Belief in angry gods (probably) made humans more agreeable

Fear of a supernatural smiting may have spurred human societies towards a more agreeable, cooperative future, researchers suggest. Human societies are very complex, of course, and all share the same propensities for religion — though the storylines and theological talking points vary from one religion to another, many have the same common denominator: angry, punitive, surveilling gods who knew when you did something you shouldn't and weren't afraid to backhand you for it.

Those common beliefs may have 'encouraged' humans to be more cooperative with each other, even with strangers, leading to the sprawling and complex societies we enjoy today. Such a notion was recently tested by researchers, though the idea itself is not new. The test involved 591 volunteers from small societies tasked with a simple game: there are two cups, some coins, and a die.

The die has two colors, one on three sides and another on the other three sides. Likewise, one of the cups was for the player, and the other cup was for a different person, a faraway stranger who happened to have the same religious beliefs (another version of the game used a local stranger, instead). As you probably guessed, the game simply involved rolling the die and putting a coin in the cup belonging to the color the die landed on (they were told to think about what cup to put the coin in first, though).

The key, though, was that the volunteers played the game alone.

Because there were two cups and evenly split six-sided die, the results should be around 50/50 for the coins being split up...assuming the player didn't cheat and give themselves some extra coins. And the end of it all, it was the religious players who were most honest, giving to the stranger as well as themselves.

What this means, though, is up for interpretation. Critics state that religion — and the kinship it may have resulted in — came later on in human existence, during a time when the battle to survive wasn't as demanding and thus humans were more receptive to the idea of giving away resources to someone outside of their family or social network.

It's just as possible, though, that believing a god was watching could have resulted in more agreeable human interactions. According to the study:

Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists. Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.