Supernatural, religious and mythical beliefs are a normal part of human culture.
In every society, for as long as human history has been recorded, people have explained all manner of phenomena in the world by way of divine intervention or some supernatural agenda.
Ancient societies believed they had to sacrifice innocent people to please gods to bring rain, while today, some people blame natural disasters on the perceived moral indiscretions of their peers. Why do we do this?
God of the Gaps Idea
Scientists, philosophers and theologians have asked themselves this question, with some arriving at the “god of the gaps” hypothesis.
The basic idea is that people tend to infer supernatural explanations to phenomena they don’t understand.
On one hand, this can suggest that people tend to let go of their supernatural belief about something when science is able to explain certain phenomena. However, another interpretation suggests people resort to supernatural explanations when a phenomenon has ambiguous or undefined causal agents.
Social vs. Natural Supernatural Events
Along this line of reasoning, a group of psychologists asked if, across human societies, people were more likely to invoke supernatural explanations for naturally occurring phenomena or for socially occurring phenomena.
Researchers thought people might be more likely to use supernatural explanations for natural events (such as weather incidents or natural disasters) as opposed to social events (like theft or murder). That’s because there's often a clear causal agent in the social cases, whereas natural events typically lack a single force we can point a finger at.
“People tend to assign responsibility to intentional agents when events occur, and are more likely to turn to divine intervention when there is no one to blame,” says co-author of the study Danica Dillion, a specialist in moral psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Read More: The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods
Dillion and colleagues analyzed ethnographic texts from 114 historical societies, including nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, fishing and horticultural societies and large societies with cities.
Based on descriptions in these texts, the researchers determined whether supernatural explanations were absent, uncommon or common for different types of phenomena that fit into either a natural or a social category.
Researchers defined “supernatural explanations” as the attribution of an event to supernatural processes.
“Most supernatural explanations were attributed to the actions of supernatural agents like gods, ancestor spirits and human magical practitioners. And some were attributed to supernatural forces like karma and the evil eye,” says Dillion.
For Dillion and her colleagues, the results weren’t surprising: Overall, supernatural explanations were more prevalent for natural rather than for social phenomena. “Our results suggest that when events lack clear agents, people fill this gap with supernatural agency,” she says.
The results are consistent with previous research which shows that people often anthropomorphize natural phenomena and events, and imbue the natural world with an agenda as if it is a conscious agent (for example, "the Universe is against me today").
Cognitive Psychology and the Supernatural
Research by psychologist Jesse Bering has suggested this tendency is due to the overextension of our theory of mind capacities.
This means that our psychology is geared to exist in social environments, which often results in rationalizing events by attributing them to a conscious agent.
Human beings thrive in collectives, and as such, people appear to be highly sensitive to detecting agents in their environment, likely because we devote so much of our energy and resources to understanding the motivations of other people.
“Consistent with this idea, we find that supernatural explanations are more common for events that lack clearly responsible agents, such as sudden storms, or unexpected murders in larger and more anonymous communities,” Dillion says.
Believing in the Supernatural
Researchers also found that societies with higher social complexity were more likely to deploy supernatural explanations for social phenomena than societies with lower social complexity.
Dillion thinks that supernatural explanations may be more common in larger, urban societies because it's harder to discern the causal agents of social incidents in societies with more complex social webs.
“The more people there are to keep track of, the tougher it becomes to understand individual motives. In cases of murder or theft in more urbanized societies, the culprit is more likely to stay anonymous than in smaller communities where everyone is familiar with each other,” Dillion says.
The findings support a growing body of research that places our evolved social psychology at the heart of our beliefs in religion and the supernatural.