In my more radical moods I sing along with John Cougar about fighting authority. Living in society means never being completely free. This pandemic only amplifies that. What I want may not be best for others. Not to mention excessively corrupt authority *ahem* Washington DC [coughs into elbow]. Still, a friend sent me an article titled “Did judgmental gods help societies grow?” The piece by Lizzie Wade appeared in Science recently. The article begins by noting that judgmental gods are rare. It then suggests complex societies seem to have had judgmental gods at their beginnings. Moralizing gods demand cooperation. People want to do what they want. If we’re going to reap the benefits of a highly specialized society we all need to play our part, however. Authority always does win, I guess.
Wade’s article suggests that this kind of orthodoxy is now being called into question. Moralizing gods, it’s suggested, appear after a complex society gets started. Interestingly, these gods tend to be males. (That point’s mine, not Wade’s.) I have been wondering for quite some time just how the data from Göbekli Tepe will influence the re-construction of models concerning how civilization began. It seems that long before settled populations emerged, back in hunter-gatherer days, people still came together to build temples. Were they afraid of judgmental gods? Certainly they thought it was important to gather occasionally at numinous places and ponder the larger questions. Since they left no written records and they’ve all died out the best we can do is make educated guesses. Who knows what might’ve been their motivation?
The one thing that seems certain to me, no matter how we nuance it, is that religion is integral to society. Science is necessary for our survival (ancient people weren’t backward rubes, by the way—they had a kind of scientific outlook, but without all the advanced math). Religion, however, seems originally to have brought us together. Outside our comfort zones. Hunter-gatherer societies limit their sizes to people you can know reasonably well. They tend not to have private property and they share things most people in “civilized” settings wouldn’t. To grow larger than a roving band that can sustain itself by moving from place to place once the food’s gone, agriculture was necessary. But Göbekli Tepe suggests it only followed after religion began bringing people together in the first place. Were their gods authoritarian? There’s really no way of knowing that. So when I’m feeling radical I have to remember than when it’s over I turn the volume down, comb my hair and go back into society. Well, once the pandemic’s over.
3 thoughts on “Moralizing Gods”