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Supernatural policing and human cooperation Pierrick Bourrat 1 & Quentin D. Atkinson 1,2 Email: [email protected] or [email protected]

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Supernatural policing and human cooperation

Pierrick Bourrat1 & Quentin D. Atkinson1,2 Email: [email protected] or [email protected]

1. Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford; 2. Department of Psychology, University of Auckland.



  • The problem of cooperation

  • Group living in modern humans is characterized by a unique level of cooperation and exchange among a large number individuals. We rely on others for resources and are willing to share them. Despite advantages as a survival strategy, this system of trust and reciprocity is vulnerable to exploitation by free-riders. Nevertheless, humans appear to have overcome this problem and are able to maintain cooperative social networks for indefinite periods. Recently, there has been increasing interest in the role of religion in the origin and evolution of human cooperation and prosociality (Norenzayan and Shariff 2008).

  • Two possible solutions

  • Religious practices, like rituals, may help facilitate cooperation within religious groups, but shared beliefs could also play a role. We consider two mechanisms by which religious beliefs may help to solve the problem of cooperation:

  • The "Supernatural Monitoring Hypothesis” (SMH)

  • Belief in supernatural agents can increase prosocial behaviour merely by creating the perception of being watched. Reputation management is crucial to human cooperation. The SMH holds that belief in the presence of supernatural agents activates cognitive architecture associated with reputation management, thereby promoting prosocial behaviour (Rossano 2007; Johnson and Bering 2009).

  • The “Fear of supernatural punishment hypothesis” (FSPH)

  • Punishment of non-cooperators can facilitate prosocial behaviour (Fehr and Gachter 2002), but enforcement is itself costly and subject to free-riding. The FSP proposes that beliefs in supernatural agents, particularly powerful moralizing high gods like the Abrahamic God, can promote prosociality by providing a threat of punishment for non-cooperation and exporting the cost of enforcement to infallible supernatural forces beyond the group (Johnson and Krüger 2004). Although the FSPH finds some support from cross-cultural data at the societal level (Johnson 2005, Roes and Raymond 2003, Snarey 1996), there has been no large scale study linking belief in God to morality across cultures.

  • Predictions

  • Individuals who profess belief in Godwill rate moral transgressions as less justifiable than those who do not, following SMH and/or FSPH (Hypothesis 1).

  • Following the FSPH, stronger beliefs about the unjustifiability of moral transgressions will be present in individuals who profess belief in Heaven and/or Hell (Hypothesis 2) - implying belief in reward and punishment in the afterlife.

  • Following the SMH, among those who believe in God, those individuals who profess belief in a personal Godwill rate moral transgressions as less justifiable than those who believe in a spirit or life force, since believing in a personal God is more likely to imply active monitoring and a sense of ‘being watched’ (Hypothesis 3).

  • Material and Methods

  • We used standardized cross-cultural survey data from five waves of the World Value Survey (WVS 1981-2008), covering the period from 1981 to 2008. This aggregate includes surveys conducted in 87 countries all over the world and a total of 355,298 individuals interviewed.

  • Three types of questionnaire items are relevant for our hypotheses:

    • Belief in God, Hell/heaven, Personal God vs. Spirit/Life Force

    • Ratings of the justifiability of 14 moral transgressions

    • Control variables: level of religious participation, religious denomination, Country and level of education

  • Results

  • Consistent with our hypothesis 1, individuals professing belief in God rate moral transgressions as less justifiable than those who do not.

  • Consistent with hypothesis 2and the supernatural punishment hypothesis, stronger beliefs about the unjustifiability of moral transgressions are present in individuals who profess belief in Heaven or Hell.

  • Consistent with hypothesis 3and the supernatural monitoring hypothesis, among those who believe in God, those who profess belief in a personal God rated moral transgressions as less justifiable than those who profess belief in a Spirit or Life force.

  • These findings hold, controlling for the effects of religious participation, religious denomination, country and level of education.


Our results are correlational and further cross-cultural experimental work is needed to investigate the causal mechanisms linking supernatural beliefs to morality. To the extent that our self-report data reflects genuine beliefs about the supernatural and moral conformity, these findings corroborate previous work linking religiosity to prosociality.

There is thus good reason to think that the major world religions now often associated with large-scale, hierarchical political systems, may owe their success to their gods and their ability to promote cooperation and trust among believers.


Fehr, E., and S. Gachter. 2002. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415:137-140

Johnson, D. D. P. 2005. God's Punishment and Public Goods: A Test of the Supernatural Punishment Hypothesis in 186 World Cultures. Human Nature 16:410-446.

Johnson, D., and J. Bering. 2009. Hand of God, mind of man. The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion:26.

Johnson, D. D. P., and O. Krüger. 2004. The Good of Wrath: Supernatural Punishment. Political Theology 5:159-176.

Norenzayan, A., and A. F. Shariff. 2008. The origin and evolution of religious prosociality. science 322:58.

Roes, F. L., and M. Raymond. 2003. Belief in moralizing gods. Evolution and Human Behavior 24:126-135.

Rossano, M. J.2007. Supernaturalizing Social Life. Human Nature 18:272-294.

Snarey, J. 1996. The natural environment's impact upon religious ethics: a cross-cultural study. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion:85-96.

WVS. 1981-2008. World Value Survey Association OFFICIAL AGGREGATE v.20090901, 2009.