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Big GodsReview - Big Gods
How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict
by Ara Norenzayan
Princeton University Press, 2013
Review by Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Ph.D.
Feb 11th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 7)

Means and ends, cause and effect, or the chicken or the egg; this is, in a nutshell, the basic and underlying issue that is at stake in this book on prosocial religions by psychologist (another psychologist writing on religion!) Ara Norenzayan. True this issue is not the explicit problem or topic of this book -- I will turn to those in a couple of lines -- but it is a, or even thé, true predicament for Norenzayan and above all for us readers. That this is so, is perfectly evident from the frequent mentioning of the problem of cause and effect itself (what causes what, the issue of co-causing, etc.: for example p. 90; p. 128; p. 141; p. 146; just to mention some of the major and more evident occasions where Norenzayan is obliged to twist and turn around this issue) and the frequency of the uncertainty language (data seems a lot; answers are outlined; and the cans, coulds, mays, or mights are abundantly present). Let me be clear, this is not necessarily a negative critique. The presence of a certain amount of uncertainty can be considered as evidence of humbleness and awareness of the amount of research still ahead. On the other hand, it could also be the magician's-type of smoke, the taking away of our attention for that split second so necessary to make the trick work. I will leave this decision to the reader, and start by summarizing this book shortly. 

The main thesis of this book is that (religious) groups who worship(ped) Big Gods (“powerfull, all-knowing, and interventionist deities who care deeply about human morality” -- p. 122 -- that do, however, not equate necessarily with forms of monotheism -- p, 130), “in a complex cultural evolutionary story, […], pieced together a whole cluster of psychological mechanisms that, building on supernatural monitoring and credible displays of sincere faith, fostered and cemented social solidarity.” (p. 114) As such, these prosocial religious group who worshipped these Big Gods beat all other social-religious groups that did not succeed in piecing together similar or even better psychological mechanisms. Said in a more condensed way:  “groups with belief in powerful supernatural monitors scaled up and eclipsed other groups […]”. (p. 134) This thesis is backed, according to Norenzayan, by the following 8 principles that also summarize the content of his book. 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, and finally 8) religious groups cooperate in order to compete. (p. xiii)

To rephrase this somewhat dense resume in a tale or in story-style language used by our author in the introducing chapter: “[R]eligious beliefs […] arose as an evolutionary by-product of ordinary cognitive functions that preceded religion.” (p. 8) These “mutants” (they are, in fact, the combination of accidental side-effects of above all cultural but also genetic evolution -- cf. p. 10) demonstrated to be, well at least some of them (the religious beliefs in Big Gods), so effective in the creation of social cohesion (their very nature proposed and promoted trust in the similar believer) that they expanded continuously becoming stronger and stronger overthrowing every other possible religious or social (secular) group. However, and this is what our author considers “the final great surprise of the argument of this book” (p. 11), the secular societies, who find their origins in religiousness (this is the surprise), are further evolutionary and thus far 'better' expressions of prosocialness. What the future thus holds for us, although our author is aware that “[U]ndoubtedly, […], this account of religion will also be shown to contain flaws” (p. 12), is nothing less than the atheistic social welfare state.

This, in short, is what this dense and interesting book, that should be read by all those who are minimally interested in the not-so-new-anymore field of cognitive science religion-branch, is all about. It has to be said, the amount of psychological test-data collected in it is rather impressive. True, it is very mono-disciplinary (being, as such, necessarily partisan, partial, and incomplete), on occasions highly speculative in its interpretation of the data collected, and most data is collected from lab-studies that offer results that in no direct or necessary way reflect real life (as our author justly and almost courageously acknowledges -- cf. p. 37), it, nonetheless, remains an interesting study and some of the data should be studied more and have a wider impact. (The 'Sunday effect' [cf. p. 37-41], the fact that people who claim to be religious are more pro-social and 'religious' on Sunday than any other day of the week; the fact that statements about religious involvement are less relevant -- with the correct observation-group that is [cf. p.53] and with exclusion of the highly religious people -- than religious priming or salience in predicting social behavior [cf. p. 49-52], the fact that international sharing of ritual seem to go hand in hand with the growth of tolerance [cf. p. 166.], and the existence of a proper logic of sacred values [p. 168] are just a couple of examples of some of the highly interesting themes treated in this book.)

The disciplinary narrowness, that gives, as we just came to underline, this volume a quantitative plus-value, has, however, some serious qualitative pitfalls. I will mention what I deem to be the two main ones (they are actually three, but the first two are so interrelated that I will treat them as one).

First of all, there is, what I call, a lack of vertical depth; this book is historically speaking superficial and this has negative repercussions on its conceptual accurateness. I presume the author is/was aware of this lack as in more than one occasion he attempts to address the historical-conceptual issue, but it is never truly satisfying. The problem with this historical-conceptual lack is that the most fundamental concepts  of this book (religion and atheism) suffer from it -- I will not address the fact that all the psychological data collected is of recent date and thus has no necessary all-historical-embracing value --. In fact, although our author is aware and acknowledges (cf. p. 138) that his -- the -- usage of the concept of religion is not universal (colored as it is by the prosocial-moral-God involved characteristics of the Big God religions) he never goes any further than this mere acknowledgement. However, not all religions that our author seems to be considering as prosocial (he uses them as examples of prosocialness) are religions in a similar meaning and/or understanding; some are pretty antithetical which, I think, undermines the mere existence of a possible unique category of prosocial religions. For example, roman  'religion' (paganism-s, there was no such thing as 'paganism' in the singular) and early Christianity -- both considered by our author as fundamentally prosocial-moral-etc. -- are antipodes, and even have a completely different understanding of what 'religion' is. In fact, although it is often presumed that the term 'religion' derives from the Latin 'religare': that which binds and unites the human and the divine; this is not the case. This particular understanding of religion was St. Augustine 'invention' and was to become Christianity's understanding of a 'religion'. The original meaning, and the roman understanding, of 'religion' has to do with observance and not with some form of social bonding. The concept 'religion', in fact, derives from relegere: the scrupulous and attentive observation of ritual formula and norms (simple do ut des). This, however, is not without further interest for this volume. In fact, the first Christians were accused of and condemned to death by the Romans because they were considered as being atheists. This form of atheism, even though our author seems to accept the existence of diverse forms of atheism (cf. p. 177), is never accounted for. The only atheists that matter for to our author, are the present day atheists.

These first critical remarks might seem details that have little effect on the grand narrative of our author, but this is not so. In fact, it makes clear that the underlying scheme of this book -- the uninterrupted and straightforward evolutionary historical line our author continuously draws -- is simply inaccurate, it's reading history backwards, that is, reading the past through the lens of the present. It is reading the 'what was not' as a necessary 'what was not yet', but that is only true after the facts and is not a correct historical reading.       

Secondly, there is also what could be called a lack in horizontal broadness in this book. Just to give one example; any study on political theology or even probably a random work on political philosophy could have made our author understand that what he considers as so highly important and “the final great surprise” -- namely that secular societies find their origin in religion (p.11) or that gods and government might be interchangeable (p.88), but the whole of the 10th chapter is dedicated to this topic -- is something rather common and not surprising at all! (By the way, our author might want to check his stats on trust in governments in (northern) Europe, they are at their lowest point ever -- and he might just want to investigate why in Sweden the sale of alcohol had to be 'statalized', or why at the end of 2013 there where riots for 6 days in Husby [Stockholm]; these are, unfortunately, serious cracks in the -- our author's -- trust and police-state 'heaven'.) There is, however, also a very dangerous aspect in this 'political theology' that our author unfortunately never mentions. There have been some extreme governments that have had the genius idea of being divine, they are called totalitarian police regimes (fascist or nazi regimes if you want). True our author never discusses political legitimation or the appropriation of political power, but the margins and frontiers are so narrow here that he might want to be careful in his joyous awaiting of the time to come; he might just get lucky and not be so pretty darn happy about it.

To conclude, Ara Norenzayan's study Big Gods -- How religion transformed cooperation and conflict is an interesting study worthy to read. Its one-sidedness (religion is obviously a cognitive and cultural/social phenomenon subject to evolution, but it is NOT JUST that, but ALSO that -- religion, more than subject to evolution is cause of revolution), for as much as a plus on the quantitative side, is, however, also the cause of some serious blank spots that, if not present, could (read 'would') have made this a much more profound and probably even more provocative study.


© 2014 Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte


Dr. Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Invited Professor of Philosophy, Pontifical University Antonianum,  Rome, Italy


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