The Birth of the Moralising Gods

A massive new database of world history aims to explore when the belief in supernatural punishment became prevalent. The research seems to show that social complexity tends to increase more rapidly before the appearance of moralising gods, not after.

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.

Now, thanks to our massive new database of world history, known as Seshat (named after the Egyptian goddess of record keeping), we’re starting to get some answers. Efforts to build the database began nearly a decade ago, attracting contributions from more than 100 scholars at a cost of millions of pounds. The database uses a sample of the world’s historical societies, going back in a continuous time series up to 10,000 years before the present, to analyse hundreds of variables relating to social complexity, religion, warfare, agriculture and other features of human culture and society that vary over time and space. Now that the database is finally ready for analysis, we are poised to test a long list of theories about global history.

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 exceed about a million individuals.

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