The hypothesis of the great gods: what is it and how does it explain civilization?

Materialist reductionism postulates that mental states can be reduced to physical states, that is; for everything that happens to us, we can find an explanation in our body, its systems and the way it works.

This way of thinking still prevails among the vast majority of scientists today. Coming from the field of sociobiology, it tries to explain all the behaviors of all living beings, including humans, from genetic selfishness. It is a path that relies on the scientific method as the only means of knowing the truth and explaining reality. However, according to its detractors, much of it is self-evident, moving closer to the things that exist that go beyond the physical, where spirituality would be.

In the animal world, we have already discovered that not only does genetic selfishness exist, but that many species cooperate. Although altruistic cooperation, where there is no selfish individual purpose on the part of the subjects who make up the group, is fully manifested in human beings.

Altruistic cooperation has long been a subject of debate, what makes humans cooperate in large groups of subjects that are in principle unrelated genetically? In the proposed explanations, different causes have been exposed as agents of altruistic cooperation; the establishment of agricultural crops, conflicts of war or religion.

Among the theories that have sounded the loudest are the hypothesis of great gods or moralizing gods, which makes religion the key to understanding this behavior. But what exactly does this unverified theory say? In this article, we will explain in detail the hypothesis of the great gods and their validity today.

    What does the hypothesis of the great gods propose?

    Great gods are defined as beings with divine properties who punish moral transgressions. The great gods hypothesis proposes that the cooperation among strangers that occurs in large societies results, in part, from the moralizing punishments attributed to these deities.

    The very hypothesis of the great gods has changed over time, presenting itself first as a cultural innovation necessary to increase socio-political complexity and later, in a more diluted version of the hypothesis, as a simple element within ‘a set of variables which, along with other cultural factors, contributed to the increase in socio-political complexity, but not to its initial appearance and spread.

    According to the first hypothesis of the great gods, belief in the supernatural application of broad ethical and moral standards that govern human affairs facilitated, as well as prehistoric transition to agriculture, increasing socio-political complexity. Thus, the great gods were the key factor in the emergence of large groups triggered by agricultural culture.

    Later formulations of this hypothesis emphasized that the idea of ​​a great moralizing God was part of a large number of religious innovations that gradually evolved with the construction of larger and increasingly complex societies.

    According to this theory, people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe God will punish them.. However, new data have come to contradict this idea.

      Is the Great Gods Hypothesis true?

      The Great Gods Hypothesis established belief in a great god as the cause of evolution toward more complex societies.

      Until a few years ago, different forms of evidence had been used: psychological experiments, cross-cultural comparative analyses, and historical case studies to test the great gods hypothesis. However, the results that support the big god hypotheses are controversial and contradictory. In some cases it is concluded that the role of religious elements was fundamental, assuming them as one of the causes of the expansion of societies, in other studies they appeared after the increase in socio- policy and helped sustain and expand the expansion. Although they always acted as a causal factor and not as a consequence.

      Recently, the true role of the “great gods” in the increasing socio-political complexity and the emergence of large societies in the face of historical data has been studied. These came to contradict this hypothesis, reversing the causal relationship which established, it was discovered that the belief in a moralizing deity is the result, not the cause, of the evolution of complex societies.

      The results obtained using Big Data show that the significant increases in social complexity actually occurred before the emergence of the great gods, and that, therefore, they did not contribute to the evolution of social complexity. politics, as predicted by the hypothesis of the great gods.

      For statistical analysis, the researchers used Seshat, a large database. Seshat offers a huge collection of historical information and has allowed data to be tested and confronted, the various hypotheses that have emerged about the rise and fall of societies across the world over the centuries, such as the hypothesis great gods.

        Big Data applied to the origin of civilizations

        The purpose of the study was to establish at what point in world history the Great Gods appeared, in order to establish the relationship with increasing socio-political complexity, and the role of moralizing religion in the evolution cooperation between human beings. . .

        Testing the Great Gods Hypothesis with Seshat Data data was collected on more than 50 aspects of socio-political complexity, which include social scale, hierarchical levels and institutional sophistication. These data were collected in 30 geographical regions from the beginning of the Neolithic to the beginning of the industrial and/or colonial periods.

        The increase in sociopolitical complexity is easy to establish, however, one of the main challenges facing any attempt to test the Great Gods hypothesis is to grasp the extent to which the gods care about the morality of human behavior. A method is needed to operationalize the concept of Great Gods, as this is not directly measurable, a measurement process must be established from other related phenomena. And a way to encode their presence or absence in ancient belief systems. In this case, it was decided to measure the presence of two aspects of the so-called moralizing religion, the superiority of the gods over human affairs and divinity.

        In almost all regions of the world where data are available, moralizing deities appear after the increase in social complexity, tend to follow it rather than precede it. To this concrete result, we must add that the moralizing gods come after the rituals. These rituals are already a form of community, because they give a sense of identity and belonging to the same group of people who share a spirituality. Rituals act as a kind of social adhesive, through them people, initially unknown, act cooperatively for a good that goes beyond their individualistic goals. These results suggest that collective identity is more important than religious beliefs in promoting social cooperation.

        Big data and social theories

        Until recently, it was impossible to distinguish causal relationships in social theories, because quantitative data on the history of the world and its societies were lacking.

        The complexity of a society can be estimated from social characteristics such as population, territory, complexity of government institutions and information systems. Religious data includes beliefs in the supernatural realization of reciprocity, justice, and loyalty, as well as the frequency and standardization of religious rituals.

        Seshat, the tool used to disprove the Great Gods Hypothesis, is described as the world historical database and it is currently the collection more comprehensive historical and prehistoric data. As its website explains, “This database systematically collects what is currently known about the social organization and politics of human societies and how civilizations have evolved over time. It currently contains thousands of documents on the social complexity, religion and other characteristics of 500 societies, spanning 10,000 years of human history.

        The analysis of hundreds of variables related to social complexity, religion, war, agriculture and other characteristics of human culture and society. They allow researchers to test a long list of theories and hypotheses about world history and humanity. This includes conflicting theories about how and why humans evolved to cooperate in large-scale societies.

        Bibliographic references

        • Francois, P.; Savage, PE; Hoyer D; Feeney, KC; Cioni, E. (2021). Testing the Great Gods Hypothesis with World Historical Data: A Review and a “Rework”. Religion, brain and behavior.

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