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.