Big Gods and Big Rituals

A Commentary on Whitehouse et al. (2019), “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods throughout World History”


  • Jörg Rüpke University of Erfurt



comparison, ritual, social complexity, priests


This short article reviews recent claims made about large-scale rituals and moralizing gods for the formation of large-scale societies. It starts from a reconstruction of the actual contents of the claims made in very different forms and wording and points to the very vague suggestions about causal relationships or chronological coincidence. Against these claims, three main arguments are advanced. First, it is difficult to formulate a model of trans-locally standardized rituals that would be able to keep together trans-local societies without the existence of secondary media, above all writing, which would be an even more important factor in processes of homogenization. Secondly, historically religion can be shown to serve as frequently for stabilizing distinction and dissent as for producing unity. Thirdly and finally, the very possibility of an exhaustive and stable classificatory grid across cultures and epochs is questioned. In a brief final case study, the lack of adequate descriptors in the database under review is demonstrated for ancient Rome.

Author Biography

Jörg Rüpke, University of Erfurt

Jörg Rüpke is Fellow in Religious Studies and Vice-director of the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt, Germany. He was director of the ERC-Advanced Grant Project ‘Lived Ancient Religion: Questioning “cults” and “polis religion”’, co-director of the DFG-Kolleg-Forschungsgruppe ‘Religious Individualisation in Historical Perspectives’ and is now Co-director of the Kolleg-Forschergruppe ‘Urbanity and Religion: Reciprocal Formations’ (with Susanne Rau). Recent books include Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion (Princeton University Press, 2018); Urban Religion: A Historical Approach to Urban Growth and Religious Change (de Gruyter, 2020); Religion and its History: A Critical Inquiry (Routledge, 2021).


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How to Cite

Rüpke, J. . (2022). Big Gods and Big Rituals: A Commentary on Whitehouse et al. (2019), “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods throughout World History”. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 6(1-2), 122–129.



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