Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Vengeful gods lead to global conquest?

Headline from the Washington Post (February 12, 2016): “Fear of a vengeful God may explain humanity’s global expansion”

Several thing here. First, and most trivially, god was spelled with a capital ‘G’ in the headline and throughout the article. I suspect that this was done so as not to offend sensitive monotheists. But more insidious are the dual implications that “humanity” refers to a singular kind of substance and that having this substance spread itself across the globe was a good thing.

Taken at face value the headline is tautology, obvious to anyone with an eighth grade public school understanding of world history. From the conquistadores to the Puritans, 16th century European colonial expansion into the new world is a tale of the exploits (literally) of vengeful god believers—with smallpox-packing missionaries thrust against indigenous resistance like psychological battering rams.

The story following the headline is about a psychology experiment finding that people whose religious beliefs include a vengeful, all-knowing god are less likely to cheat when playing a game in which their cheating could not be discovered. Basically, participants in the study played several rounds of a game in which they rolled a two-colored die in their head and put coins into cups depending on the imagined outcome. After a participant imagined rolling a die in their head, the experimenter told them what the randomly chosen color for that round was. If the color they imagined rolling “matched” the color the experimenter told them, they “won” that round and could put a coin in their own cup. If it mismatched, they lost and had to put a coin in the cup of an imagined distant person from their own religious community. Cheating was measured by the extent to which the coins were unequally distributed (in the person’s favor) after the game. Participants who believe in an omniscient god who would punish you for lying were less likely to put more coins into their own cup.

The researchers went from these results to the conclusion that this—the belief in an all-seeing and punishing god—explains the broad-based cooperation among strangers that is prerequisite for large-scale cultural expansion.

All-seeing sky-god = global conquest? Perhaps pushing the data just a bit.

Perhaps more problematic is the thought form that sees humanity as an entity capable of entering into cause and effect relationships. It wasn’t some abstract humanity that expanded itself around the globe. It was individual persons locked into potent and irresistible hierarchical power relations—relations imposed and enforced through lethal violence.

And while it is true that religion turns out to be an extremely useful tool for legitimizing these power relations, belief in an all-seeing deity with anger management problems hardly explains the African slave trade or the genocide of Indigenous Americans.


  1. To be pedantic for a bit, technically speaking, isn't God supposed to be capitalized since it's a proper noun? (When referring to a monotheistic deity known by that name, and not to what "species"(?) a deity is)

    1. Yes, true. But it is capitalized every time it occurs, even when it is not used as a proper noun:

      "Participants who believed in a moralistic and punishing God were about five times fairer to their distant “co-religionists” than participants who didn’t know whether their God was moralistic, the researchers found."