Most of the spirits and deities of foraging and hunter-gatherer societies did not have moral concerns. Such gods may have wanted to be appeased with sacrifices and rituals, but they were typically unconcerned with moral transgressions, which preoccupy the Big Gods of major world religions.
Many of the local gods and spirits were not even fully omniscient to be good monitors of moral behavior – they perceived things within village boundaries and not beyond, and they could be manipulated by other rival gods. Religion’s early roots did not have a wide moral scope. Nevertheless, despite their relative infrequency in the supernatural scope of hunter-gatherer societies, powerful, omniscient, interventionist, morally concerned gods – Big Gods – managed to proliferate over time through cultural diffusion, population expansions, and conquest.
Advent of Big Gods
Prosocial religions, together with their Big Gods who watch, intervene, and demand hard-to-fake loyalty displays, facilitated the rise of cooperation in large groups of anonymous strangers. In turn, these expanding groups took their prosocial religious beliefs and practices with them, further enhancing large-scale cooperation in a runaway process of cultural evolution.
Religious intuitions developed (for example: mind and body separation, and the continued existence of mind after the body perishes), which support widely held religious beliefs and related practices, such as gods, spirits, and souls of various types and characteristics. Once that happened, the stage was set for rapid cultural evolution – nongenetic, socially transmitted changes in beliefs and behaviors – that eventually led to large societies with Big Gods.
Eight Principles of Big Gods
First Comes Movement
A creature didn’t think in order to move; it just moved, and by moving it discovered the world that then formed the content of its thoughts.
…..Larissa MacFarquhar, “The mind-expanding ideas of Andy Clark,” The New Yorker
Action Shapes Thought
How do we think? The natural answer is: with words. Everything from ancient philosophy to the theory of evolution is assembled and transmitted through language. But our ancestors did not speak, and neither do infants – yet they still think. So, if we can think before we have language, then what are our thoughts made of?
Spatial thinking enables us to draw meaning from: our bodies and their actions in the world; shape, size, and relation; and transformation, trajectory, and speed. Actions on thought are like actions on objects.
Spatial thinking underlies our ability to create and use maps, assemble furniture, devise football strategies, design buildings, create art, and understand the flow of people, traffic, water, and ideas. Spatial thinking even underlies the structure and meaning of language: why we say we push ideas forward or tear them apart, and why we’re feeling up or have grown distant.
Science, art, literature, and the great ideas of the world – these originated not just in our brains, but in our entire bodies.
Flexible thinking, also known as psychological flexibility, allows us to turn toward our discomfort and disquiet in a way that is open, curious, and kind.
It’s about looking in a nonjudgmental and compassionate way at the places in ourselves and in our lives where we hurt, because the things that have the power to cause us the most pain are often the things we care about most deeply.
Psychological Flexibility Practices
The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
Don’t fight against your old habits by thinking about what you’re missing. When you feel deprived, you’re focusing on the wrong thoughts. You’re making your journey unpleasant and more difficult.
Instead, focus on how the changes will bring you the success you desire – that’s when you’ll build your new life instead of fighting your old one.