One Key to Civilization's Rise? Fear of an Angry God
It's why strangers work together, say researchers
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 12, 2016 9:09 AM CST
File photo of a Hebrew Bible from 1189.   (Sotheby's via AP)

(Newser) – The belief in all-seeing and punitive gods may be a huge factor in how modern civilization came to be. So report researchers in the journal Nature after studying nearly 600 individuals from eight communities, including plant cultivators on the South Pacific island of Tanna, wage laborers on Fiji and in Brazil, herders and wage laborers in Siberia, and East African hunter-gatherers. Using a behavioral game involving a cup and dice, the researchers found that people were more likely to reward strangers in a distant land over themselves if they thought their actions were being monitored from on high. That proved especially true if the strangers shared their religious beliefs. The upshot is that these beliefs make people more likely to cooperate with those outside their immediate social circles, and perhap explains how "far-flung peoples" came together, say the researchers in a press release.

"A large part of the success of human civilizations may have lain in the hands of the gods, whether or not they are real," writes an evolutionary biologist in Nature. As Science News explains, this tendency to cooperate with strangers would have had huge implications starting about 10,000 years ago as primitive communities began to have more contact with each other. In the study, the stronger the belief in a punishing god, the greater the likelihood was for rewarding distant strangers, reports ABC Science. The researchers theorize that this is why Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, all of which include what Science News calls "divine discipline," have spread so successfully. Their adherents made sure to work with each other. (Rich Americans, meanwhile, are less charitable as a percentage of their income.)