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.
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?