Why did man invent religion? Presumably to explain all the things we didn’t understand at the time, like why the Sun “rises” every day. But eventually those same supernatural deities turned into moral arbiters. You had to act a certain way or else you’d upset the gods and get punished. Why and when did that switch occur?
There’s a long-held theory that “moralizing gods” helped corral a burst in population a little over 10,000 years ago. It also facilitated cooperation among strangers. The more complex society became, the thinking goes, the more the gods were needed to keep everyone in line. More to the point, larger societies grew in conjunction with moralizing gods. That makes sense, but it’s always been really hard to prove.
Now, according to a paper appearing in the journal Nature this week, there’s good reason to cast doubt on that theory.
The researchers found that moralizing gods came after those societies became more complex, even if religious rituals appeared during the initial rise of those larger societies.
Marcus Woo explains what they found in Scientific American:
… When the researchers compared the growth of social complexity with the times that pro-social religions appeared, they found that in the vast majority of societies such religions emerged later — after societies swelled to a population of about a million. “This paper has done substantial damage to the big gods hypothesis, which fits in with what we had previously found,” says Russell Gray, an evolutionist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, who was part of the Austronesian study but not the new one. The new results also weaken the idea that broad supernatural punishment is needed for complex societies, he says. “This is by far the best thing I’ve seen out of the much-hyped Seshat project so far.”
There are critics of the research who point out that there could be problems with the underlying data.
Still, if the researchers are accurate, they conclude that…
… when it comes to the initial rise of social complexity, how you worship may ultimately have been more important than who you worship.
Obviously, the research nor the original hypothesis suggest religion is true. Both theories are centered about the timing of when a certain kind of religion developed, but researchers aren’t even pretending there’s any legitimacy to the stories themselves. That’s never changed.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Mark for the link)