Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded1,2. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups. To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms3,4. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers5,6,7,8. We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship. 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.
We thank everyone who participated in the study and our local assistants without whom this project would not have been possible. We acknowledge funding from a research grant, “The Emergence of Prosocial Religions” from the John Templeton Foundation, and the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC), funded by a generous partnership grant (895–2011–1009) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Q.D.A. is grateful for the support provided by a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, E.C. thanks the British Academy for Fellowship support, J.H. thanks the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research for support, A.N. thanks the James McKeen Cattell Foundation for sabbatical support, and B.G.P. thanks L. Loveridge and J. McCutcheon. We thank A. Baimel, A. Barnett, J. Bulbulia, N. Chan, M. Collard, T. Lai, J. Lanman, B. Milner, M. Muthukrishna, C. Placek, E. Slingerland, R. Sosis, H. Whitehouse and C. Xu.
Extended data figures
This file contains the primary data set in xlsx format with codebook.