Religion Is Different

Peter Turchin


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Social life of human beings was utterly transformed during the Holocene. Agriculture, large-scale organized warfare, elites, rulers, bureaucracies, writing, and monumental architecture evolved independently in many world regions at markedly different times. These are truly universal features of complex human societies. Moralizing religion is different.

I recently finished writing a chapter for the Seshat History of Moralizing Religion in which I summarize the statistical patterns from the data that the Seshat project gathered on moralizing supernatural punishment/reward (MSP). You can read more about this project, data, and results in this academic publication. The main thrust of this research was on testing rival theories attempting to explain the evolution of MSP (it is summarized in this blog post). But today I want to write about the historical geography of MSP. I’ve put together this infographic, based on the Seshat data, which depicts the evolution of MSP in time and space.

Our data show that some elements of MSP are found in many different parts of the world and have substantial antiquity. Fully developed MSP, on the other hand, evolved in one particular world region during a period that can reasonably be called the Axial Age.

The Axial Age, of course, is a fairly controversial idea, and there are many different ways to define its temporal boundaries and to localize it in space. However, by focusing on one particular aspect (MSP), defining its dimensions, and gathering systematic data across the world regions and historic eras, the Seshat project provides us with a quantitative, empirically based approach to delineate the spatial and temporal boundaries of this “Age of Moralizing Religion.” Let’s see what the data tell us.

Full MSP first developed in Egypt during the second millennium BCE. The central MSP idea in Ancient Egyptian Religion, Ma’at, presages later developments in West Asian Monotheisms and South Asian Karmic religions, because although Ma’at was primarily conceptualized as a supernatural force or universal principle, it was also personified and depicted as a supernatural (or superhuman) agent.

In the next, first BCE, millennium full MSP became firmly associated with the rise of what Alan Strathern calls “transcendentalisms,” such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Jainism. This evolution took place within the Central Political-Military Network (more on this in Chase-Dunn and Hall, Rise and Demise). The core of this Central PMN was the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which stretched from Egypt and Anatolia to Sogdiana and the Indus. The Central PMN was an “incubator” for religious ideas originating from Egypt, the Steppe, North India, and other geographically adjacent regions. These ideas mixed and recombined in new ways, becoming the progenitors of all currently existing world religions with full MSP.

The Achaemenid Empire at its greatest territorial extent, under the rule of Darius I (522 BC–486 BC)[2][3][4][5]


There were two major flavors of these Axial Age transcendentalisms. The West Asian one emphasized a Big God that monitored human moral behavior and punished the evildoers. The South Asian transcendentalism was based on the notion of karma, a non-agentic force, or universal principle. Despite this difference, these two flavors had a lot in common—beliefs in punishment/reward in the afterlife, internalization of moral norms, and an emphasis on salvation, liberation, or enlightenment.

Interestingly, the East Asian PMN was not part of this religious interaction sphere, although by that point Central and East Asian Prestige Goods Networks have already merged, and religious ideas could travel together with merchants (which, indeed, happened, but a millennium later, when Buddhism arrived in China and Manichaeism in Mongolia).

What was so special about the Central PMN in the Axial Age? Analysis of the Seshat data points to the role of military revolutions and overall intensification of warfare as the primary causal driver of MSP. The invention and spread of cavalry, in particular, is the strongest predictor of the increases in MSP. This statistical result helps us understand why world religions with full MSP evolved in the Central PMN at that particular period in time. Horse-riding was invented in the Great Steppe around 1000 BCE. It spread to Iran by 900 BCE and to North India by 600 BCE. Cavalry revolutionized warfare within the Central PMN, leading to a cascade of other military innovations, followed by rapid cultural evolution of MSP.

All transcendentalisms with full MSP that exist today, thus, are evolutionary offshoots of the religions that developed within the Central PMN in the first millennium BCE. The main mode of evolution of MSP was spread by military conquest, by long-distance traders, and by missionaries. Apart from the initial evolution in the Central PMN, we know of no examples of independent evolution of full MSP, as is imagined by the Big Gods theorists (although world religions often incorporated cultural elements from local religious traditions, once they got to a region). Instead, world religions spread through Afro-Eurasia following the spread of horse-riding and iron weapons and armor. Later another military revolution took place in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Following it, world religions with full MSP spread to the rest of the world carried by European empires.

To return to what I started this blog with, the evolution of MSP is distinct in its mode from other aspects of the Holocene transformation, which, unlike full MSP, arose repeatedly and independently in different parts of the world. Instead, full MSP evolved in a particular world region at a particular time, and then spread from there. Furthermore, full MSP is not a necessary condition for effective functioning of large-scale societies. Large bureaucratic empires in China, for example, functioned well enough without other-worldly supernatural punishments, instead relying on this-world state-administered punishments and rewards. The Big Brother may be as effective (if not more so) than the Big God. A sequence of large states in the Peru region, culminating in the Inca Empire, also attests that MSP is not a necessary institution. Well-functioning secular modern states, such as Denmark or Austria, in which religion plays a minor (at best) role is more evidence for this idea. Finally, other aspects of world religions may be of greater importance for sustaining large-scale societies: their ability to symbolically unify large ethnically heterogeneous populations, their emphasis on doctrinal rituals, and their literate clergies that often served in government bureaucracies.

The evolution of moralizing religion is an interesting puzzle that is amenable to an investigation using the tools of cultural evolution and historical databases. Much progress has been made, and we now have a much better understanding of causal process involved. However, and perhaps disappointingly to some, these insights suggest that moralizing religion was not a particularly important force in the evolution of large-scale complex societies.

This post is based on a chapter titled The Evolution of Moralizing Supernatural Punishment: Empirical Patterns, forthcoming in Seshat History of Moralizing Religion (2023), edited by Larson et al.

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John Martin Strate

I look forward to your assessment of politics and religion in the United States. A common view is that the United States is a secular country but with the soul of a church. Church attendance has been declining due to generational change. What will hold this country’s democracy together if “soul of a church” disappears? Will the experience of small, secular, homogeneous countries like Denmark work in the United States?

Jams O'Donnell

The US is not a secular country – it is a country split between a wide but shallow Christian religiosity and an equally wide and shallow although larger Liberal/capitalist religiosity. However, the US will imminently be in transition to a much wider Latin American majority and I’m not sure where that will go.

Gene Anderson

I wonder if the correlation is not so much with cavalry as with what brought the cavalry out: expansionist conquering states or polities.
China wasn’t without moral religion before Buddhism. From the beginning of the empire, Tian (Heaven) was a remote deity that could punish the immoral, and the ancestors most definitely punished those who did not properly sacrifice to them, though that’s not precisely morality in the usual sense. They did punish improper behavior, too. I suppose the blue bar that lasts so long for China refers to this?

Jams O'Donnell

“efforts to demonstrate empirically that there is a link between adherence to a moralizing religion and prosocial behavior have, so far, proven inconclusive”.

Not surprising, as they are looking at a symptom rather than a cause.

And as that is the case, this whole approach is empty of actual meaning or, mostly, relevance, except as PHD material.

Jams O'Donnell

To expand slightly on the above, sociological analyses of religion are of interest only to sociologists. I.e. they are completely peripheral to any search for actual meaning.


Neat, but I’m having trouble understanding all the transitions in China between dark blue and red-orange (which I presume indicates when Buddhist enters China). How did you folks color code China? That is, what are each of those stages between dark blue and red-orange in China?
Also, Buddhism enters Japan about when it turns red-orange but why do you have it as red-orange instead of red for such a long period of time?

Finally, besides Big Brother and Big Gods (which, yeah, I don’t think is actually a terribly great lever for building empires), another mechanism to discipline is Big Culture/Clan. That is arguably what Confucianism (and also some taboo systems) rely on (in its ideal form). Yes, many of the Chinese dynasties relied on Legalistic methods (especially in the Ming and Qing) but some were more Confucian. You follow rules and taboos because you don’t want your neighbors/friends/society to ostracize/hate/lynch you.

Anonymous lurker

To quote Robert Sapolsky:

Examples of cultural influences on behavior are numerous. Austrians, say, are more likely to ski than Tahitians. But some differences are less obvious. For example, monotheistic religions tend to come from desert cultures, while rain forest cultures tend to be polytheistic. And societies of people who make a living as nomadic pastoralists — herders of cows, camels, or goats — are more likely than hunter-gatherers to evolve “cultures of honor” built around warrior classes, retributive violence and clan feuds.

The moralistic “big brother” in the sky was a necessary invention as a tool for remote management of workers and populations, this is vital for any empire. It’s less necessary now in surveillance capitalism. Pastoralists (usually in the desert savannas or in steppes) manage vast areas with sparse populations, and the workers there can easily steal or “rustle” the private property known as living stocks. It is in the best interest of the managers of this system to convince everyone under them that there’s an invisible manager in the sky, ready to punish those who break the laws. Now guess who was very fond of riding horses.

Raymond Reichelt

Thanks Peter

Vladimir Dinets

Fascinating, thank you.

Rick Hodge

1000 BCE, nearing the end of the Bronze Age Collapse, societies that survived and spread were feeling especially “blessed”,”self-righteous” about their own place in the universe. We must be the chosen ones and thanks to horses we can conquer our neighbors and spread our religion. I could hardly blame anyone of the era for thinking this way. I wonder if the data could correlate the role of timing, good fortune and access to horses led to the religions we have today. I hope I’m not being too obvious or simple-minded in my thoughts. But, it seems to me a contrast to the more dominant view that certain Religions and Cultures were better which led to their success?

Ross Hartshorn

Interesting stuff, to be sure, but I also found myself wondering about the outlier of Egypt, which seemed to be moving towards MSP millenia earlier than even nearby areas like Mesopotamia or Anatolia. Do we have any idea what the reason for this was? I mean I could make something up, but I’m wondering if there’s any evidence (Seshat or otherwise) why this would have been.

Stephany Vogel

There is a significant time frame difference between the development of Judaism and Ma’at, Buddhism, etc.,. How did you conclude which MSP/R was the original fully developed form?

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