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Living in Tough Environments Makes People More Prone to Belief in God

People living in harsh natural environments are more likely to believe in a tough, moralizing god

(Photo: Michael S. Yamashita/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Human societies have evolved, over the course of millenia, thousands of forms of spiritual beliefs. Some worship nature; others a single all-powerful deity. For years, anthropologists, evolutionary ecologists and other scientists have puzzled over why these beliefs arose when and where they did, the Washington Post writes; recent research has shown that religious belief gives people an edge on survival—especially if they believe in moralizing deities who impose laws on human behavior. According to a new paper, however, there's likely more to the story than this.

The authors of the new study agree that religion rose out of necessity, but they point out that the degree of necessity was not evenly distributed across the planet. Instead, people living in harsher places—where the rain came only occasionally, where winters were cold, dark and long, where natural disasters swept through—were more prone to adopt religion, the authors found. Nature's randomness and harshness, in other words, might have shaped what kind of religion people adopted.

To arrive at these findings, the authors examined the details of nearly 600 religious belief systems that were collected from traditional societies around the world and compiled in the early 20th century, the Washington Post describes. Then, they overlaid those data with that of each culture's environment—they looked at factors such as temperature, rainfall, proneness to natural disasters and resource availability. They controlled for factors such as language, politics and agriculture. 

The harsher the environment, they found, the more likely the culture believed in a moralizing god. Moreover, the team's model was able to predict with 90 percent accuracy what type of belief system a culture would follow, given its characteristics and the surrounding environment, the Washington Post continues. The authors —one of whom is a religious studies scholar—told the Washington Post that they believe that the study and its findings are "a nice example of how science and religion can actually live together and explore joint interests without any animosity."

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