12 February 2016

The fear of God is the beginning...

Nature, the "international weekly journal of science," published in its latest issue an article guaranteed to generate mainstream-media headlines. According to Nature's own summary, "Cross-cultural experiments find that belief in moralistic, knowledgeable and punishing gods promotes cooperation with strangers, supporting a role for religion in the expansion of human societies." According to a Washington Post report about the article, the anthropologists argue that people who believe in a god who punishes wrongdoers are less selfish and more inclined to behave impartially toward others. Such people are "are more likely to adopt behaviors that can create and support large-scale cooperative institutions, such as trade and markets." The researches base this hypothesis on observations of different communities of people around the world. What did they observe? According to the Post, they observed people playing a game the researchers themselves brought with them. The game is a test of honesty. From the Post:

In each game, participants received 30 coins, two cups and a dice with half of its six sides one color and the other half another. They were told to mentally pick a cup and roll the dice; they were then instructed, based on the dice color, to put the coin either into the cup they were imagining or the one they weren’t.In both experiments, one cup was assigned to a distant and anonymous adherent of the participant’s religion. The second cup was either assigned to the participant or to an anonymous local adherent of the same religion.Participants were told that each cup’s contents at the end of the game would go to whomever it was assigned....In theory, the game would end with an average of 15 coins evenly split in either cup, thanks to random chance.But the experimenters designed the game to make it easy to cheat: because participants chose the cup in their head, they could easily override the rules. And they did....But the higher a participant rated their God as moralistic, knowledgeable and punishing, the fairer they were to the distant stranger of the same faith....Participants who believed in a moralistic and punishing God were about five times fairer to their distant “co-religionists” than participants who didn’t know whether their God was moralistic, the researchers found.

For the researchers, this indicates a potential for "prosociality" in the world's more god(s)fearing people. They sought a factor to account for the expansion of prosociality (or " the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity") since the development of agriculture, since "well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups." If I understand this correctly, the anthropologists are saying that at a certain point in the early development of trade something has to account for people not ripping off strangers all the time. It's worth noting that they're cautious in their conclusions: "beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality." (emphasis mine). They don't say it did, and they're wise not to.

The specialists out there will excuse a layman's ignorance, but I thought anthropologists were supposed to observe what people actually do in their everyday lives. That, I would think, would be surer proof of any hypothesis linking ethical or "impartial" conduct to fear of God's justice. As for the hypothesis itself, perhaps the theorists have cause and effect mixed up. They speculate that belief in a just and wrathful god discouraged people from treating strangers unfairly. Is it really less likely that, teaching themselves to treat strangers fairly when doing so went against past practice, in order to benefit from trade or cooperation across distances, they would justify the departure from past practice by telling themselves that their god wanted it so, or else? In either case, it's also fair to ask how successful such teachings about gods and their rules have been. After all, has the "expansion of human societies" really been an impartial or fair process for all its participants? To be fair, the present researchers aren't claiming that. They only argue that a belief in divinely-enforced fairness could have been a factor in the expansion of human societies. If so, it can also be argued that the principle of divinely-enforced fairness is one that certainly has been asserted throughout history, but has more often been honored in the breach.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And all of that has jackshit to do with reality. Belief in a infantile sky despot that punishes you for sinning does not change the fact that there is no infantile sky despot that punishes you for sinning.

I'd have to guess this "study" is underwritten by a dishonest christian group.