April 10, 2019

One way of categorising religion is the distinction between polytheism (belief in many gods) and monotheism (belief in one god). But according to a fascinating article in The Economist, some scholars of comparative religion make a distinction between the gods that watch over small societies and those that watch over larger, more complex societies.

The latter kind – the ‘Big Gods’, as the article’s anonymous author calls them – can feature in polytheistic or monotheistic belief systems; what they have in common is that they are perceived as a “supernatural ‘eye in the sky’ who cares whether people do right by others”. Most of the main religions in the world today fall into this category. The gods of smaller, less complex societies – the deities of tribal mythology – “tend to demand only that people show deference to them”:

“One theory holds that this is because small societies do not need a supernatural policeman. If everyone knows everyone else, antisocial elements are easily managed. But as societies grow, and especially as they absorb ethnically and culturally diverse groups through conquest, a different policing mechanism is needed. What could be better than an all-seeing eye that enforces co-operation between friends and strangers alike?”

Further reading
How Africa is converting China

By Graham Tomlin

But which came first, the development of big societies or belief in ‘Big Gods’?

The article summarises a comparative study led by Harvey Whitehouse of Oxford University, which concludes that in almost all parts of the world, “Big Gods appeared about 100 years after a society took a leap forward in complexity, with populations in the region of 1m”.

So big societies first, then Big Gods:

“If Dr Whitehouse and his colleagues are correct, today’s religions did not create modernity but, in the past at least, they held it together.”

Of course, contemporary western scholarship doesn’t really do God as a starting assumption, let alone as the explanation for observable religious phenomena. It is, therefore, predisposed to functional explanations of religion – God made in man’s image, not the other way round.

But leaving that aside, and assuming the historical correctness of the claim that belief in Big Gods usually emerges only after big societies become established, might there be an alternative to the functional explanation? Here’s one hypothesis:

Whether or not one believes in the reality of a ‘Big God’, the idea of a divine being who is beyond our ability to fully comprehend has always been out there. Crucially, the jumping-off point for our conception of what we can’t comprehend (and thus can only have faith in) is what we can comprehend. For instance, one can’t believe in an afterlife without a concept of death; nor can one believe in a creator without a concept of nothingness.

Further reading
Why God needs skin in the game

By Giles Fraser

So, if smaller, simpler societies had no concept of a Big God who cares about the justice of complex social relationships, is that mainly because they had no immediate need of such a belief system? Or because they had no concept of complex social relationships (having never experienced them)? Surely, it is not until these structures emerged that human beings could conceive of how God might be greater than – and set the standards for – such a society. People may always have had an inkling of the bigness and beyondness of the ultimate realities, but when it comes to articulating that intuition into a formal system of belief, developments run only just ahead of human experience.

Another complication is that when big societies do arrive at a Big God belief system they don’t always do so in the same way – something that has big consequences for their development.

Over on his blog, Branko Milanovic writes about a very relevant book, The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama:

“There is one key idea… If you wish to have a functional political order that enables economic growth and gives people freedom from arbitrariness of the sovereign or from oppression by their peers, you need three components: (i) a strong state, (ii) rule of law, and (iii) accountability.”

According to Milanovic, Fukuyama makes the case that religion – of the Big God variety – had a key part to play in achieving the rule of law. While a “strong state is needed to provide public goods” like “defense against external attack”, its power also needs to be placed within limits:

“Religions, according to Fukuyama, were useful in producing the rule of law because they placed the sovereign under one higher law: divine. This was the case in Islam (Umayyads, Abbasids and later Ottomans and Memluks), India thanks to Buddhism, and Europe thanks to Christianity (or rather mostly thanks to Catholicism).”

This kind of religion needs to be more than functional – a mere subroutine of civilisation. Rather, it needs to be seen as beyond and above and greater than even the highest levels of human society.

Further reading
How Africa is converting China

By Christopher Rhodes

It is argued that China – an unusually early example of a strong state – is also notable for the “absence of a codified religion with its divinely-ordained rules”. This doesn’t mean that China is a civilisation without religion or sophisticated systems of moral philosophy (think Taoism and Confucianism for a start, or the influence of Buddhism), but that these did not become politically established as a source of authority over the whole of society including the ruling class.

Therefore what perpetuated the Chinese state was “rule by law” not “rule of law” – a distinction that helps explain differences in outlook between the Chinese and Western systems of government to this day. In the West, subjecting the ruling class to a higher law, thus constraining their power from above, cleared the way for constraining state power from below i.e. through democracy.

But with Western civilisation abandoning its collective belief in a higher power and a greater truth, all we now have are the constraints from below. Whether democracy is strong enough to do the job on its own is something we’re about to find out.