Testing the Big Gods hypothesis with global historical data: a review and “retake”

Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage, Daniel Hoyer, Kevin C. Feeney, Enrico Cioni, Rosalind Purcell, Jennifer Larson, John Baines, Barend ter Haar, Alan Covey, Peter Turchin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


This Retake article presents a corrected and extended version of a Letter published in Nature (Whitehouse et al., 2019) which set out to test the Big Gods hypothesis proposing that beliefs in moralizing punitive deities drove the evolution of sociopolitical complexity in world history. The Letter was retracted by the authors in response to a critique by Beheim et al. (2021). Correction of errors in the coding and analysis of missing data to address this critique does not, however, significantly change the main findings of the original Nature Letter. We report the results of a major reanalysis of Seshat data following expansion of the codebook and database and substantial improvements to our data management methods. We also employ a more direct statistical methodology to test theories of evolutionary causality. Together, these results show a compellingly convergent picture, confirming the headline finding of the original Letter in Nature, which shows that the largest increases in social complexity do indeed precede Big Gods in world history and that Big Gods did not contribute to the evolution of sociopolitical complexity as predicted by the Big Gods hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)124-166
Number of pages43
JournalReligion, Brain and Behavior
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Big Gods hypothesis
  • evolution of religion
  • moralizing gods
  • sociopolitical complexity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Religious studies


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