Gods and religions as tools for control of social behaviour

Religions (belief in systems of supernatural punishment – BSP) and then those based on Moralising High Gods (also to mete out punishment for social transgressions) were, no doubt, originally invented as a means of social control in societies of increasing size and/or complexity. It has been suggested that Moralising High Gods (MHG) were a necessary condition which probably enabled the growth of complexity in, and success of, such societies. (Effectively then, a means for getting large numbers to behave themselves and as a cheap substitute for – and perhaps a complement to – an expensive police force in complex societies).

A new paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (B) reports on studies of religious beliefs in 96 Austronesian cultures and suggests that a belief in a “Big God” was not necessarily the driver of developing social complexity.

Joseph Watts et al, Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia, Proceedings B, The Royal Society, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2556

Abstract: Supernatural belief presents an explanatory challenge to evolutionary theorists—it is both costly and prevalent. One influential functional explanation claims that the imagined threat of supernatural punishment can suppress selfishness and enhance cooperation. Specifically, morally concerned supreme deities or ‘moralizing high gods’ have been argued to reduce free-riding in large social groups, enabling believers to build the kind of complex societies that define modern humanity. Previous cross-cultural studies claiming to support the MHG hypothesis rely on correlational analyses only and do not correct for the statistical non-independence of sampled cultures. Here we use a Bayesian phylogenetic approach with a sample of 96 Austronesian cultures to test the MHG hypothesis as well as an alternative supernatural punishment hypothesis that allows punishment by a broad range of moralizing agents. We find evidence that broad supernatural punishment drives political complexity, whereas MHGs follow political complexity. We suggest that the concept of MHGs diffused as part of a suite of traits arising from cultural exchange between complex societies. Our results show the power of phylogenetic methods to address long-standing debates about the origins and functions of religion in human society.

Philip Ball comments in Nature:

All human societies have been shaped by religion, leading psychologists to wonder how it arose, and whether particular forms of belief have affected other aspects of evolved social structure. According to one recent view, for example, belief in a “big God” — an all-powerful, punitive deity who sits in moral judgement on our actions — has been instrumental in bringing about social and political complexity in human cultures.

But a new analysis of religious systems in Austronesia — the network of small and island states stretching from Madagascar to Easter Island  — challenges that theory. In these states, a more general belief in supernatural punishment did tend to precede political complexity, the research finds, but belief in supreme deities emerged after complex cultures have already formed. …

The most common examples of religions with MHGs — Christianity and Islam, the dominant representatives of so-called Abrahamic religions — are relatively recent and obviously postdated the appearance of complex societies. But the question is whether earlier MHGs, for example in Bronze Age civilisations, catalysed sociopolitical complexity or resulted from it. …

…. Watts and his colleagues pruned the 400 or so known Austronesian cultures down to 96 with detailed ethnographic records, excluding any in which contact with Abrahamic religions might have had a distorting outside influence. They range from native Hawaiians, who hold polytheistic beliefs, to the Merina people in Madagascar, who believe in a supreme God.

The team considered two classes of religion: MHGs and a broader belief in systems of supernatural punishment (or ‘BSP’) for social transgressions, such as those enacted through ancestral spirits or inanimate forces such as karma. Although both schemes see religious or supernatural agents as imposing codes of moral conduct, BSP does not assume a single supreme deity who oversees that process.

Six of the cultures had MHGs, 37 had BSP belief systems and 22 were politically complex, the researchers concluded. They used trees of evolutionary connections between cultures, deduced from earlier studies of linguistic relationships, to explore how the societies were inter-related and exchanged ideas. That in turn allowed them to test different hypotheses about MHGs and BSPs — for example, whether belief in MHGs precedes (and presumably then stabilizes) the emergence of political complexity.

But it seems to me that the distinction between BSP (with punitive supernatural forces) and MHG (with punitive moralising high gods) is largely a matter of degree. MHG is a natural progression with the identifying of the supernatural forces in human terms – and therefore – allowing some sections to claim some special alliance with the god having supernatural force. A god without supernatural force clearly would not qualify. Worshipping a Sun-god is different to worshipping the Sun only in that it allows the priests of the Sun-god to identify with the god. Priests of the Sun (rather than a Sun-god) just don’t have the same credibility and thus authority. It is not by accident that all gods are in the recognisable image of man (and that applies even to the elephant god Ganesh and the monkey god Hanuman). That allows the “priests” and the “prophets” to establish themselves in a position of social power (allied to the political power). It seems to me to be a logical extension of “calling on supernatural forces” for social control to become “calling on a specific supernatural god” as a cost-effective, self-policing method to control the masses in an increasingly complex society.

It also seems quite apparent to me that a small clan would have no need of a religion since the “leader” would exercise his social control directly and by the force of his personality or his strong right arm. It would be the increasing numbers of the society and his inability to exercise control – even with some rudimentary police force – which would lead to some measure of self-policing becoming necessary. And that would drive the invocation of a system of super-natural punishments for transgressions. And so religion would have been born. “Correct” behaviour was a requirement to placate the supernatural forces and avoid punishment. Thereafter it was just a matter of increasing numbers and/or complexity which would have led to the definition of “humanised” gods and their chosen cadre of priests.

A religion (BSP) then is no more than a tool for developing the self-policing of the social behaviour of the masses. And then religions need to “humanise” supernatural forces into gods and moralising high gods (MHG) only when a ruling class needs to secure its power over the unwashed masses.


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One Response to “Gods and religions as tools for control of social behaviour”

  1. lehautegryphon Says:

    What a positively stupid definition of religion. No credibility at all on religious stuff. Stick to climate as your hate of religion and people of faith clouds your judgment. This post from you is an Utterly pitiful blast of wind.

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