How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

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* Book: Ara Norenzayan. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict.



Peter Turchin:

“The main question that Ara asks also is the one that I believe to be of central importance; indeed, this just may be the most important question in the social sciences. How did humans acquire capacity for cooperation in huge anonymous societies?

One of the key preconditions of cooperation is trust. If there is no trust, there could be no cooperation. In our ancestral small-scale societies it was much easier to know who you could trust. Everybody knew everybody else. You didn’t even need to rely only on your own experience with people—all it took was to keep your ears open to gossip. I am not saying that generating trust in small-scale societies is trivial. After all, our huge and energetically expensive brains developed just as engines of social memory and computation. Still, the problem of trust is much easier in small-scale societies integrated by face-to-face interactions, than it is in huge anonymous societies of millions in which we live today.

And here’s where religion comes in. ‘Big Gods’ are supernatural beings who have three important abilities. First, they are actually capable of looking inside your head to find out what you think. In particular, they know whether you really intend to fulfill your part of the bargain, or whether you are planning to cheat. Second, Big Gods care whether you are trying to be a virtuous person, or not. And third, if you are a bad person, they can (and will) punish you.

Now, if you are an atheist like myself (but not a neo-atheist!), let’s agree that gods don’t exist. How could the belief in them spread? Well, once large-scale societies appeared, for reasons I have dwelt upon elsewhere, a problem arouse. Cooperation requires trust, but how could you trust people whom you didn’t know, and never heard about? You couldn’t trust just any stranger. On the other hand, if the stranger sincerely believed in Big Gods, she wouldn’t cheat you, because she didn’t want to burn in Gehenna for an eternity, for example. Or be reincarnated as an earthworm. So groups, in which the belief in moralistic, all-knowing punishers became rooted, would be much more cooperative than the atheistic ones. Whereas people behaved prosocially in small-scale societies in which they were watched by acquaintances and neighbors, in large-scale anonymous societies they had to be good because they were watched by gods.

The between-group selection is a key element of this argument. After all, people are pretty smart, and it’s not difficult to figure out that if everybody around you believes in moralistic deities, you can safely cheat, because there is no fiery Hell waiting for you. But groups, in which atheists would predominate, would not be able to cooperate effectively, and lose in competition to the groups of believers.

Incidentally, once belief in supernatural moralistic punishers becomes pervasive, it is to the individual benefit to become a sincere believer. But this is a subject for another post.

One potential difficulty with the argument of Ara is that in the modern world there are a number of societies in which the majority doesn’t believe in Big Gods, yet they are highly cooperative. Nordic countries, such as Denmark, are a good example. So what gives?

The answer that Big Gods offers is that what’s important is not the supernatural nature (if it makes sense) of Big Gods, but watchers with ability to detect and punish immoral behavior. In modern societies we have all-to-real cops, judges, and IRS agents to do the job.

So, “watched people are nice people.” It doesn’t matter whether the watchers are your friends and neighbors (as in small-scale societies), supernatural beings (as in ancient and medieval large-scale societies), or the Big Brother, as in modern large-scale societies, AKA police states. As long as people are watched, they behave nicely.

Now, this is a rather cynical view of human nature. But while there is a lot of experimental evidence supporting the importance of being watched, let’s not forget that people cooperate (or not) as a result of many interacting factors, of which being watched is just one.”



Brian Klaas:

"Norenzayan’s “Big Gods” refer to deities that are omniscient, moralizing beings, careful to note our sins and punish us accordingly. Currently, roughly 77 percent of the world’s population identifies with one of just four religions (31% Christian; 24% Muslim; 15% Hindu; 7% Buddhist). In all four, moral transgressions produce consequences, some immediate, others punished in the afterlife.

Norenzayan aptly notes that the omniscience of Big Gods assumes total knowledge of everything in the universe, but that the divine is always depicted as being particularly interested in our moral behavior. If God exists, He surely could know which socks you wore yesterday, but deities focus their attentions not on such amoral trifles, but rather on whether you lie, covet, cheat, steal, or kill.

However, Norenzayan draws on anthropology evidence to argue that early supernatural beings had none of these traits and were disinterested in human affairs. They were fickle demons, tricksters and spirits, not omniscient gods who worried about whether any random human had wronged his neighbor.

“Anthropologists tell us that in small bands resembling ancestral human groups, the gods may want to be appeased with sacrifices and rituals, although they are typically unconcerned about moral transgressions such as theft and exploitation…Religion’s early roots did not have a wide moral scope…”

These deities may have fulfilled the conditions outlined by Hume—they explained the unexplainable as machinations of supernatural forces—but they didn’t serve much of a social deterrence function, because you wouldn’t need to fear being struck down by a lightning bolt from above if you wronged a rival.

Every social species that thrives, from wasps to humans, requires a mechanism of stopping individual members from working against the group’s interests. In complex hives, specialized “police wasps” serve as enforcers, seeking out and destroying any wasps producing larvae that may lead to an excess number of queens in the colony. When detected, any rogues are “beheaded or torn apart by the workers soon after they emerge from their cells in the brood comb,” explain Professors Francis Ratnieks and Tom Wenseleers.

Unlike wasps, early human societies didn’t have police forces. Without an enforcement mechanism, social complexity and large civilizations came with enormous risks of predatory, anti-social behavior that could undermine survival.

Over time, Norenzayan argues, divine forces shifted within these administratively weak human groupings. Thus emerged what Norenzayan calls “supernatural monitoring,” a belief in an omniscient presence that never averts His gaze from sin. Everything is tracked, monitored, then punished.

“Belief in certain kinds of supernatural watchers—Big Gods—is an essential ingredient that, along with rituals and other interlocking sets of social commitment devices, glued together total strangers into ever-larger moral communities.”

It is now a nearly universal feature of religious belief systems that a divine presence prohibits certain behaviors—and rewards others. And that presence is always watching. In addition to the omniscient sky gods of today’s major religions, ancient Egypt was home to Horus of Two Eyes. The Incans were watched by Viracocha. Today, in modern Tibet and Nepal, Buddhist depictions of eyes are dotted across villages, reminding everyone that nothing can ever be truly hidden.

The “Big Gods” hypothesis argues that divine gazes provided a far more effective form of deterring anti-social behavior than any mortal police force. Believers would self-regulate their behavior out of self-interest (who wants to end up suffering in hell for an eternity or reincarnated as a lowly flea?). Karma may have provided a similar, possibly even more potent mechanism, since it’s believed that consequences for anti-social transgressions are not delayed, but more immediate.

Shared belief in supernatural forces also created a social glue, solidified through communal rituals, that amplified social trust. As one Kazakh proverb taught people: “Fear him who does not fear God, but do not fear him who fears God.”

A mutual conception of divine punishment thus served as an enforcement mechanism. According to proponents of the Big Gods theory, that mechanism was the essential trigger for complex human societies to emerge, linking people together beyond immediate, personal bonds such as family and friends.

In other words: perhaps the omniscient divine gaze paved the way for civilization to rise."


The Counter-Argument: Civilizations preceded Big God Religions

Brian Klaas:

"Harvey Whitehouse, author of the excellent forthcoming book Inheritance: The Evolutionary Origins of the Modern World, explains why large-scale moralizing religions may have emerged after the rise of complex societies, to allow millions of people to work together toward a shared goal, or for a shared empire.

Whitehouse — an unassuming academic wildman who has risked his life studying militias in Libya and driven motorcycles with off-road tires to remote jungles mostly untouched by outsiders—spent two years living in Papua New Guinea. There, he underwent a ritualistic initiation into the Baining tribe, complete with a bark-cloth face covering and clothing made of foliage.

Thankfully for Whitehouse, that ritual has become tamer in recent decades; in the past, he would have been forced to paint headdresses crimson with blood from his tongue and endure the agonizing pain of a sharpened bone being embedded in the base of his spine, then left there for hours.

These kinds of rituals are what Whitehouse calls “imagistic,” which is academic-speak for extremely intense, but rare experiences that create a strong, enduring bond between a small number of people. Such rituals can create the phenomenon of identity “fusion,” in which those who have undergone the ritual see little distinction between their own identity and the group’s identity. You can’t endure a bone stabbed into your spine every week, but once is enough to create a lasting impression.

These intense rituals that produce identity fusion are extremely effective at fostering self-sacrifice—whether it’s in battle, or in more modern times, with behavior such as suicide terrorism. (To this day, Whitehouse points out, Taiwan’s elite special forces are forced to crawl half-naked over razor-sharp coral, their bloody wounds doused with saltwater thereafter, to make them bond together as a ritual with a function).

Through the forces of cultural evolution, then, groups of humans that bond tightly are more likely to defeat and dominate groups of humans with weaker bonds and less fear of punishment. If you’re facing near-certain death in a battle, warriors who have a shared identity with their fellow soldiers—and believe that their brave death will be rewarded in the afterlife—are more likely to defeat armies of people who think only about their personal, rational, short-term self-interest. If there’s no afterlife, and the other soldiers are just random strangers, why not run away and defect?

But once complex societies emerged, it became impossible to do such intense rituals on a widespread basis. Instead, Whitehouse argues, successful, enduring religions began to focus more on “doctrinal” rituals, which are routine, frequent, and lower intensity. Instead of having a bone stabbed into your spine, you go to church once a week or respond to the call to prayer several times a day. These less intense experiences are scalable in a way that their more intense counterparts were not—and therefore they’re better suited for societies with millions of people, not just a hundred.

Routine, lower stakes rituals were also less likely to be resisted by new believers, lowering the barriers to entry for fresh converts. However, because the rituals were less intense, they created less fusion, and more “identification.” Christians might identify with the group, for example, but it just becomes part of your identity; it didn’t subsume the entirety of your sense of self.

Moreover, centralized societies became easier to convert, because you just needed to get a king or chieftain to agree to convert the whole group. Decentralized, flat societies require more painstaking work of capturing souls one at a time.

This new social glue — and its ability to get sprawling civilizations to stick together — coincided with a new era of social complexity defined by humans living in large groups."