Gods as ‘Watchers’ Who Monitor Our Behavior
What purpose is served by belief in God? Ara Norenzayan gives one answer in his book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict.
When we claim to have such a belief, we imply we believe we’re being watched. By asserting our belief in God, Norenzayan says, we send the signal to other people that we are less likely to lie, cheat, or steal because we fear that we will face supernatural consequences.
Norenzayan says in Chapter 1:
“There is nothing evolutionarily puzzling about genetically unrelated individuals cooperating with each other, as long as these acts are mutually beneficial, individuals can track each other’s reputations over time, and cheaters are detected and socially excluded, or threatened with punishment. This is known as reciprocity, which governs much of our lives defined by friends, neighbors, and allies.”
Belief in Gods Motivates People to Work Together
Big Gods did not always seem necessary. In “intimate, transparent groups” like hunter-gatherer societies, “encountering kin is common, and reputations can be monitored and social transgressions are difficult to hide. Perhaps that’s why spirits and gods in these groups typically are not involved in the moral lives of people.” In the last 12,000 years or so, “culture diffusion, population expansions, and conquest” spread the idea of Big Gods.
Today, however, these Big Gods are the most popular kind of god. Why? Norenzayan’s answer: They “watch, intervene, and demand hard-to-fake loyalty displays,” and by these methods, they enable “large groups of anonymous strangers” to work together.
The Evolution of Religion
Starting with “ordinary cognitive functions,” humans developed supernatural beliefs as a sort of “evolutionary by-product.” We may believe that our mind is separate from our body, for example, and this may feel like a basic intuition, but it is probably a later development. Such religious intuitions “support widely held religious beliefs and related practices, such as gods, spirits, and souls of various types and characteristics.”