‘Big Gods’ book club #5: Remarks on the two puzzles

I like Ara’s way of studying scientific problems very much, weaving together various disciplines from evolutionary modelling to experimental psychology or social anthropology, and I also like the way he tries to solve the questions he raises. However, I am less enthusiastic about the puzzles he chooses to focus on, i.e.:

1. ‘How did human societies scale up from comparatively small, mobile groups of foragers to massively large societies, even though anonymity is the enemy of cooperation?’

2. ‘And how did organized religions with Big Gods – the great polytheistic and monotheistic faiths – culturally spread to colonize most minds in the world?’

Regarding question 1, people working in social sciences, in economics, in anthropology or in sociology, might not feel that this is a puzzle and, on the contrary, might contend that they have already put forward a bunch of answers, most of them along the lines of building efficient institutions, relying on efficient monitoring, reputation management, or low-cost punishment (North, 1990, Ostrom, 1990, Hechter 1992, Acemoglu, Johnson, & Robinson, 2002; Greif, 1998). These solutions show that you can achieve cooperation without trust and altruism as long as you find the correct way to incentivize and monitor cooperative behaviors. In this perspective, social scientists don’t feel they need religion to explain cooperation, neither in contemporary Sweden, nor in medieval China, nor in ancient Rome.

As for question 2, Ara emphasizes that we need to explain why there are so few religions today, in contrast to the great number of primitive religions. But is it really a puzzle?

There may be world religions in the same way that they are world languages such as English, French or Chinese, because some cultural traits appear in the right place, at the right time, where there’s ‘guns, germs and steel’ as Diamond has shonw, and then spread around the world.

Now, I agree with Ara that there is another version of question 2 that is more interesting, i.e.: Why do successful religions have the characteristics they have? But, again, I am less enthusiastic about the more specific focus of the question: ‘Why do successful religions have big Gods’? Indeed, it is not very clear to me that the supernatural agents of archaic states are very different from the ones of non-state societies which also have very powerful agents, sometimes very interventionist ones, and who clearly know much more than you would like them to know.

The gods of the archaic states have much bigger shrines and much bigger temples, but is it that surprising in a society which is also much more developed? Everything is bigger after the Neolithic: populations, villages, houses, etc. In the same way, it is possible that archaic religions became more international than primitive religions? There used to be the god of the village, or the lineage. Now, there is the god of the city, of the state or of the empire. In other words, might gods get ‘bigger’ in the same way that languages get ‘bigger’, as a natural product of exchanges, economic development and political conquest?

So, a more puzzling distinction, I feel, is between Great Gods and Good Gods, between gods who act like mafia bosses (‘I help you if you show me respect’) like in the Iliad, or in the Old testament, and gods who love you, who are there to help you, and who are there to make you a better person. This shift from Great gods to Good gods constitutes a puzzling innovation, which, contrary to what we may think, appears rather late in the history of humanity, and is clearly not related to the invention of big societies (it is absent in Mesopotamia, Rome or Mexico).

To conclude, I agree, there is here a puzzle: Why do moral religions, the ones we all know now, appear so lately? Why do they appear only in a few places in Eurasia? Why are they so attractive? But I am not sure that cultural group selection or reputation management are the answer.

1 Comment

  • Martin Stehberger 18 June 2013 (15:49)

    From this workshop I have learned a lot — thank you!
    One of the posts that’s particularly true of is this post #5, by Nicolas. He introduces a distinction between Great (“mafia boss”) Gods and Good Gods and finds the late emergence of moralizing religions to be part of the real puzzle here. I’m not sure from Ara’s reply if, or based on what evidence, Ara really disputes this late emergence, as the critical issue is not power or intervention (or monumental architecture, etc) but moral concern. In the light of all that, I wanted to update the morals-mechanics thoughts included in my previous comment, especially considering that Nicolas’s recent paper Explaining Moral Religions, with Pascal Boyer, contains a list of moralizing religions and philosophies, emerging in the eastern Mediterranean, India and China, all at about the same time: there appears to be indeed a remarkable correlation to the appearance of atomist notions around the same time, in the same three regions.
    So what could be the connection? When Thales proposed earthquakes to be the result of the Earth being hit by a big wave in the cosmic ocean, he took on a mafia boss: Poseidon. A superhuman who causes earthquakes and floods is “great”, awe-inspiring, but not “good”. And there are others, such as Zeus, responsible for other types of events. As long as these guys are on the scene, there is simply no space for an omniscient, wise, good deity. Mechanistic explanations of events do away with agent explanations, and thus with this mafia.
    But notice that a creator deity, motivated by the Argument from Design, will be unaffected and in prime position to take over. Furthermore, mechanics and moralizing worldviews may go quite well together. Regarding the latter, the Baumard & Boyer paper mentions (text accompanying figure 2) a role for intuitions about balance and weight.
    Lastly, regarding my theoretical angle here, I am aware that the “intellectualist” approach to supernatural belief that these speculative thoughts depend on has been out of fashion for a while, but what I’m not aware of is good reasons for that. There is an interesting paper on The Zeus Problem, by Gervais and Henrich 2010, which notices that the cognitive science of religion doesn’t actually explain why people don’t believe in Zeus any more. After all, Zeus the concept must have the right properties in terms of representational content: otherwise he could hardly have been widely worshipped in the past! The authors then solve the Zeus problem by invoking cultural learning. “In ancient Greece, conformist biases, prestige biases and credibility enhancing displays [such as ritual practices and monumental architecture] supported belief in Zeus, which was both widespread and popular among the elites … These factors do not persist today for Zeus”. Fair enough, but let’s imagine these factors did in fact persist today. A realistic scenario? I would say no. A sky and weather god would have a hard time in this age of television weather forecasts and satellite maps. (See also my contribution to the blog on this site two months ago.)