A new study has suggested that belief in all-powerful Gods is absolutely vital for the development of civilisation
Religion has been dismissed as the opium of the people by Karl Marx, but a new study suggests that belief in all-powerful Gods is absolutely vital for the development of civilisation.
Anthropologists and archaeologists have long held that it was the advent of agriculture which allowed large communities to live together and form cooperative societies.
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But in recent years, archaeologists have found that large ceremonial monuments,such as the buried megaliths at Gobekli tepe, in Turkey, seem to preceded big farming communities, and must have been built by communities working together under one belief system.
Now Oxford and the University of British Columbia have proven that religious people are more likely to be cooperative, because they sense the watchful eye of an all-powerful deity monitoring their actions.
The team conclude that a large part of the success of humanity lies in the ‘hands of the gods – whether they are real or not.’
Dr Emma Cohen of the University of Oxford commented: “The results of this study are in line with the idea that moralistic, punitive, all-knowing gods may play a significant role in seeing individuals cooperate with wider social circles.”
The researchers conducted economic games with 600 people who followed religions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship from Brazil, Mauritius, the Tyva Republic (Siberia) Russia, Tanzania and islands in the South Pacific Ocean.
They found the higher individuals rated their god as being moralistic, knowledgeable and punishing, the more likely they were to give money to strangers who shared their religious beliefs.
The researchers conclude that world religions promoting moralistic, punitive gods that take an interest in human affairs may have contributed to the dramatic expansion of human societies.
Prof Dominic Johnson, of the politics and international relations department at Oxford said: “In the modern world we rely on government’s courts and the police to deter and punish those who would otherwise undermine social coordination.
“But how did human societies achieve and sustain cooperation before these institutes existed. One possibility is religion.
“Under the watchful gaze of supernatural agents people modify their behaviour in an effort to avoid the wrath of the gods
“A large part of the success of human civilisation may have lain in the the hands of the gods. whether they were real or not.”
The authors say that a belief in rewards from the god could not account for the results. They found instead that a belief in divine retribution or supernatural punishment may have fostered ‘good’ behaviour which promoted trust, cooperation and fairness in dealings with others.
The paper suggests that over time these deities spread culturally and came to dominate the world religions like Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, and as traditions grew they accounted for a large proportion of the world’s population.
Through sharing beliefs and standards of behaviour, commitments to the same gods meant followers living in different, distant places had similar expectations about how to behave with others.
Lead author Benjamin Grant Purzycki, from the University of British Columbia, said: “These results build on previous findings and tell us more about how wide-ranging cooperation has evolved in large-scale societies today.
“Our findings suggest the threat of punishment from a god if that individual did not reach out to help strangers may have been one reason for the close bonds that developed between different communities across the world.’
The research was published in the journal Nature.