20 - Religious Belief, Group Cooperation, and Social Complexity: A Historical Case Study Analysis


Holly S. O?Neil, Simon Fraser University


This poster describes my master’s thesis research, which investigates the ancient Greeks as a case study in the role of belief in supernatural monitoring and punishment in the facilitation of in-group cooperation. During the transitional period of the Holocene, there were widespread mobilizations of hunter-gatherer populations from small, isolated kin groups to large-scale communal settlements. Scholars within the field of the cognitive science of religion (CSR) have proposed that these mobilizations were facilitated by belief in watchful deities who promoted the prosociality, trust, and cooperation between strangers that was required for populations to move into larger-scale towns and cities. The crucial characteristic of these deities is thought to be their capacity to monitor and punish humans for moral transgressions. The ancient Greeks represent a population that experienced a rise in sociopolitical complexity during the Holocene, which was associated with highly cooperative and highly mobile activities such as long-distance seafaring and large-scale warfare. This population also believed in gods, such as Zeus Xenios, who could observe and punish human moral behaviour and the transgressions of cooperative alliances such as xenia. A major debate between CSR scholars concerns whether in-group cooperation and mobilization aligns more with the moralizing high gods hypothesis, which involves high gods who must be fully omniscient and concerned with all aspects of human morality, or the broad supernatural punishment hypothesis, which involves a wide range of spirits and ancestors who may each focus on a specific type of moral behaviour. Through the analysis of supernatural belief in ancient Greek texts such as the Iliad, as well as archaeological indicators of supernatural monitoring, such as statues of gods and supernaturally powerful eye motifs placed in areas of communal gathering, my thesis will test which of these two hypotheses best fits the patterns of cooperation, mobilization, and religious belief of the ancient Greeks.