Philosophers and theologians think that big ideas like Karma and big gods, defined as moralizing deities who reward humans for doing good deeds and punish ethical transgressions, are very important in the growth and development of expanding human societies.
Philosophers and theologians usually ignore the importance of ritual activities, dietary rules, congregational prayer and pilgrimage in building stronger and more stable bonds among expanding and changing human populations.
But an international research team investigated the role of moralizing deities in the rise of complex large-scale societies has found that contrary to prevailing theories; beliefs in moralizing deities are a consequence, not a cause, of the evolution of complex societies.
For their statistical analyses the researchers used the Seshat: Global History Databank, the most comprehensive collection of historical and prehistorical data, containing about 300,000 records on social complexity, religion, and other characteristics of 500 past societies, spanning 10,000 years of human history. The results were published in the journal Nature in March of 2019.
“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Seshat director and co-author Peter Turchin. Factors such as agriculture, warfare, or religion have been proposed as main driving forces.
One prominent theory, the big or moralizing gods hypothesis, assumes that religious beliefs were key. According to this theory people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe in gods who will punish them if they don’t.
“To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this hypothesis,” says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. “In almost every region of the world for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.”
Indeed, standardized rituals (like dietary and purity rules, communal prayer, holy day celebrations and pilgrimages) tended on average to appear hundreds of years before polytheistic gods who cared about human morality.
Such rituals create a collective identity and feelings of belonging that act as social glue, making people behave more cooperatively. “Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than big idea beliefs,” says Harvey Whitehouse.
The really big idea about God is monotheism; and that idea comes directly from God himself; through his prophets. Monotheism spread slowly and did not last very long; until the time of Prophet Abraham (a).
After the era of Prophet Abraham (a) and Prophet Moses (a) things began to change greatly with the successful organization of monotheistic communities worshipping an ethical behavior demanding God. In the centuries after the era of Prophet Muhammad (s) the growth of complex societies increased greatly.
The five pillars of Islam begin with the monotheistic profession of belief that “There is no god but God’ and then continue with four collective activities (three of them ritual): Prayer (salat), Alms (zakat). Fasting (sawm). and Pilgrimage (hajj).
No philosophers ever originated these things; although many philosophers later tried to explain them.
I think that most philosophers both Jewish and Muslim would agree with Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel (Pirkei Avot 1:18): “On three things (ideas) the (civilized) world stands: On justice, on truth and on peace,” but I believe most Islamic and Jewish religious teachers would agree with Rabbi Shimon the Righteous (Pirkei Avot 1:2) “The (human) world stands on three things: Torah (revelation), worship, and deeds of loving kindness.”