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Rise of human civilization tied to belief in punitive gods

Long-distance strangers who share certain religious beliefs more likely to create societal bonds, study suggests

1:00pm, February 10, 2016
Egyptian Book of the Dead

GODS’ WRATH  Beliefs in all-knowing, punitive gods helped turn hunter-gatherer groups into large civilizations, a new study suggests. Here, a papyrus manuscript from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead shows a line of Egyptian gods (top) ready to judge whether the dead Theban scribe Ani should be admitted to the afterlife or sent to the underworld.

Beliefs in all-knowing gods that punish wrongdoers helped enable the rise of modern civilizations, a new cross-cultural study suggests.

Cooperation among throngs of strangers in expanding societies required a common faith in moralistic gods, say sociocultural anthropologist Benjamin Purzycki of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and his colleagues. To believers, these gods were concerned about good and bad behavior, knew what everyone thought and did, and punished selfish transgressors in a big way.

Shared beliefs in punitive gods paved the way for vast trade networks, market economies and institutions of social control, including governments and courts, the scientists propose online February 10 in Nature.

“A large part of the success of human civilizations may have lain in the hands of the gods, whether or not they are real,” writes evolutionary biologist and

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