God of the Gaps: How the Supernatural Explains What We Can’t

Humans have long used religion to understand the world. The ancient Greeks believed that Poseidon governed the waves at sea, and Athena guided soldiers in battle. In Chinese mythology, the goddess Chang’e orchestrates the cycles of the moon, and the Dragon King controls rainfall. Throughout history, cultures have developed supernatural explanations to explain the mysteries of life.

Supernatural explanations turn religion into a powerful meaning-making tool. In what is known as the “god of the gaps” theory, prominent thinkers like Nietzsche and Drummond proposed that religion evolves to fill gaps in human understanding. This idea remains popular today.

However, we still have little evidence of which kinds of phenomena people use religion to explain. If people use religious beliefs to fill gaps in knowledge, which gaps do religion most often fill? Answering this question could shed light on the origins of religion by revealing which kinds of phenomena may have initially sparked the supernatural beliefs at the heart of religious systems.

Supernatural explanations turn religion into a powerful meaning-making tool … However, we still have little evidence of which kinds of phenomena people use religion to explain.

In a recent paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, we documented the prevalence of supernatural explanations for different phenomena across 114 nonindustrial societies. We assessed this using ethnographic documentation from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Our global sample included hunter-gatherer societies like the ǃKung, horticultural societies like the Alorese of Indonesia, and large societies with cities such as the Javanese, Malay, and Turkish societies. Some of these societies still exist today, but many no longer do or have undergone significant changes because of colonialism and globalization.

One goal of our project was to compare how frequently humans made supernatural explanations of natural phenomena (events without a clear human cause) and social phenomena (those with a human causal agent).

Supernatural explanations of natural phenomena were plentiful. For example, the Kapauku people of modern-day Indonesia believed stars to be the lit ends of cigarettes smoked by spirits in the sky, and attributed earthquakes to a mythical beast’s thumping tail.

We also found supernatural attributions for social phenomena. The Thonga people believed in the power of the “nyokwekulu,” a medicine that ferments through a hole in its container when war is imminent to alert the community to prepare for impending conflict.  

Among these explanations we found a striking pattern: supernatural explanations were more common for natural events than for social events. All but one of the societies that we surveyed had a supernatural explanation of at least one natural phenomenon, and most had more than one. Most of the societies in our sample had supernatural explanations for disease (96 percent), food scarcity (92 percent), and natural hazards (90 percent). In contrast, supernatural explanations were present for warfare in 67 percent of societies, murder in 82 percent, and theft in 26 percent.

We found a striking pattern: supernatural explanations were more common for natural events than for social events.

Why are supernatural explanations so pervasive for natural phenomena? We believe the most likely reason is the absence of clear, identifiable agents behind natural events. Humans tend to personify the world around them. Research suggests that people interpret events in terms of a responsible agent acting with intention to affect another person or being. For instance, people are more likely to attribute a family’s tragic death to divine intervention when a dam breaks spontaneously, rather than when a dam worker deliberately releases the water. When tragedy strikes and there is no clearly responsible person to blame, people turn to the heavens.

There are several theories that could help explain why people have evolved this tendency to personify the world. For one thing, we are highly social; much of our reasoning is dedicated to understanding one another’s intentions. When there is no clear source of intention, we feel compelled to generate one. We may also have evolved a tendency to see the world as “alive” as a threat detection device—mistaking a floating plastic bag for a jellyfish can embarrass you, but mistaking a jellyfish for a floating bag can kill you. There is even evidence in other animals for a bias to see nature as alive. Chimpanzees will posture and break sticks to scare away a thunderstorm, and Darwin famously wrote about his dog barking at the wind as it shook a nearby parasol.

Supernatural explanations of social phenomena were less common than those of natural phenomena. But they still existed, and they were especially prevalent in larger, more urbanized societies. Our study can’t conclusively say why this is, but there are a few possible reasons. Some of these reasons are mundane. For example, people living in larger societies might simply be more concerned about warfare, theft, and murder, and their concerns may translate to supernatural mythologizing of these phenomena. There may also be more religious professionals in larger societies, who promise to supernaturally influence social phenomena in return for compensation.

But there are also more theoretically provocative reasons why supernatural explanations of social phenomena evolve in large and urbanized societies. One is that people trust each other less in large societies, and this distrust can translate to beliefs about supernatural misdeeds. For example, in societies with high levels of distrust, people may assume that a relative who died from natural causes was actually murdered through witchcraft.  

Supernatural explanations of social phenomena were especially prevalent in larger, more urbanized societies.

Supernatural explanations could also be more common in larger urbanized societies because the causal agents behind social events are less clear. Tracking people’s motives is more challenging when there are more people to monitor. If a murder or theft occurs in a larger society, the perpetrator is more likely to remain unidentified compared to a smaller society where most people know each other. People may be more likely to believe a shaman or evil spirit was responsible, and in this way supernatural agents may fill the gaps left by anonymity and social uncertainty.

The clearest takeaway from our study is that that people often seek supernatural explanations for events that lack clear human origins. Natural phenomena become prime candidates for supernatural explanation because they cannot easily be traced back to human actions. This tendency to supernaturalize the natural world suggests that the earliest human religious beliefs may have been attempts to grapple with the mysteries of nature.

Our findings also help make sense of contemporary debates. For example, deeply religious individuals in the United States are often skeptical of man-made climate change because they see God as the ultimate architect of climate and weather. These beliefs show how supernatural explanations of natural phenomena are pervasive even in industrialized societies. They also suggest that these supernatural explanations can be a barrier for human action. When humans view phenomena as the purview of gods, they may be less likely to support secular intervention.