Society creates god, god does not create society

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.

6 thoughts on “Society creates god, god does not create society

  1. I’ve read Atran and also big gods. But I’ve gone more towards the Heinrich view (also Kevin Laland) on what is the most *fundamental* selection driver behind religion. First there was the norm. And it was good. and selection favored the norm (say, how to prepare food or make stone tools), which led to bigger brains for more clever norm following. And then the norm begat the rules. And then the norm begat the language. And the norm and rules begat the big rules. And the big rules begat the big gods.
    eg
    https://twitter.com/BrianHollar/status/1101988744566067203

  2. If writing goes back just 5,000 years, what does it mean that “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”? How could we possibly know whether the gods of a society 7,000 years ago were moralizing gods or not?

    The authors seem to acknowledge that we can’t:

    > This megasociety threshold does not seem to correspond to the point at which societies develop writing, which might have suggested that moralizing gods were present earlier but were not preserved archaeologically. Although we cannot rule out this possibility, the fact that written records preceded the development of moralizing gods in 9 out of the 12 regions analysed (by an average period of 400 years; Supplementary Table 2)—combined with the fact that evidence for moralizing gods is lacking in the majority of non-literate societies — suggests that such beliefs were not widespread before the invention of writing. The few small-scale societies that did display precolonial evidence of moralizing gods came from regions that had previously been used to support the claim that moralizing gods contributed to the rise of social complexity (Austronesia and Iceland), which suggests that such regions are the exception rather than the rule.

    But if the analysis of societies without writing is limited to assuming that they don’t have moralizing gods, I don’t see what “10,000 years of records” is supposed to mean. There are no records that go back that far.

    I’m trying to imagine how their model would apply to the Greeks. In Homer the gods are already moralistic. In the Greek dark age there are no records. In the Mycenaean period, there are records, but no records that describe the gods. When do we think the gods became moralistic? My money would be on “during the Mycenaean period”, which would support the idea that complex societies develop moralistic gods — but there is no evidence to support that timing.

    The paper attributes moralizing gods to Egypt in 2800 BC and to China in 1000 BC. I believe those dates are very close to the earliest records we have for those cultures. […]

  3. [continuing my thought past the closing of the edit window]

    If written records tend to indicate the existence of moralizing gods right from the beginning of written records, it seems like a safer assumption that societies without writing *do* have moralizing gods.

    They can’t be assuming that gods who are (later) attested as moralistic must also have been moralistic when they first appeared, because they say Mesopotamia developed moralistic gods in 2200 BC and Mesopotamian temples are much older than that.

  4. Just wondering how the complex societies of East Asia (Japan, China, Korea) fit into this theory. It seems as though they did just fine without “Big God” religions.

  5. “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.”

    I came across this recent study just today. Like you, I was reminded of Norenzayan, even before I did a search to find that indeed he was referenced multiple times in the paper. A similar figure from much earlier is Julian Jaynes, originally trained in behavioral animal research but, along with neuroscience and social science, came to study history, ancient texts, and language. He drew heavily on certain philologists who were themselves influenced by the cultural anthropologists. Jaynes’ approach was broad and encompassing.

    “I have expressed some skepticism about the priming research in light of the “replication crisis” in psychology.”

    The is a good point. The replication crisis has hit numerous fields, far beyond only psychology. But psychology is most obviously affected by the issue of WEIRD culture (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). Further research of non-Westerners, such as hunter-gatherers, has proven that much of the research done on mostly white middle class college students in the US can’t be generalized to the rest of the world’s population. In fact, Americans are in many ways psychologically abnormal.

    “Now it looks like the second path of analysis may provide different results than Norenzayan’s original thesis.”

    That is what I wondered about. It had been a while since I read Norenzayan and so I wanted to figure out where this study might come to a different conclusion. It might help to put this in context of decades of scholarship. This study seems like an amalgamation of Karl Jasper’s Axial Age reframed with the dating of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind, although the latter isn’t mentioned at all. Jaynes proposed that late Bronze Age civilizations were becoming so complex as to make them hard to manage.

    This led to new forms of power, social order, and institutions. The period in question experienced the emergence of brutally violent authoritarianism with mass death tolls, written laws that were absolute and totalitarian (literally written in stone and hence unchangeable), standing armies, etc. This was a reaction to how precarious they were, as the old order no longer worked. The societies were simply too large and complex. When disasters hit with waves of refugees, the empires toppled like dominoes around 1200 BC. Jaynes’ theory is a possible explanation of why and how this happened.

    “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.””

    You are thinking along Jaynesian lines.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/03/24/moralizing-gods-as-effect-not-cause/

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