How men came to God

The idea of an almighty God who monitors humans from above and sanctions those who deviate from the norm arose after they left the tribe for more complex types of society. That is the main conclusion of a comprehensive study that reviews the emergence of complex societies and the idea of the moral god. From the ancient Egyptians to the Roman Empire, passing through the Hittites, the moral gods do not enter the scene until societies do not become really great.

Belief in the supernatural is as old as humans. But the idea of an omniscient vigilante being of morality is more recent. Before the Neolithic Revolutions, the emergence of agriculture and the first societies, humans lived in relatively small groups based on kinship. In The tribe everyone knew each other and it should be difficult to have antisocial behavior without being caught. The risk of being designated, punished or expelled from the group was sufficient to control it. But as societies became more complex, relationships with strangers to the clan grew and, at the same, the odds of escaping the sanction. For Many scholars of religions, the appearance of a all-seeing moral God made of social glue, facilitating the emergence of ever-larger societies.

"But What we have seen is that the moralizing gods are not necessary for large-scale societies to be established," says the director of the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion at Oxford University (United Kingdom) and co-author of the study, Harvey Whitehouse. "In fact, they only appear after the strong initial increase in social complexity, once societies reach a population of about a million people," he adds.

The study uses 55 variables to measure the social complexity of 414 political entities

Together with a large group of scientists, the British anthropologist has analyzed 414 political entities emerged since the Neolithic. In the database, collected in the project Seshat, there are from cities State like Ur to the Viking Confederation of Iceland and empires like the Inca or the Achaemenid. To measure their complexity, they used up to 55 different variables, such as the existence of a stratification and social hierarchy, if there were private property and the ability to transfer it, development of agriculture or an army.

His results, published in the journal Nature, show that, by the time the moral gods appeared, most societies were already very complex. In fact, the political entities studied show an average increase of their social complexity up to five times greater before the arrival of these gods than afterwards. It Is only then that the moral god fulfils a social function: "Perhaps it is because, at this point, societies are so great that they become vulnerable to internal tensions and conflict. The moralizing gods could offer a way for societies to continue to prosper despite such tensions, making all cooperate to avoid offending a higher power attentive to our behavior towards others and that it was thought that He punished the transgressors, "Whitehouse points out as a possible explanation.

La diosa egipcia Maat.The Egyptian goddess Maat. Universal History Archive Getty Images

The first ideas of a moral God arise in ancient Egypt, with the figure of Maat, the daughter of the god Ra. That was around 2800 before the current era, after several centuries that the first cities of the Nile Valley would be unified. He follows Him on the temporary list, Shamash, the All-seeing sun god, of the Akkadian Empire, half a millennium after emerged the Mesopotamian civilizations. The same pattern is observed with the Chinese deity Tian or the various gods of the Kingdom of Hatti, in Anatolia. Already in the first millennium before this era appeared the Mazdeísmo or Zoroastrianism, the Judaism and, already in the present, the Christianity or the Islamism. All are religions with moral gods emerged or evolved in societies already consolidated.

The first moral gods appear in ancient Egypt, in Mesopotamia, Anatolia and China

The study shows, however, that there may be highly complex societies without a moral god. That does not mean that they did not punish humans, but they did it more for lack of obligations to divinities than for offending other humans. Most of them are American or Southeast Asian.

"The sacrifices and gender norms of the Aztecs seem to be focused more on the maintenance [of a universal order] and individual improvement than on the establishment of religiously controlled customs in which some moralizing gods threaten Sanctions to improper interpersonal actions, "notes the archaeologist of the University of Texas and co-author of the study, Alan Covey. "Mayan texts seem to show, at least in the realm of kings, that Razias and human sacrifices were memorable events rather than acts for which supernatural moral disapproval could be feared," adds this expert archaeologist to empires Pre-Columbian, especially the Inca. "This fits with the general features of the Andean world view and the local and state sacrifice practices of the Inca Empire," he concludes.

The study goes even further and believes to find a connection between the emergence of Scripture and the emergence of the moral gods. In nine of the 12 regions of the planet analyzed, the first written records appear an average of 400 years before the first references to the moral gods. Combined with the absence of the idea of the moral God in most oral cultures, "it suggests that these beliefs were not widespread before the invention of scripture," says Whitehouse.

The Gods of Aztecs, Mayans or Incas do not intervene in the morals of human relations

But They don't all say the same thing. The Director of the Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany), the evolutionary biologist, Russell Gray, maintains: "The tests of moralizing gods are difficult to find before the invention of Scripture, but that does not mean that there are none. The first writings were mainly documents on financial transactions, not on religious beliefs, "he adds. Gray, who has not participated in this study, is one of the greatest advocates that divine punishment understood in a broad sense is a precursor of political and social complexity. However, he recognizes, "that the moral gods are a relatively recent creation."

One of the greatest investigators of the prosocial character of religions is the professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia (Canada), Ara Norenzayan. He argues that what is produced is a process of feedback between God moral and society: "Among other factors, the moral gods help to increase and stabilize the size and complexity of society and, in return, this idea [of the moral God] is redistributed to a Greater number of people. " For Norenzayan, the prosociality of this God is explained: "As societies become larger and more complex, anonymity pervades relations and weakens cooperation, unless a series of institutions, beliefs and restrictive behaviors Copper protagonism. The theory is based on the vigilant moral belief in God, by means of judgments, punishments and moral rewards, reduces selfishness and encourages cooperation with the strange fellow. "

The Karma of Buddhism and the Nordic gods


Whitehouse's study has received other criticisms. One is the extemporaneidad of some of the other. Researcher Amaia Arranz Otaegui, an expert in the emergence of agriculture and the first urban societies in the Middle East and Anatolia, raises some: "You Cannot compare periods where there are written sources and you know the religious practices with great Detail, with the Neolithic where we only have the material record, which is much more limited. " And He adds: Who tells us that the goddess figures we find in Çatalhöyuk (or the Palaeolithic Venus) would not constitute moralistic gods? "

Another criticism that the work receives is that the idea of the moral gods unites the concept of moral punishment in a broad sense. There Are religions with a huge moral burden which, however, have no moralizing gods. In them, the moral role is played by an impersonal entity or agent such as the Karma of Buddhism and the like in Hinduism or Jainism.

"The supernatural punishment in the broad sense and the high moralizing gods seem to play similar functional roles, only that Buddhism tended to spread to the east from South Asia and the Abrahamicas religions expanded to the west from the middle East," He holds the professor at Keio University (Japan) and co-author of the study on complex societies, Patrick Savage.

But His work has difficulty in cataloguing the prosocial character of some religions. The Most striking case could be that of the Vikings. They Had A complete pantheon of heavenly gods, Odin, Balder, Thor... But They also believed in countless earthly magical beings that lived among humans, such as nymphs, ogres, witches...

A study published in 2017 on the Viking religion and society wanted to see whether the evolution towards a complex society from the original Nordic clans had been influenced by the presence of a moral god or, as an alternative hypothesis, by the existence Of some kind of impersonal supernatural punishment.

They found that the Vikings did believe they felt morally monitored, but only in certain situations. "But Their gods did not seem very concerned about morality," says Simon Fraser University Archaeology professor and co-author of that study, Mark Collard. Although He does not believe that these gods had a central role, he would bet "a few dollars that the religious conduct of the Nordics helped to increase cooperation and, therefore, social complexity."

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