Religion is universal and human. For thousands of years people have held religious beliefs and participated in religions. In history, every human society have featured some supernatural or religious.
Why is religion so prevalent? One reason is that it is a powerful tool to develop.
The world is a hidden place and much more mysterious before the resurrection modern science. Religion can be a way to make sense of this mystery. This idea goes back to theologians and philosophers as Henry Drummond and Friedrich Nietzschewho also supported the “God gap” hypothesis, where the gaps in knowledge are explained in divine interventions by God.
For example ancient Chinese and the Korean societies looked to the gods to change their rulers, while the Egyptian, Aztec, Celtic, and Tiv people used the will of the gods. explain the celestial cycles.
In today’s world, many Christians in the US I was considering the COVID pandemic a form of divine punishment.
However, despite these attractive models, we know very little about what kinds of phenomena people try to use religion to explain. If religion helps fill in the gaps in our knowledge, what kinds of gaps is it likely to fill?
Our international research team pursued this question for five years, surveying ethnographies from societies around the world and throughout history.
We find Societies are much more likely to have supernatural beliefs that relate to “natural” phenomena than to “social” phenomena.
Supernatural aspects of natural things
In total, our research sample included histories from 114 different companies.
These wandered from hunter-gatherer groups wandering in Africa (as they are Kung people), to fishing and horticultural societies from the Pacific islands (such as people from Trobriand Islands), to large “complex” societies with modern technology and written records (such as Javanese, Malay and Turkish societies).
For each society we read through ethnographic texts and identified supernatural explanations that were commonly held by their people. We then identified the source of the explanation.
First, we asked whether supernatural explanations focused on “natural” phenomena—events that show no human cause, such as disease, natural disasters, and drought—or focused on “social” human-caused “social” phenomena, such as wars, murders, and theft. .
By investigating all these various phenomena we find explanations. For example, the Cayapa people of the Ecuadorian rain forest are attributed to lightning, a natural phenomenon, the spirit of thunder, who carried a large flashing sword when in battle.
And the Comanche people of the great plains of America explained the war as a social phenomenon, using dreams as medicine for people.
However, our results also revealed a large gap: supernatural explanations for natural phenomena were much more common than for social phenomena.
In fact, almost all the societies we looked at had supernatural explanations for natural phenomena such as disease (96%), natural disasters (92%) and drought (90%). Fewer had supernatural explanations of war (67%), murder (82%) and theft (26%).
Develop supernatural beliefs to expand societies
The global prevalence of naturally occurring supernatural events is one of the most important findings from our research. It is partly surprising that the major religions of today, such as Christianity and Islam, are social institutions.
Today’s Christians rely on their religions as a social and moral environment rather than a way to understand the weather. Equally, the Sacred seeks to explain a variety of social phenomena. The the story of Cain and Abel explains the origin of the murder, with the book of Joshua explains the supernatural causes of the war that destroyed Jericho.
How, then, is the contrast between supernatural explanations in modern Christianity, and supernatural explanations among traditional societies, as told through historical records? One of our findings could provide a clue.
We find that societies develop more supernatural explanations for social phenomena as they become larger and more complex. Larger societies with currency and land transport were more likely to develop things like theft and warfare using supernatural principles than small hunting and horticultural groups.
We can’t say for sure why that is. Perhaps because people in larger societies know and trust themselves less, and this has translated into beliefs about witchcraft and witchcraft. Or perhaps people in more complex societies are more concerned with issues of war and theft, and therefore more supernatural explanations for them.
Although our study cannot shed light on the origins of religion, it does corroborate this idea. But in addition to this, it also shows that societies are turning to religion more for a social sense than for greater and relevant involvement.
joshua conrad jacksonPostdoctoral Fellowship, Kellogg School of Management University of North Carolina on Chapel Hill and Brock BastianProfessor, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences; University of Melbourne