Belief In Moralizing Gods Came Centuries After Complex Civilizations Evolved, Not Before

The oldest reference we can find to gods that rewarded good behavior between people, and punished misdeeds, is only 2-3 centuries before the building of the Sphinx, and four hundred years after Egypt became a complex hierachical society. Mountains Hunter/Shutterstock

Belief in a God or gods that punish evil-doers and reward those who behave well is so widespread many philosophers of religion argue it is necessary to hold together large societies. That idea appears to be refuted, however, with evidence faith in “moralizing gods” usually appeared centuries after such societies evolved, suggesting it was unnecessary for the building of those societies.

The question of when people started believing in moralizing gods is relevant for modern debates about how morality will change in increasingly non-religious societies.

Oxford University's Dr Patrick Savage decided to put this to the test, by looking at what we know about the religious beliefs of 414 societies worldwide over the last 10,000 years. In most cases, moralizing gods only appeared in the social record after the emergence of what Savage and colleagues term “megasocieties”, interconnected populations of more than a million people.

Belief in supernatural beings that might be termed “gods” is widespread, perhaps universal, in historical human societies. However, Savage distinguishes between deities that demand sacrifices or expect people to avoid sacred places, and “moralizing gods” that additionally punish violations of moral laws between humans.

Savage includes in the moralizing gods category not just the deities of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but Buddhist notions of karma. What all of these have in common is a view that, if you do wrong by your fellow human, you will pay a price, in this life or the next. The definition of “doing wrong” might often include absurd restrictions on sexual behavior, but fear of punishment for theft or violence can help hold together a society too large for everyone to have a personal connection.

In Nature, Savage uses the Seshat Global History Databank for its independent assessment of the level of social complexity of many societies over time. Greater complexity is marked by features such as increasing populations, greater hierarchies, formal legal codes and transport infrastructure.

This was compared with reports about the religious beliefs from 30 distinct regions. The paper notes, “Although societies in all 30 regions possessed beliefs about appeasing supernatural agents through the performance of rituals, in 10 out of the 30 regions, there was no evidence for moralizing gods before their introduction under colonial powers.” In the other 20, a belief in moralizing gods may have arisen locally, but on average, this was 400 years after writing first appeared, ensuring such views would be recorded if they had existed. The earliest example was from Egypt 4,800 years ago, during the second dynasty, whose name demonstrates the society was ancient even then.

The authors conclude that, while a belief in divine retribution may have assisted the stability of societies, it was not necessary for their formation, casting doubt on claims we need it today.

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