Study: Fear of gods may have sparked human cooperation

Scientists have found an explanation for the rise of widespread co-operation among humans in societies – the fear of an angry god.

International researchers, including the University of Auckland’s Associate Professor Quentin Atkinson, have published the results of their study in the journal Nature.

They found people who believe their god is more punitive and knowledgeable behave more honestly and generously towards others who share their religion.

The relationship between supernatural beliefs and cooperativeness could not be accounted for by a wide range of other variables such as gender, age, education, material insecurity and number of children.

The research took place across eight communities from Brazil, Siberia, Tanzania, Vanuatu, Fiji and Mauritius.

The religious attitudes of nearly 600 people were surveyed.

Their belief systems ranged from Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism to more localised beliefs in spirits and deities.

Participants included hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, herders and farmers, and people living in modern economies who earned wages or ran businesses.

The study used behavioural economic games and ethnographic interviews.

The games included elements of random chance and the ability to skew results to benefit either the player, other individuals or groups.

The study found that overall, participants who rated their gods highly as all-knowing and concerned with moral behaviour allocated more money to people who believed in the same god.

This was the case even if their co-believers were strangers from another community.

But it wasn’t true for those who shared beliefs in local spirits and deities not considered so “all-knowing” or concerned with moral behaviour.

Dr Atkinson said that the relatively dramatic rise in human cooperation since the advent of agriculture isn’t explained by genetic evolution.

“It turns out that putting the fear of god into us may have had a lot to do with it,” he said.

“These gods acted as a kind of social engineering so that people who believed in a morally-concerned god were more likely to follow the rules of the game and give money to their fellow believers over themselves and their village.”


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