The Origins of the Idea of a Punitive God

Posted on February 28, 2021

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Good Sunday Morning, freethinkers, atheists, and all my godless friends!

I hope this morning finds you hale and hearty!

Today I am VERY excited to share a podcast with you from one of my favorites, Hidden Brain. It opens by asking:

If you’ve taken part in a religious service at a church or another house of worship, have you ever stopped to think about how it all came to be? How did people become believers? Where did the rituals come from? And most of all, what purpose does it all serve? When we ask these questions, we most often look to history or theology for answers. But some social scientists are asking, if we can better understand religion through the lens of human behavior, if people behave in particular ways when exposed to different religious cues, can we use this information to work backwards and understand how those religious practices came about in the first place? Can the rise and fall of different religions tell us something about the needs of societies and how those needs change over time?

To discover what social factors led to the popularity of an angry, wrathful, punitive god who punishes wrong-doing, listen here.

The researcher upon whose work this podcast focuses is Azim Shariff, psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. “He studies religion…from a psychological perspective. He argues that human societies changed in a fundamental way several thousand years ago, and this required a new psychological innovation.” Shariff was raised as a Muslim; he now identifies as a secular atheist.

Having read and heard hundreds of myths from all of human history, it is clear to me that some human groups reached a point where the idea of a large pantheon of deities, each representing some aspects of nature (sun, wind, death) and the human condition (fear, love, grief, hope), lost favor, and the idea of one, omniscient, omnipotent, and most importantly, punitive, god gained popularity. Shariff offers a clear explanation of the circumstances that played a role in the rise of the idea of the punitive god of the Bible and the role that idea has played in the human community.

If you’d like to learn more from him, Shariff has generously posted his lecture series from his Evolutionary Psychology course from last fall on Youtube. The question of the course was: How could evolution (both genetic & cultural) build a mind that was able to turn around and understand evolution?

As we come to the end of Black History Month, I want to share this inspirational video and song from Baba Brinkman, “I’m A African,” from the Seattle Science Festival.

Have a good week, friends! Be well!


lisa eddy is a writer and editor for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy

On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com