The appearance of moralizing gods in religion occurred after—and not before—the emergence of large, complex societies, according to new research. This finding upturns conventional thinking on the matter, in which moralizing gods are typically cited as a prerequisite for social complexity.
Gods who punish people for their anti-social indiscretions appeared in religions after the emergence and expansion of large, complex societies, according to new research published today in Nature. The finding suggests religions with moralizing gods, or prosocial religions, were not a necessary requirement for the evolution of social complexity. It was only until the emergence of diverse, multi-ethnic empires with populations exceeding a million people that moralizing gods began to appear—a change to religious beliefs that likely worked to ensure social cohesion.
Belief in vengeful gods who punish populations for their indiscretions, such as failing to perform a ritual sacrifice or an angry thunderbolt response to a direct insult, are endemic in human history (what the researchers call “broad supernatural punishment”). It’s much rarer for religions, however, to involve deities who enforce moral codes and punish followers for failing to act in a prosocial manner. It’s not entirely clear why prosocial religions emerged, but the “moralizing high gods” hypothesis is often invoked as an explanation. Belief in a moralizing supernatural force, the argument goes, was culturally necessary to foster cooperation among strangers in large, complex societies.