Moralizing Supernatural Punishment and Reward

A Response to Critics


  • Jennifer Larson Kent State University
  • Harvey Whitehouse University of Oxford
  • Pieter Francois University of Oxford; Alan Turing Institute
  • Daniel Hoyer Seshat Global History Databank; George Brown College Centre
  • Peter Turchin Complexity Science Hub; University of Oxford; University of Connecticut



Big Gods, moralizing supernatural punishment, evolution of social complexity, evolution or religion


In this article we respond to three critiques of our 2019 article ‘Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods throughout World History.’ We clarify that our research does not, as our critics suppose, support the claim that moralizing gods played a decisive role in the development of complex societies. Indeed our goal was to test this claim and we found it wanting. Our methods ‘reduce’ neither religion or social complexity in the ways claimed, while our tentative conclusions about the relationship between frequent, routinized ritual and social cohesion are supported by much research beyond the paper under discussion. In the Roman Empire, many forms of collective ritual contributed to the propagation of Romanitas. We have never claimed that this depended on absolute uniformity of belief. Other misconceptions about our supposedly ‘inattentive’ qualitative analysis result from misreadings of information in our open-access database, which functions as an evolving set of information relevant to specific research questions rather than a general encyclopedia. Despite these disagreements, we continue to maintain that neither qualitative historical methods nor quantitative analytic approaches alone can produce satisfying answers to causal questions about world history. The best approach, we argue, is to integrate the insights from humanities with ‘Big Data’ analyses from social science, and we welcome continued engagement and collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Author Biographies

  • Jennifer Larson, Kent State University

    Jennifer Larson is Professor of Classics at Kent State University in Ohio, USA. Her research interests span Greco-Roman poetry, ancient Mediterranean religions and mythologies, most recently with a focus on the Cognitive Science of Religion. Her publications include Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore (Oxford 2001), Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide (Bloomsbury 2007) and Understanding Greek Religion: A Cognitive Approach (Routledge 2016). She is a member of the Board of Directors of Seshat: Global History Databank.

  • Harvey Whitehouse, University of Oxford

    Harvey Whitehouse is a Statutory Chair of Social Anthropology at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford, England. He works on the role of ritual and religion in group cohesion, cooperation and the evolution of socio-political complexity. He is Director of the Centre for Study of Social Cohesion at the University of Oxford and the author of several books in the cognitive and evolutionary science of religion field, most recently The Ritual Animal: Imitation and cohesion in the evolution of social complexity (Oxford University Press, 2021).

  • Pieter Francois, University of Oxford; Alan Turing Institute

    Pieter Francois is Associate Professor in Cultural Evolution, University of Oxford, and the Academic Lead on Data Science for the Arts and Humanities at the Alan Turing Institute. He is the Founding Director of the Seshat Global History Databank. His work focuses on the ways how religion and societal cohesion interact with each other and on the methodological approaches to writing world history quantified.

  • Daniel Hoyer, Seshat Global History Databank; George Brown College Centre

    Daniel Hoyer is Senior Researcher and Project Manager with Seshat: Global History Databank and Part-Time Professor, George Brown College Centre in Toronto. He employs comparative historical and quantitative social scientific methods to understanding the role of prosocial cultural traits in promoting equitable distribution of resources and limiting predatory activity in past societies. He recently coauthored with Jenny Reddish The Seshat History of the Axial Age, and leads the VKRF-funded Consequences of Crisis project exploring outcomes of major societal crises in the past.

  • Peter Turchin, Complexity Science Hub; University of Oxford; University of Connecticut

    Peter Turchin is Project Leader at the Complexity Science Hub – Vienna, Research Associate at University of Oxford, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Connecticut. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. A founder of the field of Cliodynamics, his books include Ultrasociety (2016), Ages of Discord (2016), and The Great Holocene Transformation (forthcoming in 2023).


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How to Cite

Larson, J., Whitehouse, H., Francois, P., Hoyer, D., & Turchin, P. (2024). Moralizing Supernatural Punishment and Reward: A Response to Critics. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 8(1-2), 168-183.