Rise of human civilization tied to belief in punitive gods

Long-distance strangers who share certain religious beliefs more likely to create societal bonds, study suggests

Egyptian Book of the Dead

GODS’ WRATH  Beliefs in all-knowing, punitive gods helped turn hunter-gatherer groups into large civilizations, a new study suggests. Here, a papyrus manuscript from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead shows a line of Egyptian gods (top) ready to judge whether the dead Theban scribe Ani should be admitted to the afterlife or sent to the underworld.

Trustees of the British Museum

Beliefs in all-knowing gods that punish wrongdoers helped enable the rise of modern civilizations, a new cross-cultural study suggests.

Cooperation among throngs of strangers in expanding societies required a common faith in moralistic gods, say sociocultural anthropologist Benjamin Purzycki of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and his colleagues. To believers, these gods were concerned about good and bad behavior, knew what everyone thought and did, and punished selfish transgressors in a big way.

Shared beliefs in punitive gods paved the way for vast trade networks, market economies and institutions of social control, including governments and courts, the scientists propose online February 10 in Nature.

“A large part of the success of human civilizations may have lain in the hands of the gods, whether or not they are real,” writes evolutionary biologist and political scientist Dominic Johnson of the University of Oxford in an accompanying commentary in Nature.

Stone Age hunter-gatherers exchanged favors only among known comrades and in-laws (SN: 4/9/11, p. 13). But starting around 10,000 years ago, pressures to achieve fair trades among strangers accompanied the spread of farming communities (SN Online: 3/18/10).

To probe whether beliefs in all-knowing, disciplinary deities promote cooperation among strangers, Purzycki’s team interviewed and tested 591 individuals from eight communities, including plant cultivators on the South Pacific island of Tanna, wage laborers on Fiji and in Brazil, herders and wage laborers in Siberia and East African hunter-gatherers. These groups practice major world religions, including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as believe in various local gods or spirits.

Participants played two games in private. In each game, they had 30 coins to place in one of two cups, depending on the roll of a die. Being alone, they could ignore the die and put coins in whatever cup they wanted.

In one game, players chose between a cup for an unknown person of the same religion in their own community and a cup for someone of the same religion from a distant community. In the other game, the choice was between a cup for oneself and a cup for a same-religion individual from far away.

Stakes were high. If a player kept all 30 coins in the second game, he or she could exchange that haul for about a day’s wage or, for the hunter-gatherers, a substantial amount of maize.

Coin distributions reflected the type of gods players worshipped. The games were set up to yield roughly equal contributions to each cup from the die rolls. But the more that participants rated gods in their major religions as moralistic, all-knowing and punishing, the more coins they gave to same-religion strangers from far away. Those reporting that their god punished bad behavior gave roughly two more coins on average to distant strangers in both games, relative to those who didn’t know if their god punished misdeeds.

Religions with moralistic, punishing gods mobilize people’s empathy for strangers of the same faith and heighten concerns for one’s own reputation as a faithful believer, proposes anthropologist Kim Hill of Arizona State University in Tempe, who studies modern hunter-gatherers.

Beliefs in gods that reward good behavior, or in local deities that punish bad behavior, did not account for the study’s results, Purzycki adds.

Purzycki’s findings help explain why major religions with punishing gods have spread globally at the expense of many local and traditional belief systems, Hill says. Followers of three belief systems in which divine discipline looms large — Christianity, Islam and Hinduism — accounted for about 70 percent of the world’s population in 2010, the Pew Research Center estimates.

Many native tribal groups willingly adopt major religions such as Christianity so that they can better take advantage of economic opportunities in larger societies, Hill contends. Strategic conversions of this kind up the chances of a group’s surviving by trading goods with strangers, he says. In Kim’s view, that explains the rapid spread of religions such as Christianity in tribal populations better than the idea that religions spread by brute coercion by outsiders. 

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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