A New Study Suggests Complex Civilizations Created Big Gods Rather Than The Reverse



A new study has suggested that moralizing gods normally follow rather than precede social complexity in large civilizations.


Kristine Moore


A team of international researchers, including one that is associated with the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, have published a new study which has analyzed the relevance of “big gods” that are found within complex civilizations and societies.


As Phys.org has reported, the big gods that were researched were clearly described as “moralizing deities” whose role it was to exact harsh punishments upon those not following the rules of ethics within the complex societies that were studied.


However, it was determined through this research that the beliefs in these gods stemmed from complex civilizations themselves and were a natural consequence of living in these societies. In other words, the beliefs in these different gods did not cause the creation of these societies, but the reverse.


Researchers involved in this new study used data taken from the Seshat Global History Databank, which is the most enormous historical and prehistorical database that exists. In this database, there are presently 300,000 records that hold 10,000 years worth of details about societal complexity and religion, covering 500 civilizations from past eras.


As co-author Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna has noted, “It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals.”


#Complex societies gave birth to big gods, not the other way around: study @nature https://t.co/LTTbGoG2Zf

— Phys.org (@physorg_com) March 21, 2019


Many reasons have been put forward to explain the cooperation of humans living in complex societies, and some of these have included warfare, agriculture and religion. Perhaps one of the biggest theories to explain this cooperation is the belief in gods and the abject fear of punishment that may be inflicted upon people if they fail to follow their civilization’s code. However, lead author Harvey Whitehouse noted that the results of this new research suggested quite the opposite.


“To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this hypothesis. In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.”


In fact, it was also determined that rituals appeared within these complex societies in some cases hundreds of years before the formal belief in gods.


It was these rituals which held the fabric of these civilizations together rather than gods, and as Whitehouse noted, “Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than religious beliefs.”


While attempting to separate cause and effect from religion and social issues within these complex societies has been difficult in the past, this latest research included a wide range of academics which included historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, data scientists and social scientists, and all of these individuals worked together to create the enormous open-access database Seshat, which began with Neolithic Anatolians who lived in 9,600 B.C.


Pieter François, from the University of Oxford, stated that this database allowed researchers to focus on the many variables involved within religion, warfare, social complexity, and agriculture, and in this case showed the researchers that complex societies themselves were the true creators of gods.


The new study which has suggested that complex societies created their own gods has been published in Nature