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I’ve written about the evolutionary roots of religion in the brain: the hyperactive agent-detection reflex, the reactivation of infant brain modules. But it’s a big leap from individual beliefs in ghosts and spirits to the emergence of formalized doctrinal systems with a priestly class, written creeds, sacred texts, shared rituals, and bureaucratic gods who decree a lengthy list of commandments for everyday behavior. How did it happen?

Until now, the prevailing hypothesis was the “moralizing gods” model. In small tribes where everyone knows each other, reputation alone is a deterrent to antisocial behavior. If you break the rules, word will spread and you’ll be ostracized or exiled. In the animistic and pagan belief systems that dominate such societies, the gods demand worship and punish impiety, but they don’t especially care how people treat each other. (The Greek gods are a good example of this.)

But as these small groupings join together into cities and kingdoms, it becomes easier to lie, cheat and steal without consequences. If a crook is caught, they can always move on and find new victims who haven’t heard of them. The moralizing-gods hypothesis holds that organized religion is an adaptation to solve this problem. In a natural-selection-like filter, civilizations could only get big and complicated once human beings had invented gods who care about prosocial behavior: who decree rules for right and wrong and watch over our behavior to enforce them. These moralizing gods can be big beards in the sky who smite the wicked, or they can be impersonal supernatural laws like karma. Either way, the fear of divine punishment keeps people in line and makes it possible for strangers to trust each other.

It sounds neat and plausible. However, according to new research published in Nature, it just isn’t so:

New research we’ve just published in the journal Nature reveals that moralizing 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 civilizations – but came later.

The authors of the paper drew on a database called Seshat, which compiles data about the political organization of human societies over time. They combined several variables to create an overall measure of social complexity and plotted it against the appearance of moralizing gods. Contrary to expectations, they found that the correlation runs the other way. Big moralizing gods appear after large, complex societies arise – often centuries later.

Contrary to previous predictions, powerful moralizing “big gods” and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of “megasocieties” with populations of more than around one million people… By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

The authors suggest that what really drives complexity is collective rituals – “the equivalent of today’s Sunday services or Friday prayers” – which act as social glue, bonding people together and giving them a sense of shared identity. Their data suggests that these collective rituals predate moralizing gods, by over a thousand years on average.

So if bigger societies don’t spur the invention of commandment-issuing deities, what does? The authors’ hypothesis is that moralizing gods are a prerequisite not for states, but for empires:

Our statistical analysis showed that beliefs in supernatural punishment tend to appear only when societies make the transition from simple to complex, around the time when the overall population exceeds about a million individuals…

Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established.

The hypothesis is that moralizing gods help establish a common rule of behavior for ethnically and culturally diverse populations who don’t have anything else in common that helps to hold them together. But for everyday living, even in fairly large groups of people, you can do just fine without them.

This finding has unwelcome implications for religious apologists who proclaim that civilization will disintegrate if too many people become atheists: like Peter Hitchens, or the guy who predicted that slavery would soon return to Europe. Contrary to these assertions, large numbers of people can live together peacefully without religious belief – and have done so for much of human history.

Now, does this suggest that humans need common rituals to give us a sense of shared purpose? Perhaps. But if that need exists, it would seem that it could just as well be met by secular and humanist rituals that celebrate our shared moral values, rather than rituals that center around placating imaginary supernatural beings.

The other obvious question is whether these moralizing-god theologies are still necessary in the large, multicultural societies that exist today. That’s a question that remains to be empirically tested, since atheist and secular worldviews haven’t been widespread enough until recently. However, I have a suggestion.

Like other beliefs and abstract concepts, moralizing-god theologies can be viewed as a technology, one that humans invented to facilitate living together. But as humans advance, we come up with new, superior technologies which provide the same benefits as the old ones without their drawbacks. The internet conveys information much faster and in greater volume than telegrams. Electric cars transport us just as quickly and conveniently as gasoline cars, but without the noise and pollution. Democracy allows people to create stable polities, just as divine-right monarchy does, but with a greatly diminished risk of a violent psychopath taking over and setting about killing his political opponents.

In the same way, our ethical philosophies have advanced in tandem with our knowledge of the world. We should no longer need the fear of divine cursing or an afterlife of torture to motivate us to treat strangers decently. Secularism, human rights and objective morality can serve as a justification for good behavior among people of different backgrounds – without the “persecuting and killing people who believe in different gods than we do” bug.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...