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Societies hit a ‘God threshold’ where they need an all-seeing moral deity, scientists say

Rob Waugh
When societies hit about a million people, it happens (Getty)
When societies hit about a million people, it happens (Getty)

Large, complex human societies tend to believe in moralising, rule-making Gods – but the big question has been, which came first?

Now a statistical analysis by Oxford University academics has shown that the ‘rule making’ Gods of religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism actually arrived at a specific point in the evolution of societies.

Specifically, societies which have populations of over one million tend to turn to these sort of beliefs, say the researchers, who analysed 414 societies, spanning 10,000 years.

The point at which a society becomes a ‘mega society’, with more than a million people, seems to be a key landmark – and hints that societies may rely on such beliefs to hold together large numbers of people.

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The researchers wrote, ‘This suggests that, even if moralizing gods do not cause the evolution of complex societies, they may represent a cultural adaptation that is necessary to maintain cooperation in such societies once they have exceeded a certain size, perhaps owing to the need to subject diverse populations in multi-ethnic empires to a common higher-level power.’

Harvey Whitehouse, Professor of Social Anthropology, at Oxford University said: ‘What we think might be happening around the time that societies hit the one million population mark is that they become vulnerable to internal structural tensions and conflict, perhaps because they somehow have to hold together multiple ethnic groups as a result of processes of expansion and incorporation.

‘Moralising gods might have provided a way of enabling societies to continue to prosper cooperatively in spite of those tensions, for fear of offending a higher power who cared about our behaviour towards one another and was thought to punish transgressors.’

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