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Punitive gods shaped civilisation as we know it

Experiments conducted by experts who study religion show that the development of the first large civilisations was facilitated by people’s fear of moralising gods.

Nowadays, it is so ingrained in our culture that we do not even think about it anymore: we go to a shop, pick up our groceries, exchange them for money, and then go home and eat them. It does not even occur to us to wonder whether they are safe or if the shop keeper might be trying to deceive or hurt us. Over thousands of years, societies have developed ingenious mechanisms to ensure cooperation between people who do not know each other, so it is now a matter of course.

But how did we achieve this? This is the question studied by researchers at the MU Faculty of Arts lab called LEVYNA: Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion.

People have devised an ingenious way to ensure the cooperation that we rely on every day. For example, we do not have to worry that the food we buy will make us sick.

The lab has recently published a paper in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, which completes an important piece of the puzzle. The paper describes the results of an experiment conducted in fifteen different societies from across the world, whose way of life is close to the way of life of the first civilisations. The objective of the study was to find out whether the gods they believe in have any impact on their decisions and cooperation. “The societies that we selected include those that believe in omniscient gods who punish immoral behaviour and those that believe that in gods although their gods are not particularly interested in them or their behaviour,” says Martin Lang, the first author of the paper.

He participated in the research as a postdoc at Harvard University. The paper is one of the outputs of a six-year Canadian project that involved researchers from various disciplines and countries. While a similar team already published some research findings three years ago in Nature, the research has since been extended to include many more participants and two types of economic games, rather than just one.

As the researchers were interested in the early societies that formed among people, they focused their attention on societies that live in a much more traditional way than most of us do now. As a result, the participants, who exceeded 2,200, included the foraging Hadza people from Tanzania, the inhabitants of Mauritius, and various farming and pastoralist groups plus groups that practice slash-and-burn agriculture.

The experiment found that people who believe that their behaviour is watched over by a punitive god cheat less (to gain an advantage for themselves or their community) compared to non-believers or those who believe in gods who do not intervene in their lives.

A dice game is the thing

The participants in the experiment played a dice game with a dice that had black and white sides and with coins. They were asked to decide which colour means that they win the money for themselves, and which colour means that the money goes to another person. Afterwards, they rolled the dice and divided the money between themselves and other people, who were either co-religionists from the same village, co-religionists from another village, or people from elsewhere practising another religion.

“Since they were not required to tell us the rules, we had no way of checking whether an individual was cheating. However, since they were rolling a dice to distribute the money, we knew that based on the rules of probability, the coins should be distributed proportionately. We then tried to match deviations of the probability distribution in the population as a whole to the people’s belief in moralising gods,” explains Lang.

The results show that people who believe that they are watched over by a punitive god cheated less for their own benefit or the benefit of their community, compared to non-believers or those who believed in a non-interventionist god. The second economic game, where people were simply asked to distribute the money based on their own preferences, reached the same conclusions: people believing in moralising gods distributed the money between themselves and anonymous and distant co-religionists in a much fairer way. According to the researchers, a greater willingness to share one’s resources with anonymous and distant co-religionists shows a greater capacity for cooperation with a larger group of people, which is the essential prerequisite for the formation of a larger society.

In today’s terms, people devised an ingenious way to ensure the cooperation that we rely on every day: for example, we do not have to worry that the food we buy will make us sick. And if somebody breaks the rules, there are authorities that will make sure that whoever sold us spoilt food will be punished – but instead of gods, they are now government officials or the police.

Moralising gods grew stronger

The study is part of a large body of research that attempts to explain the development of human society although the researchers have to overcome a serious problem: they often have to infer the historical development from the behaviour of modern people, since archaeological data provides only a few clues. The Neolithic people simply did not maintain written records of the latest developments in religion to make the researchers’ job easier. The researchers assume that religions with punitive gods began to spread during this era – twelve to five thousand years BC – since this is when agriculture also began to spread on a large scale and the first large civilisations were formed, which required the cooperation of people who did not know each other or meet on a regular basis.

“The societies that believed in moralising gods grew larger and stronger and so they either conquered other societies, or the other societies started unconsciously copying their way of life and beliefs since they could see how successful they were,” says Radek Kundt, the head of the LEVYNA lab.

Together with Martin Lang, who has now returned from the US, he is planning to continue studying the role of religion in human evolution. They would like to focus primarily on the role of religion and costly rituals in intergroup conflict, which could help them understand some of the problems of the current era.