Complex Societies Not Driven by “Big Gods” of Christianity or Islam

Media release, Faculty of Science, The University of Auckland

March 04, 2015
New research on the evolution of religious belief provides evidence that Pacific cultures were able to build large complex societies without the punishing, moralising “Big Gods” of Islam and Christianity.

Since ancient times, scholars have debated the role of religion in the evolution of complex human societies. Many have argued that belief in a supreme deity - an all-seeing, all-knowing God who punishes transgressors - played a key role in helping suppress selfishness and enhance cooperation so that larger and more complex societies could evolve. But the new study, by doctoral researcher Joseph Watts and Professor Russell Gray of the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, finds the role of these “Big Gods” may have been over-hyped.

“The role of Big Gods in building big societies has been hugely over-hyped, and is based on a failure to distinguish between correlations and causal relationship”, says R. Gray. And J. Watts adds: “Instead, it seems that lots of little gods and spirits – anthropomorphic beings such as the spirits of deceased ancestors – is all that necessary to promote cooperation and drive the evolution of complex societies.”  

The researchers studied 96 Pacific cultures through computational modelling using phylogenetic methods which test cross-cultural patterns by looking at “family trees” of cultures. These methods model the deep pre-history of cultures, and test the order that religious and cultural features evolved. The research shows that belief in Big Gods arose within the last few thousand years, well after humans developed large cooperative societies. Instead, the threat of supernatural punishment by small gods, such as the spirits of recently deceased ancestors,  was enough to drive political complexity. The study suggests belief in one supreme supernatural deity arose from cross-cultural interaction arising from activities such as trade.

“A central message of this research is that humans are capable of building and sustaining large cooperative societies without the threat of punishment by a big god,” says Mr Watts.

For more information contact:
Anne Beston, Media Relations Adviser, Communications
University of Auckland
Tel.: +64 9 923 3258, Mobile: + 64 (0) 21 970 089

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