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Civilising God

A new study conducted in Canada has suggested that belief in powerful Gods is absolutely vital for the development of civilisation.

The previous consensus among anthropologists has been that it was the advent of agriculture that allowed large communities to form cooperative societies. But this view is being challenged by archaeologists discovering that large ceremonial monuments seem to precede farming communities and must have been built by communities working together under one belief system.

This new study, led by the University of British Columbia, goes further and suggests that religious people are more likely to be cooperative,because they sense the watchful eye of an all-powerful deity monitoring their actions.

The researchers conducted a series of economic 'games' with 600 people who followed religions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as diverse local traditions such as animism and ancestor worship.

'In the modern world we rely on government's courts and the police to deter and punish those who would otherwise undermine social coordination. But how did human societies achieve and sustain cooperation before these institutes existed? One possibility is religion.' says Professor Dominic Johnson of the politics and international relations department at Oxford.

The researchers found that the more likely individuals were to rate their god as moralistic, knowledgeable and punishing, the more likely they were to give money to strangers who shared their religious beliefs.

The authors say that a belief in rewards from the god could not on its own account for the results. They found instead that a belief in divine retribution or supernatural punishment may have fostered behaviour that promoted trust, cooperation and fairness in dealings with others.

The paper, published in Nature magazine, suggests that over time these deities spread culturally and came to dominate the world. Through shared beliefs and standards of behaviour, commitments to the same gods meant followers living in different places had similar expectations about how to behave with others.

Subjects in the experiment were not co-operative with random strangers, only with strangers that shared the same god.

'We therefore still face the challenge of understanding the promotion of co-operation and trust among members of different religions. [The] finding that sharing the same god is key to co-operation suggests that this may be an even harder nut to crack,' says Professor Johnson.

'Religion is arguably the most powerful mechanism that societies have found to bind people together in common purposeā€¦ We are still grappling to understand, from a scientific perspective, why and under what circumstances humans sacrifice their own welfare for the benefit of distant others.'