What came first: all-seeing gods or large societies?

Mar 21, 2019

HORUS, AN ANCIENT Egyptian sky god, was often depicted as a sharp-eyed falcon. Lord Buddha’s eyes are supposed to be able to look in four directions at once. The god of Abraham sees everything, always. A “Big God” of this sort—a supernatural “eye in the sky” who cares whether people do right by others—is a feature of most of the world’s top religions. But it was not always so. Anthropological research suggests that the gods who watch over small societies tend to demand only that people show deference to them. Big Gods come later.

One theory holds that this is because small societies do not need a supernatural policeman. If everyone knows everyone else, antisocial elements are easily managed. But as societies grow, and especially as they absorb ethnically and culturally diverse groups through conquest, a different policing mechanism is needed. What could be better than an all-seeing eye that enforces co-operation between friends and strangers alike?

If this theory is correct, it raises another question: which comes first, a Big God that permits a big society, or a big society that requires a Big God? That question is addressed by a paper published in this week’s Nature by Harvey Whitehouse of Oxford University and his colleagues.

Over the past eight years the team has built a historical...

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