*Big Gods*

The author is Ara Norenzayan and the subtitle is How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict.  I found this book insightful, well-written and to the point.  The book itself lists some of its key propositions:

1. Watched people are nice people.

2. Religion is more in the situation than in the person.

3. Hell is stronger than heaven.

4. Trust people who trust in God.

5. Religious actions speak louder than words.

6. Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods.

7. Big Gods for Big Groups.

8. Religious groups cooperate in order to compete.

The book’s home page is here.


I'm fascinated by the fact that peoples living all over the world and without contact with each other would all come up with the idea of entities bigger than themselves that are worth worshipping to get what one wants. However. I don't see what's special about this book. From the synopsis, there's nothing that betrays any particular deep insight. In fact, it looks like a simple intuitive idea that someone decided to write a whole from. Religion promotes cooperation? That's basic tribalism. What's the difference between this Big Gods concept and the evolution of any social constructs? Larger numbers of people live together, more complex rules are needed because relationships are more complex.

If somehow humans didn't have this propensity for coming up with religion, what would be different about the world today?


'I’m fascinated by the fact that peoples living all over the world and without contact with each other would all come up with the idea of entities bigger than themselves that are worth worshipping to get what one wants'

Children have parents, don't they? This point was also raised by Arthur C. Clarke in Fountains Of Paradise - as I recall, the probe is quite coy about religion while doing its flyby, but does reveal that most civilizations with religion involve viviparous species.

The Torah and Vedas were written at about the same time that Buddha, Confucious and Plato walked the earth. Maybe the death of thenocracy was in the air? Were contemporaries worrying about the rise of Global Religion called Alarmists?

Historically the observations listed may be true. But how about a modern coda? I found that today people who strongly believe for or against religion nowadays (fundamentalists and atheists) are unbalanced.

What do you mean by "unbalanced"? Does it actually contradict any of the points above?

Yes, "unbalanced" contradicts the above points, for example, a fundamentalist would violate #4 "Trust people who trust in God", and make #5 seem wrong ("Religious actions speak louder than words") while an atheist would violate #1 "Watched people are nice people", as most modern atheists that are watched are not very nice people, for example Richard Dawkins comes to mind, a sort of scientific analog to the novelist Christopher Eric Hitchens, both of whom seem to have been or are attention seekers.

I think by watched it means "monitored by an authority", not "watched on TV".

That's right, the NSA is the new God. He always knows whether you've been naughty or nice.

Actually, if you read the text I think "Watched" is self-censorship: it means the person *thinks* they are being watched by a higher authority, like God, even if nobody is watching. But I would argue that "watch" also means society at large watching a person, and thus a TV pundit would fit that description. Hence TV pundits are the exception to the rule that being watched makes you act nicer. In fact, the opposite is true: the more nasty you are, the more people watch you (on TV)!

"Watched" can be effective no matter how it is done. The implication is more than merely being seen but rather there will be some response in having been seen doing positively or negatively viewed behaviors.

The largest part of the utility of owning a Prius is being seen driving it. It doesn't matter to the disciples if your decision to own one is actually a net gain for the environment. That level of scrutiny is too costly and invites examination of your own hypocrisy.

One interesting thing about criminals that I learned as a prosecutor is that those who are caught were oblivious to the transparency of their actions. It's amazing how many felonies are committed in front of police officers. Successful criminals often employ lookouts and more sophisticated counter intelligence techniques- specialists in detecting observation.

I cannot help wonder how strong the evidence is. In my own work with Niclas Berggren (published in JEBO and the Journal of Institutional Economics), we find that religiosity undermines interpersonal trust and is strongly associated with inferior institutional performance. In the US, for example, 37 % of respondents who declare that the Bible is either the literal word of god or inspired decalre that other people can be trusted; among non-believers, the corresponding share is 44 %. How then can religion have all these supposedly nice and beneficial consequences?

A link to your paper, please?

37% vs. 44% is not a very big difference to hang your hat on. And note that the above claim is that believers in God are more trustworthy, not that they trust others more. People who believe the Bible is the literal word of God are a minority in society, so their lower level of trust may be a reflection of their view of the trustworthiness of secular society in relation to their own group.

Imagine if you asked the question "Do you consider yourself a sinner?"

Those who believe that the Bible is inspired would answer "yes" at a higher rate. But that wouldn't prove that they are actually worse people; instead, it is a reflection of the different way in which they view themselves and the world. Your survey fails to control for similar issues. It may be that religious people have higher standards of the concept of trustworthiness, and that colors how they answer the question.

The problem might be those questions about the bible being the literal word of god.

Of course if you believe the bible is the literal word of god you are goingto have a problem with trust issues, especially if you think you have the ability to interpret it. That is why christian groups that don'nt accept things like tradition or some sort of governor, such as a pope, as sort of trumping the literal truth of the bible are so quick to fragment. It is hard to trust people who deny your interpretation of the literal word of the director of the universe. This is why you get so many weird sects and independent fundamentalist churches.

Did you control for education and income? Are poor, uneducated atheists as trusting as poor, uneducated believers? Are college-educated, well-to-do atheists as trusting as their religious peers?

There are more factors to control, such as the level of crime in the place of residence of the subjects.

People, even rich and educated ones, who hear gunfire every night may be less trustful than people from a sleepy rural town where the last murder happened during Nixon's administration.

You might get very different results if you asked the respondents whether other co-religionists can be trusted. I would expect that the us-vs-them division would manifest there.

Your stat is not about religious people in general, but about fundamentalists.

The paper was published in 2011 in Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, here's the link: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167268111001223.
A few comments: It's not just Americans stating that the Bible is the literal word of god, but also those who believe it is 'inspired' who are less trusting. We only added the example and some micro-level analysis to the paper to support our main finding that higher levels of religiosity across countries and US states is strongly associated with lower levels of trust. As far as we can judge, it's a causal effect such that sufficiently strong religious beliefs undermine trust in other people. Our own countries - Denmark and Sweden - are good examples by being the most trusting in the world as well as the least religious.

I agree with Claude Emer that its fascinating in how all cultures seem to come up independently with the concept for religion.

The practice of religion gets bound up in tribalism. It becomes another marker of belonging to a community, which is one reason why minority religions, practiced by people who belong to the tribe in other ways, becomes a problem. So some of the positive and negative statistics cited I think are metrics on how well the community associated with a particular religion (the US South and the Southern Baptist churches in the example that was cited by another commentator) is doing and don't really tell you that much about religious belief.

If you want to see how religious identity changes when one suddenly becomes a minority you should go to Utah. As a Catholic from the South I am used to being a little bit different, and some Jewish family background makes me very familiar with the concept, so being a minority in Salt Lake wasn't really much of a shock, though I have to admit always being impressed at the fervor, orthodoxy, and general liturgical knowledge of Utah catholics. however I do notice most protestants have a very hard time of it, and Southern Baptists tend to go off the deep end.

It is not just religious identity. Ethnic identity shows the same pattern. In Europe, national minorities such as Catalans, Welsh, Basques or, say, Lusatian Sorbs are fiercely nationalistic to such a degree that any major nation doing the same would be called fascist.

Or look at Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and some subcategories of Asians here in the USA.

8 pithy and pointless "lessons" which Tyler and everyone else will forget in a couple of days.

I'd say these propositions are not original. However, in a world where some people believes that atheism is correlated to intelligence, it's nice that some guy comes along telling these ideas once again.

"in a world where some people believes that atheism is correlated to intelligence" ... always strikes me as a odd belief. for much of grad school I went to a PhD student economist bible study, so I know super smarties can believe in God. and in college had regular family lunches with a pastor of fundamentalist church act who was clever and charismatic but I wouldn't trust with anything. modern religion is personalized enough that people can find their form ... and as it turns out some people choose data, books, science, etc ... to make sense of a messy world. I suspect the author's list could be re-written in a secular, broader form too. Does religion remake us or does it reinforce who we are? ... the pooling and separating equilibria are not trivial here either.

Well, sure, people believe that because it's true, but it's still stupid and bigoted to be aware of the fact.

"it’s still stupid and bigoted to be aware of the fact"

Sadly given the misconceptions people here have about atheists I am unable to determine if you are joking.

Ugh. This is Reza Aslan-level stuff.

"Reza Aslan-level stuff" that deserves its own word. how about "rezlandish" ?

Comments for this post are closed