To crack the mystery of why and how people around the world came to believe in moralizing gods, researchers are using a novel tool in religious studies: the scientific method. By combining laboratory experiments, cross-cultural fieldwork, and analysis of the historical record, an interdisciplinary team has put forward a hypothesis that has the small community of researchers who study the evolution of religion abuzz. A culture like ancient Egypt didn’t just stumble on the idea of moralizing gods, says psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, in Canada, who synthesized the new idea in his 2013 book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Instead, belief in those judgmental deities, or “big gods,” was key to the cooperation needed to build and sustain Egyptians’ large, complex society.
In this view, without supernatural enforcement of cooperative, “moral” behavior, ancient Egypt—as well as nearly every other large-scale society in history—wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground. All-knowing big gods are “crazily effective” at enforcing social norms, says Norenzayan’s collaborator Edward Slingerland, a historian at UBC Vancouver. “Not only can they see you everywhere you are, but they can actually look inside your mind.” And once big gods and big societies existed, the moralizing gods helped religions as dissimilar as Islam and Mormonism spread by making groups of the faithful more cooperative, and therefore more successful.