Are religions illogical by nature

In harsh environments the gods are strict

Religion as a means of survival: in which god one believes also depends on the climatic and ecological environmental conditions, as a study now shows. Accordingly, people in harsh environments tend to believe in overpowering gods with clear moral demands. But even societies that know private property and are politically more complex tend to have such strict deities, as researchers report in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.


In Christianity, Judaism and Islam there are clear commandments and an overpowering God. The moral guidelines by which the followers live are based on his commandments. But not all religions are so strongly influenced by a moralizing, strong God. Many indigenous peoples tend to believe in helpful spirits who inspire nature; in Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism, the focus is less on a strong, dominant god than on a whole host of gods or the pursuit of personal enlightenment.

Environment or just culture?

Why religions have developed so differently and which factors determine what people believe in has long been a concern of researchers from a wide variety of disciplines. As with other behaviors, it is often debated whether the natural environment or cultural influences have the stronger effect. “We wanted to ignore all of these biased views and look at all of the potential factors at once,” explains lead author Carlos Botero of North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

For their study, the researchers examined the beliefs of 583 societies from all regions of the world and compared them with the prevailing historical, social and ecological factors. In contrast to previous studies, they not only recorded rough estimates of ecological conditions, but also used high-resolution global data sets to obtain information on environmental factors such as plant growth, precipitation and temperatures. “After we had included as many other factors as we could, we wanted to know whether there was still an impact from the environment,” says Botero.

Harsh environment - stricter gods

The result: "When life is hard or uncertain, people believe in overpowering gods," reports Russell Gray from the University of Auckland. So it is no coincidence that Judaism and Islam both originated in the Middle East - in a region where drought and deserts made survival difficult before. In contrast, residents of the tropics and rainforests are less familiar with such strict religions.

"Although some aspects of religions may seem negative at first glance, the almost universal prevalence of such beliefs suggests that there must be an advantage," says Gray. In the case of harsh environments, this is relatively clear. Because according to current theory, the belief in a higher being who makes clear moral guidelines promotes cooperation within a society. "And prosocial behavior helps people survive in harsh and unpredictable environments," said Gray.

Property and Political Complexity

But: The study also shows that the environment is by no means everything. Instead, social and cultural factors also shape whether a culture believes in a strong, moral God. A politically complex society with different hierarchies and committees also promotes these forms of religion. Even societies that know private property and practice cattle breeding tend to be more strict deities, as the researchers report. From their results they developed a model with which they could use these factors with 91 ostentatious accuracy

“This results in an overall picture, according to which religion does not arise through purely cultural transmission, nor through simple ecological determinism,” said the researchers. “Instead, it arises from a combination of historical, social and ecological factors.” In her view, knowing these interactions and factors helps to understand the forces that have shaped and shaped the behavior of our species. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1408701111)

(National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), 11/11/2014 - NPO)

November 11, 2014