A précis of ‘Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict’
The first puzzle is large-scale human cooperation. Up to about 12,000 years ago all human beings lived in relatively small bands of foragers. Today, virtually everyone, more than 99.99 percent of humanity, lives in vast, cooperative groups of mostly unrelated strangers. Total strangers regularly depend on each other for livelihood, economic exchange, shelter, and mutual defense. This puzzle deepens further: this expansion of cooperation happened only since the Holocene (when first agricultural settlements emerged), and only in one species – no other animal other than humans is known for such ultra-sociality among genetic strangers.
In evolutionary biology cooperation is usually explained by of one of two forms of altruism, kinship (helping genetic relatives) and reciprocal altruism (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours). But cooperation within expanding groups of strangers is not easily explained by either. As group size increases, both forms of altruism break down. With ever-greater chances of encountering strangers, opportunities for cooperation among kin decline. Without extra safeguards, such as institutions for punishing freeloaders, and punishing those who fail to punish freeloaders, reciprocal altruism also rapidly stops paying off. So how did the human cooperative sphere “scale up” so dramatically and so rapidly?
The second puzzle is the peculiar cultural distribution of religious beliefs and practices in the world today. Religions have always been multiplying, growing, mutating, and dying at a brisk pace. By one estimate, there are more than 10,000 religious traditions in the world. Yet, the vast majority of humanity adheres to a disproportionately few of them that have achieved “world religion” status. If you are a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist practitioner, or even a nonbelieving descendant of any of these traditions, you are the cultural heir to an extraordinarily successful religious movement that started as an obscure cultural experiment.
The spectacular cultural success of world religions is a remarkable fact that begs for explanation. While new religious entities are created in the legion, most of them die out, save a potent few that survive and flourish. In fact, in the long run, almost all religious movements fail. In one analysis of the stability of 200 utopian communes, both religious and secular, in 19th century America, anthropologist Richard Sosis of the University of Connecticut found a striking pattern. The average life span of the religious communes was a mere 25 years. In 80 years, 9 out of 10 had disbanded. Secular communes (mostly socialist) fared even worse: they lasted for an average of 6.4 years; 9 out of 10 disappeared in less than 20 years.
There is a solution to both puzzles: that each answers the other. If so, then the archeologist Klaus Schmidt, who first excavated Göbekli Tepe, got it right when he wrote, “First came the temple, then the city.” To understand how, requires going back to the lively debates about the evolutionary origins of religion.
How Big Gods Helped Create Big Groups
Accounts of the evolutionary origins of religion have proceeded in two ways. One approach with a long history in the social sciences, has argued that religious beliefs and practices were naturally selected by bonding people together into cohesive, cooperative groups. Another account is rooted in the central insight of the cognitive science of religion, that religious beliefs and practices emerged not as genetic adaptations to promote cooperation, but as cognitive side-effects of a set of intuitive biases rooted in mental architecture, such as mentalizing (theory of mind), the intuition that minds can operate separate from bodies (mind-body dualism), and that people and events exist for a purpose (teleology). My starting point is these same cognitive building-blocks that make religion compelling and plausible to human minds. Once intuitions about supernatural beings and ritual-behavior complexes were in place, the stage was set for rapid cultural evolution – non-genetic changes in beliefs and behaviors that are socially transmitted and accumulate and stabilize over time.
Relative to genetic evolution, cultural evolutionary pressures can exert powerful effects in relatively short periods of time. Moreover, cultural evolution does not require that traits achieve universality — it is consistent with cultural and historical variability. It can therefore account for the massive cultural changes in some groups that have occurred in the relatively short timescale of 10000-12000 years. The picture that emerges is a process of coevolution between societal size and complexity on one hand, and devotional practices to Big Gods on the other — increasingly powerful, interventionist, and morally concerned supernatural monitors of the expanding group, who demand unwavering commitment, loyalty, and sacrifice. There is, therefore, a third way, which retains and builds on key insights of the cognitive byproduct approach. By integrating cultural evolution into the account, it also gives center stage to the cooperative effects of some religious beliefs and practices that adaptationist theories directly tackle, without claiming that these effects evolved genetically or that they apply to all religious representations.
The idea is that these Big Gods and related practices were early cultural variants of “natural religion” that presumably promoted prosocial behavior – features like cooperation, trust and self-sacrifice. At the same time credible displays of religious devotion, such as fasts, food taboos, self-scarification, extravagant rituals and other “hard-to-fake” behaviors, reliably transmitted believers’ sincere faith to observers and potential converts. As a cultural species, humans extract vital information from others, and therefore human brains are equipped with cultural learning biases that enable this process. But the tendency to learn from others makes them vulnerable to being duped or misinformed (the so-called “evil teacher problem”). In most likelihood, then, human minds are equipped with epistemic vigilance, or a suite of skills and preferences that guard against such manipulation.
This vulnerability is especially severe in proselytizing religious groups where the faith spreads by cultural influence. Because “religious actions speak louder than words,” these credible displays, found in many religions with Big Gods, have two important effects that account for the spread of religious beliefs supported by them. One, they minimize the cultural influence of religious hypocrites on these cooperative groups. Two, they energize witnesses and foster the spread of these beliefs to non-devotees. When people believe, they are more likely to perform these displays themselves. Beliefs backed by these displays cascade and spread in a population of minds, resulting in cultural epidemics of religious belief-ritual packages. In addition, another idea is that these behaviors could serve as reliable cooperative signals for other members of the group. These religions thus forged anonymous strangers into moral communities tied together with sacred bonds under a common supernatural jurisdiction.
Such groups would have been larger and more cooperative, and hence more successful in competition for resources and habitats. Differential cultural success does not imply a moral hierarchy, of course, but these ever-expanding groups with strong social solidarity, superior fertility rates that ensure demographic stability and expansion, and a stronger capacity to spread the faith (whether by attracting converts or through coercive indoctrination), grew at the expense of rival groups. As they spread, they took their beliefs and practices with them, creating a runaway process that softened the limitations on group size imposed by kinship and reciprocity. From there it is a short step to the morally concerned Big Gods of the major world religions worshipped by most believers today.
People steeped in the Abrahamic faiths are so accustomed to seeing a link between religion and morality that it is hard to imagine that religion did not start that way. Yet the ethnographic evidence suggests that “Big Gods are for Big Groups.” The gods play a small part in the rich and varied cooperative lives of foraging societies. In fact, the gods and spirits of the smallest foraging groups, such as the Hadza of Eastern Africa and the San of the Kalahari, are typically not very omniscient and unconcerned with human morality. While some are pleased by rituals and sacrifices offered to them, most care little about how people treat each other.
Although people in these societies do intermingle with strangers under limited conditions, face-to-face interaction is the norm, and in these transparent societies, it is hard to escape the social spotlight. Our evolved social psychology, combining kin altruism, reciprocity, ethnic solidarity, and capacities for adhering to various cultural norms, is sufficient to maintain strong social bonds. Anthropologists rightly warn us that there are several pitfalls in extrapolating from modern foragers to the ancestral human conditions before the Holocene. There is also considerable diversity in the cultural traits of modern-day foragers that limit broad generalizations. Nevertheless, if these tragically disappearing groups tell us anything, it is that the connection between religion and morality is not to be found in our genetically evolved psychology. It has in fact emerged culturally over human history, probably rather recently.
As groups expand in size, anonymity invades relationships and cooperation breaks down. Studies show that feelings of anonymity – even illusory anonymity such as the act of wearing dark glasses or sitting in a dimly lit room – are the friends of selfishness and cheating. Social surveillance, for example being in front of cameras or audiences, has the opposite effect. Even subtle exposure to drawings resembling human eyes encourages good behavior towards strangers. As the saying goes, “watched people are nice people.”
It follows that people play nice when they think God, particularly a punishing God, is watching them – even when nobody is. The anthropological record is consistent with this idea. In moving from the smallest scale human societies to the largest and most complex, Big Gods – powerful, omniscient, interventionist supernatural watchers – go from relatively rare to increasingly common, and morality and religion move from largely disconnected to increasingly intertwined. Other studies have found a complementary cultural shift in ritual forms: as societies get larger and more complex, rituals become routinized affairs at the service of transmitting and reinforcing shared doctrines. Notions of supernatural punishment, damnation and salvation, heaven and hell and karma are common features of modern religions, but are relatively infrequent in small-scale cultures.
Pressure from Above
Several lines of converging experimental evidence give support to this scenario. In cooperation research, economic games have been used as a prism through which prosocial behavior can be measured. The dictator game, for example, involves two anonymous players engaged in a one-off interaction. Player 1 is allotted a sum of real money and must decide how to divide this sum between herself and Player 2. Player 2 then receives the allocation from Player 1, and the game ends. Experiments by anthropologist Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues found that, across 15 diverse societies of foragers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists from all over the world, believers in the Abrahamic “Big God” made larger offers compared with those who believed in local deities who are not as omniscient and morally concerned.
For Christians, reminders of religion are more salient on Sundays than on other days of the week. This Sunday Effect can be found in prosocial behavior. One study looked at responsiveness to an online charity drive over a period of several weeks. Christians and non-believers were equally likely to give to charity except on Sundays, when Christians were three times more likely to give. These results suggest that the “religious situation” is more important than the “religious disposition.”
Consistent with this principle, in other experiments, Azim Shariff and I subtly induced thoughts of God before participants played the dictator game . We recruited participants in Canada, and under the pretext of playing word games, planted thoughts of God (divine, God, spirit) in some of them without arousing suspicion. Other participants played the same word game without religious content. Finally, a third group played the word game with words reflecting secular sources of monitoring (judge, police, contract). Self-reported belief in God was not associated with generosity. However, reminders of God had a reliable effect on generosity. In the unexposed group, the typical response was selfish: most players pocketed the entire amount. In the God group, the typical response shifted to fairness. Importantly, the secular prime had a similar effect as the religious prime, suggesting that secular mechanisms, when they are available and effective, can also encourage nice behavior towards strangers. In subsequent studies, we found that the same religious reminders that increased generosity also heightened believers’ feeling of being under social surveillance.
A recent meta-analysis pooling the results of 26 experiments, shows that religious priming effects on prosocial behavior are robust and remain strong even after controlling for the well-known file-drawer phenomenon endemic in experimental psychology, that is, the possibility that some studies that failed to find any effects were not published (Shariff, Willard, Andersen, & Norenzayan, unpublished paper). Further analyses showed that religious priming effects are reliable and large for strong believers, but are non-significant for nonbelievers. This is important, because, if religious belief matters whether or not people are responsive to implicit religious primes, it suggests that these effects are, to an important degree, culturally conditioned. It also suggests that there is variability among nonbelievers as to whether they are responsive to religious cues, raising interesting new questions about the psychology of atheism and religious disbelief.
In Atheists We Distrust
Supernatural surveillance by Big Gods helped religions expand while sustaining social solidarity within the group. Concern with supernatural surveillance also explains one of the most persistent but hidden prejudices tied to religion: intolerance of atheists. Surveys consistently find that in the United States, as well as in other societies with religious majorities, atheists have one of the lowest approval ratings of any social group.
Even enlightenment ideals of religious tolerance did not spare atheists. “Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God,” philosopher John Locke wrote in Letter Concerning Toleration. “Promises, Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist.” Intolerance of atheists is a puzzle. In societies with religious majorities, atheists are not a visible, powerful, or even a coherent social group. There is no such thing as atheist cuisine or attire. As comedian Ricky Gervais joked, “Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby.” Why do believers feel threatened by people who happen to lack a particular metaphysical belief?
My colleagues Will Gervais, Azim Shariff and I have found that Locke’s intuition – that atheists are potential moral “wild-cards” – is the root of the intolerance. In societies governed by commitment to Big Gods, outward displays of belief in a watchful God are viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness. Trouble is, atheists not only do not think that they are being watched by the gods, they do not think that gods even exist. Intolerance of atheists appears to be driven by the religious intuition that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them. Deeper analysis of opinion polls support this conclusion, since believers would rather trust religiously different people who worship the “wrong” God, then trust their culturally familiar, but freethinking neighbors. While atheists think of their disbelief as a private matter of conscience, believers treat their absence of belief in supernatural surveillance as a threat to cooperation and honesty.
This analysis in turn predicts when distrust of atheists among believers waxes and wanes. If concerns about monitoring are fueling this distrust, and if exposure to secular sources of monitoring can replace religious sources, then secular monitoring should dilute believers’ distrust of atheists. This seems to be the case. We find that there is wide cultural variability around the world in atheist distrust, but all else being equal, believers who live in countries with strong secular institutions (as measured by the World Bank’s rule of law index) are more willing to trust atheist politicians than equally devoted believers who live in countries with weak institutions. These findings are also supported by experimental evidence, where causal pathways can be identified with more confidence. Studies with Will Gervais show that the simple act of reminding believers in Canada and the US (countries that have strong rule of law) of police effectiveness softens distrust of atheists, but has no effect on prejudice towards other groups. Presumably, secular sources of moral conduct undermine the intuition that religion is necessary for morality by highlight the fact that there are other, secular incentives that motivate prosocial behavior. This also partly explains why, in places such as Northern Europe, where people can depend on the rule of law and have access to wide social safety nets that buffer against life’s adversities, believers and nonbelievers alike no longer see religion as necessary for morality.
The Gods of Cooperation and Conflict
For all its virtues in binding strangers together, religious cooperation is likely born of competition and conflict between groups. It is therefore expected that religious cooperation in turn fuels the very conflicts — real or imagined — that are seen to threaten it. This dynamic helps us understand and resolve the seeming paradox that religions with Big Gods are both the handmaiden of both cooperation within the group, and of conflict between groups.
As competition between groups intensify, and when other factors such as war technology and population size are similar, groups that happen to have members who subordinate self-interest for group interests, that is, groups that possess social solidarity, will tend to win out. When the whole group wins out, the individuals in the group win out as well, which explains how self-sacrificial strategies that led to the group’s success spread in human populations. Moreover, these are the conditions that foster the evolution of “parochial altruism,” or a package of tendencies (whether genetic or cultural, or both, is open to debate) that combine preferential self-sacrifice for the group with hostility towards rival groups when the latter are seen to threaten one’s group. There are lively debates about how important parochial altruism has been in human evolution. But to the extent that it has been, religious cooperation might be a paradigm example of it.
Not surprisingly, then, at the same time that sincere faith in Big Gods unleashed unprecedented cooperation within ever-expanding groups, it also introduced a new source of potential conflict between competing and expanding religious groups. Consistent with the idea that religions “cooperate in order to compete,” quantitative analysis of the ethnographic record shows that the prevalence of intergroup conflict and warfare, resource-rich environments, large group size, and Big Gods all go together. What causes what is not always easy to know and remains open to debate. But one plausible scenario is that conflict over resources led to competition between groups. In turn, groups that had superior economic and military technology, including Big Gods and other devices that created social solidarity among strangers, were more likely to expand and outcompete rival groups.
Climbing the Ladder of Religion, then Kicking it Away
Prosocial religions with Big Gods have broadened the moral sphere, but they are neither necessary for it, nor are they unique in having this effect. Moral sentiments that are at the heart of virtuous conduct, such as empathy and the disapproval of antisocial behavior, have ancient roots in biology. We know they precede religious socialization since they begin to emerge in preverbal babies. Vestiges of these sentiments are also found in our primate relatives. However, these moral emotions are intuitively directed towards family members (kin altruism) and close friends (reciprocity). Socializing children and adults to extend them more broadly is possible, but not an easy problem to solve.
In most of the developing world where the majority of human beings live, people have little faith in their police, courts, or governments. In these places, as it has been for most of human history, the cooperation afforded by Big Gods is the only game in town.
However, the recent spread of secular institutions and traditions since the industrial revolution – courts, policing authorities, and contract-enforcing cultural mechanisms, has raised the specter of large-scale cooperation without God. These institutions and mechanisms, if effective in building trust and cooperation, have undermined religion. Studies of cooperative behavior find that believers put their best foot forward when they think God is monitoring their actions. However, these same studies show that awareness of “watchful” human institutions that monitor anonymous interactions and ensure the rule of law, also encourage cooperation and trust. As we have seen, reminders of secular moral authority, concepts such as civic, jury and police, have the same fairness-promoting effect as reminders of God in the dictator game. People have discovered new ways to be nice to each other without watchful gods.
Secular institutions, along with extensive buffers against life’s adversities, have precipitated religion’s decline by usurping its community-building functions. This has been especially true in Northern Europe, where societies have successfully replaced gods with governments. These societies with atheist majorities, some of the most cooperative, peaceful, and prosperous in the world, have climbed religion’s ladder, and then kicked it away.
As the forces of secularizarion have pushed against religion in some parts of the world, more and more people have lost faith in religious faith itself. This process can be understood by combining the same insights that help us explain the prosocial religions with Big Gods. Religious disbelief arises when there are opportunities to revise or override the cognitive biases that support religious intuitions (and in addition, in some people, such as those high on the autistic spectrum, these intuitions are likely to be weak to begin with); when there is a lack of motivation to commit to supernatural agents as real and relevant sources of meaning, comfort, and control; when secular sources of cooperation are effective enough to erode the power of religious sources; and when cultural learning strategies detect the relative absence of credible displays of religious acts. Therefore, there is, actually, not one uniform kind of atheism, but multiple flavors of atheism arising from multiple interacting pathways that occasionally converge, and when they do, they culturally stabilize atheism.
Will secular societies win the race for cultural expansion and persistence? The powerful forces of secularization are gaining ground in some places – more economic prosperity, greater existential security, institutions that foster rule of law, and mass exposure to higher education and science. But prosocial religions have one crucial advantage over secular ones: the demographic windfall of higher fertility rates. In the most secularized corners of the world, fertility rates have dropped so low that people are reproducing at below replacement levels. And that religious advantage is the secularists’ Achilles’ heel. This means that what prosocial religions lose to secularization, they gain in their superior reproductive success. Today, most of the world remains religious, with the overwhelming majority belonging to handful of prosocial religions worshipping Big Gods. We are beginning to understand how we got here. We don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle to forecast religion’s future, but we can be certain that the tension between competing religious movements, and between religion and its secular alternatives, will continue to shape the world in the coming century.
(Parts of this précis draw from Norenzayan, A. (March 17, 2012). The idea that launched thousand civilizations. New Scientist, 213, pp-42-44.)