Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Supernatural punishment: the common denominator

So here’s the question: Is religion evolutionarily advantageous? We can’t ever know for sure what life was like for our prehistoric ancestors, but I hypothesise that supernatural punishment was a very important promoter of cooperation and a way to reduce self-interest, which was vital to the evolution of human societies. As an Atheist, I want to know what the evidence is for this, so here are six pieces of evidence that point towards supernatural punishment as a common phenomenon of religion.

1. Everyday life

I think it’s quite common, even among Atheists, to find that when they do something wrong, they have a worry that their behaviour is observed or watched and known about and judged by someone or something. Of course an Atheist wouldn’t put that down to God or some supernatural agency, but they nevertheless have this feeling that their behaviour is known to something out there. Maybe you don’t feel it. I know I don’t always feel it, but I think it’s something you commonly find especially when the stakes are high. If something terrible has gone wrong, or something really good has gone wrong, people tend to attribute it to some greater force of nature.

2. Cross-cultural evidence

If you look across different societies and religions, the idea of supernatural punishment is very significant. We know all about it in our own culture in the West from the Old Testament in particular, where God was often angry and extremely vindictive against those who did not believe in him or do the things he asked. It’s still there in the New Testament in slightly different ways, but people are still worried about the consequences of their actions. They don’t want to do bad things because they believe there might be bad consequences. Hell is the big one, but it’s not only that. It’s the misfortunes that might happen in your own life. But it’s also the denial of rewards, so we might not fear Hell but we would all like to get to Heaven, and you might not want to do things that jeopardise the chances of getting there.

That is the West, but if you look at Islam or in Buddhism, you find that what you do in this life has serious consequences for you in the afterlife. The eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, are particularly interesting because they don’t have a particular supernatural being who’s watching over us and punishing us, but the consequences of karma are just as severe. It’s a mechanical system: If you do good things, it builds up your positive karma, and if you do bad things it builds up your negative karma, and all this goes into your calculations about how you will be reincarnated in the next life. If you’re a very bad person, you might be reincarnated as an ant, and if you’re a very good person, then ultimately you will progress and be reincarnated in higher and higher forms. This supernatural punishment seems to be cross-culturally important, as it’s a feature of all the major world religions.

3. Historical evidence

We observe a fear of God and supernatural punishment in contemporary religions, but if you go back into Ancient times you find the same phenomenon as well. I looked particularly at the Roman and Greek religions, which on the face of it might seem like counter-examples. The Greek gods seem very capricious; they are often vindictive and take revenge and so on, but it doesn’t change the fact that people’s behaviours were in some way guided by the expected consequences that gods might bring on them, as well as the other people on Earth. So it seems that people’s behaviours, even in Ancient religions, were very commonly influenced by their fear of the gods as well. In Ancient Egypt, the afterlife was a significant concern both for the lowly and the elites, and of course they did all sorts of things to try and maximise their chance of getting into the afterlife.

By Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
By Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Ethnographic evidence

World religions and historical religions are fascinating, but they are a very tiny subset of all religions that humanity has ever come up with. It seems that when you compare religions from across small-scale pre-industrial societies, you will again find that there is predominance in a belief of supernatural punishment, and a fear of gods or spirits or ancestors. This is not random, nor a quirk of a particular region or religion, but a systematic belief, which is very tightly associated with following social norms, including not breaking taboos, cooperating, and denying selfish behaviour. Time and again, you find it being important in these societies for promoting cooperative behaviour.

5. Laboratory experiments

We can look in the archives and the field itself, but we can also bring people into laboratories and prime them with religious concepts and see how that changes their behaviour. It turns out that people primed with religious concepts, particularly with concepts of supernatural punishment, will cooperate more. It’s intuitive, but it’s nice to have this evidence from the laboratory, and some of the new studies show that it is particularly negative sanctions that are priming this cooperative behaviour rather than the promise of rewards.

One experiment asked people prior to coming about their own beliefs in God. This didn’t presuppose a particular type of belief, but asked them for their own conception of God and whether it was more of a rewarding God or a mean and watchful God. Those who believed in a meaner God were much more prone to their own cooperative behaviour when they were primed with religious concepts. The title of the paper was “Mean Gods Make Nice People.”

I think the cognitive underpinnings of all this are really important. We can rationalise all this and we can understand it, but it turns out that we are very loathe to give up our primal beliefs about privacy. We are very sensitive to whether we are alone or not and if we’re not sure about this, the Swiss have helped us prove it by inventing toilets with glass walls. You go inside and can see out of it, feeling like you’re in the middle of the street and anyone can see you, but from the outside it’s completely dark. It turns out that people hated this, and couldn’t use them. There was no way they were going to do anything in there with cars whizzing past two feet in front of them and people walking past. The feeling of privacy is something absolutely wired into us and it’s very hard to remove.

6. Polls

When you ask people today about their beliefs, we are all told that secularism is a major phenomenon, which is creeping across the west, but even among self-declared Atheists you find some extraordinary beliefs. For example, beliefs in supernatural phenomena remain pretty high. It varies according to different types of belief, but significant portions of the public fear ghosts and believe that they can communicate with the dead. This is no surprise if we have these cognitive underpinnings that make us believe that there are supernatural agents out there that are observing our behaviour. However, it’s surprising to learn that these beliefs are alive and well even among secular populations. Of course, if you ask people that are religious, there remain very significant proportions of people who believe in the good old-fashioned concepts of Heaven, Hell, and Judgement Day. For several billion people throughout the world, the possibility of supernatural punishment is a real concern.

Image Credit: “The Great Day of His Wrath” by John Martin. Public Domain via WikiArt.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Supernatural punishment: the common denominator – “So here’s the question: Is religion evolutionarily advantageous…? I hypothesise that supernatural punishment was a very important promoter of cooperation and a way to reduce self-interest, which was vital to the evolution of human societies.” […]

  2. Padraig McCarthy

    Is there any human society of any kind, including secular state, where fear of punishment is not a factor?
    Driving along, you see a police speed check ahead – do you immediately look at your speed indicator? Is it to be law-abiding, or is it for fear of a speeding fine?
    Plato’s Republic poses the Ring of Gyges question: if you had that ring which makes you invisible when you turn it inwards, so you would not be caught, would you still act ethically?
    In moral development, fear of punishment is a normal human stage; we perhaps never grow fully out of it. The challenge is to internalise the values protected by the legal and moral codes, whether civil or religious, so we act out of principle and love rather than out of selfishness and fear.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *