Several years ago I read Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. This was after a long hiatus from reading about the topic of religion from a broad evolutionary perspective. In the 2000s, I read Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and A Theory of Religion, to name a few works. These are all very different treatments of religious phenomena, from an evolutionary, cognitive, and economic, perspective respectively. But, they are united by examining religious as a ‘natural’ process, and culture as a reducible and analyzable phenomenon.
This is distinct from what you’d find in “Religious Studies”, a field with a more humanistic and historical perspective. Some of the early practitioners in this field, such as Mircea Eliade, were influenced by perennialism, so the epistemological stance tends to differ from the more positivist and scientific frameworks above.
Several years ago I began to look again at the scientific study of religion due to the work of Ara Norenzayan. He seemed to be fusing the evolutionary and cognitive perspective so as to inform how religion might be adaptively useful on a cultural level through co-option of mental mechanisms. Though not rejecting adaptationism, most cognitive anthropologists did not talk much about selective value of religious phenomena, as opposed the psychological mechanistic origins of supernatural intuitions.
Big Gods was a step forward. The thesis was simple: moralistic high gods were major additions to the prosocial toolkit of humans, allowing for the emergence of complex polities beyond the level of the clan. There were two major ways in which Norenzayan tested this hypothesis. The first was experimentally, by showing that priming subjects with “agents” they were less likely to behave unethically. That is, you didn’t do wrong because an ethical supernatural judge was always watching. The second method was using historical methods looking at the changes across societies over the past 10,000 years. Here there were suggestions that “big gods” preceded the rise of social complexity.
I have expressed some skepticism about the priming research in light of the “replication crisis” in psychology. Now it looks like the second path of analysis may provide different results than Norenzayan’s original thesis. A research group using a large dataset have found that complex societies give rise to moralistic high gods, moralistic high gods don’t give rise to complex societies. Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history:
The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles…The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies…Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity…the relationship between the two is disputed…and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions…powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations…generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.
The second figure from the paper shows the general trend:
In the first panel you see that social complexity rises, and as it plateaus moralizing gods show up. The second panel shows the distribution of time difference between the emergence of the plateau and moralistic gods across their data set. What’s striking is how soon moralizing gods shows up after the spike in social complexity.
In the ancient world, early Christian writers explicitly asserted that it was not a coincidence that their savior arrived with the rise of the Roman Empire. They contended that a universal religion, Christianity, required a universal empire, Rome. There are two ways you can look at this. First, that the causal arrow is such that social complexity leads to moralizing gods, and that’s that. The former is a necessary condition for the latter. Second, one could suggest that moralizing gods are a cultural adaptation to large complex societies, one of many, that dampen instability and allow for the persistence of those societies. That is, social complexity leads to moralistic gods, who maintain and sustain social complexity. To be frank, I suspect the answer will be closer to the second. But we’ll see.
Another result that was not anticipated I suspect is that ritual religion emerged before moralizing gods. In other words, instead of “Big Gods,” it might be “Big Rules.” With hindsight, I don’t think this is coincidental since cohesive generalizable rules are probably essential for social complexity and winning in inter-group competition. It’s not a surprise that legal codes emerge first in Mesopotamia, where you had the world’s first anonymous urban societies. And rituals lend themselves to mass social movements in public to bind groups. I think it will turn out that moralizing gods were grafted on top of these general rulesets, which allow for coordination, cooperation, and cohesion, so as to increase their import and solidify their necessity due to the connection with supernatural agents, which personalize the sets of rules from on high.