Supernatural Punishment and the Evolution of Cooperation

Connor Wood | Science on Religion

For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been working on a project that uses computer models to study religion. Such a project might sound absurd—how could you use computer simulations to study something as intangible and subjective as religion? Well, it just so happens that my colleague on the project, Justin Lane, recently published a paper that offers a great answer to this question. Using a computer model of a classic economics game, he tested the predictions of an important recent theory in the scientific study of religion: the supernatural punishment hypothesis.

Justin’s article appeared in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior and wasn’t, technically, an article. Instead, it was a commentary, part of a book symposium in which experts from across disciplines discussed, critiqued, and responded to the book God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human, by Oxford political scientist Dominic Johnson. Johnson’s book argues that large-scale human cooperation – which makes us different from chimpanzees, bonobos, or any other mammal – evolved in part because of “supernatural punishment,” or the belief that God or gods would enact retribution on anyone who didn’t obey society’s rules.

(continue reading)

The editorial staff of ORBITER magazine humbly pursues life's Big Questions, illuminating the human condition and our place in the universe.