The ecology of faith: what makes societies religious?

November 18, 2014 • 11:11 am

Along with some sociologists, I’ve long suspected that religiosity in today’s world derives largely from uncertainty in one’s life. This is based on several sociological studies of religion, showing striking positive correlations between social dysfunction and religiosity (the worse off a society, the more religious its members), combined with evidence that religiosity fluctuates with social dysfunction, but lags a year behind it, which suggests that if there’s a causation, it’s dysfunction driving religiosity and not the other way around.

This conclusion seems to be confirmed by a new paper in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. by Carlos Botero et al. (reference at bottom; I’m not sure if there’s a free download at the link). But this conclusion is hidden in a welter of statistics, and the purpose of the paper seems to be to show more than simply a relationship between societal uncertainty and religiosity. The paper seems aimed at showing that societies are more moral when they accept a “moralizing high god.” But it doesn’t show that. You can imagine who funded this paper, but more on that later.

The authors begin by citing earlier claims that religion helps societies behave properly, and also reduces cheating (this is from the usual psychological lab tests); but they also note that those claims may have some problems. In other words, they motivate their studies by seeing if their newer analysis will support “belief in belief” (although it doesn’t). Here’s a paragraph that includes the usual claim that psychological studies show that religious belief (like belief in free will) prevents cheating (I’ve eliminated the references, which you can see by accessing the paper.)

In particular, religious beliefs are thought to be a powerful mechanism for the enforcement of social rules. In support of these ideas, comparative studies have shown that a belief in moralizing high gods—defined as supernatural beings believed to have created or govern all reality, intervene in human affairs, and enforce or support human morality—tends to be more prevalent among societies that recognize rights to movable property, as well as in those that exhibit higher levels of political complexity, subsistence productivity, and norm compliance. In addition, psychological experiments have found that moralizing high god concepts can reduce levels of cheating and increase willingness to be fair and to cooperate. Such findings have provoked speculation that the prominence of moralizing gods at the level of cultures is a better predictor of cooperation in humans than individual religious beliefs. However, debates persist because statistical models assessing historical and regional dependencies are rare, and those that exist are limited in scope.

But the data they gathered doesn’t address this hypothesis. Rather, the authors wanted to see what aspects of societies make them more or likely to believe in “moralizing high gods.” Here’s a quick summary:

  • The authors looked at 1267 societies delineated by The Ethnographic Atlas, which identifies societies based on their use of unique languages or dialects.
  • They then correlated, among these societies, belief in a “moral high god” with various “ecological” factors. These factors included “abundance of natural resources” (apparently calculated solely from the local precipitation and temperature), the variability and predictability of these resources (i.e., of climatic variable), political complexity (don’t ask), whether or not the societies were agricultural, and whether they had a concept of “rights of moveable property” (i.e., do they raise animals?). This seems a remarkably thin set of variables, leaving out all societal indices like the factors in Greg Paul’s “successful societies scale” scale (access to government medical care, corruption, criminality, and so on), as well as important things like income inequality, which has always been positive correlated with a society’s religiosity (the more inequality, the more religious the society). But so be it; I guess those things aren’t considered “ecology.”
  • The authors corrected for societies influencing each other because they were closely related or geographically contiguous, so that any correlations between ecology and “moral high gods” were independent rather than reflecting a common “ecological” influence.
  • The authors also corrected for the fact that many of these variable were correlated with each other by doing a multivariate statistical analysis that gauges the effect of each variable by itself on belief in moral high gods.


The authors whittled the data down to information from 389 societies. Their models showed this:

  • The more abundant the resources in a society, the less its belief in a moral high god. That comports with the idea that societies that are better off are less religious, at least about belief in “moral high gods”. But those are, of course, the Abrahamic Gods. From now on I’ll just call them “gods.”
  • The variation in resources was negatively correlated with belief in gods so long as resources were scarce. In other words, the less variation there was in low-resource societies, the more religious those societies tended to be. The authors interpret this as meaning that if you know you’re going to be bad off and there’s no hope of respite, you’ll hold to gods more tenaciously than if you’re bad off but there’s a chance things could get better (i.e., if the variation in resources were greater, so there could be some “good years”).
  • Animal husbandry and political complexity also showed a positive and statistically significant correlation with belief  in gods. I can make sense of the “animal husbandry” correlation, as people might be more religious when they see inequities in resource distribution (your neighbor has more sheep than you do), but not of political complexity; and the authors don’t really discuss the latter factor.

The authors conclude what others have before them: societies that are worse off, and ones in which you know you’re going to remain that way because conditions are static, tend to be more religious. Further, societies that have concepts of personal, moveable property (i.e., your own livestock) also tend to be more religious.  But I wish they’d measured other variables as well, such as income inequality and “social stability.” Does animal husbandry correlated in a positive way with income inequality, something itself strongly correlated with religion? Why did the authors neglect other social factors to concentrate on those they consider “ecology”? Here’s their main conclusion (my emphasis):

In general, our findings are consistent with the notion that a shared belief in moralizing high gods can improve a group’s ability to deal with environmental duress and may therefore be ecologically adaptive. Philosophers have long hypothesized that the belief in morally concerned deities can reduce both anxiety  and existential suffering, and that environ- mental harshness can increase the appeal of a cosmic authority. Accordingly, we have uncovered robust evidence of a positive association between societal acceptance of moralizing high god concepts and both resource scarcity and ecological risk.

The philosophers cited are Feuerbach (Lectures on the Essence of Religion) and Marx (Marx on Religion), showing once again that philosophers like Marx got the reasons for religiosity largely correct.

What’s curious about the paper, though, is that after finding some ecological correlates of religion, the authors go ahead and plump for “belief in belief,” claiming (though they said earlier that this is not strongly supported) that belief in moralizing high gods is good for society. The bold bit in the quotation above makes a claim that is unsupported by the authors’ data, even if it does support Marx’s own historical analysis. Here’s another quote from the paper (my emphasis):

. . . our finding that the recognition of rights to movable property is a better predictor of the global distribution of belief in moralizing high gods than agriculture (Table 2 and Supporting Information), is consistent with the idea that the prosocial effects of moralizing high gods are not specific to very large (“ultrasocial”) communities.

“Prosocial effects” of course, means “effects (behaviors in this case) that are good for society in general.”

So we see that the authors seem to be pushing a view that religion is a good thing because it helps people deal with poor ecological circumstances. That’s no surprise given who funded the work. Here are the acknowledgments:

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 7.33.18 AM

Yep, that’s right: Templeton got its sticky mitts on this research. I also object to the participation of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). There’s no evolution at all in this paper except for cultural evolution, and the NSF shouldn’t be entangling itself with Templeton.

My main objection to the work is not with the results—which, though woefully incomplete in completely neglecting (and neglecing to mention) the social motivations of religiosity—but with the authors’ preoccupation with the notion that religion is good for buffering against suffering. Even if that’s true, it can’t remedy suffering due to poverty or uncertainty, and hence whatever religion does, it needs to be replaced by social conditions that eliminate the need for religion. If you have a toothache, aspirin might relieve the pain for a while, but you need an extraction or a root canal to get rid of the problem permanently.

You may remember this famous quote from Marx in his A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

But this recognition should always be followed with another quote from Marx, from Theses on Feuerbach:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

That quote is inscribed at the bottom of Marx’s gravestone in London’s Highgate Cemetery:


Templeton—and perhaps Botero et al.—want us to see religion as a good thing: a “prosocial” glue for humanity. In contrast, I see religion as something keeps us stuck in fictional claims that, by promising a better world in the hereafter, impede human progress in the here and now. The point is to change the world, not just explain it.

Botero, C. A., B. Gardner, K. R. Kirby, J. Bulbulia, M. C. Gavin, and R. D. Gray. 2014. The ecology of religious beliefs. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA published ahead of print November 10, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1408701111

66 thoughts on “The ecology of faith: what makes societies religious?

  1. A remarkable socio-anthro book, “The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca,” made a huge impression on me many years ago when I read it. Anthony Wallace describes the then disintegrating society of the Seneca tribe, and how a charismatic leader — who was pretty obviously schizophrenic — brought them back to life.
    Wallace makes clear how religion and powerful religious prophets or gods are indeed the dynamic forces collapsing societies yearn for and select, rather than fall apart entirely.

  2. An insightful analysis, as always.

    Indeed, there appears to be a cyclical and mutually-reinforcing relationship: religiosity is a psychological coping mechanism for dealing with societal dysfunction- but it also contributes to creating and maintaining the dysfunction itself. Thus, religious memes and their societal consequences perpetuate themselves. A nice book which explores and expands upon this idea is The God Virus by Darrel Ray:

    1. To clarify — it turns out that posting Amazon links or Youtube links on this WordPress website embeds the pictures and videos.

      You can get around this by using the (a href=”link”) text here (/a) construction. where the parens are ”.

      For example: Like This.

  3. after finding some ecological correlates of religion, the authors go ahead and plump for “belief in belief,” claiming (though they said earlier that this is not strongly supported) that belief in moralizing high gods is good for society. The bold bit in the quotation above makes a claim that is unsupported by the authors’ data

    Yep, there’s definitely a nonsequitur “WTH??” moment in there. To make an analogy, its like saying “our studies indicate that praying is correlated with being in a foxhole where you are regularly shot at. Thus, we conclude praying must have some bullet-stopping power.”

  4. For me, the ‘Ecology of Religious Belief’ study falls upon early hurdles. Firstly, in failing to realise that religious belief is to be found primarily in a specific social grouping which is part of every society everywhere. That Sub-Set amounts to about a third of every society in any country, on every continent. The Sub-Set is primarily to be found among those who live and work in the ‘Clerical-Admin-Professional-Educational’ grouping. Yesterday two identified beheaders if ISIL were recognised as a young lawyer and a young doctor from the UK… most decidedly from that group.

    That grouping I call “Drones”, because of the group’s several characteristics such as the shared belief that all knowledge comes from authority, and the shared belief that the individual may best progress by recognising the ‘authority-structure’ around him, and by finding his place within that authority-structure. (If you want to see the appalling arguments in favour of ‘All knowledge comes from authority’, look-up Sye Ten Bruggencate on YouTube!)

    Secondly the study falls into the trap of assuming that humans are homogenous, which is essentially a religious view. And the view that all humans share a similar brain operating system is a religious view. (The ‘one-brain-many thoughts’ group) And the view that religious people are joined together for social good, which is a religious view.

    Most religions are made up by Drones who come to believe that they may best advance as an individual within a group by suppressing individual needs in favour of group decisions, – decisions that may, occasionally, go against the individual’s interests.
    The bottom line is that all religions are systems of self-serving lies about the nature of reality, which are endlessly embroidered such that the later lies contradict the earlier.

    The whole ‘Botero et al’ study is built upon a serious innocence of the social world and its workings. They should stop work until they have achieved a stable and coherent understanding of human societies. At present they are a hundred years away from that.

    1. The generalization may be accurate, but as Jerry and many readers and commentors of his website (including myself) fit into the category, I object to the name drone. I am not, and never have been a drone.

      This is actually one of the few things that annoyed me about Hitchens too – his nasty generalizations and assumptions about straight middle-aged single childless women – another category I fit into. Needless to say, they didn’t describe me.

      Use the stats by all means. They are valid and important to know. Please don’t label actual people by assigning derogatory names.

      1. Heather, by saying that most religious people fall into that group is NOT the same as saying that everyone in that group is a Drone!! Your occasional dislike of Hitchens may be owed to this mistake.
        In my years in academia, I spotted many Drones, and questioned some of them ceaselessly, better to understand the strange workings of their particular Brain Operating System which is so different to the rest of us.
        I have spent (wasted?) forty years abroad in several continents, away from my native home, and have always been intrigued by the similar groupings or sub-sets to be found in every society, everywhere.
        If you are a member of the grouping of ‘Clerical-Admin-Professional-Educational’then there is a high chance that you know people who secretly entertain the idea that all knowledge comes from authority, and that it is their responsibility to identify the authority-structure and to find their place within it. They may often than not be ‘spiritual’, and have an overwheening respect for authority.
        As to being a Drone, here are some characteristics…
        Over respect for authority, as above.
        Inability to process experiential information.
        Denial of personality or individuality.
        Constant dissembling whereby their inner thoughts do not match their spoken opinions.
        Use of a meta-language to avoid culpability.
        Cannot make individual decisions but prefer group decision-making.

        Drones are such a familiar group in society that it is a surprise you are not aware of the bumptious and obstructive minor official, or the politician always referring back to some holy book or to guidelines , rules, or best practicies. Of course, all religious people are Drones, and it is quite rare for there to be a de-conversion.

        1. Of course I am aware of drones. I do not find them routinely in the clerical professional admin etc group (perhaps 1 mix with people from a broader range of occupational categories), although that does describe some. They are, however, in my experience, far more likely to be men. I don’t as a result lump all men together under some derogatory name.

      2. Why jump in with (unsupportable – no reference) concern trolling? It is religion and not skepticism that is the issue here.

  5. This study seems to have had a predetermined outcome in many ways. Previous and ongoing studies do not give such a positive view of religiosity. There is a very strong correlation between a high level of corruption, violence and poor human rights and a high level of religiosity, making a mockery of the positive effect of a moralizing god. There is also a very high correlation between high societal freedom and low levels of religiosity.

    They should’ve stuck to showing what makes societies religious rather than getting into the value of that belief imo.

    They could have looked within societies too. There’s the obvious example of the correlation between the Bible Belt and Tornado Alley in the US. This same area also makes the highest level of charitable donations per capita in the world.

    It’s an extremely interesting survey ruined by the conclusions, which seem to have a bias.

    1. Indeed. Religion, more than anything, forces conformity. Often religious groups will guilt people who experience misfortune, saying that they are being punished. I’ve seen JW’s do this. It’s awful. How is that good for society or social progress if you’re held back by people enforcing the punishments of their god?

  6. Another study and waste of money to accomplish nothing. Seems they could learn much more on this matter simply by study of history.

    After all, part of the ingredients that made our own Country was the enlightenment of the time and a group of secular founders. And I must say it is a shame it did not stick.

    1. The correlation is interesting and was worth statistically confirming, even if we already intuited it to be true.

      But as Jerry says, the author’s conclusions do not follow from this correlation. They basically aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

  7. For info, prof cc – there seems to be a link issue – the one at the bottom gives a link to an unknown writ page. The one at the top (beginning of paragraph 2 – links to the paper in PNAS.

  8. The paper is free – if you follow ProfCC’s link to the paper you’ll find that you can click on the Acrobat icon there and download the paper.

  9. The study, despite the data, appears to have the authors trying to protect religious belief rather than examine it. A better study would be to show if improvements to education and infrastructure alleviate poverty and suffering.

    Likewise, this one statement:

    “our findings are consistent with the notion that a shared belief in moralizing high gods can improve a group’s ability to deal with environmental duress and may therefore be ecologically adaptive.”

    appears to be linked to a citation, ‘Inclusive fitness theory for the evolution of religion’, which is a paper riddled with disconnected aphorism that lead to no coherent conclusion.

    One thing is certain: faith makes people travel in circles, while science has the ability to meaningfully change the trajectory of ideas.

  10. Also, why is the U.S. Geological Survey funding any part of this? This has zip to do with their (tax payer funded) mission.

  11. There is a good book by Hector Avalos called ” Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence” which argues that religion itself creates scare artificial resources. Perhaps where real resources are abundent, it lessens the desire for the artificial resources provided by religion (group priviledge, access to god, sacred spaces, salvation, etc.)

  12. … whether or not the societies were agricultural, and whether they had a concept of “rights of moveable property” (i.e., do they raise animals?)

    I haven’t read the paper and even if I had I’m not sufficiently experienced in this area to properly critique it, but this apparent theme of people who own livestock being more religious caught my eye.

    In Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker went quite a bit into the description and causes of honor cultures and their attendant violence. Iirc one of the most common correlations was a herding economy. Since it was easy to steal livestock, swift and rigid revenge was valued, and thus the whole hierarchical top-down authority of the honor culture would evolve. And honor culture religions with their “moralizing high gods” would also seem to be part of this mix.

    I wonder if the authors of this paper were looking at — and for — honor cultures.

    1. So we discover that we peel back the layers of our fossilized Bronze age revelations, it’s all “movable property, or to put it more practically, bulls**t

    2. Yes, I have often thought something similar: that rigid enforcement of honor may be a positive social adaptation in cultures where people have no accurate access to an individual’s past history. If we use promises to decide bank loans (because we have no way of checking people’s history of paying them back) and criminal guilt or innocence (because we have no modern forensics), then it becomes really important that everyone keep their promises. And thus, honor societies.

      If this is correct, it may also point out a flaw in our approach to trying to eliminate honor-based crimes (abroad): we’re never going to be broadly successful at it until we (or the society in question) first put the social and economic infrastructure in place that will take the place of honor. IOW, you’re not going to stop honor killings as a practice until you put mundane things like good bank records, credit checks, and publicly-trusted criminal forensics in place, to replace the social job that ‘honor’ does in these societies.

      1. Agree. And that’s also going to involve trying to undermine one of the staples of honor societies: a fetish with Purity.

        Purity of the individual, the family, the tribe, the religion — the in-group. Some conservative Ideal Norm is mentally set in stone and any deviation, blemish, tarnish, or insult is major damage — and it requires retaliation.

        So you may get someone who will not steal (from the in-group) — but you also get honor killings and blasphemy laws. Somewhere I read a passage in someone’s work which pointed out something hidden in plain sight: the problem with dangerous totalitarian cultures like Naziism, Stalinism, Catholicism, and so forth is not that they lack morals: it’s that they have too many “morals.” They punish for crimes which aren’t actually crimes.

        1. Well said. I think this summarizes a large part of “the problem”. In a way the whole notion of “sin” is the boogie man. It will take much time and effort to pull humanity toward a more realistic view of morality.

        2. This tendency used to remind me of modern politics in particular.

          I genuinely find it scary that these ideals of potential perfection are increasing ( imo, off course ) in quantity and in variation.

          When disagreement or failure to live up to whatever perceived ideals others might have turns into offence from the get-go, there’s very little patience for progress and empathy.

          I’d argue that the idea of searching for and striving for human perfection is the underlying mantra for most human endeavour. “Be the best you can be” and all that.

          1. I used to strive for perfection, now I strive to be adequate to the occasion. My wife is a nominal Catholic and the notion of sin vs perfection, while now buried deep, still rises to the surface to punish me.

        3. Well you could hypothetically get rid of the ‘honor society’ stuff that I’m talking about and yet still have purity laws. The US had something like that for a (historically) short time: in the early 1900s, in many states you couldn’t get married without a negative blood test for syphilis and other venereal diseases.

          Obviously I don’t condone such a system. But I do think we should work to reduce the incidences of honor killing even if we can’t solve the misogynistic fetish with purity at the same time. Those are two noble goals, but I see the second as a much bigger lift than the first. So we work on both, but if it looks like we’re making more progress on the first than the second, we don’t hold up progress on the first out of some desire to solve them both at the same time.

          1. At least with “purity” laws presumably based on science we get to argue where and why and how they are wrong … and eventually some progress is made. For example, so-called “secular” arguments against homosexuality are quickly taken apart and their more stubborn supernatural basis (“what Nature intends”) revealed.

            As for stopping honor killings having slight priority over dismantling the honor culture, I agree wholeheartedly. It’s the same with gnu atheism: our desire to diminish the respect and importance granted to ‘faith’ wouldn’t blind us to making real progress in real time. We just don’t want the two goals separated.

  13. In general, our findings are consistent with the notion that a shared belief in moralizing high gods can improve a group’s ability to deal with environmental duress and may therefore be ecologically adaptive.

    In other words: The ability to suffer for the sake of suffering is inherent to the Abrahamic gods.

    Only in religioland can this conclusion be seen as an endorsement.

    1. Blockquote fail.

      In general, our findings are consistent with the notion that a shared belief in moralizing high gods can improve a group’s ability to deal with environmental duress and may therefore be ecologically adaptive.

      In other words: The ability to suffer for the sake of suffering is inherent to the Abrahamic gods.

      Only in religioland can this conclusion be seen as an endorsement.

  14. The paper seems aimed at showing that societies are more moral when they accept a “moralizing high god.”

    You don’t need gods for this, images of eyes are enough to make people behave more sociably:

    There are shops near where i work which have lifesize picture of security guards near the door; no guards, just pictures. That’s enough.

    We aren’t rational creatures but this irrational improvement in behaviour isn’t a purely religious experience.

    1. I thought that exactly – the eye thing. If you put eyes up at a cash register, people won’t steal the cash laying about, etc.

      1. Here (NZ) the Police provide life-size pics of real Police Officers for stores that want them. It’s been shown to work in reducing shoplifting.

    2. In India, I saw a You Tube on this somewhere, the town experimented with placing pictures of Gods on walls where men usually urinate. It seemed to work! Much less urine.

      Even Jesus images in a Hindu nation had the effect. (I wonder if they tried images of Mohamed?).

      The experiment doesn’t disconfirm the eyeballs hypothesis though, since the Godly illustrations were all looking straight out at you.

        1. Well, it was right here on WEIT! I guess my memory is flagging or at least it cannot hold the vastness of the web in enough order. I guess that happens when your getting up there.
          I remember now your Mohamed comment.

  15. To the extent that shared beliefs support survival, nature does not care if the beliefs are right or wrong, nasty or nice. From a natural selection standpoint, whether heaven or hell are real or not is immaterial.

    We have a powerful instinct to a kind of group-think: shared beliefs, peer pressure, social norms are aspects of this. It’s not accidental, it enables large scale cooperation without rigid coercion. Religion is simply an outgrowth (whether truthful or not) of these socialization instincts.

  16. Hmm. I’d always thought that religion was a response to fear of imminent death, one’s own and one’s progeny’s. Hence cruel and arbitrary deities that have to be cajoled into sparing truly important people, i.e., me and mine. In the first world fear of imminent death isn’t as strong now as it was until fairly recently so religiosity should be waning. I’m not sure that this is the case. If it isn’t, so much for my explanation.

  17. Tom Rees at Epiphenom posted on this too:

    A sample:

    Firstly, what we have here is a correlation. If you look at the map, you can see that the overwhelming majority of moralising beliefs are clustered around the Middle East – representing the enormous influence of the Abrahamic faiths.
    Although it’s not a coincidence that all three Abrahamic faiths originated within a few kilometres of each other, the climate of the region is nothing to do with it. It’s to do with being at the confluence of three continents.
    They tried to strip out the effects of cultural transmission, but were they successful? We can’t really be sure, but I’d like to see the analysis done just on North and South America, just to check
    And there are other factors related to climate that are hypothesised to affect religious beliefs. Parasite burden, for example (Fincher & Thornhill, 2012). A high parasite burden is proposed to make societies suspicious of outsiders, and change their religious beliefs accordingly. And parasites are more common in… lush, resource rich environments!

  18. Assuming for an instant that there had been any surprise in their data–if they hadn’t known in advance what they expected to find, perhaps even chosen their variables to ensure this–it would be trivially easy to assert the same conclusion. Easier, in fact:
    “our findings are consistent with the notion that a shared belief in moralizing high gods can improve a group’s ability to deal with environmental duress prosper and achieve a higher standard of living, and may therefore be ecologically adaptive.

    How are their conclusions here the most parsimonious explanation of their results? It’s much more obvious to conclude that god-belief leads to dysfunction. But I echo PCC & the rest of us here.

    1. I thought I knew how to use strike-out in WP. Well, consider “can improve a group’s ability to deal with environmental duress” to be struck out in the above.

  19. “Prosocial effects” of course, means “effects (behaviors in this case) that are good for society in general.”

    And boy oh boy is “good for society” in the eye of the beholder. In terms of self-interest, the tight integration of what the power structure wants from the “little people” (civil tranquility, thrift, work) with what the church promotes (same) reveals a particular view of what is “good for society.” An outside observer, or person with a differing world view, might look for “equality of opportunity,” “general health and well-being,” “freedom from fear” – and maybe other attributes which don’t necessarily sync.

    That’s old wine in an old bottle I know.

  20. I seem to remember there were a few ‘sociological studies (i think by Frans Roes) , based on Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas that showed a direct positive correlation between the SIZE (ranging from 50 000) of societies and the presence of moralising Gods.
    Surprisingly(?) there appeared also to be a correlation between the frequency of monogamy as norm and size of society.
    We should note that in HG societies violence (within as well as out-group) is a common cause of death, typically >30% and that most often it is about access to nubile females.

    Could not moralising gods and monogamy be mechanisms whereby not very closely related males would fight less among each other? Would not the moralising gods extend the kin-selection as it where, and give a moral incentive for punishing cheaters?

  21. “political complexity also showed a positive and statistically significant correlation with belief in gods”

    Speculating – I’m thinking this is because of the correlation between a ruling class and a priest class? (characterised by the proverbial “you keep them dumb, I’ll keep them poor”)

    The more complex a society, the stronger its rulers need to be and the more they will support a strong, organised religion to validate their power. This could lead to a self-strengthening spiral where also religious dissent is less tolerated.

    Hence stronger religion and more belief in gods.

    1. “you keep them dumb, I’ll keep them poor”

      This is the conspiracy idea which I think might hold in the minds of some individuals in positions of power. However, it seems to me the dynamics of religiosity perform this function adequately as an invisible hand. Individuals pursuing their own agendas within the context of large organizations can account for growth and stability. With increased size they become ensconced and self perpetuating. The spread of a meme, so to speak.

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