Big Gods: An interesting read

Borrowed from
Borrowed from

A while back, I read Ara Norenzayan’s book, ‘Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict‘.  I’m posting this review somewhat from memory, but I’ve had a couple of conversations about it lately and I think it might be good to move the discussion here.

In the book, Norenzayan asks an interesting question.  How did large scale societies develop?  How did they develop the social cohesion that allowed them to eventually grow into state societies?  

He answers that question with a theory.  They developed from worshipping big gods, that is, big as opposed to the relatively minor spirits that most hunter-gatherers worship.  These big gods, moralizing gods, watched what people were doing, far more than any human could, and insured societal cooperation on a large scale.

The idea here is that if people feel they are being watched, they will act better.  If they understand that others, strangers, in a society think they are being watched, particularly by the same gods enforcing the same moral prosocial behaviors, they’ll trust those strangers far more than they would otherwise.

This would also explain why atheists have historically been shunned in most societies.  After all, if belief in the same ever watchful gods is a foundation of trust in your fellow citizen, a nonbeliever won’t seem very trustworthy.  A believer in another god or gods may also seem untrustworthy, although perhaps not as much as the complete nonbeliever.

Norenzayan discusses the famous archaeological site Gobekli Tepe, which appears to be a religious center of some kind, erected before the advent of agriculture.  Its existence has led some anthropologists to conclude that organized religion may have preceded agriculture, the reverse of the understanding that has existed for a long time.

Norenzayan does an excellent job of justifying the psychological aspects of his theory.  Every assertion about people’s behavior regarding how they think about God or gods, and how those beliefs affect their moral decisions, is backed up by reference to one or more empirical studies.  Norenzayan is a world class social psychologist, and he is firmly in his element here.  I was impressed with the rigor of this section.

However, I didn’t feel that the historical parts of the book were nearly as rigorous.  The idea that gods of large scale societies are larger than small scale societies isn’t itself controversial.  However, the idea that they were moralizing agents is, and I didn’t feel that Norenzayan made the case as convincingly as he could have.

This feeling became more acute when I saw a paper by Nicolas Baumard and Pascal Boyer, ‘Explaining moral religions‘.  This paper takes a look at the rise of moralizing religions, which they assert didn’t happen until around 500 BCE, in other words, during the “Axial Age“.  They explicitly take on Norenzayan’s theory in box 2 on the fifth page, where they state that moralizing gods could not have been the catalyst for large societies since moralizing gods didn’t materialize until several thousand years after those societies arose.

When I saw this, I became interested in this question and decided to dig further.  I read ‘Ancient Religions‘, a collection of essays by several scholars.  I zoomed in on the chapter titled, ‘Law and Ethics’ by Eckart Otto, but also read a number of other sections.    I followed this up with a quick scan of ‘The Religion of Ancient Rome‘, and ‘The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia‘, both free ebooks.

The result is that it looks like scholars agree that the gods of ancient Greece and Rome didn’t care about morals.  Egypt had the concept Ma’at, of law and order, with a goddess, also called Ma’at, which is somewhat of a moralizing agent, but she was’t the primary god, and her influence wasn’t consistent across Egyptian history.  Babylonian gods delegated moral enforcement to the king (as laid out in the Hammurabi code), but didn’t get into the details of moral rules.

Ancient gods were less concerned about moral behavior than they were about receiving the correct sacrifices, honors, and other propitiations.  If you were immoral, the right kind of magical ceremony might exonerate you of any consequences.  The closest to prosocial prescriptions they came was to delegate power to their earthly representatives: the king and priests.

It’s not until what is often called the Axial Age that moralizing religions really appear, most notably with the Jewish “theologization” of morality by having God actually issue moral laws.  Interestingly, Baumard / Boyer point out the appearance of moralizing religions seems to have happened when agricultural output per capita increased.

So, while I find Norenzayan’s thesis interesting, and the results of psychological studies on modern day believers instructive, I’m skeptical that this is the mechanism by which large scale societies originally developed.  It seems to me that if your theory can’t account for Greece and Rome, that theory has a serious problem.  Norenzayan might have been well served to have consulted some ancient historians.

All that said, if you’re inclined to read ‘Big Gods’, I would still recommend it.  The ideas presented are fascinating, and I’m sure a lot of the material will eventually make its way into other important psychological and anthropological theories on society and religion.

h/t amanimal for the link to the Baumard/Boyer paper

13 thoughts on “Big Gods: An interesting read

    1. I agree. The development of agriculture, trading markets, and other mechanisms were probably key factors. I do think religion had a role as part of the social glue, but I think that glue resulted more from people worshipping the same gods, rather than those god’s prosocial prescriptions.


  1. “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.”

    ‘Big Gods Book Club #6: Concluding Thoughts’, Ara Norenzayan

    ‘SAP’, does he elaborate the “good indication[s]” in the book? Also, if you recall, how heavily does he rely on speculation regarding Göbekli Tepe?


    1. As I recall, Gobekli Tepe featured prominently, along with other anthropological evidence from recent societies of different sizes. He seems to conflate big gods with moralizing gods, taking evidence for the former as also for the latter.

      Doing a quick scan, he also broadly cites Robert Wright’s ‘Evolution of God’ (a book I have fond memories of) a number of times. For Wright’s assessment of ancient societies having moralizing gods, see pp 77-79 (I think I recall you saying you had that book). Wright gives examples supporting moralizing gods for Egypt and Mesopotamia, and cites a lot of sources which I haven’t checked. But skimming it again, and given the different assessment from my other sources, I’m wondering if Wright maybe made systematic assumptions based on isolated examples.


      1. Thanks, although I haven’t yet read Wright’s book, just the extensive excerpts at:

        … but it sounds like that’ll make a good pairing with ‘Big Gods’ when I get to that point. Göbekli Tepe is an incredible find:

        ‘Göbekli Tepe – the Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs’, Schmidt 2010

        Click to access 37_21.pdf

        I’m sure it’ll be interesting regardless what they find as excavation continues.


        1. I definitely agree on Gobekli Tepe. I think everyone has been blind sided by a site that sophisticated that early on.

          One aspect I often hear mentioned about it however, that it would have required a settled population to build it, actually fits with the world as we understand it back then. The Natufian culture was sedentary (or at least semi-sedentary) for millennia before agriculture. As I understand it, the region was more lush than today and probably became drier as the climate changed, which may have spurred the earliest farming at, possibly, Tell Abu Hureyra, a little south of Gobekli Tepe.


          1. Thanks again, I now have a 1/2 dozen or so links to read on Göbekli Tepe 🙂 I’ll be sure to pass on anything recent that might be of interest.


            Hope your Winter Solstice was enjoyable and Happy Holidays as well! We’ve had 24″+ of snow in the last 2 weeks and an ice storm over the last couple of days(no problems with power here yet at least) – hope you weather’s been better.


          2. Yikes! I’ve wondered how the weather might be effecting you up there. It’s 28-55F here. Snow is a once in a decade thing here.

            Happy Holidays to you too, and best of luck with the power.


  2. Norenzayan came to mind when I came across this recently – maybe the switch to ‘Big Gods’ wasn’t such a big switch after all …

    “… nonmoral gods may nevertheless promote human morality.” – from ‘4. Discussion’, page 14

    ‘The minds of gods: A comparative study of supernatural agency’, Purzycki 2013

    Click to access 1-s2-0-s0010027713001224-main.pdf

    … as Purzycki notes:

    “These results raise many compelling questions.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting. This information sounds very familiar. I’m wondering if maybe Norenzayan discussed it in his book, but I might have seen it on one of the anthropology sites I frequent or maybe one of the religious study blogs you’ve clued me into such as Rees’s or Wood’s.


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