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The Ecology of Religious Beliefs

R Graphics Output
Global distribution of societies that exhibit beliefs in moralizing high gods (blue) or not (i.e., non-moralizing deities or atheism in red). The underlying map depicts the mean values of net primary productivity in gray scale. Darker localities reflect places with greater potential for overall plant growth.

If environment can affect the behavior of animals living in certain areas, then it’s not too far-fetched to imagine it has an impact on human beings as well. Cultures around the world have adapted their lifestyles to the environments in which they live. But does this environmental influence extend beyond just survival techniques to the ways in which societies organize their religious beliefs?

Carlos Botero, current postdoctoral fellow at the Initiative in Biocomplexity at NC State who will soon join Washington University as an assistant professor of biology, believes the answer may be “yes.”

Botero is part of a team from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) that studies cultural variations. While at a meeting with colleagues, Botero – whose specialty is evolutionary ecology – noticed something interesting about the way societies with a belief in a moralizing higher god (or gods) were distributed.

“We noticed that cultures in locations that experienced more ecological duress were more likely to demonstrate belief in a moralizing higher god,” Botero says. “By that we mean societies that believe in a deity or deities that directly influence moral behavior.”

Plotting the information on a map, Botero found that societies with moralizing higher gods tended to cluster in areas with less potential for plant growth (the blue dots). Cultures without belief in those types of deities or more atheistic societies tended to cluster in areas where the living was “easier,” climatologically speaking (the red dots). Using Botero’s original spatial distribution discovery as a jumping off point, the team created a model that looked at the effects environmental forces, language, history and culture may have on religious belief systems.

“The map we created is cultural, not geopolitical,” Botero cautions, “because belief systems can be transmitted in a number of ways across cultures – by diaspora, trade, or even warfare.”

Botero is quick to point out that this research is not attempting to find a deterministic relationship between environment and religion.

“While it is interesting to see these initial correlations, we know that human behavior is a complex mixture of social, cultural and environmental influences,” Botero says. “This study was a way for us to show that we can study human societies and behaviors in a measurable, scientific way.”

The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. NC State co-author Beth Gardner and a team of national and international researchers contributed to the work.