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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.

Publishers Weekly Review

Aug 26, 2013 – 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.
Big Gods
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  • $16.99
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: Social Science
  • Published: Aug 25, 2013
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Seller: Princeton University Press
  • Print Length: 264 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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