Belief in Gods Played a Vital Role in the Cultural Evolution of Humans

Belief in Gods Played a Vital Role in the Cultural Evolution of Humans August 1, 2016

Belief in gods played a vital role in the Cultural Evolution of Humans

I believe this is 100% true.

Scientists have known for some time that the development of agriculture led to the specialization of work and that this specialization equipped early humans with the ability to forge things necessary for city development. However, according to two new studies, belief in omniscient and punishing deities, contributed a lot to it as well. Especially, in the development of larger cities.

According to Harvard Human Evolutionary Biology Professor, Joseph Henrich:

What we want to understand is how humans were able to scale up from being relatively small societies to larger groups very quickly. One answer is that religion can act as a kind of social technology that helped humans scale up and build large, complex societies.

If you look at the religion of very small-scale societies, like hunter-gatherers, there’s no intertwining between religion and ethics or morality. There are supernatural agents, but they tend to be weak, they can be tricked, and they don’t have any power over the afterlife. It’s only over time that gods become increasingly concerned with human affairs. Gods that have control over the afterlife don’t appear until relatively late in human history.

At some point in our evolution, we developed the cognitive ability to comprehend the supernatural, and the attempts to appease them advanced our overall cultural progression.

Further, one of the studies revealed that those who believe in an omnipresent and vengeful god are more likely not to cheat their fellow humans. While, in my opinion, this is evidence that those who do good, for “goodness sake” alone, are more ethical, it is still fascinating. We now have a justice system that enforces our laws, however, as we shed these gods, it is crucial that we teach our children reasoned based ethics.

On a side note, if this type of things intrigues you, I suggest you check out two of my past posts. The first was about NPR’s five-part study entitled The Science of Spirituality. In it, I posted Dr. Andy Thomson’s incredible speech, “Why We Believe In Gods.”

The second one features another talk by Dr. Thomson: “The Origins of Morality.” As I note in the post, Andy helped me a lot with this one.


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