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category: Religion

Evolutionary Studies Of Religion And Secularism

Post: October 20, 2013 7:43 pm
Author: Michael Blume         Source: TVOL

Ara Norenzayan, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, is one of the leading scientists exploring the evolution of religion. His work combines a broad knowledge in evolutionary science with ingeniously designed experiments in social psychology. Fruitfully cooperating with other young-and-hungry scientists, Norenzayan’s empirical articles have appeared in leading scientific journals, including Science and Psychological Science, and his work has been featured in leading news media worldwide. With Big Gods: How Religion transformed Cooperation and Conflict, Norenzayan offers his synthesis of evolutionary and cognitive studies of religion. The book is a breakthrough, and will undoubtedly influence scientific perspectives on religion and secularism.

Let’s start with style: Big Gods is pure empirical science. Norenzayan is not catering to religious or atheistic expectations nor is he dabbling in philosophy or staging fights with colleagues. The most he is disclosing about his personal motivation in exploring religion is his childhood in Beirut, Lebanon. Here, he experienced the social as well as violent potentials of human psychology and religious faith. Instead of following ready-made sets of assumptions and prejudices, he dragged them to the lab for empirical testing until he had a viable, evolutionary picture of religion at hand.

Thus, Norenzayan is able to present a more complete, cognitive account of religiosity as a biocultural tool of supernatural monitoring. He argues that religion started as a by-product of human cognitions such as agency detection and mentalizing (building theories of mind), which led to a world enriched by mythological agents such as lingering ancestors, watching spirits and later, gods. As "watched people are nice people“, religiosity evolved into a social tool able to augment in-group cooperation. In order to avoid freeriders, religious networks and groups began to adopt "actions that speak louder than words": Credibility-enhancing displays (CREDs) such as prayers, offerings and costly commandments distinguishing "true believers“ from those paying mere lip-service.

Norenzayan’s theses are in accordance with archeological and ethnological findings about the co-evolution of increasingly powerful and moralizing gods with bigger groups and agricultural settlements. At the same time, both sides of the religious coin are becoming visible: While religious believers became enabled to build stronger, bigger, and more competitive communities, they became increasingly intolerant towards outsiders and perceived freeriders. Presenting a range of experiments concerning anti-atheist prejudices, Norenzayan is able to show that non-believers are frequently distrusted even in contemporary settings. Other historical as well as psychological studies are supporting assumptions that religious traditions are able to strengthen both conflict and peace.

Up to now, Norenzayan’s works would already have been a more than remarkable supplement to former definitions and theses, but he has still more at hand! In his concluding chapters, fresh empirical findings – some of which have already been discussed on TVOL - on the waning of religious beliefs in secure, wealthy, and educated societies and the subsequent rise of secularism and atheism are presented in detail. In short, Norenzayan is able to show that benevolent and trustworthy "Big Governments“ are able to substitute "Big Gods“ in many ways. "Combined with strong secular institutions that keep the cooperative engines going, existential security is the nemesis of religion“ (p. 186). In a powerful metaphor that is set to be quoted widely, Norenzayan observes that "secular societies climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away.“ (p. 172)

Finally, Norenzayan is sincere enough to acknowledge "the secularists‘ Achilles‘ heel“: Religious demography (p. 192). As far as we can see historically, only religious communities have been able to retain fertility rates above replacement levels. Wherever religious beliefs dissolved, family structures followed suit. Thus, future debates and studies might probe into the riddle of human motivation. It seems that we are cognitively inclined to accept commandments (such as joining a community or having costly kids) from mindful agents, but not from mindless principles.

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.




Comments

Post: November 9 2013 8:30 am By: Sherry Gregory Nassar


Finding this page… this reveiw… this website is the “gift of the day”. Thank you!. Morning coffee found me Internet searching for any new research that might give hope that the “compassion gene” could become a driver (“the” (wishfully) driver) in human behavior - after seeing yet another heartbreaking picture of a little pig in “captivity”. The cruelty the human species inflicts on other species… breaks the heart, wounds the spirit.

Post: December 7 2013 10:09 pm By: J. Alan Le Fevre


I will suggest a crucial difference of opinion with Norenzayan regarding religion with his suggestion that religion is some sort of ‘byproduct’. 
He argues that religion started as a by-product of human cognitions such as agency detection and mentalizing (building theories of mind), which led to a world enriched by mythological agents such as lingering ancestors, watching spirits and later, gods.
Like feathers on birds which originally evolved to insulate, and perhaps streamline dinosaurs but were later re-purposed to provide lift in birds, agency detection and mentalizing developed to assist threat detection and socialization.  Much later (likely millions of years), these mental facilities were leveraged to allow for the invention of religion.
Virtually all the claims noted in this article attributed to Norenzayan support the purpose-built conclusion for religion, not a byproduct origin.  That is all noted features could easily have been introduced by a thoughtful leader and all demonstrate a competitive advantage.  To be judged a byproduct, a feature would need to not demonstrate a competitive advantage.  To wit:
“watched people are nice people“, religiosity evolved into a social tool able to augment in-group cooperation. In order to avoid freeriders, religious networks and groups began to adopt “actions that speak louder than words”: Credibility-enhancing displays (CREDs) such as prayers, offerings and costly commandments distinguishing “true believers“ from those paying mere lip-service.
Birds who cooperate often display rather complex behaviors to discourage freeriders.  Likewise, peacocks utilize CREDs.  Nothing new here for religion, just clever reuse with a clear advantage.
‘Norenzayan’s theses are in accordance with archeological and ethnological findings about the co-evolution of increasingly powerful and moralizing gods with bigger groups and agricultural settlements.’
A strong correlation to bigger groups, another clear advantage.  And for a conclusion:
‘… the waning of religious beliefs in secure, wealthy, and educated societies and the subsequent rise of secularism and atheism . . . “secular societies climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away.“ (p. 172)’
To the effect of:
‘Wherever religious beliefs dissolved, family structures followed suit.’
The evidence is rock solid yet ignored by nearly everyone, truly the proverbial elephant in the room:  There has never, in the history of the world, been a complex society that has not first developed organized religion.  Further there has never been a complex society that has ever successfully given up religion, though a few have tried without success.
Organized religion, simply put, is the technology to build human society.  When religion grows, societies grow.  Where religion withers, the associated society withers with it.  There is not a scrap of evidence supporting the byproduct claim.