Does God Make Society Better?


Out of fake gods and bad gods and demi-gods
and would-be gods. Out of the whole pantheon, which god makes societies better? Hey guys, Julia here for DNews Recently the idea that belief in one “big
god” lead to the rise of complex societies held sway in research circles. But that’s
being challenged by new research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society
B.[1] So this is a story of different types of religion,
there’s more monotheistic religions with a “Moralizing High God” or one supreme
being that hands out morality and punishment, and religions that have “Broad Supernatural
Punishment”, which can be loosely polytheistic, meaning many gods and includes things like
ancestral spirits and concepts like karma. Previous research showed that belief in a
“Moralizing High God (MHG)” allowed societies to become more politically sophisticated. This research seems to refute that. It showed
that religions with multiple deities or spirits or karma type punishments lead to more complex
societies, but religions with one “head honcho” did not. But how does a belief in any kind of religion
build complex societies? Well thinking you’re gonna be punished if you do something wrong,
even if no one is looking, is a pretty good deterrent or it might make us more likely
to cooperate. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed
that people become less hostile in a threatening situation when they’re reminded of their
religious beliefs. This is especially important when life gets tough. [2] Another study published in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences found that those who live in harsh environments
tend to believe in “big Gods”. They think these beliefs drive people to be more pro-social
when conditions make it hard to survive. Cooperation, even if it’s costly to the individual, could
enable a group to thrive in times of stress.[3] But it seemed like an age old tale of correlation
not causation. Some studies show it’s the other way around, as societies get more complex
they’re more likely to have one central guy in the sky. One study published in the journal
Current Biology found that as a society became more affluent, it triggered more moralizing
types of religions. [4] Which gets us back to the most recent research.
So, the team of researchers of various Australian institutions looked at 96 Asian Pacific cultures,
because these Austronesian cultures are well documented and less influenced by main single
deity religions like Christianity and Islam. They found that belief in a head honcho deity
did not drive or sustain the evolution of political complexity, but rather it tends
to come along for the ride. The research also suggests that it’s belief in broad supernatural
entities like ancestral spirits or karma actually smoothed the way for cultures to become complex.
And that makes sense, just look at history, there’s plenty of examples of cultures without
High Moralizing Gods, like the Greeks and Romans and Mayans, who built incredibly sophisticated
societies. Maybe because of the cooperative motives I
mentioned earlier or maybe not so nobly, the supernatural gives more weight to your claim
to authority and power. If you say you’re in contact with these gods, or that these
gods are your ancestors, people are gonna believe you and maybe follow you. So this research is still in it’s early
stage and clearly needs more study. And it’s not like you have to be religious to have
a complex cooperative society anyway. Other studies show that “Some of the most cooperative
modern societies are also the most secular”.[5] But how does this new research make you feel
about the role of religion in society? Let us know in the comments below. And don’t
forget to hit those like and subscribe buttons and keep coming back for new episodes every
day of the week.

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