Did judgmental gods help societies grow?

Today’s most popular religions have one thing in common: gods or supernatural laws (such as karma) that dictate moral behavior and punish transgressions. Act morally and these supernatural forces will reward you; break the rules and you’ll be punished.

But moralizing gods seem to be quite rare in human history. Researchers know from ethnographies that the gods of hunter-gatherer societies, for example, don’t much concern themselves with humans, much less their moral behavior. (Many of them focus on nature instead.) Now, a new study tests a popular hypothesis about why moralizing gods eventually took over.

Once societies reach 1 million members or so, he says, moralizing gods seem to come in to stabilize cooperation between people who may have different languages, ethnicities, or cultural backgrounds.

More likely, I’d think, people who just don’t know one another.