To maintain stability, complex societies moralized their Gods?

A recent study has found that, in the course of history, complex societies throughout the world evolved a moral interpretation of their Gods, rather than the opposite. By moral it is meant the application of dualism, the rewarding of good and the punishment of evil. This does not suggest that duality of good and bad did not exist before, but that it became solidified and mandatory in its decrees and consequences, moving towards black and white rather than grey shades. Divine moralization of this kind occurs in a regular and predictable pattern: “we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions, powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people.” On the one hand, this seems reasonable because as social complexity increases, so do social problems; the more people there are, the more effort and management will be needed to keep them stable*. Therefore, the priesthood (whose task it was to officiate rituals and interpret signs) tended to support the moralization of the Gods in order to promote social harmony; perhaps the Gods themselves changed their behavior towards the changing society that worshipped them. But on the other hand, moralization can serve a political function for the upper classes at the expense of the lower. Moralization can only go so far before people notice a discrepancy among classes and groups. Thus, it is no wonder there is a connection between it and imperialism: “Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.” This realization makes me reflect on the content of this website. On one hand, I have been trying to promote a rediscovery of original religious traditions/ideas, together with distinct standardizations of those within distinct communities. But on the other, I have also moralized the Gods to a certain extent (mainly as far as indigenism is concerned) in order to solve the complex problem of how to revive polytheism nowadays in the most stable, effective and fair manner. Everyone would need to return to simple animism and the earliest form of society in order to do away with these instances of occasional cognitive dissonance. But such is complexity: it is both beautiful in its bounty and cruel in its confusion.

 

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* A notable example of this moralization is in Hesiod, who writes in the early Archaic period (around 750 BCE), at a time when the population and social complexity of Greece had increased greatly. The difference between his views and those of Homer, who is said to have lived a mere 50 years before, is striking. In Works and Days, Hesiod invokes Zeus several times as a God of justice who can right the wrongs of the oppressed and reform what Hesiod perceived to be a declining society.

11 thoughts on “To maintain stability, complex societies moralized their Gods?

  1. jim-

    Well said. That is an interesting observation. Explains how Christian believers keep saying god is good, when the Bible shows clearly opposite. Capricious and vengeful…genocidal, racist, etc.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      The Christian god is dualistic just as the Jewish one was before it. But the Christians, after they gained the Roman Empire, tried in vain to emphasize how much better their interpretation was better than the Jewish. They used complex theology within a complex society, and it only served to expose and undermine their arguments in the long run.

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    2. K

      Genocidal and racist would have been perfectly fine to West Semitic tribes 2600 years ago. We have a great example on the Mesha Stele. A Moabite monument, it tells about how Chemosh the Moabite god stirred up the Moabites and their king Mesha to throw off Israelite oppression. The way they treated the Israelite towns was no different than what the Old Testament says the Israelites did. The Moabites destroyed a local shrine to the Israelite deity Yahweh, and killed everyone in that town. The Jews get all the attention now, but their neighbors were in a similar situation. Stuck at a crossroads as small tribal states surrounded by large imperial powers. If things had been a bit different, Chemosh, and not Yahweh, may have been the focus of major religion today. What we have described of him sounds little different from Yahweh.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      At first a similar thought occurred to me, but some further reflection made me see some anthropological and perhaps even theological benefit in this study. The authors have not passed any judgment, but have merely explained their conclusions. The Romans had a complex society modeled on that of the Greeks, a society that grew in its complexity in the course of time. Certainly by the time of Numa (who was a contemporary of Hesiod), the population and social organization was large enough for a change to occur. If you think about it, even the term “virtue” is a complex one. There is always good and bad even in the simplest of societies, but religion allows those to become standardized and gain importance.

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  2. K

    “And even as beneath a tempest the whole black earth is oppressed, on a day in harvest-time, when Zeus poureth forth rain most violently, whenso in anger he waxeth wroth against men that by violence give crooked judgments in the place of gathering, and drive Justice out, recking not of the vengeance of the gods; and all their rivers flow in flood, and many a hillside do the torrents furrow deeply, and down to the dark sea they rush headlong from the mountains with a mighty roar, and the tilled fields of men are wasted; even so mighty was the roar of the mares of Troy as they sped on.”
    -Homer, Iliad

    “You princes, mark well this punishment you also; for the deathless gods are near among men and mark all those who oppress their fellows with crooked judgements, and reck not the anger of the gods. For upon the bounteous earth Zeus has thrice ten thousand spirits, watchers of mortal men, and these keep watch on judgements and deeds of wrong as they roam, clothed in mist, all over the earth. And there is virgin Justice, the daughter of Zeus, who is honoured and reverenced among the gods who dwell on Olympus, and whenever anyone hurts her with lying slander, she sits beside her father, Zeus the son of Cronos, and tells him of men’s wicked heart, until the people pay for the mad folly of their princes who, evilly minded, pervert judgement and give sentence crookedly. Keep watch against this, you princes, and make straight your judgements, you who devour bribes; put crooked judgements altogether from your thoughts.”
    -Hesiod, Works and Days

    I think these are similar, but both still differ from the type of moralizing that comes at a later stage in this scheme

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Excellent excerpts here. Even Homer has a few hints of the moral change in Greece, which was already taking place at the very beginning of the 7th century BCE. For this reason, he is anachronistic elsewhere with his subject matter. In any case, we see more change with Hesiod, anticipating Orpheus, Pythagoras and others later. The book I recommended to you once “Moral codes and social structure in Ancient Greece” most probably explains this further.

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  3. K

    This is a generalization, but one thing I noticed is that we have examples of moralization attached to cult in less complex societies. Examples would include some found in Africa and others found among tribals in India. The ancestor spirits in most of these groups are associated with rewarding and punishing based on social norms and mores, not so much the gods. In Africa, the typical pattern is that the highest god or gods are distant figures that rarely care about earthly concerns at all.

    Some things about early Roman religion also indicate something like this. In older East Asian society(China, Korea, Japan) the ancestors were associated with directly punishing wrongs and rewarding right action even more than gods typically were. Was this the norm for all societies in early stages of complexity? It is possible that some retained the pattern further into complexity than others did. Over time this role was shifted to a god or gods and away from the ancestors.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      This is a good detail to consider. It seems some degree moralization is altogether natural, but in less complex societies people look to ancestors rather than larger Gods. Ancestral morals are like customs that one hopes to follow and venerate in the form of tradition. And this didn’t require a priesthood, because the ancestors’ lives/morals were known through stories. There is something very original and sensible in this earlier mode of polytheism.

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  4. Pingback: Noteworthy posts 6 | Dowsing for Divinity

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