Scientists have found that the belief in a all-knowing, vengeful god (or gods) played an important role in the formation and development of current human societies. The study was published in the journal Nature.

The study showed that these beliefs bring a certain level of cooperation among societies: “Cross-cultural experiments find that belief in moralistic, knowledgeable and punishing gods promotes cooperation with strangers, supporting a role for religion in the expansion of human societies.” as read in the Nature’s publication.

Fresco in the Sistine Chapel. The Creation of the Sun and the Moon, by Michelangelo.
Fresco in the Sistine Chapel. “The Creation of the Sun and the Moon”, by Michelangelo.

Anthropologists and psychologists participated in the study. They looked at how religion affected humans’ willingness to cooperate with people from other social circle, examining the link between the belief in “moralistic” gods and human societies.

Researchers tested their hypothesis using extensive interviews and two behavioral games to measure “impartial rule-following” with nearly 600 people from eight different communities from Brazil, Mauritius, Siberia, Tanzania, two from Vanuatu and another two from Fiji.

Participants showed they were very attached to their own beliefs and religious traditions, which mostly included Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as various local traditions. The study showed that the higher participants considered their gods as all-knowing and punitive about human thoughts and actions, the better they behave with distant or local strangers who shared their same religion.

“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 cooperation,” said Benjamin Purzycki, one of the researchers from the University of British Columbia, in a news release. “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 engange in anti-social behaviors towards a wider range of people who share those beliefs.”

The study concluded by stating: “beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality”. This means that this behavior can support important features for the development of current societies, such as cooperative institutions, trade, market and partnerships.

Source: Journal Nature