperative societies had developed around shared religious beliefs, because the genetic record did not explain how this shift had taken place since the development of agriculture roughly 12,000 years ago.
“It turns out that putting the fear of God into us may have had a lot to do with it,” explained researcher Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland.
The researchers concluded that fear of supernatural punishment encouraged early humans to overcome their biological urges and follow societal rules to cooperate.
“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.
But other recent studies have suggested that children from present-day religious families might actually be less altruistic than those from non-religious families.
Researchers from seven universities around the world tested the relationship between religion and morality, and they concluded Christian and Muslim beliefs actually had a negative influence on children’s altruism.