God Is Watching You

How the Fear of God Makes Us Human

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Dominic Johnson
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Dominic Johnson’s book, God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human, makes a compelling case for the psychological “naturalness” of belief in supernatural punishment. Integrating evidence from evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, and economics, Johnson persuasively argues for the universality of belief in supernatural punishment across historical time.

Human psychology seems inherently amenable to holding supernatural beliefs. Features of our evolved psychology have made us sensitive to the idea of being watched and punished for our actions. And there is little doubt that religion, whether a product of cultural or biological evolution, is one of several potential solutions to the problem of large-scale cooperation, which Johnson and others have persuasively argued becomes more complex and difficult to solve with massive, increasingly anonymous, and competing groups. The contributions of cause and effect reasoning, pattern detection, theory of mind, belief in a just world, mind-body dualism, and high fidelity imitation to religious beliefs and behaviors have been well documented. And there is widespread consensus among scholars of the cognitive science of religion that the common patterns of religion are indeed no accident. Here the empirical foundation for his argument is firm.

The psychological “building blocks” of religion are exceptionally salient to the human mind. So salient in fact, that it is tempting to posit evolved design features specifically for religious belief. This is the point of departure for Johnson from previous work on the evolution of religion. His provocative claim is that supernatural punishment is not an accidental byproduct of evolution, but is instead an adaptive tool favored by natural selection.

Johnson may be right about this, but the evidence needed to support this is less strong than he suggests. The cognitive psychological infrastructure that supports religious beliefs and behavior is indeed deeply entrenched in our psychological design. The crucial question is what kind of evidence would be needed to demonstrate that fear of supernatural punishment is a biological adaptation? One kind of persuasive evidence for this claim could come from research on children’s religious cognition. A large literature has been produced based on the claim that young children are “born believers” or prepared to reason about specifically supernatural agents. Yet there is little empirical support for this claim. Whereas there is overwhelming evidence that we are prepared to think about the minds of other humans, cognitive scientists have shown that we struggle a great deal to reason about supernatural minds. In fact, when asked to reason about omniscient minds, we make errors consistent with the use of human minds as the basis for reasoning about supernatural minds.

Our struggle to imagine the supernatural mind is at the core of the potential efficacy of an all-powerful, all-knowing punisher. I am persuaded by the argument that God would be an ideal punisher, and that belief in a supernatural agent of that sort would be an optimal solution to problems of cooperation, hypothetically superior to secular punishment. It is hard to compete with the unlimited power of a deity.

But unlimited power and knowledge is unimaginable to human minds. So is an eternity. There is nothing psychologically natural about reasoning about superhuman powers. If we were better able to imagine these concepts, God might be much more effective as a punisher. Steven Pinker’s example of the spike in crime in Montreal in the late 1960s following a police strike provides a compelling example of how removing the threat of secular punishment increases selfish behavior. I could not help but wonder why the largely Catholic population of Montreal, well versed in the threat of eternal damnation as punishment for sin, was not better behaved under those circumstances.

Ultimately, the question of whether the fear of supernatural punishment is an evolved psychological adaptation is an empirical one. It will require pitting it against the dominant theory—that religious beliefs of this sort are byproducts of other evolved mechanisms—in critical tests.

Although the final word is not in, Johnson’s engaging, wide ranging, and fascinating book has done the field a service. These are exciting times to be a scholar of religion and the future promises many new insights into this core feature of human cognition and culture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cristine Legare is Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dominic Johnson received a D.Phil. from Oxford University in evolutionary biology, and a Ph.D. from Geneva University in political science. Drawing on both disciplines, he is interested in how new research on evolution and human nature is challenging traditional understandings of international relations, conflict, cooperation and religion. He is the author of numerous scientific journal articles, as well as Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions (2004) and, with Dominic Tierney, Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (2006). For more information see www.dominicdpjohnson.com.



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