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Big Gods

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

Ara Norenzayan
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 272
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    Big Gods
    Book Description:

    How did human societies scale up from small, tight-knit groups of hunter-gatherers to the large, anonymous, cooperative societies of today--even though anonymity is the enemy of cooperation? How did organized religions with "Big Gods"--the great monotheistic and polytheistic faiths--spread to colonize most minds in the world? In Big Gods, Ara Norenzayan makes the surprising and provocative argument that these fundamental puzzles about the origins of civilization are one and the same, and answer each other.

    Once human minds could conceive of supernatural beings, Norenzayan argues, the stage was set for rapid cultural and historical changes that eventually led to large societies with Big Gods--powerful, omniscient, interventionist deities concerned with regulating the moral behavior of humans. How? As the saying goes, "watched people are nice people." It follows that people play nice when they think Big Gods are watching them, even when no one else is. Yet at the same time that sincere faith in Big Gods unleashed unprecedented cooperation within ever-expanding groups, it also introduced a new source of potential conflict between competing groups.

    In some parts of the world, such as northern Europe, secular institutions have precipitated religion's decline by usurping its community-building functions. These societies with atheist majorities--some of the most cooperative, peaceful, and prosperous in the world--climbed religion's ladder, and then kicked it away. So while Big Gods answers fundamental questions about the origins and spread of world religions, it also helps us understand another, more recent social transition--the rise of cooperative societies without belief in gods.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4832-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Religion, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. The Eight Principles of Big Gods
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  2. Chapter 1 Religious Evolution
    (pp. 1-12)

    On June 27, 1844, a man named Joseph Smith died at age 38 in the prairie town of Carthage, Illinois. Fewer than fifteen years earlier, he had experienced visions and subsequently established an obscure religious movement. Smith’s movement was just one of hundreds of new religious movements that sprouted in nineteenth-century America and actively competed for adherents. This was a time and place of great religious innovation and fervor. When he died in 1844, Smith could not have known that he had founded what was going to be one of the most enduring religious movements in American history. Initially, the...

  3. Chapter 2 Supernatural Watchers
    (pp. 13-32)

    If we were to travel back in time and visit medieval Europe between the ninth and thirteenth centuries—a mere twenty to thirty generations ago—we would encounter many institutions and practices that would seem bewildering to our modern sensibilities. But no institution would be stranger to a secular person than the trial by ordeal.

    This was a time, of course, without DNA testing, phone records, security cameras, or even reliable eyewitness testimony. Judges had few mechanisms at their disposal to examine evidence or establish motive or opportunity. Therefore, in difficult cases, they ordered a trial by ordeal. A cauldron...

  4. Chapter 3 Pressure from Above
    (pp. 33-54)

    How exactly do supernatural watchers encourage generosity, cooperation, and honesty? Under what conditions does supernatural monitoring work? And for whom does it work? In this chapter, I answer these questions in three related parts.¹ First, does supernatural monitoring cause generous and honest behavior? Second, are believers influenced by their sense that they are under supernatural surveillance? Finally, how do nonbelievers respond to reminders of supernatural surveillance?

    When people of varying religious conviction are surveyed, those who frequently pray and attend religious services report doing more prosocial acts—volunteering more and giving more to charity—than less religious people. However, these...

  5. Chapter 4 In Big Gods We Trust
    (pp. 55-75)

    The Maa Tarini Temple in the Indian state of Orissa attracts millions of followers from all over India. In a devoutly religious country, there is nothing remarkable about swarms of Hindu pilgrims flocking to such temples. What is interesting about Maa Tarini, however, is that this Goddess is especially partial to coconuts. In fact, She has an insatiable appetite for them, which creates an enormous daily demand for the delicious nuts. According to BBC journalist Sanjaya Jena, the coconuts are offered to the gods, used in various rituals and ceremonies, distributed and sold cheaply around town, feeding a local sweets...

  6. Chapter 5 Freethinkers as Freeriders
    (pp. 76-93)

    What is the threat that atheists are seen to pose? The survey numbers discussed in the previous chapter, as well as countless other observations, begin to tell us an intriguing story about the origins of anti-atheist antipathy. This antipathy cannot just be a reflection of rampant xenophobia, or a general distrust of people seen as the “outgroup.” For one thing, we see in the poll numbers a general decline of prejudice over time, but this decline doesn’t seem to have affected atheists all that much. Moreover, prejudice against atheists is much broader and only weakly related to prejudice toward other...

  7. Chapter 6 True Believers
    (pp. 94-117)

    Why are major world religions so preoccupied with religious hypocrisy? Christian teachings, for example, seem almost resigned to the fact that, by virtue of being a cooperative community, the Church will always be vulnerable to “bad seeds” in its midst. In Matthew 13:24–30, Jesus says in the form of a parable:

    The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared...

  8. Chapter 7 Big Gods for Big Groups
    (pp. 118-139)

    Göbekli Tepe is the world’s oldest known religious structure. It’s made of massive, humanlike, T-shaped stone pillars, arranged into a set of rings, and carved with images of various animals such as gazelles and scorpions (see figure 7.1). Long mistaken for a medieval cemetery, this ancient monumental architecture in present-day southeastern Turkey dates back to about 11,500 years, which makes it at least twice as old as Stonehenge (4,000 to 5,000 years old), the Great Pyramid of Giza (4,500 years old), and a few thousands of years older than Armenia’s Karahunj, another ancient megalithic structure with religious significance. Göbekli Tepe’s...

  9. Chapter 8 The Gods of Cooperation and Competition
    (pp. 140-154)

    For all its virtues in binding strangers together, religious cooperation is born out of competition and conflict between groups. It is therefore expected that religious cooperation in turn fuels the very conflicts, real or imagined, that are perceived to threaten it. (This is the topic of the next chapter.) This dynamic helps us understand and resolve the seeming paradox that it is the handmaiden both of cooperation within the group and of conflict between groups. Big God religions are both the fire department and the arsonist.

    Put another way, when competition between groups is intense, and when other factors such...

  10. Chapter 9 From Religious Cooperation to Religious Conflict
    (pp. 155-169)

    I am no stranger to religious conflict. The Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975. In the following decade and half, I grew up in Gibran’s home country, where one group was pitted against another, in a bloody conflict that left hundreds of thousands dead, and an even larger number became internal refugees. Not unlike Bosnia, a once vibrant, cosmopolitan society turned against itself, and imploded.² Coming of age in a war-torn country sparked my curiosity about society. When I would ask the adults around me to explain what was happening, I would hear proclamations about the depravity of the “other...

  11. Chapter 10 Cooperation without God
    (pp. 170-192)

    In the summer of 2007, I visited Denmark’s attractive second city, Aarhus, and was surprised to see that anyone can borrow a bicycle, free of charge, at several distribution points throughout the city. You pick up your bicycle, ride it to your destination, and then drop it off at the next distribution point. When I asked my hosts about theft, I got puzzled looks: why would anyone steal a bicycle if anyone can borrow one? Denmark tops the lists of societies high on cooperation, social cohesion, and public trust. Denmark is also synonymous with “welfare state,” and in less than...