Transforming perceptions of high gods: Cross-cultural contact as a stimulus for religious change in pre-modern societies




Thompson, Miriam

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This research addresses social factors related to religious change in pre-modern societies. Previous quantitative studies evaluate the relationship between measures of social complexity and religious belief, but neglect the role of cross-cultural contact. Using Murdock and White's Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, I assess the explanatory power of Robin Horton's intellectualist theory and Gerhard Lenski's ecological-evolutionary theory for predicting change in belief regarding deities. Findings indicate that in pre-modern societies, cross-cultural contact, measured by land transport via pack animals, predicts progression in perceptions of high gods. High gods previously perceived as inactive in human affairs come to be interpreted as active. My argument supports both Horton's theory of religious conversion and Lenski's theory regarding the impact of technology on social/evolutionary change. Horton argues that as traditional societies come into contact with the larger world, their worldview expands, and as a result, they adjust their religious beliefs to accommodate a new perspective. Belief in high gods that are uninvolved in daily human affairs prior to the new contact changes to belief in high gods that are active. My argument is also direct support for Lenski's theory. Lenski claims that technology is at the root of all macro level social change. Land transport via pack animals is a form of technology and is a stronger predictor of change regarding high gods than other measures of social complexity are. Cross-cultural contact in pre-modern societies is an essential element involved in religious belief, and its role should not be omitted in analyses of societal development.


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cross-cultural contact, high gods, pre-modern societies, religion, social evolution, standard cross-cultural sample