An Outline of Norenzayan’s ‘Big Gods’

In his book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, Dr. Ara Norenzayan addresses two “puzzles” about human existence.  First, how were large-scale societies able to develop?  That is, how did small, tight-knit communities develop into the large and relatively anonymous societies that exist today?  Second, with all the potential flavors of supernatural agents, why are “Big Gods” a common theme dominating many religious traditions?  The concept of “Big Gods” refers to the omniscient and omnipotent higher powers that are prevalent across many major religious traditions today.

Norenzayan (2013) offers a cohesive, well-informed answer to these two seemingly separate questions.  Drawing from a large base of literature, from social psychology to cultural anthropology to behavioral economics, the central argument is that belief in “Big Gods” paved the way for small groups of people to develop into large-scale societies with powerful supernatural agents fostering the type of cooperation necessary for such groups to be successful.  As a result, successful societies of people who believed in “Big Gods” were able to dominate the cultural landscape, “winning out” over other religions.

The purpose of this post is to briefly describe eight principles that are central to Norenzayan’s (2013) new book and to complement his recent RSP interview with Thomas J. Coleman.  Dr. Norenzayan provides a broad range of supporting evidence for the following eight principles that supports his thesis (see pg. xiii):

1.     Watched people are nice people

2.     Religion is more in the situation than in the person

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven

4.     Trust people who trust God

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups

8.     Religious groups cooperate in order to compete


Principle One: Watched People are Nice People

The first principle suggests that people are nicer, or act in more prosocial ways, when they are being watched.  An important caveat is that people act in such prosocial ways even when they think they are being watched – such as by a watchful God.  Various studies have demonstrated that even in the mere presence of eyes, people tend to act cooperatively – dubbed as the “eye effect.”  For example, Ernest-Jones, Nettle, and Bateson (2011) found that anti-littering posters were more effective in reducing actual littering behavior if the poster included a set of eyes.  Related to God as a watchful agent, Gervais and Norenzayan (2012) found experimental evidence that, when primed with the concept of God, people responded in more socially desirable ways (see Study 3).  Thus, a concept of God as an all-seeing agent who monitors human behavior should help to foster cooperation within groups of people.  Importantly, cooperative societies are successful societies.


Principle Two: Religion is More in the Situation than in the Person

Norenzayan’s (2013) second principle is that individuals’ religiosity, or at least expression of religiosity, is largely shaped by the situation.  This principle is counter to the ways that many researchers and religious scholars tend to view religion – that is, religion as a relatively stable characteristic that individuals bring with them across situations.  However, Norenzayan provides empirical evidence that demonstrates how the influence of religion on behavior is qualified by the power of the situation.  For example, Norenzayan discusses, both in his book and in the interview, the “Sunday Effect” whereby some religious people behave in greater accord with their religious beliefs on Sundays.  Such religious behavior includes donating more money and being less likely to engage in “sinful” acts (e.g., viewing pornography).  Thus, as one’s religion becomes more salient, religious individuals are likely to align their religious beliefs with their behavior “in the moment.”


Principle Three: Hell is Stronger than Heaven

The third principle underlying Dr. Norenzayan’s argument is that Hell is stronger than heaven.  In one study, Shariff and Norenzayan (2011) found that general beliefs in God did not predict undergraduate students’ engagement in cheating behavior.  However, when belief in God was distilled into belief in a mean God (i.e., vengeful, and punishing) versus belief in a nice God (i.e., compassionate and forgiving), participants endorsing a mean-God concept were less likely to cheat relative to nice-God supporters.  Thus, there appears to be evidence that  “mean Gods make good people” (p. 44).  Having a God that people both love and fear helps motivate people to behave in desirable, prosocial, and cooperative ways.


Principle Four: Trust People Who Trust God

Since the early works of Allport and Ross (1967), researchers have been interested in the relationship between religion and attitudes toward out-groups.  The theoretical and empirical work in this area is complicated.  On the one hand, religion could foster positive attitudes toward members of out-groups.  Many religious faiths share basic tenets such as loving one’s “neighbor” and even one’s enemies, treating people of all kinds fairly and compassionately (Terry, 2007).  On the other hand, religion could foster intergroup hostility and intolerance (Silberman, 2005).  Such hostility is likely when the out-group violates the value systems of one’s religion (Whitley, 2009).  For example, atheism runs against the very grain of religious worldviews, which poses a particular threat for religious individuals.  People largely distrust atheists (Gervais, 2011), and privately and even publically reject such individuals (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006).  According to this fourth principle, religion serves as one rather important marker on which to base trust.


Principle Five: Religious Actions Speak Louder than Words

The fifth principle proposes that religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words.  This principle addresses a potential problem facing many religious groups: that some people might feign their religiousness to be part of the in-group and reap rewards in a selfish, free-rider manner.  With costly behaviors associated with a religion, however, religious hypocrites have a harder time faking their religious commitments.  Proscription of certain dietary practices and adherence to strict marital and sexual practices, for example, helps to monitor religious adherents.  As Norenzayan (2013) suggests, such strict religious behaviors keep possible free-riders at check, which ultimately helps to maintain group solidarity.


Principle Six: Unworshipped Gods are Impotent Gods

Norenzayan’s (2013) sixth principle is linked to the prior fifth principle.  Without committed followers, who demonstrate potentially costly behaviors such as sacrifices of “time, effort, and wealth” and behavioral restrictions (e.g., dietary restrictions), Gods lose the ability to attract followers (pg. 111).  Demonstrations of costly behaviors, though, give rise to powerful Gods that have the potential to draw in religious converts.  As religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words, high levels of expressed commitment breeds powerful Gods.


Principle Seven: Big Gods for Big Groups

Studies among small-scale, hunter-gather groups demonstrate that belief in “Big Gods” is the exception rather than the rule.  Such small groups, like the ones from which modern-day societies developed, believe in Gods that rarely interfere with human affairs (Norenzayan, 2013).  As groups increase in size and social complexity, however, belief in “Big Gods,” or moralizing Gods, increases (Roes & Raymond, 2003).  Many large and industrialized societies around the world believe in Gods that are all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally-concerned.  The relationship between the size of groups and tendencies for belief in “Big Gods” supports Norenzayan’s (2013) seventh principle of “Big Gods” for “Big Groups.”


Principle Eight: Religious Groups Cooperate in Order to Compete

The last principle proposes that prosocial religions have “won out” over other types of religions throughout history.  Such religions, with “group-beneficial norms that suppress selfishness and increase social cohesion,” have come to dominate the cultural landscape today (Norenzayan, 2013, p. 147).  Evidence exists demonstrating that religions with “Big Gods” facilitate group stability and eventual longevity.  Additionally, such religions have been successful in gaining converts though multiple strategies (e.g., conquests) and have propagated large numbers of followers through reproductive successes.  It is through processes of cultural evolution that we have had a few religious groups, and religious characteristics more generally (i.e., belief in “Big Gods”), dominate across different cultures and societies.

The book Big Gods ends with a timely discussion regarding the rise of atheism, or non-religion more generally, in several industrialized societies (e.g., Sweden).  Norenzayan (2013) argues that, under certain social conditions, countries might successfully adopt worldviews that are less influenced by religions.  Such secular societies will have “climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away” (p. 172).  Effective secular authorities in such nonreligious countries seem to have replaced religion as a motivator for cooperation.  In these societies, religion no longer serves as a characteristic by which to judge a person’s trustworthiness.  Indeed, recent research highlights the role that secular authorities (e.g., police, government, ect.) play in reducing distrust toward atheists (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Norenzayan & Gervais, 2013).  What remains unclear is whether cultural pressures will favor both secular and religious societies equally, if religious societies will continue to dominate, or if secular societies will grow in appeal, eventually replacing “Big Gods” with “Big Secular Institutions.”


Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 5(4), 432.

Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists as ‘other’: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review71, 211-234.

Ernest-Jones, M., Nettle, D., & Bateson, M. (2011). Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(3), 172-178.

Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: Perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 543-556.

Gervais, W. M. & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/0956797611429711.

Gervais, W. M., & Norenzayan, A. (2012) Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 298-302.

Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, A., & Gervais, W. M. (2013). Secular rule of law erodes believers’ political intolerance of atheists. Religion, Brain & Behavior, (ahead-of-print), 1-12.

Roes, F. L., & Raymond, M. (2003). Belief in moralizing gods. Evolution and human behavior, 24(2), 126-135.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods make good people: Different views of God predict cheating behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85-96.

Silberman, I. (2005). Religious violence, terrorism, and peace: A meaning system analysis. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of religion and spirituality (pp. 529–549). New York: Guilford.

Terry, H. (2007). Golden rules and silver rules of humanity: Universal wisdom of civilization. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.

Whitley, B. Jr. (2009). Religiosity and attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: A meta-analysis. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion19, 21-38.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion


Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?


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  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
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[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.