Why Religion Eventually Leads to Secularity: A Review of Big Gods

“Secular societies climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away,” says Ara Norenzayan in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Security breeds secularity. “There are indications that some societies with strong institutions and material well-being may have passed a threshold, no longer needing religion to sustain large-scale cooperation.”


Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict
by Ara Norenzayan; Princeton, 2013; 256 pages (Kindle); Source: Personal Library

In Big Gods, Norenzayan takes the reader through a path that shows how religions develop and foster cooperation, leading to the eventual “big gods” that dominate countries like the United States. “Watched people are nice people,” he writes. Big Gods do that watching and keep people in line long enough to build a secular system that takes over that role (e.g. Denmark). As he writes:

There is growing evidence showing that both in society and also in peoples’ minds, gods and governments occupy a similar niche. Big Gods reign supreme in places where government is corrupt and there is little faith in it. And when trust in government intensifies, religion loses its grip on society. There are at least three explanations for this. First, gods and governments both have surveillance capabilities that facilitate large-scale cooperation and trust. Second, they can both provide comfort in the face of adversity and suffering. Third, they both offer external sources of control and stability when a personal sense of control is under threat.

Norenzayan weaves in one convincing scientific study after another, leaving me (as a study junkie) highlighting about every page. The effects of prosocial gods is powerful and there is little doubt that we are in a place in history where it is uncertain where things will go from here, since we are—for the first time—entering a stage where governments can be these stabilizing forces.

Life expectancy and income levels increase, and with better nutrition and health care, infant mortality becomes a thing of the past. Moreover, with unemployment and retirement support, universal medical care, as well as poverty reduction strategies, people are rescued by social safety nets in times of trouble or uncertainty.

“In some parts of the world such as Northern Europe,” he adds, “especially Scandinavia, these institutions have precipitated religion’s decline by usurping its community-building functions. These societies with atheist majorities…[are]…some of the most cooperative, peaceful, and prosperous in the world.”

Where there is no need for big gods, the door is also opened to atheism. Norenzayan suggests four pathways to atheism and they are interesting. “Mind-blind atheism,” for example, can occur with individuals who have difficulty with grasping a theory of mind. “Religious believers intuitively think of their deities as personified beings with mental states,” he writes, “who anticipate and respond to human needs and deeds, and monitor their actions. Entering into a relationship with God therefore requires that people understand God’s mind.” This mind-blind atheism can occur, he suggests, among those who are autistic and may find it difficult to grasp the mental states of others. As a result, cognitive scientists see a correlation between autism and disbelief.

Another more common direction comes from analytical thinking. Studies show, according to Norenzayan, that “Religious belief is the brainchild of intuitive thinking, and one pathway to religious doubt goes through analytic thinking.” Several studies demonstrated that when participants were primed, analytic thinking produced less religious responses, and this did not seem to strongly correlate with the level of education or age or whether one was liberal or conservative. “Analytic thinking even explained decreases in religious belief since childhood,” he adds, “suggesting that analytic thinkers tend to lose their religious fervor even if they were raised in a religious environment.”

Analytic thinkers if they do endorse religious belief, show more unconventional and less fervent inclinations, such as the belief in a distant, nonintervening God (Deism), and the belief that the universe and God are identical (Pantheism).

Of course, not all people are encouraged to think analytically, all the time. So what are the results if they are? There are situations and “subcultures” where individuals are encouraged to think analytically much of the time.

These subcultures are called universities. And indeed, this link between analytic thought and disbelief might explain the overrepresentation of disbelievers among the more educated classes. Some of this is surely self-selection (atheists are drawn to higher education, particularly to science), but exposure to university education also in turn undermines religious belief.

This seems to connect with the high levels of non-affiliation and secularity found among college students in the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) by Trinity College (Hartford, CT) and The Center for Inquiry (CFI) in late 2013. It showed that college students are divided three ways on the subject of religion, with 31.8 percent self-identifying as religious, 32.4 percent as spiritual, and 28.2 percent as secular.

So will the religious or the secular win out in society? First, analytical thinking did not end religious inclinations, especially in times of trouble.

Chris Sibley and Joseph Bulbulia compared levels of religious faith before and after a devastating earthquake that hit Christ-church, New Zealand, on February 22, 2011, killing 185 people and causing extensive damage, including to the city’s landmark Anglican Cathedral. In the rest of the country, religious devotion declined a little between 2009 and 2011, consistent with an overall secularization trend that has been observed in New Zealand over the last half-century. However, among citizens who reported being directly affected by the earthquake, in that same period, devotion increased. As they put it, “where the church spires had fallen, faith soared.”

In other words, while analytical thinking spurred doubt, religion thrived in turmoil. “In a global analysis of 800 geographic regions in the world,” he writes, “people who are exposed to natural disasters (such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tropical storms) were found to be more religious, even after other factors, such as income, education, and denomination are taken into account.”

There are other unknown factors like reproduction. Studies show that—unlike secular families—the religious are good at making children and, as is often the case, these children become adherents.

The cultural success of prosocial religious groups is therefore aided in no small part by their reproductive success, and the more fundamentalist strains of a religious tradition are particularly good at the business of having children (although having children is one thing, and investing in children is a different matter).

So what does this mean for the future? Norenzayan ends Big Gods on a note of uncertainity. Studying the past is one thing, but “we don’t know enough” to predict the future, especially since the world is in a place its never been before.

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?

  • Christchurch, not Christ-church.

  • Lars

    “…especially since the world is in a place its never been before.”

    But then, that’s where it’s always been! Like being unable to step into the same river twice, the world will continue to change until something eventually destroys it. It’s interesting to me to see the gradual secularization among the U.S. youth you referenced above. This is a trend I have a hard time seeing reversed but do wonder if it ever achieves stasis, and at what percentages. Are we ultimately a 50-50 nation? 70-30? Or do we gradually mirror those northern European countries in our disbelief?

    It seems to me that religious belief may end up resembling a bell curve as it starts to outlive its utility and succumbs to naturalistic view (vs a nanny state). Or, who knows, perhaps it makes a big comeback when the going gets tough, as suggested by Revelation and/or “Contagion”! (“Melancholia”, even??) Anyhow, thank you once again for a wonderful, thoughtful book review!

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