A week ago a friend was asking about my opinion on a long article that was shared on Facebook about ISIS and the nature of Islam. It came up that I don’t talk about religion too much on this blog in the same way I did before 2010 or so. The primary reason is that I don’t have too much to say. But, people who are not familiar with my oeuvre to that great an extent might not be conscious that I’ve written/thought/read a good amount on the topic. For example, someone on Twitter attempted to “educate” me on Christian theology, but I’ve read stuff as diverse as Aquinas and Plantiga. Just because I don’t talk about it all the time doesn’t mean I’m not familiar; I just happen to find theology as interesting and insightful as a Christian finds reading Sam Harris.
More critical for my understanding of religion is the cognitive anthropology of the topic.* In particular, Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion is probably the best introduction to the axioms which inform the way I look at religious phenomena. This work is useful because it is encyclopediac in the nature of its disciplinary synthesis (e.g., it engages more deeply with evolutionary explanations than most of the cognitive anthropology literature), and, Atran directly engages alternative and complementary viewpoints such as the neo-functionalism David Sloan Wilson espouses in Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society.
All this means that I am highly skeptical of a central assumption of Michael Cook’s Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective, that religions are concrete things which are constrained and defined by foundational premises and institutional structures. Cook’s work is detailed in fleshing out the thesis. But ultimately the acceptance of the chain of causality rests on prior plausibility of the assumption in your own mind. As I have read and accepted a wide range of individual level cognitive results which show that there is little logical constraint on interpretation of religious texts (see Theological Incorrectness). I do think Cook’s work is an impressive corrective to those who dismiss the importance of religious foundations and text. His scholarship makes a much better case than others, because he brings a wide range of material into contrasting relief.
And when you drill down to the specifics it is easy to problematize. One of Cook’s contentions seems to be that Muslims in particular have very strong asabiyyah in relation to non-Muslims. An illustration of this idea is that once a society becomes Muslim it never switches to another state. Cook admits there are a few cases where this did occur, and in particular highlights the instance of the Moriscos of Spain. But, this actually proves the point of Muslim asabiyyah in the end, because the Moriscos were expelled in the early 17th century due to their indigestibility into the polity of Christian Castile.
There are two objections to this outline of Morisco indigestibility in relation to the Christian polity which became Spain. First, a fair number of Moriscos in fact did assimilate. Some of the most enthusiastic proponents of expulsion were descendants of Moriscos whose own loyalty and standing was threatened by the existence of a large crypto-Muslim population. There is an element of irony here, because the Moriscos were expelled as a people, and some believing Christians were exiled because of their ethnic affiliation as Muslims. Obviously deciding who was, and wasn’t, a Morisco was not cut & dried, though presumably interaction and integration into the community was key. Second, the focus on Moriscos misses the fact that the vast majority of the Muslims who lived in the Iberian peninsula became Christians over the centuries of the Reconquista.
In Victors and Vanquished: Christians and Muslims of Catalonia and Aragon, 1050-1300 the author outlines the process of initial toleration, and then assimilation, of the Muslims of northern Spain during the earlier phase of the Reconquista. Before the joint monarchy of Castile and Aragon finally conquered Granada, there had been a centuries long process of conversion, and over the longest time scale, re-conversion, of Muslim populations to Christianity. Focusing on the Morisco populations descended from groups which had had an Islamic identity the longest and most totally probably is not representative. The genetic data make it clear that outside of the far north of Spain there are low levels of admixture likely from people whose ancestry traces to North Africa all across the peninsula.
I would recommend Ancient Religions, Modern Politics. But with major caveats and cautions. Though that should be true of any book…..
If there is a paper I read this week which blew my mind, it is The Dynamics of Incomplete Lineage Sorting across the Ancient Adaptive Radiation of Neoavian Birds. Basically, the authors seem to argue that difficulties in resolving the phylogenetic origin of most birds right after the extinction of the dinosaurs. The issue seems to be that speciation occurred so rapidly in all directions from a large founding population that it is hard to resolve the genetic signals well into clean bifurcating speciation trees (ergo, the network). As someone who is more personally focused on a microevolutionary scale I wonder about the ubiquity of admixture, introgression, and hybridization, though that is not focused on too much in the paper.
The latest Planet Money podcast is interesting, as it looks closely at Netflix’s human resources policy. Basically, they don’t have any truck with the cant that the firm is a “family.” To a great extent I assume unless you’re a total rube you understand that on a deep level this is propaganda. Most firms will fire you if you are no longer necessary and that is clear. In contrast, with family usually you can’t just get rid of them (giving out a child for adoption and such are exceptions). Netflix takes this to the logical conclusion…but I think the story shows why you need to be careful about taking things to logical conclusions with humans. Netflix can only exist in a broader labor ecosystem where most firms don’t engage in the same practices or promote the ethos so nakedly. Additionally, Netflix’s analogy to a professional sports team, rather than a family, may be telling. There are cases where teams with a lot of lot under-perform because of lack of cohesion. One might predict that in the long term Netflix is going to face a problem because there’s no capital in the bank of goodwill from its employees. At the first moment Netflix looks like it might be headed in the wrong direction or become a marginalized player I predict its employees, its “team members,” will opt for free agency en masse. But does that matter? Is the institutional persistence of a particular firm even a good we sshould aim for?
* If you are interested in this topic, books of interest/note, in no particular order: Darwin’s Cathedral, Religion Explained, Breaking the Spell, Modes of Religiosity, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, The Belief Instinct, Mind and Gods, Religion is Not About God, Theological Incorrectness, The Faith Instinct, and Faces in Clouds. These works disagree with each other, and address different, if often overlapping, phenomena. But you kind of need to throw the kitchen sink at this sort of issue.