‘Big Gods’ book club #4: Alternative explanations?

– atheists flout a “precautionary principle” (considering that  supernatural punishment is possible).
-atheists are less risk-averse than others (given the possibility of a supernatural punishment, an atheist still chooses to behave as if there was no hell)
– atheists have a bad perception of risks, or possible costs. All those characteristics may be linked to free-riding, but not exclusively. They also have some importance in choosing a partner, for obvious reasons.

Principle 4: Trust people who are ideologically close to you

Distrust toward atheists may be explained by something more general, like a kind of “ideological distance” between believers and non-believers, which could be taken into account in the choice of a partner if it is relevant, and which would go beyond religion. Believers may fail to trust atheists because their opinions would be too far apart — that is to say, for the same reason that makes some vegans and animal-rights activists dislike meat-eaters and fur-wearers. Once this “ideological distance” is over a certain threshold (specifically set up for each specific task), the potential partner is seen as not trustworthy for the task at hand.

Principle 7: Big Groups for Big Gods?

Why are Big Gods are worshipped by Big Groups? An alternative account could start from the hypothesis that Big Gods need Big Groups to sustain them, for one reason or another. One such reason may be that Big Gods flout our intuitions more than small ones (beyond the standard threshold of “minimal counter-intuitiveness”). If Big Gods are small gods that grew up, their worshippers adding new features to an old cult, the fact that Big Gods only appear in Big Groups would make sense. To me, neither the précis nor the book showed any strong evidence allowing this hypothesis to be dismissed.

1 Comment

  • Ara Norenzayan 16 December 2013 (22:33)

    Let me address Helena’s first set of comments about how to best explain the roots of distrust of atheists. When Will Gervais, Azim Shariff, and I were doing this work, we thought about the objections Helena raised, as well as several additional alternative explanations for why believers distrust atheists. A detailed exploration of these alternative accounts can be found in Chapter 5 of the book (see especially pp. 84-86, “What about Other Explanations of Anti-Atheist Prejudice?”). Further details and discussion can be found here, and here. Perhaps Helena could look into these discussions and tell us if they address her concerns. As I point out in the book, there are indeed several reasons for why atheists are distrusted where there are religious majorities. For believers in majority religious societies, atheists are seen as ideologically dissimilar, a threat to ingroup morality, and counter-normative. They are also stereotyped as competent but not warm. All of these are contributing factors. However when we set these explanations against the supernatural monitoring account, the latter account prevailed. This is the religious intuition that atheists are moral wild cards because their behavior is unconstrained by supernatural monitoring. There are several lines of evidence that show this, and here is a very brief summary. First, believers trust believers of other religions more than they trust atheists of their own ingroup. That’s what you’d expect if supernatural monitoring was at play (people who worship the “wrong god” are still constrained by supernatural monitoring and better candidates for trust than familiar others who deny gods), but the opposite of what you’d expect if distrust of atheists was merely driven by cultural or ideological dissimilarity but not supernatural monitoring. Second, we found that people who believe in God, but report no religious affiliation (and therefore no religious group to defend) still distrusted atheists. That’s exactly what the supernatural monitoring account predicts (it’s about seeing God or gods as punishers of bad behavior), but that’s inconsistent with the view that distrust of atheists is just about defending ingroup morality. The lack of warmth explanation had no mileage either. We showed that other groups who are stereotyped exactly to the same extent as atheists as lacking warmth (such as feminists) were not distrusted by believers the way atheists were. Fourth, we found that the religious prejudice against atheists is mainly driven by moral distrust, not dislike, fear, or disgust, as is the case with other forms of prejudices (it is a tragic irony of our species that we have found myriad ways to form prejudices about myriad groups). Once again, that is predicted by the supernatural monitoring account, but not obvious from the point of view of the other accounts. Fifth, the supernatural monitoring account predicts some things that the other outcomes are silent about – that awareness or exposure of other sources of social monitoring (associated with the rule of law) reduces distrust of atheists among believers, but does not affect other forms of prejudice. This prediction has been supported in multiple studies. Finally, one study looked directly at the religious intuition behind this prejudice. When we directly measured, and statistically controlled for the belief that “people behave better if they think God is watching them,” the strong effect of belief in God on distrust of atheism disappeared. Combined, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the key driver of this prejudice is the same mechanism that, along with others, promoted cooperation in some religious groups — supernatural policing by Big Gods.

    As to Helena’s second point, if I understood it correctly, it is the idea that Big Gods are just a byproduct, rather than a contributing cause, of big groups. Helena is not alone in hypothesizing this, in fact my impression is that this has been the common view among anthropologists. Even Guy Swanson, the anthropologist who first found this cross cultural link, theorized that these Big Gods (he called them “High Gods”) were products of societal evolution. Here of course we are confined to a correlation, therefore we have to be cautious and tentative about causal claims in either direction. I think this is an interesting and fruitful area that should be explored in the future — it is by no means a settled issue. As to why I favor the minority view on this, there are a number of considerations that, taken together, give me reason to think that commitment to Big Gods was as much a contributing factor as a reflection of large-scale cooperation. The book outlines these considerations in detail (after all that’s the thesis of the book), so I won’t repeat them here, but let me highlight a few of them. Since Swanson work, there has been more sophisticated cross cultural research on this has shown that the link between Big Gods and Big Groups remains after statistically controlling for several alternative “third variable” accounts (see this paper), such as the idea that population density, legitimization of economic inequality, and missionary activity makes Big Gods more likely. Moreover, other research also shows that the prevalence of Big Gods increase with other conditions that pose grave threats to group survival as a result of free-riding (namely, water scarcity, see here). Notice that poor water management leads to the collapse of entire groups, not just the individuals (consider, for example, the collapse of Angkor Wat of the Khmer empire), it’s not a problem that affects single individuals. This latter finding is not obvious from the “byproduct only” account, but is consistent with the idea that fear of Big Gods is a cultural solution to any threat that affects the group. Then there is the experimental religious priming literature that independently shows that religious reminders have a causal impact on prosocial behavior. But once again, I think that the evidence on this is suggestive but not conclusive. We need more research – cross cultural but especially historical, to test and tease apart these different possibilities.