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Religion may help societies to expand

An international team of researchers including Dimitris Xygalatas, who is an associate professor at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University, have studied the way in which religious beliefs influence cooperation and the formation of societies. They found that people’s view of their gods has a direct impact on the way they behave towards other people. This is the largest-ever study of its kind in the world, and the results have just been published in “Nature”, the world's most cited scientific journal.

2016.02.10 | Arts Kommunikation

Until now general theories of evolution have experienced difficulties in explaining how the basic elements in forming societies – cooperation, trust and fairness – arose. This is because these theories claim that we tend to cooperate with people with whom we have close relationships. The new study provides an important piece of the jigsaw by demonstrating the connection between faith in a god and cooperation and trust in communities as a whole – even when these communities are located a long way from each other.

A wide-ranging study
In a study of various cultures from all over the world – ranging from Brazil to Russia and from Tanzania to Mauritius – the team of researchers have used a combination of methods from the fields of anthropology, psychology and economics, interviewing 591 people and recording over 35,000 instances of behavior from eight diverse communities around the world.

“The study has included thousands of hours of interviews, economic experiments, and ethnographic observations, providing us with a huge body of absolutely unique material enabling us to conclude that people who think of their deities as more moralising, punitive and knowledgeable about human affairs behave more fairly towards others, even those who are not related to them by blood,” says Xygalatas.

An important key to understanding how communities are created
The publication of the results in “Nature” is evidence of how important this study is in terms of the way we perceive cooperation between remote communities, and the article should form a strong foundation for further findings in this area of research.

“Religion is such a pervasive part of human societies, and it affects all of us, whether we subscribe to it or not. Although the humanities have always studied religion, it is surprising that the sciences have almost entirely neglected it. Over the last few years, this pattern is changing, as interdisciplinary teams of scholars are breaking new ground and producing fascinating results, which make it to the top scientific journals. These results are important for a more holistic understanding of human nature, as we are biological and cultural beings,” says Xygalatas.

You can find the whole article here:

“Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality”

For further information

Dimitris Xygalatas

School of Culture and Society – Interacting Minds Centre (IMC)

mail: xygalatas@cas.au.dk

Danish phone: (+45) 607 30 800
Czech phone: (+420) 776 755 792
Mauritian phone: (+230) 7815220