24 October 2013


Ara Norenzayan. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press, 2013.

The author describes the rise of what he calls "prosocial" religions, those which became organised to facilitate cooperation among people as human societies became larger. When humanity consisted of small bands of hunter-gatherers, they all knew one another and would easily be able to detect and deal with any unacceptable behaviour.
With the rise of agriculture, societies became much larger, so that people could no longer know what everyone else was doing. The gods and spirits believed in by small tribes were not seen as being particularly powerful or concerned with human morality, and the author's argument is based on the principle that "watched people are good people". Thus, as people could no longer closely observe one another, religion evolved so that they came to believe in God, or gods, that were very powerful, or even omniscient and omnipotent, and cared very much about human morality, and would reward the just and punish the unjust.

Most of the book is devoted to exploring the psychology that explains the rise of prosocial religions. The development of belief in gods and spirits is thought to arise from the idea that the mind is not the same thing as the brain. Thus the idea arose of minds as distinct from bodies, which is known as mind-body dualism, which is characteristic of religious belief.

As well as the idea that the mind, or soul, can be considered separately from the body, and thus be potentially immortal, there is also the intuition, particularly noticeable in children, that natural things exist for a purpose. This teleology is very important in religion, as it leads to the idea of the creation, that the world is made in accordance with God's plan.

There is also the tendency to imagine God as having humanlike mental states, because it would otherwise be difficult to interact with him, as he would be too remote and incomprehensible, so that most people would be deists or atheists, thus inhibiting the development of prosocial religion.

Religions involve not only cooperation, but also competition with other religions, as well as attracting some of those who are not religious. However, in modern times, many people abandon religious beliefs and practices, and it might be thought that increasing scepticism would increase the proportion of atheists and agnostics.

This is not the case, though, as investigations have shown that religious families have more children than non-religious ones. For example, an investigator who examined the Swiss census of 2000 found that the gap in fertility between religious and non-religious varied from 50 per cent to more than double, and that non-religious Swiss women were having children at below replacement levels. The author finds that the proportion of religious to those without religious affiliations tends to remain about the same when the relevent factors are taken into account.

There is an interesting chapter on religious conflict, which the author knows about from personal experience, having grown up in Lebanon, where a civil war erupted in 1975. Some prominent atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, assert that religion is a major cause of violent conflicts. However, Norenzayan notes that historical studies of the facts are rare. He refers to one analysis by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod in the Encyclopedia of Wars:

"They surveyed nearly 1,800 violent conflicts throughout history. They measured, based on historical records, whether or not religion was a factor, and, if so, to what degree. They found that less than 10 percent involved religion at all."

The final chapter is a study of the interesting fact that some nations are much less religious than others. The main explanation, it seems, is that in less religious countries, such as those in northern Europe, the state has taken over some of the main functions of religious organisations, by providing social security and efficient and trustworthy courts and police. "In these secular societies, Big Gods were replaced by Big Governments." As noted in previous chapters, though, this rule does not apply to America. "Interestingly, the United States is an outlier."

This review gives only a brief summary of some of the topics discussed. I recommend it to readers interested in the relationships between religions, the non-religious, and nation states. It should be required reading for psychologists and sociologists. -- John Harney

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