The Worth of an Angry God


Image credit. NAUTILUS
How supernatural beliefs allowed societies to bond and spread.

By Brian Gallagher | NAUTILUS

A god who knows everything, is everywhere, and wields impossible power, is a potent fantasy. Allegiance to it animates the lives of billions worldwide. But this “Big God,” as psychologists and anthropologists refer to it, wasn’t dreamt from scratch but pieced together, over thousands of years, paralleling humanity’s move from small- to large-scale societies. One burning question researchers want to answer is: Did humans need belief in a God-like being—someone who can punish every immorality we might commit—to have the big societies we have today, where we live relatively peaceably among strangers we could easily exploit?

Harvey Whitehouse, the director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, doesn’t think so. “Complex societies,” he and his colleagues declared in a March Nature paper, “precede moralizing gods throughout world history.” They relied on a massive historical database, called Seshat, which over a decade attracted contributions from over a hundred scholars. With the database “finally ready for analysis,” Whitehouse and his colleagues wrote in The Conversation, “we are poised to test a long list of theories about global history,” particularly “whether morally concerned deities drove the rise of complex societies,” some hallmarks of which are more economic integration and division of labor, more political hierarchy, the emergence of classes, and dependence on more complex technology and pre-specialists. Whitehouse concluded that those deities did no such driving. As he told Nautilus in a 2014 interview, as societies became more agricultural, what researchers see “in the archeological record is increasing frequency of collective rituals. This changes things psychologically and leads to more doctrinal kinds of religious systems, which are more recognizable when we look at world religions today.”

Joseph Henrich, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, sees it differently. He contends that moralizing gods spurred societal complexity because belief in moralizing gods leads to success in intergroup competition. It increased trust and cooperation among a growing population of relative strangers, he said, and buttressed traits like bravery in warfare. “The word ‘moralizing’ is not a useful term,” though, he added. “People use it casually, because people are interested in morality, but the theory specifies this very specific set of things that increase your success in intergroup competition. Most people want to call greater cooperation, helping strangers, things like that, moral. That’s just a Western preoccupation.”

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