UBC social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff said that religious people are more likely than the non-religious to engage in prosocial behavior - acts that benefit others at a personal cost - when it enhances the individual's reputation or when religious thoughts are freshly activated in the person's mind.
Firstly, the study reviewed data from anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics. Later, the researchers explored how religion, by encouraging cooperation, became a factor in making possible the rise of large and stable societies made of genetically unrelated individuals.
Norenzayan said that till date, the public debate whether religion fosters cooperation and trust has largely been driven by opinion and anecdote.
"We wanted to look at the hard scientific evidence," said Norenzayan, an associate professor in the Dept. of Psychology.
Across all the disciplines, the researchers closed in on complementary results. Empirical data within anthropology suggests there is more cooperation among religious societies than the non-religious, especially when group survival is under threat.
Economic experiments indicate that religiosity increases levels of trust among participants, while psychology experiments show that thoughts of an omniscient, morally concerned God reduce levels of cheating and selfish behavior.
"This type of religiously-motivated 'virtuous' behavior has likely played a vital social role throughout history. One reason we now have large, cooperative societies may be that some aspects of religion - such as outsourcing costly social policing duties to all-powerful Gods - made societies work more cooperatively in the past," said Shariff.
The authors observed that across cultures and through time, the notion of an all-powerful, morally concerned "Big God" usually begat "Big groups" -large-scale, stable societies that successfully passed on their cultural beliefs.
Also, the study highlighted that in today's world religion has no monopoly on kind and generous behavior.
In many findings, non-believers acted as prosocially as believers. In the last several hundred years, the world has seen the rise of non-religious institutional mechanisms that include effective policing, courts and social surveillance.
"Some of the most cooperative modern societies are also the most secular. People have found other ways to be cooperative - without God," said Norenzayan.
The findings appear in the paper "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality" published in the latest issue of the journal Science.