Religion has a deep history in our species. People were being buried with grave goods before our species had colonised the globe, hinting at an ancient belief in the afterlife1. But whilst many religious ideas have an early origin, there’s growing evidence that “god” is a lot more recent.
Specifically, the type of moralising deity seen in most western religions. You know the kind, a busybody “Lord” that gets involved in the lives of mortals, issuing commandments and punishing wrongdoers. Well, it turns out they’re relatively rare, only see in ~1/3 of societies2.
Anthropologists studying these societies have found several key similarities that hint at a common, recent, cause for their beliefs. Taken together, we’re figuring out who first started believing in a vengeful god, when it happened, and why these beliefs took off.
Big groups need a big god
The fact that a minority of societies feature a belief in a moralising god might come as a bit of a shock to you. It certainly did to me. “Hang on”, I thought, “moralising gods are worshipped by billions of people. How can they be in the minority?”
I’m sure you’ve already figured out the answer to this paradox. That minority of societies have millions of members, inflating the apparent popularity of belief in a vengeful god2.
It turns out their large size is also the first clue about how a god evolved.
Back in the 60s, scientists found that there is a clear correlation between the two. Bigger groups are much more likely to have an active moralising god. Whilst 95% of societies with <1,000 members lacked this type of deity, they’re seen in almost half of groups with >10,000 people2.
So it seems that the first people to develop a belief in a vengeful god lived in large groups. A big group requires a big god. Maybe their commandments help keep people in line, preventing people from exploiting the system. Or perhaps it fosters trade with religious neighbours.
So, which groups were the first to cross this threshold and develop a moralising god belief?
Who came up with god?
Enter anthropologists Peoples and Marlowe, who wanted to drill down deeper. They used cross-cultural data on 178 different societies to look for other features groups with a vengeful god share, perhaps hinting at a deeper, underlying cause2.
They found it wasn’t population size but co-operation that was the driving force.
Moralising gods were more likely to be present in societies where a large number of people worked together in complex ways. Groups with social classes and/or farmers and/or pastoralists. It’s just large societies were simply more likely to have those traits2.
The first societies to experience these sorts of social demands, and thus foster the evolution of a moralising god, lived relatively recently. Around 10,000 years ago in the Near East groups started domesticating animals, leading to farming, pastoralism, and social stratification2.
As such, these early farmers may have been the first to believe in a moralising god.
Sure enough, we start seeing some of the first evidence for organised religion around this time. Things like alters and evidence of animal sacrifice, along with huge religious monuments2.
However, Göbekli Tepe was built before the invention of farming. This creates a chicken and egg problem Did big societies emerge because an existing belief in god made it possible? Or did the god come later, in response to the problems of living in great big groups?
Chicken or egg – When did God evolve?
To pinpoint when a belief in a moralising deity emerged, we need to figure out whether it enabled complex societies, or was a product of them. We can answer this simply by figuring out which came first.
However, the data we have isn’t clear on the subject. When the Vikings experienced a rise in social complexity, it came after they were introduced to a moralising god. On the other hand, many Near Eastern sites show it happening the other way round4.
So Whitehouse et al. began an exhaustive review of the data to try and answer this question once and for all. Rather than looking at limited case studies, like “what were the Vikings up to”, they examined more than 400 groups, tracking social complexity as a god evolved4.
Consistently, they found that a moralising god came after society got more complex4.
As well as showing god came last, these figures also give an idea for the time scale involved; with it taking ~1,000 years of increasing social complexity before a moralising god shows up4.
In written records, this first appears ~5,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt4. However, earlier evidence for social complexity, like the early farmers, show there are likely earlier examples of prehistoric vengeful gods. This potentially stretches back to Göbekli Tepe 12,500 years ago.
Which might sound impressively ancient from our point of view, but is relatively young for our species. Those first gods would be much closer to us than the first cave art we made.
Love thy neighbour – Why did a deity evolve?
So, we have a fairly good idea about when and how moralising gods evolved. As co-operation became more important for survival the ideas which fostered this also became more important. This included belief in a vengeful god, which emerged with increasing social complexity at a minimum of 5,000 years ago, but potentially much earlier.
But how does a vengeful god help a society co-operate?
- Whitehouse et al. think it might not be the god itself, but the “doctrinal rituals” associated with them. These formal religious ceremonies might be a way to reinforce social bonds and create a sense of group identity. These rituals also predate gods, so it might be the case that deities are simply an evolution of them4.
- Others suggest that fear of a vengeful god might keep troublemakers in line. Research has shown that reminding people about deities also makes them more likely to behave.
- Perhaps these beliefs make you more generous (at least to other members of your religious group). Ethnographic work shows people from societies with a vengeful god give more to other groups that also worship their god. In early society, when crop failure was a constant threat, having a support network was vital for survival5.
In reality, it may well be some combination of these factors; and more. People, and their beliefs, are complicated.
- Ronen, A., 2012. The oldest burials and their significance. CAMBRIDGE STUDIES IN BIOLOGICAL AND EVOLUTIONARY ANTHROPOLOGY, 1(62), pp.554-570.
- Peoples HC, & Marlowe FW (2012). Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion. Human nature (Hawthorne, N.Y.) PMID: 22837060
- Murdock, G. P., & White, D. R. (1980). Standard cross-cultural sample. In H. Barry & A. Schlegel (Eds.), Cross-cultural samples and codes (pp. 3–43). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
- Harvey Whitehouse et al, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history, Nature (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1043-4
- Lang, M., Purzycki, B.G., Apicella, C.L., Atkinson, Q.D., Bolyanatz, A., Cohen, E., Handley, C., Kundtová Klocová, E., Lesorogol, C., Mathew, S. and McNamara, R.A., 2019. Moralizing gods, impartiality and religious parochialism across 15 societies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 286(1898), p.20190202.