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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Supernatural Explanations Across the Globe Are More Common for Natural Than Social Phenomena

Jackson, J. C., et al.
(2021, September 2).


Supernatural beliefs are common in every human society, and people frequently invoke the supernatural to explain natural (e.g., storms, disease outbreaks) and social (e.g., murder, warfare) events. However, evolutionary and psychological theories of religion raise competing hypotheses about whether supernatural explanations should more commonly focus on natural or social phenomena. Here we test these hypotheses with a global analysis of supernatural explanations in 109 geographically and culturally diverse societies. We find that supernatural explanations are more prevalent for natural phenomena than for social phenomena, an effect that generalizes across regions and subsistence styles and cannot be reduced to the frequency of natural vs. social phenomena or common cultural ancestry. We also find that supernatural explanations of social phenomena only occur in societies that also have supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. This evidence is consistent with theories that ground the origin of supernatural belief in a human tendency to perceive intent and agency in nature.


Religious beliefs are prevalent in virtually every human society, and may even predate anatomically modern humans. The widespread prevalence of supernatural explanations suggests that explanation is a core property of religious beliefs, and humans may have long used religious beliefs to explain aspects of their natural and social worlds. However, there has never been a worldwide survey of supernatural explanations, which has been a barrier to understanding the most frequent ways that people use religious belief as a tool for explanation. 

We use a global analysis of societies in the ethnographic record to show that humans are more likely to use supernatural explanations to explain natural phenomena versus social phenomena. Across all world regions and subsistence styles, societies were more likely to attribute natural events like famine and disease to supernatural causes compared to social events such as warfare and murder. This prevalence gap could not be explained by the frequency of phenomena in our analysis (i.e., that disease outbreaks occurred more frequently than warfare).