Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ara Norenzayan

University of British Columbia

I start with two puzzles in human psychology and cultural history: 1) the rise of large-scale cooperation among strangers in the last twelve millennia, and 2) the spread of world religions with prosocial norms during the same period. I argue that these two developments were importantly linked. A package of culturally evolved religious beliefs and practices characterized by increasingly potent, moralizing supernatural agents, credible displays of faith, and other psychologically active elements conducive to social solidarity promoted large-scale cooperation, trust, and high fertility rates, often leading to success in intergroup competition, but also creating the potential for large-scale conflict between increasingly expanding and hierarchically organized groups. In turn, prosocial religious beliefs and practices spread and aggregated as these successful groups expanded, so that the overwhelming majority of humanity today are cultural descendants of world religions.


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