In 1457, the inhabitants of a small French town witnessed a gruesome murder of a little boy. The perpetrator, a female, snuck into the house while the child’s mother was out and mutilated the little boy while he lay in bed. The townsfolk found the perpetrator covered in blood and placed her on trial. They found her guilty and then she was hung by an executioner.
This story may not seem surprising—a murder followed by trial and punishment—but what distinguishes it is that the perpetrator was not a human but a pig. And that the townsfolk pressed criminal charges instead of making bacon suggests that they weren't just looking to end a threat, but to find someone to blame. Though we may scoff at the foolishness of French peasants, recent research suggests that when bad things happen, people universally look for something to someone to blame. And when people can't hold livestock accountable, they often find another, more powerful agent - God.
Scholars have proposed numerous reasons why many people believe in God: Shielding us from the fear of death, explaining celestial motions, or even making us moral. New research coming out of our lab, however, suggests that what compels us to believe in God isn’t a desire to explain unexplainable events per se, but unexplainable moral events. There is something special about receiving harms or help that lead us to see a higher purpose. So, when a tree falls in the forest without explanation we might shrug it off, but when that tree fall on our brother, we ask God “Why?!”