‘Big Gods’ book club #1 — Skeptical thoughts
Be that as it may, I am tempted to read this précis as an attempt to stress the political consequences of the birth of moral religions. We all agree (don’t we?) that they were huge, especially in the long term — and growing more substantial as more and more people on the planet become exposed to the ‘Big Faiths’. Ara’s work is a powerful and useful reminder of this big idea. Can we go further?
Ara suggests that the Big Faiths affected human cooperation by encouraging it inside social groups, while discouraging cooperation with outsiders. I agree, but this does not tell us much: any strengthening of group ties does this. Through moral religions, but also through rituals that need not involve Big Gods, and more mundanely through a myriad of more or less secular cooperative institutions and customs — including weblogs or Facebook accounts. Of course Ara’s account does not stop at this; he makes two suggestions. The first is that religious commitment to a Big Faith might serve as a reputational tool. ‘Trust me’, says the believer, ‘for I fear God’. I am quite convinced by this aspect of Ara’s argument, although, as he notes, there are many other ways (religious or not) to get similar effects.
The second suggestion is that moral religions and their Big Gods fueled the engine of group selection (in Samuel Bowles’ version), whereby groups composed of altruistic people outcompeted less cooperative ones. Leaving aside the many conceptual problems that group-selectionist accounts of altruism raise (see here and here), do we have the kind of historical data that could allow such claims to be tested? Of course, in the last millennia many groups have exterminated other groups in the name of ‘Big Gods’; but do we want to claim that they did so because they were more cohesive, and internally generous, than the cultures they were wiping out? That parochial altruism, not bigger guns or environmental chance, raised monotheists above other people? I wouldn’t take that stance, at least not without exceptionally strong evidence. Do we have that?
All in all, I cannot shake the impression that this portrait of Big Faiths is too close for comfort to the portrait that the Big Faiths would paint of themselves. This proximity might keep us from raising inconvenient issues. For instance: Why did monotheistic religions uniformly fail to realize their political program? Most currents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam attempted, at one point at least, to unify the believers inside a common political form — be it the kingdom of Israel, the city of God, or the Caliphate. Time and again, these projects, the realist like the utopian, failed. If, as Ara suggests, Big Gods are such a powerful social glue, why was this dream so systematically frustrated? What happened to the dreams of the axial age?