The belief in a vengeful, all-seeing God may have contributed to greater cooperation and collaboration among people of different cultures despite geographic separation, a study published in the journal Nature reports.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia studied 591 people from eight different communities in Brazil, Mauritius, Tanzania, Siberia, Vanuatu and Fiji. Not only are these cultures distinct, they all contain a wide array of religions spanning from popular theologies like Christianity and Hinduism to local traditions, such as animism and ancestor worship.
During the study, the participants played a game in which they were given two options. They could either show financial favoritism towards themselves and their local community or they could follow the role of a die and possibly give money to a distant person of the same religion.
In addition, researchers questioned the participants about their religious beliefs in interviews designed to assess the extent their god or gods cared about morality, punishment, and how much knowledge the gods had of an individual’s behavior, Discovery News reports.
Generally, those who put their faith in an all-knowing god gave more money to those who held their same beliefs. Researchers suggest this is because people who were more scared of being punished for bad deeds were less likely to commit them. Expanding on that idea, those people may also have interacted with wider social circles because they believed god would punish them if they did not.
“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 engage in anti-social behavior towards a wider range of people who share those beliefs,” said lead author Benjamin Purzycki, a postdoctoral research fellow at UBC’s Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture, in a statement.
Though the study did not explore how an all-seeing god might affect people from different or no religious persuasions, it does suggest that fear of supernatural punishment has had an impact on the development of human cultures.
“In addition to some forms of religious rituals and non-religious norms and institutions, such as courts, markets and police, the present results point to the role that commitment to knowledgeable, moralistic and punitive gods plays in solidifying the social bonds that create broader imagined communities,” write the authors.