September 6, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Did Man Create God, or Vice Versa?

Another theory is making the rounds that social groups invented moralizing gods to keep people under control.

Once upon a time, hunter-gatherers lived in small groups that were able to check on each other. But then a mutation happened, and people started to live in large groups that were too big for everyone to know everyone.  As towns grew into cities, tribal chieftans needed ways to keep non-cooperators from getting out of hand, so they invented moralizing gods. And thus, religion became adaptive by natural selection.

This is the theory Ara Norenzayan has been working on for the last few years (see 11/09/09, “Darwinizing of Religion Continues” and 12/06/11, “The Science of Atheism”). A Lebanese-born American sociologist very experienced with his native country’s sectarian warfare fueled by religious fervor, Norenzayan is now working to legitimize his theory with scientific-sounding data to support the thesis of his 2013 book, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. With compadre Edward Slingerland, he is seeking out religion experts in the humanities departments to “check boxes” on a new “Database of Religious History.”

Science Magazine reporter Lizzie Wade is all over Norenzayan’s theory like white on rice (see “Birth of the Moralizing Gods” and “Feature: Why Big Societies Need Big Gods“).

As societies grow larger, such intensive social monitoring becomes impossible. So there’s nothing stopping you from taking advantage of the work and goodwill of others and giving nothing in return. Reneging on a payment or shirking a shared responsibility have no consequences if you’ll never see the injured party again and state institutions like police forces haven’t been invented yet. But if everyone did that, nascent large-scale societies would collapse. Economists call this paradox the free rider problem. How did the earliest large-scale societies overcome it?

In some societies, belief in a watchful, punishing god or gods could have been the key, Norenzayan believes. As he wrote in Big Gods, “Watched people are nice people.” Belief in karma—which Norenzayan calls “supernatural punishment in action”—could have had a similar psychological effect in the absence of actual gods, a proposition his colleagues are investigating in Asia.

Wade can certainly point to a variety of “moralizing gods” from ancient Egypt to modern Buddhism and Mormonism. It’s unquestionable that many of these beliefs hold powerful sway over their adherents. Denyse O’Leary, writing at Uncommon Descent, points to other cases, however, that do not follow this pattern:

Trouble is, if we look at the development of some of the world’s most significant and largest religions, we don’t see that at all. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called Abrahamic religions, in that their basic assumptions can be traced back to a single family living in the desert in what is now called Israel. They weren’t trying to run anything, just to make some sense of their own lives.

Buddhism started as a former prince heading a band of wandering monks. They did not have big plans to run everything; they had discussions about how to make do with the fewest possessions possible.

Of course there were religions developed for the express purpose of running big societies; ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religion come to mind. But their gods were not necessarily moral, they’re long gone, and they left no successors.

In any event, the religions that survived often invert the beliefs and standards of Big Ideas, Big Politics, Big Guns, and Big Bucks.

Big Science, she concludes, can only explain small gods. What society would ever invent a self-sacrificing Messiah who saves by trusting in him, not by works? Why would it start among a few fishermen with no power over their social order—in fact, at odds with it for centuries?

Materialistic Morality

Norenzayan’s theory also suffers from slipperiness about what constitutes “moral.” He seems to equate morality with whatever promotes virtue and punishes selfishness and cruelty. That’s hard to reconcile with Islamic jihadists who try to cause pain and death to as many people as possible to get selfish sexual rewards in the afterlife. It also doesn’t explain the totalitarian societies built on atheism.

What is “virtue” anyway, and why should it be labeled “moral”, when modern secularists write books on the benefits of being bad? New Scientist allows author Richart Stephens to defend his thesis in his new book Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad.  But calling something bad presupposes a standard of morality.

It’s well documented that evolutionists view human morality as merely an advanced form of biological altruism—the same kind of social cooperation that can be seen in amebas. Bacteria do it (Science Daily). Amebas do it (Current Biology). Ants do it (PhysOrg). Why should we be surprised that people show altruistic cooperation? Altruism is simpler than we thought, Science Daily says, based on Caltech eggheads doing game theory. Morality? Just a “complex interplay between neural, socioenvironmental, and behavioral facets” you can measure via brain waves, PNAS says. This makes it a fluid mixture of heredity and environment, untied to any absolute standard.


Despite the characterization that science and religion are different realms, Big Science often strays out of its realm. PhysOrg mentions a new book that claims that international efforts to “get religion right” are doing more harm than good, contributing to the very divisions they are meant to overcome. This doesn’t provide confidence in the expertise of secular materialists.

In a worldview essay in Nature, David M. Lodge uses recent quotes from the Pope that “faith and science can find common ground” on matters of environmentalism and climate science. One thing he says might give a breath of fresh air to nature-loving Christians:

As a Protestant scientist, I am distressed to see my faith twisted into support for such short-sighted extremism. Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, once said: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Like Pope Francis, he understood the importance of loving and tending the gift of creation.

Nevertheless, Lodge’s respect for the consensus implies that religion must bow before the throne of science. Cases in point are evolution and climate change. Although he derides the polarization fostered by atheists like Richard Dawkins, he favors the Catholic position on evolution over the Protestant one. But why is he even going there in a science journal?

Strictly speaking, the realm of science is natural phenomena, not morality or religion. Calling religion a natural phenomenon, or a product of natural selection, undermines science itself. The same mindless forces that make religion supposedly adaptive also could be used to explain why scientists make claims about evolution.

By committing the self-refuting fallacy, Norenzayan (and those who follow him) has undermined his claims and shown himself to be a false prophet. Don’t be deceived; the “database of religious history” is a prop to distract attention. There is nothing objective about the check boxes in his interview forms. The way the questions are worded, the selection of experts, and the force-fitting of answers into yes-or-no pigeonholes are all theory-laden. Why is his theory self-refuting? If you are a regular reader, try explaining it in your own words before continuing.

Here’s the reason: the same evolutionary forces that he uses to describe religion could also be used to describe his own scientism. Because if humans are nothing more than the products of adaptive forces, there is no such thing as reason or morality. Writing a science paper as if it is true, trying to be honest with one’s arguments, is a fool’s errand if we are merely creatures whose behaviors are controlled by mindless forces acting on selfish genes. Furthermore, if moralizing gods are products of adaptive evolution, what does that make him? Poorly adapted! Less fit! Maybe he should join the Christians to pursue the survival of the fittest. Short circuit!

If you watched carefully, you noticed Norenzayan filching from the Christian smorgasbord of virtues to make his point: he had to steal standards of morality. How can he say that social cohesion and a stable society are good? That’s a moral judgment. An evolutionist follows the Stuff Happens Law. On that standard, extinction is as moral as survival. So an ecosystem collapses. Who cares? If the evolutionist retorts that he is not claiming a result is moral or not, just whether it survives to be observed, self-refutation still crouches at the door. How can he trust his observations? How can he trust his mind, if it is a product of material forces?

We could also jest with him about opposite outcomes. If moralizing gods are necessary for social cohesion of large populations, why don’t starlings, anchovies or bacterial biofilms hold religious services? Why do loners like male grizzlies do just as well as herd animals? If all Norenzayan can say is Stuff Happens, we’re not impressed.

The number of exceptions to his theory also cause it to collapse. Perhaps he can point to North Korea as an example of a “cult of personality” that serves as a moralizing influence (i.e., defend the Dear Leader or get tortured and killed). But he cannot explain the staunch atheist dictatorships, from the French Revolution to modern communist regimes, that have tried to build their morality on reason without any moralizing god. Norenzayan gives us a good illustration of why the Bible constantly warns against false prophets. He is one.

As the alternative to Norenzayan’s collapsed theory, we present the converse. Man didn’t create moralizing gods; the perfectly-moral God created man. Man rebelled, and his sinful heart was darkened. His only thought was evil continually. His heart was filled with violence. His bent is to eliminate the true God from his thinking. For instance, he tries to explain away what he knows about God via nature (Romans 1:20-21) and conscience (Romans 2-3) by inventing stories about morality that are “falsely called knowledge” (I Timothy 6:20-21).

There is also a real devil in rebellion against God. His obsession is to turn people away from the truth. One of his best methods is false religion: trapping people in systems of works under powerful leaders. The confusion of religions feeds the notion that there is no true path back to the true God. It is there, but it is a narrow way surrounded by noise and distractions. That’s why there are so many religions about false gods, moralizing or otherwise.

But the Creator God did not leave himself without witness: in nature (Acts 14:15-18), in conscience, and in special revelation. We have the Bible, God’s inerrant word, and we have Jesus Christ the Son of God, who revealed the true God and proved it by many miracles, capped with his death and resurrection—an act that also opened the way for every man, woman and child to be redeemed (“bought back”) from slavery to sin.

This explains Norenzayan’s attempted escape from the truth into the wallows of self-refuting quicksand. If he complains that it’s impossible to pick which “moralizing god” is the true God, Jesus left him a test he can apply with empirical confidence as did Blaise Pascal and Francis Bacon: “By their fruits you shall know them.”


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  • Harrold says:

    “Because if humans are nothing more than the products of adaptive forces, there is no such thing as reason or morality.”

    That’s true, because if we were just biological machines/lumps of meat walking around responding/reacting to our environment we would have no free will to be able to make a choice between doing good or evil anyway. Logically, morality is irrelevant to an entity that is nothing more than a biological machine (e.g. microbes, insects) that is simply swept along by or reacts to everything around it.

    But in reality we do have a free will which we use to make choices between doing right or wrong (or many other kinds of choices), by which we can, independently of the surrounding environment, steer our lives, which in in turn means that we are more than just lumps of meat walking around. Any being that can see the big picture and make choices accordingly is more than just a lump of meat.

    So it is no good the materialist/atheist trying to tell us that we are just evolved physical machines (and that we will cease to exist when we die), because the fact that we have a free will tells us that we are not just physical but also spirit/mind/conscience (which initiates the thoughts which the physical body then responds to).

  • Vlad says:

    Thank you for another great article. Many times, when I talk to atheists on YouTube and other forums, I have to point out that some atheist scientists and philosophers publicly conclude that many evils (as understood by majority of people) are actually evolutionary beneficial; evils such as lie, murder, rape, etc. You’ve mentioned that before, but it is difficult to trace them all. Do you have a single article that mentions and references all “evils-as-understood-by-consistent-evolutionists”? I’d appreciate the help.

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