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Fear of a Vengeful God May Have Helped Human Societies Flourish

First Posted: Feb 11, 2016 02:44 PM EST

It turns out that the belief in a vengeful god may have helped human societies flourish. Scientists have found that beliefs about all-knowing, punishing gods played a key role in expanding cooperation among far-flung peoples and led to the development of modern-day states.

In this latest study, anthropologists and psychologists looked at how religion affected humans' willingness to cooperate with those outside their social circle. The researchers conducted interviews and behavioral experiments with nearly 600 people from communities in Vanuatu, Fiji, Brazil, Mauritius, Siberia and Tanzania whose religious beliefs include Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, animism and ancestor worship.

"Certain kinds of beliefs-involving gods who are aware of human interactions and punish for moral transgressions-can indeed contribute to the evolution of human cooperation," said Benjamin Purzycki, one of the researchers, in a news release. "If you think you're being watched, and expect to be divinely punished for being too greedy or thieving, you might be less inclined to engange in anti-social behaviors towards a wider range of people who share those beliefs."

Results show that believers in all-knowing gods who punish for wrongdoing are more likely to behave fairly towards anonymous, distant "co-religionists"-those who share beliefs about gods and rituals, but may not belong to the same religious organization.

When people act this way, they are engaging in behavior that can support key features of modern-day societies-such as large, cooperative institutions, trade, market and partnerships.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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