The Evolution of God

Part Of: Religion sequence
Followup To: The cognitive basis of theism, Supernatural Punishment Hypothesis
Content Summary: 2900 words, 29 min read

NRMs and Cultural Group Evolution

In 2015, 4.11 billion people (56%) participate in the Abrahamic religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). A further 1.6 billion people (22%) participated in karmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism). 16% of people are unaffiliated, and most of these in China. Only 7% of the world adhere to other faiths. 

These five religions, the world religions, lay claim to 92% of the faithful. But the number of other religions is in the tens of thousands. On average, three new religious movements (NRMs) sprout every day. On average, these groups last 25 years (Sosis 2000). Yet some achieve striking growth. For example, the Mormon church has seen an explosive growth of 10% per decade, roughly equal to the growth rate of the Christian church in the Roman Empire. Who knows what religious life will look like, a century from now?

The religious landscape reverberates with a Darwinian restlessness. It is easy to miss this dynamic process, because a few outlier religious movements have cornered the cultural marketplace. But their monopoly is not guaranteed.

Two Interlocking Mysteries

Consider the following mysteries:

  1. Foraging tribes had a soft ceiling: groups had difficulty sustaining more than 200 people before fissions occurred. Yet farmers managed to live in much larger groups. How?
  2. The gods of hunter-gatherers tended to be weak, whimsical, and not particularly moral. Yet the gods of agriculturalists became interested in certain kinds of human actions, and slowly  developed greater powers to both monitor adherents (e.g., omniscience) and punish proper behavior (hell or karma). Why?

What is the relationship between these two questions? And why does social success correlate so strongly with religious morality?

Many anthropologists look at economic and political developments to explain the social success of farming communities. On this cultural ornament theory of religion, theistic beliefs are causally inert practices: bringing solace and meaning, but disconnected from social and political outcomes.

But we have already seen evidence that religions can generate prosocial behavior. And we also saw that perceptions of supernatural monitoring & punishment can drive this effect. It is natural to suppose that increasingly powerful, and morally concerned deities enhance these effects.

Why did this happen? Recall the golden rule of cultural group selection:

Within-group cooperation is essential to promote between-group competition. 

Organized religion was the fuel that powered the social complexification of the Neolithic. This is the Big Gods Hypothesis (Norenzayan 2015). 

Göbekli Tepe is the site of the world’s oldest temple (8000 BCE), which recent findings reveal housed a skull cult (Greski et al 2017). The site seems to have been built by foragers; which is astounding coordinative feat, especially since its construction would have required some 500 people working in tandem. The site attracted worshippers from up to 90 miles away, and the traffic it generated plausibly smoothed the way for the first cities. More significantly, the site is 20 miles away from Karaca Dağ, the site where wheat was domesticated for the first time. Would the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution have been possible without the advent of organized religion?

While not conclusive, Göbekli Tepe is precisely the kind of site we would expect to find if religious innovations were to precede social ratcheting events. But the Big Gods hypothesis is also consistent with religious innovations occurring afterwards too. Indeed, Whitehouse et al (2019) suggests that moralizing gods tend to evolve after group expansion, playing a protective role over social gains.

Big Gods & Societal Outcomes

How do we know that moralizing religion played a role in sociopolitical development? The first place to look would be at large historical & anthropological datasets, gleaned from the early qualitative ethnographies.

  • Seshat: The Global History Databank
  • Ethnographic Atlas (EA) has data for 1267 societies; and Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS); a 186 society sample of EA
  • Human Relations Area Files (HRAF)

Swanson (1960) was the first person to investigate what he termed Moralizing High Gods (MHG) in the EA. In a more recent analysis, Johnson (2005) found in a SCCS sample of 186 societies that moralizing high gods was highly correlated with ten different measures of cooperation, including community size, policing, norm compliance, and food sharing. These analyses arguably suffer from Galton’s Problem: unwarranted independence assumptions.

A recent attempt to work-around this problem is provided by comparative phylogenetics. Linguists have long known that the similarities between languages can be quantified as a tree. As social groups fission, migrate, and lose contact, their language systems slowly diverge. 

Darwin himself used these findings to inform his theory of common descent. Just as genetic cladograms reveal the secrets of natural selection, language trees can divulge the secrets of cultural group selection. More specifically, Watts et al (2015) used language phylogenies to reverse engineer the historical relationships between 96 Austronesian cultures. In this historically-sensitive dataset, the relationship between supernatural punishment and high political complexity is striking.

So far, we’ve discussed how moralizing gods tend to appear more in agricultural societies than foraging societies. But other modes of subsistence also exist. Peoples & Marlowe (2012) found that pastoralism (living off of domesticated animals) even more strongly gravitates to moralizing high gods. Because pastoralists are more warlike and more inequal than agriculturalists, the need for religion-induced cohesion is even more pronounced.

Big Gods & Individual Cooperation

We’ve seen societal outcomes correlated with big gods. What about individual behavior? Are believers more likely to cooperate with one another, for the betterment of their group?

The following research makes heavy use of three games:

  1. Public Goods Game (PGG) explores questions of cooperation
  2. Ultimatum Game (UG) explores questions of fairness
  3. Random Allocation Game (RAG) explores cheating behaviors

We’ve seen prosocial religions occur in larger societies. Henrich et al (2010) took these economic games (including the Ultimatum Game) to fifteen societies that span the gamut of human existence. People who lived in very large communities (5000+ people) were much more willing to punish resource distributions that were unfair (not $50 each). 

These games were conducted with villagers playing one another. Thus, these games were informed by relationships and reputation. But increasing community size requires cooperation among strangers. Did moralizing gods help bind complex multi-ethnic empires at vast geographic scales? 

To get insight into this question, Purzycki et al (2016) examined whether moralizing gods improved cooperation with strangers who share your faith. In a sample of 2228 participants from 15 populations, they found evidence of such cooperation. They also found that, as beliefs in moralistic punishment intensified, so too did cooperative behavior.

Doesn’t this discredit our facultative religious prosociality hypothesis, put forward in Supernatural Punishment Hypothesis? There, we discussed that believers don’t behave more cooperatively than non-believers on average; they only do so when their religious practices are primed. This is measured in, among other things, willingness to punish unfair behavior in economic games.

The research we reviewed then, however, only apply in WEIRD societies. In many developing nations, participation in world religion does consistently produce a cooperative advantage. Hermann et al (2008) found that the rule of law, and strong norms of civic cooperation are responsible for “raising the sanity waterline”, and equalizing the belief advantage in many developed secular societies. 

Competition Boosters

Henrich (2015) describes five basic mechanisms of intergroup competition:

  1. Group survival w/o conflict
  2. War & Raiding
  3. Differential migration
  4. Prestige-based group transmission
  5. Differential reproduction

If religious practices evolved to boost said competition, we should expect its signature on all of these mechanisms. And that is precisely what we find.

First, let’s consider group longevity. Sosis (2000) examined data from 112 secular and 88 religious utopian communes. He found that, after controlling for commune size, year of founding etc, that for any given year, religious communes were four times more likely to survive. 

Second, consider direct competition. We’ve already seen that world religions promote cooperation towards the local co-religionists, and distant co-religionists. What about those outside the faith? Norenzayan et al (2016) predicted that 

  1. In societies with lots of intergroup conflict, co-religionists should be hostile to outgroup members (to facilitate direct competition)
  2. In societies with less conflict, co-religionists should be more generous to outgroup members (to gain converts)

Lang et al (2019) confirmed this prediction. Less competition leads religionists to behave altruistically even to the outgroup.  

Religious ritual also seems to play a role in support for suicide attacks (and, I would predict, also support for hawkish foreign policy). Ginges et al (2009) found that participation in religious services predicted support for terrorist attacks in both Israeli and Palestinian subjects. This relationship is easy to explain if we conceive of religion as subject to cultural group selection. But they also found that frequency of prayer was statistically unrelated to this attitude (again hinting at separate mechanisms within the complex adaptive system we call “religion”).

Third, world religions invest much more heavily in conversion tactics. 

Finally, modern religions have a strong pro-natalism ideologies; the various stances of the Catholic Church on contraception, abortion, and the centrality of family are but one example. 

Karma & Punishment Reification

Religion is about more than just the gods and morality. Arguably more central to religion is ritual, which also comes in secular varieties (marriage, inauguration ceremonies, etc). Other subprocesses of religion include taboo, mythology, sanctity, authority, and autobiographical meaning (Sosis 2019). These eight processes have different effects, and different historical trajectories. 

For example, Whitehouse’s (2004) mode theory describes two kinds of ritual: episodic rituals (infrequent, often dysphoric events), to doctrinal rituals (frequent, more emotionally neutral gatherings). 

Episodic rituals were used by hunter-gatherers, but as farming groups became larger, rituals became increasingly doctrinal. These two forms had different psychological effects: episodic rituals promote identity fusion (and with it, a willingness to engage in extreme acts of self-sacrifice), doctrinal rituals facilitated a more conceptual sense of group identification (Whitehouse et al 2014).

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the cognitive basis of theism, and how the fluency of disembodied-mind concepts can be exploited to promote prosocial behavior. But the above discussion of ritual shows there are many other “cracks in our psychological armor” that religious processes can exploit, driven by the eternal flame of group competition.

The Abrahamic religions use God-beliefs to promote prosociality. What do we make of karmic religions? Consider Sarkissian (2015)’s discussion of Chinese civilization:

Shang Di (Lord on High) plays the role of a supernatural monitor during the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE)… However, after the conquest of the Shang (1045 BCE), Shang Di is replaced by the notion of Tian (or heaven). Tian appears, at the outset, as the same entity as the former Shang Di. Yet Tian slowly loses its anthropomorphic characteristics and becomes less interested in human affairs. Eventually, Tian is significantly naturalized, taken to refer as much to the patterns and propensities inherent in the natural world as to any deity. 

We know that karmic religions (including Buddhism and Hinduism) promote prosociality. But how? How does karma promote prosociality?

White et al (2020) present the karma personification hypothesis, that (contra theological correctness), karma has been personified in the practiced religion of believers, and leverages the same sense of social monitoring. They adduce evidence that, for some believers some of the time, karma is conceived in this way.

But alternatives exist. Consider Nietzsche (1884):

What actually arouses indignation over suffering is not the suffering itself, but the senselessness of suffering: but neither for the Christian, who saw in suffering a whole, hidden machinery of salvation, nor for naïve man in ancient times, who saw all suffering in relation to spectators or to instigators of suffering, was there any such senseless suffering. In order to rid the world of unseen suffering, people were then practically obliged to invent gods and intermediate beings at every level, in short, something that would not miss out on an interesting spectacle of pain so easily.”

Nietzsche is putting his finger on Belief in a Just World (BJW) (Hafer & Rubel 2015) and the related phenomenon of immanent justice reasoning (Callan et al 2014). Since punishment often follows social transgressions, people seem to attribute random misfortune to moral failings (victim blaming!): 

People drawing causal links between random misfortune and their own and others’ moral shortcomings, such as a boy who believed he failed an eye examination because he glanced through a Playboy magazine 3 days earlier, or a man who believed his friend became paraplegic because he was a “cocky guy” and “never really took the time to worry about the people who couldn’t keep up” 

Social psychology research has revealed that these intuitions are innate, and thus expressed universally. A few examples:

It may be that White et al (2020) is correct, and that karmic religions are connected by monitoring by supernatural monitors. But I suspect the answer is different, that the cognitive basis of karmic religions is just different. All human beings are subject to immanent justice and mind-body dualistic intuitions; the cultural winnowing forces simply elaborate these intuitions differently, based on circumstance.

Supernatural monitoring and immanent justice reasoning have one thing in common: punishment. In contrast to the one-substrate MHG hypothesis, let’s call this two-substrate view the Broad Supernatural Punishment (BSP) hypothesis. For an excellent discussion of the relative virtues of these theories, see Raffield et al (2019).

Three Schools

The arguments of this sequence was heavily influenced by Norenzayan (2015) and Norenzayan et al (2016), with a few divergences (especially in the Karma section above). But I want to note other theories on offer. In fact, evolutionary accounts of religion can be organized into three camps:

  1. By-Product theories are often championed by cognitive scientists. These theories focus on religious universals. 
  2. Adaptationist theories are often championed by biologists. These theories tend to focus on social impacts of religion. 
  3. Cultural Evolutionary theories are often championed by anthropologists. These theories tend to focus on biodiversity.

Given their different backgrounds, these different schools tend to discover different, complementary facets of religious phenomena. Modern theories tend to be more synthetic, drawing evidence across these traditional lines. The cultural group selection model presented here, for example, is happy to build on psychological data from by-product theorists (see Cognitive Basis of Theism) and sociological data from adaptationists (see The Supernatural Punishment Hypothesis). 

In fact, as mentioned above, there is an adaptationist version of the cultural evolutionary Big Gods hypothesis, put forward here. Johnson & Kruger (2004) first put forward what they termed the Supernatural Punishment hypothesis, as an adaptationist theory of religion. Drawing on quite similar datasets, the Supernatural Punishment hypothesis is comfortable interpreting Holocene-era religious developments (e.g., the Axial Age) as being non-genetic. But Johnson also avows a genetic adaptation kickstarted our earliest religious behaviors in the Paleolithic. 

All of which raises the question, do apes possess intuitions about mind-body dualism? Do they engage in magical thinking? What about immanent justice reasoning? I am not aware of much research on this question to date.


If you had been born before the Neolithic Revolution, you would have almost certainly worshipped weak, whimsical, and not particularly moral deities. Everyone did.

Yet over time, God evolved to become interested in certain kinds of human behavior, and slowly developed greater powers to both monitor adherents (e.g., omniscience) and harsher punishments of improper behavior (hell, or eons of karma).

Why did religion become entwined with morality? Because it increasingly played a role as glue, that stabilized communities.

Intuitions about disembodied minds, along with other “cracks in our psychological armor”, were mined by religion for their ability to induce accountability & fear of punishment. All of this was done in service to the eternal flame of group competition.

Until next time.


Two Interlocking Mysteries

  • Roes & Raymond (2003). Belief in moralizing gods.
  • Norenzayan (2015). Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict
  • Gresky et al (2017). Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult
  • Whitehouse et al (2019). Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history.

Anthropological Findings

  • Johnson (2005). God’s Punishment and Public Goods: A Test of the Supernatural Punishment Hypothesis in 186 World Cultures 
  • Peoples & Marlowe (2012). Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion 
  • Swanson (1960). The Birth of the Gods
  • Turchin et al (2019). An Introduction to Seshat: Global History Databank 
  • Watts et al (2015). Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia

Psychological Findings

  • Hermann et al (2008). Antisocial Punishment Across Societies
  • Henrich et al (2010). Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment
  • Henrich (2015). Culture and social behavior 
  • Norenzayan et al (2016). The cultural evolution of prosocial religions. 
  • Purzycki et al (2016). Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality

Competitive Boosters

  • Ginges et al (2009). Religion and Support for Suicide Attacks
  • Henrich (2015). The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter
  • Lang et al (2019). Moralizing gods, impartiality and religious parochialism across 15 societies. 
  • Sosis (2000). Religion and Intragroup Cooperation: Preliminary Results of a Comparative Analysis of Utopian Communities

The Role of Karma

  • Atkinson & Whitehouse (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form: Examining modes of religiosity cross-culturally
  • Callan et al (2014). Immanent Justice Reasoning: Theory, Research, and Current Directions
  • Hafer & Rubel (2015). The Why and How of Defending Belief in a Just World 
  • Nietzsche (1887).  Genealogy of Morals
  • Raffield et al (2019). Religious belief and cooperation: a view from Viking Age Scandinavia.
  • Sarkissian (2015). Supernatural, social, and self-monitoring in the scaling-up of Chinese civilization.
  • Sosis (2019). The building blocks of religious systems: Approaching religion as a complex adaptive system
  • White et al (2020). Cognitive pathways to belief in karma and belief in God
  • Whitehouse (2004). Modes of religiosity
  • Whitehouse et al (2014). The ties that bind us: Ritual, fusion, and identification

A Third Way

  • Johnson & Kruger (2004). The good of wrath: supernatural punishment and the evolution of cooperation.

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