On his blog, Gene Expression, Razib Khan occasionally writes about religion and its role in human history and culture.
Recently he's had a couple of interesting posts about the emergence of moralizing gods in complex society. A paper, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history says that big gods come from big societies, not the other way around.
Khan identifies this as societies reaching a certain level of complexity and needing to develop a prosocial toolkit to manage and maintain wider and more complex forms of organization, those beyond the clan. Gods are an important component of that toolkit.
He even thinks its possible that ritual religion emerged before the gods themselves. Rituals are a powerful organizing force, and they really do bind groups together. I guess the situation would have been that someone asked "why are we here killing these oxen like this?" and someone else said, "because God requires it". Not sure that's quite how it played out, but they could have co-evolved, with ritual bringing you into a mental state that makes accepting a high god seem not only possible, but inevitable.
The paper claims that moralistic high gods appear right as social complexity rises. I gather there is a lot of debate about both the data and the interpretations of it.
Untrue, but plausible
The debate over facts and analysis doesn't need to deter us here. We write and read science fiction, so it doesn't need to be true, just plausible. In fact, "untrue but plausible" kind of characterizes our genre. And, more importantly, the best SFnal ideas are not just plausible but fruitful. The ideas are fun, the characters have to deal with the consequences of them, and the results are entertaining.
Because, here in the real world, we are in a period of cultural complexity and interdependence far beyond those of ancient agrarian empires—and all of our gods emerged not only before computation and communication but even before steam engines, worldwide travel, or widespread suffrage. I suspect they are longing to retire.
We have not yet developed the kinds of gods that will help us hold this civilization together. Or, from the point of the future worshippers, these gods have not yet made themselves manifest. To the dismay of prosocial liberal atheists (like me) it might be only the arrival of a new, demanding, weirdly unexpected god that can assist society in maintaining the next level of complexity. But without that arrival, the entire system may well collapse.
I'm trying to think my way through this, since it is potentially fruitful. The new god is not the only updated instrument in the toolkit, but perhaps an unexpectedly important one.
By the way, Razib Khan is a useful source for all sorts of interesting ideas that can spark SF stories. I'm hoping I manage to write this one.
What do you think this god/gods might be like?
Will they even be visualizable? Will they require human face to face interactions as the price of their appearance? What sacrifices will they ask us to make?