by Aaron Jonas Stutz
A recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences statistically demonstrates something that is bound to get environmental determinists excited.
Here it is:
Human cultures incorporating concepts of “moralizing high gods” tend to exist in relatively harsh environments.
Of course, the authors of the study (Botero et al., 2014) cautiously point out that the relevant data consist of statistical patterns. And that the societies under study are constituted by human beings. There have to be multiple interacting factors at play, Botero and colleagues state. I mean, we’re talking about a rather complex pattern of cultural development: whether “moralizing high gods” concepts and representations have already reached historical widespread adoption and intergenerational persistence within a community.
Yet, the authors are clear about their theoretical perspective on the data:
In general, our findings are consistent with the notion that a shared belief in moralizing high gods can improve a group’s ability to deal with environmental duress and may therefore be ecologically adaptive … (Botero et al. 2014: p. 3)
From an interdisciplinary perspective, a wide range of experimental, historical, and ethnographic evidence supports sound theoretical argument. This is a darn plausible hypothesis.
And it’s certainly nice to document–with a robust pattern of scientific observation–support for the “environment influences religion” hypothesis.
This result will certainly not please everyone. Botero et al.’s (2014) study will effectively pull on a salient contemporary cultural tension, which exists between our own conflicting beliefs about agency and freedom versus genetic or environmental inevitability.
But that cultural tension is not really salient for a comprehensive and consistent understanding of how religious beliefs persist or change in a culturally constituted environmental context. How can that really be? The main result seems to be a pretty clear point for the environmental determinism side.
What remains implicit in the study’s theoretical framework–but what warrants the authors’ point that many interlinked factors have to be involved in shaping cross-cultural variation in the religious structuration of moral commitment–is that there are multiple, historically dependent ways that large-scale societies can hold themselves together over many generations, in very challenging ecological conditions.
Basically, “moralizing high gods” are just one of many cultural possibilities for religious systems of moral commitment … even in harsh, unpredictable, low-biomass-production environments.
It’s just that, recently, there are many cultures from around the world that are documented to have concepts of “moralizing high gods” … AND they tend to associate–a bit statistically more, than not–with such difficult environmental settings.