People who live in harsh or uncertain environments are more likely to believe in gods that enforce a moral code and other social characteristics, a new study suggests.
A major new cross-disciplinary research found strong evidence that human cultures in poorer environments are more likely to believe in oralising, high gods.
The study explores the evolution of human cultures and finds ecological factors play a part in shaping human societies, including religious belief.
“When life is tough or when it’s uncertain, people believe in big gods,” said Professor Russell Gray, from the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology.
“Pro-social behaviour maybe helps people do well in harsh or unpredictable environments,” said Gray.
The emergence of religion has long been explained as a result of either culture or environmental factors but not both.
The new findings imply that complex practices and characteristics thought to be exclusive to humans arise from a medley of ecological, historical, and cultural variables.
The authors, including Dr Joseph Bulbulia from Victoria University of Wellington, used historical, social and ecological data for 583 societies to illustrate the multifaceted relationship between belief in moralising, high gods and external variables.
Where previous research relied on rough estimates of ecological conditions, this study used high-resolution global datasets for variables such as plant growth, rainfall and temperature.
The team also used data from the Ethnographic Atlas, an electronic database of more than a thousand societies from the 20th Century, for geographic coordinates and sociological data including the presence of religious beliefs, agriculture and animal husbandry.
“A lot of evolutionists have been busy trying to bang religion on the head but I think the challenge is to explain it,” Gray said.
“Although some aspects of religion appear maladaptive, the near universal presence of religion suggests that there has to be some adaptive value and by looking at how these things vary ecologically, we get some insight,” said Gray.
The study was published in the journal PNAS.