Research case study: Religion as surveillance and moral enforcement

The basic observation that religion produces morally obedient citizens has been long advanced by scholars who are either proponents for or against religion, such as Voltaire and Marx, and those who have sought to understand the primary social functions of religion, such as Evans-Pritchard. Social psychologist Ara Norenzayan and colleagues draw upon experimental and cross- cultural data. They propose that powerful, omniscient interventionist deities are concerned with regulating the moral behavior of humans, for example, as found in monotheistic and polytheistic religions, which are a critical factor among several in the scaling up of cooperation in large-scale societies.

Norenzayan presents the following two observations and a connection between the two in the form of an argument. The first observation concerns the rapid rise in large-scale anonymous societies. For most of human history, people lived in small bands of foragers, yet today most humans live in large- scale anonymous societies. This change happened rapidly and recently, over the past 12,000 years. Even though humans and primates tend to cooperate with small groups, large-scale cooperation is unique to humans. Humans that cooperate often reap many more benefits than those who do not.

As an illustration, think for a moment of the many benefits to you by being a member of modern-day society. Nevertheless, such large-scale cooperation is also tricky without surveillance since cooperation relies to no small extent on trust, and not all people are trustworthy. As another simple illustration, consider any group project that you have been involved in, there always tend to be students who do not contribute much but get the same grade, aka social loafers. One way to monitor what people are doing and to ensure compliance with rules is through social surveillance, such as courts and police. Yet, these have developed somewhat recently and only for some places, especially more prosperous nations, although the administration of justice is also deemed unreliable and ineffective by many.

The second observation concerns the rise in moralizing gods. Throughout human history, in small-scale societies, gods, and other supernatural agents tended to have limited powers and limited moral concern. They demanded the right practice in behaviors, such as burial rites and sacrifice, but people represented these behaviors as linked to the selfish intention of the agents. Supernatural agents such as gods cared little about how people treated each other and mostly about how they were treated. Yet paralleling the rise in large-scale societies was the rise in so-called “Big Gods,” omnipotent moralizing agents with the power to punish moral wrongdoers. Big Gods spread so successfully that the vast majority of the world’s believers belong to religions with such gods.

The central argument proposed by Norenzayan and colleagues is that the spread of prosocial religions (i.e. religions that come with moral stipulations and consequences) over the last twelve millennia has been an important shaper of large-scale societies, characterized by cooperation and moral obedience among massive anonymous groups. As Norenzayan puts it, “watched people are nice people,” and a range of naturalistic and lab experiments have demonstrated that the expectation of monitoring and accountability increases prosocial tendencies.71 Although why we have these tendencies in the first place is another issue.

One compelling explanation is by evolutionary biologist Dominic Johnson, who argues that fear of supernatural punishment, like other forms of punishment, is not an accidental by-product of other evolved mechanisms but is, in fact, adaptive and has been favored by evolution for this reason.72 Research has also demonstrated that people in societies, and societies, with Gods that are more moralizing, are even more cooperative.73 74

Norenzayan and colleagues are not proposing that religion, or even Big Gods, is necessary for abidance to rules and, more specifically, large-scale cooperation among strangers. Instead, they are proposing that Big Gods are a very efficient and successful means to achieve this. As we already mentioned, secular societies function well without religion as a source of moral authority and enforcement. However, they tend to rely on other forms of social policing (i.e. threats and reminders of law-enforcement). Of course, while Big Gods may be exceptionally efficient at inducing cooperation, religion has been (and in many parts of the world, still is) associated with morality in ways that ensure obedience to a set of rules as well as justifying punishment for wrongdoers.

Some scholars provide critiques and alternative accounts of the relationship between the rise of Big Gods and the parallel rise in large-scale societies as mainly due to the social monitoring effect of deities. Some have questioned the conceptual clarity of arguments based on divine punishment.75 Others contend that the cultural prevalence of moralizing God concepts does not result from the fact that they promote cohesive behaviors among groups. For example, evolutionary psychologist Nicholas Baumard and colleagues propose that other features of the representation of god concepts make them memorable and transmissible. Such as applying the fairness or proportionality bias, the tendency to represent our actions and consequences as having proportionate consequences, to invisible agents. Baumard and colleagues also contend that the Big God’s account underestimates the role of increased affluence in facilitating large-scale moralizing religions.76 As we discuss in Chapter 10 (Rituals, Part 2), anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse and colleagues have argued that ritual practices were more important than the belief in moralizing gods to the initial rise of social complexity.77 Norenzayan and colleagues have rebutted these claims, proposing that differences in how the data were prepared resulted in White- house and colleagues’ findings,78 and so, the debate continues.


  • 1 In your own words, summarize the claims the researchers are making.
  • 2 What do you think demarks this research as typical of the CSR approach to religion?
  • 3 Do you agree or disagree with the claims the author is making and the critiques?
  • 4 What do you think are the real-world implications of this theory on debates about religion and morality?

Further reading

  • 1 Norenzayan, Ara. Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • 2 Norenzayan, Ara, Azim F. Shariff, Will M. Gervais, Aiyana K. Willard, Rita A. McNamara, Edward Slingerland, and Joseph Henrich. “The cultural evolution of prosocial religions.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39 (2016).
  • 3 Purzycki, Benjamin Grant, Coren Apicella, Quentin D. Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Rita Anne McNamara, Aiyana K. Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich. “Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment, and the expansion of human sociality.” Nature 530, no. 7590 (2016): 327.
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