OK, I’ll trust you…if you think God is watching.

When this year’s Miss USA contestants responded to a question about the value of teaching evolution in public schools, one thing was clear: There is a raging debate between Religion and Evolution, and these women had firmly planted themselves on the Bible’s side.

However, the snag in this debate that the contestants didn’t quite seem to realize is that religion itself may actually owe quite a bit to evolution.

Psychologists have spent a good amount of time trying to understand religion. Why has it spread? Why is it in cultures all over the world? What, evolutionarily, is the reason why members of so many different societies believe in a supernatural force governing our world and our behavior?

Better To Think “Wolf” Than “Wind.”

One prevailing evolutionary account is called overactive agency detection. Imagine that you are alone in the woods, when you hear a rustle in the bushes. Quick! What do you think is there? You can assume that the rustle is due to something living (like a wolf or a bear), or you can assume that it was merely the wind.

If you assume that it was the wolf when it was really just the wind, you may have gotten all worked up for nothing, but by and large, everything turns out okay. However, if you assume it was the wind when it was really a wolf, you may become the unsuspecting victim of a surprise bush-attack. Some psychologists believe that this disparity in the severity of potential outcomes led humans to develop an overactive agency detector, or a bias towards assuming that ambiguous environmental stimuli have thoughts, feelings, and goals. Like, for example, thoughts about killing us, feelings of hunger, and the goal of turning us into supper. According to this logic, we have evolved to see agency everywhere as a safety precaution. What does this have to do with religion? Well, when there is a fatal car crash, was it a tragic accident or was it the act of a God who has a higher plan?

Was it a wolf or was it the wind?

Is God Looking Over Your Shoulder?

The overactive agency detector theory explains why we might see the will of an agentic God everywhere we look, but it doesn’t quite answer questions about why religion motivates people to act prosocially (or altruistically). The “cultural evolutionary” approach claims that religion encourages humans to cooperate and form cohesive groups, and these prosocial behaviors are culturally transmitted, passed down from generation to generation in order to effectively promote survival. If you are religious, others know that you can be trusted, and they help you out more. This could mean that you get more food, more resources, and more mates — all important things that promote your (and your kin’s) survival.

But why exactly does religion mean that you can be trusted? And what does it then mean if you’re not religious?

Research shows a good reason why religion is associated with trust; there is a clear link between a belief in God and moral, trustworthy behavior. But it’s not merely believing in God that matters. When it comes down to it, people who believe in an angry, unforgiving God that is apt to punish transgressors are far less likely to do things like cheat when given the opportunity; those who believed in a kind, loving God don’t show that same restraint. If you think that God is watching and that God is willing to punish you harshly, you adjust your behavior accordingly. In other words, you act like a more trustworthy, honest person.

What About The Atheists?

It’s no secret that as a group of people, atheists are quite strongly disliked. Of course, atheists are not the only stereotypically “disliked” group in many modern-day societies, and the bases for most of these prejudices are as widely varied as the groups themselves. For example, we already know from previous research that the root of anti-homosexual prejudice is based in disgust. However, as Will Gervais and colleagues hypothesized in a recent study, based on the cultural evolutionary view of religion, anti-atheist prejudice should be rooted in a deep sense of distrust. If the evolutionary account of religion is to be believed — that is, if religion is actually “transmitted” as a means of keeping people’s behavior in check — then the real problem with atheists should be a question of whether or not they can be trusted if, by definition, they aren’t worried about God’s watchful, vengeful eye.

In effect, this is exactly what the researchers found. When compared with gay men, anti-atheist prejudice was motivated much more by distrust. Moreover, the relation between people’s belief in God and their subsequent distrust of atheists was fully explained by one belief connecting both ideas: The more that people believed in God, the less they trusted atheists…because the more likely they were to believe that people simply behave better when they feel that God is watching. Belief in God (and distrust of non-believers) is “transmitted” from generation to generation as a protective means of ensuring that you are acting appropriately and trusting people who are motivated to do the same. This is the cultural-evolutionary argument for religion.

Far be it from me to lecture pageant contestants on the irony of their arguments…but when it comes down to it, a vote for religious belief could be thought of as a vote for evolution.


Shariff, Azim, & Norenzayan, Ara (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.

Gervais WM, Shariff AF, & Norenzayan A (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (6), 1189-206 PMID: 22059841

This post has been submitted to the NESCent Blog Contest to win one of two travel awards to the ScienceOnline2012 conference. To echo a similar sentiment from another nominee, I think it would be very funny if a post about religion won a prize for evolution-themed blogging. Wish me luck!

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One response to “OK, I’ll trust you…if you think God is watching.

  1. Awesome post! I will keep an on eye on your blog.

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