Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

Organizing society and the correlation fallacy 

A recent study published in the journal Nature has atheists and secularists spiking the (American) football even though they haven’t seen the actual paper. 

Provocatively titled, “Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history“ the study by Whitehouse, et al, argues,

“[The belief in] prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established.”

And while the paper itself is buried behind a paywall, many of the studies that the authors use to come to their conclusions aren’t. Now someone will say, “Yeah, but it’s only 9 bucks (US).” Well, I have to work for a living, and I can find something better to do with my $9. Anyway…

That’s why I titled this post as I did because I think, looking at the various studies that the paper is based upon, that this is a chicken/egg problem and it is answered depending on what you assume that either of those things are. Take the statement from above that, “Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity…,” and let’s ask a question: do they know that as a fact or are they merely asserting it as a fact and assuming something that they haven’t proven?

Update: Did the authors of this study cherry pick their data?

Kinda puts things in a different perspective because if they know it, then they should be able to show it, but if they’re merely assuming it then they’re arguing in a circle. 

Now, the authors necessarily concede that these societies considered “High Moralizing Gods” (HMG) to be necessary to “…sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established,” the obvious problem being that, with rare exceptions, these expanding empires never required the worship of their gods outside of their immediate territory.  Further, even within those expansive empires, the worship of multiple gods was often permitted or even encouraged. It was not uncommon for households to have patron gods. Such a reality tends to buck the system. In fact, one paper cited in the study  appears to indicate that missionary religions (ie Christianity, Islam, and certain sects of Hinduism) seem to skew any results. Further, one runs into situations, such as the one found in Plato’s dialogues, especially between Socrates and Euthyphro, where while there was a “high god” in the form of Zeus, the recognition of other gods and what they required. 

Evolution’s “Merry-go-round”

Atheists like Rosa Rubicondior are crowing over such studies, calling it “ironic” and saying,

This study shows though that complexity preceded these “big gods”, presumably because this countered any tendency for more complex social groups from disintegrating or, in an analogy with biological evolution, from speciating.

The problem is that, if we look at these cultures and what they believe, we find the very “speciation” that they’re trying to disprove. This is where the correlation fallacy—to me—seems to become engaged. 

Let’s take the Roman Empire for example and the instance of the Imperial cults. In the whole Empire, only two groups seem to have had issue with the worship of Genius of Caesar: Jews and Christians. Why is that? 

If HMG’s were such an issue, and there was a wide variety of them, depending on the culture in question, why is it that out of all the various ethnic and cultural groups in the Empire that there were only two (Jews, then Christians) that took significant umbrage at the incense offering? 

Let’s also keep in mind, if we’re going to think “evolutionarily” about this, why is it that the religions of these various HMGs that are being appealed to often embraced and encouraged practices that had the potential to destabilize their society genetically through incest, homosexuality, and bestiality, the use of abortafacients, and even infanticide? In fact, these HMGs seemed to condone what would eventually corrupt and bring those societies down? 

Things to keep in mind 

Now, it would serve us well to consider certain factors that allow us to engage in meaningful study of the past, like the existence of artifacts and records that relate to us the religious considerations of various people groups. Well what does that entail? Two key factors 

  1. Symbology. Cultures often develop symbols that have the ability to carry concentrated meaning. For example, an American flag conveys certain meanings across time and space. It’s association with certain concepts, such as liberty and justice, implies that everyone who flies that flag believes in those things. A symbol can only carry the meaning that it’s originating culture gives it. These meanings might expand or contract over time, but the fact that it carries meaning doesn’t. We may be ignorant of the meaning but it still possesses that characteristic. 
  2. Mythology. These are common stories that are told to reflect the unity of a particular culture’s narrative. Myth on certain scales is immediately considered to be fiction and dismissed as such. Indeed, some myths are just that because they serve an explanatory purpose. However, that doesn’t mean that all myths are necessarily false either. If you follow the link in this paragraph, it will take you to a discussion of myth that is rather enlightening, and when considered carefully, might cause one to resist the urge to dismiss it outright. 

The development and consistent transmission of these two can only take place in a stable and long-lasting social environment but, at the same time, these are necessary to attract those who would live in a stable social environment. Hence, the problem. 

Just because we can correlate a specific reality (the existence of a belief in HMGs) within a people group does not mean that the people group is the cause of the reality. Rather, what should be noted is that we would only know about these things because a culture valued them enough to preserve them. 

As always, the problem with such research is the outliers. This is not to say that there isn’t some truth to the assertion, given that a particular culture may elevate a particular god as its patron deity, something that is seen in the Egyptian culture among pharaohs from time to time. Further, what a culture does ultimately says nothing about whether or not a god or gods actually exist. In fact, I believe it could be argued that those cultures were simply responding to what they knew to be true. 

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