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Belief in a god or gods is a central feature in the lives of billions, and a topic of perennial interest within psychology. However, research over the last half decade has achieved a new level of understanding regarding both the ultimate and proximate causes of belief in God. Ultimate causes—the evolutionary influences on a trait —shed light on the adaptive value of belief in God and the reasons why a tendency towards this belief exist in humans. Proximate causes - the immediate influences on the expression of a trait – explain variation and changes in belief. We review this research, and discuss remaining barriers to a fuller understanding of belief in God.
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Current Directions in Psychological
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DOI: 10.1177/0963721418754491
At one point in the prehistory of our species, no one
believed in a god. Today, an estimated 80% of humans
are theists (P. Zuckerman, 2007). Why did the belief in
gods become so broadly and powerfully held? Religion
has fascinated psychologists since James (1902), but a
recent body of research has sharply focused on the
reasons people believe in gods—defined here as
“supernatural beings believed to have created or [to]
govern all reality, intervene in human affairs, and
enforce or support human morality” (Botero etal., 2014,
p. 16784). Here, we separate these reasons along Mayr’s
(1961) ultimate versus proximate categorization of
causal explanations. Ultimate explanations focus on
why a behavior evolved—its functional origins as an
adaptation or evolutionary by-product. Proximate expla-
nations focus on the immediate factors influencing how
and when a behavior is performed. For example, the
proximate explanation for a bird undertaking its yearly
migration is the experience of changing daily hours of
sunlight, but the ultimate explanation is that because
of the scarce winter food supply, better survival and
reproductive opportunities were afforded to those who
migrated to warmer climates.
Ultimate and proximate causes thus provide comple-
mentary—rather than competing—explanations for a
behavior. Although not without critics (see Vromen, 2017,
for a discussion), the ultimate-proximate distinction has
proved useful for preventing confusion about different
types of causation (Scott-Phillips, Dickins, & West, 2011).
For example, a question posed at one level of explanation
cannot be answered at another level of explanation. An
ultimate question about why cooperation exists requires
an explanation for the evolution of cooperation, such as
that it provides a selective advantage by increasing the
fitness of one’s kin. It cannot be answered with a proxi-
mate explanation for cooperation, such as concerns for
praise and blame (Scott-Phillips etal., 2011). This ultimate-
proximate distinction thus provides a useful organizing
framework for recent research on the belief in God.
Ultimate Reasons for the Cognitive
Features Making Belief in God Intuitive
Features of the human mind have arisen as evolved
adaptations to environmental challenges throughout our
prehistory. However, many authors have argued that
these cognitive adaptations have, as a by-product, made
humans prone to the conception of supernatural agents
(Norenzayan etal., 2016). An early, oft-cited example
of such a cognitive adaptation is our hypersensitivity to
754491CDPXXX10.1177/0963721418754491Mercier et al.Belief in God
Corresponding Author:
Azim F. Shariff, University of California, Irvine, Department of
Psychology and Social Behavior, 4558 Social and Behavioral Sciences
Gateway, Irvine, CA 92697
Belief in God: Why People Believe,
and Why They Don’t
Brett Mercier1, Stephanie R. Kramer2, and Azim F. Shariff1
1Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine, and 2Department of Psychology,
University of Oregon
Belief in a god or gods is a central feature in the lives of billions of people and a topic of perennial interest within
psychology. However, research over the past half decade has achieved a new level of understanding regarding both
the ultimate and proximate causes of belief in God. Ultimate causes—the evolutionary influences on a trait—shed light
on the adaptive value of belief in God and the reasons why a tendency toward this belief exists in humans. Proximate
causes—the immediate influences on the expression of a trait—explain variation and changes in belief. We review this
research and discuss remaining barriers to a fuller understanding of belief in God.
belief, God, evolution, religion
2 Mercier et al.
cues of humanlike agency (Guthrie, 1993). Because failing
to notice potentially dangerous agents in our ancestral envi-
ronment was costlier than making false alarms, our agency-
detection system evolved to be tilted toward overperception.
But the by-product of being adaptively tuned to overper-
ceive agency is that humans are biased toward perceiving
agents—such as gods—behind natural phenomena.
Alongside this hypersensitive agency-detection
device, theorists have described biases for overperceiv-
ing human-relevant purposes behind events and
objects—adaptive because of the necessity of decipher-
ing intentionality and the usefulness of understanding
tools but leading in turn to a tendency to make attribu-
tions of divine purpose (Kelemen, 2004). In addition,
because of the importance of understanding mental
states, humans evolved separate systems for thinking
about social stimuli and physical, nonsocial objects
(Bloom, 2007). Although this was adaptive for our
social cognition, a by-product was that it made it easy
for humans to imagine the existence of disembodied
supernatural agents that nonetheless had an active
mental existence (Forstmann & Burgmer, 2015).
These by-products of innately occurring cognitive
features provided the psychological raw materials from
which supernatural beliefs were culturally shaped into
shared God beliefs (Gervais, Willard, Norenzayan, &
Henrich, 2011). Unlike the gods of most modern reli-
gions, the supernatural agents that early societies
believed in tended to be nonmoralistic, with limited
powers and knowledge (Roes & Raymond, 2003). To
explain the transition, cultural evolutionary theorists
have argued that, in a process roughly analogous to
genetic evolution, selective pressures made certain cul-
tural beliefs more likely to survive and spread than
others. As human group sizes increased, it became dif-
ficult to track which members were cooperative con-
tributors and which were defecting free riders, straining
the mechanisms maintaining group cohesion. Beliefs
in omniscient supernatural watchers capable of doling
out punishments and rewards helped solve this problem
by deterring free riding, giving groups adopting these
beliefs an advantage over other groups (Norenzayan
etal., 2016; though see the commentaries to that article
for criticisms and alternative perspectives). In a recent
cross-cultural study demonstrating this religiously
inspired prosociality, researchers found that the more
individuals believed their gods were punitive and
knowledgeable about humans, the more money these
individuals shared with anonymous coreligionists in an
economic game (Purzycki etal., 2016). In another study,
subtle reminders of God made people more charitable,
but only when these reminders were of God’s punitive
aspects (Yilmaz & Bahçekapili, 2016).
Thus, increased cooperation made groups who
believed in watchful, moralizing gods more likely to
survive and spread their beliefs, making these beliefs
more common. Analysis of historical societies has found
that these beliefs were especially likely to spread where
the need for cooperation was high, such as in societies
with rights to movable property, high political complex-
ity, or resource scarcity (Botero etal., 2014).
Proximate Reasons for Who Believes
and When
While ultimate explanations tell us why specific cogni-
tive biases evolved, proximate explanations show how
and when these biases contribute to belief in God.
Understanding these cognitive, motivational, and
social factors that influence belief helps explain the
great variation in religiosity among our species—not
just across countries (84% of people in the Philippines
report being certain about God’s existence, compared
with 4% in Japan; Smith, 2012) but across time—which
can in turn inform long-standing debates about
Cognitive factors
One method of examining the proximate cognitive fac-
tors influencing belief in God is to compare individuals
who differ on cognitive factors, such as the tendency
to rely on evolved cognitive intuitions. People with an
analytical thinking style—that is, people more likely to
override their intuitions in decision making—are less
likely to be believers (Pennycook, Ross, Koehler, &
Fugelsang, 2016). In addition to overriding intuitions,
the extent to which people experience these intu-
itions in the first place also plays a role. Because
attributing mental states to unseen agents facilitates
belief in God, people who less easily perceive and
understand the mental states of others (such as indi-
viduals on the autism spectrum and men relative to
women) show lower levels of belief (Norenzayan,
Gervais, & Trzesniewski, 2012).
Though still controversial, convergent research sug-
gests that more intelligent individuals are less likely to
believe in God (Kanazawa, 2010; Lynn, Harvey, & Nyborg,
2009). Although partially explained by its overlap with
analytic thinking, the relationship between belief in God
and intelligence also has compelling motivation-based
explanations. For example, M. Zuckerman, Silberman,
and Hall (2013) argue that more intelligent individuals
may have less need for the psychological benefits that
religion provides (such as a sense that the world is
controllable; see below) because they can more ably
generate these benefits themselves. Intelligent people
are also more likely to be nonconformists and thus feel
more comfortable deviating from the (typically) reli-
gious majority.
Belief in God 3
Motivational reasons
In addition to studying the factors that make people
more or less cognitively receptive to belief in God,
research has also examined the factors that motivate
(or demotivate) people to believe. For instance,
Sedikides and Gebauer (2010) present a meta-analysis
showing that high self-enhancers—people with a strong
desire to see themselves positively—have higher levels
of intrinsic religiosity, especially in societies that place
greater value on religion. They argue that elements of
religion—such as a believed association with God—
create feelings of positive self-regard, motivating high
self-enhancers to adopt stronger religious beliefs. How-
ever, more research is needed to confirm this causal
Other research has used experiments to provide a
causal test of motivational factors influencing belief.
Epley and colleagues show not only that chronically
lonely people are less likely to believe in God but also
that randomly assigning people to situations that
increase loneliness (such as informing people that they
will probably be alone later in life) increases reports
of belief (Epley, Akalis, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008).
Compensatory-control theory posits that people
strive to believe their world is predictable and control-
lable (Kay, Gaucher, Napier, Callan, & Laurin, 2008).
On the basis of this theory, Kay and colleagues (2008)
argue that belief in God is motivated by a need for
perceived control, which they demonstrated by showing
that experimentally threatening people’s sense of con-
trol can increase belief in God. Experimentally increas-
ing mortality salience has also been shown to increase
belief (Vail, Arndt, & Abdollahi, 2012), which may
explain why religiosity tends to increase when people
get older, become terminally ill, or experience a natural
disaster (Bentzen, 2013; Jong, 2013). The ability of the
belief in God—and religion more generally—to palliate
the effect of negative life events has been offered as
one explanation for religiosity’s association with greater
well-being (Whitehead & Bergeman, 2011).
Together, these cognitive and motivational factors
help explain where and when belief in God has
declined around the world. For example, some research-
ers have argued that the declines in belief over the 20th
century can be explained by the corresponding
increases in IQ over this same period (Lynn etal.,
2009). Likewise, religiosity has tended to decline when
strong and predictable political systems dampen the
uncertainty and adversity in a society. The religiosity
of the United States, which is aberrantly high among
rich countries, has been attributed to the sense of eco-
nomic insecurity caused by its (relatively) laissez faire
economic policies (Norris & Inglehart, 2004).
Social factors
Finally—but critically—declines in belief are acceler-
ated by feedback loops with changing cultural norms.
In religious societies, people are socialized to believe
in God through communities that value and encourage
belief (Sherkat, 2003). This socialization, particularly
the religious behaviors of one’s community, appears to
be one of the strongest determinants of belief. Accord-
ing to Henrich (2009), humans evolved to be acutely
sensitive to credibility-enhancing displays in their ten-
dency to adopt beliefs. For example, claims that blue
mushrooms are not poisonous are more credible when
the claimant eats the mushrooms (Henrich, 2009). Con-
sistent with this theory, research has shown that the
more frequently children observe others not just pro-
fessing belief in God but engaging in religious credibility-
enhancing displays (such as volunteering for religious
organizations), the more likely these children are to
believe in God as adults (Lanman & Buhrmester, 2017).
Thus, once triggered, generational declines in belief in
God might gain momentum through a positive feedback
effect. Children of each generation are raised witness-
ing fewer displays of religious commitment than the
last, making them less likely to believe in God and less
likely to expose their own children to displays of com-
mitment (Willard & Cingl, 2017; see Fig. 1).
Limitations With the Literature
Though the past 5 years have seen remarkable progress
in the psychology underlying belief in God, a more
complete understanding of the phenomenon has been
hampered by significant limitations in interpreting what
is by far the primary source of data about beliefs in
God: self-reports.
The first issue derives from a Western and Abrahamic
bias in the psychology of religion. Efforts to conduct
research outside the monotheistic, Judeo-Christian reli-
gious traditions in North America and Europe are limited
not just by inconvenience and political restrictions (e.g.,
in China and several Muslim-majority countries) but also
by conceptual differences in the meaning of belief. That
is, methods of measuring belief in God that assume a
traditional Western conception of God may not be
appropriate for understanding the beliefs of people with
different conceptions of God (Höllinger & Eder, 2016).
These cultural variations in the meaning of belief are
rarely assessed (for a notable exception, see Bluemke,
Jong, Grevenstein, Mikloušic´, & Halberstadt, 2016). How
similar is an American Christian’s belief in a personal
God to the Vedic theistic beliefs in India or to ancestor
worship in China? Although someone from each country
may answer affirmatively to straightforward questions
Evolved Cognitive Biases
Cultural Evolution
Hypersensitive agency detection: Over-
perception of agency leads to the perception
that God is causing natural events.
Promiscuous teleology: Overperception of
purpose leads to attributions of divine purpose
in the world.
Mind–body dualism: Perceiving minds as
separate from bodies makes it easy to
conceive of disembodied supernatural
Belief in punitive, monitoring gods provided
a survival advantage by increasing in-group
cooperation, making these beliefs more
These beliefs were most likely to spread
when cooperation was important, such as in
societies with few resources, rights to
movable property, and high political
Socialization (+): People are more likely to believe in
God when this belief is valued and encouraged by their
Credibility-enhancing displays (+): Witnessing credible
displays of religious commitment increases the likelihood
of believing in God.
Loneliness (+): When lonely, people are more likely to
perceive agents, including God.
Mortality salience (+): Belief increases when death is salient.
Self-enhancement (+): In places where religion is
valued, a desire to see oneself positively motivates belief
in God.
Control (): Belief in a controlling God increases in
uncontrollable situations, allowing people to regain a
sense of control.
Analytical thinking style (): Analytical thinkers are less
likely to be influenced by the cognitive intuitions
contributing to belief in God.
Mentalizing (+): People more capable of mind reading
are more likely to perceive the existence of God.
Intelligence (): People with higher intelligence are
less likely to believe in God.
Proximate Factors
Ultimate Factors
Fig. 1. An overview of ultimate and proximate factors contributing to belief in God. On the right-hand side of the figure, a plus sign denotes that the factor increases the likeli-
hood of belief, whereas a minus sign denotes that the factor decreases the likelihood of belief.
Belief in God 5
about belief in “God” (if only to conform to Western
surveyors’ expectations), it remains unclear whether
these homogenous responses disguise psychologically
important differences.
Even in Western contexts, the continued evolution
of religion has led to widening conceptions of God,
which may not cleanly correspond to traditional beliefs.
For example, 30% of Europeans, including many self-
described “atheists,” report believing in a “spirit God or
vital life force” (Bréchon, 2007, p. 469). Should this
quasideism be defined as belief in God? Clearly, tradi-
tional methods are not fully capturing the scope and
meaning of belief in these contexts.
The other major challenge to the integrity of self-
report-based research on belief in God is that reports
may reflect self-presentation concerns as much as genu-
ine belief. Around the world, people show considerable
prejudice against nonbelievers (Gervais etal., 2017),
and majorities consider belief necessary for morality
(Pew Research Center, 2014). Thus, people may be
inclined to present themselves as more religious than
they truly are. Evidence of exaggeration in church
attendance supports this concern—as evidenced by
discrepancies between direct self-reports and head
counts (Hadaway, Marler, & Chaves, 1993) or time-use
diaries (Brenner, 2011). And though it is harder to con-
firm the veracity of people’s internal beliefs than their
behavior, research supports the idea that people are
indeed overreporting their belief in God. Survey tech-
niques that decrease socially desirable responding, such
as responding anonymously online rather than directly
to a live surveyor (Cox, Jones, & Navarro-Rivera, 2014)
or using the unmatched-count technique (Gervais &
Najle, 2018), suggest that rates of belief may be sub-
stantially lower than traditional methods have assumed.
The potential invalidity of self-reported belief calls
into question the interpretation of many findings within
the social scientific literature on religion. Consider
research that finds relationships between God beliefs
and any construct that might be misreported because
of social pressure (e.g., happiness, health, prosociality).
Any correlation between belief in God and (for exam-
ple) happiness may be the result not of a genuine
relationship between the two but of a third variable:
individual differences in people’s tendency to overre-
port levels of both. Furthermore, experimental studies—
including those discussed above—that show changes
in self-reported belief in God could very well be reveal-
ing changes in people’s willingness to admit their belief
rather than changes in belief itself.
These methodological questions should weigh heav-
ily on the field. The past 5 years have seen an expanding
body of research on belief in God; researchers should
devote some of the next 5 to tackling these critical chal-
lenges. Until we do, we will not fully understand the
extent, nature, or future of how belief in God factors
into our psychology and society.
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Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2004). (See References). A review
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Zuckerman, M., Silberman, J., & Hall, J. A. (2013). (See
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and theoretical discussion of the research examining the
relationship between intelligence and religiosity.
Action Editor
Randall W. Engle served as action editor for this article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared that there were no conflicts of interest
with respect to the authorship or the publication of this
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... Many scholars have done projects predicting supernatural beliefs and experiences. Some research has focused on relatively dynamic predictors, such as environmental characteristics and transient emotional and cognitive states (e.g., Miner and McKnight, 1999), whereas other studies have examined more stable factors, such as a person's social background, motivational characteristics, and r/s beliefs (e.g., Mercier et al., 2018). In the current project, our focus was broad and integrative. ...
... Of course, many variables predict supernatural engagement. Because any attempt at an exhaustive review is well beyond the scope of this paper, we refer interested readers to large surveys that highlight demographic and religious predictors (e.g., Bader et al., 2019;Baker, 2008;Lipka, 2019), studies looking at situational variables related to supernatural attributions (e.g., Barnes and Gibson, 2013;Lupfer et al., 1994;Wilt et al., 2019), and studies of relatively stable factors (e.g., socialization, motivations, beliefs) that may predispose people to supernatural engagement (e.g., Mercier et al., 2018;Weeks & Lupfer, 2000;Wilt, Stauner, et al., 2020). Another notable class of predictors that falls outside the focus of the current study includes cognitive variables that are related to reasoning about minds, such as ontological confusions (Lindeman et al., 2015), mentalizing deficits (Norenzayan et al., 2012), and teleological thinking (White et al., 2020). ...
We tested preregistered hypotheses (a) examining the structure of supernatural beliefs and perceived experiences and (b) predicting supernatural engagement from the Big Five and cognitive styles. Exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) of self-report data in the U.S. undergraduates (Study 1: n = 1,401; Study 2: n = 1,939) showed that beliefs and perceived experiences were characterized by two factors. Positive and Negative Agents factors related strongly to religious belief salience and were defined by God, the devil, angels, demons, and ghosts/spirits, whereas Forces and Spirits factors were unrelated to religious belief salience and were defined by fate/destiny, karma, and ghosts/spirits. Extraversion, conscientiousness, experiential processing, schizotypy, and dissociative tendencies related positively to supernatural engagement. With some nuances, agreeableness, neuroticism, and need for closure were positive predictors, whereas skepticism and analytical-rational processing were negative predictors. Openness and intellectual humility did not relate positively to supernatural engagement, contradicting expectations. Because the literature on individual differences predictors of supernatural engagement is not well integrated, these results may contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of this topic.
... First, it allowed us to test theory-driven predictions about the differences between locales and religions. More generally, it heeds the frequent, justified calls among psychologists of religion to expand on the often narrow focus on North American Christians, avoid treating religion as a monolith, and be more sensitive to between-religion and even between-denomination differences (Mercier et al., 2018;Norenzayan, 2016;Saroglou & Cohen, 2013). See Table 1 for sample sizes and demographics by study and population. ...
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Most humans believe in a god or gods, a belief that may promote prosociality toward coreligionists. A critical question is whether such enhanced prosociality is primarily parochial and confined to the religious ingroup or whether it extends to members of religious outgroups. To address this question, we conducted field and online experiments with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish adults in the Middle East, Fiji, and the United States (N = 4,753). Participants were given the opportunity to share money with anonymous strangers from different ethno-religious groups. We manipulated whether they were asked to think about their god before making their choice. Thinking about God increased giving by 11% (4.17% of the total stake), an increase that was extended equally to ingroup and outgroup members. This suggests that belief in a god or gods may facilitate intergroup cooperation, particularly in economic transactions, even in contexts with heightened intergroup tension.
... Las creencias sobre la existencia de uno o varios dioses ha sido un tema perdurable en la discusión de las sociedades debido a la variabilidad de posturas (que no sólo versan en decir si existen o no; también en quién o quiénes son y cómo se manifiestan), lo que representa un reto para la investigación en psicología con respecto a obtener evidencia contundente sobre sus distintos impactos en las conductas y los tratos interpersonales, evitando caer en interpretaciones sesgadas y en procesos de deseabilidad social de los propios investigadores (Mercier, Kramer, & Shariff, 2018). ...
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La psicología moral ha tenido avances científicos de suma relevancia para la psicología en general y ciencias afines. Se comparte un documento en español de los principales conocimientos existentes hasta la fecha (desde el punto de vista del autor) en torno al estudio psicológico de la moralidad.
... No matter how it is defined or experienced in our patients' and their families' lives, scholars have established that spirituality is important. Whether directly connected to an established religion or not, most people report believing in "God", a divine "Creator", or "Higher Power" (Culliford, 2002;Frame, 2000;Hart, 2008;Mercier et al., 2018). For some, participation in spiritual practices or religious rituals (individual-or community-prayer, meditation, gatherings, worship, etc.) is an everyday part of life. ...
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Efforts to honor and integrate patients’ and families’ spiritual beliefs and dispositions in biopsychosocial/spiritual care are well-worth the time, energy, and requisite resources that it takes to do so. In this account, the authors describe how targeted education and supervision with students and trainees can serve to promote preparatory knowledge, comfort, and skills toward including spiritual foci in their work. Purposeful assessments, care conversations, and interdisciplinary partnerships are described as advancing better clinical outcomes. Thoughtful strategizing around clinic- and hospital- operations and care structures are described as essential to better workflow and collegial collaborations. Careful attention to financial foci in care provision and team organization that support spiritual health are outlined as key to supporting cost-effectiveness. All of these things—taken together—are put forth as important to the inclusion of what is often and arguably one of the most neglected facets of patients’ and families’ experiences in care practices today.
Humans behave more prosocially toward ingroup (vs. outgroup) members. This preregistered research examined the influence of God concepts and memories of past behavior on prosociality toward outgroups. In Study 1 (n = 573), participants recalled their past kind or mean behavior (between-subjects) directed toward an outgroup. Subsequently, they completed a questionnaire assessing their views of God. Our dependent measure was the number of lottery entries given to another outgroup member. Participants who recalled their kind (vs. mean) behavior perceived God as more benevolent, which in turn predicted more generous allocation to the outgroup (vs. ingroup). Study 2 (n = 281) examined the causal relation by manipulating God concepts (benevolent vs. punitive). We found that not only recalling kind behaviors but perceiving God as benevolent increased outgroup generosity. The current research extends work on morality, religion, and intergroup relations by showing that benevolent God concepts and memories of past kind behaviors jointly increase outgroup generosity.
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Substantial research has demonstrated that the police are critical agents in dealing with the problem of DV and reducing its overall prevalence. The passage of the DV laws in Ghana and Nigeria made the police the primary agency to respond to DV: however, there is limited research on how police handle domestic violence in the two countries. This study, therefore, critically interrogated police intervention strategies in handling DV and their effectiveness in Ghana and Nigeria. In-depth interviews were conducted with 100 female victims of DV who have utilized police services and 30 police officers who handle DV cases. In addition, ethnographic observations were made in the police stations. The study found that arrest and detention, prosecution at the law court and the use of caution letters are the major conventional strategies used by the Ghana and Nigeria police to handle domestic violence. The two police institutions also adopted culturally sensitive approaches such as mediation, invitation letters and the use of minor punishment to deter offenders and potential offenders. There were a few variations in how the two police institutions handled domestic violence. The Ghana police utilized invisible arrest to preserve family relationships while the Nigeria police adopted naming and shaming of perpetrators to deter the public. The effectiveness of the interventions was mixed, depending on cultural acceptability, victims’ needs and impact on perpetrators. Police interventions emphasized punishments, and this often brought swift changes in offenders’ behavior but the changes were not sustainable.
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In this research study, we tested the hypothesis that a belief in a controlling God would be stronger when Korean society is perceived to be unequal versus equal. In addition, we expected this to be true because inequality would reduce the sense of personal control. We tested its mediating effect and considered prior personal attitude towards religion as a moderator for the exploratory analysis. The results showed that the experimental manipulation of perceived inequality had no effect on the belief in a controlling God or sense of control, but perceived inequality at the individual level negatively predicted both. The mediating effect of the sense of control was observed as predicted only for those with a prior attitude towards religion at the mean level or 1 standard deviation below the mean; the more severe they thought inequality to be, the lower the sense of control they experienced, which predicted increased belief in a controlling God. For those with a prior attitude towards religion 1 standard deviation above the mean, the perceived inequality negatively predicted the belief in a controlling God, independent of the sense of control. We discussed the differences between experimental manipulation and perceived inequality, as well as future research directions. 본 연구에서는 한국 사회가 불평등하다고 지각될 때 평등하다고 지각될 때에 비해 통제하는 신에 대한 믿음이 강하게 나타날 것이라는 가설을 검증하였다. 또한 이를 사회의 불평등이 개인의 통제감을 감소시키기 때문일 것으로 예상하여 통제감을 매개변인으로 설정하였고, 탐색적 목적으로 개인의 종교에 대한 사전 태도를 조절변인으로 설정하였다. 연구 결과 불평등 지각에 대한 실험 처치는 관심 변인에 별다른 영향을 미치지 못하였으나, 개인 수준의 불평등 인식은 통제하는 신에 대한 믿음과 통제감을 부적으로 예측하는 결과가 관찰되었다. 매개효과의 경우 종교에 대한 사전 태도가 평균 수준이거나 평균보다 1 표준편차 낮은 사람들에 한해서 가설과 일치하는 결과가 도출되었는데, 이들은 불평등이 심각하다고 인식할수록 낮은 통제감을 경험하는 것으로 나타났으며 이 낮은 통제감이 통제하는 신에 대한 믿음의 증가를 예측하였다. 종교에 대한 사전 태도가 1 표준편차 높은 사람들의 경우에는 통제감과 독립적으로 불평등 인식이 통제하는 신에 대한 믿음을 부적으로 예측하는 것으로 나타났다. 논의에서는 실험 처치와 불평등 인식 사이의 차이와 후속 연구 방향에 대해 논의하였다
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Strong reciprocity (SR) has recently been subject to heated debate. In this debate, the “West camp” (West et al. in Evol Hum Behav 32(4):231–262, 2011), which is critical of the case for SR, and the “Laland camp” (Laland et al. in Science, 334(6062):1512–1516, 2011, Biol Philos 28(5):719–745, 2013), which is sympathetic to the case of SR, seem to take diametrically opposed positions. The West camp criticizes advocates of SR for conflating proximate and ultimate causation. SR is said to be a proximate mechanism that is put forward by its advocates as an ultimate explanation of human cooperation. The West camp thus accuses advocates of SR for not heeding Mayr’s original distinction between ultimate and proximate causation. The Laland camp praises advocates of SR for revising Mayr’s distinction. Advocates of SR are said to replace Mayr’s uni-directional view on the relation between ultimate and proximate causes by the bi-directional one of reciprocal causation. The paper argues that both the West camp and the Laland camp misrepresent what advocates of SR are up to. The West camp is right that SR is a proximate cause of human cooperation. But rather than putting forward SR as an ultimate explanation, as the West camp argues, advocates of SR believe that SR itself is in need of ultimate explanation. Advocates of SR tend to take gene-culture co-evolutionary theory as the correct meta-theoretical framework for advancing ultimate explanations of SR. Appearances notwithstanding, gene-culture coevolutionary theory does not imply Laland et al.’s notion of reciprocal causation. “Reciprocal causation” suggests that proximate and ultimate causes interact simultaneously, while advocates of SR assume that they interact sequentially. I end by arguing that the best way to understand the debate is by disambiguating Mayr’s ultimate-proximate distinction. I propose to reserve “ultimate” and “proximate” for different sorts of explanations, and to use other terms for distinguishing different kinds of causes and different parts of the total causal chain producing behavior.
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Despite claims about the universality of religious belief, whether religiosity scales have the same meaning when administered inter-subjectively–or translated and applied cross-culturally–is currently unknown. Using the recent “Supernatural Belief Scale” (SBS), we present a primer on how to verify the strong assumptions of measurement invariance required in research on religion. A comparison of two independent samples, Croatians and New Zealanders, showed that, despite a sophisticated psychometric model, measurement invariance could be demonstrated for the SBS except for two noninvariant intercepts. We present a new approach for inspecting measurement invariance across self- and peer-reports as two dependent samples. Although supernatural beliefs may be hard to observe in others, the measurement model was fully invariant for Croatians and their nominated peers. The results not only establish, for the first time, a valid measure of religious supernatural belief across two groups of different language and culture, but also demonstrate a general invariance test for distinguishable dyad members nested within the same targets. More effort needs to be made to design and validate cross-culturally applicable measures of religiosity.
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Individual differences in the mere willingness to think analytically has been shown to predict religious disbelief. Recently, however, it has been argued that analytic thinkers are not actually less religious; rather, the putative association may be a result of religiosity typically being measured after analytic thinking (an order effect). In light of this possibility, we report four studies in which a negative correlation between religious belief and performance on analytic thinking measures is found when religious belief is measured in a separate session. We also performed a meta-analysis on all previously published studies on the topic along with our four new studies (N = 15,078, k = 31), focusing specifically on the association between performance on the Cognitive Reflection Test (the most widely used individual difference measure of analytic thinking) and religious belief. This meta-analysis revealed an overall negative correlation (r) of -.18, 95% CI [-.21, -.16]. Although this correlation is modest, self-identified atheists (N = 133) scored 18.7% higher than religiously affiliated individuals (N = 597) on a composite measure of analytic thinking administered across our four new studies (d = .72). Our results indicate that the association between analytic thinking and religious disbelief is not caused by a simple order effect. There is good evidence that atheists and agnostics are more reflective than religious believers.
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Cross-cultural comparative surveys have become an important tool to investigate social attitudes across different countries. However, this methodology is confronted with a number of challenges. One of the core problems is the functional equivalence of the concepts and indicators used. In this article, we study this problem in regard to the investigation of religiousness in three prominent surveys, the World Value Survey, the International Social Survey Programme, and the Religion Monitor. Our contribution starts with the fundamental question of the intercultural meaning of single items that are commonly used for the measurement of religiosity. From the comparison of the linguistic formulation of these items in different languages and across the three surveys, we obtain evidence of whether the concept of religiousness has the same meaning in different countries and to what extent the results depend on the formulation of the item. Subsequently, we use confirmatory factor analysis to test whether two religiousness scales derived from the International Social Survey Programme are structurally equivalent across countries. In the final step, we proceed to a substantive analysis, comparing religiousness scales from the three surveys in order to examine to what extent scales that claim to measure the same construct in fact produce similar results when applied to different countries. Our findings suggest that the paradigm of “asking the same questions” is difficult to apply and problematical with respect to some core indicators of individual religiousness and that questionnaires that are based on the Western concept of religion will lead to biased results when applied to worldwide cross-cultural comparison.
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Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups. To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers. We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship. Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists. Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.
Mounting evidence supports long-standing claims that religions can extend cooperative networks 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 . However, religious prosociality may have a strongly parochial component 5 . Moreover, aspects of religion may promote or exacerbate conflict with those outside a given religious group, promoting regional violence 10 , intergroup conflict 11 and tacit prejudice against non-believers 12 ,13 . Anti-atheist prejudice—a growing concern in increasingly secular societies 14 —affects employment, elections, family life and broader social inclusion 12 ,13 . Preliminary work in the United States suggests that anti-atheist prejudice stems, in part, from deeply rooted intuitions about religion’s putatively necessary role in morality. However, the cross-cultural prevalence and magnitude—as well as intracultural demographic stability—of such intuitions, as manifested in intuitive associations of immorality with atheists, remain unclear. Here, we quantify moral distrust of atheists by applying well-tested measures in a large global sample (N = 3,256; 13 diverse countries). Consistent with cultural evolutionary theories of religion and morality, people in most—but not all— of these countries viewed extreme moral violations as representative of atheists. Notably, anti-atheist prejudice was even evident among atheist participants around the world. The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries 15 , and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice. Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies.
One crucible for theories of religion is their ability to predict and explain the patterns of belief and disbelief. Yet, religious nonbelief is often heavily stigmatized, potentially leading many atheists to refrain from outing themselves even in anonymous polls. We used the unmatched count technique and Bayesian estimation to indirectly estimate atheist prevalence in two nationally representative samples of 2,000 U.S. adults apiece. Widely cited telephone polls (e.g., Gallup, Pew) suggest U.S. atheist prevalence of only 3–11%. In contrast, our most credible indirect estimate is 26% (albeit with considerable estimate and method uncertainty). Our data and model predict that atheist prevalence exceeds 11% with greater than .99 probability and exceeds 20% with roughly .8 probability. Prevalence estimates of 11% were even less credible than estimates of 40%, and all intermediate estimates were more credible. Some popular theoretical approaches to religious cognition may require heavy revision to accommodate actual levels of religious disbelief.
Several theoretical approaches have been proposed to explain variation in religiosity, including versions of secularization hypotheses, evolved cognitive biases, and cultural transmission. In this paper we test several theories that aim to explain variation in religiosity and compare them in a representative sample collected in the Czech Republic and Slovakia (N = 2022). These two countries represent a natural experiment in religiosity; despite their high level of historical, institutional and cultural similarity, their populations differ markedly in the rate of religious belief. We examine the predictive power of cognitive biases (anthropomorphism, dualism, teleology, mentalizing, and analytic thinking); institutional insecurity; and exposure to credibility displays of belief in childhood on various factors of religious belief. We find that individual differences in cognitive biases predicted 8% of the variance belief in God, but predicted 21% of the variance in paranormal beliefs and almost no variance in religious participation. Perceived institutional insecurity explains little variance in any of these variables, but cultural transmission, measured as exposure to Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs) and church attendance in childhood, predicted 17% of the variance in belief in God and 30% of religious participation, and mediated 70% of the difference between these two countries in belief in God and 80% of the difference in religious practice. These findings suggest cognitive biases may explain the existence of belief in the supernatural generally, but cultural transmission through credible belief displays is a more plausible explanation for why people adopt and maintain a specific set of religious beliefs and practices.
One of the central aims of the cognitive science of religion (CSR) is to explain why supernatural agent beliefs are so widespread. A related but distinct aim is to explain why some individuals hold supernatural agent beliefs but others do not. Here, we aim to provide an initial test of the power of exposure to what Henrich calls “credibility-enhancing displays” (or “CREDs”) in determining whether or not an individual holds explicit supernatural agent beliefs. We present evidence from two studies of Americans suggesting that exposure to CREDs, as measured by a scale we developed and validated, predicts current theism vs. non-theism, certainty of God's existence/non-existence, and religiosity while controlling for overall religious socialization. These results are among the first to empirically support the theorized significance of CREDs for the acquisition of supernatural agent beliefs.
Determining what percentage of a given society believes in God - or doesn't - is fraught with methodological hurdles. First: low response rates; most people do not respond to surveys, and response rates of lower than 50 percent cannot be generalized to the wider society. Second: nonrandom samples. If the sample is not randomly selected - that is, every member of the given population has an equal chance of being chosen - it is nongeneralizable. Third: adverse political/cultural climates. In totalitarian countries where atheism is governmentally promulgated and risks are present for citizens viewed as disloyal, individuals will be reluctant to admit that they do believe in God. Conversely, in societies where religion is enforced by the government and risks are present for citizens viewed as nonbelievers, individuals will be reluctant to admit that they don't believe in Allah, regardless of whether anonymity is “guaranteed. ” Even in democratic societies without governmental coercion, individuals often feel that it is necessary to say that are religious, simply because such a response is socially desirable or culturally appropriate. For example, the designation “atheist ” is stigmatized in many societies; even when people directly claim to not believe in God, they still eschew the self-designation of “atheist. ”