Of gods and men: Societies living in harsh environments are more likely to believe in moralizing gods

Apr 12, 2015

By Science Daily

Just as physical adaptations help populations prosper in inhospitable habitats, belief in moralizing, high gods might be similarly advantageous for human cultures in poorer environments. A new study from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) suggests that societies with less access to food and water are more likely to believe in these types of deities.

“When life is tough or when it’s uncertain, people believe in big gods,” says Russell Gray, a professor at the University of Auckland and a founding director of the Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences in Jena, Germany. “Prosocial behavior maybe helps people do well in harsh or unpredictable environments.”

Gray and his coauthors found a strong correlation between belief in high gods who enforce a moral code and other societal characteristics. Political complexity–namely a social hierarchy beyond the local community– and the practice of animal husbandry were both strongly associated with a belief in moralizing gods.

The emergence of religion has long been explained as a result of either culture or environmental factors but not both. The new findings imply that complex practices and characteristics thought to be exclusive to humans arise from a medley of ecological, historical, and cultural variables.


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23 comments on “Of gods and men: Societies living in harsh environments are more likely to believe in moralizing gods

  • Gray and his coauthors found a strong correlation between belief in high gods who enforce a moral code and other societal characteristics. Political complexity–namely a social hierarchy beyond the local community– and the practice of animal husbandry were both strongly associated with a belief in moralizing gods.

    In harsh environments with sparse populations, the need for communal bonding is important, and the opportunities to check on the veracity of stories are limited when compared to larger populations with better communications.
    Excluded individuals do not have the same opportunities to get mutual support from sub-groups of fellow thinkers.

    Once an elite and a priesthood dominate, individual options are limited.



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  • very true. I wonder also if the rise of monotheism can be attributed to climate change in the middle-east? As the fertile crescent became more desert-like, the people lost touch with the small gods that visited them regularly with local resources? would explain the rise of artanism if the most prevalent aspect of nature was a burning hot sun makeing everyone miserable



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  • “A lot of evolutionists have been busy trying to bang religion on the head. I think the challenge is to explain it,” Gray says.

    For one Dawkins (who I think this jab seems to be eluding to – although I could be misreading this), has been combating religions that try to knock evolution out of the schools, perhaps instead of bitching, they could lend him a hand?

    On the point though, it strikes me that this may be reaching into group selection territory. How does this get isolated down to the individual genes, or could this just be an interesting by-product of our ability to imagine Gods. Thoughts anyone?



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  • Bit of Marxism here. Maybe the complexities created by animal husbandry, mainy the possibility of trade (and thus the need for social organisation, trade routes, markets, customs and excise, currency, law, profits), that trade creates, particularly when grain is added to the mix, leads inevitably to the development of states, and thus the need for the ruling elite to have a reliable, uniform religion which they control.

    Animals are not the only trade item, but in non-nomadic societies they are probably the main one, at least in the inital development of trade, being luxury goods, and not prone to deterioration like fruit and veg. Maybe the animal husbandry, was not a mainstay of religion, particularly as the Aztecs managed to create a hierarchical society, and a unified religion without animal husbandry.



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  • 6
    aroundtown says:

    I’m not sure about the moralizing connection but I do remember something along these lines from an old sociology class. It was suggested that populations in harsh climates where more prone to build and invent as opposed to populations in non-harsh climates like island peoples. The need to be creative being a trigger for creating advanced cultures as opposed to sitting under a palm tree, eating a banana, and enjoying the view. I think most would agree though that island peoples can create “big god”s.

    I do wonder about this. When I lived in Hawaii for a time I observed that they were highly religious and had some really creative stories in their beliefs, like Maui who pulled the islands up from the bottom of the sea while fishing, that and other tales are massively fantastical. But the one that got me thinking, and might offend some who read this, was the story of Captain Cook and his demise. They killed and ate the man and the thinking on their part was the notion that ingesting an individual they thought to be a god would give them power. Begs the proposition that could jesus have visited the Hawaiian islands he likely would have been better served, no pun intended, to have had running shoes on instead of sandals, just saying.



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  • I expect environment plays a part, but lack of contact with other or “outside” cummunities almost certainly has an influence I would have thought.

    So isolation in a harsh environment probably does the trick.

    Quite why religions flourish in congenial comfortable places is, like many things, beyond me.



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  • If religiosity is stronger where the environment is more harsh, then it doesn’t say much for the position of the overfed, ill educated, mentally sterile, and for all the wealth, economically insecure, American Christians ! Lawd have mercy on them ! ‘speshally them Christians in jail, 2 million plus !



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  • Stafford Gordon:

    Quite why religions flourish in congenial comfortable places is, like many things, beyond me.

    Surely not ?

    Despite the presence of JWs at Oxford St Tube station, London, at weekends, handing out leaflets, poor old God is on His last legs in Britain ! To my knowledge, none of the candidates in the current General Election campaign has mentioned God. They know bloody well, it would be political suicide to do so. Hara kiri with Jesus !

    Let’s see how religious Hilary is in the US !



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  • 11
    Lorenzo says:

    That’s an interesting take on the matter.
    There’s some sloppy language in the interview reported by Science Daily but it may be just a press problem -namely: a clear definition of religion isn’t reported before claiming “near universality”.

    I’m gonna take this as an evidence in support of the theory that wants religion as a catalyst for strong pyramidal hierarchies in agriculture-dependent mega tribes…



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  • I’m not really sure it was being explained in terms of genes or individuals. Memes adapting a society to certain harsh conditions, as an analogy with genes doing the same to an individual.



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  • Good point about isolation.

    It also seems that religions that are effective at keeping non-believers at a distance thrive. Strict rules on diet and food preparation help ensure that outsiders can’t comfortably be part of the community. Ditto marriage laws, burial laws, and other rituals. Some religions even blatantly specify that non-believers are to be shunned (or worse). It all helps to make sure that once the religion has taken root, the nay-sayers can’t get a foothold.

    That effect is very evident in American politics, where holding a christian belief is effectively a pre-requisite for being elected to just about any public office. Having all the influential positions held by religious people obviously further entrenches the religion, in a somewhat vicious circle.



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  • Not only living in harsh environments makes people more religious, but living in poverty and squalor does the same, even if the country is green and fertile. Usually when society takes care of people’s basic needs, they tend to be less religious; Scandinavian countries are an example. When a crisis puts in danger the social services people rush back to the temples. This is what is happening now with this endless crisis we are suffering since the year 2008.



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  • Ah but isn’t it quite hard to be poor in the USA? Making poverty akin to a harsh environment?

    In the UK where there is an NHS and established universal benefit system we don’t have the USAs problem with an indigenous loony religious majority. We don’t have your creationist infestation to anywhere near the same degree. And lack of education does not correlate to belief at all.

    Explains sone of recent converts to the more extremist versions of Islam in the UK which are drawn from disadvantaged groups.



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  • And what Britain has is a fairly well established welfare system. An interesting point that a lot of atheists miss when opting solely for the intellectual arguments.



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  • Doesn’t explain the vast numbers of fairly extreme (by UK standards) religious literalists in the USA does it. It has good communications and a far from sparse population yet most of its religion is more extreme and moralistic than in Europe. It’s loony creationists Christianity and vocal ‘moralising’ Catholicism wouldn’t survive five minutes in the UK. In many ways, despite the mega churches, it’s ideas wouldn’t be out of place in many third world harsh environments.

    If you take this in conjunction with the fact that it’s countries with good universal social welfare structures are less religious regardless of education than I think you’re looking for something more. I’d see being poor in the USA as fairly harsh as well.



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  • Alice
    Apr 15, 2015 at 11:59 am

    I’d see being poor in the USA as fairly harsh as well.

    Yes there’s the “poverty” of being a bit short of the usual goods most US citizens have, and then there is real poverty, which is much more serious.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_the_United_States
    In 2011 extreme poverty in the United States, meaning households living on less than $2 per day before government benefits, was double 1996 levels at 1.5 million households, including 2.8 million children.[13] This would be roughly 1.2% of the U.S. population in 2011, presuming a mean household size of 2.55 people. Recent census data shows that half the population qualifies as poor or low income,[14] with one in five Millennials living in poverty.



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  • Do not think it has anything to do with evolution.

    The article seems to say that they have found a correlation between moralising Gods and both ecological harshness and societal complexity, the second of which is fairly evident, the ecology one being not so eviden but hardly surprising when you think about it

    What is interesting is the approach to religion as being an cultural adaption, and with billions of members a highly successful one..

    Studying religion as an adaption leads to more insights and understanding than concentrating on its false epistemology.



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