"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Religion can spur goodness—but it depends

Oct. 2, 2008
Courtesy University of British Columbia
and World Science staff

Be­lief in God en­cour­ages peo­ple to be help­ful, hon­est and gen­er­ous—but only when re­li­gious thoughts are fresh in their minds or when such be­hav­ior en­hances reputa­t­ion, re­search­ers say.

Be­lief in God en­cour­ages peo­ple to be help­ful, hon­est and gen­er­ous—but only when re­li­gious thoughts are fresh in their minds or when such be­hav­ior en­hances reputa­t­ion, re­search­ers say.

Those are the con­clu­sions of a study based on an anal­y­sis of re­search span­ning the past three dec­ades. The stu­dy, by Ara Noren­za­yan and Azim Shar­iff at the Uni­ver­s­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia in Can­a­da, appears in the Oct. 3 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence

The pa­per first re­views da­ta from an­thro­po­l­ogy, so­ci­ol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy and eco­nom­ics. The au­thors then ex­plore how re­li­gion, by en­cour­ag­ing coop­era­t­ion, con­tri­but­ed to the rise of large, sta­ble so­ci­eties of un­re­lat­ed in­di­vid­u­als.

Among the find­ings:
  • An­thro­po­log­i­cal da­ta sug­gests there is more coop­era­t­ion among re­li­gious so­ci­eties than oth­ers, es­pe­cially when group sur­viv­al is threat­ened.

  • Eco­nom­ic ex­pe­ri­ments in­di­cate that re­li­gios­ity in­creases trust among par­ti­ci­pants.

  • Psy­chol­o­gy ex­pe­ri­ments show that thoughts of an om­nis­cient, mor­ally con­cerned God re­duce lev­els of cheat­ing and self­ish be­hav­iour.

“Religiously-motivated ‘vir­tu­ous’ be­hav­iour has likely played a vi­tal so­cial role through­out his­to­ry,” said Shar­iff, a doc­tor­al stu­dent. “One rea­son we now have large, co­op­er­a­tive so­ci­eties may be that some as­pects of re­li­gion – such as out­sourc­ing costly so­cial polic­ing du­ties to all-pow­er­ful Gods – made so­ci­eties work more co­op­er­a­tively in the past.”

Across time, ob­serve the au­thors, the no­tion of an all-pow­er­ful, mor­ally con­cerned “big God” usu­ally be­gat “big groups” – large-scale, sta­ble so­ci­eties that suc­cess­fully passed on their cul­tur­al be­liefs. 

To­day, re­li­gion has no monopoly on kind­ness and gen­eros­ity, the re­search­ers not­ed: in many find­ings, non-be­liev­ers acted as help­fully as be­liev­ers. The last sev­er­al cen­turies have seen the rise of non-re­li­gious mech­a­nisms that in­clude ef­fec­tive polic­ing, courts and so­cial sur­veil­lance. “Some of the most co­op­er­a­tive mod­ern so­ci­eties are al­so the most sec­u­lar,” said Noren­za­yan. “Peo­ple have found oth­er ways to be co­op­er­a­tive – with­out God.”

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Belief in God encourages people to be helpful, honest and generous—but only when religious thoughts are fresh in their minds or when such behavior enhances reputation, researchers say. Those are the conclusions of a new study based on an analysis of research spanning the past three decades addressing the issue. The study, by Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff at the University of British Columbia in Canada, are published in the Oct. 3 issue of the research journal Science. The paper first reviews data from anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics. The authors then explore how religion, by encouraging cooperation, contributed to the rise of large, stable societies of unrelated individuals. Among the findings: Anthropological data suggests there is more cooperation among religious societies than others, especially when group survival is threatened. Economic experiments indicate that religiosity increases trust among participants. Psychology experiments show that thoughts of an omniscient, morally concerned God reduce levels of cheating and selfish behaviour. “Religiously-motivated ‘virtuous’ behaviour has likely played a vital social role throughout history,” said Shariff, a doctoral student. “One reason we now have large, cooperative societies may be that some aspects of religion – such as outsourcing costly social policing duties to all-powerful Gods – made societies work more cooperatively in the past.” Across time, observe the authors, the notion of an all-powerful, morally concerned “big God” usually begat “big groups” – large-scale, stable societies that successfully passed on their cultural beliefs. Today, religion has no monopoly on kindness and generosity, the researchers noted: in many findings, non-believers acted as helpfully as believers. The last several centuries have seen the rise of non-religious mechanisms that include effective policing, courts and social surveillance. “Some of the most cooperative modern societies are also the most secular,” said Norenzayan. “People have found other ways to be cooperative – without God.”