God Is Watching You
Why religious beliefs foster trust and cooperation within society
Posted Sep 15, 2016
God was emphatically in the news in the summer of 2016. In Rio de Janeiro, almost no Olympic medal was celebrated without elaborately thanking Him while His son overlooked the Olympics from the Corcovado Mountain. In Kentucky, the doors opened to a Christian amusement park which contains a life-sized replication of Noah’s Ark. In several European cities, bloody attacks reoccurred in His name (Allahu Akbar). In secular European countries like the Netherlands, the UK and the Scandinavian countries, we would almost forget that the world is becoming increasingly religious. International research shows that the percentage of religious believers in the 20th and 21st century has only increased worldwide despite major advances in science and technology.
As an evolutionary psychologist, the popularity of God – and religion in a broader sense – requires an explanation. Among the anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, and biologists who are engaged in researching the functions of religion, one can basically distinguish between two camps. First is the group that assumes that belief in God in itself has no purpose. Their reasoning is that we humans simply happen to be blessed with a sizeable brain that not only allow us to meet our social and physical needs, but also to think about abstract things like our own mortality, higher purposes, or supernatural powers. Thus, according to this theory, God is a side-effect of our large brain. Belonging to this category are the New Atheists, led by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who argue that belief in God is a harmful meme. According to them, God is a parasite who spreads in the minds of people with the aim of keeping them stupid and suppressed. This resembles the image of God as evil, chain-smoking drunkard, as is portrayed in the recent European comedy “Le Tout Nouveau Testament” (The Totally New Testament).
The second group of evolutionary scientists assumes that belief in God surely does have a function, or at least had a function in the communities our ancestors lived in, which explains why the human brain is still so sensitive to religious ideas. The reason religions could spread around the world is because they offered support and comfort in harsh times. In prehistoric societies where disease and death were constantly lurking, supernatural explanations for disaster could offer consolation. A second, and perhaps even more important function is God as the Big Brother who makes sure people adhere to the norms and rules of society and under threat of a divine sanction put their own interests aside for the interests of the group. About this ‘supernatural punishment hypothesis,’ my Oxford colleague Dominic Johnson recently wrote a very readable book titled God Is Watching You: How the fear of God makes us human.
The argument is that our ancestors had a need for a stable, peaceful society in which people could trust each other. Belief in a supernatural power that sanctioned greed served as a driving force. Because of that, religious societies increased in strength and size at the expense of societies that did not embrace the concept of God. There is ample evidence for the function of a punishing God. A comparative study across 186 cultures worldwide revealed that the larger the community, the more they embrace punishing gods. For instance, the Shona in Zimbabwe believe that their forest is guarded by a snake that causes people to get lost or die in the forest.
Could it be that the idea of a punishing God – and hell, for Christians – only became popular with the emergence of large, complex societies? To test this idea, researchers experimented in eight small, traditional societies, where they had people play a game for money in which they had to roll a die to determine how much money they gave themselves or a stranger from another village yet of the same religion. In a fair dice roll, this should lead to half of the money being allocated to the self and the other half to the stranger. What the researchers found was that the more strongly a society believed in punishing gods, the more honest and generous the inhabitants were towards these strangers.
But what about Christianity and the many new forms of religion in our Western society that mainly presume Godly love? According to Johnson, the government has taken over the role of punisher in our societies, so there must be sought for a different interpretation of God. In various places in the world where the state does not function well, such as in the Middle East or parts of South America, their God-concept is also hardening. When societies are threatened from either the inside or outside, the desire for a large statue of Christ will grow.
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Dominic Johnson (2016). God is watching you: How the fear of God makes us human. Oxford University Press.
Joseph Watts et al. (2015). Proceedings of the Royal Society. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2556
*This blog appeared in the Dutch newspaper "Trouw" first.
**Thanks to Hannah Moore for translation.