Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

Some humanists endorse the ancient notion that a wise guy invented religion with an omniscient god so that people, who might otherwise do bad things, would stay in line for fear that the god was watching their conduct.

In his recent book, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, Ara Norenzayan takes that notion in a direction that might surprise those humanists by asserting that religions with a surveilling god alone caused the rise of civilization.

Norenzayan starts from what he sees as a puzzle: the development of cooperation in groups larger than tribes. His proposed solution to the puzzle is that “big religions” have “Big Gods” (his caps). A Big God is an omniscient, punitive, monotheistic god. Big religions caused the advance of civilization because they were cooperative and taught that their Big God was monitoring individual behavior. Norenzayan (a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver) argues that having a surveilling god made those religions so much better at enforcing cooperation that those big religions led to the success of their societies.

The book references studies about how believing that an omniscient deity is looking over your shoulder can affect your behavior. Such studies have found that religionists are more compassionate to strangers after being reminded that they’re being watched by a deity; atheists are not. Most everyone is more generous when told they’re being watched on camera or otherwise monitored by a human. These results are rather unsurprising. But the latter opens up another possibility.

Norenzayan is right, as others before him, to portray religions as competing for survival in the “cultural marketplace.” But his theory that the so-called big religions’ surveilling deities are responsible for their respective societies succeeding is a leap too far. Norenzayan never considers the idea that by adopting cooperative values and adapting to the needs of the central state, certain religions thrived at the expense of competing ones. Having a surveilling god might have given a slight competitive edge against other religions. However, a more accurate explanation might be that the successful religions in societies got big for other reasons.

That is the conclusion supported by the historical record. For example, centralized states in ancient Sumeria and Egypt were already in existence when their societies invented writing. Cooperation was already occurring en masse for those societies to have already grown so successful and organized. Yet their religions could not be “big religions” because they had many gods. Nonetheless, they created some of the greatest monuments to collective human effort. Norenzayan doesn’t mention them at all, much less their other sources of morality. The Sumerian Code of Ur Namma, the oldest discovered extant legal code, is almost as old as the oldest deciphered writing. It provided standards of behavior and recommended punishment for violation of those standards. Norenzayan does cite evidence that belief in a surveilling deity is stronger in societies with weaker legal and nonreligious social institutions.

Likewise, the Roman Empire grew for 700 years on pantheism before it adopted Christianity, one of Norenzayan’s big religions. He names Judaism as another, but fails to explain why it took 2,500 years for the establishment of a Jewish state. Furthermore, the development of democracy in Mesopotamia, Greece, and among several Native American tribes, clearly some of the most cooperative behavior imaginable, occurred without so-called Big Gods. He also fails to mention that big societies, including those with big religions, often became that way not by cooperation, but by domination, meaning hegemony.

One important aspect of domination that Norenzayan’s book ignores is the historical role of slavery in the development of large, successful societies. The Code of Ur Namma, for example, contains numerous provisions concerning the rights of slaves and of free persons respecting slaves. This unmistakable evidence of slavery in the oldest known human civilization is in some form mirrored in all subsequent large societies, including in the East, up to the modern era. Big religions didn’t change that, only secular law did, the kind that existed in Sumeria before any Big God religion existed. For his part, Norenzayan does not discuss whether slavery is a sign of cooperation or the opposite.

Norenzayan even fails to define cooperation or what makes his chosen big religions cooperative and others not. In the end, the biggest thing going for his big religions is that they have survived to this day. Furthermore, his own data on social attitudes being independent of religion undermine his attribution of the rise of civilization to cooperative religions, rather than cooperative values irrespective of their cooptation by a particular religion. Obviously, any institution that forwarded the goal of the central state to become more powerful by advancing social cohesion would gain the favor of the rulers. As history shows, an institution that happens to be religious doesn’t need a Big God for that.

As an extension of his argument on the power of a surveilling deity, Norenzayan sets forth extensive data that shows a strong correlation between religiosity and prejudice against atheists. Religionists generally, and especially fundamentalists, have a prejudice against atheists that falls within the rubric of “untrustworthiness.” That broad category is unfortunately not dissected in the studies. He concludes that the distrust is due to the atheists’ lack of a surveilling deity, even though he cites no study correlating the prejudice to atheists’ lack of that belief.

What Norenzayan’s evidence does show is that religious prejudice against atheists is much higher in countries high in religiosity. Accordingly, it is almost nonexistent in larger advanced countries, the anomaly being the United States. His explanations for this don’t even convince him.

Most notably, Norenzayan ignores the reality that religions expressly generate prejudice against atheists through their teachings. The first law that outlawed heresy was adopted in Greece around 426 BCE. Christians in the Roman Empire turned such laws passed by Roman pantheists against them. They also smeared ancient Greek philosophers as atheists who were prosecuted, when in most of the asserted cases, the evidence is scant. The Spanish Inquisition killed huge numbers of people for being heretics, in yet another attempt to coerce cohesion. Norenzayan fails to consider prejudice against atheists as a religious tactic to create in-group identity useful to maintaining fealty to the clerical institutions.

Closer to home, U.S. religious leaders have attacked atheism from the beginning. For example, in a 1797 commencement speech, Yale University President Timothy Dwight called Greek and Enlightenment philosophers “atheist infidels without morals.” The subsequent, ongoing stream of vitriol is exemplified by the sermon of July 4, 2012, given by the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia in the largest Catholic shrine in the Western hemisphere, in which he stated that atheists have no values. Being taught that atheists have no values just might explain why U.S. religionists distrust atheists to such a degree. No doubt unintentionally, Norenzayan’s own work exhibits this bias by at times implicitly assuming that cooperation is a religious value, not a secular one. To his credit, Norenzayan elsewhere says the opposite. He also points to contemporary secular societies’ achievement of social cooperation without religion, prejudice against atheism, or surveilling deities. One bit of evidence he cites should encourage humanist activists everywhere: when religionists get to know real live people who are avowed atheists, they lose their distrust of atheists generally.

So, if you want to read about the extent and character of prejudice against atheists and the prejudices of atheists, read Norenzayan’s book. If you want to read about the origins and nature of that prejudice and the specifics of how religions generate it, or the success of today’s religions in outcompeting dead or marginal religions, look elsewhere.