Strong gods as putty of the high cultures

Moralizing religions emerged only after the emergence of complex societies

Religions with strict moral standards and deities strengthened cohesion in complex, multiethnic civilizations. (Image: imagineGolf / iStock)
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Why and when have religions evolved with strong gods and strict moral rules? Researchers have now found a surprising answer. Contrary to popular belief, such religions were not the driving force for the development of complex societies, but rather their putty: they emerged only after the complex empires, but then ensured that these social structures remained stable in the long term, as the researchers in the journal "Nature" to report.

Whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism or Buddhism: In many major world religions there are strict moral commandments and strong deities, which impose certain rules on their believers in social interaction with each other. The striking thing about it: religions with strong moralizing deities have developed especially in high cultures, but only rarely among primitive peoples. Scientists have long suspected a close connection between the environment, the social complexity of a culture and the nature of its religion.

Driving force of complex cultures?

According to popular hypothesis, the belief in strict, controlling deities could have served as a social putty in the growing populations of advanced civilizations: it diminished the mistrust between actually strangers and discouraged "social parasites". Only this could have enabled the formation of large, complex societies. But whether religion was really the driving force for high cultures, is controversial - also because studies have delivered so far contradictory results.

That's why Harvey Whitehouse of the University of Oxford and his team have completed one of the most comprehensive studies to date on this topic. They evaluated standardized historical data for 414 cultures in 30 different regions of the world - from the Neolithic to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. From 51 cultural and social parameters they compiled an index of the respective social complexity and then compared whether and when these cultures developed a moralizing religion.

First great empire, then strong gods

The surprising result was that the twelve cultures in which moralizing religions appeared had a clear but unexpected sequence: "We find that moralizing gods do not precede the emergence of complex societies, but occur afterward, " Whitehouse and his team report, "This contradicts the usual hypotheses." The main growth of the cultures took place on average more than a hundred years before the appearance of moralizing gods. display

The Egyptian deity Maat weighed the hearts after death and imposed strict moral rules. historical

As a rule, religions with strong deities only developed when a culture had already crossed the threshold of mega-society with more than a million people. "The first appearance of moralizing gods in our sample was in Egypt, where the concept of a supernatural enforcement of order (maat) around 2800 BC is documented, " Whitehouse and his colleagues report. This was followed by other local moral religions in Mesopotamia, Anatolia and China.

Bonding in multiethnic empires

"Powerful jail and supernatural punishment are therefore not prerequisites for the development of social complexity, " say Whitehouse and his colleagues. Instead, such religions are more of a kind of glue, which held together complex, multi-ethnic societies permanently. "They could have been necessary to bind together the often very different parts of the population of such great powers under a higher power, " the researchers say.

Thus, complex societies and strong religions are actually linked only slightly different than previously thought. Instead of driving force and the prerequisite for the formation of large empires, they were rather the guarantor of their stability. However, a common factor in many cultures actually existed before the leap to high culture: the existence of predetermined religious rituals. According to the researchers, they could have been an important precursor to the moralizing religions. (Nature, 2019; doi: 10.1038 / s41586-019-1043-4)

Source: Nature

- Nadja Podbregar