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20161203 Big Gods





Luckily author summarized the main idea of this book in succinct list of eight interrelated principles:

  1. Watched people are nice people.
  2. Religion is more in the situation than in the person.
  3. Hell is stronger than heaven.
  4. Trust people who trust in God.
  5. Religious actions speak louder than words.
  6. Unworshipped Gods are impotent Cods.
  7. Big Gods for Big Groups.
  8. Religious groups cooperate in order to compete.


Chapter 1 Religious Evolution

It starts with brief review of Mormon’s history as real live well-documented example of creation of the new and highly viable religion. Then author discusses necessity of religion as glue that allow to keep together big groups of unrelated people when initial sources of cooperation evolutionary developed such as kin selection are not sufficient anymore to protect group from free riding and selfish, group detrimental behavior. For some reason author considers development of Big Gods in agricultural societies as puzzle to which he outlines solution: prosocial character of religions supported evolutionary fitness of big groups as whole and allowed for practically unlimited scalability of such groups.

Chapter 2 Supernatural Watchers

This chapter starts with specific human ability to use mind theory to predict actions of other people and human tendency to assign agency to just about any conceivable entity or object. This creates very solid foundation for accepting god(s) as reality, even if individual has no direct contact with them. A very interesting point here is that god(s) are normally treated as personalized entities with all limitations typical for humans, despite theological notions of omniscience and unlimited power. This idea confirmed by MRI analysis and other research that demonstrated activation of parts of brain related to mind theory when individuals think or discuss god. However even if circuits in brain used for gods and for other humans are the same, people perceive gods as continuously watching entities hiding from which is just impossible. Author describes quite interesting research demonstrating that gods perceived to pay much more attention to moral and other violations of norms than to neutral actions and behavior.

Chapter 3 Pressure from Above

This chapter presents an interesting approach by characterizing religion as presented more in situation than in person. Basically it means that human actions occur under influence of multitude of forces and true believes are only one of them. Consequently the behavior consistent with believes is highly dependent on circumstances of the moment. Author provides description of a number of experiments confirming this idea. Author also reviews mechanics of Supernatural monitoring with Carrots and Sticks used to achieve conformity. Typically sticks are by far more powerful factor.

Chapter 4 In Big Gods We Trust

This chapter explores connection between prosocial religions and trust with true believe being very significant factor in generating trust in individual honesty and integrity without which long distance trade and many other business transactions becoming if not impossible outright, then very complex and cumbersome. This explains to significant part distrust of atheists comparatively to believers in other gods, even if these gods are hostile.

Chapter 5 Freethinkers as Freeriders

This chapter is looking at contemporary situation when powerful governments, which take consistently increasing role in monitoring behavior and enforcing norms, challenge gods. There is also dependency here on levels of development of a country when more developed countries have relatively uncorrupted governments assuring that game is playing by the rules, while in underdeveloped countries governments are thoroughly corrupted leaving people only hope on gods for interventions to correct the wrongs.

Chapter 6 True Believers

This chapter looks at critical requirement to separate true believers from pretenders. Since true believers enjoy trust from other people who convinced that gods enforce good behavior, they have non-trivial opportunities for benefiting from deception. Author reviews solution for this problem: high cost of proving one’s true believes. This is achieved by high level of burdens from tithe to self-mutilation that true believers voluntary subject themselves to. This cost also facilitates feeling of belonging to chosen group that is strongly reinforced by music, dance, and overall pageantry of religious ceremonies.

Chapter 7 Gods for Big Groups

This is a bit of historical review starting with the first known large-scale religious artifact at Gobekli Tepe created by hunter-gatherers even before mass transition to agriculture. Author believes that it is evidence that big gods are not a product of agriculture, but rather a contributing factor to such transition. The discussion here also moves to specifics and differences between Gods of small groups and Big Gods of big groups. This difference is mostly in the nature of religious concerns, with Big Gods much more concerned about group cohesiveness and conditioning of individual to promote group interest first, rather than help individual. Correspondingly rituals become more group oriented and standardized and punishment more strict. Author also reviews history of supernatural policing of moral behavior that becomes a serious concern in big groups.

Chapter 8 The Gods of Cooperation and Competition

This chapter looks at religion as a tool to increase group evolutionary fitness by creating a moral community, supporting military effort in intergroup competition, maintain internal stability, and assure group growth by promoting high levels of fertility and attracting converts.

Chapter 9 From Religious Cooperation to Religious Conflict

This is about another side of religion – religious conflicts. Author sees it as a very complex process in which on one-side religions engender conflict because of their very nature to divide true believers from wrong believers, which is practically inseparable from conflict. On other hand they often promote tolerance and call to avoiding violent conflict. The final point in this chapter is that religion has inherently sacred views that could not possibly be negotiable and therefore contain seeds of conflict that due to the very fact of unacceptability of “false” believes could last practically forever.

Chapter 10 Cooperation without God

The final chapter is about possibility for societies do well without religion when monitoring and punishing transgressions roles are taken over by government that had become much more powerful with development of contemporary technology and bureaucracy. It now can be successful in controlling people in areas that governments of the past could not. At the end author analyzes various characteristics of atheism and concludes that, with prosperity typically intertwined with secularization of society, such society has better claim on future dominance. However they have demographic disadvantage since people in such secular societies care most about their own happiness even at the expense of creating and raising next generation, so they are typically in serious demographic decline, which opens vacuum for more religious group in societies to fill and take society as whole over.


I think that religions are a very valid and necessary tool for making society into one unified group capable to succeed in fight with another groups for resources in intergroup competition. It is also absolutely necessary and very effective tool for achieving internal cohesion in societies that depend on sacrificing some people’s live to provide for others being it military aristocracy, intellectual elite, or industrial management. However when society and technology move into situation when such sacrifices are not needed any more due to technology and knowledge that allow automate all processes not enjoyable for humans, proper behavior outside of established sphere of privacy can be automatically monitored, and military conquest becomes impossible due to weapons of mass annihilation, the religions themselves become redundant and are going to expire. As to demographic weakness of secular societies, the process of creating and rising the next generation in sufficient numbers could and probably will be based on joy and satisfaction that many people can obtain from this process, especially if many negative problems related to it: medical, financial, opportunities costs, and such would become things of the past.


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