Do Harsh Environments Lead to Angry Gods?

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Thor, son of Woden (Odin). God of thunder in the Scandinavian pantheon, Thor is shown wielding his hammer, symbolising thunder and lightning, as he reconstructed the globe.
Photo: Ann Ronan Picture Library / Heritage Images

The study of religion has long been focused on the question of why certain religious beliefs emerge and thrive. What benefits do they confer — or did they confer when they first emerged — that have led them to be so successful? And, relatedly, why do different gods and faiths make such different demands of their adherents? An interesting new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers up an intriguing hint: Religions with “moralizing high gods” — that is, powerful supernatural beings that oversee human events and take an active interest in how humans are behaving — are more likely to be found in cultures residing in ecologically harsh areas.

A team led by Carlos A. Botero at North Carolina State took a sample of 583 societies around the world and, to simplify things a bit, basically built a computer model that would attempt to predict which do and don’t have moralizing high gods. The model included not just variables about the environment, but also things like the societies’ political complexity and the presence of animal husbandry (the hypothesis being that the more people you have owning stuff, the more important it is that people abide by the rules).

They found that belief in moralizing high gods is “more prevalent among societies that inhabit poorer environments and are more prone to ecological distress.” When you think about it, this makes sense: In societies that exist in places with violent monsoon seasons or periods of extreme drought, cooperation is more important than it is in temperate areas without these ecological challenges. And what better way to promote cooperation and fair play than the idea of an all-seeing god who demands it?

Now, these findings don’t mean that in each of the societies in question some wise guy said, "Hey, I should make up a religion to force people to cooperate!" Religious beliefs emerge and spread in ways much more complicated than this. But, still: It’s a fascinating, evocative idea.