Could Religions Have Developed the Idea of a Moralizing God so People Could Avoid Punishing Wrongdoers?

This is certainly a plausible idea. In fact, the research in our paper was in some ways inspired by cultural evolutionary models of religion that suggest exactly that: That as societies got bigger and human interactions became more anonymous and less easy to monitor, cultures developed shared beliefs in big, powerful, moralizing gods. These gods offered a perfect solution to the problems of large societies: They can monitor everything, they care about human morality, they can impose punishment, and they are by definition infallible. And if everyone believes in those gods, then people will be more or less kept in line. In fact, this is thought to be one of the reasons why atheists are one of the most distrusted social groups in the world. It’s like people think, “If atheists don’t believe that this supernatural punisher will catch them and punish them if they don’t do the right thing, then how can I trust that they WILL do the right thing?”

There is some really interesting evidence in support of this cultural evolutionary idea that big, powerful gods emerged as a cheap solution to counter the increasing costs of monitoring human behavior. For example, Frans Roes and Michel Raymond in 2003 conducted a large cross-cultural study in which they examined, among other things, how the size of different societies corresponded with those societies’ beliefs in big, powerful, moralizing gods. They found beliefs in powerful gods who care about human morality became more and more common as societies became larger and more complex. This is in keeping with the idea that as societies became more difficult for human beings to police on their own, the need emerged for a supernatural punisher to take over.

What we’ve done in our research is bring this idea to the level of individual psychology in the 21st century. And we weren’t sure what we’d find because most modern societies have developed reasonably effective secular institutions to monitor and punish people who do bad things, which means that shared beliefs in powerful gods have lost some of their purpose in terms of enforcing important social norms. To that point, Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan just published a paper in which they show that when people are reminded of these secular institutions—like police forces and justice systems—they are less likely to distrust atheists. In other words, people do act as if secular institutions serve to keep people in line without relying on powerful gods. Nonetheless, I think our studies demonstrate that people haven’t entirely given up on the idea that powerful gods are responsible for enforcing moral order.

Kristin Laurin is a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Waterloo.

Category: Q&A

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One Response

  1. Robert Hagedorn says:

    Google First Scandal.

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