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Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

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How did human societies scale up from small, tight-knit groups of hunter-gatherers to the large, anonymous, cooperative societies of today—even though anonymity is the enemy of cooperation? How did organized religions with "Big Gods"—the great monotheistic and polytheistic faiths—spread to colonize most minds in the world? In Big Gods, Ara Norenzayan makes the surprising and provocative argument that these fundamental puzzles about the origins of civilization are one and the same, and answer each other.

Once human minds could conceive of supernatural beings, Norenzayan argues, the stage was set for rapid cultural and historical changes that eventually led to large societies with Big Gods—powerful, omniscient, interventionist deities concerned with regulating the moral behavior of humans. How? As the saying goes, "watched people are nice people." It follows that people play nice when they think Big Gods are watching them, even when no one else is. Yet at the same time that sincere faith in Big Gods unleashed unprecedented cooperation within ever-expanding groups, it also introduced a new source of potential conflict between competing groups.

In some parts of the world, such as northern Europe, secular institutions have precipitated religion's decline by usurping its community-building functions. These societies with atheist majorities—some of the most cooperative, peaceful, and prosperous in the world—climbed religion's ladder, and then kicked it away. So while Big Gods answers fundamental questions about the origins and spread of world religions, it also helps us understand another, more recent social transition—the rise of cooperative societies without belief in gods.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Why did Christianity and Islam flourish while other faiths faded into obscurity?What binds complex societies together and enables strangers to live cooperatively within them?Norenzayan, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, claims that these two questions answer each other.Religions that have omniscient "Big Gods" who monitor and punish adherents for moral transgressions gave rise to large-scale societies of strangers out of small groups of related hunter-gatherers. Ranging across quantitative studies, historical cross-cultural examples, theological texts, and the practices of believers, Norenzayan convincingly argues that religions with Big Gods are successful because they generate a sense of being watched and regulated, require extravagant displays of commitment that weed out religious impostors, and encourage solidarity and trust. While the author only briefly sketches why Big Gods incite war and violence, he speculates that we may be on the verge of cooperative societies without God.Prosperous and peaceful Scandinavian countries with a majority of atheists rely on secular institutions to enforce cooperation. They "climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away," he writes. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"Ranging across quantitative studies, historical cross-cultural examples, theological texts, and the practices of believers, Norenzayan convincingly argues that religions with Big Gods are successful because they generate a sense of being watched and regulated, require extravagant displays of commitment that weed out religious impostors, and encourage solidarity and trust."Publishers Weekly

"I found this book insightful, well-written, and to the point."—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

"The book is a breakthrough, and will undoubtedly influence scientific perspectives on religion and secularism. . . . Without a doubt, Big Gods is a seminal and outstanding book, rocketing the psychological and evolutionary understanding of faith and secularization to new heights and new questions. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in human evolution, psychology, and the scientific study of religion."—Michael Blume, Evolution: This View of Life

"Once in a while, a whole field of research is pushed forward by a seminal work. Ara Norenzayan's Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict is one of those rare books bound to becoming a classic for a generation of colleagues and students."—Michael Blume, SciLogs

"This is an impressive work; it demonstrates how and why the Big Gods are still with us, and watching."Reference & Research Book News

"I recommend it to readers interested in the relationships between religions, the non-religious, and nation states. It should be required reading for psychologists and sociologists."—John Harney, Magonia

"[T]his book is great value for the money: it provides energy, intriguing ideas and a joyous display of a fine mind, one that swoops and soars and frequently stops to preen, like some brightly coloured bird in an Edenic rainforest."—Donald Harman Akenson, Literary Review of Canada

"Norenzayan weaves in one convincing scientific study after another, leaving me (as a study junkie) highlighting about every page. . . . His thesis is fascinating and well worth a read (or two). Norenzayan is not prescribing a way to end religion or to suggest that one form of thinking over another is better, but to get at the underlying factors that bring a society from big gods to secularity. I'm sure any deeply held convictions about the nature of religion and disbelief will be challenged tremendously by Big Gods, and as any analytical thinker would probably say, why shouldn't they?"—Brandon G. Withrow, Discarded Image

"Ara Norenzayan's study Big Gods is an interesting study worthy to read."—Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Metapsychology

"Norenzayan analyzes religion primarily as a mechanism for enforcing social cooperation, a problem for which the evolution of increasingly more powerful gods provides a solution in increasingly large and complex societies. . . . With consistently clear organization and thorough documentation, this book combines explanations for cognitive belief in supernatural entities with social explanations of religion's function, advancing readers' understanding of how the former serves the latter."Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691151212
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/25/2013
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 370,624
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Ara Norenzayan is professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. His work has been featured on CNN and in the "New York Times Magazine", the "Economist", "Der Spiegel", the "Boston Globe", the "Toronto Star", "Scientific American", and "New Scientist". He grew up in Beirut and lives in Vancouver.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi

The Eight Principles of Big Gods xiii
Chapter 1 Religious Evolution 1
Chapter 2 S upernatural Watchers 13
Chapter 3 Pressure from Above 33
Chapter 4 I n Big Gods We Trust 55
Chapter 5 Freethinkers as Freeriders 76
Chapter 6 True Believers 94
Chapter 7 Big Gods for Big Groups 118
Chapter 8 The Gods of Cooperation and Competition 140
Chapter 9 From Religious Cooperation to Religious Conflict 155
Chapter 10 Cooperation without God 170

Notes 193
References 215
Index 243

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  • Posted January 9, 2014

    more from this reviewer

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    I really enjoyed this.  The writing is open and engaging, and it

    I really enjoyed this.  The writing is open and engaging, and it covers a variety of topics related to the psychology and sociology of religion.  I considered a 4 versus 5 star review and am going with a 5.  There are definitely some areas that could have been expanded (I found the discussion of neurological bases of certain thought modules more tentative than other discussions) but the footnotes are useful and point to other research.  I've tagged two of the books he cites regularly that I found particularly useful, and was glad I'd read when I came to this.  I decided to leave this as a 5 star review because plenty of people will be satisfied with the coverage in the book, so it works in itself.  While I am a nonbeliever, most of family are believers, and the book is a helpful reminder about how religion will always be with us.  

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