Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict by Ara Norenzayan

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"That which we cannot explain in ourselves might be our downfall." This book is an excellent starting point to reverse that trend.

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict by Ara Norenzayan is likely to offend anyone who has fairly deeply held religious beliefs because it suggests religions, all religions, can be reduced to adaptive evolutionary behaviors unconsciously amplified by the arguably most effective socially cooperative animal on the planet.

It’s a fascinating look at how cognitive adaptions may have (probably) led to religiosity in humans. The basic thrust of his argument is twofold:

1) The feeling of being monitored, even by made up gods, ensures beneficial and socially constructive behavior within groups. The bigger the group, the bigger the god (in terms of omniscient and omnipotency) until at some point, secular laws can replace divine monitoring.

2) Easily identifiable religious affiliation ensures better collaboration (and trade, and cooperation, and reproduction) between individuals in the same group. The more costly the display, the more readily apparent in-group status becomes.

Big Gods is short but powerful, jam-packed with psychological experiments, cognitive studies and deep insights backing up the many ways humans, often unknowingly, manifest and are influenced by behaviors within those two sets of theories.

Norenzayan is a strong, no-nonsense writer that makes his points with simple, effective prose.

“…Big Gods are a solution to the problem of large-scale cooperation in big groups…”

“… greater numbers of true believers are able to trust each other in ever larger social networks, even when no one is capable of monitoring social interactions.”

“Prosocial religious groups therefore are in constant vigilance to identify and weed out imposters who masquerade under a cloak of devoutness to reap benefits from the group.”

This last bit gets to the heart of the concern many people have with those who claim to be religious, but don’t adhere to the core beliefs and behaviors (like, not being greedy or not supporting war) — being part of the in group, and not adhering to the actual tenets of faith, is the true advantage against a world of outsiders competing for resources and reproductive success.

There’s an especially interesting vein, well-explored, about how religions — given how important they have been for social development — ostracizes atheists who, because they can’t signal in group status and clearly don’t submit to constant deistic monitoring, are considered untrustworthy. And worse, it’s instinctive — experiments show that atheists are quickly categorized without so much as a second thought.

“If sincere belief in a morally concerned deity serves as a reliable cooperative signal, it follows that those who explicitly deny the existence of god are inadvertently sending the wrong single: they are being perceived as subversive noncooperators by the religious.”

And even worse, atheists (though Norenzayan highlights many successful secular societies with waning religiosity) are likely doomed to be outdone by by other groups because religious people out reproduce atheists, who don’t have enough children to sustain their numbers, and secular couples with less fervent religious beliefs. That’s because religious folks — again, regardless of which religion — have an internal prerogative to expand their group through reproduction, and, because of the adaptive advantage religion confers to reproduction, it means their numbers will grow more quickly.

This is a great book that I highly recommend, although it is somewhat disheartening. I agree with the author that the lack of understanding about the many ways we otherize outsiders, including through religion, contribute to the current state of affairs in which distrust, anger, violence, greed, racism and xenophobia are dooming the planet to perpetual war, wealth inequality, resource scarcity and environmental degradation. Taking the time to understand how the brain works, and how the shortcuts that once helped our ancestors thrive might be dooming us in the modern day, is imperative.

As Norenzayan says, “that which we cannot explain in ourselves might be our downfall.” This book is an excellent starting point to reverse that trend.