How Hardship Affects Religious Belief

People living in harsh times embrace high gods, researchers say
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 10, 2014 8:00 PM CST
Harsh Lands Create Religious Belief
A Sudanese Muslim boy prays in front of a mosque near Khartoum, Sudan, on April 10, 2010.   (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Living under harsh conditions like extreme weather or food scarcity? Then you're more likely to believe in powerful, judgmental gods, according to a new study. A group of researchers from various fields reached their conclusion after synthesizing historical data from 583 societies around the world, reports. "When life is tough or when it's uncertain, people believe in big gods," says study co-author Russell Gray, who adds that religion may help people come together and beat the odds. If true, the Guardian says, this could explain the rise of Christianity and Islam in regions plagued by famine and dire climatic changes. But there's more: The researchers also sought links between religion and other factors, like politics and farming.

Sure enough, the study found that societies with "political complexity" (a hierarchy of figures outside the local community) and animal husbandry often believe in high gods who impose a moral code. In the end, researchers could match societies to their religious beliefs with 91% accuracy, the Washington Post reports. The findings also overlap with research showing that religion brings people together after a disaster like an earthquake, or that societies facing dire threats tend to restrict people's behavior. But studies until now have tried explaining religion either by environmental or cultural factors—not both. Gray also separates himself from "evolutionists ... trying to bang religion on the head," he says. "I think the challenge is to explain it." (For more on religion, read about the Mormons' "sacred undergarments.")

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