Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Big God is Watching You & Civilizing Cooperation

by Gary Berg-Cross

The relation between religion and civilization has long been discussed and there are many takes on it.  In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud discussed the aims of civilized life and frustrations in achieving pleasure and happiness.  Religions aren't always interested in the worldly aspects of pleasure and can be at odds with that aspect of human aims.  In The Future of an Illusion, Freud lamented the typically religious person’s preoccupation with what he termed the "enormously exalted father" figure that was central to a God concept. The idea of placating this supposedly higher-power being for some future reward seemed to Freud infantile and absurd. The frustrating reality to Freud was, however, that the bulk of mankind hangs onto this illusion.

In Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict' Psychologist Ara Norenzayan updates some of the speculation about the historical role of Religion in the development of civilization.  He provides a long list of studies on particular points to suggest that the psychological factors at play in the early connect are still with us.  But like many things modern we might now know how to achieve some of the positive influences in a secular society with less of the downsides that religions can promote.

Norenzayan starts with the observation that  around 12,000 years ago or so human societies scaled up from small, tight-knit kin groups of hunter-gatherers to what we have now - large, anonymously, co-resident & cooperative societies. Emphasis on cooperative.  In Big Gods, major portions of which can be read online, Norenzayan  hypothesizes that normal individual cognitive processes and cultural selection explains the success of very early religions and something else – that increase in cooperation.  Norenzayan’s idea is that there was something that solved the problem of generating more cooperation. And he proposed that something as simple as “God/someone powerful is watching – so be good!”  was it.  Developed as part of religion in the Neolithic period it enable more complex activities.  Here is how one review put it.

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.

With a Big God whip ancient societies could solve co-operation dilemmas much better, and as a result they expanded. Not necessarily a new idea but Big Gods provides an elegant overview including real research suggestive of how belief in Big/super-knowing, all powerful and very morally intrusive gods emerged and influenced cooperation.

He has a nice summary called  "The Eight Principles of Big Gods" whch are:
1. Watched people are nice people.
2. Religion is more in the situation than in the person.(more on this later)
3. Hell is stronger than heaven. (yes hell gets invented somewhere in the 1 millennium BCE)
4. Trust people who trust in God. (yes, you can't trust those none believes especially)
5. Religious actions speak louder than words.
6. Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods. (the orignal way to kill a god, just talk up your own and invent commandments to do that)
7. Big Gods for Big Groups. (our God is bigger than yours so we are exceptional)
8. Religious groups cooperate in order to compete.

Evidence includes the Sunday Effect  of pro-social behavior. For Christians, reminders of religion are typically more salient on Sundays than on other days of the week (and of course at Christmas and Easter). One study looked at responsiveness to an online charity drive over a period of several weeks. Christians and non-believers were equally likely to give to charity except on Sundays. On that day Christians are/were 3 times as likely to give. These results suggest that the “religious situation” is more important than the “religious disposition.”  There are a host of other studies showing that self-reported religious people don’t help out in tasks more than secular people.  But is ideas of God are evoked while playing word games. The game innocently planted thoughts of God (divine, God, spirit) in some participants. Other study participants played the same word game but without religious content (cat, dog tree). The result in an evoked religious situation religious participants do help more.

But there is a down side to this type of cooperation because in group effects. These group effects are better seen in the later first millennium BCE era of the Big Faith-Religions. This is  'Axial Age' (as Karl Jaspers called it).  Such Big Faiths built on Big Gods to further develop inside group cooperate. “Supernatural surveillance” by established Big Gods helped early religions expand while sustaining social solidarity within the group.  The non-civilizing down side is that it discourages cooperation with outsiders. His might be noted as running as a theme in parts of the Hebrew old testament. Those other guys are God’s enemies.  So this type of civilizing cooperation is limited and comes at a cost. It’s part of the discontent with civilization.  As Norenzayan notes:

People who are going to sacrifice for their co-religionists are the same people who are going to be, under the condition of threat or conflict, intolerant or even violent to people who are not of their own religion. Quote from Interview

Speaking of Big God’s enemies, some Psychologists have argued that concern with supernatural surveillance also explains one of the most persistent but hidden prejudices tied to religion: intolerance of atheists. Surveys consistently find that in the United States, as well as in other societies with religious majorities, atheists have one of the lowest approval ratings of any social group. It makes sense.  We don’t believe that we are being watched from the clouds.  How could we be cooperative or moral?

What’s the solution here?  Well understanding is a start, but facts and reasoned arguments are often resisted. Luckily we have real world experimentation going on in more secular societies to show that human ingenuity and understanding can engineer secular-based cooperation.

But Norenzayan  includes some warnings via 2 secular principles that follow the Big 8:

9. "Combined with strong secular institutions that keep the cooperative engines going, existential security is the nemesis of religion." (p. 186)

10. "Prosocial religions have one crucial advantage over secular ones - the demographic windfall of more children. And that religious advantage is the secularists' Achilles' heel." (p. 192) Its that Big God - Big Group idea again, so we have to be smart if not quite as big...

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