The Transcendental Revolution

Peter Turchin


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My reading of the month is Unearthly Powers by an Oxford historian Alan Strathern. It’s a very interesting and thought-provoking book. Highly recommended.

There is much that I like in the book. Strathern avoids the ideological extremes that preoccupy today’s humanities, such as an aversion to essentialism and teleology, and the prioritization of the emic over the etic (if you have no idea what these mean, no worries, it doesn’t affect what comes below). I like his defense and practice of the comparative method in history, and his willingness to engage with questions of large-scale causation. But the most interesting and thought-provoking, to me, was the core argument of his book, stemming from the distinction that he makes between two forms of religion, which he calls “immanentism” and “transcendentalism”.

As a true scholar, Strathern defines these two forms using very precise technical language, listing ten characteristics of the first and fifteen characteristics of the second. But let me try translating the main ideas into human language.

Immanentism is really about the supernatural side of religion. It’s about gods, angels and demons, spirits, and departed ancestors. Its focus is on how these “metapersons” can be induced to avoid harming one, or harnessed to advance one’s interests. Thus, as Strathern argues, it’s primarily about power: ability to avoid bad outcomes and to achieve good ones in the here and now. Morality is local and unsystematized, or even not an important part of religion. The focus is on ritual, propitiation, and sacrifice, including human sacrifice. As a vivid example of the latter, and a great illustration of what immanentism is about, recollect how following a dire military defeat Romans during the Republican Period on several occasions buried alive two pairs of foreigners in the Forum Boiarum to propitiate the gods and to protect the city from invaders.

Transcendentalism is about salvation, liberation, or enlightenment—“escape from the mundane reality” as Strathern puts it. Variants include entrance into the paradise or escaping the endless rebirth cycle. Transcendental religions are profoundly moralizing. Ethical norms are codified and arranged into lists of prohibitions or injunctions, as in the Ten Commandments of Christianity or the Five Precepts of Buddhism. Religious specialists are highly organized and gain great power and potential autonomy from the state institutions. Interestingly, all transcendental religions repudiate blood sacrifice.

Of course, these are “ideal types” and there are many gradations in between. Immanentist religions can have transcendental elements. Furthermore, the switch to a transcendental religion may be rapid (often happening as a result of conquest or ruler conversion), but usually not complete, and the result is often a synthesis between a transcendental religion and the local varieties of immanentism. In fact, a central thread running through Strathern’s book is the uneasy coexistence between transcendentalism and immanentism, with transcendentalism periodically “back-sliding” and needing a revival or reform movement to purify it of creeping immanentism.

Because I have become involved in the debate about the Big Gods theory (see What Came First: Big Gods or Big Societies? Round Two), I was particularly interested in the profoundly different approaches to morality in immanentist versus transcendental religions. Strathern’s book made me look at the whole question of the role of supernatural beings in sustaining cooperation in large-scale societies from an entirely different angle. So here’s how my current thinking goes.

Morality in small-scale societies is sustained by face-to-face interactions. Everybody watches each other and imposes sanctions on non-cooperators ranging from mild ones, like gossip and ridicule, to severe ones, like expulsion and capital punishment. Morality is not systematized—there is no explicit list of rules, because everybody learns them the way children do. Religion is immanentist. Some spirits and deities may care about morality and even punish the bad and reward the good, but the main focus is on manipulating reality to avoid negative outcomes and to achieve positive ones. For example, the spirit of the hunted deer needs to be propitiated so that this hunt and the next one are successful.

With the rise of centralized societies, chiefdoms and archaic states, at first things don’t change dramatically. Morality is still local, which creates problems for integrating these larger-scale societies, because people coming from different local groups don’t cooperate well with each other. The nature of supernatural agents change in that they become more hierarchical, reflecting the social arrangements in the real world. But the main focus of religion is still on power, not goodness.

And then there is an abrupt (on an evolutionary time scale) rise of transcendental religions, more commonly known as World Religions or Axial Religions, because they appeared during the Axial Age. The proponents of the Big Gods theory emphasize the supernatural aspect of world religions. Ara Norenzayan argued that because “watched people are nice people” in large-scale societies the role of watchers is taken over by gods (see Do “Big Societies” Need “Big Gods”?).

The Watcher by Kurt Huggins.  Source

But after reading Unearthly Powers I now think that this supernatural part is really a side issue.

First, the supernatural aspect varies quite a lot between Axial religions. It’s quite prominent in the Middle Eastern monotheisms (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.), but not so in the South Asian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism) in which the main moralizing force is karmic retribution. As many scholars of Buddhism emphasize, karma is not really a supernatural thing. It’s simply the operation of cause and effect. You kick a ball and it rolls away. You do really bad things, and you get reborn as a frog. No supernatural watchers or punishers are needed. And the supernatural content is almost entirely absent in Confucianism, which many scholars don’t even consider to be religion.

Second, the main watchers and punishers are not supernatural beings but very human people. They include neighbors, agents of the state, and, especially, the clerics. An amusing illustration of how the real-life “Eye in the Sky” operates is provided by the viral video of the Chinese drone operator chiding an elderly woman who failed to wear a mask during the coronavirus epidemic.

A very non-supernatural Eye in the Sky

Third, people who grow up in societies with fully moralized organized religion internalize the rules of morality. Many behave morally even when not watched and there is no possibility of punishment.

To conclude, when I first read Ara Norenzayan’s book, I was quite impressed by its main argument, and wrote a positive review (see From Big Gods to the Big Brother). But the more I learn about the evolution of religion in past human societies, the more skeptical I become. It’s a really neat hypothesis, but, as happens in science, beautiful theories are often slayed by ugly facts.

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David Vognar

This is the David Brooks argument. If you make a constellation of all the other things David Brooks believes in and writes, you’d find this argument in the center of it. I’m not convinced that transcendental religions don’t have sects that emphasize human sacrifice. Transcendental religion is hierarchical religion. And the knowledge the outsiders have about the upper echelons is limited. Look at Christianity. It’s basically a blood sacrifice religion in certain interpretations. Because the knowledge of elite beliefs is so separated from what anyone can know, transcendental religions must be defined as characteristically hierarchical. Nothing much more can be definitively said. But immanent religious aspects are much more open to the individual, regardless of their position in a hierarchy or access to secret religious knowledge.


Do you think that transcendental religions are necessary for an increased stability of large scale societies or are they more of a by product?

For example Christianity spread when the roman empire was already here and other empires in the past didn’t necessarily transit from immanentism to transcendentalism.

Now I read your Seshat paper which shows that moarlising religions come after the rise of increasingly complex societies but who says they had to arise at all?

What I am trying to say is that is there necessarily a causal relationship between increasing social complexity and the rise of a different kind of religion ?

I mean the roman empire was very large and complex and functional long before Christianity in fact Christianity seemed to spread when the empire started to work less well .

Maybe these particular type of regions only spread in societies which used to have a large level of complexity and functioning institutions but suddenly start to work less well , thus transcendental religions are a kind of substitute for a failing state but would never spread without there having been a large state in the first place ?

Ross Hartshorn

The rise of Christianity came well after the Roman Empire got big, BUT…it was part of a larger trend. There were several other competing new religious sects, with some similarities, which arose at about the same time. This suggests that something about the culture and its needs at that time was especially conducive to a religion like Christianity (or Mithraism or the other early competitors to Christianity).

As a Buddhist (but a convert), I might add that the Buddhist idea of karma is yes, certainly not supernatural, but I wonder if that really matters for the “Big Gods” argument. The average (or even unusually intellectual and interested) Buddhist doesn’t really understand how karma works in any detail, any more than a Christian understands how getting into heaven if you are moral works. The point is perhaps just that the internalized morality is given a boost by the culturally transmitted idea of an outside force that will cause you to have a bad time if you act immorally. Whether the proposed mechanism involves violating any natural laws is kind of a side issue, since in both cases the individual is unlikely to really understand how the proposed mechanism works, they just accept that it does, and this bolsters their internalized sense of morality.

Well I started that paragraph thinking it was in support of the “Big Gods” argument, but by the end I guess I came around to Dr. Turchin’s point of view that maybe the supernatural thing is a side issue…

Ali Minai

Thanks for the excellent review. Makes me want to read the book.

The chicken-and-egg problem of religion/morality and sociopolitical organization is a great complex systems issue, but shouldn’t it be seen ultimately in the context of the biological proclivities of the human animal? Just as min and body have complexified together over the course of evolution, so have religion and society. In a sense, religion – very broadly defined – is the “mind” of the body politic, and every survivable body must have a mind sufficient for its survival. The immanent and the transcendental as the axes representing the space of religions is interesting, but other parametrizations can be more illuminating. Such a framework should also be able to capture the move away from conventional religion in societies that have become too complex to organize through that mechanism. Nor should we neglect the strong influence of available metaphors. Laplace could not have said, “I have no need of that hypothesis” without the metaphor of the Universe as mechanism flowing from the work of Newton and Galileo. Now we have the computational metaphor. Soon, I think, a more quantum-centered metaphor will take hold and many things that are only the province of physics and philosophy will become part of the common discourse.


I hope someone looks at this systematically at some point.

If you look at your moralizing religions, they are associated with higher tfr in the populations that practice them. Obviously, looking evolutionarily, moralizing groups with higher population growth will nudge out low tfr populations, and impose their morality on the populace.

As you get urbanization (which dings fertility), moralizing religions become necessary to stave off population collapse in urban areas. On the other, in a place practicing agriculture, children represent another set of hands to work on the farm, thus Christians in the city, heathens in the country side, at least until the Christians in the city get a Christian Emperor.

Burton Voorhees

I’m no expert but this brings up two thoughts for me: (1) perhaps a good example of transition is found in the rise of the Astral religion in Mesopotamia, and its transition to a moralizing religion through the influence of Zoroastrianism following the Persian conquests; and more speculatively, (2) Most of the moralizing religions are associated with an individual founder (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc.). What this suggests to me is that as societies become more complex members, to an extent, become more individuated and this produces a potential for specific individuals to have experiences that result in big god thinking.

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