I recently finished reading Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. It’s an important book, which is also a lot of fun to read. However, it will be heartily disliked by at least two groups: the neo-atheists and evolutionary psychologists.
Taq-e Bostan – High-relief of Ardeshir II investiture by Philippe Chavin Source
The main question that Ara asks also is the one that I believe to be of central importance; indeed, this just may be the most important question in the social sciences. How did humans acquire capacity for cooperation in huge anonymous societies?
One of the key preconditions of cooperation is trust. If there is no trust, there could be no cooperation. In our ancestral small-scale societies it was much easier to know who you could trust. Everybody knew everybody else. You didn’t even need to rely only on your own experience with people—all it took was to keep your ears open to gossip. I am not saying that generating trust in small-scale societies is trivial. After all, our huge and energetically expensive brains developed just as engines of social memory and computation. Still, the problem of trust is much easier in small-scale societies integrated by face-to-face interactions, than it is in huge anonymous societies of millions in which we live today.
And here’s where religion comes in. ‘Big Gods’ are supernatural beings who have three important abilities. First, they are actually capable of looking inside your head to find out what you think. In particular, they know whether you really intend to fulfill your part of the bargain, or whether you are planning to cheat. Second, Big Gods care whether you are trying to be a virtuous person, or not. And third, if you are a bad person, they can (and will) punish you.
Now, if you are an atheist like myself (but not a neo-atheist!), let’s agree that gods don’t exist. How could the belief in them spread? Well, once large-scale societies appeared, for reasons I have dwelt upon elsewhere, a problem arouse. Cooperation requires trust, but how could you trust people whom you didn’t know, and never heard about? You couldn’t trust just any stranger. On the other hand, if the stranger sincerely believed in Big Gods, she wouldn’t cheat you, because she didn’t want to burn in Gehenna for an eternity, for example. Or be reincarnated as an earthworm. So groups, in which the belief in moralistic, all-knowing punishers became rooted, would be much more cooperative than the atheistic ones. Whereas people behaved prosocially in small-scale societies in which they were watched by acquaintances and neighbors, in large-scale anonymous societies they had to be good because they were watched by gods.
The between-group selection is a key element of this argument. After all, people are pretty smart, and it’s not difficult to figure out that if everybody around you believes in moralistic deities, you can safely cheat, because there is no fiery Hell waiting for you. But groups, in which atheists would predominate, would not be able to cooperate effectively, and lose in competition to the groups of believers.
Incidentally, once belief in supernatural moralistic punishers becomes pervasive, it is to the individual benefit to become a sincere believer. But this is a subject for another post.
One potential difficulty with the argument of Ara is that in the modern world there are a number of societies in which the majority doesn’t believe in Big Gods, yet they are highly cooperative. Nordic countries, such as Denmark, are a good example. So what gives?
The answer that Big Gods offers is that what’s important is not the supernatural nature (if it makes sense) of Big Gods, but watchers with ability to detect and punish immoral behavior. In modern societies we have all-to-real cops, judges, and IRS agents to do the job.
So, “watched people are nice people.” It doesn’t matter whether the watchers are your friends and neighbors (as in small-scale societies), supernatural beings (as in ancient and medieval large-scale societies), or the Big Brother, as in modern large-scale societies, AKA police states. As long as people are watched, they behave nicely.
Now, this is a rather cynical view of human nature. But while there is a lot of experimental evidence supporting the importance of being watched, let’s not forget that people cooperate (or not) as a result of many interacting factors, of which being watched is just one.