Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history

Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage*, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Enrico Cioni, Rosalind Purcell, Robert M. Ross, Jennifer Larson, John Baines, Barend ter Haar, Alan Covey, Peter Turchin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

107 Citations (Scopus)


The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles 1–8 . The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies 9–13 . Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity 3,6,7,9–18 , the relationship between the two is disputed 9–13,19–24 , and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions 9,12,16,18 , powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations 25,26 generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)226-229
Number of pages4
Issue number7751
Publication statusPublished - 11 Apr 2019


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