Big societies came before big gods

Some years ago I reviewed a book by Ara Norenzayan called Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict.  Norenzayan’s thesis was that it was a belief in big gods, specifically cosmic gods that cared about human morality, that enabled the creation of large scale human societies.

In small societies, reputation serves as an effective mechanism to keep anti-social behavior to a minimum.  If your entire world is a village with a few hundred people, and it gets around that you shirk duties, stiff friends out of their share of things, or generally are just an immoral person, you’ll eventually be ostracized, or worse, face vengeance from aggrieved parties.

However, as the size of society scales up, reputation increasingly loses its effectiveness.  If I can move between villages, towns, and settlements while scamming people, reputation may never have a chance to catch up.  New mechanisms are needed for cooperation in large scale societies.

Norenzayan’s theory is that one of those mechanisms were big gods, that is, deities worshipped by the overall society, deities that cared about how humans behaved toward one another.  These big gods are in contrast to the relatively small scale amoral spirits that hunter-gatherers typically worship.  The chances that I might act in a prosocial manner toward people in other towns is higher if I think there’s a supernatural cop looking over my shoulder, who will punish me for my immoral ways.

This theory, which puts religion in a crucial role in the formation of civilization, is somewhat at odds with the views of aggressive atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who see supernatural belief as largely a cognitive misfiring, a parasitic meme built on an adaptive over-interpretation of agency in the world, an intuition that once ensured we erred on the side of assuming the rustling in the brush is a predator instead of the wind.

Norenzayan’s conception of moralizing gods also contradicted the scholarly consensus that most gods in ancient religions did not in fact care about human behavior, at least other than receiving the correct libations.  This view, built largely on the lack of moral themes in ancient Greek and middle eastern mythologies, was that moralizing gods were a late addition that only arose during the Axial Age period around 800-300 BC.

The Seshat Project is an effort to add some rigor to these types of discussions by building a database of what is known about early societies.  The database tracks societies in various historical periods noting such things as whether there was a central state, the population, whether writing existed yet, science, common measurement standards, markets, soldiers, a bureaucracy, and whether moralizing high gods were worshiped.

Using the database, a recent study seems to show that big gods come after a society has scaled up to at least a million people, not before.

We analysed standardized Seshat data on social structure and religion for hundreds of societies throughout world history to test the relationship between moralizing gods and social complexity. We coded records for 414 societies spanning the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, based on 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. We found that belief in moralizing gods usually followed the rise of social complexity and tended to appear after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’, which correspond to populations greater than around one million people. We argue that a belief in moralizing gods was not a prerequisite for the expansion of complex human societies but may represent a cultural adaptation that is necessary to maintain cooperation in societies once they have exceeded a certain size. This may result from the need to subject diverse populations in multi-ethnic empires to a common higher-level power.

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My take on this is that while Norenzayan’s wasn’t entirely correct, moralizing gods were not necessary for civilization to develop, he appears to have been right that they are prevalent in developed societies, in contradiction of the long term scholarly consensus.

That said, I think some cautions are in order.  The Seshat database is undoubtedly a good thing, and will represent a major source of information for studying how societies developed.  But it’s worth noting that much of the information in the database comes down to the subjective judgment of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists.  To the credit of the project, it does everything it can to minimize this, but they can’t eliminate it entirely.

There’s also the oft quoted maxim that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence for absence.  The study authors do address this:

Is it possible that moralizing gods actually caused the initial expansion of complexity but you just couldn’t capture that until societies became complex enough to develop writing?

Although we cannot completely rule out this possibility, the fact that written records preceded the development of moralizing gods in the majority of the regions we analysed (by an average period of 400 years)—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.

Their position would be stronger if there was writing showing that small scale spirits were still being worshiped during the scale up.  The difficulty here is that no society seems to write down their mythologies in the first few centuries after developing writing.  Early writing seems focused on accounting and overall record keeping.

What we do seem able to say for sure is that the scaling up seemed to require the existence of those accounting and record keeping capabilities.  In other words, writing itself seems to have been far more crucial than big gods.

And it could be argued that for a society to even conceptualize big gods required a broader view that may not have existed until the society had scaled up to a certain size, when writing had been around long enough for at least an incipient sense of history to have developed, and for later generations of writers to build on the ideas of earlier ones.

The authors finish with an interesting question:

If the original function of moralizing gods in world history was to hold together fragile, ethnically diverse coalitions, what might declining belief in such deities mean for the future of societies today? Could secularization in Europe, for example, contribute to the unravelling of supranational forms of governance in the region? If beliefs in big gods decline, what will that mean for cooperation across ethnic groups in the face of migration, warfare, or the spread of xenophobia? Or are the functions of moralizing gods simply being be replaced by other forms of surveillance?

Put another way, what is the long term future of religion?  Does it have a future?  And what do we mean by “religion”?  Does a scientific view of the world count?  Or our civil traditions and rituals?  What kinds of cultural systems might arise in the future that fulfill the same roles that religion has historically filled?  Might technological developments, such as social media, serve to reinstate the old role of reputation, but now on an expanded scale?

35 thoughts on “Big societies came before big gods

  1. This is interesting.

    However, what were the big moralizing gods of the Roman Empire before Constantine or ancient China?

    I just looked at a list of Roman gods and don’t find one that is a “moralizing” god. And China seemed to be organized more on moral principles from Confucius with worship of ancestral gods.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. The Greek and Roman gods, at least in the early periods, weren’t moralizing. But this might come down to how we define “moralizing”. They did seem to care about human behavior. From the Sheshat entry on Latinium:

      “For the Romans, proper respect for the gods and proper interpersonal behavior were both integral to pietas, the key virtue. Pietas included duty to the family, the parents, one’s patron, and the state, as well as the gods. The gods were the guarantors of the welfare of the state and the continuance of the social order. Thus violating the social order by transgressing the mos maiorum (ancestral custom in any domain) was offensive to gods and liable to bring bad results on the group. […] However, I think it is fair to say (1) that the Romans were more interested in punishing transgressions themselves than in waiting for the gods to do it. In their view, it was important to root out and punish wrongdoers so that they did not further contravene the mos maiorum and (by definition) anger the gods. Such punishment could avert disasters. (2) Punishment from the gods was expected to occur as disasters affecting the group/state, such as plague or famine or battle loss, more than the striking down of guilty individuals; (3) What we think of as the distinction between ritual transgression and ethical transgression tends to be collapsed, with ethical wrongdoing very often brought under the aegis of the gods or redefined as an offense to the gods.”

      In the case of China, I haven’t looked at the Shesat entry for them, but they did have the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. This was a propaganda move by one of the early dynasties to justify their rule, but it ended up being used throughout Chinese history.


  2. Moralizing gods seem to have been invented as a tool of power. The Sumerian gods were not cosmic gods until the Babylonians elevated their city god, Marduk, to the status of supreme god, as a symbol of Babylon’s dominance over the other cities of Mesopotamia. Even Marduk was not a moralising deity. The Hebrew god appears to have grown from a desire to stamp a coherence on the Jewish proto-nation, and moralizing was a way of creating an exclusive club with rules to decide who’s in and who’s out. The Hebrew god seems very much an exception to the rule. Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods didn’t go in for a lot of moralizing.

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    1. I agree it was a tool of power, a way to justify your views of how people should behave by associating them with a cosmic ruler. Many of the societies you mention don’t have gods making particular rules. They’re usually more depicted as delegating that to specific rulers. (The preamble to the Code of Hammurabi, c. 1754 BC, is a good example.)

      I like your coherence theory for the Jewish theologization of morality. Earlier in their history, they seemed to try the delegation angle (prophets, kings, etc), but their history was turbulent, and often without central authority.

      One thing that might have made a difference is that Jewish religion was uniquely a book religion. Most ancient religions weren’t. Which means that most of the living aspects of those religions are lost to us, except for brief snatches from archaeology. What we have, such as the Iliad, Odyssey, etc, we tend to treat as their version of the Bible, but to them that seemed to be more commentary than sacred teaching.

      And William Dever pointed out that the people’s version of the religion of ancient Israel was probably very different than what the Bible prescribes. That version is similarly mostly lost to us.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Could secularization in Europe, for example, contribute to the unravelling of supranational forms of governance in the region?”

    If EU officials continue to think and act like they are gods, then yes 😉

    OK seriously though… In the era of Trump and Brexit, it may seem like this is happening, but notice that the individual nations here are already “big”. England, France, Hungary, etc are each over 1 million people. And I don’t see any of those three nations (for examples) riven by civil wars. So no, big gods don’t seem to be needed any more. My favorite reason for why not would be communication technologies. “Your tribe” is much bigger now, than your great^N ancestors’ tribes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norenzayan made the comment that a lot of modern societies, particularly the Scandanavian ones, climbed the ladder of religion and then kicked it away. But it seems like the ladder itself is mostly illusory. Maybe they used a tool for as long as it was useful and are now just using others?


  4. Digging through the map and eventually finding what MHG (high moralizing gods) and BSP (broad supernatural punishment) mean, I am very underwelmed by the study.

    They lumped MHG and BSP together in their study. Aside from that there are some big parts of the world (the entre New World, for example) with neither MHG or BSP.

    So a better conclusion might be that sometimes complex studies have beliefs in moralizing gods. Doesn’t make quite a good headline.

    Not exactly earth-shaking.


    1. I think the main point of the study was to see if supernatural punishment (big gods or otherwise) was necessary for large scale societies to develop. It doesn’t appear that they were. When looking at societies that don’t have those things, pay attention to the population size. The study points to a million as the threshold.

      That said, I’d be surprised if this pattern fit every society. These are trends rather than iron clad rules.


      1. Moralizing gods seem to be more the thing of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the monotheistic religions. Of course, other societies and civilizations had accountability for actions in some manner but the heavy emphasis is in those religions.

        Civilizations based on polytheistic religions didn’t need moralizing gods to deal with the problems of integrating diverse populations. The polytheistic religions would just incorporate the local gods into the pantheon or allow the indigenous locals effectively to keep worshiping their old gods but give them new names congruent with the dominant religion as the Catholic Church did in colonial Latin America.

        Another point of their study was the moralizing gods or supernatural punishment appeared many hundreds of years after the civilization began but, as best I know, the karma of Buddhism was there from the beginning and inherent in most religious thought from the Indian sub-continent.

        To the extent that moralizing gods tended to appears hundreds of years after the civilization began it might indicate that moralizing gods appear when civilizations begin to decline. When they are rising people don’t need to be threatened.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t know when the earliest evidence for Buddhist beliefs come in, but I think we have to be careful about accepting what tradition tells us goes back to the start of the religion. Oral traditions don’t have a good track record of accurately preserving history. No ancient society that I know of preserved any record of their hunter-gatherer forebears, or much of anything more than a few centuries prior to written records.

          Many of the societies involved seemed to last several centuries after they adopted supernatural punishment. I don’t think we can take it as a sign of decline. But it may be a sign that their adolescence was over.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice post for a Sunday; how appropriate! 🙂

    This is a pretty rich topic. I did see an article about the recent findings. It didn’t surprise me. It makes sense increasingly complex societies would search for ways to normalize behavior. Various forms of metaphysics were already established, so it was a handy tool prior to more secular justice systems.

    When you think about it, enforcement (police), judicial (the whole legal system), and legislative (creation of law), is a hugely complex system. (“God said so!” is easier. Out-of-the-box ready.)

    “Norenzayan’s thesis was that it was a belief in big gods […] that enabled the creation of large scale human societies.”

    Not sure I’d say “enabled” (depending on how one means it), but I’ve always believed it participated. It makes sense that moralizing gods were a reaction to a need.

    “And it could be argued that for a society to even conceptualize big gods required a broader view that may not have existed until the society had scaled up to a certain size,…”

    That’s kind of what I always assumed. Moralizing gods are humanity’s first attempts at deontology, and that need didn’t exist until the benefits of large scale drove humans together.

    And as far as ‘what enabled large civilizations,’ I think it’s as simple as the economy of large scale. It’s almost the security-freedom (or security-privacy) problem. Large groups can accomplish far more than small groups, let alone individuals.

    “The authors finish with an interesting question:”

    A question I’ve pondered a long time. I think what’s going on in the world right now — anti-intellectualism, anti-science, growing nationalism, anti-vaxxers, aggressive consumerism — there is reason for concern. (I think POTUS45 is one symptom of our social collapse. His continued success says something very scary about the world today.)

    I do perceive religion, at minimum, as an important social tool. It’s interesting to me how, throughout history, every society has some form of it. Humans always seem to invent gods. Perhaps they represent our ideals, what we aspire to be.

    Our new gods, technology and science, don’t offer much in the way of normative behavior. They don’t offer guidance through life. The former offers mostly toys, and the latter offers cold hard facts (of ever increasing complexity), so most people just play with their toys.

    Where are we headed? Down the tubes, my friend; I’ve said this before.

    I very much doubt social media can provide those norms, although I see signs of people trying (articles on netiquette, for example). Maybe it will work out, but the internet seems too capable of fragmentation and bubbles. And too uncontrolled — too easy for hostile forces to use productively. (Why are we not sending the military after hackers? An obvious “clear and present” danger!)

    There’s a baby-bathwater situation: When you throw out your gods, you throw out your moral foundation. Now what?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Wish I could claim credit for planning to post on Sunday, but it came down to this morning was when I had time and energy to write the post. o_O

      I see technology as the fruits of science. Of course, a lot of people who are delighted by the toys don’t like the broader implications of what science reveals. So the technology is often more popular than the science. But scientific truth doesn’t care whether you worship it, give libations to it, praise it, or curse it. It only cares that you heed it to provide its benefits.

      But as you note, in and of itself, it provides no existential comfort. And while it can inform our values, it ultimately can’t tell us what those values ought to be. Indeed, to insist that it can is to ignore what it tells us, that purpose is something we create, not the universe.

      I have no illusions that social media could produce the norms, only that they may provide a means to enforce them. That’s a role it sort of already fills, although unfortunately it misfires as often as not. I think about all the outrage waves that froth over in it. Often those are people getting upset at nothing, but often it is over someone being a real jerk.

      The big problem is that there’s no way to know for sure while it is happening, which is why I generally stay strictly away from them. Still, looking past the current schizophrenic mess that is social media, I could see it eventually evolving into something effective. Possibly. Maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Have you read Professor Yuval Noah Harari’s book, “Sapiens”? His conjecture was that Homo Sapiens’ capacity to organize in social groups greater than 150 in number (the upper size limit of groups in which everybody knows everybody) first occurred around 70,000 years ago, when they developed the cognitive capacity to entertain fictions (e.g., god, races, nation-states, money, corporations are modern examples of such fictions). Apparently, Neanderthals and other extant hominids lacked this mental capacity. Fictions are characterized as narratives that are not tangibly real (verifiable).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mike. I haven’t read Sapiens, although I’ve heard about it.

      I follow paleoanthropology, and a lot of the details have been in flux in recent years. For example, there is increasing evidence that Neanderthals were not as cognitively distant from us as they’ve often been presented. And it appears we intermixed with them pretty substantially, indicating that our forebears saw them as people. They may not have so much gone extinct as became assimilated into Homo sapiens populations.

      If so, considering that our previous common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis lived over 300,000 years ago, proto-modern behavior may be far more ancient than is commonly assumed. Granted, there aren’t a lot of signs of symbolic thought prior to 100,000 years ago, but paleo-anthropologists John Hawks notes this might be because the evidence just hasn’t survived.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am hoping to write a followup to the brief post I did on my web site about the migration from Southern Africa to East Africa around 70-100 KYA. It will be somewhat in the context of The Goodness Paradox.

        Wrangham’s thought is that our ability to tolerate larger groups came through a self-domestication process that arose from males banding together to kill the most the reactive aggressive members of the group. It was much like the breeding experiment in Russian with silver foxes except we did it to ourselves. Proactive aggressive towards others outside the group may have become more organized and intense as a result – the us vs. them dichotomy. If we combine that with better weapons, I think (this is not addressed by Wrangham so not necessarily his view) there is a good possibility we mostly exterminated our rival humans through war pretty much as we exterminated large mammals and birds.

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  7. Good stuff, Mike! What emerges for me as valid is the notion that for larger scale societies to emerge some form of collective ethical framework was probably important. What is not as clear to me is that a so-called Big God would have been the only feasible alternative. But it may have been an efficient solution at the time, as my hunch–which I haven’t tried to validate in any manner–is that the collective modes of understanding life that existed at the time in which larger scale societies first emerged may have contained elements of what we would call supernatural throughout. So, it would have been expedient, perhaps, to try and tie all those scattered propensities to a central post.

    I also wonder how many early, large-scale societies developed organically, versus through assimilation. And if you’re going to grow through assimilation it probably helps to have some sort of cultural norm–such as a claim to a superior understanding of the workings of the universe–that affords you a sort of justifiable claim to the allegiance of those you’ve proposed to assimilate. A Big God, not rooted in provincialism, but more universal in reach, might afford that justification. I would suspect early empires needed something to bind them together that transcended tribal identity, just as modern empires have resorted to such claims as Manifest Destiny, or what have you.

    In societies that, at the time, may have all been informed by some belief in smaller-scale gods, wouldn’t it make sense to invoke a god with a capital ‘G’ who calls all of the members of that society its own? It would seem difficult–though I’m obviously casting aspersion on the logical powers of our forebears in suggesting this–to invoke a secular argument at a time when most ethical arguments amongst scattered bands may have been predicated upon beliefs in the god or gods with which they identified.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Michael!

      I think you’re right about the need for a collective ethical framework. In many ways, in ancient societies, gods tended to show up for any necessary social function. It’s why just about every agricultural society had a god of fertility. I remember reading something years ago that Asian societies had gods of dams to ensure the dams were properly maintained. None of this was consciously planned out. They were just solutions that evolved to solve problems.

      On assimilation, one thing I’ve always wondered is how the hierarchy among ancient gods developed. From what I’ve read, wars in ancient times were also viewed as cosmic events between the gods of the competing states. If one state conquered a whole bunch of others, it was probably taken as a sign that their gods were more powerful. If that state managed to solidify their empire long enough, throughout that empire, their gods probably became the high gods. Possibly. But it might explain how a regional god like Amun became the head of the Egyptian pantheon, eventually becoming one and the same as Ra.

      On invoking secular arguments, I don’t think those existed in the ancient world. The closest you might find would be the Chinese Mandate of Heaven, with Heaven left vague enough that it wouldn’t challenge any of the regional cults. That, and most ancient religions had no trouble accepting the gods of other religions. There was always room for libations for some conqueror’s god alongside the regional, city, and family gods.

      Considering all this, it clarifies just how unusual the Jewish people were in insisting that there was only one god. It’s why, for many pagans, the Jews and Christians were atheists, since they denied the existence of every god except their own.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting article. It reminds me of the views of Yuval Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus), who argues that peoples’ ability to cooperate on a large scale is rooted in their ability to believe in a shared reality. Religion was just one of the shared realities he cited (money and humanism being others, IIRC), but for the age of people in which religion was the dominant paradigm for cooperation, it reminds me of this article.

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  9. Interesting. I just have been thinking about this subject myself. How government is always behind with rules and law. And how some pharma companies raise the price of some medicine. I wish you still could say you will burn in hell, or god will get you for this. But religion has lost that power in the western world. I then thought that those smart, savvy people might have never really believed anyway and religion was in that sense not really a control of bad behavior. It’s would be then just easier to punish people indeed. This is not in the spirit of god, so in the dungeon you go and everybody agrees.

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    1. I do think, when pondering how the decline of religion might affect society, it pays to remember that it never controlled behavior as much as religious leaders hoped it would.

      It’s hard to say what smart savvy people might have believed in the past. During the middle ages, belief in God seemed so universal that there wasn’t much reason for religious writers to inveigh against non-belief. That changed in the early modern period. But even then, there wasn’t much agitation for non-belief until the late 18th / early 19th century.


  10. Big gods are absolutely essential if big societies are going to survive, let alone thrive. And those gods are contained within the paradigm of the prevailing myths. Myths are an underlying prerequisite for bringing meaning and purpose to the organism, which is society at large. Outside the closed circle of mutual definition and agreement contained within the myth, there is no greater meaning or purpose. Wise men should be compelled to consider Jacque Derrida’s admonition: “Whenever one is convinced by a rational argument, one does not know more; but one knows less.”

    Such is humanities fate I guess.. Yuval Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus) is a good read, I highly recommend it…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ok, that did it. Just added Sapiens to my Kindle. Not sure when I’ll get around to reading it, but it’s in my queue now!

      When you say big gods are essential, what do you mean by “big gods”? Do you specifically superhuman deities? Or do you mean big shared concepts? If so, what kind of concepts qualify?


  11. Any intellectual construction that is shared by the community at large, a construct which in turn gives the individual a purpose greater than themselves qualifies. Nationalism is near or at the top of the list, followed by capitalism. Through the progression of communities to a secular framework, superhuman deities have lost most of their efficacy as a collective model, nevertheless, they still have a staying power in a relationship with the individual solipsistic self model.

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  12. Interesting stuff. If we see gods and or religion as a model used to explain what we see then it would make sense that the observations would need to come before the development of the model not the other way around. For instance why would you need a God of the Dams, unless of course you’ve seen water burst through one during an especially rainy year?

    I guess I tend to see big gods more as a reaction to dealing with what must have been a great sense of fear. With bigger cities and civilizations the potential for massive death increases, all of which would have been completely inexplicable at at time. Higher populated cities led to an easier spread of communicable diseases, greater sanitation issues….fire would have spread and killed more homes. A flood would have drowned more people. Every disaster is more destructive and none of it is explainable in a way that we can understand these things now. Also I wonder as news spread of all these calamities, that people’s fears were stoked to extremely high levels in the same way the global news I think impacts all of us. Waking up everyday to read about murders worldwide changes our perception of how common murder is, because we tend not to think of the large number of people who are not murdered. I don’t know…I think the amygdalas had to be going crazy in early civilizations. Gods were a way to control perhaps, but also to give some sort of level of certainty when surrounded by massive uncertainty.

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    1. Years ago I read a book about the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations c.1200 BC. Among the things thought to have contributed to the collapse were a series of natural disasters, such as a decades long pattern of earthquakes. One of the things that struck me is how terrifying that must of been to people back then. They wouldn’t have seen those events as just natural back luck, but as angry gods punishing them. It makes you wonder what the eastern Mediterranean societies were like during those decades. Not a good time to have lived in.

      I do think soothing fear and uncertainty is one of the historical functions of religion. Historically, religions explained the world, promoted the social order, and provided existential comfort. Explaining the world is now generally the province of science. In the west, we’ve effectively divorced the civil order from religion.

      Providing existential comfort seems to be religion’s last function. But if you look at where religion is weakest, in Scandinavian countries and western Europe, and where it’s strongest, places like sub-Saharan Africa or South America, the difference appears to be how stable vs unstable life is, how much uncertainty and adversity people face. In that sense, the biggest danger to religion (at least traditional religion) is not science or activist atheists, but a robust social safety net.

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      1. That Earthquake example is a good one. When I was an undergraduate I took an Asian history course and did a paper on ancient Chinese meteorological understanding. They understood some things, but for instance they used to believe that when lightning killed somebody it was because those people were disrespectful to their parents. When I read Leviticus now I see this chapter of the bible as much mostly an instruction manual for maintaining good hygeine. I really think we probably don’t understand how fearful people must have been long ago. At least when the ground shakes this is something you feel and see, but a virus was simply invisible, something our evolutionarily wired brains almost never had to contend with as hunter-gatherers. Once farming came around all that close contact and affection so important for humans became deadly.

        I would agree with your assertion here, that fundamentalism of any kind seems to be more driven by as an attempt to provide stability in difficult times. Of course there tends to be a bit of irony there because often groups with strong beliefs tend to take actions that can sometimes lead to even more instability. I think religion also sort of guarantees instability in the long term given that it’s very hard to modify divine revelation. So if you do get to a period of more stability, people are less stressed and more likely to question the validity of the dogma they are being fed. And usually it’s because someone realizes it wasn’t the religion that made things better, but the rains finally came, or there were no more crazy series of earthquakes. lol

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        1. I think the main thing to understand is how little understanding or control people had of the factors that influenced their lives. They had no control on whether the rains came (or floods at the right times) and the resulting harvests or famines. They had no control whether they or anyone they loved got sick. As you note, no one understood germs, so pestilence seemed like nothing other than divine retribution.

          I think religion gave people something to do. And while ceremonies, sacrifices, and the like to propitiate the gods actually did nothing, it psychologically felt like they were doing something productive, which was better than just sitting around waiting to see how nature would treat them this year.

          Where this got destructive was in the treatment of those who didn’t buy into the idea, or in bad years, where the gods seemed implacably angry and people might be tempted to scale up the sacrifices until they got to humans, although human sacrifice doesn’t seem to survive the arrival of writing for very long.

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          1. I think religion gave people something to do. And while ceremonies, sacrifices, and the like to propitiate the gods actually did nothing, it psychologically felt like they were doing something productive, which was better than just sitting around waiting to see how nature would treat them this year.

            This is well said, and I hope you don’t mind me going off on a little tangent here as I do find ritual interesting. I think that ritual does have this psychological impact which is soothing and that is part of it’s benefit. Although one has to ask how did a ritual get started? Was it that somebody understood the psychological benefits and tried to convince people to do the ritual? This seems unlikely to me. I think many rituals in their onset of the practice weren’t rituals but actually methods that they thought might work. Based on our cognitive bias to remember the times it work and edit out the times it didn’t (Skinner’s experiments with pigeon behavior and random food dispension). The practice I think continues because of the psychological benefits, but I think initially somebody thought that a particular behavior or practice actually did prevent floods or kept you free of disease.

            What’s also interesting to me is how you very often see new religious movement develop out of older religious practices that seem mired in ritual over actually working on solutions to problems. It seems the reformation is somewhat like this. Similarly Sikhism (my dad’s religion) and Sufism were largely answers an overt practicing of rituals. Sufism seems to take a more mystical approach and wants to cast all ritual aside in quest for a relationship with the divine, where as Sikhism is more one that rejected the overly ritualistic practices of Hinduism for a movement that promoted practical solutions to real issues they had with oppression of the Mogul dynasty. There is a story in Sikhism where the first Guru who founded the Sikh religion, while traveling in India comes to the Ganges and he sees some Hindus there at the river and they are throwing water from the river towards the sun and he asks them what they are doing. They say they are throwing water towards the rise sun as an offering to their ancestors (I guess for their ancestors to honor them and protect them). They believed that the other world for dead ancestors was in the east. So the Guru started performing this ritual but throwing the water to the west with the same level of seriousness. The others told him that he was doing it wrong that he was supposed to throw water to the east. A big crowd had gathered by this point and he said, I am using this water, to water my crops back in Punjab. There have not been rains and my crops are withering. Everybody laughed…I mean how can you possibly water your crops that are hundreds of miles away and he replied, “The very same way yours reaches your ancestors in the other world many millions of miles away. In fact, my farm is quite closer on this very earth.”

            It seems to me the older a religion is, the more mired in ritual it becomes. Sikhism which began as a very practical ideology to address real world problems, being over 500 years old is now also mired in ritual. Many of the specific ritualistic practices were actually not encoded in the Sikh holy book, but by a council at the beginning of the 20th century. I just find it interesting the way these things come about. I think the development of ritual also has the purpose of quick identification of someone of that religion. If you see someone with a beard an turban you know they are a Sikh right away, or if you see someone with a crucifix around the neck you know they are a Catholic. But these symbols can and often become totally detached from whether that is a good or a bad person. The ritual in fact becomes also a tool of exploitation to gain the trust of others without actually having to reveal anything about who you actually are as a human being.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. On rituals getting started, one of the people who used to visit this site once left this snippet:
            “When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.”

            (Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbours)

            Liked by 1 person

  13. In Reply to Mike and Swarn:

    I think there is an element to your discussion that is missing, and that is the living heart, or center of understanding, which in many cases is codified in religious thought and ritual—but which is ultimately lost in those rituals when the emphasis is placed upon the mechanics, as you delightfully noted in the story of the tied-up cat, and the living center of the practice is lost.

    I would like to draw an analogy to our “rational” society of present day. Earlier in my life when I was working with an innovative technology, I found that 9 out of 10 persons would dismiss me/it for reasons they felt were scientific. They would say, “that’s not thermodynamically possible,” or “that violates the conservation of this or that.” They were wrong, but that is because they had fallen into a rote way of thinking. They had a view of the world that was stale, essentially, and preconceived notions of what could and could not be so. The people who actually understood the technology were a few scientists who took the time to think carefully, to look at the data, and to seek to repeat it in their own laboratories. When this occurred, agreement was reached.

    When you write as you are about religion in ancient times, you are missing the fact that while many people were simply repeating something without understanding it, a few may have actually understood and been participants in what I’ll describe as the living process of encountering genuine knowledge. When this living process is set aside, only the dogma and the rote practices remain. This may have been the only level at which many people participated, and would produce a “lowest common denominator.” The lowest common denominator may be all that we can see with the precision of the tools we have to view ancient times or cultures. But this rote, dogmatic residual is but an empty shell, and not the “real” essence of what lived within these cultures, or the inspiration that initially founded them. Generally speaking, in any field, the true inspiration is rare, and the copying, codifying, and convention-making quickly subsumes the genuine insights.

    We have little recourse in our culture today to direct experience of this living process I am describing, but it remains. In my limited experience with Native American culture, for instance, each of the medicine people that lead ceremonies tend to do things a little differently. The process is, in fact, always evolving, and many ceremonies that were done several centuries ago are not done today in the exact same way as they were before. The evolution is based on fresh insight and experience, and new direction/guidance. There are some ceremonies that are still the same as they were, some that are new and very recent and did not exist a few centuries ago, and some that are similar, but have evolved. Even within the same bands and tribes, sacred ceremonies are performed with subtle differences from group to group, though of course many elements are similar and unchanged. But to suggest it is all rote, at least in that particular context, is in my opinion a misrepresentation.

    If we were to look at the world as a whole today, we would find a great many who are convinced they know exactly how the world is, and what it can be, and I daresay if we look back in five centuries we will find we were also mistaken about a great many things we take for granted. My point is not to assert a primacy to any path to knowledge—simply to note that suggesting peoples of a prior time had so little self-awareness and comprehension of their experience that they were in essence fundamentally dissociated from the reality of their relationship to the world is a form of prejudice. And a mistaken one, at that. Were many people acting out plays they didn’t understand? Undoubtedly. Was everyone? I would say definitely not. Are both still happening today? Yes.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michael,
      I did try to give an idea of how the living religion might have felt for them. Of course, I come to these discussions as a skeptic, and my comments reflect that.

      But I agree the lived aspect is important. And you’re right that we don’t have access to that lived aspect. This is exacerbated by the fact that ancient pagan religions were not book religions. The books they did produce (like the Iliad and Odyssey) didn’t have the same centrality to their religion that sacred documents do to modern religions. As a result, we miss much of their experience of those religions. And no doubt their ceremonies were as flexible and evolving as the native American ones.

      William Dever has pointed out that this is actually also true for ancient Israeli religion. Much of what has come down to us represents the religion of the elite, and likely a particular faction of the elite at that. The lived version of pre-exilic Israel was likely very different than what we see in the Old Testament. Our only clues about it come from archaeology and the many OT condemnations likely aimed at competing sects and factions.

      So I don’t think of ancient people as rubes because they held those beliefs. If I grew up in their world, I undoubtedly would have held them too.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. @ Michael…
    “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”
    — Arthur Schopenhauer (I borrowed this comment from your own blog.)

    Many of the rich traditions that underwrite the rituals within the prevailing religious dichotomies we see throughout history were formulated by geniuses. Clearly a glimpse of something spectacular was experienced by those geniuses that no else could perceive. Unfortunately, those experiences were not canonized in written word until years, even centuries after the event. In the end, the customs, traditions and rituals which were designed to show the incredible insight in a meaningful way were overshadowed by the mechanism of the rituals themselves, rituals which were originally devised to protect those insightful truths. But here’s the problem: Constructs of any kind are originally designed to serve us, but over time, we always end up serving them. This is an axiom that is pervasive even to this day, clearly demonstrated by the institutions of science itself, the god which offers the all encompassing hope of understanding ourselves…….

    In conclusion Michael, I am in agreement with you closing paragraph…

    Liked by 1 person

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