Big gods came after big societies

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

Researchers studying the Seshat database of world history (named after the Egyptian goddess of record keeping) have found that big gods came after the rise of big societies, not the other way around:

When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies — the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” — envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them.

Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism — such as karma — for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.


One popular theory has argued that moralising gods were necessary for the rise of large-scale societies. Small societies, so the argument goes, were like fish bowls. It was almost impossible to engage in antisocial behaviour without being caught and punished — whether by acts of collective violence, retaliation or long-term reputational damage and risk of ostracism. But as societies grew larger and interactions between relative strangers became more commonplace, would-be transgressors could hope to evade detection under the cloak of anonymity. For cooperation to be possible under such conditions, some system of surveillance was required.

What better than to come up with a supernatural “eye in the sky” — a god who can see inside people’s minds and issue punishments and rewards accordingly. Believing in such a god might make people think twice about stealing or reneging on deals, even in relatively anonymous interactions. Maybe it would also increase trust among traders. If you believe that I believe in an omniscient moralising deity, you might be more likely to do business with me, than somebody whose religiosity is unknown to you. Simply wearing insignia such as body markings or jewellery alluding to belief in such a god might have helped ambitious people prosper and garner popularity as society grew larger and more complex.

Time Before and After Moralizing Gods versus Social Complexity

New research we’ve just published in the journal Nature reveals that moralising gods come later than many people thought, well after the sharpest rises in social complexity in world history. In other words, gods who care about whether we are good or bad did not drive the initial rise of civilisations — but came later.


  1. Kirk says:

    Y’know… Given the utter lack of records from this pre-literate and entirely opaque era, I’m rather suspicious of any attempt to read anything from this study. It scans well, but… It’s all supposition and conjecture based on a foundation of presumption. In other words, nothing…

    Given that we have Gobekli Tepi and who knows what else out there that remains undiscovered, I’d be hesitant to start even trying to talk about this, except in terms like “Well, from what we can guess…”, because they still haven’t come up with a decent explanation for the how and why of Gobekli Tepi’s existence, let alone the multi-generational project that buried the damn place. All before the advent of even agriculture, not just “big civilization”.

    I don’t think we know as much as we think we do, and I am really suspicious of anything coming out of the academy, these days–Especially on the issue of religion, which the academy’s “conventional wisdom” seems mostly interested in terms of disparagement and refutation.

    There’s probably something to all this, but absent a time machine that works, I’m really not seeing it come to much of anything besides a bunch of navel-gazing papers and academic controversy. Precisely none of this crap can be proven, because we simply don’t know what the hell was going on. No records, see? And, since thoughts don’t fossilize that well…? You can’t prove a damn thing, one way or the other.

  2. Graham says:

    On behalf of the small societies that used shamanistic practices that here would be characterized as small- say, people on the steppes of Eurasia, I take offense at the distinction between small and big gods.

    My god is the eternal sky. Your gods live under him.

    - Subotai; thief and archer; Hyborian Age

  3. Graham says:

    Also, this model seems to transcend or abandon some worthwhile earlier distinctions.

    The named, elaborate pantheons of settled or settling people’s weren’t always mainly or primarily about morals either- but about rituals to ensure patronage of oneself or the tribe or city or kingdom or empire. Or to propitiate them against destruction, or ensure they maintain celestial mechanics. Whether Greece or Rome or Mexico, morals and ethics as we understand them from monotheism or secular philosophy weren’t usually job one. Not absent, perhaps, but still. The Egyptians, perhaps oddly, an early exception.

  4. Graham says:

    Fair points about the archaeology. I want to credit the professional acumen to a high degree, but ultimately there’s too little content not to note the huge role of interpretive sand castles.

    It’s not the only such discipline not unworkable, but still.

    Of course, to propitiate the Gods of the Academy, I will incant that there was never any war or genocide in prehistory. All just cultural transmission.

  5. Wayne says:

    And another theory bites the dust! But what is the alternative explaination?

    BTW The linked website is insane, politically.

  6. Kirk says:

    My favorite one of these fantasy-based deals is the so-called Venus of Willendorf. Entire academic careers have been based on that thing, and others like it, and the insane thing is, nobody has a real clue what the hell they were for. Fertility goddess? Pregnancy charm? Child’s doll? Who knows?

    But, the academics will spawn thesis after thesis until they’ve cut down entire forests, filled with supposition and theory, precisely none of which can be verified.

    It’s like that supposed “Viking Warrior Maiden” thing recently–All you can really say is that we think a woman was buried in a grave with typical male grave goods of a supposed warrior. They have no skeletal features that support the idea that she was a weapons-wielder, or a soldier, but the fact that she was in a grave with a sword and a board game make everyone swoon at her elite warrior status.

    Alternative explanations? Like maybe, she was buried with her husband’s gear, after he was lost at sea? Or, that she was a sacrificial place-holder for someone killed during a far-off campaign? There’s all sorts of possibilities, but the odds that the Norse were so stupid as to have their women taking up arms for actual warfare in an era where muscle and mass powered everything military? LOL… Pull the other leg, it’s got bells on. Brienne of Tarth is a friggin’ fantasy character. I’m sure that women took up arms to defend their homes and other things, but the idea that you’d be taking along a significant detriment on a long-range raid like the Vikings did…? Yeah; no. Just… No.

  7. Graham says:

    I wonder if it’s good or bad that Peter Turchin is listed as founder of Seshat?

  8. Lu An Li says:

    No afterlife for the faithful either in the pagan world. At least how we understand the afterlife now. You just were in this world after you die — poof — and that is that. Heaven and hell as occupied by the spirits and souls of the deceased not a concept familiar to the ancient world.

  9. Kirk says:

    I seriously dislike the way people go back and try to project things onto and into the past, most especially when they have precisely zero real knowledge of anything at all testable. The very most you can do is say “We found evidence of this”, and leave it at that. Interpretation and attempts to template modern sensibilities and ideas onto things that we find is entirely bullshit, even going back just a generation or two. It’s like the idea that the Romans weren’t racist, because they didn’t “see skin color”: Oh, really? Are you sure they didn’t? Or, did they perhaps cast their racism in a direction other than skin color, because from the way it looks to me, the Romans were basically pretty damn racist against anyone they saw as “non-Roman”, which wasn’t necessarily along lines of skin tone.

    The construct “racism” isn’t really valid, going back to those times. The theory had yet to be articulated, and since it was based mostly on the ideas of Darwin (racial superiority, I mean…), the Romans would have lacked that mindset entirely. Which is not to say that they didn’t have other, equivalent ones that were just as bad…

    The past is another country, and they do things differently there. Even being immediately descended from those who were resident and taking part in those times is no guarantee you’re going to understand or be able to figure out what the hell they were thinking. Were my grandparents racist? I really don’t know how to answer that question–They certainly disapproved of things like the KKK, were for civil rights, but I suspect that had my mother taken up with a black man, that would have been a totally unacceptable thing, unthinkable. So… Does that make them racists? How do you evaluate that?

    And, you want to tell me you can project back a thousand generations and discern the outlines of religious belief? LOL… Yeah. Bullshit. State the raw facts, and leave interpretation for the authors of fiction, because what you’re producing with this BS is only one step away from being a candidate for the next Dragon award.

  10. Paul from Canada says:

    Yeah, modern archeology can be just as infested with projection as anthropology. See Lawrence H. Heeley’s War Before Civilization.

    Watch physical evidence of cannibalism be definitively explained as religious funerary ritual rather than left as “possible evidence of cannibalism”. Watch defensive structures like gatehouses on hill forts explained away as “religious processional structures”, like iron age subsistence farmers had the time and resources for frivolous construction.

    For real fun, when people speak of the Roman barbarity and blood lust of the Games, ask how much actual blood and gore you would actually see from the cheap seats compared to what you can see realistic and close up on the average big screen horror movie.

    As Kirk says, the past is a different country. In colonial times, racism was taken for granted and was “scientific”, and all right-thinking people thought so, and more importantly, so did most of the subjugated.

    We cannot conceive today of the mentality of those who would condemn their neighbours to death for witchcraft, because to us, witchcraft is just a benign semi-religion that some new-agers practice, not an existential threat, but to our ancestors it was a real thing, and in many parts of the world it is STILL a real thing, which we have an equally hard time getting our head around.

    In the part of South Africa where I grew up, belief in witchcraft was pretty much universal. One poor guy doing survey work for a new dam was set upon by a mob and burned to death for witchcraft because he was hammering metal stakes into the ground. That was how wizards summon lightning (a popular way wizards killed people in the area).

    Also “everyone” knew that drowning was the result of witchcraft. After all, you drank water all the time bathed and swam in water and nothing bad happened, water is harmless, unless you have been bewitched.

    I love how modern hopes and expectations are projected onto the past. Yes, there possibly was such a thing as a Viking Shield Maiden, but to be celebrated and mentioned in the way it(allegedly)was, it would have had to be extremely rare, like Joan-of-Arc rare.

    We have ONE burial, based on grave goods alone, no archer’s or swordsman’s deformities on the bones, and suddenly, hey presto! Proof of female warriors AND modern style equality of the sexes in ancient Europe. Confirmation bias writ HUGE!

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