Religious belief and cooperation: a view from Viking-Age Scandinavia
By Ben Raffield, Neil Price and Mark Collard
Religion, Brain & Behavior (2017)
Abstract: This study focuses on two hypotheses at the heart of a debate concerning cooperation, socio-political complexity, and religious belief. One of these contends that moralizing high gods (MHGs) were central to the development of complex societies. The key mechanism here is supernatural monitoring, which is the perception that gods observe humans and punish those who commit transgressions. The other hypothesis – the broad supernatural punishment (BSP) hypothesis – contends that it was fear of supernatural monitoring and punishment by non-MHG deities that fostered the development of socio-political complexity, and that MHGs followed rather than preceded the appearance of complex societies.
To test between these hypotheses, we examined evidence for pre-Christian beliefs in Viking-Age Scandinavia (c. 750–1050 CE). We sought answers to two questions: (1) did the Vikings perceive themselves subject to supernatural monitoring and punishment? And (2) were the Norse gods MHGs? The evidence indicates that the Vikings believed themselves to be monitored by supernatural entities in some contexts, and that they could be punished for certain transgressions.
However, the Norse gods do not meet all the criteria for recognition as MHGs. Taken together, these findings support the idea that socio-political complexity was fostered by non-MHG deities and not by MHGs.
Top Image: Pendant of Thor’s Hammer, discovered in Sweden – photo by Peter Konieczny