Slingerland, Edward, Joseph Henrich, and Ara Norenzayan. “The evolution of prosocial religions.” In Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language and Religion, edited by Peter J Richerson and M. H. Christiansen. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013.
Norenzayan, A., J. Henrich, and E. Slingerland. “Religious prosociality: a synthesis.” In Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language and Religion, edited by P. J. Richerson and M. H. Christiansen, 365-380. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013.
The sanctioning of norm-transgressors is a necessary-though often costly-task for maintaining a well-functioning society. Prior to effective and reliable secular institutions for punishment, large-scale societies depended on individuals engaging in 'altruistic punishment'-bearing the costs of punishment individually, for the benefit of society. Evolutionary approaches to religion suggest that beliefs in powerful, moralizing Gods, who can distribute rewards and punishments, emerged as a way to augment earthly punishment in large societies that could not effectively monitor norm violations. In five studies, we investigate whether such beliefs in God can replace people's motivation to engage in altruistic punishment, and their support for state-sponsored punishment. Results show that, although religiosity generally predicts higher levels of punishment, the specific belief in powerful, intervening Gods reduces altruistic punishment and support for state-sponsored punishment. Moreover, these effects are specifically owing to differences in people's perceptions that humans are responsible for punishing wrongdoers.