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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Do Mean Gods Make Nice People?

Perhaps destined to be a thorn in the side of theologians, priests, and pastors who preach that "God is Love" (1 John 4:8) are a series of studies that find that belief in a punishing God or gods is more likely to induce prosocial behavior than a belief in a God or gods who don't. Put somewhat differently, belief in the possibility of supernatural punishment appears to serve as a deterrent to behavior that, while potentially beneficial to the individual, is harmful to the larger group. At the same time, belief in a loving or kind deity has just the opposite effect. It appears to encourage anti-social behavior.

First, consider two experiments using North American undergraduates (who received partial course credit for participating) that examined the effect that their views of God had on the likelihood of cheating ("Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior"). In both experiments, the students were given a “test” designed in such a way that they had an opportunity to cheat. In addition, all answered a series questions so the researchers could control for basic demographic factors, assess their level of religious devotion, and measure how they viewed God (or gods) in terms of seven positive traits (forgiving, loving, compassionate, gentle, kind, comforting, and peaceful) and seven negative ones (vengeful, harsh, fearsome, angry, punishing, jealous, and terrifying). With regards to the latter, the students were asked to rank on a seven-point scale how much each one of these traits applied to their conception of their God or Gods, or, if they were nonbelievers, how much they felt each trait applied to their culture’s conception of God or Gods. The researchers then averaged the rankings in order to calculate "Loving God" and "Punitive God" scores, from which they then constructed a "God Negativity Scale" by subtracting the former score from the latter. Multivariate analysis (logistic regression) found that in both studies students who scored higher on the God Negativity Scale were much less likely to cheat on the test. At the same time, other factors, such as ethnicity, gender, and level of religious devotion exerted no effect. 

The figure below plots the correlation between the average scores for the fourteen "God" traits and the likelihood of cheating. Bars above zero indicate a greater likelihood to cheat, while bars below zero indicate a lower likelihood to cheat. The seven positive traits lie to the left, and the seven negative traits lie to the right. One doesn't have to be a trained statistician to see that punitive traits are much more likely to discourage cheating than are loving traits.

Of course, we should be cautious not to make too much of results of experiments using U.S. college students. However, cross-cultural experiments conducted in conjunction with ethnographic interviews have uncovered similar results. In particular, a series of experiments involving 591 individuals in eight societies from around the world ("Moralistic Gods, Supernatural Punishment and the Expansion of Human Sociality") found that people who believed in punishing and all-knowing deities ("moralistic gods") were much more likely in a series of experiments to allocate geographically-distant co-religionists money than were those who did not. This was true even after taking into account ("controlling for) other factors that could have an effect. 

This is captured in the figure below, which plots the odds that a participant would award a distant co-religionist money. It indicates that those who believed in a punishing god were 1.26 times more likely than those who did not, and those who believed in an all-knowing god were somewhere between 1.15 and 1.25 times more likely than those who did not. Unsurprisingly, when someone believed in an all-knowing AND punishing God, the effect was even higher (results not included in this figure). The figure also shows that belief in local gods that punished had no effect, while belief in all-knowing local gods actually reduced the likelihood they'd give money to a distant co-religionist. Finally, while the number of children reduced the likelihood of awarding any money, material security actually increased it.

Finally, consider the analysis of those who examined the predictors crime rates in as many as 67 countries ("Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates"). It found that the proportion of people who believe in hell is negatively associated with national crime rates, while the proportion of people who believe is heaven is positively associated with them. In particular, the higher the proportion who believe in hell, the lower the average rate of robbery, rape, assault, theft, drug crime, auto theft, and burglary (with opposite effects for the proportion who believe in heaven). No effects were found for the rate of kidnapping and human trafficking. The figure below presents an interesting graph that plots the proportion who believe in heaven less the proportion who believe in hell by the overall crime rate (normalized) for several countries. As you can see, the greater the difference between the proportion who believe in heaven and the proportion who believe in hell, the higher the crime rate.

And for readers who wonder if the results hold after taking into account a variety of factors, such as GDP, inequality, type of religion, religious attendance, and so on, the answer is yes.

It may be tempting to dismiss these results with claims such as "you can prove anything with statistics" or "you can't replicate the real world in the lab." But those are just sophisticated ways of crying, "fake news!" It is true that statistics can be bent in misleading ways. For example, I used to joke that I knew my mom better than my dad since I had known her 100% of my life, but he'd only known her 50% of his. But while statistical sleight of hand may pass muster in some quarters, it does not in the journals in the which the studies discussed above appeared. And while it is also true that experiments can't replicate the real world, that isn't their purpose.  They are designed to isolate the effect of particular variables that are hard, if not impossible, to isolate in the real world. And when experimental results are combined with field work and/or robust statistical analyses, they can provide compelling evidence on behalf of a particular hypothesis, as they do here. In fact, in light of these studies, I'd argue that the burden a proof now lies with those who disagree. Needless to say, anecdotal evidence or personal feelings simply won't do. Hard (empirical) evidence is needed.

These studies are part of a much larger project associated with cultural evolutionists who argue that some (but not all) evolutionary processes operate at the group, rather than at the individual, level. Their basic argument (see "The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions" and "The Secret of Our Success") is that evolutionary processes select for any psychological traits, norms, or practices that
  1. Reduce competition among individuals and families within social groups (reduce selfish behavior that harms the group); 
  2. Increase and sustain group solidarity; and 
  3. Facilitate differential success in competition and conflict between social groups by increasing cooperation in warfare, defense, demographic expansion, and/or economic ventures
And although they argue that while cultural evolution can select for non-religious cultural practices, religions are often well-positioned to benefit from the process. And a key reason is that they typically include a belief in powerful, morally concerned gods that monitor human behavior.

For a time, group-level adaptation was scorned by evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins, but no longer. The use of advanced mathematical models and cross-cultural research (experiments, field work, and statistical analyses) has moved it into the mainstream, which interestingly coincides with the thinking of none other than Charles Darwin:
When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same circumstances, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other… The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. Obedience… is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes.
On a final note, these studies have important, albeit somewhat disturbing, implications for the evolution of theological ideas. They suggest that "fire and brimstone" beliefs are more likely to perdure over time (i.e., be selected for) than are beliefs that promote a loving God. It makes one wonder whether "liberal" theology is doomed from the start and will only appeal to a small segment of the religious market. One would hope not, but it is no secret that theologically conservative faith communities, which are more likely to include notions of hell and damnation in their theological arsenal, consistently outperform theologically liberal ones. Could it be that "our" preference for fire and brimstone is a product of our evolutionary past and the destiny of our evolutionary future?


Henrich, Joseph. 2016. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara, Azim F. Shariff, Will M. Gervais, Aiyana K. Willard, Rita A. McNamara, Edward Slingerland, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. "The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39:e1.

Purzycki, Benjamin Grant, Coren Apicella, Quentin D. Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Rita Anne McNamara, Aiyana K. Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. "Moralistic Gods, Supernatural Punishment and the Expansion of Human Sociality." Nature 530:327-30.

Shariff, Azim F., and Ara Norenzayan. 2011. "Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior." The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21(2):85-96.

Shariff, Azim F., and Mijke Rhemtulla. 2012. "Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates." PLoS ONE 7(6):e39048.

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