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Origin of Religion: Were They Born Before or After Complex Societies?

For a long time people thought that gods watching over human actions were necessary for developing societies on a large scale. In a small community where everyone knows each other, it is impossible not to notice uncooperative behavior. But when the number of people increases, it can be more difficult to detect an anti-social attitude. To facilitate cooperation, there was a need for a "surveillance system", that is, gods. However, collective faith in supernatural and moralizing entities is a consequence of the development of structured civilizations, not its engine, as has long been hypothesized.

origin of religion

Today we associate religions with faith in higher entities that deal with human morality, protect the virtuous and punish transgressors. This concept, however, is anything but universal. Past societies, in fact, believed in divinities that do not deal with human affairs.

Provided, of course, that the faithful worshipped them and complied with ritual offerings. Maybe finding out more about the origin of religion can help us understand this difference.

So, when were the great moralizing religions born? What relationship do they have with the birth of complex and well organized societies? Are they the cause, or the consequence? Let’s answer to these questions.

An Old Theory About the Origin of Religion

For a long time people thought that the presence of gods watching over human actions was necessary for the development of societies on a large scale. In a small community where everyone knows each other, it is impossible not to notice uncooperative behavior. But when the number of people increases, it can be more difficult to detect an anti-social attitude. To facilitate cooperation, there was a need for a “surveillance system“. And what could be better than an eye watching from above?

Now, however, a study published in Nature contradicts this widespread theory. In fact, the great moralizing gods may be a product, and not one of the causes of complex societies. The authors of the study are scientists from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna. They based their research on a huge database on the history of human civilizations called Seshat – like the Egyptian goddess of writing, calculus and geometry. It includes about 300,000 entries on societies, religion and other features of 500 past civilizations that have developed over 10,000 years.

What Keeps us Together?

For centuries people have wondered why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals. As elements of union we have noticed factors such as agriculture, war or – indeed – religion. In research of this kind, Seshat is useful because it contains data on the religious practices and social complexity of hundreds of civilizations from Neolithic times to the present day.

The social complexity depends on factors such as population, territorial extension, refinement of government institutions and information systems. Data on religions include belief in supernatural divinities representing the concepts of loyalty and honesty, and the frequency and standardization of collective rituals.

Scientists have analyzed data on 414 societies in 30 regions of the world. In all of them, moralizing deities came after the increase in social complexity, and not before. Faith in supernatural entities capable of judging and punishing only appeared after the transition from simple to complex societies. That is, when the population of each one exceeded one million.

On the contrary, standardized rituals such as a weekly day dedicated to collective prayer developed hundreds of years before the great moralizing divinities. The hypothesis is that these group rituals acted as the glue of collective identity. They would have given people a sense of belonging to a larger reality, and led to more cooperative behavior.

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