Scientists hope a new historical database will offer insights into important moments in the evolution of religion, such as the construction of Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey. At 11,500 years old, it's been called "the first manmade holy place."

Scientists hope a new historical database will offer insights into important moments in the evolution of religion, such as the construction of Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey. At 11,500 years old, it's been called "the first manmade holy place."

Vincent J Musi/National Geographic

Feature: Turning history into a binary code

To test his hypothesis about how moralizing, prosocial religions evolved, University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan needs help from the humanities. Did moralizing gods, community-wide rituals, and supernatural punishment emerge before or after societies became politically complex? Has any large-scale society succeeded without prosocial religion? And what does "moralizing" really mean at different times and in difficult cultures? To answer these questions in a rigorous, scientific way, he and his colleagues are trying to convince historians to turn the nuanced knowledge in their heads into the kind of data scientists need: a database's binary code of yes/no answers. By creating the Database of Religious History, the big gods team is attempting to bridge the gulf between humanistic and scientific scholarship—but success hinges on enticing leading historians and religious studies scholars to join them.

To read the full story, see the 28 August issue of Science.