Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Technological Godlings

The ever-reliable and trustworthy Ronald Bailey at Reason magazine has more on the review article in Science, "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality" by University of British Columbia social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim F. Shariff, that I mentioned the other day. Bailey includes links to more information on the underlying studies the article reviewed and fleshes out the rationales for the purported effect of religion in encouraging generosity and honesty within the group.

After noting that "numerous studies [show] that people behave better when they think that someone may be watching them," Bailey lays out the authors' contention:

"The cognitive awareness of gods is likely to heighten prosocial reputational concerns among believers, just as the cognitive awareness of human watchers does among believers and non-believers alike," hypothesize the authors. But supernatural oversight is even better because it "offers the powerful advantage that cooperative interactions can be observed even in the absence of social monitoring." ...

"Large groups, which until recently lacked institutionalized social-monitoring mechanisms, are vulnerable to collapse because of high rates of freeloading. If unwavering and pervasive belief in moralizing gods buffered against such freeloading, then belief in such gods should be more likely in larger human groups where the threat of freeloading is most acute," suggest the authors. In fact, a cross cultural analysis of 186 societies confirms this prediction: The larger a society, the more likely its members believe in deities that are concerned about human morality.

Small hunter-gatherer bands or subsistence farming villages don't need such mechanisms, since they are intimate enough that "it's pretty easy to keep track of just how cooperative your neighbors are."

As I mentioned before, the article's authors posit that modern societies have devised secular replacements for morality-tracking gods, including laws, courts and effective policing. Bailey adds that:

[T]he modern world is headed toward a transparent society in which social monitoring will be nearly as omnipresent as that of a hunter-gatherer band. Increasingly sophisticated information and communication technologies will enable anyone to assess your reputation for prosociality with a few mouse clicks. Sky Big Brother is being outsourced to the Web.

Am I the only one who thinks that might not be any better?

Better? It'll be much worse. More and more I'm glad I'm in my late 60s and won't be around for the worst of it.
I'm hoping Bailey's wrong and it won't come to that ... I'm just not very hopeful.
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