One explanation for the ubiquity of religion is that it fostered advantageous cooperation among our ancestors. The human mind readily develops belief in supervisory god-like entities and these beliefs help promote in us cooperative, moral behaviour. One problem with this account: how come some religions don’t believe in a god or gods with moral concerns? Benjamin Purzycki may have the answer. He argues there’s a difference between explicit, formal theological religious beliefs and people’s religious intuitions. Even among religions that state their gods are unconcerned by human moral behaviour, he predicts there is an automatic bias toward believing that these gods know and care about interpersonal behaviour between people.
To test this moralisation bias theory, Purzycki has conducted what he describes as “the first study to systematically compared the minds of gods.” For this he surveyed 88 Christians at the University of Connecticut (including 60 Catholics, 14 Protestants) and 88 ethnic Tyvans living in Southern Siberia.
True to the religious teachings of their faith, the Christians stated initially that their god knows everything. However, when they rated God’s knowledge of 50 moral and non-moral issues (e.g. “God knows if I was helpful to someone”; “… knows what is under my bed”), they showed a clear bias for rating him more knowledgeable and concerned about moral facts than non-moral ones. “In one sitting, students claim both that God knows everything, but knows moral information better than non-moral information,” Purzycki said.
There was a similar contradiction among the more varied answers of the Tyvans. Their religion incorporates elements of Buddhism, shamanism and totemism among other influences. They believe in the existence of Cher eezi spirit masters of different forms – including a woman on a horse; a bull; and a small marmot – that oversee natural resources in specific regions. The Tyvans’ explicit teachings state that the Cher eezi are not concerned with people’s interpersonal moral behaviour. However, asked to rate their spirit masters’ knowledge of 50 issues, the Tyvans showed a consistent bias, rating their knowledge and concern of moral facts as greater than their knowledge and concern for non-moral facts.
This was the case even when the analysis was restricted to those Tyvans who didn’t list a single interpersonal behaviour when asked at the survey start to name things that please or anger their spirit masters. On the other hand, true to their teachings, the Tyvans’ survey answers were influenced by geography – they said spirit masters knew and cared more about moral behaviour in their relevant geographical location.
“Despite the world’s religious diversity and cultural models, interpersonal social behaviour is an essential constant in religious cognition,” said Purzycki. “… As such religious systems around the world may indeed be essentially about interpersonal social regulation and monitoring regardless of whether moral concern is explicitly attributed to gods.”
Although Purzycki’s findings are consistent with the idea that regardless of teachings, religious people implicitly see all gods as concerned with how we behave, he wonders about the processes that lead these concerns to be made explicit in some religious teachings. One possibility he says, is that “as societies become more complex [and] individual behaviour more easily hidden from others, concepts of omniscient moralistic high gods may become not only more easily promulgated, but also more salient in individual minds.”
Benjamin Grant Purzycki (2013). The minds of gods: A comparative study of supernatural agency. Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.06.010
More posts on the psychology of god and religion in the Digest archive.