Supernatural beliefs and the evolution of cooperation

Pierrick Bourrat, Hugo Viciana

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingOther chapter contributionpeer-review


Studies have found an association between the content of beliefs in the supernatural and increased cooperation in social groups. “High Moralizing Gods,” “fear of supernatural punishment,” and “supernatural monitoring” have been claimed to permit greater social cohesion through the specific epistemic engagement they produce in the minds of those who hold certain religious beliefs. However, the evolutionary pathways linking these religious features with cooperation remain unclear. Focusing on the example of belief in supernatural sanctioning, this chapter delineates different mechanisms by which beliefs in supernatural entities could, in principle, lead to greater cohesion and emphasizes the different predictions each evolutionary mechanism affords. It thus reassesses several studies that have been interpreted as supporting or as failing to support one or some of these cultural evolutionary processes. Finally, it proposes several avenues by which research addressing the link between cooperation and specific forms of belief in supernatural entities could be strengthened.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology and Religion
EditorsJames R. Liddle, Todd K. Shackelford
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780199397747
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Jun 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • prosociality
  • supernatural punishment
  • religious
  • belief
  • vigilance
  • adaptationism
  • cooperation
  • Big God
  • High God


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