How “god” evolved #2: the religious revolution

<- Part one came before The Neolithic Revolution (and the few thousand years before/after it) was the most important period in the history of human civilisation. From ~9,000 – ~3,000 years ago our species invented writing, metalworking, cities, armies, farming, money and much more. In


<- Part one came before

ResearchBlogging.orgThe Neolithic Revolution (and the few thousand years before/after it) was the most important period in the history of human civilisation. From ~9,000 – ~3,000 years ago our species invented writing, metalworking, cities, armies, farming, money and much more. In essence, the foundation of our modern culture was laid during this relatively brief period. Our species went from hunter-gatherers to the Roman Empire in less than 10,000 years even though we’d spent over 100,000 years as the former. Mesopotamia‘s nickname asĀ  the “cradle of civilisation” is one well justified.

An early type of temple, known as a ziggurat

However, religious beliefs were not amongst the package of new ideas and inventions which emerged during this period. People have had supernatural ideologies of one form or another for ~100,000 years. That said, organised religion did start to appear around the time of the Neolithic Revolution. This period marks the first examples of temples, priests, religious institutions, holy wars and an increase prevalence of “high” moral-giving gods. Indeed, some even suggest that the first cities were run by religious institutions and “secular” kings were a later invention. Although the Neolithic Revolution may not have been the genesis of religious ideas it was certainly the inceptions of the religious institutions so common in our world today.

New research shows that belief in such “high” gods is fostered in more complex societies where it promotes the co-operation needed for them to flourish. Large societies, economically complex ones and those dependent upon resources which require significant group effort to manage (such as agriculture) all fit the bill of circumstances that can foster belief in such a deity(s). Given how the Neolithic Revolution included increase population size, increased economic complexity and the advent of agriculture it seems that this explanation provides a pretty definitive reason for why the Neolithic Revolution also included a “Religious Revolution.”

The relationship between group size and belief in a “high” god.

Of course, society is a tricky beast and identifying the precise causal relationships can be tricky. As I mentioned in my discussion of the aforementioned research, what if agriculture is only associated with belief in a “high” god because it leads to larger populations and it is that which is the true cause. Or – as a commenter noted – what if belief in a “high” god promoted the various technological, sociological and economic advances associated with the Neolithic Revolution? The former alternate idea seems to be challenged by the fact that pastoralists have to work together intensively to maintain their herd but typically have small(ish) populations, yet still have high levels of belief in a “high” god. Population size and subsistence method appear to be two potential circumstances which foster belief in such a god.

The second alternate hypothesis could be tested if we could find the temporal relationship between the “Religious Revolution” and the other components of the Neolithic Revolution. Were there evidence complex religious beliefs (acting as a proxy for a “high” god since the belief itself will not preserve) before the population grew, subsistence which demanded co-operation or the culture became more complex then it would be a firm strike against the researchers’ theory. Fortunately the Near East lends itself nicely to such a test.

Catalhoyuk is a Tell site. It’s particularly interesting because it lacks streets, with people travelling via rooftop.

A lot of early sites in the “Fertile Crescent” are Tells. These are made of people creating clay houses, knocking them down when they fall into disrepair and then building a new house on-top of the old one. Over hundreds of years this creates large hill structures which exquisitely preserve the older layers in chronological order. So it becomes very easy to work out whether it was religious changes or societal changes which came first, which is why it should be no surprise that archaeologists have done these investigations. And they consistently conclude that the sociological/economic/technical changes preceded the religious ones.

The tower of Jericho

Jericho, for example, is a particularly famous early Near East site with a gap in the chronology. By 7,300 BC the citizens had a grain surplus but it wasn’t until after the record starts again (6,500 BC) that they start to bury their dead with functional gravegoods. This is important because burying the dead with useful artefacts implies a belief that they will have some use for them, i.e. a belief in the afterlife. Although this is not a certain link – there are other possible explanations – it is one of the most plausible. And this trend does not only exist in Jericho but everywhere. No site without a grain surplus buries their dead with functional gravegoods. Even the presence of non-functional gravegoods increases by 20% and the prevalence of animal figurines increases by >30% when a grain surplus occurs!

Other groups from the period also undergo changes in religious artefact assemblages after they acquire large herds of animals. Since there is often little overlap between those with herds and those with a grain surplus this effectively acts as an independent line of evidence reaching the same conclusion, strengthening it. Further, this is not similarly a case of people with more resources making more artefacts. The grain surplus populations, for example, also make fewer human figurines after they get lots of food. There is a very definite and distinct change in their religion occurring and it is happening after they’ve got a food surplus.

Now, this isn’t definitive evidence that the belief in a “high” god was caused by societal changes since these artefacts can only act as a proxy for belief. However, that doesn’t change the fact it is still evidence for that position. For alternate ideas to remain plausible in light of this then they too must provide evidence – which is currently lacking.

Fuller J, Grandjean B (2001). Economy and Religion in the Neolithic Revolution: Material Surplus and the Proto-Religious Ethic Cross-Cultural Research, 35 (4), 370-399 DOI: 10.1177/106939710103500402

This supplementary Sunday is no way an attempt to game the popularity of the previous post. I am totally not writing this because #1 became my most viewed article in just 3 days.

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18 thoughts on “How “god” evolved #2: the religious revolution”

  1. Benjamin says:

    A very nice read with evidence that religious practices/culture typically started after a food surplus and population growth in societies. Which is, to me, a good find!

    But I do have a question on whether the high god belief was fostered (i.e. any society can generate a high god belief naturally if needed as the population grew)? Or did it “evolve” through natural selection (i.e. societies with high god beliefs can deal better with a population growth and expand, causing more of such societies/cultures to survive and continue to today, as others diminish/die out)?

    Although high god belief tend to be more common in larger societies, the graphs does show that there are a few large societies with a high god belief that is absent, and hence prove that it is unnecessary? Could you share some example of such societies? It would be interesting to find out how they “buck the trend”

    Also, do cultures where the monarch is perceived to be a god, a son of god or similar count as having a high god belief? Example Chinese emperors, persian kings… I am not sure but I do know that there are societies whose leaders are considered deities and worshiped, rituals and all.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I think you’re presenting a false dichotomy, there’s many ways religion could be spreading. For example, a group might cross the threshold at which a belief in a “high” god would be helpful, hear about such a belief from a nearby city and so adopt that idea. And if a group never really “needed” that belief then such organic growth would never occur, hence why a large proportion of communities lack a “high” god. Figuring out precisely what is going on will require more work.

      Also, the study doesn’t provide any case studies but do say they used data from the “Standard cross-cultural sample” (1980). If you’re interested more check there. I think that’s where the information on their “high” god (or not) came from, so would probably provide clues about how they define a god-king.

      1. Benjamin says:

        Hmm… There is no doubt that religious ideas can spread in many ways, and I wasn’t trying to present just 2 options. But I think for a community to rally and identify themselves behind a unifying belief/god may not be that straight forward. I mean, if different ideas were heard and competing beliefs were present in a community, then the benefit of such ideas to a complex society will be little right?

        I guess the question was really if communities could innately develop/adopt a religious belief, or was it a random process with communities surviving/dying along with a unifying high god belief or lack there of.

        1. Benjamin says:

          The answer may not be one or the other, but I think these 2 possibilities are most likely.

        2. Adam Benton says:

          Except evolution isn’t really a random process but is guided by natural selection. The fittest individual will survive and spread their genes through the population. As such if religion “evolved” in the sense you were originally suggesting then it would be not because of randomness but because it conferred some key advantage. However since many cultures thrive without a “high” god I think this is not the case. Whilst it can certainly be beneficial it is not the only cause of such benefits so would not rise to fixation in humanity. And it hasn’t.

          Also, I don’t think your alternatives are actual alternatives to each other. They’re measuring different things, one being survivability the other why religion developed. Both could be true since they aren’t mutually exclusive.

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  4. Rawaz Rauf says:

    I personally have a few comments on this and beyond that I would like to outline here…. Since I am not ever going to do any real research into my little theories someone academic can do all the Chi-Tests etc.

    First it is about the start of religion;
    I think all the concept of religion started when we have two emotional feelings: the first one is that we could fear and the second one is that we were afraid of death.
    Since human beings all tried to hypothesize what happens when we die, unlike animals, then we wondered how we can solve this problem.

    Clearly after a couple of centuries people got tired of fountain of youth theories and yet they could not comprehend how to cheat death.

    So what happened after that was that people started wondering if there were other forces controlling us. The first ideas obviously started from the most powerful things we can see our selves; water, fire , rain etc followed by the sun and stars.
    Then latter, somebody else came along and basic science made people vulnerable to these ideas hence it lead to the second theory that I have which is the evolution of modern religion.
    I consider modern religions to be those which consider the idea of one God and an unseen powerful miraculous god i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
    I think modern religions evloved in the same way basic religions evolved.

    People/(Prophets) started advocating more complicated ideas and solutions so it can fill the gaps of the old ones.

    So for example lets take the need to convert another to the religion itself. In Judaism, the prophet said that we are one nation and only people who marry us can be apart of our nation. It was not allowed to become advocators of the religion. This was clearly a weakness in the ideal because it resulted in lower adoption rate. In Christianity, this problem was quickly solved with missionaries that travelled the world and they were told to do so to carry the message. Now obviously this was much stronger.

    However, in Islam, this was taken to the next level, which is to forcefully convert others and/or “very” actively convert everyone to Islam. Clearly this lead to wide spread adoption of Islam at a much faster rate that both religions combined. I am sure if someone did a graph of percentage of world population on religion vs time it would be a good proof/evidence for this.

    So you can see it as V1, V2 and V3.

    I am sure similar progression levels can be found in issues relating to marriage, definition of God itself, creation of earth/creatures etc, the supremacy of the prophet and their relationship to God.

    So my conclusion is that since all religions by their teaching are all evolutionary in nature and not revolutionary( or one off ideas) then each of the prophets must have been very well aware of previous religions and their weaknesses. And the prophets that did the best in squashing those weaknesses by coming up with higher ground were the ones that ultimately convinced people that they were actual prophets and religions to be followed.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Except the process your describing is a revolution, not evolution. A “prophet” inventing a new religion with none of the weaknesses of the old one and trying to make it dominant sounds like a revolution to me.

      Also, before getting someone else to do any statistical analysis I’d first try and figure out if there’s any support for your idea. Whilst you do include some basic facts – no doubt religions are influenced by emotion – there’s precious little support for any of the new ideas you present. Can you show the first form of religious thought was a fountain of youth? That new aspects of Islam were deliberately introduced to counteract the failings of other religions?

      1. Rawaz Rauf says:

        Adam,
        My Fountain of youth idea was not to say that they activity looked for a fountain but rather our ancestors may have believed that through water, plants, food or funny tasting medicines they could extend their life.

        Now regarding whether religions are revolution or evolution, if one did a through comparative analysis of most religions especially the modern ones, you could find alot of similarities.

        In addition, Jesus was actually a jew and lived in a jewish society so I think it does not need proof that he knew about what was allowed or not

        Mohammed also was fully aware of the Judaism as Madina at the time was largely jewish and infact he won their hearts mainly because the traditions were very similar.

  5. frostfire451 says:

    This for, all intents and purposes, makes no sense? Shamans have existed since the dawn of cave painting? I disagree.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I hope you’re talking about the previous comment, which was something of a mess.

  6. claudio says:

    In my opinion the 3 “modern” religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam evolved from the religions created previously in Egypt during the time of the pharoahs over 3.000 years ago. My understanding is that they started off with multiple gods and subsequently reduced to 3 and then to a single god. Religion was, and continues to be, an effective tool for controlling the mainly ignorant masses.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Although religious ideas are no doubt influenced by the surrounding cultural context I don’t think a direct “lineage” can be traced back all the way to the Egyptians. That said, I’m far from an expert on Near Eastern religion from that period so if someone who knows what they’re talking about can present some evidence I’d be more than happy to listen.

  7. Andre Salzmann says:

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/2012/08/22/does-self-awareness-require-a-complex-brain/

    This is possibly not so directly applicable to this conversation. But it seems logical
    that what is being described in the above article must have taken place over the ages. What would the effect on the development of a more complicated religious culture be. Bigger question is, has this factor still an influence today ?

    I am quite sure that the above info is also not the only factor. Just seems to make it clear that one should be careful in just concluding. There must be numbers of factors that are inter related. The aspects that really concern and interest one
    most probably being those we cannot see, touch,excavate or calculate in terms of numbers or symbols.

    Archeology really should not be put into a position to “lose face” .

    1. Adam Benton says:

      There certainly is a great deal of research out there indicating that the human brain can tolerate a lot of change. Microencephalatic individuals, for example, have a brain not much bigger than a chimp’s but can 7% of them have typical human intelligence. Clearly our brain can cope with significant deformities.

      However, at the end of the day you’re still looking a our brain. The microencephalatic individual might have a chimp sized brain but they do not have a chimp brain, it’s still a human one (albeit a small one). This is the case in all other examples given – the brain is still a human brain, even if it has been deformed in some way. As such it’s quite difficult to draw analogies between human evolution and modern people who have suffered from some kind of brain damage since their brains aren’t really the same.

      Don’t get me wrong, this research provides a fascinating glimpse into the nature of our thinking muscle, I’m just not sure how relevant it is to studying our past.

  8. Robert B says:

    Adam– I think Rawaz Rauf’s comment raises an important point, one which occurred to me on reading your first post on this subject.That is, the role of warfare and conquest in spreading not only religious ideas generally but certain kinds of religious ideas. I offer no specific hypothesis, but suggest that the role of warfare and religion need to be jointly considered in understanding the nature of early state formation and the evolution of complex, hierarchical societies. After all, once states evolve to a certain point they seem to be mostly governed by warrior castes and/or priest-kings. Would note that one common pattern of early state creation was that of nomadic pastoralists conquering agrarian populations. Pastoralists that could do this would, we expect, show a high degree of social organization or militarization. From your research, we would expect to find almost all pastoralist conquerers possessing belief in a High God (and imposing that belief on the peoples they conquered). The early history of Islam intriguingly suggests this pattern endured well past the early stages of state formation. RB

    1. Adam Benton says:

      That is certainly an eminently plausible and interesting idea. History is littered with examples of pastoralists conquering more sedentary societies so there could be little doubt they influenced those civilisations. And since our current culture descended – after a fashion – from those early states then the effect those pastoralists had on modern life is probably significant.

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