Reader Jason alerted me to this article that says that the emergence of all-powerful gods came after the rise of civilizations.
The idea that an all-knowing god was necessary for large societies to function and hence must have come earlier has a plausible argument.
One popular theory has argued that moralising gods were necessary for the rise of large-scale societies. Small societies, so the argument goes, were like fish bowls. It was almost impossible to engage in antisocial behaviour without being caught and punished – whether by acts of collective violence, retaliation or long-term reputational damage and risk of ostracism. But as societies grew larger and interactions between relative strangers became more commonplace, would-be transgressors could hope to evade detection under the cloak of anonymity. For cooperation to be possible under such conditions, some system of surveillance was required.
What better than to come up with a supernatural “eye in the sky” – a god who can see inside people’s minds and issue punishments and rewards accordingly. Believing in such a god might make people think twice about stealing or reneging on deals, even in relatively anonymous interactions.
But a consortium of scholars constructed a database going back 10,000 years and the results argue that it actually went the opposite way.
We analysed data on 414 societies from 30 world regions, using 51 measures of social complexity and four measures of supernatural enforcement of moral norms to get to the bottom of the matter. New research we’ve just published in the journal Nature reveals that moralising 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 civilisations – but came later.
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.
The paper that was published in Nature can be read here.
While interesting as a piece of social anthropology, what relevance might this have today? The authors speculate what the increasing secularization of society might portend for complex modern societies that may have depended upon religion as one of the glues that held them together.