Before the progression of modern-day societies, ancient human social groups were typically close-knit. Experts said it was only quite recently that social groups evolved into full-fledged civilizations. With it, diverse belief systems, cultures and traditions had flourished through time.

Benjamin Purzycki, a research fellow at the University of British Columbia, said evidence has revealed that religions may have played a role in the formation and development of modern-day societies.

In fact, the belief in all-knowing and punitive gods – which still rings true today – brings a certain level of cooperation that ties together individuals in large societies.

Someone Is Watching You

Purzycki and his colleagues examined the link between the belief in "moralistic" gods and human societies. One good example is how ancient Greeks appealed to Zeus, the sky and thunder god, for the execution of justice. As ancient Greeks lived in a complex social system, they also believed in many deities.

A previous study suggests that all-knowing, punitive and morally authoritative gods may restrain selfish behavior among humans. The belief triggers the fear of punishment that comes from breaking rules and the feeling of being watched.

Researchers further delved into this idea by inquiring approximately 600 individuals from diverse cultures about the gods they knew about. This included the indigenous group Hadza in Tanzania, southern Siberians living in the Republic of Tyva and the Fijians from Yasawa.

Break The Rules – No One Will Know

To find out how beliefs in gods affected groups, the individuals were asked to participate in an economic game that determined rule-breaking.

The mechanics of the game went like this: participants sat in front of two cups, 30 coins and a die. The first cup is set aside for one person, while the second cup is reserved for another. Participants have to choose which cup they're going to put the coin into and then roll the die.

If the die comes up white, the participant has to put a coin into the cup they considered, but if it comes up in red, the participant has to place the coin on the opposite cup.

It's purely fatalistic, and the chances of putting the coin into any cup are about 50 percent. Since the participants played alone and without any partner, they can break the rules and put however many coins into the cup they want to.

Participants played two games. In the first game, one cup was reserved for the player, while the other was for someone who shared the same beliefs and religious practices but lives in a different town or village.

In the second game, one cup was meant for an anonymous person in their local community, while the other cup was again for someone who shared the same religious beliefs.

After the game, Purzycki and his team asked the participants several questions in order to understand what participants thought their deities cared about, whether or not their gods punished immoral behavior, and whether or not they thought their gods knew their thoughts and actions.

In the end, those who said their gods did not know anything about human behavior or punish immorality were more likely to place coins into their own cups and their own community.

Purzycki said this was an indication as to why major world religions like Christianity and Islam spread across the world, because both touted punitive, moralistic and omniscient gods.

"If you think you're being watched, and expect to be divinely punished for being too greedy or thieving, you might be less inclined to engage in anti-social behavior towards a wider range of people who share those beliefs," said Purzycki.

Their findings are featured in the journal Nature.

Photo : Bert Kaufmann | Flickr

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