In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that there has been an evolution to the types of gods that humans have believed in throughout history. His argument is that humans at one point were more likely to believe that animals, plants, and other inanimate features of the environment had spirits and supernatural abilities, that those beliefs were eventually dropped in favor of gods responsible for certain outcomes, and that in the end those gods became consolidated within a single omnipotent deity. This transition could be attributed to simple chance, but Harari argues that a causal pathway exists from animal and plant spirits to an omnipotent deity.
For the first step in the process, Harari argues that human agriculture and a transition to an agricultural society was the primary causal driver. Harari writes, “gods such as the fertility goddess, the sky god, and the god of medicine took center stage when plants and animals lost their ability to speak, and the god’s main role was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals.”
A pre-agrarian society, Harari argues, didn’t need to control plants or animals. An agrarian society, however, did. Farmers ordered plants in the ground, made efforts to control their water supply, competition, and the nutrient level of their soil. Herders had to control and direct their flocks, we’re responsible for the continued reproduction and health of animals in their herds, and had to ward off predators. In new agrarian societies, men became responsible for plants and animals, and it became necessary to appeal to higher powers to influence successful crop yields and herd survival when many things remained beyond the control and influence of early agrarian humans. Spirits within animals and plants were not helpful, gods who could influence plants and animals were very helpful.
According to Harari the transition to gods for specific needs or to influence aspects of the environment occurred in many places in corresponded with agrarian living. The gods were a result of the efforts and subsequent needs of humans. There was an evolutionary procession based on the needs of humans that shaped how gods manifested in belief systems.