Moralizing gods, extended prosociality, and religious parochialism across 15 societies

Lang, M., Purzycki, B. G., Apicella, C. L., Atkinson, Q., Bolyanatz, A., Cohen, E., Handley, C., Kundtová Klocová, E., Lesorogol, C., Mathew, S., McNamara, R. A., Moya C., Placek, C., Soler, M., Vardy, T., Weigel, J. L., Willard, A. K., Xygalatas, D., Norenzayan, A., & Henrich, J.

Explaining the emergence of large-scale cooperation during the Holocene remains a central problem in the evolutionary literature. Among several contributing mechanisms, one hypothesis points to culturally evolved beliefs in punishing, interventionist gods that facilitate the extension of cooperative behavior toward geographically distant co-religionists who are unlikely to reciprocate. Furthermore, it has been hypothesized that the influence of such beliefs on cooperative behavior is parochially constrained to the religious ingroup, possibly at the expense of religious outgroups with commitments to different deities. To test these hypotheses, we administered two behavioral experiments and an extensive set of interviews to a sample of 2,228 participants from 15 diverse populations. These populations included foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists, subsistence farmers and wage laborers, practicing world religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism, but also different forms of animism and ancestor worship. Using the Random Allocation Game (RAG) and the Dictator Game (DG) in which individual participants allocated money between themselves, local and distant co-religionists, and outgroups, we found that the ratings of gods as monitoring and punitive reliably predicted refraining from local favoritism (RAGs) and increased resource-sharing with distant co-religionists (DGs). There was mixed evidence for the effectiveness of the religious primes. The effects of punishing and monitoring gods on outgroup allocations revealed between-site variability, suggesting that in the absence of intergroup hostility, some religions may promote norm extensions also to outgroup members. These results provide support for the hypothesis that beliefs in monitoring and punitive gods who care about human normative conduct help expand the circle of sustainable social interaction, and open new questions about how different traditions respond to religious outgroups.