In Big Gods (2013, Princeton University Press), Ara Norenzayan addresses the puzzle of ultrasociality, how unrelated strangers are able to combine into communities numbering millions of people. His answer: religions with Big Gods scared people into compliance with moral laws – then, Big Governments replaced them.

Large-scale communities developed among people who believed they were being watched by supernatural policemen. In them, a sincere demonstration of belief in a Big God was a positive indication a stranger could be trusted – because he was being watched. The Big Gods were only gazumped with the arrival of “evolutionarily novel” secular institutions: police agencies, independent law courts and human rights laws.

Thereafter, Big Government was responsible for watching. For would-be evil-doers, fears of justice from the local magistrate became a more immediate threat than potential judgements in the afterlife.

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Norenzayan points to the modern phenomenon in which some communities, for example, Denmark, have become almost completely detached from religion yet still function as successful societies. In regions like Scandinavia especially, Norenzayan suggests trustful societies based on secularism may be self-sustaining – which is good, considering the unsustainability of other secular societies, like North Korea.

Norenzayan in fact claims that “monotheisms laid the groundwork for the modern secular world.” Indeed, this was a major evolutionary transition that did not merely visit a handful of wealthy northern European states – the evolutionary change swept across the globe. By the mid-20th century, when the West was almost entirely secular, the other half of the world lived under atheist communism.

What caused the evolution from the religious states to the secular states? Norenzayan does not provide a highly specific answer to this question but says there was a transmogrification: “Big Gods were replaced by Big Governments.”

Qui Modo Duem, ‘the Way of God,’ represented as a Big Eye in the Sky, did not disappear—it merely changed shape. The Great Seal of the United States, found on the one-dollar bill, shows a watchful eye on top of a pyramid.

He believes “monotheisms may have inadvertently planted the seeds” of the secular revolution: “if people can deny the existence of other gods, it’s only a matter of time before they start denying the existence of any gods.”

However, Norenzayan provides very broad answers. I would like to know: why did this change specifically occur between the 19th and early 20th Century? Because this blog is not a review of Norenzayan’s book – very much a “go-to,” important book – I now want to try to answer that question.

The argument I will put forward is the suite of secular institutions that characterise the secular state were not chosen for functional or scientific reasons overnight. They evolved. In Europe, the secular state was created by revolutions (the selective force), over an extended period of upheaval from the French Revolution to the early 20th century.

But first, let’s discuss the intuitive rival explanation for the transition to state secularism believed by some atheists: scientific progress made religious explanations and religions redundant, which made the religious state redundant. This, as they like to say, is a fairy story.

Fig 1 atheistlistchart

Using data from Wikipedia’s lists of famous atheist scientists, philosophers and technologists (a list presumably compiled by atheists), modern atheism appears to date from France in the 18th Century at the end of the Enlightenment. (See chart above; data are open access). Therefore, influential atheists first arose (in non-negligible numbers) in the scientific and philosophical communities following the period of scientific revolution known as “the Enlightenment” (1620-1780) – not during.

The timing of the evolution to secular state is counter-intuitive if it is considered a product of scientific reason. If the scientist was interested in secular state-building, surely the huge rise in atheists and the shift to secularism should have occurred much earlier than it did, coinciding with the Enlightenment proper. The scientists who spearheaded the scientific revolution – Francis Bacon, John Ray, Rene Descartes, Nicolas Copernicus and the like – should be atheists interested in secular state-building. Actually, they believed in Big Gods and very likely did not consider the religious state unnecessary.

The 19th century on the European continent is known for a cultural period known as Romanticism (1800-1850), which could be called a revolt against science. Sure, the period of industrialisation in the 19th Century was a “time of science,” but many discoveries were being advanced by God-believers including Charles Darwin (at the time he wrote Origin of Species, published 1859) and the monk and first geneticist Gregor Mendel (d.1884). There is no relationship between science and the creation of the secular state.

At no point in the history of the 19th and 20th Century did a great bearded atheist sit down and write God out of all the constitutions of Europe, and voila! the future was secular thereafter. The transition to state secularism in this region was staggered over decades of multiple conflicts. In France in 1814, 1830, and 1848, the French restored the Catholic institutions it had overthrown in 1789 – and only became secular officially in 1905. Elsewhere, over the same period, the tumultuous disputes that preceded secularization were often between different religions (e.g. Switzerland and Germany). No science involved.

Furthermore, no single atheist ordered the mass murders of tens of thousands of religious officials in secular pogroms and state oppression in France, Russia, and Germany which helped-along the transition to state secularism. France had a Reign of Terror. In Spain, it was called the Red Terror. Stalin had his “great purge.” In Germany, Hitler rounded up religious officials and put them in a concentration camp at Dachau. The carnage of the transitory period reflects the nastier stamp of an evolutionary process rather than scientific decision-making.

Fig 2 trendchart

Contrary to secular myth, the secular state was created through revolutions (or major social upheavals) that were a selective force. These events toppled weak and unstable religious governments and brutally removed non-cooperative people and institutions who resisted the new secular model of Big Government.

One might ask, did the historical period in question (19th – early 20th Century) contain enough social upheaval and revolution to evolve Big Government? Yes, this is well-known. On the cover of his 1962 book, historian Eric Hobsbawm called the 1789-1848 period “The Age Of Revolution.” But the era of upheaval goes on further than that. The turmoil in Europe abated only after WWII. In a table, I list 46 major revolutions or major social changes in Europe between 1789 and 1957 (such as a new constitution, or a Great Purge) and the direction they trended (secular or religious). Successive states formed and perished. At each step, humans rebuilt the state, changing a lot, or only a bit; gradually, secular changes came to predominate (see Fig. 2). That staggered process is how the secular states came to dominate the world in the 20th Century.

Just like polities may have scaled-up to defend against nomadic hoards, these repeated upheavals may have forced government to scale up to defend itself against revolutions and what caused them. Did the new secular state mitigate or prevent the damaging effects of revolutions – the massive death, destruction, and disorder? If this was the case, we would expect more cooperative polities with bigger, more secular governments to last longer and expand. Indeed, the “bottom line” facts show that France, Germany and Russia all expanded their territory over a period of 150 years from the late 18th Century and grew massively in population while becoming increasingly secular.

The 150-years-long shift from Big Gods as Watchers to Big Brother as watcher—as noted by Ara Norenzayan—was a major evolutionary transition, from which emerged “evolutionarily novel” governmental institutions like the police, independent law courts, and secular human rights. Why did it happen so quickly relative to the thousands of years it took the external threat of nomadic horsemen to scale-up polities?

Contributing factors included at least three technological developments that were present together only from the 17-18th century onwards. These were: 1) a public postal system, 2) coffeehouses, and 3) pamphletting. These developments made conspiracy to overthrow government much easier and, hence, costly revolution more likely.

The public postal system in France dates to 1603; but starting in Paris in 1760 CE public mail began to be delivered to homes. In 18th Century Europe it became fashionable to be a “Man of Letters” and the secular French philosophes of the Encyclopaedia fame – Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau et al. – who were influential in the build-up to the French Revolution epitomised them.

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café”

In addition to efficient lettered communication, growing numbers of wealthy people could afford to frequent new services that facilitated public assembly such as salons and coffeehouses. These places were the location of intense discussion, much like the internet forums of today. The first coffeehouse in Paris opened in 1672; the French Revolution occurred not much more than one hundred years later.

Lastly, printing and cheap pamphletting gave people a low cost, efficient propaganda system that was more effective than the state’s censored newspapers. In the history of their existence, European governments had never had to deal with educated elites meeting in coffeehouses, exchanging ideas in letters to each other’s homes, and spreading revolutionary ideas around cities with cheap-to-produce political pamphlets.

Bam! With these three technological innovations, a new evolutionary space had opened up outside the reach of government for networking and conspiracies to evolve in to challenge the government – and it took 150 years, and the development of state policing and the mass media, for the central governments of Europe to adapt. Development of state police agencies for the enforcement of secular laws and propaganda systems are clear adaptations of Big Governments to the threat of conspiracies and social upheaval.

You’re doing it wrong. Secularism in North Korea. (photo by J.A. de Roo)

The Roman Empire had stadiums, baths, temples, palaces, government administrative buildings, and a Senate, but they never had “the doughnut” – or anything equivalent to the headquarters of the British intelligence agency, GCHQ (formed 1919). GCHQ and other – more or less explicit – secret police agencies formed in every secular state in the early 20th Century to prevent conspiracies and maintain a system of highly controversial secular law. Their job: to ring-fence an official public arena for regulated controversy (democracy) and safe conspiracy (democratic political campaigns). Thus, the public evolutionary space in which conspiracies had formed that had toppled religious government was taken over and incorporated into the essence of secular, democratic government.

There was an alternative secular evolutionary strategy (to democracy) to deal with the problem of conspiracies and revolutions. Rather than to co-opt and channel conspiracies within a public framework of official institutions, this strategy was to maintain even-more powerful secret police agencies to deter conspiracies through fear. These were flirted with by secular fascist and communist regimes in Europe and have been common elsewhere (e.g. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea).

At this point, it is necessary to note that Chinese civilization had well-developed institutions of government a millennia before Europe and the separation of religion and state in ancient and medieval history. Yet the Chinese had no police institution or security agency. How was that possible? There is evidence that the society had evolved its own, highly divergent mechanisms to suppress conspiracies, which could be called “hyper-local” government.

Under the Northern Wei (386-557), Chinese political management extended down to a village-level “Three-Chiefs system.” Under the Northern Song (960-1127) the pao-chia system was likewise highly concerned with the maintenance of order at the village level. According to Tseng-yü and Wright (2009):

“Every five households constituted one pao (security group) and were headed up by a security-group head (pao-chang); five pao formed a large pao headed by a large security-group head (ta pao-chang); and ten large pao formed a superior security group (tu-pao) headed by a superior security group head (fu-pao-cheng) and his assistant (fu tu-pao-cheng).”

Talk about obsessive! The origin of the Chinese obsession with local order may date to the Imperial Qin which was concerned enough to group 5-10 families into “mutually responsible units” (Keay 2009). One might propose that the highly intense period of instability in ancient China that preceded the Imperial Qin (Spring and Autumn Warring States periods) played a part in evolving these local government structures.

Police are the evolutionarily modern, essential characteristic of a secular state: they suppress conspiracies through fear (authoritarianism) or protect a ring-fenced arena for open conspiracies (democracy).

An additional reason for the evolution of police agencies and the secular court system was the need to enforce secular law in addition to the common, or religious-derived, law. Big Government required secular law to manage affairs in such a way as to prevent revolution; however, whereas “do unto others only what you would have them do unto you” was simple and uncontroversial as a philosophical principle, secular law could be highly technical, and benefit one group more than another. This made it the primary fault-line in secular states. Since it changed too frequently for a Watcher in the Sky to enforce and was often at odds with the moral system of the Gods, it demanded a specialised secular police and court system.

The leadership cult of personality Westerners sometimes find sadly humorous in contemporary North Korea was a result of the 150-year period of evolution to secular states. Leadership cults incorporated heroic traits admired by Romantic German philosophers, like Freidrich Nietzsche. Many infamous cults of charismatic, likeable (or feared and powerful) leaders were generated in Europe (e.g. Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler in Italy, Russia and Germany). Interestingly, at about the same time, the Vatican created a cult of a non-supernatural heroic individual when the Virgin Mary became official dogma (in 1854 Pope Pius IX, and in 1950 Pope Pius XII). The fact this evolution happened to both religious and secular state establishments again indicates the secular state was not a science project.

Although the secular state may be self-sustaining, it may not be an inevitable “end-point” of human social evolution. More recent evolution has given rise to religious states that have used Big Governments to wield the mass media both to ring-fence a democratic public arena for regulated conspiracies and variations on powerful police agencies to deter conspiracies through fear: revolutionary period Iran under the Ayatollahs and the more recent Islamic State are examples of the latter; the state of Israel, which does not separate state and religion (officially neutral to all religions), is an example of the former.

The rise of the Islamic State and Israel imply Big Government institutions are more essential than the secular nature of the state for the sustainability of large-scale societies numbering millions of people. The fact the two states representing the polar extremes of a religious embodiment of Big Government are constantly embroiled in war is something to seek to avoid rather than emulate. However, their existence shows a range of relationships between government and religion might still be self-sustaining in the 21st Century era of rapid communication and social media.

Can we imagine a liberal religious state that has the minimum Big Government required to maintain ultrasocial systems of law courts, health systems and road signage agencies and the like, but for efficiency and the common good, out-sources most of the police to “Watchers in the Sky” – or, failing that, the Watchers on Twitter?

Published On: August 18, 2015

Edward A. L. Turner

Edward A. L. Turner

Edward has worked as Principle Research Assistant for the Seshat Databank project and a Senior Research Assistant at the University of Hertfordshire in England. Other recent projects included research for “War, space, and the evolution of Old World complex societies,” an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with Peter Turchin, Tom Currie and Sergey Gavrilets, a data sample on 19th Century travel routes for Pieter Francois’s Sample Generator project with British Library Labs, and a report for the journal Cliodynamics.

He has been interested in evolutionary science within social-science (he has a Masters in International Politics at University of Wales, Aberystwyth and a Bachelors degree in the same subject from University of Portsmouth) since the turn of the millennium, when the word “meme” was an academic buzzword fostered by Susan Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine” and Aaron Lynch’s “Thought Contagion” (but had yet to reach the heights of “orly owls” and rick rolling).

However, Edward has a broad interest in any data-lead approach to social science that includes, but is not limited to, evolutionary theory and is currently interested in, among other things, the role historical trade routes, and the process of trade, may have played in state formation. On the SESHAT project his main focus are social complexity and warfare variables.

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  • Jukka Aakula says:

    Makes sense!

  • edwardturner says:

    Due to a website issue an early comment on this article, and my reply, went missing. Not sure if it is coming back.

    If I remember correctly, the question to me was whether the rising baseline standard of living was creating a more secular society.

    Multi-level selection theory says the costs of religion to the group (in time and wealth) will be met as long as they (with their Big Gods) enable cooperation at a large scale.

    As people get more wealthy they can more easily afford the costs of religion – full-time priests, building construction and upkeep, charitable contributions etc.

    So religions and groups should thrive on wealth. It is not clear to me why a more wealthy group would dispense with religion because it is more wealthy. In secular China there has been rising wealth and a rise in religious belief, for example Christianity.

    However, Ibn Khaldun observed that a more luxurious lifestyle reduces asabiya (levels of group unity or cooperation) so you could argue that secular institutions formed to enable large-scale cooperation in societies with reduced asabiya.

    This idea is compatible with Norenzayan’s idea that Big Governments replaced Big Gods.

    In Ibn Khaldun’s day hard-living nomadic tribes with high asabiya would eliminate low asabiya states ensconced in their cities before they got to the stage of creating secular institutions (if it is a “stage”).

    Secular institutions may have evolved to patch flat-living levels of societal asabiya.

    – I remember now I was also asked whether I was still interested in testing other theories, and yes, I am!

  • Kelly Gerling says:

    This article is a good example of a very important line of thought. Bravo Edward Turner. Many thanks! It mirrors some ideas put forth by Lewis Mumford in his book The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. He also traces the shift from empires to religions to nation states, (what he calls mega-machines with people as parts) starting from 3500 BCE with the first two empires: Egypt and Babylon. I can send you the excerpt as text if you give me an email Edward. Also, I’d like to see or participate in a dialogue about how revolutions can be incorporated into elections via modernized electoral systems/constitutions so that power resides with majorities (see May’s Theorem for why) so that society can be run and problems can be solved (especially THE problem of the global crisis) via decisions by the majority and/or their (fully, actually) legitimate representatives. Christian Fritz has written in considerable detail about how elections can make political revolutions IF and ONLY IF electoral processes and legislative structures and dynamics give real choices to voting age citizens. (Witness the rise of Syriza, as an example.) Again, I can provide references and examples. The big question I have for the Evolution Institute and for evolutionary thinking is how they can contribute to power and action to seize it for legitimate power-holders (the majority). Contact me at kelgerling at gmail dot com if you like.

    • edwardturner says:

      Kelly, I will contact you!

      Being from UK I was not exposed to American philosophers and thinkers at university when I studied International Politics. He would no doubt have been very interested in Big History? Someone who deserves more reading.

      Your question “how [can] revolutions be incorporated into elections via modernized electoral systems/constitutions so that power resides with majorities”? will take some thinking as it’s not something I’ve thought about.

      I will think about it and come up with an opinion 🙂

      It seems obvious that citizens should have a real choice in who they vote for. Does the secular state provide that choice?

      I argued that the state became secular to solve the problem of damaging revolutions; which as a result has seen the state incorporate adversarial conflict within a controlled and regulated arena. Political parties are public conspiracies accepted by the state.

      However, while the secular state evolved to protect against conspiracies relating to the advancement of religious beliefs maybe it is not evolved to deal with other kinds of conspiracies – for example, economic or military conspiracies.

      We now know the Iraq war in 2003 was a conspiracy. There are lots of economic conspiracies that work outside the official political process – corporations buying politicians etc, rigging of the markets (e.g. Libor). The formation of the EU from Jean Monnet forwards was a conspiracy. This was best exemplified with the farce of the EU Constitution which was rejected by political agents known as “the voters” and then repackaged and signed into law by political agents known as “governments” as the “Lisbon Treaty”.

      I would argue that now in the 21st Century the conspiratorial arena “ring-fenced” by the institutions of the secular state is the size of a postage stamp compared to what it needs to be. The main political parties almost everywhere operate within the same paradigm. The arena needs to expand so that military and economic conspiracies as well as religious conspiracies, are brought to the public, rather than colluded on in secret.

      Does this require a fundamental shift in how society is governed? What does a public military or economic conspiracy even look like if it is distinct from current political discussion of the economy and war?

      I have not answer. these are first thoughts! and I reserve the right to change my mind on anything as these are literally my first thoughts.

      If others would like to join in this discussion please do.

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