Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Fear Factor

"Scientists have found a long-awaited explanation as to why humans have for centuries maintained orderly societies: the fear of an angry god."
That's the intro to an article appearing prominently in today's New Zealand Herald. It's based on a just-released study published in Nature.
"They found that people who believe their god is more punitive and knowledgeable behave more honestly and generously towards others who share their religion."
That hardly seems surprising. Religious identity, as those of us who've been part of a high demand movement know all too well, can be akin to tribal identity.
"[T]he study found that overall, participants who rated their gods highly as all-knowing and concerned with moral behaviour allocated more money to people who believed in the same god."
"These gods acted as a kind of social engineering, [Dr  Quentin Atkinson of Auckland University] said, so that people who believed in a morally-concerned god were more likely to follow the rules of the game and give money to their fellow believers over themselves and their village."
So there's the engine that drives tithing.

You can read the whole story here. On The Economist website there's also a review of God Is Watching You, a book written by Dominic Johnson of Oxford University, who is also quoted in the article.

While this is said to be about the power of religion to engender cooperation, it could equally be used to demonstrate the effect of religious fear in reinforcing fictive kinship, exclusionary practices, cultural and doctrinal rigidity and the non-acceptance of outsiders (heretics, heathen, infidels). Perhaps it's no coincidence that the rise of a global community (enabled in part by the Internet) parallels the decline in Western religious identity.

1 comment:

  1. It should be pointed out that historically, most societies were subject to a state religion where infractions against the religion would be met with harsh treatment and even death. In the Dark Ages, when the Catholic Church pretty much controlled the community and the priest could turn you over to the civil authorities for, say, skipping mass, who do you suppose people feared more -- punishment from God or being tortured by civil authorities at the direction of the Church? Perhaps it is not so simple, particularly when people did such heinous things when they though they would not get caught by people but were sure that God was watching. And, anyway, when people did stuff they thought would be punished by God and there were no negative consequences to their behavior, how long do you think it would take them to figure out that they could get away with stuff, even if they faced the eternal fires of Hell?

    To this alternative track there is observed consequences of people not particularly fearing retribution from a cranky Yahweh who seemed to get up on the wrong side of the bed every morning: The Pew Research shows that atheism in the United States has grown from 1.6% of the population in 2007 to 3.1% in 2014 -- just about doubled in 7 years. At the same time, Christians went from 78.4% to 70.6% -- a drop of 7.8%. If people don't fear God, what's the incentive? And what is the need to fear God? Is it the case that people fear more being ostracized from their social order?

    There was probably a time in the past where religion held people together, but it might not have been fear of God's Wrath. It may have been that the sheep sensed what the herd wanted from them and complied.

    Surveys can be such a tricky thing, especially when there may be multiple explanations for the same observed behavior.

    And then again, there is that universal behavior we can all count on: People lie.