Why God is Watching: Supernatural Punishment and the Evolution of Cooperation

15 February 2016

Speaker: Prof. Dominic Johnson, Alastair Buchan Chair of International Relations, University of Oxford, Dept. of Politics and International Relations

'Why God is Watching: Supernatural Punishment and the Evolution of Cooperation'

Amidst the dazzling diversity of religions across the world, certain elements stand out as common to them all. One of the most widespread and powerful is belief in supernatural punishment.

The idea that one’s good and bad deeds will be observed, judged and punished by God or some other supernatural agent or agency is a virtually universal feature of the world’s religions, both past and present. The underlying cognitive mechanisms also appear to be present among atheists, expressed in superstitions and implicit beliefs about a Just World.

I examine the origins of belief in supernatural punishment within the framework of evolutionary theory, arguing that such a belief, even if false and costly, may in fact have brought net fitness advantages in human evolutionary history and thus was favoured by natural selection over time (in different ways via both biological and cultural evolution). The crux of the argument is that a belief in supernatural punishment for violations of social norms helped to avoid retaliation and reputational damage for selfish behaviour in increasingly transparent social groups. In short, religion helped promote the evolution of cooperation.

This suggests novel insights for the origins, development, and spread of religions in human history. It also begs the question of what, if anything, is replacing supernatural punishment as the means to temper self-interest and promote cooperation in the modern world? In short, do we still need God? Drawing on new research from anthropology, evolutionary biology, experimental psychology, and neuroscience, I present a theory of supernatural punishment that offers some novel insights on the evolution of religion and human cooperation.