Science on Religion

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Can God's wrath really make us behave?

Punishing GodIf your childhood was anything like most people’s, then the boogeyman lurked behind every bump and creak in the night. Although this fear probably started as the product of an overactive imagination, it was almost definitely exaggerated by our most trusted associates. That is, otherwise well-meaning parents often intentionally draw upon such creatures to help them maintain peace in the household (just remember the dire fate awaiting anyone brazen enough to refuse those green beans). Many cognitive psychologists have posited a similar role for the supernatural entities associated with religion. However, a recent study questions the impact such entities actually have on a person’s behavior.

In this case, Pierrick Bourrat (University of Sydney), Quentin Atkinson (University of Auckland), and Robin Dunbar (University of Oxford) investigated the relationship between prosocial behavior and religion by focusing specifically on the ways that a society minimizes the risk of free-riders – individuals benefiting from a cooperative group setting without themselves contributing anything of productive value.

One possible defense against free-riding is described by the “fear of supernatural punishment” hypothesis (FSPH). According to the FSPH, individuals who believe in the possibility of being punished by a supernatural agent (understood as actually supernatural beings, as well as mere humans in possession of supernatural powers) are less likely to break established social norms or otherwise disrupt group stability. This effectively enables that supernatural agent to bear the burden of enforcing such norms, which can be very costly for a society to accomplish on its own.  Just a few examples of such costs come in the form of the pricey education of lawyers and judges, the upkeep and construction of prison systems, and the payrolls for police departments.

In support of the FSPH, prior studies have demonstrated that beliefs about a moral god are more likely to occur in larger societies, where the costs of enforcement are typically much higher. Unfortunately, most existing literature on this hypothesis focuses exclusively on large-scale measures of collective cohesion in society, such as the presence or absence of overarching social institutions explicitly designed to maintain order.

To correct for this bias, the current authors considered how beliefs about supernatural punishment might influence the behavior of actual individuals. Data was taken from the Standard Cross Cultural Sample, a catalogue of information about 186 human societies that describes different societal characteristics. The degree to which individuals in a group exhibit prosocial behavior, for example, was assessed using the following variables: compliance of individuals to societal norms; the importance attached by parents to cooperative traits (trust, generosity, honesty) in a child’s education; loyalty to the local community; loyalty to the wider society; and incidence of individual aggression (homicide, theft, assault). Fear of supernatural punishment by invisible agents was inferred from the prevalence of beliefs about a “high” god, beliefs about spirit aggression (as an explanation of illness, for example) and from the frequency of social “warnings” meant to instill the threat of such punishment in children (think the boogeyman). Visible agents, on the other hand, referred to humans with supernatural power, and fear of these agents was measured by beliefs about witches, sorcerers, or the ability to negatively affect a person by giving them the “evil eye.”

Prior to analyzing this data, Bourrat, Atkinson, and Dunbar made two predictions. First, they expected to find a positive correlation between the prosocial behavior of individuals and beliefs about supernatural punishment (for both visible and invisible agents). Second, they likewise anticipated a positive connection between community size and the prevalence of such beliefs. Ultimately, however, neither of these correlations were statistically significant after controlling for potentially confounding variables.

The authors offer some explanation for this apparent failure to support the FSPH. They begin by acknowledging the conclusions derived from previous research. The authors agree, in other words, that belief in the existence of supernatural enforcement probably plays a role in legitimizing and reinforcing established rules of conduct on the level of society. But on the basis of this study, they argue that such beliefs have a far less pronounced effect on the actual prevalence within any group of people willing to abide by those norms.

The authors suggest that this difference might be due to a greater variability of belief across society at the individual level, especially in larger societies where it’s much easier for free-riders to escape notice by getting lost in the crowd. That is, more people simply choose not to fear supernatural punishment. This issue is further complicated because the Standard Cross Cultural Sample collapses information about each social variable into a single value for the society overall. As a result, it fails to register any level of individual variability present in the represented groups.

In fact, an earlier study conducted by Atkinson and Bourrat did find that differences in beliefs between two individuals commonly resulted in a more rigorous approach to morality for the individual with greater belief. So, while these beliefs might encourage the expression of higher moral guidelines on an ideal level (that is, on the level of social standards intending to maintain the group’s stability), they may have much less influence on our actual adherence to those ethical norms in daily life.

Some aspects of religious belief may prove to be truly effective for establishing institutions capable of enforcing social cooperation. When all is said and done, however, these beliefs seem to do little in the way of dissuading any particular individual from acting on the selfish impulses to cheat society that inevitably arise from time to time. Whereas a purported supernatural power may help to keep us oriented toward the appropriate ideals, therefore, it is up to each and every one of us to uphold them in the end.

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