‘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?



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    Ara Norenzayan 11 December 2013 (00:36)

    Thanks, Olivier, for these frank thoughts. First let me address Olivier’s first objection. I suspect that ideas of Big Gods as I define them emerged far earlier than the so-called Axial Age (which, if I understand correctly, covered a 600 year span that waned approximately around 200 BCE). During this period we have a much richer and better documented historical record than before, but that doesn’t mean these religious groups and their Big Gods came into existence only then. These groups and their traditions did not come out of nowhere, they were thousands of years in the making. To go further back in time, we need to look at the archeological evidence. We have Göpekli Tepe (at 11,500 years old, currently the oldest); Neolithic sites such as Çatalhöyük (approximately 9000 years old), and the more “recent” Great Pyramid of Giza (4500 years old). Although of course the evidence is incomplete and open to debate, these sites strongly suggest that monumental architecture that is tied to larger-scale assemblies, extravagant collective rituals and Big God worship co-evolved thousands of years before the Axial Age, possible at the dawn of the Neolithic. This is the thesis of the book.

    Olivier is right that, by all indications, civilization building throughout the Neolithic was a story of bloody warfare, slavery, and conflict among groups (how much of this state of affairs describes historical and modern foraging groups, is another matter for debate). But that is one of the key elements of my argument. It’s an idea that I recoil at, but there are good reasons to think that a long history of intergroup competition was the crucible that shaped human altruism and cultural traditions, which in turn spawned religious movements that came into existence, competed, lived and died in that context. It is tempting to think of warfare as a breakdown of cooperation, but that’s not really how it works. I am more convinced that, as anthropologist Lawrence Keeley argued in his book War Before Civilization, “Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for social cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it.” This is the “cooperate to compete” imperative in action, which is compatible with the idea that commitment to Big Gods scaled up societies and expanded the cooperative sphere. In fact, warfare is likely to be one key mechanism by which some religious beliefs and practices spread at the expense of others. Different cooperative spheres often clashed with each other, especially at the borderlands of these empires, as Peter Turchin documents (see for example here). This explains why prosocial religions with Big Gods, by building social solidarity within the expanding group, also contributed to conflict especially when the threat of intergroup conflict was high.

    Endemic intergroup conflict also helps us understand why self-sacrificial strategies that are so common in prosocial religious groups tend to evolve (either genetically, as Samuel Bowles argues, or culturally, as I and others argue), when some conditions are met. If we accept that these forces of intergroup competition have been important, and also realize that history is littered with the corpses of dead religious groups (not the individuals within the groups) with just a few traditions surviving and spreading, we come to the following question: whether we can account for these religious beliefs and practices without embedding our theories within the framework of multilevel selection. I am skeptical that we can, but I remain open-minded about this issue. Olivier cites the classic objections regarding group selection, but what he is referring to is genetic group selection. I am sure we are all familiar with the lively debates about whether genetic group selection is an important factor in human evolution. Here, the idea I am exploring is different; it is whether religions with Big Gods outcompeted their rivals through a process that is often referred to as cultural group selection. The book goes into the details of this argument. Scott Atran and Joe Henrich have published the basic outline of this thesis, including evidence from history, archeology, modeling, and experimental lab studies, found here.

    As I explain in Chapter 8 of the book, there are several reasons why cultural group selection is a more compelling account of prosocial religions than genetic group selection, or evolved psychology that ignores intergroup competition. Compared to genetic evolution, the selective forces in cultural evolution are stronger and operate on faster time-scales. Second, between-group variability in cultural traits is by orders of magnitude larger than in genetic traits. Third, even when there is a great deal of genetic flow between groups, such as when there is intermarriage or taking of war brides, cultural differences remain as long as the new migrants adopt the cultural traits of their new groups (which they often do). Internal heterogeneity within groups does not undermine the process either, as long as significant cultural variability is preserved between groups (which often does). Equally important, this perspective retains all the important insights of the cognitive byproduct perspective, while also accounting for a wide range of additional key facts such as systematic cultural and historical variability we see in religious representations and practices, the spread of self-sacrificing strategies in some groups, the longevity of some religious traditions but not others, and differential fertility rates of groups.

    What kind of a portrait this argument paints of the world religions? Is this too rosy of a picture? I don’t see it that way. As Scott Atran once said, “Religion is a neutral vessel. It’s done everything you can imagine, and its contrary…there is nothing intrinsic about religion for the good or for the bad.”

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    Martin Stehberger 11 December 2013 (20:26)

    In my post here just two months ago I kind of dismissed a supernatural punishment hypothesis, but that was meant to apply only to the question why humans would believe in supernatural agents at all. Once such agents are on the scene in the first place, they can and will be recruited and adapted for all sorts of purposes. The supernatural watcher function is one of them, and indeed, for modern world religions like Christianity, it seems to be an absolutely major one. To me, much in Ara Norenzayan’s account is convincing, e.g. the focus on cultural rather than genetic selection, or the analysis on distrust of atheists.
    At the same time, if when speaking of “the idea that launched a thousand civilizations” Ara means to say that it was Big Gods who sparked the Neolithic Revolution, agriculture and cities, this seems a fairly strong claim. Why, then, did it take so many tens of thousands of years after the birth of the modern human species before the Neolithic started quite simultaneously in a number of different places? Big Gods can hardly have been culturally transmitted (at that time) from Göbekli to Mexico.
    Also, I find Olivier’s skeptical point about the apparently relatively late emergence of moralizing religions around the time of the “Axial Age” intriguing. What is the evidence regarding earlier deities that were both big/powerful *and* morally concerned? For example, Zeus was presumably powerful and demanded sacrifice, but (Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds, p.18) the Greek gods were still fickle, vain, treacherous, thievish, and unconcerned with human morality.
    There is one (very) speculative suggestion I would like to make, building straight on my post. I’m not really well-informed on this, but at first glance the Axial Age seems about to coincide with the emergence of the notion of mechanistic event-causation. This notion must have adversely affected a plethora of gods and spirits that were previously assumed to be behind specific current events. Their weakening or disappearance, in conjunction with more awareness of mechanics, could have left pantheons less cluttered and arbitrary, opening up the field for a karma system, or for a (previously overshadowed) creator deity motivated by the Argument from Design. A single deity without serious rivals might be easier to think of as omniscient. Prior to that, I could imagine a big group assembling to, say, address their rain god with a plea for rain; and this exercise would certainly have group-bonding side effects; but such a god is perhaps not well-suited to punishing moral transgressions by individuals.

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    Olivier Morin 13 December 2013 (15:42)

    Thank you very much for your attention and replies, Ara. We agree on many points, I think, but here I will just try to clarify some of my doubts.

    – About ‘Good Gods’ and the Axial age
    My remarks in that connection might make more sense, I think, in the light of Nicolas Baumard’s post #5 (and work on moral religion). Nicolas basically argues that the moralistic religions that could support the kind of cooperation that you seem to have in mind most of the time (altruistic, selfless, and overall very similar to what Islam or Christianity teach nowadays). If, as Nicolas convincingly argued, this kind of religiosity is a very recent phenomenon, it cannot have caused the Neolithic revolution. Trying to use a modern phenomenon, which we know very well, to speculate about ancient religious practices, which we know very little about, might be risky.

    – About early warfare
    I did not mean to suggest that you denied its existence. One of the merits of your theory lies in the fact that it does not just explain it away but use it as a key explanatory factor. All good to me.
    Rather (and once again, like Nicolas) I was stressing the fact that there exists a wide variety of explanations for the rise of large-scale cooperation in the Neolithic. Coercion through war, raiding and slavery, is one. Punishment, in its many varieties (and other institutional innovations that Nicolas draws attention to in his post) are another. Many armies of Antiquity were slave armies. They were not fighting for a cause. What pushed them was not the fear of an all-knowing ‘Big God’: what drove them was the whip. (One might argue that the fear of Big Gods could have been an added impetus, but I fail to see the necessity of it).
    In other words: As long as there are cogent alternative explanations of large-scale cooperation on the table — and there are plenty —, one can remain skeptical of a purely religious account.

    – About cultural and genetic group selection
    The two papers that I linked to criticized both versions of the theory, not just genetic group selection. The paper by André & Morin is titled ‘Questioning the cultural evolution of altruism’ because it examines precisely the thesis that altruistic sacrifices increased because of cultural factors. Our main problem with this idea is that ‘altruism’ is often used in a vague ways that can breed dangerous misunderstandings.
    If interpreted in a strict way, the word ‘altruism’ refers to Hamilton’s idea of an uncompensated sacrifice that will have maladaptive consequences if it is not directed toward one’s kin. Authors like Bowles and Gintis often use that notion in this way (I associated Bowles’ ideas with you because your précis cited his paper favorably as representative of your own views). If human cooperation is altruistic in this sense, then the whole toolkit of social evolution is mistaken. We can say goodbye to direct and indirect reciprocity, partner choice, partner control, and kin selection. We need a brand new theory (group selection) to save the phenomena. We argue that there is no reason to go to this extreme.
    If interpreted in a looser way, however, altruism is nothing but cooperation. If so, the standard toolkit works and group selection is just one of its formulations. Stuart West and his colleagues argue, convincingly in my view, that group-selectionist theories have introduced some confusion in that regard: most of their claims were right if interpreted in the second sense, but some have been tempted to suggest that something like the first interpretation was true. Thus many people think (incorrectly, we believe) that human cooperation violates the basic principles of social evolution — and that group selection is a brand new alternative instead ot a rephrasing of well-known principles.

    To conclude on a point of agreement
    I agree with the view that institutions and other forms of cooperation compete for our approval, like songs or recipes. That is, after all, a standard idea in the social sciences (in Hayek for instance). Calling it ‘group-selection’ might be misleading though. Because it brings back the (genetic) group-selection controversy, and because, in your view, it is ideas, not groups, that are being selected. Why not use the phrase ‘cultural selection of forms of cooperation?’