My post of a few weeks ago on the book “Sapiens” touched briefly on the hypothesis that religions were develop to control large groups of people. I again came across this same theses on the Hidden Brian podcast. I found the podcast gave a very compelling argument for religious development.

Before the agriculture revolution about 12,000 years ago, we (humans) were hunter-gatherers. This required the group to move frequently in search of food, and also limited the size of the group to between 50 and 100 people. Any more and they could not find enough food in one area to sustain them.

In a group this size, everybody knew everybody else, we were genetically related to everybody in the group. The group used shame, and the threat of banishment (which resulted in death) for anybody that did not do their part, or violated the social norms.

Then the agriculture revolution began, and groups began growing beyond the 100 to 150 limit. From a genetic standpoint, we’re only built to be able to cooperate with as many people as we can know well, which is about 150 people. Which turns out is the ideal size for a typical LDS ward!

So groups began growing to 1000, 5000, and beyond. This meant living next to people you did not know. From the podcast:

So when you start having anonymous strangers in groups, when you start having people whose reputation you’re unfamiliar with, what that means is that people can free ride on the group. They can cheat on the group with impunity. And when you start having large groups of free riders and cheaters in a group, it can’t sustain itself. You need a level of cooperation between the people in a group for it to act and to work harmoniously.

Something more than just our genetic inheritance is needed to control a group this large . A cultural innovation was needed to allow us to succeed in these larger groups. Religion was one of these culture innovations. But not just any religion, but one that had a supernatural punisher, or “God”. If early humans could be convinced that a god was going to punish them if they didn’t fall in line with the group, they would start to cooperate. Smaller groups had gods that provided food or water. But they didn’t need a vengeful god to control the smaller numbers of people. One study placed the number of one million as the threshold of when a vengeful god appeared.

As nation states and rules of law have taken over keeping people in line, there is less and less need for religions to have a vengeful God. Newer religions can have a benevolent God, that does not punish so much as blesses people, or even no religion at all. Europe is a good example of this, and more and more people have no religious affiliation at all.

There is no way to prove any of the theories expounded upon in the book or the podcast, and it goes against all organized religions, or anybody that believes in a literal god. What do you take from this?