A god who knows everything, is everywhere, and wields impossible power, is a potent fantasy. Allegiance to it animates the lives of billions worldwide. But this “Big God,” as psychologists and anthropologists refer to it, wasn’t dreamt from scratch but pieced together, over thousands of years, paralleling humanity’s move from small- to large-scale societies. One burning question researchers want to answer is: Did humans need belief in a God-like being—someone who can punish every immorality we might commit—to have the big societies we have today, where we live relatively peaceably among strangers we could easily exploit?
I caught up with Joseph Henrich, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, earlier this month to discuss the anthropological chicken-and-egg problem of whether gods or complex societies came first. He was gracious in defending his position that gods were the bonds that allowed societies to gain strength and grow.