Is religion good or bad for humanity? Epic analysis delivers a possible answer

A scientific review of 10,000 years of history is finally revealing the unexpected truth behind religion’s role in human civilisation


By Harvey Whitehouse

RELIGION has given us algebra and the Spanish Inquisition, Bach’s cantatas and pogroms. The debate over whether religion lifts humanity higher or brings out our basest instincts is ancient and, in some ways, reassuringly insoluble. There are so many examples on either side. The last word goes to the most erudite – until someone more erudite comes along.

The latest round of the eternal conundrum was triggered by the seemingly religiously inspired 9/11 attacks in the US, after which “new atheists” rose to prominence. The likes of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and neuroscientist Sam Harris argue that rational beings following the evidence must inevitably conclude that religion is harmful. They, in turn, have been accused of cherry-picking their evidence.

You might conclude that it is impossible to make a moral judgement about such a multifaceted cultural phenomenon. Nevertheless, in recent years, there have been attempts to dissect the question using a scientific scalpel. Researchers have tried to work out how humanity has been shaped by things like moralising philosophies, world religions, all-seeing gods and rituals. The studies offer intriguing insights, but each presents just a fragment of the full story, and sometimes they generate competing ideas. What is needed is a way to assess them and to build a more holistic picture of the role religion has played in the evolution of human societies. And that is what I and my colleagues have been doing.

But first, what do we mean by “good” and “bad”? Should religion be considered good if it has inspired magnificent art but enslaved millions? Would it be judged bad if it ensured equality at the price of free expression? Such assessments risk miring us in moral quicksand. Besides, how could these intangibles be weighed against one another? A more empirical approach might tally lives lost or harmed against those saved or enhanced as a result of religion. But any attempt to estimate these numbers would be hopelessly subjective.

Alternatively, we can ask whether religion has helped societies grow and flourish. Is it, as many believe, a form of social glue that builds cooperation? As it happens, there is surprising agreement about the moral significance of cooperation. A study involving 60 societies, ranging from small groups to the very largest, found that people everywhere equate “good” with cooperative behaviours and “bad” with non-cooperative ones. Admittedly, societies differ in the kinds of cooperation they value: some are more authoritarian, others more egalitarian. Nevertheless, this approach allows us to ask a more tangible question about religion: what role, if any, has it played in establishing the cooperative behaviours that have allowed human societies to grow from small hunter-gatherer groups to vast empires and nation states?

One obvious place to begin is the Axial Age, a period when many researchers believe civilisation pivoted towards modernity. Around the middle of the first millennium BC, the thinking goes, a set of cultural changes swept the world. Novel notions of equality radically altered the relationship between rulers and ruled, stabilising societies and allowing them to take a leap in size and complexity. Religion is thought to have played a role. Indeed, the Axial Age concept emerged from the observation that a handful of important prophets and spiritual leaders – among them Buddha, Confucius and Zoroaster, or Zarathustra – rose to prominence in that period, preaching similar moralistic ideologies.

Read more: How belief in punitive gods may have helped large societies cooperate

Another popular hypothesis is that cooperation in complex societies is intimately connected with the invention of “Big Gods”: deities who demand that their moral code be observed by all, and who have supernatural powers of surveillance and enforcement. Most of today’s world religions have these moralising gods, but they are rare in small-scale societies, where supernatural beings tend to care only whether people discharge their obligations to the spirit world.

It has been suggested that the establishment of big states with large urban populations depended on belief in such gods, who cared about how everyone, including relative strangers, treated each other. Big Gods could also have helped solve a problem that plagues every society beyond a certain size: free-riders. In smaller communities, it is relatively easy for peer groups and local chiefs to catch people who try to live off the fruits of society while contributing less than their fair share. In bigger ones, where impersonal transactions are more commonplace, compliance is harder to police. Here, the fear that a moralising god is watching and will punish free-riders – for example, with eternal damnation – could help do the trick.

Other researchers, including me, have examined the role that sacred rituals might have as social glue. For most of prehistory, humans lived in small groups whose members all knew each other. Today’s small-scale societies tend to favour infrequent but traumatic rituals that promote intense social cohesion – the kind that is necessary if people are to risk life and limb hunting dangerous animals together. An example would be the agonising initiation rites still carried out in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, involving extensive scarification of the body to resemble the skin of a crocodile, a locally revered species.

Social glue: Maat (above), Buddha (below) and Christianity have helped societies gel

However, with the advent of farming, such rituals were no longer fit for purpose. Farming supported larger populations whose members didn’t always know each other. They also weren’t required to risk everything for one another, so they didn’t require the same levels of social cohesion. But they did need to feel part of a group obeying the same moral code and system of governance – especially as their society absorbed other ethnic groups through military conquest. New kinds of rituals seem to have provided that shared identity. These were generally painless practices like prayer and meeting in holy places that could be performed frequently and collectively, allowing them to be duplicated across entire states or empires.


A puzzle, however, is that many of these early civilisations also practised the brutal ritual of human sacrifice. This reached its zenith in the so-called archaic states that existed between about 3000 BC and 1000 BC, and were among the cruellest and most unequal societies ever. In some parts of the globe, human sacrifice persisted until relatively recently. The Inca religion, for example, had much in common with today’s world religions: people paid homage to their gods with frequent and, for the most part, painless ceremonies. But their rulers had divine status, their gods weren’t moralising and their rituals included human sacrifice right up until they were conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century.

The Axial Age, Big Gods, rituals – how can we test these ideas? In 2010, Pieter François at the University of Oxford, Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut and I began building a history databank. This project, named Seshat after the Egyptian goddess of record-keeping, provides us with the infrastructure and data to investigate these hypotheses rigorously and on a global scale. To date, it contains information on more than 400 societies that have existed around the world over the past 10,000 years. Seshat keeps growing, but we believe it is now mature enough to tackle the question of whether religion has been good or bad for humanity.

Read more: Effortless thinking – The god-shaped hole in your brain

In research published last year, I was part of a team that used Seshat to explore the Axial Age idea. Advocates of that concept were in for a surprise. For a start, many features characteristic of the age – including moralistic norms and a legal code – arose in places far from the influence of the spiritual leaders, and sometimes long before the middle of the first millennium BC. In what is now Turkey, for example, the Hittites adopted a moral code about a millennium earlier. What’s more, the various features of the Axial Age didn’t come together until much later than most scholars had thought – many thousands of years after the initial emergence of large-scale, complex societies. For a long time after Zarathustra preached in Iran, the divinely sanctioned powers of ruler remained unchecked, for example. And Confucianism didn’t take off in China until after 200 BC. It would appear that these moralising ideologies weren’t directly linked with the rise of sizeable, cooperative civilisations.

Catholic icons
Catholic icons

So what about Big Gods? Were they required for societies to scale up? In research just published in Nature, a large, interdisciplinary team of scholars, including Patrick Savage at Keio University in Tokyo, François, Turchin and me, used Seshat to test this idea. We measured social complexity using 51 markers – such as population size and the presence of a bureaucracy or money – and found that in almost all of the regions we analysed, moralising gods were adopted much later than expected. Instead of helping foster cooperation as societies expanded, Big Gods appeared only after a society had passed a threshold in complexity corresponding to a population of around a million people. This happened first in Egypt, where people believed in the supernatural enforcement of order or Maat – personified by a goddess – as early as 2800 BC. Egypt had a population of some 1.1 million at the time and was, by all measures, the most sophisticated society in the world. The most parsimonious explanation is that something other than Big Gods allowed societies to grow.

Our study suggests that something was the shift in the nature of rituals from traumatic and rare to painless and repetitive. This predated Big Gods in nine of the 12 regions we studied – by 1100 years, on average – giving rise to the first doctrinal religions, the forerunners of today’s world religions. But there was a dark side to this development: human sacrifice.

A 2016 study based on a historical analysis of more than 100 small-scale societies in Austronesia concluded that human sacrifice was used as a form of social control. The elites – chiefs and shamans – did the sacrificing, and the lower orders paid the price, so it maintained social stability by keeping the masses terrorised and subservient. Seshat includes much bigger societies, and our yet-to-be-published analysis indicates that the practice started to decline when populations exceeded about 100,000. At this point, when rulers were finding it increasingly difficult to police the masses, human sacrifice may have become a destabilising force, providing incentive for people to revolt against the system. Society began to fracture, making it vulnerable to conquest.

Read more: Faith of the faithless – Is atheism just another religion?

Piecing all this together, here is what we think happened. As societies grew by means of agricultural innovation, the infrequent, traumatic rituals that had kept people together as small foraging bands gave way to frequent, painless ones. These early doctrinal religions helped unite larger, heterogeneous populations just enough to overcome the free-riding problem and ensure compliance with new forms of governance. However, in doing so they rendered them vulnerable to a new problem: power-hungry rulers. These were the despotic god-kings who presided over archaic states. Granted the divine right to command vast populations, they exploited it to raise militias and priesthoods, shoring up their power through practices we nowadays regard as cruel, such as human sacrifice and slavery. But archaic states rarely grew beyond 100,000 people because they, in turn, became internally unstable and therefore less defensible against invasion.

The societies that expanded to a million or more were those that found a new way to build cooperation – Big Gods. They demoted their rulers to the status of mortals, laid the seeds of democracy and the rule of law, and fostered a more egalitarian distribution of rights and obligations. To our modern eyes, “bad” religions gave way to “good” ones. In reality, religions were always “good” in the sense that they promoted cooperation. What changed was that societies began valuing social justice above deference to authority. In other words, they changed their ideas about what constituted “good” cooperative behaviours to ones that more closely align with our modern agenda.

Today, many societies have transferred religion’s community-building and surveillance roles to secular institutions. Some of the wealthiest and most peaceful have atheist majorities. But some of these same societies are also facing grave problems as they absorb migrants and struggle to contain growing social tensions and xenophobia. Time will tell if they are capable of adapting to meet the challenges of destabilising influences. But analyses of the kind we are doing could at least reveal which elements of religion have pushed us towards our modern notion of civilisation, and so might be worth emulating.

Harvey Whitehouse is chair of social anthropology and director of the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion at the University of Oxford

First published at the New Scientist – 6 April 2019.


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