“For we know Him who has said:” And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon them.'” Ezekiel 25:17.
The God depicted in the Old Testament can sometimes seem angry. And in that he is not alone; supernatural forces, the punishment of evil play a central role in many modern religions.
But which came first: complex societies, or the belief in a punitive god ?
A new study suggests that the formation of complex society came first and that the belief in such gods helped unite people under a common higher power.
More From LiveScience
- The Top of the World Religions (Infographic)
- Austronesian religions
Ancient societies often used supernatural forces to explain natural phenomena , such as lightning. But in the past millennia, religions have also used supernatural powers to enforce moral codes. For example, the Egyptian sun god, Ra, were assessed with the fate of the people in the hereafter, on the basis of how well they followed the code of “size” or “what is right.” [The Top of the World Religions (Infographic)]
Past work has argued that the emergence of the idea of the cosmic enforcement of morality was associated with social complexity. The concept of supernatural judgment developed to help strangers in large societies work, the researchers have the hypothesis. Some works, such as analyses of Austronesian religions or of the Viking a ge in Scandinavia , suggested that moralizing gods preceded complex societies, while other research, such as a study of The rich , found that moralizing gods followed the rise of complex societies.
But those studies are limited in geographical scope and hindered, sometimes, because historians lacked detailed information about the complexity of the society at certain points in history, said Patrick Savage, an anthropologist at Keio University in Kanagawa, Japan. In the new study, Savage and his colleagues sought to overcome these limitations with the help of the Seshat: Global History Databank, a database of information about the general history of the end of the Palaeolithic to the Industrial Revolution.
The scientists analysed the relationship between the social complexity and the moralizing gods in 414 societies in the last 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world. Researchers examined 51 measures of social complexity, such as the size of the largest settlement and the presence of a formal legal code, and four sizes of supernatural enforcement of morality, such as the concept of a supernatural power that controls and punishes selfish actions.
The researchers found that belief in moralizing gods usually followed increase of the social complexity, generally appear after the rise of civilizations with a population of more than 1 million people.
“It was particularly striking how constant it was [that] this phenomenon can arise on the million level,” Savage said. “First you get large societies, and that these beliefs come in.”
All in all, “our research suggests that religion plays a functional role within the history of the world, helping to stabilize societies and people working together in general,” Savage said. “In really small societies, such as very small groups of hunter-gatherers, everyone knows everyone, and everyone keeping an eye on everyone to ensure that they behave. Larger societies are more anonymous, so you wouldn’t know who to trust.”
At those sizes, you see the rise of the faith in an almighty, supernatural, person to look and to keep things under control, Savage added.
“We don’t say anything about the value of religion,” Savage added. “We are not saying it is good or bad, but we say it has a deep and consistent relationship with the societies in the world history. Religion is deeply intertwined with what it means to be human, for better and worse.”
The scientists detailed their findings online today (March 20) in the journal Nature. Their work was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
- Religion and Science: 6 Visions of Earth’s Core
- 25 Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice
- Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus
Originally published on Live Science.