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
- Researching Religion and Prosociality – Lecture by Ara Norenzayan (scilogs.com)
- 7 Reasons Why It’s Easier for Humans to Believe in God Than Evolution (wchildblog.com)
- My conversation with Richard Dawkins, the world’€™s most influential scientific supremacist | National Post (secularnewsdaily.com)
- Why Obamacare Could Produce More Atheists (motherjones.com)
- Kemetic Offerings: Then and Now and Why (thetwistedrope.wordpress.com)
- Are You An Atheist at Heart? Take This Simple Test to Find Out! (motherjones.com)
- CJ Online Review: Brodd and Reed, Rome and Religion (rogueclassicism.com)
- Djehuti ~ Re-Membering Heaven (malaikamutere.com)