Auckland Study – Big gods not needed to help societies to grow

Some scientists have suggested that belief in the big gods of moralising religions, such as Islam and Christianity, helped people cooperate with each other and encouraged societies to grow.

Psychology studies have shown people are nicer to each other when they think someone is watching, —especially if they believe that someone has the power to punish them for transgressions even after they’re dead.

Joseph Watts, a doctoral student in cultural evolution at the University of Auckland in New Zealand has carried out a study of 96 societies in the Pacific.

He says a central message of this research is that humans are capable of building and sustaining large cooperative societies without the threat of punishment by a big god.

“Instead, it seems that lots of little gods and spirits – anthropomorphic beings such as the spirits of deceased ancestors – were enough to facilitate the evolution of complex societies and the role of ‘Big Gods’ may have been over-hyped,” says  Watts.

Watt and his team analysed data about religion and political complexity from Austronesia, a group of related cultures indigenous to islands throughout Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

They collected the earliest known ethnographic data about the 96 cultures, ranging from islands in the Philippines and Indonesia to Easter Island.

Out of 96 cultures studied, Watts’s team identified only six with big gods, and the family trees suggested that these beliefs were more likely to arise after societies became politically complex.


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