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God’s punishment and public goods

A test of the supernatural punishment hypothesis in 186 world cultures

Abstract

Cooperation towards public goods relies on credible threats of punishment to deter cheats. However, punishing is costly, so it remains unclear who incurred the costs of enforcement in our evolutionary past. Theoretical work suggests that human cooperation may be promoted if people believe in supernatural punishment for moral transgressions. This theory is supported by new work in cognitive psychology and by anecdotal ethnographic evidence, but formal quantitative tests remain to be done. Using data from 186 societies around the globe, I test whether the likelihood of supernatural punishment—indexed by the importance of moralizing “high gods”—is associated with cooperation.

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Correspondence to Dominic D. P. Johnson.

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Dominic Johnson is a fellow in the Princeton University Society of Fellows. He holds a D.Phil. in biology from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in political science from Geneva University. His research revolves around the evolutionary biology of human behavior and how this impacts on conflict, cooperation, politics, and religion. His recent book, Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions, was published in 2004 by Harvard University Press.

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Johnson, D.D.P. God’s punishment and public goods. Hum Nat 16, 410–446 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-005-1017-0

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-005-1017-0

Key words

  • Cooperation
  • Evolution of cooperation
  • Gods
  • High gods
  • Intentionality system
  • Religion
  • Sanctions
  • Standard Cross-Cultural Sample
  • Supernatural punishment
  • World cultures