Big and Small Gods

Religious and supernatural beliefs are nearly universal across societies. While the belief systems vary in their specific tenets, they range from belief systems that include a moralizing high God to much more decentralized belief systems that feature ancestors, witchcraft, and sorcery. Understanding the origins and effects of these various belief systems for individual and group level outcomes is of great interest in many disciplines, including increasingly in economics. I highlight a few papers in this space that explore the effects of these different religious and supernatural belief systems.

Big Gods and Cooperative Behavior

A compelling hypothesis is that monotheistic religions with moralizing high Gods – e.g. “Big God” religions like Christianity and Islam – help increase cooperation in a society (Norenzayan, 2013). Moralizing high Gods, through their ability to monitor behavior and punish those who behave badly, may have allowed for the transition from small tight-knit societies to large scale societies. Norenzayan et al. (2016) develop a cultural evolutionary model to illustrate how so-called pro-social religions can increase cooperation with co-religionists, and in the context of intergroup competition, make a group more successful. The potential downsides of this are highlighted by Skali (2017), who finds that greater belief in moralizing Gods is associated with greater conflict prevalence and causalities in Africa. He suggests that this is evidence that moralizing Gods help solve collective action problems, such as organizing to engage in intergroup conflict.

Religion, Insurance, and Risk Taking

Aside from the effects at a societal level, belief in moralizing Gods may also affect individual behavior. For example, Auriol et al. (2020) explore how religious institutions may serve as a form of insurance in the context of a Pentecostal church in Accra, Ghana. The authors randomize access to formal insurance policies to examine how access to formal insurance affects giving in a dictator game with the church, with a secular charity, and with a national-wide prayer event. The authors find that enrollment in formal insurance reduces giving in a dictator game with the church and with other recipients relative to individuals who just receive information on the insurance. The authors interpret the finding that giving to all recipients is reduced as consistent with a view that participants believe God provides insurance in response to good behavior. This is contrast to an alternative potential mechanism in which participants are less in need of access to community and Church resources once they receive formal insurance.

In a related paper, Auriol et al. (2021) examine how religious beliefs affect individual risk-taking behavior in Haiti. Participants in a lab experiment completed a series of lotteries. They are given the choice of paying to play the lotteries in the presence of a religious image (Catholic, Protestant or Vodoo). Those who choose to pay for an image take more risks in the lotteries, consistent with the individuals believing in an interventionist God who will improve their chances of winning.

Small Gods, Witchcraft, and Sorcery

While monotheistic religions tend to be the focus of much research on the effects of religion, there are many other diverse belief systems that include ancestors, witchcraft and sorcery. Often, these are characterized by amoral supernatural agents, in contrast to moralizing Big Gods. The effects of these other belief systems are relatively underexplored in economics. An exception is work by Gershman (2016), who examines the relationship between belief in witchcraft and trust in sub-Saharan Africa. He establishes a strong correlation between regional belief in witchcraft and lower levels of generalized trust. Interestingly, an individual’s personal belief in witchcraft is not predictive of generalized trust levels. See the figure below for a map of witchcraft belief and trust.

Notes. Panels (a) and (b) show the regional prevalence of generalized trust and witchcraft beliefs, respectively, based on aggregated survey responses. The breakdown into tencategories corresponds to deciles of the relevant distribution. Black and gray lines reflect national and regional boundaries, respectively.

In a subsequent paper, Gershman (2020) explores one potential explanation for prevalence of belief in witchcraft: exposure to the Atlantic slave trade. He finds that within sub-Saharan Africa greater exposure to the slave trade is associated with greater belief in witchcraft. He also finds that individuals Afro-descendants in Latin America are more likely to believe in witchcraft as are people in places that had a greater historical reliance on slave labor.

While I only highlight several papers here, there is a lot of exciting research in this area. For those who are interested, I recommend following ASREC, which regularly hosts conferences on culture and religion in economics.


  • Sara Lowes

    I am an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego. I graduated from Harvard University in May 2017 with a Ph.D. from the Political Economy and Government program. I am a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar with the Institutions, Organizations & Growth research program, and an Affiliate of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). My research interests are at the intersection of development economics, political economy, and economic history. Many of my on-going projects are in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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