How societies use supernatural forces to explain earthly events

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People around the globe develop supernatural explanations – like ancestral spirits, karma or the ‘evil eye’ -  to make sense of natural phenomena such as disasters and diseases, according to a new study.

Published today in Nature Human Behaviour, the research looked at a sample of 114 global societies and how their supernatural beliefs fill the gaps when it comes to understanding the world.

University of Melbourne Professor Brock Bastian from the School of Psychological Sciences, who co-authored the report with a team of international researchers, found it was more common for people to attribute a supernatural force to natural events such a drought or a storm, as opposed to murders or thefts.

“The data offers a globally comprehensive view of how humans apply their own religious beliefs to explain natural and social phenomena, and how these explanations vary based on the society and its unique structure,” Professor Bastian said.

“We found 96 per cent of societies in our sample had common supernatural explanations for disease, 92 per cent for natural causes of food scarcity and 90 per cent for natural hazards.

“The finding that supernatural explanations of natural phenomena were far more prevalent that supernatural explanations of social phenomena was surprising, given that current-day religions tend to focus on the social domain.”

The researchers also found that the focus of religious beliefs changes as societies grow larger – people are more likely to use religious beliefs to make sense of the social world in larger societies.

Professor Bastian said the supernatural explanations were coded from ethnographic records, and while they were historical, there are implications for understanding the emergence of currently held beliefs.

The study was undertaken by researchers from the University of Melbourne, Northwestern University, University of North Carolina, University of Otago, Max Planck Institute and Boston University.

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Danielle Galvin

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