Big Gods Book Club #6: Concluding Thoughts

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 integrates 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 Oliiver 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. 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.

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