For several groups of fundamentalist Christians in the United States and South Korea, the Covid-19 pandemic was clearly a sign of the advent of the apocalypse. Some evangelicals saw the SARS-CoV-2 as more than just a virus from the Coronaviridae family related to previous pathogens that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome. For them, it was a punishment from God. A warning of the second coming of Jesus. Even though science has narrowed the space for these types of beliefs, they are still there: an ethnographic study of a hundred different societies confirms that, when humans can’t make sense of a phenomenon, we tend to look for a supernatural explanation.
A group of scientists compiled ethnographic information from 114 societies on five continents. They were particularly interested in non-Western, less globalized cultures; although most had a simple structure, as in the case of the Apaches or the Yanomami, they also included cases of great social complexity, such as ancient Rome, the Aztecs and the Turkish civilization. They hardly used any European examples because they wanted their sample to be as diverse as possible, so that each society that they sampled had a different religious tradition and little contact with other societies; most European societies in the ethnographic record were Christian and had extensive contact through trade and warfare, explains Joshua Jackson, from Northwestern University, lead author of the study.
The results of their work, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, show that all but one of the societies analyzed have extraordinary explanations for ordinary events. The only exception is the Burusho, made up of barely 90,000 people who live scattered among the villages of the mountains of northern Pakistan. Although they were Islamized 300 years ago, they preserve their previous traditions, and their legends say that they come from soldiers of Alexander the Great. The researchers cannot say why this group did not have supernatural explanations, Jackson explains, because there is hardly any ethnographic data on them. He speculates that the ethnographer probably simply chose not to describe the religion of the Buruso people, and does not rule out the possibility of them, too, having supernatural explanations.
In all societies, 96% of cultures attribute a supernatural origin to disease (either all or some of them). Famines and food shortages caused by bad harvests or plagues would also have supernatural agents in 92% of cases. Other natural disasters remain at 90%.
To the authors of the study, one particular finding stands out: when it comes to social phenomena (such as robberies, murders or wars), the supernatural explanation is less recurrent. Thus, even though peoples such as the Comanche planned their wars around the predictions of the tribal sorcerer, only 67% of the societies in the sample seek a divine cause for human wars. In the case of theft, the percentage drops to 26%. Only with murder the supernatural reappears as the dominant explanation, with 82%.
“Our research suggests that the tendency to explain phenomena using supernatural explanations is part of the human condition,” Jackson says. “Actually, this idea goes back to scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin, David Hume and Edward Tylor, who suggested that humans have a basic tendency to explain the phenomena of the world with some kind of anthropomorphic force. When something (a plague or a storm) has no clear human cause, people can turn to supernatural agents such as gods or spirits,” he adds. This could also explain the difference between natural and social events. “Social phenomena usually have clear human causes, so we are less likely to invoke a supernatural agency.”
The research also found that the degree of social complexity affected the weight of supernatural explanations. In all societies, the divine or magical presence is greater in the case of droughts, lightning or other disasters, than when it comes to robberies or wars. But as human groups become larger and acquire a wider social stratification and more socioeconomic development, the distance between them decreases.
The authors of the paper are not clear about the reason behind this. In their conclusions, they mention several possibilities: “Larger and more complex groups involve more anonymity than smaller groups, with a greater share of weak ties, social uncertainty and distrust, [which] could increase people’s likelihood of explaining negative social events using supernatural forces such as witchcraft, possession and evil eye.” Another possibility is that in larger complex societies, problems such as theft or war are a bigger concern, and they are more likely to come up with supernatural explanations for these phenomena.
The reason behind the low percentage of supernatural justifications for theft is not clear to the authors, either. In the paper, they point to a connection between religion and death that should be researched further. While the other five natural or social events that they studied cause death, stealing does not necessarily imply murdering the victim. In their conclusions, the researchers assert that, regardless of the reason, the focus of the religious beliefs shifts as societies grow, with people being more likely to resort to them to make sense of the social world, rather than only to the natural world.
Joseph Watts, from the Centre for Research on Evolution, Belief and Behaviour at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, a co-author of the study, points out that their results are consistent “with the position that religious systems help cover the gaps left by human knowledge, which is known as the God of the gaps hypothesis.” This is a two-sided idea: for theologians, it means that all that science cannot answer is proof of the existence of a superior being. For scientists, it shows our natural tendency to explain what at the moment has no explanation. Watts points out: “In particular, our results suggest that people resort to the supernatural to explain the parts of the world where it is difficult to identify the responsible agents. This is based on the bias of the humans, who need events to happen for a reason and to attribute intention to inanimate processes and events.”
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