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Juggling 300 Million Variables

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_cover My post The Islamic State Is Right About Some Things was a “success” as far these things go. It was noted in a column in The New York Times, and highlighted issues which you can see being emphasized in pieces in Slate and The Spectator. But obviously in a single post there is a lot of nuance which I had to elide for reasons of space. Though I may be a population genomicist by day, I do think that in certain domains outside of my bread & butter I bring insights which you can’t find elsewhere, so I try to inject it into the broader discussion. But I’m limited in what I can do in a single post. One of the things I noticed as my post was circulating is that many people asserted that I was suggesting you can understand the actions of the Islamic State by the nature of its theology. Long time readers (I’ve been writing for 12 years on these sorts of issues) might be surprised by this, as was I, because actually I think that is one of the major problems that people have when attempting to understand the nature of religious phenomena. Theology is an abstruse field which is the purview of religious professionals of a particular sort. The vast majority of humans today are marginally literate at best, and for most of human history have been illiterate. To put it succinctly and semi-accurately I think our interpretations of theology are actually effects of prior beliefs, which are due to non-theological parameters. For example, I suspect most Christians would assert that their theology is such that slavery is anathema to their moral system with a proper understanding of God (i.e., theology). Obviously this was not so for the whole of Christian history up until 1800. One conclusion I derive from these sorts of facts is that theology derives its content from the subjective preferences of its practitioners. It is not like mathematics, an objective sequence of inferences and derivations from axioms. Nor is it like the natural sciences, extending itself step by step along a scaffold defined by the world around us. Rather, it starts from a presupposition, that God, with particular semantically distinct characteristics, exists, and then proceeds to enter into complex and subtle interpretations of that fact.

0195149300 I have come to this state of affairs over time through reading. Though I was raised in a religious (Muslim) environment, it was not exceedingly devout or observant, and my personal beliefs were rather devoid of much interest or consideration of supernatural entities. For some people God is an intuitive and intoxicating concept, which draws them in a magnetic fashion. For me a lack of belief is, and was, the natural state. Atheism bubbled up naturally, unbidden, at the age of eight when I decided to look within. When I considered God’s existence seriously, I couldn’t help but reject it. This meant that my understanding of religion has always been as an outsider, and I tended to take religious people at their word when it came to what they believed and how they believed. Religious people of the sort I interacted with explained that their faith was revealed in a set of scriptures, and from those scriptures one could derive the nature of religion. Even religions, such as Roman Catholicism, where scripture is not emphasized generally accept that the foundational texts are necessary and essential in truly comprehending the faith in a deep way with mind (as opposed to just receiving sacraments through liturgy). This was congenial to my mind, as it rationalized religion, turning into a system of propositions from a set of axioms. My scientific bent meant that I naturally understood this sort of mentality.

Therefore, to understand something like Islamic violence, one only need to look at the foundational texts. But though this seems like a fruitful way to go I no longer believe it describes the structure of reality because on an individual level religious belief and practice does not seem rooted at all in texts. Though one can make broad correspondences and draw arrows of causality, with an understanding at a lower and more fine-grained scale this model has as much validity as Galenic medicine. It captures fragments of reality and presents it before us in a persuasive fashion, but at a deeper level of inspection it fails to explain the basic mechanics of religious belief. To understand how I came to this position one has to know that I have long been interested in evolutionary psychology, and therefore cognitive science. After 9/11 I decided to read books on religion besides the basic scriptures, and I stumbled upon the field of evolutionary cognitive anthropology, and in particular the scientific study of religion in the naturalistic paradigm. Two of the primary sources in this domain are Scott Atran’s In God’s We Trust and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. In these dense works they illustrate the cognitive foundations of religious belief and practice, and exposed me to the reality that despite what many religious believers might tell you religious scripture is actually a sideshow to the richness of the phenomenon. Like the coffee table book that one proudly displays, the value of scriptures is that is a visible marker and a common point of reference, as opposed to an instruction manual. In Theological Incorrectness the author explores the reality that religious people don’t even seem to believe what they say they believe on a deep level. For example, monotheists and polytheists seem to have the same internal model of the supernatural world, despite their explicit verbal scripts being very different. To put this in another context, many people who espouse views which deny the existence of the supernatural still get “spooked” in a dark cemetery. Why? They are sincere in their belief that there are no ghosts and demons in the dark, but in the deep recesses of their minds reflexive intuitions honed over evolutionary time remain at the ready, alert for any sign of danger in the darkness. Similarly, most religious people may believe sincerely in a glorious afterlife, but when there is a gun to their head they may soil themselves nonetheless.

Belief matters, but it seems likely that it matters at the margins. For whatever reason we humans tend to believe that we have explicit control over our beliefs and actions, and our decisions are due to conscious reflection. This is just often not so, and it has been scientifically validated to my satisfaction. On a personal level I think it is possible that in a different social milieu I would have “rediscovered” my faith in God at some point because of constant feedback from my peers. Though the United States is often depicted, correctly, as a particularly pious developed nation, it is not difficult to seal oneself in a secular bubble. Very few of my friends are religious, despite most Americans being religious. So my atheism is nicely insulated from countervailing pressures. My beliefs, my understanding of reality, is the outcome of a complex interaction between my dispositions and my social-cultural environment. So it is for us all.

But I don’t want to imply from this that if you understand the cognitive science of religion you understand religion. Rather, it is the basic general chemistry of the understanding of the religious phenomenon. In Darwin’s Cathedral David Sloan Wilson outlines a theory of religion which explains the patterns around us in functional terms; i.e., religions as forms of cultural adaptations. Though I’m sceptical of religious models predicated on rational choice theory, that also has its utility in particular contexts. Religion in a socially corporate context such as India is far different from that in the United States, where religion is understood in more individual terms (e.g., defection from a mainstream religion to another mainstream religion does not necessarily entail a massive rupture in your social ties to friends and family in the United States, so churn is common).

So where does this leave us in relation to the Islamic State? Does genocide history and scriptures of Islamic explain its atavistic savagery? I think not. Unlike most Muslim spokespersons I don’t think the behaviour of the Islamic State is “un-Islamic.” Religion is to my mind a made-up affair, and people can remake it in its own image however they want. And, as a point of fact the early Wahabbi movement in the 18th century exhibited many of the same ticks as the Islamic State, down to genocide treatment of those who avowed wrong belief. What I found particularly interesting in a detached manner about the Islamic State is how well versed many of its proponents are in a particular streak of the history of Islam. Watching the Vice documentary of the Islamic State I can pick up terms and concepts from my rudimentary religious education, as well as references to “the Romans,” which in that case refers to the Byzantines under the Heraclian dynasty. Rather than theology I suspect history is a better guide as to what’s going on, and why, from the violent exclusive strain of Islam which periodically emerges from the Kharijites down to the Wahabbis, to early modern period and post-colonial conflicts, as well as the ethnography of political radicalism among small motivated groups such as the anarchists. Most proximately the Islamic State clearly draws energy and strength from Sunni resentment toward Alawite hegemony in Syria and Shia dominance in Iraq. Over time this may evolve into something else, as a generation grows up under the influence of the message of the Islamic State and its broader Weltanschauung. It is essential to keep in mind both the generalities (e.g., it is a Sunni movement) and particularities (e.g., it is global in its imagination and aspiration, at least notionally) when attempting to gauge the possible arcs of the future.

Addendum: And in the interest of frankness, I will also admit that though comments can be highly informative, I don’t listen closely when someone decides to lecture me on the nature of religion because it is rare than I encounter anyone with as much breadth of knowledge as me in this domain (i.e., I have read economic, sociobiological, cognitive, and historical models of religion). If I seem to dismiss your opinion, that’s probably because I don’t think much of your ideas because you likely know far less than I do.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Religion 
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21 Comments to "Juggling 300 million variables"

  1. “Unlike most Muslim spokespersons I don’t think the behaviour of the Islamic State is “un-Islamic.””

    yes, the No True Scotsman excuse we often hear regarding these people bothers me a lot. would they say that about the Westboro BC, the KKK, voodoo animal sacrifice or some other ideology they don’t like? are the brutal practices of halal and kosher slaughter just a reaction to an oppressive society? i guess, for some, the things you believe have no effect on what you do. Islamic societies don’t *really* want to subordinate women, it’s just a billion people happened to read that part of the Koran wrong. Pretty sure ELF members wouldn’t be as likely to burn buildings down without their ideology.

    The title pretty much sums it all up.

  2. I’d imagine that if they’re not snuffed out like the radical Anabaptists of Munster or the Khmer Rouge, that the various strains of Salafism including the one that spawned ISIS will become something like how far leftism and anarchism is now. Volatile, against mainstream society and composed of malcontents, but for the most part, feckless, riven into a million feuding factions and mostly non-violent.

    I mean, when you think about it, it’s hard to conceive that the RCP cadres you see around big college campuses ever doing anything other than having noisy protests, despite the violence of their rhetoric, the the huge successes of their ideological forebearers a couple of generations back.

  3. I don’t find the fact that IS mentioned “Romans” (Rum) or Crusaders as particularly fascinating, since it is a common knowledge.

    In Jewish history we do remember all our enemies and victims (both real and mythical), and every religious Jew may sound very knowledgeable in Ancient History, but in reality they only have partial one-sided view of the history as it was depicted in various Jewish sources.

    What I find much more fascinating is the phenomena of heterodox or crypto communities, like previously mentioned “Sun Worshipers” who nominally became Christians. After reading Dr. Racho Donef’s paper [1] it seems that several old Assyrian monasteries are in fact converted “Sun Worshipers’” temples.

    This quote from the same paper is also interesting:

    “[i]f they speak with Turks, they claim to be Turks and brag to be Jewish with the Jews and Christians with the Christians”

    This exactly how my father behaved, he wasn’t advertised that he is a Jew, but since he knew many local languages and cultures, everybody assumed that he from their own community. He spoke Turkish with Muslim Turks, joked in Armenian with Armenians, sang Kurdish songs with Kurds.

    I was always “outing” my father, since people were asking why I don’t speak my father’s language. After learning that I’m a Jew, some were suggesting me to pretend to be Armenian. Funny that in some parts of Turkey, some crypto-Armenians did identified as Jews or Kurds. There are even some crypto-Armenian Yazidis, but it seems more likely that they are crypto-Yazidis who identify as Armenians.

    Similarly, Druze MK (Member of Knesset) in Israel once claimed that “Druze are more Jews than Jews”.

    I think this might be interesting topic for one of your future posts.

    [1] The Shemsi and the Assyrians
    by Dr. Racho Donef — Sydney, Australia. November, 2010

  4. Dear Mr. Khan:
    1. God (or any other entity of your choice) bless you and your family.
    I do understand that you do not need _my_ blessings.
    2. Have you ever done the review of Nicholas Wade’s book “The Faith Instinct” ?
    I bought it long ago, but somehow have not started reading it yet.
    Reading now his “A Troublesome Inheritance”, I suddenly was reminded about “T.F.I.”.
    Your F.r.

  5. jb says:

    Scriptures do matter though. I remember reading an article where the author looked at what appeared to be an exhortation in the Koran to make relentless war on the unbelievers, and then noted that the often quoted portion of the text was followed by all sorts of qualifications, and argued that, properly understood, the passage was not calling for relentless war at all. But the thing is, it doesn’t really matter what the passage actually says when carefully read in its entirety; in practice what matters is how easily it can be interpreted as a justification for war by those inclined to do so. In this particular case it looked pretty easy to ignore the qualifications, if that was your inclination.

    My own not especially educated impression is that Islamic scriptures contain far more passages of this sort than do the scriptures of other major world religions. (Mohammed, after all, waged military campaigns, while Jesus did not). And I believe that, as a direct result, Islam is intrinsically more violent than its competitors. It isn’t that Muslims can’t be peaceful and tolerant — we have plenty of evidence that they can. It’s more like a genetic predisposition. Just as some people are at more risk of alcoholism than others, because of their genes, some religions slide into violent fundamentalism more easily than others, because of their history and scriptures.

  6. Marcus says:

    I think the last time I commented on your blog it was on a similar topic. Once again I get this irresistible urge to register my dissent ;)

    “Does genocide history and scriptures of Islamic explain its atavistic savagery? I think not.”
    They may not be the sole two factors in this equation no, but how can they be ignored? Yes, religion can be anything – but can it be more or less likely genocidal, or pacifying, given the content of scripture? To my mind the answer is obviously yes, scripture will affect the probability! Even more so among the fundamentalists, being literal-minded and less concerned with externalities. Religion, or any set of well meaning ideas, can be twisted by humans to be sure (liberté, égalité, fraternité, massacre), but how does this really disprove the argument that ideas/scripture affect the probability of values/behavior moving in certain directions, rather than complement/temper it? Each scripture may spawn a wild brush of sects, but they are more likely than not growing in the same general direction. To disregard scripture as a factor (of varying strength to be sure) is in my opinion akin to religious blank-slateism. All theory aside, I think it is best to take this phenotype of Islamic fundamentalism by their word regarding the motives of the action they take and the values they hold.

  7. To my mind the answer is obviously yes, scripture will affect the probability!

    i don’t care about your mind, i know a lot more than you in all likelihood. that’s why you need to stop commenting, at least here, since you aren’t adding any value. i know everything you are saying, it’s common knowledge. so if someone who knows more disagrees, why do you even speak up? obviously i’m wrong because i know more (from your perspective), but that’s hard to change, isn’t it (when i knew less i agreed with you, inconvenient).

    in practice what matters is how easily it can be interpreted as a justification for war by those inclined to do so.

    read my post. it’s pretty obvious people always do this. humans are creative, and they extract anything they want from the scriptures. if you don’t think there’s a point in having an academic discipline of psychology keep talking. if you think it’s worthwhile, shut up and read more, because you’re full of it.

    My own not especially educated impression

    right, like most people you aren’t especially educated, at least on this topic (my readers tend to at least be well educated in one domain). so i don’t want to hear your opinion. it has zero weight with me. my opinion was changed by experiments. perhaps not the best ones, but ones nonetheless. to make it short you are asking me to accept the proposition that people who can’t give a coherent explanation of the implications of their own scriptures on the individual level when forced to do so without a script are magically influenced on a macroscale level.

    the reason i’ve been flogging these books for years is that if people want to know things they need to read things, and go beyond the limited corpus of facts they have at hand. consider how violent jews have been because of their scriptures in comparison to the pacific xtians, with their new testament. oh, wait….

  8. Bob says:


    That you included your addendum would seem to make the case that your vast knowledge hasn’t brought you equivalent wisdom. Ya, we get it you are real smart, but we knew that it is part of why we are here. Watching the circus of your rath is as well for some so go ahead.

  9. #9, oh spare me bob. as you acknowledge, you read me, i don’t read you. perhaps you have awesome insights that you choose to keep to yourself in all your glorious secret wisdom. must be great to be an esoteric initiate the order of the wisdom that is hidden.

    the goal here isn’t to repeat the same old opinions that you can derive from 1st grade knowledge of world history. i could, and did, do that in 2002 (to be fair, i was quite beyond first grade, but not as far as i would have liked to be). people can disagree if they have *educated* opinions. but not the sort of stuff you saw in the comments above. and you didn’t see the tripe i DIDN’T let go through moderation. hopefully some people will read the books linked and judge the ideas for themselves and see how it updates their models. though they shouldn’t stop at those books….

  10. Troy says:

    @Razib Khan

    In fairness, it is striking that almost all pre-Constantinian Christians whose writings have survived were pacifists. It’s pretty difficult to argue that Jesus’ teachings (as recorded in the New Testament) were not integral to 300 years of Christian pacifism, even if the Church did embrace the Just War tradition after it found itself with political power.

  11. AnonNJ says:

    I haven’t read the books but I think I’m familiar with some of the arguments that are made. I have limited time so I apologize if some of this doesn’t seem to follow and can add detail later if you think it worthwhile.

    First, I think I agree your overall point that, “theology derives its content from the subjective preferences of its practitioners.” I think much of religion faith is ultimately about experiencing a divine presence, not a from theology or the official documentation of a religion. This is why I think the idea that many atheists have of “blind faith” is mistaken. Faith is often based on what feels like a very real experience. See Kirsten Power’s description of your religious experience here:

    I think Sufism has this perspective.

    That said, I think there are other people whose faith isn’t founded on divine experience but upon a conviction that their religion’s foundation text is true. Bart Erhman’s early fundamentalism followed by a loss of faith when he realized the Biblical text was not perfectly handed down is an example of that kind of faith. In other cases, it’s a matter of devotion to family, culture, and so on. I think the two can behave very differently and the latter will look more strongly toward their religion’s foundational texts for their faith rather than relying on what they feel, which may be little or nothing..

    Second, I understand the argument that religious experiences are a natural feeling that evolved in order to perform some valuable social function, but I think that, like theology (and the two other examples I’m going to give below) is an example of trying to find a rational definition for something that isn’t rational. Is it possible that it’s just a delusion? Sure. And it’s possible it’s not. Yes, you can trigger a religious experience in a brain artificially. One can also make people see light artificially by stimulating their brain, or hear sounds. That does not mean that light and sounds are not real, nor does it mean the religious experiences are not real.

    Third, moral reasoning is also irrational and based on feelings.

    In fact, making just about any decision may require an irrational emotional component:

    We know what happens when people lack moral intuition. They are psychopaths:

    Yet much as theology attempts to reduce a religion to rational elements, philosophy attempts to reduce human morality to rational elements. It fails because it’s trying to rationally describe the irrational. Theology fails to capture faith because it’s trying to rationallly describe the irrational (or, as some religious people see it, beyond the understanding of morals).

    So it’s not simply religion but morality and even decisions themselves that cannot be rationally explained, and I think it’s no mistake that attempts to define morality rationally and religion rationally and so on make one sound like a psychopath, and it makes me wonder whether academic detachment isn’t essentially encouraging people to think like psychopaths.

    Fourth, it seems somewhat irrelevant to me whether humans have these features because they evolved or were designed by God because the net effect is the same, which is that they are there for a reason, yet the modern academic tendency to reduce everything down to a rational chain of logic inevitably comes up with the idea that these feelings (religion, intuitive morality) are counter-productive and should be discarded. Some argue that these feelings evolved for a milieu that no longer exists so we should discard them. Is it simply the bias of rational thinking to try to discard or dismiss that which it cannot explain as worthless?

    Fifth, (and this is relevant to your topic), people look to each other for moral confirmation. I believe it’s one of the reasons the Milgram experiment played out the way it did (the person asking to continue the experiment is not only an authority figure but indifferent to the distress). Columbine may be an example of that in action:

    I think a lot of group atrocities can be explained by a psychopath poisoning the moral well because they act as if they are confident they are doing the right thing and that leads others along. Because of that, I do think that a religious text that encourages or confirms the hostile tendencies of believers to behave like psychopaths can be part of a process that encourages otherwise decent people to go along with horrible things. In that case, the religious text and a profession of belief act as another bit of pressure influencing the behavior of people.

  12. It’s pretty difficult to argue that Jesus’ teachings (as recorded in the New Testament) were not integral to 300 years of Christian pacifism, even if the Church did embrace the Just War tradition after it found itself with political power.

    persuasive, but i think superficial. it may have issues of causality. groups out of power often adopt a quietist strategy. the jews did this after their second rebellion against rome failed. the nature of jesus’ teachings which were preserved and amplified reflected the socio-cultural milieu of a group of jews and later gentiles which were marginals. some take a violent tack, but many do not. in any case, though the new testament as we understand it is mostly pacific, at least last i read it, there are parts which can seem violent, though exgesis explains it away. e.g., additionally, the emergence of revelation after domitian also makes sense.

    the point is that it is very easy to invert interpretative causality. in terms of scriptural analysis aspects become salient due to their context. the old testament sojourn of jews became more relevant to radical reformation protestants, who were adrift in a sea of gentiles (i.e., other xtians of the established kind). that was always there. it just wasn’t relevant.

    I think Sufism has this perspective.

    mysticism is one aspect of religion. but it is very important for a motivated minority. often they are privileged (i.e., have leisure to engage in contemplation). but we need to be careful about confusing the perceptions and preoccupations of mystics, who are often literate, and affect the inner lives of other literates, with that of the majority of believers (for whom mysticism may be a secondary or tertiary aspect of religion).

    Second, I understand the argument that religious experiences are a natural feeling that evolved in order to perform some valuable social function,

    that’s why i said above: “In Darwin’s Cathedral David Sloan Wilson outlines a theory of religion which explains the patterns around us in functional terms; i.e., religions as forms of cultural adaptations.” that’s part of the phenomenon.

    Fifth, (and this is relevant to your topic), people look to each other for moral confirmation.

    theological inference is robust in a social context. that’s why i think it is pretty irrelevant what a text says in many says, because it is “rich” and “multi-layered.” as muhammad stated, “my ummah will never agree upon error.” people come to a consensus about the “right” interpretation, and there you go.

  13. Troy says:

    @Razib Khan

    groups out of power often adopt a quietist strategy. the jews did this after their second rebellion against rome failed.

    Depending on how you’re understanding quietism, early Christian pacifism was not necessarily quietistic, inasmuch as it involved active evangelism and refusal to fight for the Roman Empire (see, e.g., Saint Marcellus) and worship Roman gods, refusal which often led to death. Paul’s writings on the powers and principalities seem to imply, not acquiescence to worldly politics, but a different kind of resistance to them.

    the nature of jesus’ teachings which were preserved and amplified reflected the socio-cultural milieu of a group of jews and later gentiles which were marginals.

    This gets into questions of the historical accuracy of the New Testament. Suffice to say that I think there is ample historical evidence that the canonical Gospels are earlier and more accurate than any other accounts of Jesus’s life, and they by and large portray a Jesus who preached nonviolence.

    You rightly point out that there are verses that can be interpreted as advocating violence. I think there are plausible explanations of those consistent with pacifism (for example, I would understand the passage you cite as saying that Jesus brings division because he calls people to a radically different kind of life than that of their culture), but this does get into difficult exegetical issues.

    the old testament sojourn of jews became more relevant to radical reformation protestants, who were adrift in a sea of gentiles (i.e., other xtians of the established kind). that was always there. it just wasn’t relevant.

    This is not quite accurate. The church fathers wrote extensive Old Testament exegesis; they just interpreted the violent passages metaphorically: for example, Origen sees the liberation of the Hebrews from the Egyptians as metaphorical for the liberation of Christians from sin by Christ.

  14. Depending on how you’re understanding quietism,

    EXACTLY! this sort of pedantic bullshitty conversation is interesting, but it has pretty much no relevance to broader issues predictivity in social science. there’s no ‘depending on how you understand 1 + 1′ or ‘newton’s laws.’

    This is not quite accurate.

    good riposte. though i have to be lame and assert that you don’t understand what *precisely* i was getting at, in that i wasn’t talking about commentary on OT, but the usage of jews as analogy when it comes to being a religious minority. obviously once the church captured western civilization that became less directly relevant, in contrast to how mormons or anabaptists see themselves.

    also, i don’t grant that christian refusal to worship the roman gods or emperor led to persecution *necessarily* as much as the christian historiography of the period would assert. i don’t want to get into an argument on that point, i just didn’t want to led the ‘fact’ ‘flow’, and enter into the record that it’s not unanimous in modern scholarship.

    finally, for those with a broader understanding of religious history (granted, very few of you), i offer up the examples of the nizari ismailis as a group whose attitudes and practice of violence and such vary quite a bit depending on their historical context and capabilities.

  15. ohwilleke says:Website

    I would agree that religion in practice is not something that can be logically determined from the bare reading of authoritative religious texts.

    But, religion, especially at a fine grained level, is a pretty good proxy for culture and subcultural affiliations and ethnicity. And, culture, in turn, is pretty strongly influence by economic, climate and resources context as well as pure history. Culture arising in similar contexts tend to have strong and broad similarities even if details differ. The case that things like cousin marriage may also have enduring impacts on culture and hence religion in practice, is also an interesting proposition.

    I am particularly interesting in instances like the transition from Temple Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism that created a very different set of practices under the guise of the same continuous religious tradition. “Taming” the faith, as it were.

  16. Troy says:

    Thanks for the reply, Razib. One further comment, that I hope may help indicate the differences I see between Jewish and early Christian “quietism.” If you look at the writings of the early church fathers, you see that they almost universally preach pacifism as a moral imperative. This pacifism usually extends not only to not fighting in war but to not fighting in self-defense either. (Indeed, although Augustine argued that fighting in war was acceptable, he still opposed self-defense.) By contrast, while post-rebellion Judaism was practically pacifistic, most medieval Jewish writers endorsed killing in self (or other) defense, and scholars like Maimonodes wrote extensively on the conditions under which war could justly be waged — although this was purely theoretical, as it was supposed to apply to the laws governing a Jewish state which no longer existed.

    That early Christians not only practiced pacifism but also defended it as a moral imperative is, to my mind, evidence that their pacifism was at least partly influenced by (their beliefs about) Jesus’s teachings, especially given that Jews in comparable political circumstances mostly did not endorse pacifism as a moral imperative, even though that could have rationalized their behavior. The different teachings on self-defense are further evidence that early Christians’ motives were not purely pragmatic.

    I am not as familiar with the history of the Nizari, but I suspect that if one were to look at Nizari scholarship on the morality of self-defense and killing in war during historical periods in which they were practically quietist, one would find teachings similar to those of medieval Jews. (I am welcome to being corrected on this or informed of other groups forced by circumstance to be quietest who then explicitly defended nonviolence as a moral imperative.)

  17. The different teachings on self-defense are further evidence that early Christians’ motives were not purely pragmatic.

    well, to some extent one of the peculiarities of religion as a phenomenon is that i think reducing to purely pragmatic (e.g., material or social accumulation of goods or status) concerns runs into dead ends. you might be right. but as a practical matter did xtian pacificism matter much when christianity became the religion of the state? no. OTOH, i will admit that xtian pacificism seems to be a reoccurring sectarian orientation that’s cropped up multiple independent times.

  18. omarali50 says:

    I think your view of theology is very persuasive, but coming back to history, do you think it matters that the early history of Islam is also the history of an expanding empire that used its religion both as motivation for its soldiers and as justification for their conquests while evolving its core religious doctrines? When Christians decide to stop waging their wars in the name of Christianity, their religious leaders can easily fall back on a theology that saw its beginnings as a pacifist theology. That choice is not easy for Sunni Muslims (Nizari Ismailis and other Shia sects may have been fully warlike at various points, but their theological flexibility seems to be greater, simply because they were the opposition in the first couple of centuries and have the option of rejecting most of what happened in Sunni Islam in those centuries IF the need arises). I guess I am saying that each case may have its little peculiarities. With Hinduism and Buddhism the early history is shrouded in mist anyway, so it is easier to modulate and pick and choose as needed. With Christianity, that early history is supposedly pacifistic and “leave to caesar what is caesar’s”, but this is not the case with Sunni Islam. That early history is a history of very vigorous “faith-based” military expansion and the religious framework presupposes a sort of vigorous armed independence and even domination. Does that make some options easier and others less likely?
    I am being very tentative because I used to think it did, but am now open to considering that maybe I was wrong. But not yet convinced that I was…at least not completely. :)

  19. omar, i think that is the strongest case one can make. but even acknowledging this model is an improvement over “look at what’s in the koran.”

  20. Current Commenter says:

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