Biology Magazine

Supernatural Punishment Theory: History Free Zone?

Posted on the 19 April 2011 by Cris

Over at the Evolution of Religion Project, Dominic Johnson comments on the first target article which will appear in what promises to be a fantastic new journal, Religion, Brain, and Behavior. Because the first issue has yet to be published, I will have to rely on Johnson’s summary:

Jeff Schloss and Michael Murray have written a “target article” in Religion, Brain & Behavior entitled: “Evolutionary Accounts of Belief in Supernatural Punishment: A Critical Review”. Schloss and Murray’s argument is as follows. In recent years a wide range of adaptationist, byproduct, and memetic explanations has emerged for various recurrent features of religious belief and practice. One feature that has figured prominently in adaptationist accounts of religion is belief in the reality of moralizing, punishing supernatural agents.

However, there is at present no unified theory of what fitness-relevant feature of the selective environment this cognitive predisposition is adapted to. Schloss and Murray distinguish two divergent and often conflated approaches to supernatural punishment theory, which hypothesize that the adaptive value of beliefs in supernatural punishment arise either because they increase cooperation among group members (”cooperation enhancement”), or decrease the cost of incurring (real world) punishment for norm violations (”punishment avoidance”).

Although a number of scholars have provided comments to the Schloss and Murray article, Rodney Stark does not appear to be one of them. This is most unfortunate, given that Stark has written a classic article — “Gods, Rituals, and the Moral Order” — which directly addresses these issues and tests them with actual religious history (rather than abstract game theory).

Of supreme importance is the fact that “punishing, moralizing supernatural agents” (or gods) appear in very few religions, and those few in which they do appear are relative latecomers in religious history. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that a robust punishing, moralizing god originated with Judaism and is primarily associated with the Abrahamic faiths. Punishing and moralizing supernatural agents certainly are not associated with the many forms of shamanism that surely were the original “religions” of Upper Paleolithic humans.

If this is the case, it makes little sense to hypothesize about the “adaptive value” of the punishing and moralizing God of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and successor sects such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witness. While this localized and modern conception of God may make Jews, Christians, and Muslims more “cooperative” and “moral,” this says nothing about human evolution or the origins of “religion.”

Framing the issue in this way makes about as much sense as asking how the cognitive predisposition for nationalism (another late development in human history) is adaptive. I am not aware of any scholars who analyze nationalism by asking “what fitness-relevant feature of the selective environment it is adapted to.” Why? Because biological evolutionary mechanisms have minimal explanatory power in modern cultural and historical settings.

The adaptationist yearning for a “unified theory” results in an erroneous conflation of biological evolution with cultural history. The tools of the former are ill adapted to analysis of the latter.

While lab experiments may show that supernatural surveillance impacts behavior, this is precisely what one would expect in Western cultures permeated with the idea that God punishes moral transgressions. Such experiments tell us nothing about the evolution of cooperation or religion.

Supernatural Punishment Theory: History Free Zone?


Stark, R. (2001). Gods, Rituals, and the Moral Order. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40 (4), 619-636 DOI: 10.1111/0021-8294.00081

You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • The “People Never Change” Theory

    “People Never Change” Theory

    OKAY. This is not really a theory, per say. But I’ve found that when it comes to the subject of dating and relationships, and how people handle it…PEOPLE NEVER... Read more

    By  Tobehitch
  • Celebrating Women in History

    Celebrating Women History

    Let's fly through time and remember women in history and their achievements! How they continue to inspire us, surprise us and propel us toward new frontiers.... Read more

    By  Rachel
  • The ‘Big Bang’ Theory Doesn’t Work for Startups

    ‘Big Bang’ Theory Doesn’t Work Startups

    The traditional mode of starting a company is to plan a serial process, where you complete only once all the steps, leading to the “big bang” launch of the... Read more

    By  Martin Zwilling
  • Most Ironic Deaths In History

    Most Ironic Deaths History

    Death is a normal part of life. While most people die with predictable reasons, some people die rather ironic deaths. The world has seen numerous deaths in whic... Read more

    By  Gerard
  • In the Twilight Zone

    Twilight Zone

    Mezzotint is a method of creating a tonal intaglio image; the name means "half-tint" in Italian. The French term, manière noire ("black manner") expresses the... Read more

    By  Adventuresintheprinttrade
  • Raven and Lain Bower Share Their Supernatural World

    Raven Lain Bower Share Their Supernatural World

    Raven and Lain Bower are a wife and husband team of writers living in Michigan. They are avid role-players and love to design mythical and diabolical... Read more

    By  Brigittethompson
  • “According to My Theory, Kids Should . . . ” (from the Archives)

    In theory, every teenager wants to be a Renaissance thinker: well versed in the arts and sciences, curious about the world’s big ideas, literate in Plato,... Read more

    By  Stevemiranda