Happy Darwin Day: Belief in Vengeful God Makes You Nicer

"Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality" in Nature



Happy Darwin Day! Around the world, folks celebrate Charles Darwin's February 12 birthday in support of science and science education. As the press release from the American Humanist Association explains:

International Darwin Day was founded in 1993 by Dr. Robert Stephens to honor the accomplishments of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution continues to inform groundbreaking discoveries in biology, genetics and medicine, among other fields of research. A project of the American Humanist Association, Darwin Day also observes the contributions of scientists across the globe whose findings have advanced human progress and the betterment of our lives on this earth.

Among the other fields of research that benefit from Darwin's insights is evolutionary psychology. A fascinating new study by researchers at University of British Columbia finds that belief in a vengeful sky-god tends to make people more generous towards strangers. From Nature:

Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups. To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers. 

The researchers tested their hypothesis using data from eight different ethnic groups around the world. They asked the participants about their beliefs and then had them play a couple of different economic games to probe their generosity toward strangers. They report:

Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship. Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists. Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.

Somehow it seems nicely appropriate to apply Darwinian insights to the study of religion today.