“An ancient Egyptian spent her whole life preparing for the moment when her heart would be weighed. After death, she was escorted before a divine scale. In one pan rested an ostrich feather belonging to Maat, the goddess of social order. The other pan held her heart. The deceased had been buried with a list of her virtues: “I have not uttered lies.” “I have not slain men and women.” “I have not stopped the flow of water [of the Nile.]” Any sins would weigh down her heart. When the scale settled, her fate would be clear: If her heart weighed no more than Maat’s feather, she was escorted to paradise. If her heart was too heavy, the crocodile demon Amemet reared up and devoured it, obliterating her soul.
Although much of Egyptian cosmology is alien today, some is strikingly familiar: The gods of today’s major religions are also moralizing gods, who encourage virtue and punish selfish and cruel people after death. But for most of human history, moralizing gods have been the exception. If today’s hunter-gatherers are any guide, for thousands of years our ancestors conceived of deities as utterly indifferent to the human realm, and to whether we behaved well or badly.
To crack the mystery of why and how people around the world came to believe in moralizing gods, researchers are using a novel tool in religious studies: the scientific method. By combining laboratory experiments, cross-cultural fieldwork, and analysis of the historical record, an interdisciplinary team has put forward a hypothesis that has the small community of researchers who study the evolution of religion abuzz. A culture like ancient Egypt didn’t just stumble on the idea of moralizing gods, says psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, in Canada, who synthesized the new idea in his 2013 book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Instead, belief in those judgmental deities, or “big gods,” was key to the cooperation needed to build and sustain Egyptians’ large, complex society.
© REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF THE STATE HERITAGE MUSEUM, ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA/CORBIS
Big gods demand costly displays of faith, like Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Rembrandt’s painting, God sends an angel to stay the knife.
In this view, without supernatural enforcement of cooperative, “moral” behavior, ancient Egypt—as well as nearly every other large-scale society in history—wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground. All-knowing big gods are “crazily effective” at enforcing social norms, says Norenzayan’s collaborator Edward Slingerland, a historian at UBC Vancouver. “Not only can they see you everywhere you are, but they can actually look inside your mind.” And once big gods and big societies existed, the moralizing gods helped religions as dissimilar as Islam and Mormonism spread by making groups of the faithful more cooperative, and therefore more successful.
It’s a sweeping theory, grander in scale than much of the scholarship by religious studies experts, who usually examine one tradition at a time. “They’ve done a great service by bringing together a lot of important findings in the field,” says Richard Sosis, a human behavioral ecologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Now, they’re embarking on new experiments and analysis to test it—a challenging task given the scope of the theory. “It’s easy to say” that moralizing religions spread through cultural evolution, says Dominic Johnson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who studies religion and cooperation. “But it’s quite hard to demonstrate.”
WHEN NORENZAYAN was growing up in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, “it was very hard to miss religion,” he remembers. Faith was the defining fact of people’s lives, and it fueled the sectarian war that consumed the country. After moving to the United States for a Ph.D., Norenzayan became fascinated with scientific efforts to explain belief, many of them rooted in cognitive sciences. A series of studies had shown that both children and adults eagerly ascribe humanlike intentions and actions to inanimate objects like rocks and the sun. For example, British and American children repeatedly told scientists that rocks are sharp so animals won’t sit on them, rather than because they are made up of smaller pieces of material (Science, 6 November 2009, p. 784). Such studies contributed to a growing scientific consensus that belief in the supernatural is an evolutionary byproduct of the quirks of the human brain, piggybacking on abilities that evolved for different purposes.
But Norenzayan was not satisfied. The byproduct model doesn’t explain the particular nature of religions in complex societies—the presence of moralizing gods who prescribe human behavior. Nor does it explain why a handful of those faiths have proved so successful.
© JEAN ENSMINGER
When Kenya’s Orma people converted to Islam, they gained advantageous economic ties and new customs like this Muslim ceremony.
In an effort to answer these questions, Norenzayan began making forays into the psychology of religion. In one study, published in 2007 in Psychological Science, he and a colleague gave $10 to participants, who could then decide how much to give to a stranger and how much to keep for themselves. When primed with religious words, participants gave away an average of $4.22, whereas a control group gave away only $1.84.
A few years later, human evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich (then at UBC Vancouver, now at Harvard University) and his colleagues asked people in 15 societies, ranging from tribal farmers in Papua New Guinea to wageworkers in Missouri, to play a similar economic game. The researchers found that across these cultures, people who participated in a moralizing world religion, particularly Christianity and Islam, gave as much as 10% more to strangers than did unbelievers or practitioners of animism. Their results were published inScience in 2010.
Norenzayan thinks this connection between moralizing deities and “prosocial” behavior—curbing self-interest for the good of others—could help explain how religion evolved. In small-scale societies, prosocial behavior does not depend on religion. The Hadza, a group of African hunter-gatherers, do not believe in an afterlife, for example, and their gods of the sun and moon are indifferent to the paltry actions of people. Yet the Hadza are very cooperative when it comes to hunting and daily life. They don’t need a supernatural force to encourage this, because everyone knows everyone else in their small bands. If you steal or lie, everyone will find out—and they might not want to cooperate with you anymore, Norenzayan says. The danger of a damaged reputation keeps people living up to the community’s standards.
As societies grow larger, such intensive social monitoring becomes impossible. So there’s nothing stopping you from taking advantage of the work and goodwill of others and giving nothing in return. Reneging on a payment or shirking a shared responsibility have no consequences if you’ll never see the injured party again and state institutions like police forces haven’t been invented yet. But if everyone did that, nascent large-scale societies would collapse. Economists call this paradox the free rider problem. How did the earliest large-scale societies overcome it?
In some societies, belief in a watchful, punishing god or gods could have been the key, Norenzayan believes. As he wrote in Big Gods, “Watched people are nice people.” Belief in karma—which Norenzayan calls “supernatural punishment in action”—could have had a similar psychological effect in the absence of actual gods, a proposition his colleagues are investigating in Asia.
History and archaeology offer hints that religion really did shape the earliest complex societies. Conventional wisdom says that the key to settling down in big groups was agriculture. But “agriculture itself is a wildly improbable cooperative activity,” notes Slingerland, who studies ancient China. “Especially in places where you can’t get agriculture off the ground without large-scale irrigation or water control projects, the cooperation problem has to get solved before you can even get the agriculture ramped up.” That’s where religion came in, he and Norenzayan think.”