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Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict [Hardcover]

Ara Norenzayan
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 25 2013

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.


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"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."--Publishers Weekly

"I found this book insightful, well-written, and to the point."--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

"The book is a breakthrough, and will undoubtedly influence scientific perspectives on religion and secularism. . . . 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."--Michael Blume, Evolution: This View of Life

"Once in a while, a whole field of research is pushed forward by a seminal work. Ara Norenzayan's Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict is one of those rare books bound to becoming a classic for a generation of colleagues and students."--Michael Blume, SciLogs

"This is an impressive work; it demonstrates how and why the Big Gods are still with us, and watching."--Reference & Research Book News

"I recommend it to readers interested in the relationships between religions, the non-religious, and nation states. It should be required reading for psychologists and sociologists."--John Harney, Magonia

"[T]his book is great value for the money: it provides energy, intriguing ideas and a joyous display of a fine mind, one that swoops and soars and frequently stops to preen, like some brightly coloured bird in an Edenic rainforest."--Donald Harman Akenson, Literary Review of Canada

"Norenzayan weaves in one convincing scientific study after another, leaving me (as a study junkie) highlighting about every page. . . . His thesis is fascinating and well worth a read (or two). Norenzayan is not prescribing a way to end religion or to suggest that one form of thinking over another is better, but to get at the underlying factors that bring a society from big gods to secularity. I'm sure any deeply held convictions about the nature of religion and disbelief will be challenged tremendously by Big Gods, and as any analytical thinker would probably say, why shouldn't they?"--Brandon G. Withrow, Discarded Image

"Ara Norenzayan's study Big Gods is an interesting study worthy to read."--Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Metapsychology

From the Inside Flap

"People love origin stories, and this is ours--a fascinating and accessible account of how Big Gods helped us make the leap from hunter-gatherers to gigantic and religiously diverse societies. But this book is not just about the past. Norenzayan gives us a nuanced account of secularism, and offers us some surprising tools we can use to create more ethical organizations and societies going forward."--Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

"Does God make us good? In this fascinating new book, Ara Norenzayan explores how the invention of Big Gods--powerful and omniscient moralizing deities--has transformed the world. Replete with insights about morality, cooperation, faith, atheism, and much more, Big Gods will change the way we think about human nature and human society."--Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

"Of all the topics forbidden debate in polite company, religion is the last taboo. This brave, lucid, balanced blend of compassion and science tackles our most cherished values and most intractable disputes. Big Gods sheds light on the cultural evolution of sacred watchers who arguably make us better humans. And it opens the door to explain how and when secular institutions can do the same. For all of us who worry about the role of religion in the modern world, this is a must-read, original milestone."--Susan T. Fiske, coauthor of Social Cognition: From Brains to Culture

"In this bold and important work, the brilliant young social scientist Ara Norenzayan offers a profound new perspective on religion and atheism, arguing that some gods were more effective than others at promoting trust and cooperation among strangers. The rich narrative ranges all over the world, covering not only religious people and the difference between big and little gods but also the puzzling durability of widespread prejudice against atheists. Packed with information extending from international social trends to findings from scientific experiments, this deeply thought-provoking book will change the way you understand the connection between religion and social life."--Roy F. Baumeister, coauthor of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

"This is by far the most accessible and comprehensive synthesis of the new social and cognitive science of religion. Ara Norenzayan combines ingenious cross-cultural experiments and judicious historical analysis to give an original evolutionary account of the civilization-creating idea of Big Gods. He also provides a compelling exploration of the ongoing global competition for humanity's heart and mind between the monotheisms and various forms of atheism that represent God's secular offspring, including the great ideologies of the modern era and perhaps science itself."--Scott Atran, author of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion

"In a time of heated debate about the origin and function of religion, Ara Norenzayan provides a much-needed, well-written argument based on extensive research. The data reveal how religion impacts human behavior. His view that an omniscient God is our own creation designed to deal with the problem of freeriders deserves much more attention. It brings faith closer to where Darwin thought it belonged, in the sphere of social life and cooperation."--Frans de Waal, author of The Bonobo and the Atheist

"This is a terrific book. Authoritative, clear, and written in a straightforward, entertaining style, it deals with a problem of great interest to a wide range of general readers and academics, including psychologists, anthropologists, historians, and sociologists."--Robert Boyd, coauthor of Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution


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Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Explaining the role of Big Gods to WEIRDs Nov. 3 2013
By nadia
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a fully paid up human services' professional member of WEIRD (defined by Dr. Norenzayan as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) I am constantly searching for academic publications that may help me understand my clients' behaviours and decision making processes. In the many decades of my professional life I have come to categorize my professional readings into two broad groups: dense academic and popular. The challenge that I have faced has been that the 'dense academic' writers have usually burdened me with their own jargon which may be easily understood in their own circles but which takes a great deal of patience for an interested WEIRD to wade through and decipher. Sometimes what I discover in such 'dense academic' writings is rewarding enough to justify my time and intellectual effort in reading them; however, most of the time I find that my efforts were wasted and that the dense writing that I worked through imparted little or no new information. I have generally no grand expectation of writings that I assign to the 'popular' category and so I am immune to being disappointed by this category.
'Big Gods: how religion transformed cooperation and conflict' has been that exceedingly rare gem of reading for me: an exceptionally well written, coherent and accessible academic book. Through diligently documented reviews and analyses of current research in a wide range of academic disciplines, Dr. Norenzayan argues that belief in a powerful god who is assumed to be aware of believers' behaviours has played an important and necessary role in policing human beings' ability to transact and cooperate with each other. The Big Gods have been essentially a powerful and necessary protective factor for humanity's evolution. Dr.
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3.0 out of 5 stars One atheist's opinion March 4 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
5 stars
As an atheist I have often wondered about the appeal of religion and why it is still so prevalent in the modern era. The author, Ara Norenzayan does an excellent job of explaining this mystery. A great read for any atheist that would like some insight into the minds of the religious.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Explaining the role of Big Gods to WEIRDs Nov. 7 2013
By nadia - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As a fully paid up human services' professional member of WEIRD (defined by Dr. Norenzayan as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) I am constantly searching for academic publications that may help me understand my clients' behaviours and decision making processes. In the many decades of my professional life I have come to categorize my professional readings into two broad groups: dense academic and popular. The challenge that I have faced has been that the 'dense academic' writers have usually burdened me with their own jargon which may be easily understood in their own circles but which takes a great deal of patience for an interested WEIRD to wade through and decipher. Sometimes what I discover in such 'dense academic' writings is rewarding enough to justify my time and intellectual effort in reading them; however, most of the time I find that my efforts were wasted and that the dense writing that I worked through imparted little or no new information. I have generally no grand expectation of writings that I assign to the 'popular' category and so I am immune to being disappointed by this category.
'Big Gods: how religion transformed cooperation and conflict' has been that exceedingly rare gem of reading for me: an exceptionally well written, coherent and accessible academic book. Through diligently documented reviews and analyses of current research in a wide range of academic disciplines, Dr. Norenzayan argues that belief in a powerful god who is assumed to be aware of believers' behaviours has played an important and necessary role in policing human beings' ability to transact and cooperate with each other. The Big Gods have been essentially a powerful and necessary protective factor for humanity's evolution. Dr. Norenzayan then moves on to examine how in the more advanced societies of our time social institutions such as the police and the judicial system have replaced the power of the omnipotent god: pro-social secular people may not believe in the wrath of god but as atheists they generally do believe in the rules of law of their societies. Dr. Norenzayan concludes that humanity has now reached a point of tension between atheists (especially in the advanced societies) and the numerous religious groups (predominantly in emerging societies) that will continue into the future. The very same tensions, of course, may co-exist in the same society as evidenced by the power and political persuasion of groups that are referred to as the Religious Right in USA and Canada.

The Big Gods has now raised a new question for this WEIRD: how to motivate and rehabilitate those who have rejected the Big Gods and secular laws? I shall continue to read about new research in the hope that Dr. Norenzayan represents a new trend among academic writers.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent & thougt-provoking Sept. 27 2013
By a reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Norenzayan has written a masterful examination of the question concerning why some religions are more 'successful' than others. This is a must-read to those interested in religion, historical change, and atheism. This is truly one of the best expositions that I have ever read.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Groundbreaking Book Nov. 11 2013
By Robert Levine - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
As a fellow academic, it is wonderful to find a colleague who is willing to probe the personal, rather than the political, impact of religion. Norenzayan is a highly respected social psychologist, perhaps best known for his provocative work on the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) bias in psychological research. He is also an established leader in the burgeoning,long-overdue study of the psychology of religion--within which this book opens an entire new vision. I found the book a provocative read from beginning to end. It is also extremely well-written. I really think it is a groundbreaking book. Very highly recommended for anyone interested in this topic.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Erudite Nov. 19 2013
By shannon hamersley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Dr. Norenzayan delivers a tour de force in his brilliant consideration of the evolution of religion and human societies. He states his treatise clearly and then elegantly constructs it from the ground up with a detailed review of the academic literature. A highly stimulating and enjoyable work. You will not be disappointed.
5.0 out of 5 stars "Big Gods": It's for the scholar in us all! Jan. 27 2014
By Tommy Coleman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In Big Gods, Dr. Ara Norenzayan applies the historical thought of Hume and Durkheim to offer up a “third path” taking into account both “believing and belonging” to provide a view of religion that is the product of a “powerful combination of genetic and cultural evolution”. This book is easily digestible for the ‘uninitiated’ and those new to the scientific study of religion, yet sophisticated and more than interesting enough to be found on the shelf of any professor emeritus.

Although Norenzayan’s thesis is centered on ‘religion’, a large part of the book is devoted to research on atheism and the position of nonbelievers in society today. This is a welcome addition in a day and age where one must speak of not just belief in God, but the absence of such belief. Throughout, he weaves the thread of both secular and religious societal forces together to tell a tale of how religion with big gods transformed conflict and cooperation, but how secular alternatives are on the rise and present a highly promising means with which to sustain and further advance such cooperation and hopefully stem conflict. While the existence of ‘big gods’ likely falls outside the purview of the sciences, the existence of Ara Norenzayan’s 'Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict' falls squarely within. Buy the Kindle copy for your tablet and a hard copy for your bookshelf!
-Tommy Coleman
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