A précis of ‘Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict’


Two Puzzles

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.)



  • comment-avatar
    Claire White 10 December 2013 (21:01)

    Norenzayan has made a valuable scholarly contribution to the study of supernatural agents, and ‘Big Gods’ in particular. Though the focus of the book is on the relationship between the growth of human societies and organized religions (more specifically, ‘Big Gods’), I couldn’t help but note the potential relevance of this work to the transformation and spread of ideas about rebirth – especially relevant considering that Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism are world religions. The usual objection to any work that considers supernatural agency as an explanation for the intuitive appeal/spread of ‘folk’ religion is that Buddhism doesn’t have “Gods”. I won’t flog this dead horse here. Rather, there are some parallels to the transformation and spread of rebirth that parallel Norenzayan’s theory about the cultural evolution of supernatural agent concepts. These similarities make me think that his work has broader explanatory power than beyond supernatural agents. It also makes me wonder whether, and to what extent, a supernatural agent/s (with powers of social surveillance) is necessary to induce the purported effects (prosociality and rapid cultural evolution) or rather, can any (religious) system/principle that co-opts a moralizing component (bad deeds punished, good deeds rewarded + surveillance) serve this function? I know that he thinks that secular institutions can, but can other religious systems? Is there also a similar evolutionary story to tell here? Specifically, there is a general scholarly consensus that doctrines about rebirth in small scale societies are “amoral”, but that Indic theories of rebirth transformed these basic ideas into a belief system that included a moral component (i.e., karma). Alas, belief systems that include this component (e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism) are also found in large scale societies and they are widespread. Karma is driven by intuitions about a system/principle that includes assumptions about surveillance rather than a supernatural agent. Thus, although the cognitive science of religion has pointed to a myriad of intuitions about why, and how, ideas about supernatural agents spread rapidly, so long as we are grounded in any system of moral surveillance and corresponding consequences, can we kick the ladder of supernatural agents away and still explain the evolution of religion?

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    Ara Norenzayan 12 December 2013 (00:15)

    Claire is raising an excellent question that has also been on my mind and something my colleagues and students have been discussing. In Big Gods I consider the massive cultural success of the so-called karmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) as moralizing prosocial religions that are also amenable to the same explanatory framework developed in the book (hence I emphasized the Big Gods of the great polytheistic faiths, not only the monotheisms). But Claire is right that I didn’t say much about how these moralizing effects work, mainly because we know little about the underlying psychology (which shouldn’t surprise this audience given the WEIRD problem in psychology and cognitive science. Most experimental work is on samples from the monotheistic faiths, particularly Christianity. Does anyone know of new work on karmic religions? It would be great to know.

    I would ultimately defer to experts on these religions for ideas. But thinking out loud, I imagine at least a couple of broad psychological possibilities. One is that the prosocial effects of these karmic faiths operate in much the same way as they do in the Abrahamic traditions. The Hindu pantheon is populated with a hierarchy of worshipped gods and their avatars, who make all kinds of moral demands on their followers. One possibility therefore is that Hindu practitioners think of karma as just a tool in the hands of the gods to keep the wheels of cooperation turning. Some in the humanities object that Buddhism does not have gods, and that the law of karma is seen as an impersonal universal force. But I am not the first to argue that this view is flawed — it conflates Buddhist theology among the elite with Buddhist folk beliefs and practices on the ground. Buddhist practitioners believe in myriad spirits and often invoke Buddha as a watchful God. While travelling in Nepal a few years ago, I found Buddha Eyes everywhere (and I was told by one monk in no uncertain terms that everyone knew that Buddha was watching everything). At the very least, I would want to be careful because time and time again, we find that ordinary believers hold “theologically incorrect” beliefs, which nevertheless shape their lives and behaviors. But I am open to the idea that there could be additional sets of psychological mechanisms underlying karmic beliefs that are at play and that we are yet to understand. Figuring out how these mechanisms work would be groundbreaking, and require collaboration between experts on these religious traditions and psychologists and anthropologists. In addition, some forms of ritual participation that are common in these traditions, can be powerful elicitors of prosocial tendencies, see for example, a recent study by Dimitris Xygalatas and his colleagues with Hindus in Mauritius. One advantage of the framework I am working with, that combines cognitive byproducts with cultural evolutionary thinking, is that it does not assume that there is a single mechanism underlying religion’s prosocial effects. There likely are multiple converging mechanisms cobbled together over historical time, and this process could easily be different in different places. The cultural differences can be as illuminating and important as the shared features of religions.

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    Claire White 12 December 2013 (04:18)

    Ara, I share your sentiments about the need for research on the psychological mechanisms and socio cultural processes underpinning karmic traditions. Identifying how, precisely, they work and how these processes interact with cultural contexts/doctrine will ultimately lead us closer to the task of explaining the shared, and unique, features of religion. I note that the Science of Immortality Project at UC Riverside explicitly called for this type of research (on karmic notions of rebirth), so I am guessing that there is none.

    Even though the focus is on folk concepts, I think that, as you suggest, the academic study of theological doctrine is crucial to understand. Equally important is the fact that there are hypotheses about the transformation of amoral rebirth eschatologies to moral ones that are largely “untested”. For example, Obeyesekere’s (2002) classic text “Imagining Karma” proposes an explanation of how and why rebirth systems changed but we are lacking a systematic analyses of the historical record. One of my projects (in progress) is to map the cross-cultural record to better understand in which types of societies these karmic notions exist, and how they relate to the broader socio-cultural context, and whether those relationships are “meaningful”.

    What is also notably lacking is culturally sensitive research on how people respond to such concepts on the ground, as it were. While there is experimental research (albeit WEIRD) on the processes that underpin moral judgments/cooperation (I note with interest esp. the Baumard and Boyer ‘Explaining Moral Religions’ based on notions of proprotionality), we don’t necessarily know that these processes govern “folk-karma” (in the proportionality with karma, I think they do). Thus, the need to understand the intuitive psychological biases that enable these systems to work should be based first and foremost on the cultural research.

    I conducted some ethnographic research with the Jains in India in an attempt to understand more about how they viewed karmic reward/punishment, but specifically in relation to the quality (i.e., good or bad life) or ontology (i.e., human, animal, plant) into which they were reborn based on their moral actions in this life. I share your theory about the importance of ritual actions, and especially the cues of supernatural agency which were everywhere (i.e., mahavira). I also agree that the idea of an impersonal system without supernatural cues, at the least, is not reflective of such religious systems in practice. Though we need to know the extent of the reliance and nature of these supernatural cues.

    Though there are similarities, it seems that pinpointing the differences in the systems – in ways that go beyond the supernatural agent theory, would be equally beneficial. For example, the details of the ‘punishment’ differ in Big Gods and karmic systems, it seems. For example, (thinking off-the-cuff here), one intriguing difference is that karmic punishment does not have (is not perceived to have) intermittent reinforcement. The final curtain call comes at the end of your life, not throughout, though it effects the quality of your next life. Whereas, at least the tentative research i’ve conducted on supernatural agents suggests that people perceive them as effecting one’s current life – they can and do (relatively predictably) punish in multiple domains (e.g., biology – illness, psychology – mental torment) etc. as well as having ramification for the quality of one’s life after death (I am assuming this also applies to high Gods). Thus, based on underlying schedules of “reinforcement”, karma should (throwing out a suggestion here) rely more on support at the cultural level to maintain/spread the belief and thus, to induce behavioral modification (this could be in the form of CREDs/costly signalling etc via more rituals).

    I am also conducting research with past life groups in California (with Shaun Nichols) to understand more about the intuitive biases underpinning people’s notions of past lives, including ideas about the moral consequences of actions in one life. These New Religious Movements may provide some insight to understand the dynamics of non-ethical ideas about rebirth, since they have no explicit moral system, and nor do they (on face value at least) rely upon a supernatural agent. But ultimately I think a culturally sensitive study of such processes is needed.

  • comment-avatar
    Bryce Huebner 13 December 2013 (00:33)


    I think I may have asked you something about this when we chatted in Salt Lake City a couple of years back—but I’m wondering about the spread of Mormonism, which you a discuss a bit in *Big gods*. It seems a bit puzzling, given that the expansion is largely in areas where you would think big gods would be useful on your view (I.e., places without much in the way of strong central governments). The weirdness hits in the fact that Mormonism is a paradigmatic “loving god” religion with only a weak watcher role for the divine family, and that’s got to be a fact about how lay practitioners treat it—in some sense—since the tie to central orthodoxy is so tenuous, and authority is so widely distributed. Mormonism seems to be founded on the “as I have loved you, love one another, so that you can be a god like me” principle. But I’m not quite sure how such views do their thing on your way of approaching divine watchers.

    I guess I see a few plausible thoughts here, and I’d like to hear what you think. First, maybe new converts do think in big angry god terms, but I’m not sure if there’s any data to support that. Second, and perhaps much cooler, there might be a distributed watcher situation going on; with local bishops and elders all keeping track on their own communities. Having grown up in Utah, I’m inclined to think that the Mormons may have found a way to distribute watchers. But I’m not really sure. Any thoughts?

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    Ara Norenzayan 16 December 2013 (22:54)

    I remember Bryce’s question from a conversation a few years ago at a conference in Salt Lake City. It is an interesting question about the spread of Mormonism that perhaps those who have expertise in the study of the Mormon tradition can answer. From a cultural evolutionary standpoint, there are good reasons to think that ideas of a punishing God and a loving God both spread but for entirely different reasons. A punishing God is a good supernatural police that encourages norm following and cooperation, but a loving God can be a more effective agent that offers solace during hard times, and can be a powerful tool for a proselytizing religion such as the Mormon church that is thriving in parts of the world where suffering is common. One (admittedly speculative) idea would be that the early notion of God in the Mormon church was more punishing than loving, but over time, once the cooperative community took root, and once secular institutions begin to replace religion’s cooperative effects, supernatural benevolence increases to aid in the worldwide conversion process. But there could be other explanations – given the spectacular success of Mormonism, it’s a question worth exploring.

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    Ara Norenzayan 17 December 2013 (22:56)

    In what follows I’ll make some general concluding comments, and also address four remaining posts by Nicolas, Olivier and Martin, who raise similar points, and Claire, who is offering ideas about how karmic religions work.

    I want to say again that I wrote this book as the most up-to-date synthesis that made sense to me. Theories are always work in progress, particularly theories that are about something we know so little about. As David Wilson once wrote, we know more about the evolution of one species of fish – the guppy, then the evolution of religion. Scientifically speaking, we know pathetically little about the karmic religions in particular. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism combined, that’s way over a billion non-WEIRD human beings! So I am glad that Claire is starting much needed research in this area.

    I started working on this topic with Scott Atran looking at religion as a cognitive byproduct. Over the years, I came to the conclusion that the byproduct account, as foundational as it is, takes us only so far. I began to change my mind. I became convinced that to explain a wider range of facts about what we think of as “religion,” we need to build on and broaden the cognitive byproduct account. We need to combine insights from this perspective with another dynamically growing field — cultural evolution. This book is the product of this ongoing intellectual journey. I wouldn’t be surprised if I change my mind again as more facts and insights pour in.

    I can think of two versions of the byproduct account, the “strong” view that says religion is a byproduct of how our brains work, but nothing more. It has no causal power. The other version, let’s call it the “weak” view, that I am defending in this book, says that once religious representations arise as a cognitive byproduct, they can loop back and have psychological effects. I don’t think it’s particularly a controversial idea, and it is entirely consistent with everything we know about psychology.

    Nicolas and perhaps Olivier seem to be defending this first, “strong” view. Ideas and practices of Big Gods are an effect, but not a cause. They are ornaments that pop out of brains, but they are mental dead ends. I find the “weak” view more fruitful as it retains all the insights we have gathered from the byproduct perspective, accounts for many more facts about religion and its effects, and integrate our knowledge of the cognitive origins of religion with cultural evolution (systematic cultural and historical changes). It gives us a more complete picture, although it is still work in progress. The book outlines this reasoning in great detail, so no need to repeat it here.

    Nicolas claims that prosocial religions with Big Gods emerged no earlier than the Axial Age. Here, we disagree about the historical and archeological record. There is good indication that powerful, interventionist gods emerged thousands of years before the Axial Age in many places where we see populations scaling up – in Natufian Villages, Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient India and China. Martin thinks that these Big Gods could not have spread that early as a result of diffusion since there was limited contact among these civilizations. But these cultural ideas did not only spread as a result of diffusion. Like domestication of animals and plants, or the invention of the wheel or bow and arrow, they likely sprouted independently in different places. Did they emerge as early as the dawn of the Neolithic? That’s the more provocative idea that I explore in the book, and discuss some of the clues, such as monumental architecture and evidence of collective ritual and worship that overlap with the beginning of the Neolithic in the Middle East. But I want to be careful to say that this is a tentative idea and open to multiple interpretations. We really don’t know this, but it’s an idea worth pursuing. If true, it would explain many things that are currently a puzzle.

    Nicolas cites papers that show how cooperation among strangers can stabilize, such as third-party punishment. I also discuss these mechanisms in the book, of course. Since I did not claim that fear of Big Gods was the only explanation for large-scale cooperation, this is an unfortunate straw man counter-argument. I’m proposing that it was a very important factor, currently ignored by most economists, psychologists, and social scientists who study the evolution of cooperation. If we discover that some societies figured out effective mechanisms that allowed them to scale up, that’s great, we can accommodate that fact in a cultural evolutionary account. I don’t see how that would disprove the thesis, it would suggest clarifying the importance of religion relative to other factors. Religions with Big Gods have been important especially historically when, many, if not most of these institutions were either of limited effectiveness or entirely non-existent. Even today, in most of the developing world, there is little trust in governments and institutions, which are corrupt, ineffective, or both. Religion is the only game in town, and opinion polls show that in these places, people trust religion far more than they trust their governments. That’s precisely where religion is still flourishing. In places with strong rule of law and stable life conditions, religion is in steep decline. Now, why would this be the case if religion did not have cooperative effects that are then replaced by more effective secular institutions?

    Let me say, very briefly, a few words about “cultural group selection” since Olivier brought it up. To begin with, I am not attached to the label, so I don’t mind using a different label – especially to distinguish it from genetic group selection which works differently. But I do think that it is important to consider and account for processes that are explainable neither as individual selection, nor genetic group selection. Unfortunately, a great deal of the arguments and debate about group selection out there are really about semantics, or who owns the word “evolution” etc. What is otherwise just a scientific debate about evolutionary logic, has turned into an ideological battle. Early notions of group selection were sloppy, and biologists discarded them. But there has been much progress over the last few decades, and currently there are some rigorous models of cultural group selection (or insert your preferred term here) that are specific and testable, and growing empirical work that follows from it. This reminds me of the “phrenology” controversy in psychology. Modern psychology rightly dropped this bad idea, but almost a century later, Dan Sperber and several other cognitive scientists revived a much more sophisticated and scientifically plausible version, which is now called “modularity.” It is one of the foundations of much of the cognitive sciences (including the cognitive science of religion). In the book, in Chapter 8, I explain why I think something like cultural group selection ought to be part of our explanatory framework. It helps us explain a class of phenomena about religion that are otherwise hard to explain. And once again, if better ideas come along, I am willing to change my mind.

    This will be my concluding post. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who contributed, and particularly Dan for inviting me to take part in this book club, and Olivier, who graciously devoted time to organize it.