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Big science can only explain small gods

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From ScienceFeature: Why big societies need big gods, by Lizzie Wade, Science’s Latin American correspondent:

Although much of Egyptian cosmology is alien today, some is strikingly familiar: The gods of today’s major religions are also moralizing gods, who encourage virtue and punish selfish and cruel people after death. But for most of human history, moralizing gods have been the exception. If today’s hunter-gatherers are any guide, for thousands of years our ancestors conceived of deities as utterly indifferent to the human realm, and to whether we behaved well or badly.

The theory introduced (and contested by other researchers) is that the idea of powerful and moral gods tracked the growth of large societies:

Norenzayan thinks this connection between moralizing deities and “prosocial” behavior—curbing self-interest for the good of others—could help explain how religion evolved. In small-scale societies, prosocial behavior does not depend on religion. The Hadza, a group of African hunter-gatherers, do not believe in an afterlife, for example, and their gods of the sun and moon are indifferent to the paltry actions of people. Yet the Hadza are very cooperative when it comes to hunting and daily life. They don’t need a supernatural force to encourage this, because everyone knows everyone else in their small bands. If you steal or lie, everyone will find out—and they might not want to cooperate with you anymore, Norenzayan says. The danger of a damaged reputation keeps people living up to the community’s standards.

As societies grow larger, such intensive social monitoring becomes impossible. So there’s nothing stopping you from taking advantage of the work and goodwill of others and giving nothing in return. Reneging on a payment or shirking a shared responsibility have no consequences if you’ll never see the injured party again and state institutions like police forces haven’t been invented yet. But if everyone did that, nascent large-scale societies would collapse. Economists call this paradox the free rider problem. How did the earliest large-scale societies overcome it?

In some societies, belief in a watchful, punishing god or gods could have been the key, Norenzayan believes. More.

Various theorists contest various points in the article.

Trouble is, if we look at the development of some of the world’s most significant and largest religions, we don’t see that at all. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called Abrahamic religions, in that their basic assumptions can be traced back to a single family living in the desert in what is now called Israel. They weren’t trying to run anything, just to make some sense of their own lives.

Buddhism started as a former prince heading a band of wandering monks. They did not have big plans to run everything; they had discussions about how to make do with the fewest possessions possible.

Of course there were religions developed for the express purpose of running big societies; ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religion come to mind. But their gods were not necessarily moral, they’re long gone, and they left no successors.

In any event, the religions that survived often invert the beliefs and standards of Big Ideas, Big Politics, Big Guns, and Big Bucks. (See vid below.)

But at one time, there were religions that the naturalism fronted in the article could indeed explain:

From what we can tell by analyzing surviving customs and artifacts, ancient religions were chiefly focused on magical thinking. Magic is an exploded form of physics (Frazer calls it “a spurious system of natural law”):

If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.

Thus one could cause good or harm by imitating a desired result. The voodoo doll survives in popular culture but most instances were probably intended to produce good, in the form of health or prosperity. Second, because things once joined continue to exert an influence on each other, one might put salve on the tool that caused a cut wound as well as on the wound itself, to speed healing.

These ancient magical systems or religions were not systematically interwoven with ethics. In many cultures, sacredness and uncleanness were equivalent. Both were sources of power, to be handled, like fire, with care. Thus, ritual prostitution of women considered respectable was normal, and sometimes even required.

Similarly, there was little distinction between natural and moral evil. Sickness, sin, and bad luck could all be transferred as if they were material things, possibly to a tree. More.

They should go back to just ignoring religion, for the same reasons as people who don’t know anything about mining engineering should not try explaining mines.

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5 Replies to “Big science can only explain small gods

  1. 1
    Popperian says:

    Trouble is, if we look at the development of some of the world’s most significant and largest religions, we don’t see that at all. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called Abrahamic religions, in that their basic assumptions can be traced back to a single family living in the desert in what is now called Israel. They weren’t trying to run anything, just to make some sense of their own lives.

    Robert Wright makes a strong case that even the major Abrahamic regions did not start out as monotheistic in his book the Evolution of God. Specifically, there are parts of the Bible that were not retroactively updated to project monotheism, which reflect this.

  2. 2
    EvilSnack says:

    Or it could be that a society cannot advance beyond a certain level unless its moral reasoning embraces certain particular values, and failing that it remains tribal and backwards.

  3. 3
    Mapou says:

    Popperian:

    Robert Wright makes a strong case that even the major Abrahamic regions did not start out as monotheistic in his book the Evolution of God. Specifically, there are parts of the Bible that were not retroactively updated to project monotheism, which reflect this.

    Which parts are you referring to? And citations please?

    I am a monotheist Christian who worships Yahweh. I don’t see anything in the OT that was updated to promote monotheism as you imply. You are confusing ONENESS with singular. The old testament insists that Yahweh is ONE but consists of many individuals. This is clearly seen in the original Hebrew language. IMO, there are billions of them. Yahweh Elohim (Lords Yahweh) is plural. The old testament does not to hide the fact that Yahweh is a company of gods (elohim). He is also called “Yahweh of hosts” which I take to mean that Yahweh consists of many distinct societies or companies of Gods. One more thing. We are told that we look just like them, i.e., we were made in their image, in the likeness of the Elohim. The main difference is that we are made of ordinary matter (the dust of the earth) whereas the Elohim are made of some other type of matter.

  4. 4
    News says:

    EvilSnack at 2 makes a good point. In a universe benevolently designed, we will find that societal defects in the most basic areas of moral reasoning are far more likely to lead to chronic misery than to health, wealth, or wisdom (and advance of knowledge). While this fact is reinforced by the major religions, it is an independent fact that they recognize.

  5. 5
    Aleta says:

    See the book “Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett – all is explained there, 🙂

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