Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality

Benjamin Grant Purzycki & CERC in Nature

naturemagazineBelief in moralistic, punitive gods that take an interest in human affairs may have facilitated the expansion of human societies, finds a study published in Nature this week. Several theories have been invoked to explain the expansion of human cooperation and societal complexity, which has been taking place since the origins of agriculture. In this study, the authors test the hypothesis that belief in a punitive, knowledgeable god sustains the growth of cooperation, trust and fairness towards geographically distant members of the same religion, thereby fostering societal expansion.

Benjamin Grant Purzycki and colleagues interviewed 591 people from eight diverse communities around the world — including Brazil, Mauritius, the Tyva Republic (Siberia) Russia, Tanzania and islands in the South Pacific Ocean— who reported adherence to a wide array of world religions, such as Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship. The authors studied the behaviour of participants during economic games and find that the more individuals rated their god as being moralistic, knowledgeable and punishing, the more money they allocated to strangers adhering to the same religion. They also show that belief in rewards from the god could not account for the results, whereas belief in supernatural punishment seemed responsible.

In an accompanying News & Views article, Dominic Johnson comments that this study ‘offers the most explicit evidence yet that belief in supernatural punishment has been instrumental in boosting cooperation in human societies’.


The paper, “Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality,” is published in Nature.

The study included interviews along with two games that involved the distribution of coins to participants or other believers based locally or in distant communities. In these games, participants were supposed to use a die to determine who would get the coins. However, as anonymous players, they could override the die and give coins to whomever they wished. For both games, participants were more likely to play by the rules and dole out more coins to distant believers if they reported that their gods knew about people’s thoughts and behaviour, and punished for wrongdoing.