The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 18 No. 7 • November 2015

Why Religions Tend to Have Punishing Gods: Public Goods Games May Reveal Part of the Reason

by Sandy Shaw and Durk Pearson

A “new” hypothesis to explain the success of the major religions posits that belief in judgmental gods that punish those who violate social norms have been a key to the cooperation needed to build and sustain large complex human societies (Wade, 2015).

The major successful religions tend to have punishing gods. Why might this be? The results of some public goods games on what humans are willing to contribute to the punishment of bad guys may help elucidate the source of this preference for punishing gods.

Some experiments have shown that a phenomenon called altruistic punishment is a form of human behavior, in which people have been shown to be willing to pay to punish bad guys (those who do not comply with social norms) by donating resources to their punishment even when it costs the donors more than they get back in benefits to themselves (e.g., their contribution acts as a public good by providing benefits to anyone whether they donate to the funding of the punishment or not). This could help to explain at least in part why people are willing to pay tithes to religions with punishing gods, even when they themselves do not benefit any more than those who do not pay such tithes. (Part of the reason for donating tithes may be a hope of getting into heaven. This reward would, if realized, be a privatized benefit rather than a public good.)

It appears that punishing bad guys is a strong motivation that supports altruistic punishment by inducing humans to pay to punish even when it costs them more than they can get back for their own individual benefit. Hence, punishing gods may be a mechanism by which humans seek to enforce cooperation with respect to social norms. The fact that religions with punishing gods have done so well indicates that they have been successful (so far) in this. However, some major religions evoke cooperation among their believers for the enforcement of social norms that differ from the social norms of other religions, leading to a sort of war of punishing gods as we see now in extreme Islam versus Christianity or Judaism.

During the fall of the ancient Grecian civilization, there was a veritable war of the gods, with polytheism where people chose sides by supporting various gods. Once again, we see a similar result from the loss of faith in central government as the instrument of punishment. Perhaps a war of punishing gods in religions is something like the war for power between different governments or even parts of governments such as we see now in the declining stages of Western governments. And notice how these different parts of government are moving more and more in the direction of punishing regimes of regulatory rules and regulations, with EPA, FDA, and NSA as particularly dangerous examples in the United States. The rapidly increasing sizes of “fines” for supposedly bad behavior is an example of where these agencies are heading.

When, in the Middle Ages, people lost the ability to believe in organized religion due to factors such as widespread corruption (with religions selling absolutions, you didn’t have to be good to get a ticket to heaven, etc.), it caused a major breakdown in civil order. You couldn’t trust God to be doing His job of punishing bad people. The disastrous result we suspect would be more violence as people looked to secular processes to do the punishing. This was finally resolved by the Reformation and Martin Luther to (some extent) restore God back to do the punishment.

The design of the American Republic with its innovative Constitution represented a form of restoration of government from an increasingly incoherent/punishing European model. Now we have an increasingly incoherent/punishing model for both European and American governments, so where this is going to end up and what will glue things back together into something coherent is impossible to predict from our current situation. John Galt isn’t going to do it; we think his imagination was too limited and nobody on the scene looks like John Galt, anyway. Donald Trump could, I suppose, be John Galt with severely limited long-term principles, but with the frank talk and honest depiction of the bad guys (other than himself) that we expect from Mr. Galt. In this new rendering, Mr. Galt’s inventive genius is applied to the benefit of Mr. Galt, while appearing to be (by Mr. Trump’s telling) on the side of everybody else, too. The occasional seizure of an old lady’s house by Mr. Trump to build a Trump superstructure has to be (suspend your disbelief) to the benefit of the overall society by adding a fabulous superstructure (a limousine parking lot for the Trump casino in Atlantic City, for example) to improve economic conditions, offer jobs, etc. It wouldn’t quite make the cut for John Galt, though. In fact, such behavior (seizing people’s houses for your own benefit) fits the pattern of a sociopath.

The very fact that people are turning to somebody like Trump indicates, as we see it, that at least some people are looking for that individual who will represent their desire for a punishing State, a really bad sign for the possible appearance of somebody like Hitler or Lenin. But the rise of Trump also suggests, we think, that people are looking for somebody who can restore a coherent punishing function of the government, when their faith in the extant government as the effective punishing agent is collapsing. A good model is the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the emergence of Naziism in Germany.

A good friend of ours suggested that this need for a punishing state is a defect in human intelligence, perhaps a fatal flaw. We have to agree. If people living in a large political entity cannot learn how to live together without having a Big Brother government forcing people to follow His rapidly increasing numbers of rules and regulations or be severely punished, what sort of future can Homo sapiens have?

One solution is to decentralize—reduce the sizes of political entities. Fifty states offer a lot more opportunity to find congenial rules and regulations than one giant superstate. That’s why the Founders designed the Constitution as they did. The passage of the 17th Amendment was a severe blow to that design as it eliminated the Senate as a body that represented the interests of the fifty states; after its passage, the entire Congress served the federal government. Federalism was given a mortal injury and we see the results today with ever increasing federal hegemony over the states. States aren’t perfect, but a choice of 50 as compared to one federal government ain’t chicken feed, either.


  • Fehr & Gachter. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature. 415:137-40 (2002).
  • Fowler, Johnson, Smirnov. Egalitarian motive and altruistic punishment. Nature. 433:E1-E2 (2004).
  • Wade. Birth of the moralizing gods. Science. 349:919-22 (2015).

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