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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?

Alix Spiegel wrote an interesting article entitled, Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous? He begins:

In the history of the world, every culture in every location at every point in time has developed some supernatural belief system. And when a human behavior is so universal, scientists often argue that it must be an evolutionary adaptation along the lines of standing upright. That is, something so helpful that the people who had it thrived, and the people who didn't slowly died out until we were all left with the trait. But what could be the evolutionary advantage of believing in God?

Spiegel discusses the work of two psychologists, Jesse Bering and Dominic Johnson. He quotes Bering:

Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives. These supernatural agents might have very different names. What some call God, others call Karma. There are literally thousands of names. Whether it's a dead ancestor or God, whatever supernatural agent it is, if you think they're watching you, your behavior is going to be affected.

Bering did an experiment with children ages 5 to 9 in which he measured the likelihood of cheating among three groups: (1) with no one watching, (2) with an invisible, magical person watching and (3) with him watching. The first group cheated much more than the other two. The second group cheated at about the same rate as the third group. His conclusion is that if someone believes that someone else is watching, even an invisible person, they are much less likely to cheat. How does this relate to a belief in god(s) being advantageous? He says that the belief served in our past to better enable man to cooperate with one another and to "cheat" less.

Man's ability to cooperate with his fellow man is what has enabled him to flourish. As Spiegel notes:

This cooperation makes all kinds of things possible, of course. Because we can cooperate, we can build sophisticated machines and create whole cities —communities that require huge amounts of coordination. We can do things that no individual or small group could do.

It is one of the keys to man's evolutionary success but how did it come about? This is a subject of continuing study and debate. Dominic Johnson has a theory.

In those early human communities when someone did something wrong, someone else in the small human group would have to punish them. But as Johnson points out, punishing itself is often dangerous because the person being punished probably won't like it. "That person has a family; that person has a memory and is going to develop a grudge," Johnson says. "So there are going to be potentially quite disruptive consequences of people taking the law into their own hands." On the other hand, Johnson says, if there are Gods or a God who must be obeyed, these strains are reduced. After all, the punisher isn't a vigilante; he's simply enforcing God's law. "You have a very nice situation," Johnson says. "There are no reprisals against punishers. And the other nice thing about supernatural agents is that they are often omniscient and omnipresent." If God is everywhere and sees everything, people curb their selfish impulses even when there's no one around. Because with God, there is no escape. "God knows what you did," Johnson says, "and God is going to punish you for it and that's an incredibly powerful deterrent. If you do it again, he's going to know and he is going to tally up your good deals and bad deeds and you will suffer the consequences for it either in this life or in an afterlife

Thus, according to Johnson, human groups with a religious belief system survived better because they worked better together. There was more cooperation and more obedience to the rules of society because they thought someone was always watching.

I don't know if this can explain the nearly universal belief in supernatural agents but it is certainly an interesting theory. For related posts, see Is Religion Cognitive-Emotional Cheesecake?, What are the Functions of Religion?, and The Evolution of God.


  1. I think I'm motivated to be good because I don't want to act contrary to my image of myself as a good decent person. It would bother me greatly to not live up to my internal standard for myself.

    It bothers me to see others that don't seem to have this internal standard.

    Does this relate?? Help!

  2. I'm really, really skeptical of this kind of theory. I think it's much more likely that religion emerged as a byproduct of our necessarily cooperative nature. There's some evidence that it fosters in-group cohesion, which is good, but it does so at the expense of ostracizing out-groups, which could be disadvantageous.

  3. Lynn,

    I do think it relates. And I do think that some people are socially/morally "superior" to others in having this sense you describe more highly developed. In fact, most (or all?) developmental theories presume that less fear-motivated and more pro-social-motivated behavior is "higher" up the scale, and does indeed seem to benefit both the individual and society around him/her.

    As to one aspect of Spiegel's language, I have an issue: he includes Karma as a "supernatural agent." In the way I think of Karma, and most "New Age" or Eastern-philosophy-oriented people seem to use it, it is instead a part of what might be called natural law, not supernatural... It is more about restoration of balance and learning/growing than about punishment... the term he ties it to. In terms that parents often use (not implying a heavenly parent, tho), it is similar to "natural and logical consequences," in which the reaction is "built in" as it were, tho technically may be executed by a choosing agent in some cases.

    So, just a part of my motivation for good behavior is that I believe if I seem to "get away with" something now, it probably will need balancing or "re-learning" eventually. And believing in continuation of consciousness and my "identity" in some form, that COULD come in an after-life or additional "time around" on earth... similar to, but not the same as fear of being watched and punished or shamed. The very often-reported "life review" aspect of many NDE's seems to possibly support the carry-over, in consciousness, of things either conscious or psychologically hidden or buried.

    These experiencers consistently say THEY judged themselves, not someone outside, and they DID feel pain, remorse, etc. Whether this process may wipe it all clean or not, I don't think anyone knows, nor do we know if it is a universal experience upon passing over, supposing consciousness does continue when physical death is indeed final.

    But I think it is important to note that some concept of karma, and with it a continuation of consciousness, is not necessarily "supernatural" in the usual sense of clearly distinct from or beyond "natural." Many, many people are non-theists (non-supernaturalists) without being pure materialists, and thus not much concerned about "evolutionary" explanations of all aspects of religious thinking or behavior, etc. At the same time, I/we tend to be open to explaining whatever convincingly can be, in terms of just the physical/psychological/social life here and now. There is always plenty more seeking explanation.