‘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.