Supernatural Punishment Theory: History Free Zone?

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 constituted 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.


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

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4 thoughts on “Supernatural Punishment Theory: History Free Zone?

  1. admin Post author

    Thanks John — the Rodney Stark paper is 2001 — the pdf is here.

    I just looked at your blog and am wondering how I have missed it. Quite odd. I will be linking to you.

  2. Craig

    Haven’t seen that Stark paper before; downloaded and added it to my reading list. Thanks!

    I tend to say that the cultural tools we find in religious traditions CAN be used to reinforce moral norms, but not that they necessarily do. I might need even more qualifications …

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