The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies9,10,11,12,13. Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity3,6,7,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18, the relationship between the two is disputed9,10,11,12,13,19,20,21,22,23,24, and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions9,12,16,18, powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations25,26 generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

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The full machine-readable dataset is available as Supplementary Data 1, and at http://seshatdatabank.info/datasets. Full coding data with detailed explanations and references are available at http://seshatdatabank.info/data, and are summarized in Supplementary Table 2. The data include the coded levels of uncertainty and disagreement, the textual explanations and the references for each of the variables for all polities used in our analysis. These webpages also make it possible to comment on each of our data points and suggest additions or corrections and thus provide an up-to-date and dynamic dataset that undergoes continual improvement by members of the Seshat team and external scholars. To maximize transparency, we have tied each cluster of variables to the names of the research assistants who gathered the data, and to the names of the experts who reviewed the data.

We thank Q. Atkinson and A. Willard for feedback on an earlier version of the manuscript and E. Postma for discussions on parts of the statistical analyses. We acknowledge the contributions of our team of research assistants, post-doctoral researchers, consultants and experts. See http://www.seshatdatabank.info for a comprehensive list of private donors, partners, experts and consultants. This work was supported by an ESRC Large Grant entitled ‘Ritual, Community, and Conflict’ (REF RES-060-25-0085), a John Templeton Foundation grant to the Evolution Institute entitled ‘Axial-Age Religions and the Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism’, a Tricoastal Foundation grant to the Evolution Institute entitled ‘The Deep Roots of the Modern World: The Cultural Evolution of Economic Growth and Political Stability’, an Advanced Grant (‘Ritual Modes: Divergent modes of ritual, social cohesion, prosociality, and conflict’, grant agreement no. 694986) and a Starter Grant (‘The Cultural Evolution & Ecology of Institutions’, grant agreement no. 716212) from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, an award from the Templeton World Charity Foundation entitled ‘Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Religion and Morality’ (TWCF0164), a Keio Research Institute at SFC Startup Grant, a Keio Gijuku Academic Development Fund Individual Grant and a grant from the European Union Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (grant agreement no. 644055 (ALIGNED, www.aligned-project.eu)).

Reviewer information

Nature thanks Carol Ember, Peter J. Richerson and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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