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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Big Gods and the Origin of Human Cooperation

Brian Klaas
The Garden of Forking Paths
Originally published 21 March 24

Here is an excerpt:

The Big Gods Hypothesis and Civilizations of Karma

Intellectual historians often point to two major divergent explanations for the emergence of religion. The great philosopher David Hume argued that religion is the natural, but arbitrary, byproduct of human cognitive architecture.

Since the beginning, Homo sapiens experienced disordered events, seemingly without explanation. To order a disordered world, our ancestors began to ascribe agency to supernatural beings, to which they could offer gifts, sacrifices, and prayers to sway them to their personal whims. The uncontrollable world became controllable. The unexplainable was explained—a comforting outcome for the pattern detection machines housed in our skulls.

By contrast, thinkers like Émile Durkheim argued that religion emerged as a social glue. Rituals bond people across space and time. Religion was instrumental, not intrinsic. It emerged to serve our societies, not comfort our minds. As Voltaire put it: “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him.”

In the last two decades, a vibrant strand of scholarship has sought to reconcile these contrasting viewpoints, notably through the work of Ara Norenzayan, author of Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict.

Norenzayan’s “Big Gods” refer to deities that are omniscient, moralizing beings, careful to note our sins and punish us accordingly. Currently, roughly 77 percent of the world’s population identifies with one of just four religions (31% Christian; 24% Muslim; 15% Hindu; 7% Buddhist). In all four, moral transgressions produce consequences, some immediate, others punished in the afterlife.

Norenzayan aptly notes that the omniscience of Big Gods assumes total knowledge of everything in the universe, but that the divine is always depicted as being particularly interested in our moral behavior. If God exists, He surely could know which socks you wore yesterday, but deities focus their attentions not on such amoral trifles, but rather on whether you lie, covet, cheat, steal, or kill.

However, Norenzayan draws on anthropology evidence to argue that early supernatural beings had none of these traits and were disinterested in human affairs. They were fickle demons, tricksters and spirits, not omniscient gods who worried about whether any random human had wronged his neighbor.

Here is my summary:

The article discusses the theory that the belief in "Big Gods" - powerful, moralizing deities - played a crucial role in the development of large-scale human cooperation and the rise of complex civilizations.

Here are the main points: 
  1. Belief in Big Gods, who monitor and punish moral transgressions, may have emerged as a cultural adaptation that facilitated the expansion of human societies beyond small-scale groups.
  2. This belief system helped solve the "free-rider problem" by creating a supernatural system of rewards and punishments that incentivized cooperation and prosocial behavior, even among strangers.
  3. The emergence of Big Gods is linked to the growth of complex, hierarchical societies, as these belief systems helped maintain social cohesion and coordination in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals.
  4. Archaeological and historical evidence suggests the belief in Big Gods co-evolved with the development of large-scale political institutions, complex economies, and the rise of the first civilizations.
  5. However, the article notes that the relationship between Big Gods and societal complexity is complex, with causality going in both directions - the belief in Big Gods facilitated social complexity, but social complexity also shaped the nature of religious beliefs.
  6. Klaas concludes that the cultural evolution of Big Gods was a crucial step in the development of human societies, enabling the cooperation required for the emergence of complex civilizations.