From Big Gods to the Big Brother



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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.


Bas-relief de l'investiture d'Ardashir II à Taq-e Bostan

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.

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Gene Anderson

Not bad for an individualist rationalist, Peter, but Durkheim solved this one long ago. God, or the gods, are the collective representation of the community: the Lord (in a feudal society), the big boss (in a capitalist one), the Dialectic (in a communist one) and Money ( in a modern one). He makes us all realize that we are part of a collectivity, and have to act that way. Then the morality follows. More or less.
Religious morality generally reduces to one thing: stop being so defensive against your loved ones and fellow community members. If you have to hate somebody, displace it to the structural opponents (the heathen, the poor, the minorities, the bosses…).
God supports this because he is US writ large. Of course he exists–he’s as real as culture, money, society, community, dreams, music, and any other communal creations.

Ross Hartshorn

Two thoughts:
1) I am aware of experiments demonstrating that in Dictator Games (, atheists treat other atheists like the religious treat non-believers (i.e. members of the same religion are nicer to each other, but atheists truly have no religion, and treat other atheists just as bad as non-believers).
2) so if, as you point out, the Nordic model (and Switzerland, etc.) relies on an effective police state, we would expect there to be a correlation between spending on government, levels of religion, and societal trust. In other words, given data on levels of religion and size of government, we should be able to predict measures of social trust. This sounds like a job for the Seshat database, or something like it. Has this been analyzed?


Using the Nordic countries as examples where atheists persist in cooperating is ironic as their unity is being undermined by an influx of religious fundamentalists. The Scandinavian unity was always fragile as there is no core ideal inspiring spirited defense in the face of adversity from other groups. The last 50 years have just been a period without any real challenges.


Mr Turchin,
the question “Big God or Big Brother” is very vivid now, especially nowaday, when varios Gods of any linds had got their revsnche. Isn’it startling the most btw?
So if this question is regarded from the point of view of biologist, the ultrasociolity of human beings may not be neglected – and any social animals to some level are affected by Hive affect. So ritual part of religion is about psychological phenomena such as joy of synchronized movment and ecstatic joy of self-loss, which might be a proximal mechanism underlying the extraordinary pleasures people gets from hive-tyge activities.
Jonathan Haidt and the New Atheists:
Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion
Religiosity is a feature of human life, and evolutionary, developmental, neuropsychological, and anthropological theories must explain human religions. Morals are about the organization of groups of people. Emile Durkheim showed that morality is a set of rules to bind people into an effective group. Although Durkheim is revered by sociologists, they were not free of the baleful influence of religion to get to the place when Jonathan Haidt now is. The connexion of morals to the needs of social living were forgotten for most of the twentieth century. Haidt and others have now shown that co-operation and society evolves by genetic and cultural evolution. Though he firmly declares he is an atheist, he only “doubts” the existence of God, and he has accepted considerable donations from the Templeton Foundation. Every man has his price. But Haidt is a leading scientist of the study of morality and religion. His critique therefore represents the scientific process in action—scientists holding each other accountable for their factual claims. Science must be objective!
The reality club – Moral psychology and misuferstanding of religions
Jonathan Haidt
“I used to dislike all religions, back when I thought of them as systems of belief that helped individuals understand the world and cope with the unknown. After reading Durkheim and D. S. Wilson I now think of religions first and foremost as coordination devices that bind people together into moral communities with effects that are mostly good for the members, although sometimes terrible for deviants and for neighboring groups (as Shermer and Harris noted). Whether the net effects of religion for humanity are good or bad is a complex empirical question, the answer to which varies by religion, by era, and by what terms we include in our cost/benefit analysis. (This is exactly the sort of ambiguous dataset from which it is so easy to cherry-pick evidence in favor of one’s desired conclusion.) I am motivated neither to convict nor to acquit, but if religion is to be subject to trial by science, I want the trial to be fair. Until we acknowledge a latent prejudice, however, we will have trouble understanding the accused”
And then the most coherent community gets over thir neighbour, ie gets more evolutionary advanced/ For a while. The religion is spread not via trust among members of one society, but by uniting society in face of fues.

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