The evolution of the gods


20th century fairy. The older version was very different – no wings, malevolent, and more inclined to baby-snatching than wish-granting.

How god evolved. Almost all cultures believe in simple spirits who are responsible for the unexplained; only some believe in a “High” or “King” god who takes an active role in the world as the source of human morality. To put that in a Western context, spirits like the fairies would turn your milk sour or replace your baby with a changeling (a good explanation for Downs syndrome children), while God with a capital G threatened you with eternal damnation for coveting your neighbour’s wife.

Did moralistic “high” gods evolve to enforce cooperation within the group? (“do as we say or God will get you!”) Or were they a tool of the rich and powerful to control the plebs? (“God made me your leader, so you better listen up!”) The idea in either case is not that the High God was invented, but that he arose naturally, was found useful, and so thrived. (He was, in fact, a “meme,” the cultural equivalent of a gene, and subject to the same laws of natural selection).


Jehovah, the great I AM

Two anthropologists set out to test the first of these alternatives (that “high” gods foster cooperation). They examined 178 cultures to see whether larger and more complex ones were more likely to have “high” gods than smaller and simpler societies. For their purposes, “large” meant more than 1,000 individuals, and “complex” meant farming and pastoralism, since these require high levels of cooperation, although pastoral communities are typically smaller than farming ones. The results turned out as follows:

Amongst foragers – who can easily gather enough food with minimal co-operation between individuals – 88% had either no “high” god or a “high” god which did not bestow morals and did not interact with the world. At the other extreme of the scale, ~40% of groups dependent on intensive agriculture had a “high” god who interfered with the world and gave morals to the group.


The relationship between group size and belief in a high god.

To put that a different way, only 12% of egalitarian (foraging) groups had a “high” god who insisted on morality and intervened in human affairs, but 40% of societies with a class system/wealth distinctions did, rising to 80% among pastoralists (looking after animals requires even more cooperation than growing crops).

Conclusion: large societies dependent on cooperation give rise to “high-god” religions because they’re socially useful.

The article then touches very briefly on the evolution of religion in the present and future:

Co-operation will likely remain the foundation of civilisation but a “high” god may not. Secularity is rising in many countries – arguably for good reason – but we mustn’t forget that religion once played a key role in many societies. We must be sure that we do not loose the glue which binds us together and be sure to develop secular ways of ensuring humanity continues to work together.


The British bobby, suspected of complicity in the death of God.

I’m not sure that secularism is really so universal in modern societies, but I think it might be said that where the “high” god of European culture (commonly called simply God) has withered away, it’s when his function has been usurped by the rule of law and an efficient bureaucracy – in other words, in those Western countries where the citizens can rely on a police force and a public service that between them will provide the social and personal benefits once enforced by God. The one major Western society which more or less missed out on these two things is the United States. You might object, but compared to Europe, American police are violent and untrusted (think Ferguson) and the government provides nothing like a reliable social safety net.

And what about Cambodia? Some 80% of Cambodians live in villages, and the villagers rely on wet rice, which requires high levels of cooperation, which would predict the presence of a “high” god. But the villages are also pretty egalitarian, with little distance between rich and poor (this is changing with the rise of a class of villagers with urban connections – urban subsidies produce rural inequalities), which would tend to undermine “high” gods. So Cambodian village religion should be somewhere in between the “high god” model and the “spirit religion” model.


Pchum Ben at Wat Langka, Phnom Penh.

And, without having looked too closely at the evidence (meaning I might be wrong), it seems it is. The Buddha is not, of course a god, but in practice many Cambodians treat him as one. People worship and pray in front of his image, and he’s the source of a sort of morality – do good in this life or else you’ll have a bad reincarnation in your next with a nasty stint in hell in between. But his moral authority is pretty weak – it operates at the level of the individual, not the group, meaning that there’s no organised religious authority, like the Church or whatever the Muslim equivalent is called, to enforce this god’s decrees. If you disobey Buddhist morality you’ll be punished by karma in the next world or life, not by the priests in this one.


Village neak ta shrine – the neak ta are the ancestral spirits.

But the entire spirit world, or almost all of it, is equally moral – the village neak ta, the meba (family ancestors), the araks (more generalised village ancestors), even the little fairy-like mrieng kongveal who look after animals, all enforce morality. They do it very effectively, too – girls won’t have sex before marriage “because the meba are watching,” and farmers forebear from mistreating their cows for fear of being struck down with a stomach-ache by the mrieng kongveal. The monks might not come and get you in this life, but the spirits will.

And if I’m right about the link between secularism and the rise of impartial law and bureaucracy, then religion is likely to endure in Cambodia, because one thing Cambodia does not have is a police force and bureaucracy that work. But whether that religion will continue to be Buddhism, I cannot tell. All I can say with some confidence is that God and the gods will continue to evolve, as they have always done.


Cambodian nativity setting – from Global Christian Worship. The five figures from right to left rear (three wise men and two angels?) wear the traditional costume of Cambodian gods.