Religion is a human universal. For thousands of years, people have held religious beliefs and participated in religious rituals. Throughout history, every human society has featured some kind of supernatural or religious belief.
Why is religion so dominant? One reason is that it is a powerful tool for explanation.
The world is a mysterious place and was even more mysterious before the rise of modern science. Religion can be a way to understand this mystery. This idea goes back to theologians and philosophers such as Henry Drummond And Friedrich Nietzscheboth of whom supported the “God of the gaps” hypothesis, in which divine intervention by God is used to explain gaps in scientific knowledge.
For example, ancient Chinese and Korean societies looked to divine intervention to justify changing their rulers, while Egyptians, Aztecs, Celts and Tiv people used the will of gods to explain celestial cycles.
In today’s world, there are many American Christians viewed the COVID pandemic as a form of divine punishment.
But despite these specific examples, we know little about what kinds of phenomena people try to explain through religion. If religion helps us fill gaps in knowledge, what kind of gaps is it likely to fill?
Our international research team has been exploring this question for the past five years by examining ethnographies of societies around the world and throughout history.
We found societies are overwhelmingly more likely to have supernatural beliefs pertaining to “natural” phenomena, rather than “social” phenomena.
Read more: Rituals have been crucial to humans throughout history – and we still need them
Supernatural explanations for natural events
In total, our research sample included historical data from 114 different societies.
These ranged from nomadic hunter-gatherer groups in Africa (such as the ǃKung people), to fishing and horticultural societies of the Pacific Islands (such as people of the Trobriand Islands), to large “complex” societies with modern technology and written records (such as the Javanese, Malay and Turkish societies).
For each society, we read ethnographic texts and identified supernatural explanations that were widely believed by the people. We then identified the source of the statement.
We were particularly interested in whether supernatural explanations focused on “natural” phenomena – events that had no apparent human cause, such as disease, natural disasters and drought – or whether they focused on man-made “social” phenomena such as wars, murder and theft. .
We found explanations for all these different phenomena in our research. For example, the Cayapa people of the Ecuadorian rainforest attributed lightning, a natural phenomenon, to the thunder spirit, who carried a great sword that glittered when he used it in battle.
And the Comanche people of the great American plains explained the timing of war, a social phenomenon, using the dreams of medicine men.
However, our results also revealed a striking gap: supernatural explanations for natural phenomena were much more common than for social phenomena.
In fact, almost all of the societies we surveyed had supernatural explanations for natural phenomena such as disease (96%), natural disasters (92%), and drought (90%). Fewer had supernatural explanations for warfare (67%), murder (82%), and robbery (26%).
Supernatural beliefs evolve as societies grow
The worldwide prevalence of naturally-oriented supernatural explanations is one of the most striking findings from our research. It is partly surprising because today’s major religions such as Christianity and Islam are very social institutions.
Contemporary Christians rely on their religious beliefs as more of a social and moral compass than a way of understanding the weather. Similarly, the Bible attempts to explain a variety of social phenomena. The story of Cain and Abel explains the origins of murder, while the Book of Joshua explains the supernatural causes of the war that destroyed Jericho.
So how can we explain the contrast between supernatural explanations in contemporary Christianity and supernatural explanations in traditional societies, as told through historical records? One of our findings could provide a clue.
We found that societies develop more supernatural explanations for social phenomena as they grow in size and complexity. Societies more populous with currency and land transportation were more likely to explain events such as theft and warfare using supernatural principles than small hunter-gatherer and horticultural groups.
We cannot say for sure why this is so. It may be because people know and trust each other less in larger societies, and this translates into belief in witchcraft and wizardry. Or maybe people in larger complex societies are more concerned about things like warfare and theft, and are therefore more likely to develop supernatural explanations.
Intellectuals like Edward Tylor And David Hume thought that religious beliefs may have emerged as a means of explaining natural phenomena.
While our research cannot shed light on the origins of religion, it does confirm this idea. But apart from that, it also shows that societies are more likely to turn to religion to understand the social world as they get bigger and more complex.
Read more: In Japan, supernatural beliefs connect the spiritual realm to the earthly objects around us