David Greaber, the anarchist anthropologist, talks about his important book, Debt: The First 5000 years (Melville House, 2011):
Norenzayan has made a valuable scholarly contribution to the study of supernatural agents, and ‘Big Gods’ in particular. Though the focus of the book is on the relationship between the growth of human societies and organized religions (more specifically, ‘Big Gods’), I couldn’t help but note the potential relevance of this work to the transformation and spread of ideas about rebirth – especially relevant considering that Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism are world religions. The usual objection to any work that considers supernatural agency as an explanation for the intuitive appeal/spread of ‘folk’ religion is that Buddhism doesn’t have “Gods”. I won’t flog this dead horse here. Rather, there are some parallels to the transformation and spread of rebirth that parallel Norenzayan’s theory about the cultural evolution of supernatural agent concepts. These similarities make me think that his work has broader explanatory power than beyond supernatural agents. It also makes me wonder whether, and to what extent, a supernatural agent/s (with powers of social surveillance) is necessary to induce the purported effects (prosociality and rapid cultural evolution) or rather, can any (religious) system/principle that co-opts a moralizing component (bad deeds punished, good deeds rewarded + surveillance) serve this function? I know that he thinks that secular institutions can, but can other religious systems? Is there also a similar evolutionary story to tell here? Specifically, there is a general scholarly consensus that doctrines about rebirth in small scale societies are “amoral”, but that Indic theories of rebirth transformed these basic ideas into a belief system that included a moral component (i.e., karma). Alas, belief systems that include this component (e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism) are also found in large scale societies and they are widespread. Karma is driven by intuitions about a system/principle that includes assumptions about surveillance rather than a supernatural agent. Thus, although the cognitive science of religion has pointed to a myriad of intuitions about why, and how, ideas about supernatural agents spread rapidly, so long as we are grounded in any system of moral surveillance and corresponding consequences, can we kick the ladder of supernatural agents away and still explain the evolution of religion?
Really nice and really interesting post. I hadn't thought too much about this in detail before reading your post, but I have been a bit skeptical of the attempt to link reflective thought to atheism myself. Part of the reason for this is that it's not at all clear to me that you aren't going to find a lot of motivated reasoning and attempts at dissonance reduction in the vicinity of antecedent religious (or secular) beliefs. Reasoning is nice, but if a person is an intuitive theist, they are probably going to hunt for rationalizations of their theistic intuitions when they start to reason (similarly, if a person is intuitively secular, we should expect those intuitions to anchor reasoning, with rationalizations being deployed to bolster those intuitions). This is a long way of saying that you might well be right that analytic atheism is a WEIRD culturally local phenomena. But if that's right, I guess I want to know what it is that's pushing things in that direction. Early exposure to physicalist hypotheses? The increasing prevalence if Darwinian alternatives? Both coupled to a strong centralized state? Or something else all together?
Denis, your story strikes a Romanian chord. The situation around here is even worse, from what I can tell. But it is quite a fascinating question, with different answers from different points of view.
For an economist, it is a matter of price formation. In the state system, Romanian doctors are paid a fixed (and miserable) wage, largely unrelated to quality or effort. The incentive to pocket bribes is huge, and patients know it so well. In the private sector (with transparent and varied prices for medical services), bribes are almost unheard of. Also, there is a more or less efficient market for bribes. Patients find out how much a doctor expects, usually from past patients, or from other doctors. Surgeons receive more than GPs, professors more than debutants, etc.
But I think there is something more about "medical envelopes", from a cognitive point of view. First of all, there is a vast asymmetry of competence between doctors and patients, which gives the former a large freedom of action. Is this pill better, or another one? Surgery or not? Home treatment or hospitalisation? To make things worse, the post-hoc reckoning is not very helpful, since most decisions may be medically justified, but you might also end up dead. The patient is at the mercy of the practitioner since she does not know what choices are better. The best way to make sure one gets the proper treatment is to insure the benevolence of the doctor, and a bribe is the simplest path to gain the doctor's amity.
Second, there is something special about this particular social exchange: the patient is dealing in an ultimate value - her health. Something everyone in Romania says is that there is no price too high to be healthy. (Paradoxically, giving up smoking somehow does not make the list - self-hint-hint-nudge-nudge). If people would risk not bribing a policeman to avoid a fine, they are extremely unlikely to jeopardise their health in this manner. One cannot afford to stick to abstract principles (like discouraging corruption) when her life is at stake.
Finally, there is something like a Maussian gift in the affair: one passes a fat envelope even without the explicit mention of an economic exchange. It is not that the surgeon would not operate without being bribed - the patient just shows gratitude without visible economic reckoning. Of course, under the veil of generosity stands the solid self-interest of the patient. The fat envelope is meant to make sure that no scalpel is lost in her belly. But no-one says it out loud. It's a "I know that you know that I know etc" which makes sure that the transaction is smooth and polite.
To end with a personal anecdote: I was (and to some extent I still am) very wary of giving out envelopes to doctors. A little bit of moral prudishness, a little bit of fear (what if he feels insulted?), a bit of monetary unsaviness. Those who are more competent in these matters reassured me: "just put the envelope on his desk - he knows what to do next" After all, he is the expert, and I am not.
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