Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History”


  • Edward Slingerland University of British Columbia
  • M. Willis Monroe University of British Columbia
  • Brenton Sullivan Colgate University
  • Robyn Faith Walsh University of Miami
  • Daniel Veidlinger California State University, Chico
  • William Noseworthy McNeese State University
  • Conn Herriott Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Ben Raffield Uppsala University
  • Janine Larmon Peterson Marist College
  • Gretel Rodríguez Brown University
  • Karen Sonik Auburn University
  • William Green University of Miami
  • Frederick S. Tappenden University of Alberta
  • Amir Ashtari University of British Columbia
  • Michael Muthukrishna London School of Economics
  • Rachel Spicer London School of Economics




Database of Religious History (DRH), interdisciplinary collaboration, method and theory in historical research, quantitative coding, Seshat: Global History Databank


As historians, archaeologists, and database analysts affiliated with the Database of Religious History (DRH; religiondatabase.org), we share with the Seshat: Global History Databank team, authors of a recent study published in Nature, an excitement about the potential for deep and sustained collaborations between historians and analysts to answer big questions about human history. We have serious concerns, however, by the approach to the quantitative coding of historical data taken by the Seshat team, as revealed in the backing data (seshatdatabank.info/nature), as well as by a lack of clarity concerning the degree of involvement of expert historians in the coding process. The apparent lack of appreciation for historical scholarship that this coding strategy displays runs the risk of permanently alienating the community of academic historians, who are essential future collaborators in any project devoted to large-scale historical data analysis. In the present commentary, we present a preliminary critical review of their latest article, “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History” (2019).

Author Biographies

Edward Slingerland, University of British Columbia

Edward Slingerland is Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. His specialties include early Chinese thought, comparative religion and cognitive science of religion, and he is currently Director of the Database of Religious History (DRH). Work on this publication was supported by a grant from Templeton Religion Trust (TRT0188) to E.S. and M.M.

M. Willis Monroe, University of British Columbia

M. Willis Monroe is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia. His research specializes in the intellectual and religious history of the Ancient Near East. He currently serves as the managing editor of the Database of Religious History.

Brenton Sullivan, Colgate University

Brenton Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Colgate University. He is the author of Building a Religious Empire: Tibetan Buddhism, Bureaucracy, and the Growth of the Gelukpa (UPenn Press, 2020) and several articles on the history of Tibetan Buddhism and Sino-Tibetan relations.

Robyn Faith Walsh, University of Miami

Robyn Faith Walsh is Assistant Professor of the New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Miami. Walsh earned her PhD in Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean at Brown University (2014) and specializes in early Christianity, ancient Judaism, and Greco-Roman archaeology. An editor for the Database of Religious History, she has published articles in Classical Quarterly and Jewish Studies Quarterly, among other publications. Her first monograph, The Origins of Early Christian Literature: Contextualizing the New Testament within Greco-Roman Literary Culture is forthcoming in 2019 with Cambridge Uni- versity Press.

Daniel Veidlinger, California State University, Chico

Daniel Veidlinger is Chair of the Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities at California State University, Chico. He is the author of From Indra’s Net to Internet: Communication, Technology and the Evolution of Buddhist Ideas (2018) as well as the editor of Digital Humanities and Buddhism: An Introduction (2019). He also serves on the editorial board of Oxford Bibliographies: Buddhism and has authored many articles on Buddhism and Media Technologies.

William Noseworthy, McNeese State University

William “Billy” Noseworthy is an Assistant Professor of History at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His research explores the history of human relationships with the environment in Southeast Asia, religious traditions in Asian contexts, and social movements in the Transpacific. His recent publications include journal articles in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography and Transfers: Journal of Mobility Studies. He has also published a recent chapter in China & Southeast Asia in the Xi Jinping Era (Lexington, 2019).

Conn Herriott, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Conn Herriott is an Associate Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, and Editor for Prehistoric Europe and Southwest Asia with the Database of Religious History. He earned his PhD at the Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2019, studying cross-cultural trends in religion among indigenous peoples and their application in the prehistoric archaeology of Epipalaeolithic-Neolithic Southwest Asia.

Ben Raffield, Uppsala University

Ben Raffield is a researcher in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University, Sweden. He specializes in the study of conflict and social organization in late Iron Age Scandinavia and the early medieval world, and he has published on a range of subjects including the organizational structures of viking raiding fleets, intra-household relationships and social networks, pre-Christian belief systems and ritual practices, and the archaeology of captivity and slavery. His contributions to this work are supported by a grant awarded by the Swedish Research Council to the Viking Phenomenon project (2015-00466).

Janine Larmon Peterson, Marist College

Janine Larmon Peterson is a Professor of History at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY and coordinator of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Her recent book, Suspect Saints and Holy Heretics (Cornell University Press, 2019) looks at the convergence of politics and sanctity in late medieval Italy. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Historical Association for her research and is a member of the advisory board of the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies.

Gretel Rodríguez, Brown University

Gretel Rodríguez specializes in the art and architecture of ancient Rome. Her work investigates how architectural monuments constituted means of communication between patrons and viewers, looking at issues of space, design, and reception. Her current book project explores this process with a particular focus on the production and reception of freestanding honorific arches. Dr. Rodríguez received a doctorate in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin. Her archaeological experience includes working for the Oplontis Project, the excavation of a Roman luxury villa and a commercial warehouse in the Bay of Naples. She is currently editor of Roman archaeology for the Database of Religious History (DRH).

Karen Sonik, Auburn University

Karen Sonik is Associate Professor in the Department of Art & Art History, Auburn University. She earned her PhD in the Art & Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, specializing in Mesopotamia, at the University of Pennsylvania. Her recent work focuses on constructions of the human, the divine, and the Other in Mesopotamia, with an emphasis on the physical body and the constitution of identity. She is the editor of Journey to the City: A Companion to the Middle East Galleries at the Penn Museum (with S. Tinney; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019); The Materiality of Divine Agency (with B. Pongratz-Leisten; de Gruyter, 2015); and A Common Cultural Heritage: Studies in the Mesopotamian & the Biblical World in Honor of Barry L. Eichler (with G. Frame et al.; CDL Press, 2011).

William Green, University of Miami

Wm Scott Green is Professor of Religious Studies and the Fain Family Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Miami, USA. He edited the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, is Associate Editor of the Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion (1995), Co-Editor of The Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period (1996), and Co-Editor of The Encyclopedia of Judaism (2005). His recent work is on cultural evolution and ancient Judaism.

Frederick S. Tappenden, University of Alberta

Frederick S. Tappenden is Principal and Dean, and Professor of Theology, at St. Stephen’s College at the Univesrity of Alberta. He conducts his reserach at the intersection of the social and cognitive sciences, particularly focusing on the writings of anicent Judean and Christ-believing communities. He is the co-editor (with Edward Slingerland) of the JCH special topics issue (2016): “Digital Humanities, Cognitive Historiogrpahy, and the Study of Religion” (JCH 3.1-2).

Amir Ashtari, University of British Columbia

Amir Ashtari is a research assistant at the University of British Columbia within the Cognitive Systems program focusing on the areas of brain and cognition.

Michael Muthukrishna, London School of Economics

Michael Muthukrishna is an Associate Professor of Economic Psychology and Associate of the STICERD Developmental Economics group at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is also Associate in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and Technical Director of the Database of Religious History. He holds degrees in engineering and psychology with graduate training in evolutionary biology, econometrics, and statistics. Michael would like to thank the Templeton Religion Trust for supporting this research (TRT0188).

Rachel Spicer, London School of Economics

Rachel Spicer is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. Her research utilizes the Database of Religious History to investigate cultural evolution. Previously Dr Spicer undertook a PhD in Biological Science at University of Cambridge and the European Bioinformatics Institute.


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How to Cite

Slingerland, E., Monroe, M. W., Sullivan, B., Walsh, R. F., Veidlinger, D., Noseworthy, W., Herriott, C., Raffield, B., Peterson, J. L., Rodríguez, G., Sonik, K., Green, W., Tappenden, F. S., Ashtari, A., Muthukrishna, M., & Spicer, R. (2020). Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History”. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 5(1-2), 124–141. https://doi.org/10.1558/jch.39393