Belief in a “high” god who created humanity and gave us a moral code to live by is very common in most Western societies. Indeed, for the past thousand years or so such “high” gods have been one of the defining traits of Western culture, driving architecture, art and music. However, despite this importance we still know very little about how they developed. Luckily new research has helped shed light on the subject, revealing that belief in a “high” god is fostered in complex societies where it promotes the co-operation needed for them to survive. Earlier work supports this idea, showing that there was a “religious revolution” of sorts in the Near East as groups became more socially complex.
So it would appear that the connection between a belief in a “high” god and co-operation is important to understanding the spread of said belief. But what exactly is that connection? Why do these beliefs foster co-operation? Perhaps they promote a shared identity, persuading people to help other believers because they’re all part of the same basic “unit”. “Hey, I saw you in church, let’s be friends!” Alternatively it could be because these ideas give legitimacy to rulers who in turn can mandate co-operation. “God put Bob in charge and Bob says we have to work together.”
Clearly more research is needed to work out why belief in a “high” god fosters co-operation. Luckily for us we’re dealing with scientists, to whom a gap in our knowledge is an exciting challenge and consequently a study has indeed attempted to answer these questions. The research in question consisted of getting subjects to play the dictator game in which they had to decide how many coins they would take from a fund and how many they would leave for an anonymous stranger to have. This game is a staple of the anthropological literature with numerous studies using it to study the extent to which people co-operate. In this case the procedure was modified slightly and half the study underwent a religious “prime” (the other half being a control group to see if the results didn’t require the priming). This prime consisted of getting the subjects to create a sentence from a set of words, including various religious words like “spirit” or “divine“.
The results showed that those who underwent the religious priming left $4.2 on average for the anonymous person in stark contrast to the control group, who only left $1.8. The control group results are similar to other studies using the dictator game which found that nobody will leave more than $5 dollars for an anonymous other, with most leaving nothing. Meanwhile the most common amount left by the religiously primed was $5, with some even leaving $10! This effect is made all the more interesting by the fact that religious belief seems to have no influence on the result with atheists also being more generous if they were primed and theists being stingy if they were unprimed.
However, this research was not without its flaws. Notably it had a sample size of only 50 and all were students from the University of Vancouver (since when did Canadians count as people anyway?). So the researchers conducted an improved study drawing upon a larger sample from the entire population of the city. They also changed their method slightly, dividing their cohort into 3 rather than 2. The first group received religious priming like before, the second no priming and the final group received secular priming. These had to unscramble sentences containing secular words related to morality like “justice” or “law“.
Despite increasing the size of their study they still got the same results as before. Religiously primed people left more money for the anonymous person whilst the control group left a typical amount. However, they did also discover that those who had received the secular priming also donated more money to the anonymous individual, about on par with the religious group. Again, pre-existing belief had no real impact on these results and to double check they also interviewed participants after the study. Surprisingly they found that participants were not aware of the “priming”, not having been consciously reminded of religion by the priming activity.
Although this second study did include a more diverse range of people (i.e. those other than students) it’s still limited because it only included Canadians. Do these results hold true for people from other countries? A masters thesis seems to indicate they might well do, having carried out similar tests on Fiji islanders and getting similar results. The notable exception being that case the secular “primer” (in this case being reminded of the police) had little to no effect on this behaviour, although this could be explained by the fact that the nearest police station is a few islands over and only opened in 2011 so has had little impact on their daily lives.
This lack of sufficient secular priming is one of the two main problems with this study, the other being that these islanders are not completely distinct from the Canadian culture of the previous studies. Although they still hold to traditional beliefs regarding ancestor spirits, witchcraft and devils they have also been converted to Christianity. Despite seeming to be at odds with each other these traditional beliefs are held side by side with the Christian God (whom they call the “God of the book”). This dualism is fascinating in its own right but alas it is a story for a different blog. However this problem doesn’t defeat the premise that a “high” god promotes generosity to others since the Canadian research also identified the effects in non-Christians and the islanders’ beliefs seems fairly different from the Christianity we all know and love.
So it would seem that these studies are valid and provide an explanation as to why a “high” god is linked to co-operation: it increases generosity. This would be particularly useful in a more complex society where not everyone may be in your “in-group”. There could be another social class or the culture could simply be so large you don’t know/aren’t related everyone (which may be why smaller cultures do not need such a co-operation boosting belief. Family relationships between individuals may be sufficient). It may also go some way to explaining why not every complex culture has a “high” god since it shows secular institutions can be just as beneficial to co-operation.
Of course, such a belief may provide other benefits to co-operation but at least we’ve managed to slot one piece of the puzzle in place. A “high” god makes people more generous which in turn is a boon to co-operation, particularly in complex societies where the typical motivations for generosity are no longer applicable.
|McNamara, A. 2012. “WHEN DOES IT MATTER THAT GOD IS WATCHING?: DIFFERENTIAL EFFECTS OF LARGE AND SMALL GODS ON CHEATING AS A FUNCTION OF MATERIAL INSECURITY IN YASAWA, FIJI.” Masters thesis, University of British Columbia.|
|Shariff AF, & Norenzayan A (2007). God is watching you: priming God concepts increases prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological science, 18 (9), 803-9 PMID: 17760777|
I’m loathe to return to this topic because it typically garners thousands of views. Whilst the ego boost from this popularity is nice, at the same time it’s kinda depressing how I pour all this effort into other topics and get nothing, yet press a few controversial “hot-topic” buttons and thousands come pouring in. Still, the research is interesting and the ego ravenous, so here you go!