Big Gods …

John Radford

Professor John RadfordEmeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of East London, reviews  Big Gods: How religion transformed co-operation and conflict by Ara Norenzayan.

I initially held back a little from reading this book, partly because I’ve never been very keen on gods, especially big ones, and the title suggested a more favourable view than mine; and partly because I had read one paper by the author and found it hard going. Both these feelings proved unjustified. The author aims, successfully in my opinion, at a general educated readership. And he strives to maintain a balanced view of gods, large and small.  (I would stress here that what follows, apart from direct quotations, is my version, and sometimes interpretation, of Norenzayan’s thesis.)

His attitude is that as gods, and their various religions, have been universal, as far as we can tell, in all human societies, they must fill or have filled, some useful functions. This does not imply anything about their truth or ethical value. It is a matter of cultural evolution.

Norenzayan points out that new religions start up at a rate of perhaps two or three a day; but the vast majority survive for a few years at most. Many others have flourished for long periods but are now extinct. The successful ones must have some features that are conducive to success:  as with the “great tautology”  of biological evolution, what tends to survive, will tend to survive. It is not a matter of purpose but of natural selection.

Norenzayan addresses a long-standing problem in anthropology: how large numbers of individuals, each of whom could have personal contact with only a few others, have been able to co-operate with and rely on those others so as to form viable communities. Great apes do it largely by  grooming, but this only works for very small groups, as it requires much time spent on one-to-one contact; humans greatly extended their contact range by language; but above perhaps 150,  individuals cannot speak to all the others.

Small natural groups are also closely related genetically, and studies show that this too is a factor in mutual trust and co-operation. In larger societies, most people have to implicitly trust, most of the time, many others whom they cannot know and to whom they are unrelated; at least, they must assume that the others will not cheat, lie, steal, attack and so on. And in general this assumption is justified. But why don’t they, even when it is clearly to their immediate advantage? (Con-men and freeloaders do, but they are relatively rare.)

In other words, what takes the place of a close social group? Norenzayan’s answer is, a Big God. He argues for fundamental differences between the gods of small and large societies. Where all members of a society are, more or less, familiar with each other, their gods are much more like humans with special characteristics: stronger, longer lived or immortal, having various magical powers and so on.

But they have no general oversight of human behaviour. They are not omniscient or all powerful or impartial; neither do they have any universal system of morality to which humans must conform.   They are besides generally numerous, each having complex relationships with others, special attributes, and special areas of interest and concern. Much like a tribal or village human society.

‘Big Gods’ such as Jehovah, the Christian God, and Allah, are in contrast held to be omniscient, omnipotent and (usually) unique. Moreover they insist on strict codes of conduct for human beings, under penalty of dire punishments, if not in this world then in another after death; generally contrasted with supreme rewards for the obedient. This system allows large societies to develop and work.

Again, it is a matter of cultural evolution, not deliberate action. Gods are invented, but not with this, or any, purpose. Norenzayan thus necessarily has to ask, how do gods come to be invented at all?

His answer is mainly in terms of various cognitive mechanisms with which we seem to be imbued. These include a tendency to attribute human characteristics such as intention or emotion to non-humans or natural phenomena, a dislike of uncertainty, a desire for explanation, a tendency to notice and remember events that violate normal expectations and many more, as described in detail by many researchers in the cognitive science of religion.

Religious beliefs and rituals arose as an evolutionary by-product of ordinary cognitive functions that preceded religion. These cognitive functions gave rise to religious intuitions – for example, that minds and bodies are separate entities and that the former can exist without the latter. These intuitions support widely held religious beliefs and related practices, such as gods, spirits, and souls of various types and characteristics. Once that happened, the stage was set for rapid cultural evolution – non-genetic, socially transmitted changes in beliefs and behaviors – that eventually led to large societies with Big Gods.

Norenzayan helpfully summarises the argument of the whole book in eight principles:

1.     Watched people are nice people.

2.     Religion is more in the situation than in the person.

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven.

4.     Trust people who trust in God.

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words.

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods.

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups.

8.     Religious people co-operate in order to compete.

Each of these is supported by evidence from history, anthropology and experimental psychology. The book reads well and convincingly, and in my opinion – and that of various scholarly reviewers – is an important contribution to our understanding of the extremely complex and puzzling phenomena of religion. But several reviewers, and I, suggest it is perhaps not quite as comprehensive or convincing as it seems at first. Norenzayan does not argue that it is; he is advancing a thesis about big gods and big societies, certainly a major issue, and he marshals evidence to support it.

Thus, some small societies have or have had gods with clear moral functions. But an evolutionary approach does not require uniformity. Just the opposite: it depends on a distribution of attributes, some of which, in particular conditions, favour survival and so tend to become more frequent.

Despite the frequent claims of religious apologists that their faith is eternal and unchanging, religions continuously adapt; those that do not do so successfully eventually die out. Nevertheless, Norenzayan’s coverage of anthropological/historical evidence is certainly somewhat restricted: little or nothing, for example, on classical Greece and Rome, Nordic/Germanic religions, pre-Columbian civilizations in Central and South America. All of these could be said to have been big societies with numerous gods, lacking the attributes of Norenzayan’s Big Gods.

On the other hand, they all disappeared before the advance of the Big Christian God (one god despite being, confusingly, simultaneously three).

On the experimental side, Norenzayan himself points out that the subjects studied have very largely been in the USA, which is exceptional among contemporary advanced societies in being highly religious. Polls show some 90 percent belief in God. Thus studies show that people who believe in a god (more or less any god) are more trusted than those who do not, declared atheists being the least trusted of all (Principle 4). But even though the respondents include non-believers as well as believers, all are embedded in a culture in which religion is the accepted norm, and atheism a more or less disreputable exception.

Principle 1, that “watched people are nice people”, is demonstrated by experiments, among other evidence, in which subjects tended to cheat more when they were, or believed they were, unobserved.    It might be thought that this hardly needs experimental evidence, it is common sense, if one is at all disposed to cheat, to do it covertly. It is quite a big jump to argue that it is fear of observation that keeps people honest in everyday life. Laboratory experiments do however allow for the conditions of behaviour to be varied systematically.

One natural experiment asks whether religious people are more charitable than non-believers, as is often claimed. The answer found was, yes; but only on Sundays. Norenzayan infers that the watching Big God was more salient then to his followers.

Principle 2, that “religion is more in the situation than in the person”, seems to overlook or underestimate two important factors. One is that for many people the irreducible and crucial feature of religion lies in personal experience. This can range from the effects of rituals and worship, even when alone, to the attainment of mystical “transcendence” which for the individual may be of overwhelming importance.

The other factor is that there is a well-established genetic factor in religiosity, or more accurately in some of its predisposing attributes. Further, like other personality components, a tendency to being religious is distributed in a population: individuals are far from equally inclined towards religion. Even within a comprehensively religious society, some are far more devout than others; and some more sceptical.

Despite such reservations, the general thesis stands. But it has a downside, expressed in Principle 8, “religious groups co-operate in order to compete”. The more united and larger a group becomes, the more it is likely to take over and incorporate the members of other groups. A Big God wants to be bigger. Those who feel they have found the truth often try to extend it to everyone else, whether peacefully out of goodwill, or aggressively to destroy dangerous heretics or nonbelievers. The seemingly endless story of violent conflicts in which religions are at least a major component is all too familiar.

Norenzayan finally suggests that religions have been useful insofar as they have facilitated the development of large co-operative societies. Such societies can function well without religions, he argues, but only when there are robust, stable and generally accepted secular systems to ensure public order and mutual trust between individuals.

Norenzayan suggests “climbing the religious ladder and then kicking it away”. I and others have used the analogy of scaffolding: necessary for building your house, but then better removed. Of course there have been attempts to do without religion on a large scale by diktat, notably in the Soviet Union and China. But they have been at the cost of massive state control and surveillance.

As in Orwell’s 1984, “Big Brother is watching you” – rather than a Big God. The most successful societies, as measured by numerous indices of well-being (least crime, least poverty, good health services and education etc) are the least religious, but have developed good mechanisms of social order.,Norenzayan cites the Nordic countries and Denmark in particular. Formal religions are not proscribed but simply lose much of their function and thus of their appeal.

But, I would argue, not all. Individuals will still, to varying degrees, value some of the personal and social experiences of religions.

©John Radford 2017