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relig One of the first things I wrote on the internet related to Indonesian Islam, and what we could expect in the future. This was before Gene Expression, and I don’t have archives of that blog. There are many issues where my views have changed over the past fifteen years, but that is a piece of writing whose contents I think hold up rather well, if I recall it correctly! (when I go back and reread things I wrote 15 years ago I often wince at my naivete)

Yesterday I noticed that The Wall Street Journal had a piece up, Hard-Liners’ Show of Force Poses Thorny Challenge for Indonesia’s President, and an accompanying sidebar: Examples of Indonesia’s Turn to Conservative Islam. The details are not super important. Basically, the Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta has gotten himself into some blasphemy trouble. Some of this critics are probably sincere, while some of his critics are probably being opportunistic. The political elite of the country must make a pretense toward neutrality, and genuflect toward religious sensibilities, since Indonesia is famously a 90% Muslim nation. Most people on some level know it’s bullshit, but at minimum you have to go through the motions. Religion aside this is a great chance to make sure that an assertive ethnic Chinese and Christian politician doesn’t get too uppity.

More interesting than what is happening is why this is occurring now. Not only is “Indonesia” famously the world’s most populous Muslim “nation,” it is also “tolerant” and “syncretic”, though recently “conservative” religious movements have become prominent, changing the nature of “Indonesian” Islam. Normally the usage of quotation marks in this manner is asinine, but I was conscious in what I was trying to “problematize.”

Indonesia is not truly a nation. Or at most it is a nation like India, a nation which encompasses a civilization with several related nationalities. Second, the tolerance of illiterate peasant cultivators for religious heterodoxy is different from the tolerance which 51T9NDF7GPL emerged (for example) in England on matters of religious belief and practice in the 18th century. And the syncretism of Indonesians is not like the syncretism you see in the development of the Sikh religion, which is a genuinely novel positive religious vision from a Dharmic base engaging questions and presuppositions derived from Islam. And Indonesian Islam which is called conservative is not conservative if conservatism harks to the customary, traditional, and organically evolved religious folkways of the populace. Rather, the “hard-line” Islam comes up from the aspirant middle classes and is connected with a broader movement of world-wide Islamic reformism and revivalism across the Ummah, and is consciously marginalizing the traditional Islamic religious establishment of rural regions.

What I’m getting at here is a general phenomenon, not limited to Islam. Eric Kaufmann alludes to it in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth. Dianne Purkiss in The English Civil War points to it too. What is that phenomenon? The terminal state of postmaterialist modernity is not attained in a linear and unidirectional fashion. In fact, it may not be a terminal and stationary state at all!

When engaging many progressive friends and acquaintances who have little interest in international relations it is often asserted that material deprivation is the root of Islamic terrorism and Islamism writ large. This is demonstrably false empirically. Marc Sageman in Understanding Terror Networks did an extensive ethnography of the Salafist terror international of the 2000s, and there was an extreme overrepresentation of the highly educated, affluent, and technical professionals. Scott Atran has also done ethnographic research, and converged on the same result: it is not economic deprivation that fuels these violent explosions, because the participants and principles are not economically deprived.

51r6r4q8HiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Even a superficial analysis of Islamist movements, the necessary parent movement for violent terrorism, show that they are often driven by the middle class and prosperous, just as most radical movements are. This reminds me of a particular religious movement: Reform Protestantism. In the Anglo-American case this is most starkly illustrated by the Puritans, who were attempting to complete the Reformation within the English Church (purging all “Popish” rituals and institutions, as well as removing theological diversity, such as Arminianism). The Puritans were often from the industrious and prosperous classes of London and eastern England. The New England colonies were arguably the world’s first universal literacy societies.

I have stated before that whenever I read about the Reformation and English Civil War I undergo some cognitive dissonance. My consciousness as an American was formed in a region of upstate New York which was heavily Dutch, but later became demographically dominated by the great migration out of New England. Either way, a particular Anglo-Protestant, even Puritan, vision of history was what was taught to me. And yet the Protestants in the Reformation were often the heralds of intolerance, violence, and iconoclasm. Just as they were the heralds of toleration and liberality (in addition to the Netherlands, see Reform Transylvania and to some extent Poland). Protestantism unleashed many different tendencies sublimated within the Western Christian Church up until the 16th century (the exceptions of the Hussites and John Wycliff aside). And some of those forces and tendencies were not ones which postmaterialist liberals in the broad sense would have much sympathy with. It gave rise to both the pluralism of the Pennsylvania project and the tolerance of Rhode Island, as well as the demands toward public conformity and private uniformity which were the Puritan Congregationalist colonies.

In Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State Andrew Gelman points out that ideological polarization is maximized at the upper income brackets. Values are to some extent luxuries, consumption goods for those beyond the subsistence level. What Kaufmann analyzes this on a sociocultural level, Gelman does so on an individual scale. And it explains why so little international Islamic terrorism comes out of the poorest Muslim countries in relation to their populations. The battle between the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan is between an Islamist movement and elements which are more diverse, but ultimately it recapitulates divides between country and city, and Pashtun and non-Pashtun, which give it local valence. The international aspect of Islamic terror is Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Somalia, comes from forces and threads which are international. Osama bin Laden was of Yemeni ancestry, but raised wealthy in Saudi Arabia. The influence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in poor Muslim countries has clear connections with migration from wealthier nations and Diasporas. Poverty may be fertile ground, but it is almost never the seed.

Going back to Indonesia, let’s bring together these strands and try and understand what’s going on. First, Indonesia is a collection of various nationalities with long histories of contact but distinction. The tolerant folk Islam that is often assumed to be the sine qua non of Indonesian Islam is really the culture of central and Borobudur_Templeeastern Java, that of the Javanese. At 40% of the Indonesian population the Javanese loom large, but they are not the totality of Indonesian culture and society. The people of Aceh came under Islamic influence centuries before Java, and they have traditionally had closer connection to the Middle East, and practice a more Middle East normative form of Islam. Second, many of the outlying islands have Muslim populations without the civilizational overhang of pre-Islamic greatness which characterizes Java. To this day a small minority of Javanese remain Hindus, while conversion to Hinduism from nominal Islam is not unheard of. This history though is truly the history of Java, and to a lesser extent the region around the Malacca strait. Hindu-Buddhist civilization’s impact on most of the Indonesian archipelago was much more diffuse and marginal (Sanksrit loan words as far as the Philippines and Madagascar are signs of this civilization’s contact with groups outside of Java and Sumatra). Outside of the areas of most intense Hindu-Buddhist domination history begins with Islam and the Dutch. They do not have much of a Hindu-Buddhist identity to synthesize with Islam in the first place.

Additionally, identity is not much of an issue in a village folk context. This is why syncretistic and tolerant Islam is common in many parts of the world characterized by subsistence farming. Individual lives are delimited by the custom and tradition of the village, which self-regulates. Rather than looking toward textual scripture, or religious professionals, long established folkways guide lives in a seamless fashion. Though these people may be tolerant when it comes to poorly understood or practiced religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy, they are also often very superstitious, and liable to murder the local “witch.” There are more tolerances than those of religious orthodoxy alone!

The major “problem” though occurs when you urbanize peasants. In an urban context village spirits are irrelevant, and the folk cultural currency which smoothes relationships no longer apply. If you are very wealthy this may not be relevant, as social networks of the elite have long had purchase in urban centers, and old connections can be leveraged at the commanding heights of industry and government. For the lower classes within slums the day to day may be a matter of survival and subsistence. A new identity is secondary to making to the next day. Where the need for identity likely comes to the fore is in the urban middle class. These the classes not connected to the levers of power in the social heights, but still have resources and leisure to ponder their place in the world, and how their nation should be ordered. In a village context these may have been prosperous farmers and gentry, already more closely connected to religious professionals than the more marginal peasant. Translated to the urban milieu their rural accumulated social capital accounts for little, with the inchoate Javanese mysticism and syncretism dissipating in the new environment for which it was never adapted in the first place.

This is where reformist and international Islam comes into play. This is a religion that is portable, and culturally neutral (ostensibly). Different local sub-elites transplanted into an urban milieu can meet and communicate with the lexicon of a religion which was defined from its beginning by urbanity. Not only does Islam allow for connections between people between different regions, but it also integrates oneself into an international network, previously only accessible to those with financial resources to travel extensively. Common belief in a transnational religion allows for immediate rapport with those from other nations, without the need for prior extensive personal interactions. Subscription to various forms of Islam allow for immediate inclusion into an international brotherhood.

The United States is perhaps the best example of what mobility and lack of solidity do to religious institutions. American religion is exceedingly confessional and decentralized. The Roman Catholic Churches attempt to create a corporate pillar on the model of the European society in the 19th century failed. Rather, operationally American Catholicism has become confessional at the level of the believers, if not the exterior institutions. Similarly, American Judaism took a very different trajectory from that of European Judaism. While European Reform Judaism was marginalized between the two poles of Orthodoxy and secularism, in the United States Reform Judaism was arguably the dominant form of Judaism for most of the nation’s history.

American religions are characterized by a wide range of levels of tension with the surrounding society, and are generally confessional, rather than communities of birth (though Judaism is arguably a hybrid, as Reform Judaism has again embraced the ethnic dimension of the religion). Some groups, which are often termed “conservative”, are at high tension with society. The reality is that they are not necessarily conservative, as much as they exhibit strong ingroup dynamics, and marginalize outgroups, and are marginalized by outgroups. Consider Mormonism, a religion which is conservative in its mores, but whose theology is highly exotic, and arguably radical. The key toward understanding Mormonism is its high internal cohesion. But this results in a side effect of tension with the surrounding society.

41cpg1ESArL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Indonesia is a nation of 250 million. The rise of “conservative” Islam is natural. As Indonesia urbanizes, its folk Islamic subculture s are dissolving. They evolved organically over thousands of years, and they are adapted to local conditions, utilizing local lexicon. Their strength was their deep local roots. They are not transplantable. It is natural that many urban dwellers would find that a culturally stripped down form of Islam based on textual sources, though extending from them, would be amenable to their needs. This form of Islam allows for strong ingroup ties that are not contingent on local histories or ethnic identities. But, it also throws up walls toward those who it considers outsiders and competitors. That is, non-Muslims. Other Indonesian urbanites are not becoming “conservative” Muslims. Rather, they are probably subscribing to what one might term “liberal international,” the transnational globalist class which is united by their affluence and postmaterialism, and a form of individualism well characterized by Jonathan Haidt.

Indonesian Muslims are arguably more “liberal” and more “conservative.” But this increased variation and solidity of large bloc social units is salient in a form which is more threatening. To readers of The Wall Street journal the transnational Muslims identifying with the Islamic Reformist international bloc are threatening, and a danger, due to their hostility toward outgroups. In contrast, the liberal globalists take a more relaxed attitude toward group identity, though they too have their own redlines and normative preferences.

The details may be local, but the dynamics are global.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Indonesia, Religion 
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41I42XDmNfL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_ There are some topics which I have some interest in, such as prehistory illuminated by genetics, in which there is constant change and new discoveries every few months. If a new paper doesn’t drop in a six month interval, I think something is wrong.

There are other topics where I don’t perceive much change, and have stopped paying much attention. Psychometrics for example is one area where I basically just stopped paying much attention after reading The g factor. I understand that it’s a live field, but at this point to me the details are academic, as the broad sketch seems well established (this will change in some ways over the next decade due to genomics, but since I think genomics will confirm what we already know it won’t be very revelatory for me).

The scientific study of religion is another topic where I once had a lot of interest, but where I concluded that the basic insights have stabilized. Since I stopped reading much in this area I stopped writing much about it too. To get a sense of where I’m coming from, Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion is probably the best place to start. It’s about 15 years old, but I don’t see that much has changed since then in the basics of the field.

9780195178036 And what are those basics? At its fundamental basics religious impulses must be understood as an outcome of our cognitive mental intuitions. All religion operates on top of this basic kernel of our mental OS. Religion may have functional utility as a social system of control, or channeling collective energies, as argued by David Sloan Wilson in Darwin’s Cathedral. Or, one might be able to fruitfully model “religious marketplaces” as argued in Marketplace of the Gods. But these are all basically simply applications installed into on top of the operating system.

Why does this matter? For me this is a personal issue, because I’m one of those people who has never really had a strong religious impulse. Since I didn’t have a religious impulse, my model of religion was as that of an outsider, which led to some confusions. For example, there was a point perhaps around the age of 18 where I thought perhaps if someone just read a book like Atheism: A Philosophical Justification they’d be convinced. Just as if I’d been a Roman Catholic I would have thought a reading of Summa Theologica would have convinced. This was all wrongheaded.

Very few are Roman Catholic because they have read Aquinas’ Five Ways. Rather, they are Roman Catholic, in order of necessity, because God aligns with their deep intuitions, basic cognitive needs in terms of cosmological coherency, and because the church serves as an avenue for socialization and repetitive ritual which binds individuals to the greater whole. People do not believe in Catholicism as often as they are born Catholics, and the Catholic religion is rather well fitted to a range of predispositions to the typical human.

One thing that the typical human does not have is intensive need for rationalization of our daily life, and the totality of their beliefs. There are a non-trivial subset of Catholics who have heard of the Five Ways, or might be conversant in the Ontological Argument. But this is a very small minority of Catholics, and for even these this philosophical element is a sidelight to most of their spiritual practice and orientation.

The reason I am posting this is in response to something Rod Dreher wrote, Mystery Of The Ages:

Here’s something I have never figured out. In theory, Catholics ought to be a lot more theologically conservative on such matters. They have a clear teaching proclaimed by a clear church authority, with a deep Biblical theology behind it. And yet, on the whole, it doesn’t seem to matter to lay Catholics. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have the Bible, but no binding interpretive authority to keep them from diverging. Yet, on these issues, they are more morally conservative than Catholics — even by Catholic standards.

Why is this? I’m asking in a serious way. Any of you have a theory? I’m not going to publish gratuitous Catholic bashing or Evangelical bashing in the comments.

The best book to fully address this paradox would be D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. But that’s the generality. If you want specifics, see Jay P. Dolan’s In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension. Though American Catholics retain identity and affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church, it has operationally become Protestantized when it comes to how people view their relationship to the religion (in a similar way, American Reform Jews also transformed their religion to conform with American confessional Protestantism).

There are a subset of believers who are not well captured by the generalizations in books such as Slone’s, or in ethnographic descriptions which trace the assimilation of Catholicism into the American scene. They are usually highly intellectual and analytical in their orientation. Often, they seem to be converts. Rod Dreher was a convert to Catholicism from Methodism, before he became Orthodox. Leah Libresco and Eve Tushnet also seem to fall into this category. Highly intellectual. And, converts to Catholicism.

Because they are analytical and articulate, these sorts of religious people are highly prominent on the public stage, and, they also write the histories that come down to us through the centuries. These are also the type of people who are overrepresented in the clerical apparatus of any organized religion. This is a problem, because their prominence can obscure the reality that they are not as influential as you might think. As a metaphor, imagine mountainous islands scattering amidst a featureless ocean. The islands are salient. But it is the vast ocean which will ultimately be determinative. Similarly, the vast number of believers who move along a nexus of inscrutable social forces, and driven by powerful universal psychologies, may be hidden from our view.

51jUZQV3r1L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_ And yet even for the “analytics” reason does not dictate. Both Dreher and Tushnet have made references to mystical and emotional occurrences and impulses which are beyond my ken. I have no need, no wish, no impulse, and no intuition as to what they are talking about in that dimension (Libresco seems a somewhat different case, but I haven’t read much of what she’s written; I suspect I’ve been in the same room with her since she worked for an organization which I have many personal connections with, but I’m not sure).

It isn’t a surprise that I think Hume was onto something when he asserted that “reason is a slave to the passions.” In many instances I suspect theological analysis is simply the analytic engine being applied to a domain whose ultimate rationale is driven by a passion.

Addendum: Leah Libresco seems to have been associated with the broad umbrella group of Bay Area rationalists. I’ve been associated in some fashion with these people as friends and acquaintances for nearly 10 years. I will admit that I’ve generally found the conceit of rationality as an ends, as opposed to a means, somewhat off-putting. Ultimately I’m more of a skeptic than a rationalist I suppose at the root.

• Category: Science • Tags: Religion 
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bw04060031396378081 It is a common assertion to state Christianity helped maintain the continuity of Classical civilization down to the Medieval era, through the “Dark Age” of Europe after the Fall of Rome. A more extreme position is that Christianity was a necessary condition for the maintenance of this civilizational tradition. I recall once reading an alternative history short story where illiterate tribesman visit the ruins of Rome, and muse about the consequences of Maxentius’ victory over Constantine at Milvian Bridge (this is the “point of departure”).

Obviously no one denies that the Christian Church was essential in maintaining ancient learning and ideas, whether through concrete steps such as copying in scriptoriums, or, more abstractly by integrating with into intellectual armamentarium tools developed by the Greeks (e.g., Greek philosophy). But, there is a line of thinking that asserts that there was something profound about the Christian religion which allowed for the maintenance of civilization against the barbarian hordes. Whether it is true or not is not an argument that is winnable in this space. But, the power of ideas to shape the course of human history is more tractable.

What I would suggest is that complex human phenomena, such as Christianity, are not reducible down to abstract sets of ideas in terms of how they manifest themselves in our world. That is, Christianity is only marginally about the Athanasian Creed, or even the sacrifice made by the Son of God, from a naturalistic perspective. Rather, the religion includes a broader set of institutions and folkways which derive from the culture at large (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church is the “ghost of the Roman Empire”). Additionally, it also expresses common human intuitions about the world and social relations.

But, as a complex cultural phenomenon, Christianity is conditional on complex culture. That is, Christianity may have aided the preservation of learning in the Dark Ages, but it couldn’t be the necessary cause of this preservation because too is an effect. The persistence of Christianity in the post-Roman world was a hallmark of those regions which maintained Romanitas to a greater extent. Christianity seems to have disappeared broadly (even if it persisted residually) from areas of the Roman Empire where there was total social collapse and transformation; the regions of Britain conquered by the Anglo-Saxons, much of the interior of Pannonia, Dacia, and Thrace. These are zones of cultural turnover. But, we know from genetics that a substantial local population persisted. In the Balkans and England a large minority of the ancestry derives from migrations which occurred after the year 500, but only a minority. But, the Roman majority clearly lost the cultural commanding heights, and with that the elite support for Christianity. These were zones that had to be re-Christianized in later centuries, even though a substantial proportion of the population probably had had Christian ancestors before.

congo_main_1894003f It isn’t that there was a proactive campaign of paganization, analogous to what occurred in 17th century Japan against the Christian population, who were forced to register with Buddhist temples. Rather, the total defenestration of the old Roman elites in these areas made it so that the new elites seem to have had little incentive to convert and patronize the old religion. This is in contrast to the situation in post-Roman Gaul (Francia), Spain and Italy, where Roman era elites maintained enough continuity to influence the German warrior elites (though in many cases these elites were already Christian, they were Arian sectarians, whose religious difference marked them off from the old nobility and the peasantry).

This all came to mind when I began to read portions of Congo: The Epic History of a People. I am reading this book for two reasons. After Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, I have come to think that the Congo basin is one of the great laboratories of the forces which drive cultural geography. As such, I have an eye out for books on the Congo. Second, it was a summer reading deal for the Kindle, and so cheaper than a Starbucks coffee.

The second relevant to this post: after the decline of the Kingdom of Kongo a residual memory of Christianity persisted across broad areas. But, Christianity became integrated into African shamanism and folk religion, and lost all its substantive distinctiveness from African traditional religion. The few Europeans who ventured into the interior in the 19th century reported villages where there were survivals of Christian ideas, but they had transformed beyond simple recognition. In the 20th century the southwest portion Congo basin, which been under Kongo rule, therefore became the focal point for missionary activity again.

What is true for Christianity is probably true for many complex human ideas and institutions that we think are here for good. The reality is that complexity of thought and contingency of logic are dependent on the surpluses generated by a a highly developed economy and centralized state.

Addendum: The tendency to culturally evolve seems normal. It happened to Islam in China when it was isolated from the broader world Islamic community.

• Category: History, Ideology • Tags: Kongo, Religion 
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Religion in Korea by province

Religion in Korea by province

The map to the left is derived from 2005 census data from South Korea. You see religious affiliation by region. The blue bar represent Buddhists. The purple bar Protestants. And the orange bar are Catholics. The figures do not add up to 100% because a large number of South Koreans do not have a religious affiliation.

The Korean peninsula has witnessed a lot of religious change over the past three generations. Traditional beliefs and mores were stronger in the southern part of the peninsula, so Pyongyang was a major center of Christianity. The division between North and South was accompanied by a migration of Christians from the North to the South. On the order of 1% of the population around ~1950, today Christians form about 30% of the population, with 20% being Protestant, and 10% being Roman Catholic. Buddhists comprise 20% of the population. Most of the gains to Christianity occurred between 1950 and 1995.There has also been a more pronounced growth in Roman Catholicism, which is arguably more prominent than its numbers would warrant. Three of the eight listed potential presidential candidates in 2017 list Roman Catholicism as their religion.

Spatially the patterns make some sense and are not surprising to me. The southwest of the peninsula has traditionally been supporters of the more Left political party, while the southeast has been aligned with the Right. Seoul and its environs to the northeast is arguably the locus for the most Westernized segments of Korean society.

I’m curious what Korean readers, or people who have lived in Korea, have to say about this.

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TaylorSwiftApr09 William Dalrymple in The New Yorker has a reflection up on the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, The Great Divide. It is fine so far as it goes. He reminds us of the scale of the tragedy, millions of deaths, as well as the depravity of the barbarity, as “infants were found literally roasted on spits.” Some day I will have to educate myself about this period, as I only have vague recollections of reading fragments of Freedom at Midnight as a child. I recall stopping at the point where the authors reported how a group of men broke into an obstetrics unit at a hospital and took a newborn who had just breathed their first and smashed its brains out on the walls, while the mother and hospital staff watched in horror. That was enough to get a flavor of the “action.” Fortunately my family did not suffer during this period, Bengal was relatively quiet in comparison to the atrocities washing over Punjab (as many of you are aware, my family experienced more hardship in the 1971 war, though as they were relatively privileged Muslims who were also not very involved in the arts or politics they were not actively targeted).

But there is one section whose assumptions and implications rub me the wrong way. Let me quote:

In the nineteenth century, India was still a place where traditions, languages, and cultures cut across religious groupings, and where people did not define themselves primarily through their religious faith. A Sunni Muslim weaver from Bengal would have had far more in common in his language, his outlook, and his fondness for fish with one of his Hindu colleagues than he would with a Karachi Shia or a Pashtun Sufi from the North-West Frontier.

Many writers persuasively blame the British for the gradual erosion of these shared traditions. As Alex von Tunzelmann observes in her history “Indian Summer,” when “the British started to define ‘communities’ based on religious identity and attach political representation to them, many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.” Indeed, the British scholar Yasmin Khan, in her acclaimed history “The Great Partition,” judges that Partition “stands testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different—and unknowable—paths.”

Ten years ago I read Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind. It is a work of history which shows how many caste identities were fashioned de novo under the impetus of British bureaucratic taxonomic impulse (see Census of 1891). Though Dirks is too subtle to assert that the caste system was created by the British, the general thrust of the work is clearly one which emphasizes the role of recent historical contingency in establishing the social order of South Asia as we understand it. The subhead is after all: “Colonialism and the Making of Modern India.” The British are then the agents who operate upon the formless void of the Indian subcontinent’s amorphous peasant culture. They came, they saw, and they created.

Even when I read Castes of Mind I was moderately skeptical of the narrative, as there had been enough genetics done to suggest that South Asian populations were stratified by caste. By this, I mean that caste status as much, or more, than geography predict the genetic structure of Indian society. It was already evident, for example, that South Indian Brahmins were closer to North Indian Brahmins than they were to South Indian Dalits when it came to genetic relatedness. Brahmins and Dalits are two caste groups which are clear and present throughout South Asia (the “middle castes” tend to vary from region to region, and the classical warrior and trader castes do not exist in South India, though there are notionally Sudra groups which occupy their roles). Even those who prioritize the role of the British would accept that the Brahmin and untouchable categories predate the reification of the colonial period. But what the latest genetics is telling us is that caste endogamy has been a feature of Indian life for at least 2,000 years, and perhaps longer. Not only are Brahmins distinct from Dalits, but castes with a less clear position in the classical varna typology, such as the Reddy community of South India, clearly have had long histories as a coherent groups. The British could not have been the dominant causal force in shaping caste as a ubiquitous feature of Indian life if they were already genetically endogamous even before the Muslims arrived.

And so with religion. The contemporary revisionism, which now is approaching mainstream orthodoxy, is that South Asian religious life before the arrival of the British, and the Western outlook more generally, was characterized by a quietist syncretism where communal boundaries were fluid to the point of confessional identity being a flimsy veil which could be shed or shifted dependent upon context. An alternative history then might be proposed of a united subcontinent, where Hindus and Muslims were coexistent, or, perhaps where a Hindu and Muslim identity did not even exist. The cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer likes to characterize a theory as giving you “information for free.” You don’t really have to know anything, you can simply deduce from your axioms. Though the model of South Asian ethno-religious history I allude to above obviously integrates ethnographic and historical realities, it constructs a post-colonial fantasy-land, where South Asian religiosity was without form or edge before the arrival of Europeans and their gaze collapsed the wave function. Before the instigation of Europeans people of color were tolerant of religious diversity, varied sexual orientations, and practiced gender egalitarianism. In other words, India was like the campus of Oberlin college, except without the microaggressions, and more authentic spirituality!

51J39W7ZRFL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_ The first problem with this model is empirical and specific to South Asia. Before white Europeans arrived in the Indian subcontinent to roil and upend its social order, to transform its culture, there was already a ruling race of self-consciously white people doing just that. They were the Turks, Persians, and a lesser extent Arabs, who introduced Islam to the subcontinent. As alluded to in Dalyrmple’s piece in some ways Islam was conceived of as a sect of the foreigners by the natives, as well as the Muslims themselves. This is not an entirely strange state of affairs, in the first century or so of Islam the religion was the tribal cult of the Arab ruling caste of the Caliphate. Only with the rise of the Abassids and maturation of Islamic civilization as a pan-ethnic and post-ethnic dispensation did the “converted peoples,” in particular the Persians and Turks, become full members of the Ummah, and turn it into the universal religion that we understand it today (though even today there is an ethnic dimension in Islam, for example, the Islamic State accepts that the Caliph must be an Arab of the Quraysh tribe).

For many centuries Islam in South Asia recapitulated this pattern ancient pattern, whereby those who descended from converts were received as second class citizens (and still called “Hindus,” which simply meant a native of Hindustan). And to this reality must be added the dimension of race, for the Muslims from the west viewed the native peoples as black, and many elite families with origins in Persia and Central Asia maintained their endogamy for generations partly as a matter of racial hygiene. When Muslim elites did intermarry with the descendants of converts, it was invariably with those descended from high caste groups. The Mughal Emperors did wed women from Hindu backgrounds, but these were the daughters of powerful Rajputs, whose values and armies fused with the Muslim invaders to create what we understand as Islamicate civilization.

Yet there are many other stories besides the standard one of the rise and fall of Mughal India. In Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia, the author shows how the arrival of Islam in the subcontinent often involved a complex process of cultural interaction mediated by esoteric strains of the Ismaili sect. It is not relevant for the purpose of this post to review the nature of Ismaili Islam, but it is important to note that Sunnis view this group as deviant and marginally Muslim. With the arrival of the Mughals there began a long period of persecution of Ismailis in the Indian subcontinent as the new arrivals attempted to enforce conformity on the Muslim population. Both Crossing the Threshold and Mullahs on the Mainframe, an ethnography of a particular Ismaili sect in Gujarat, report that many of the Sunni Muslim communities of the subcontinent may be descended from people who entered Islam via Ismailism. Under the Mughals heterodox Muslim sects like the Ismailis were subject to more persecution than non-Muslims (this echos a similar dynamic in Late Antiquity, where more of the Christian animus was directed toward heretical sects than pagans). In Gujarat this resulted in mass conversions to Sunni Islam. In other regions it might have resulted in a “compromise” state of shifting to a Twelver Shia identity, which though not Sunni, was generally accorded more respectability than Ismailism. These people would be anticipating the life of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whose recent ancestors (most accounts state his grandfather) converted from Hinduism to Ismailism, but who himself was an entirely irreligious man who avowed a Twelver Shia faith for purposes of formality.

The author of Crossing the Threshold suggests that for many centuries there existed in the subcontinent under the more tenuous and patchwork pre-Mughal Islamic rulers many liminal communities, which straddled the line between Muslim and Hindu. So long as the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent viewed themselves as strangers in a land which offered them opportunities for profit, there was a certain freedom in being viewed as an amorphous black-skinned mass of “Hindus” whose only importance was in the tax that they provided their overlords. The Mughals changed that. Though they were in origin Timurid princes from Central Asia, their long ascendancy in the subcontinent produced a genuine synthesis with the indigenous substrate. By the later years of the dynasty their symbolic and ceremonial roles as Emperors of India became so entrenched that even resurgent Hindu groups such as the Marathas retained the Mughals as figureheads, much as the Zhou dynasty persisted for centuries after its genuine preeminence had faded.

516ZEEEK2XL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_ Over the 150 years that the Mughals dominated South Asia with their armies they also changed the nature of Islam in the subcontinent thanks to their broader connections. The Naqshbandi Sufi ordered was associated with the dynasty, and objected when rulers such as Akbar bent or rejected what they perceived to be Sunni Islamic orthodoxy. And the Naqshbandi were in a place to judge what was orthodox, as they were an international order with branches across Sunni the Muslim world. The historian S. A. M. Adshead discusses the role of what he calls the “Naqshbandi International” in binding the Islamic world back together after the shattering of the Mongol invasions in Central Asia in World History. It was no coincidence that attempted to root out deviancy and enforce what they saw to be uprightness.

China was another zone of Naqshbandi influence. Unlike India China proper had (and has) never been ruled by Muslims. After period of prominence under the Yuan (Mongols) the Muslim groups became another minority, tolerated by the Han Chinese, but viewed with curiosity and confusion. While the Muslims of what is today called Xinjiang were part of the Turkic world, and even when conquered by the Manchus administered as a separate domain from China, those resident in the east were relatively isolated from the Ummah, and swam in a Han sea. The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China tells the story of the intellectuals among the Muslims of eastern China, who were confronted with accommodating the reality that they existed at the sufferance of non-Muslims, and could only advance to prominence and prosperity playing the game according to the rules of the Han majority. At the popular level in places like Ningxia there emerged Muslim apocalyptic movements which bore a striking resemblance to heterodox variants of Pure Land Buddhism, but among the intellectuals there arose the conundrum of how to render compatible orthodox Islam and Neo-Confucianism. So long as China was reasonably isolated from the rest of the world, this process dynamic proceeded without interference and followed its own logic. What emerged can reasonably be described as a synthesis between Islam and Neo-Confucianism, which resembles in its broad outlines the sort of fusion which occurred in early Christianity after the ruling elites took up the religion and imparted upon it their own philosophical presumptions. Just as some Christians perceived in their religion the completion of the project of the ancient Greek philosophers, so Hui Muslim intellectuals in the cities of eastern China in the 18th century saw in Islam not the overturning of Chinese culture, but its extension and perfection.

Suffice it say this movement among educated Chinese Muslims did not give fruit to a vital modern tradition. Several waves of Islamic reform have blasted into China from the outside world, first from Central Asia, and later from the Middle East proper in the age of modern transport and pilgrimage. The Islamic-Confucian synthesis in its full elaboration was a stillborn sect, pushed aside by the popularity of world normative Islam and the decline in prestige in the 19th and 20th century of Neo-Confucianism. Similarly, the Islamic-Hindu synthesis championed by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh and prefigured by his great-grandfather Akbar, was forestalled by the emergence of Aurangzeb. Remembered as pious and steadfast by many modern day Muslims, he is reviled by Hindus, and most Western historians, who perceive that the sun set on religious pluralism due to his actions, seem to take a dim view of him. But Aurangzeb was closely associated with the Naqshbandi over much of his life, and he may be less important to the broad social movement of South Asian Muslims being drawn into an international system, with a standard set of beliefs and practices, than we think. Rather, Aurangzeb’s life arc may be consonant with both the indigenization of Islam in the subcontinent, and its need to align itself with external norms.

513yXnWcqDL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ Though I use the Indian subcontinent as my primary illustration, the dynamic is likely more general. In The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity Phillip Jenkins notes that though many claims are made for indigenous African churches, that is, those which have no connection to global denominations and movements and tend to more freely integrate African practices, as African societies become more Christianized they tend to become more mainstream and orthodox in their affiliation. What Jenkins is observing is that with development and modernity indigenous and local practices tend to fade into the background, as African Christians become influenced by the ideas and traditions of Christians from other regions of the world. Individuals who consider themselves part of a religious community start to adhere to the practices and norms of that community’s history.

Despite the homogenization and delineation of identity categories in India there are still liminal communities in the mode envisaged by Crossing the Threshold. The Meo people of Northwest India are Muslims who maintain many Hindu traditions. But the trend among the Meo is to become progressively “more Muslim,” and those Meo who leave their homeland assimilate into the conventional Sunni Muslim milieu and lose their distinctiveness. The Ismaili Khoja community of India is another example of a Muslim group with many Hindu customs and beliefs which has become more “orthodox” within historical memory. In this case the arrival of their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, from Iran in the 19th century seems to have triggered an Islamic reformation of views and mores. And just as there may have been many groups which moved toward a more standard Muslim identity, there were likely those who became more self-conscious in their Hinduism, as that tradition coalesced as a negation of the exclusive confessionalism of Islam. The Hussaini Brahmins customarily participated in Shia Ashura, and have an origin story which places them at Karbala on the side of the sons of Ali. As noted above it was not unknown for high caste Hindus to enter Islam and intermarry with the Muslim nobility. Over time their Hindu origins may have been obscured, as they constructed wholly Muslim origin narratives. The Hussaini Brahmin community might illustrate a case where the process was halted, and reversed, albeit with a retention of some of their Islamic practices and beliefs. In Crossing the Threshold the argument is made that it the critical aspect for the Sunni Muslim eminences enforcing the new orthodoxy was that Muslim and non-Muslim be clear and distinct categories. Therefore, better a Hindu than a heretic.

51k6n6ma-NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ What have I left out of the story? Note that white Europeans are notably absent from the narrative. To some extent this is an artificiality. European “factories” were present on the margins of Mughal India. Jesuits supplanted Muslims as astronomers in the court of Ming China, and were disputants on religious topics in the court of Akbar the Great. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, were all closely associated with each other in Central Asia, to the point where it is difficult to tease apart the arrows of causality. In China it seems likely that some varieties of Christianity with ultimate roots in Persia and Central Asia were subsumed into strands of Pure Land Buddhism. But, the point is that history and peoples are subject to general patterns and dynamics, and European colonialism may be thought of as just one important contingent factor. A critical one, but one factor nonetheless.

41JdP75Eu8L._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_ It is hard to deny the influence of European culture and Christianity on Indian national and religious worldviews. Consider Hindutva. Conceived of as a form of Hindu racial nationalism by Vinayak Savarkar, himself an atheist who advocated the dismantling the caste system, it is difficult to understand it without considering the dominant winds of culture in the early 20th century. Those winds invariably blew out of Europe. The colonial imprint, the mirrored reflection of British racial nationalism, is real. Today the intellectual descendants of Savarkar promote bizarre beliefs like the idea that ancient Hindus had flying machines and nuclear weapons, and that astrology is a true science and Ayuvedic medicine is superior to that of the West. It is hard not to see in these beliefs a funhouse distortion of Western movements, such as Christian Science and Creationism. Similarly, the Islamic Creationism of Harun Yahya is explicitly indebted to American evangelical Protestants!

And yet within South Asia the broad trend of confessionalization predates the arrival and dominance of Europeans. It seems entirely likely that a division between Islam and what became Hinduism in the subcontinent was inevitable, as modernity and globalization seem to produce crisper identity groups, which are not diffuse, inchoate, and locally rooted. Yes, illiterate peasant naturally practice syncretistic traditions, but when the illiterate peasant becomes a town dweller a different sort of religious practice takes hold. There is a reason that the city-dwelling Christians of the Late Antique world were contemptuous of the marginally Christianized peasantry, the pagani. The last European people to convert to Christianity were the Lithuanians, in the late 14th century. But the peasantry retained enough of their customary religion that veneration and recollection of sacred groves seem to have persisted down to early modernity.

51W2mxRBC9L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_ The Reformed Dutch scholar Atonie Wessels wrote a book titled Europe: Was it Ever Really Christian? His thesis is that from an orthodox Protestant perspective which privileges the beliefs and practices of the individual, it can be argued that much of the European peasantry was operationally pagan down to the Catholic and Protestant Reformations of the 16th and 17th century, followed by the secularization of the continent that began after the Peace of Westphalia. In short, during the period after the fall of Rome and Renaissance the elites were steadfastly Christian, but peasants were only nominally so, with their spiritual life dominated by superstitions rooted in local traditions. In contrast, the emergence of Protestant and Catholic identities during the Reformation resulted in a broad based Christian feeling and identity among the populace. So much so that when the Hohenzollerns converted to Calvinism in the early 17th century their subjects remained steadfast in their Lutheranism. But as the populace became more conventionally Christian, the elites began their long slide toward secularism, finally resulting the rise to power of Frederick the Great, who in matters of religion was apathetic at best.

The European example is important, because it shows that even without exogenous European colonialism confessionalism occurs as a society modernizes. The seeds of this confessionalization are clear in South Asia even before the rise to power of the British raj, as Hindu rulers such as Shivaji privileged their own native traditions as against that of the Muslims, while earlier the rulers of Vijayanagar had served as patrons of native religion while the north of the subcontinent was dominated by Muslim polities. It does seem fair to state that Sanatani is not comprehensible without it dialectic with Islam. But, it is important to remember that Buddhism as an organized religion with a missionary impulse predates Christianity by centuries. Obviously institutional religious identity in the subcontinent is not dependent upon the ideas of Europeans and Muslims. What differed with the arrival of Islam is that it was a Weltanschauung which was not digestible to the native cultural traditions.

Though the various Muslim ruling warrior castes held themselves aloof from the people of India, being within the subcontinent, but not of it, it seems inevitable they presumed that their domains were now a permanent part of the Dar-ul-Islam, just as Iran or Central Asia was. Certainly Ibn Battuta could travel in an entirely Muslim India, which operated in parallel with the practices of the vast majority. Over time no doubt the Muslims assumed that the subcontinent would be won over as Iran had. It is hard to remember now, but in the first few centuries of Islamic rule there were periodic anti-Muslim nativist religious eruptions which attempted to overthrow the Muslims, who were perceived as aliens. Prophets arose which told of a time when Islam would fall, and the old religion of the Iranians would come back to the pride of place that it had had. A detailed exploration of this lost world can be found in Patricia Crone’s The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran, but these movements always make cameos in even traditional works of early Islamic history, such as Hugh Kennedy’s When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World. But by 1000 A.D. the majority of Persian peasants were Muslim, and Zoroastrianism and its affiliated movements slowly went into their long decline (though still retaining influence through various heterodox Islamic and post-Islamic religious movements).

61H+zZL41QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ In India you have a world where the vision of the Iranian prophets came to be, where Islam which seemed eternal and ever waxing in numbers and influence, lost its hold on power and native dynasties which championed local religious traditions arose. There are many differences between the situation of Iran and India. In no particular order, India is far more populous than Iran, local non-Muslim rulers always managed to retain independence at the far corners even at the height of Islamic power and dominion, and the cultural distance between the Muslims and the natives of India was arguably greater than that between the Arabs and the Persians. Even though the Iranians and northern Indians share Aryan cultural roots and influence, reflected in language and religious ideas, those are distant affinities. In contrast, the Arabs had long been present on the margins of the western Iranian world, and the ecology of much of Iran and Mesopotamia was familiar to them.

One peculiarity of the historiography of India under the Muslims is that many scholars claim that local intellectuals, mostly Brahmins, behaved as if their conquerors did not even exist. This sort of involution though may be less strange than seems on first inspection. Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe are to a great extent a people without a history, as their intellectual class devoted its energies to Talmudic commentary, not recording the history of their people. India was massive, and transformations were pregnant within its cultural matrix in response to the Islamic challenge. The Sikh religion seems an obvious case of synthesis, which while that of Hindu reformist movements such as Arya Samaj seem to sublimate the external variables.

61LXo6U7a4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Though the British may have been a proximate cause for the communal conflicts that tore apart the subcontinent in 1947, they were not the deep cause. As Victor Lieberman observes in Strange Parallels: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands, after 1000 AD there arose several polities dominated by cultural aliens along the edge of Eurasia, such as that of the Muslims in India, the Tai in Southeast Asia and the Manchu in China. But unlike the latter two cases the Islamic elites never sufficiently rooted themselves in the local culture to establish a coherent and unified national identity. While the Manchu racial sense of distinctiveness persisted down to their overthrow, their cultural assimilation to most Han mores was so total that rulers such as Kangxi Emperor arguably became exemplars of Confucian rulers. Though the Tai imposed their language of the Mon and Khmer people whom they conquered, they fostered a genuine cultural synthesis by patronizing the Theravada Buddhism of their subjects and espousing it as their national religion. While the kings of Thailand patronized Brahmins to give their rule a tincture of Hindu legitimacy, the Mughals were styling themselves as Padishahs.

If Dara Shikoh had defeated Aurangzeb and the British had never brought India into their Empire, would history have been different? I would like to hope so, but I doubt so. Akbar had attempted to create a new religion, but it did not last beyond his life. By the 17th century what was becoming Hinduism, and Indian Islam, were already sufficiently developed that they were becoming cultural attractors. Not through cognitive bias, but the weight of inertia of their cultural history and precedent. The transition from Akbar, to Jahangir, to Shah Jahan, and finally Aurangzeb, is one from an individual who brooked the displeasure of Naqsbhandi shiekhs, to one who worked hand in hand with them. An alternative vision is one where the heirs of Akbar turn their back on their dreams of Fergana, and rely upon Rajputs to dominate their lands instead of a mix of Central Asians and native Indians, Hindu and Muslim. Perhaps the Mughals would have become indigenized enough that they would transform into that they would have become fully Indian in their religious identity. Ultimately the answers of history are more complex than can be dreamt of in your post-colonial philosophy, and the white man is neither angel nor the devil, but a subaltern of historical forces.

• Category: History • Tags: History, India, Religion 
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Crime rates from FBI, % "No Religion" from General Social Survey

Crime rates from FBI, % “No Religion” from General Social Survey

The_Blank_Slate It’s easy to point out the cultural Left’s adherence to all sorts of social constructionisms. My post Men Are Stronger Than Women (On Average) has a lot of Google juice because it now gets cited online a fair amount in arguments…because people are obviously taking the converse position (not that women are stronger, but that the difference is not major). But, there’s a fair amount of ignorance and flight from reality to go around. Probably the biggest blind spot on the cultural Right in the United States is the “family values” Uber Alles stance. As documented over 15 years ago in The Nurture Assumption shared family environment, basically your parents’ non-genetic influence, is relatively minor in affecting behavioral life outcomes (this is not to say that the issues aren’t subtle, but a simple projection from family home to individual outcomes is not viable).

But there’s another major confusion when it comes to the religious Right in particular, and that concerns the origins of morality and ethics. Most people are probably aware of the Josh Duggar fiasco at this point. If you aren’t, Google it. There isn’t much to say that hasn’t been said, but this post from his father-in-law has been raising eyebrows:

…It is a mercy of God that he restrains the evil of mankind otherwise we would have destroyed ourselves long ago. Many times it is simply lack of opportunity or fear of consequences that keep us from falling into grievous sin even though our fallen hearts would love to indulge the flesh. We should not be shocked that this occurred in the Duggar’s home, we should rather be thankful to God if we have been spared such, and pray that he would keep us and our children from falling.

This attitude is entirely unsurprising to me, I’ve heard it many times from evangelical Christians. The theory is that without religion, and particularly their religion, they would be “a rapin’ and murderin'”. Why? Because that’s what people do without God. Believe it or not, I have never believed in God, nor have I raped and murdered (or molested). Nor do I think that raping and murdering would be enjoyable. Nor do I think that the evangelical Christians who proudly declaim that without their savior they would rape or murder with abandon would actually rape or murder.

This idea that without religion there is no morality is very widespread in the subculture, to the point of being an implicit background assumption that informs reactions to many events in concert with the idea of original sin and fundamental human depravity (thank you St. Augustine and John Calvin!). I have a socially liberal friend from an evangelical background, who is still somewhat associated with that movement, who confided in me that to did look forward to debauchery in a post-Christian life on some occasions. I had to convince him that even if he was not religious life was not likely to change much for him in the sex department unless he shifted his standards somewhat. Without God all things are not possible, believe it or not.

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_cover The fundamental misunderstanding here is actually one of intellectual history. Many evangelical Protestants in particular envisage the world before the revelation of God to Abraham, but sometime after the Fall, as a Hobbesian one of “all-against-all.” This is not limited to evangelical Christians. Many Muslims also conceive of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya in Arabia as one of pagan darkness and debauchery. The root misunderstanding is conceiving of morality and ethics as a historical human invention, as opposed to formalizations of deep cognitive intuitions and social-cultural adaptations. Broadly, I agree with Peter Turchin that the origin of modern organized religions has its ultimate roots in the social and institutional needs of pan-ethnic imperial systems during the Axial Age. The synthesis of a supernatural Weltanschauung with the nascent enterprise of philosophy and the older intuitions of tribalism allowed for the emergence of the multi-textured phenomenon which we now term organized religion. Religion co-opted and promoted morality, but it did not invent it. The Israelites put in their Lord God’s mouth their own morality that was existent before his invention! Prior to the development of organized religion it seems likely that the connection between supernatural agency and morality was more tenuous and conditional (and even then, the angry and jealous petulant Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible has plenty of glimmers of the amoral gods of yore).

That is why even with the diminishing of organized religion in the modern West there has not been a correlated rise in crimes such as murder. The connection between ethical monotheism and ethics is not nearly as necessary as the religious would have you believe. The chart at the top does not prove at all that irreligion leads to decrease in crime (on the contrary, there is modest evidence that religious involvement results in mild prosocial tendencies when you control for confounds). But, it does show starkly that over the last 25 years in the United States there has been a simultaneous decrease in violent crime, and, a massive wave of secularization. This contradicts a model which proposes that religion and ethical behavior are necessarily and deterministically associated.

So no, in the case of Josh Duggar it isn’t a matter of “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” I’ll let others psychoanalyze his behavior, but it isn’t a normal human impulse which has to be constrained by the teachings of religion. If religion has to teach you not to molest your sisters you’ve got a problem, son! And it has nothing to do with your soul. This may be a boundary condition which validates the “nurture assumption.”

Year Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate Forcible rape rate % No religion
1991 9.8 42.3 6.3
1992 9.3 42.8 9
1993 9.5 41.1
1994 9 39.3 9
1995 8.2 37.1
1996 7.4 36.3 11.9
1997 6.8 35.9
1998 6.3 34.5 13.7
1999 5.7 32.8
2000 5.5 32 14.1
2001 5.6 31.8
2002 5.6 33.1 13.8
2003 5.7 32.3
2004 5.5 32.4 14.1
2005 5.6 31.8
2006 5.8 31.6 15.9
2007 5.7 30.6
2008 5.4 29.8 16.8
2009 5 29.1
2010 4.8 27.5 18
2011 4.7 27
2012 4.7 27.1 19.7
2013 4.5 25.2
2014 20.7
• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: Ethics, Morality, Religion 
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By now you are aware that another blogger who happened to be an atheist was killed. The modus operandi is pretty familiar. It looks like there are now “hits” going up against these individuals as a way for Islamic radicals to target an easy to scapegoat minority in Bangladesh. Atheists are now caught in a crossfire between religious nationalists and secularists, a divide which goes back to the Pakistan days. How vulnerable are the atheists? Well:

“The culture of impunity that has spread over the last few years clearly has very damning results,” Arifur Rahman told IHEU after Washiqur Rahman was killed. “… The word ‘Nastik’ (atheist) has been vilified in Bangladesh (and the rest of the Muslim world); they are seen as sub-human, it is OK to kill them.”

All cultures are not the same. In most of the Islamic world sufferance would be enough for many minorities. While craven Leftists wring their hands over insults to Islamic minorities in their midst, Islamic civilization is wrecking havoc upon the liberties of millions. That being said, there is a continuum. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, and Azerbaijan are not interchangeable. There are some analogies being made to Pakistan right now (like being analogized to Mississippi in the United States this is never good). That’s apposite at this particular moment because 45 Ismaili Muslims have been gunned down in Karachi. It strikes me that Pakistani sectarianism is now proceeding down a Bonhoefferian Niemöllerian gangplank, first dehumanizing non-Muslims, and then progressively narrowing the set acceptable. The nation is on the way to being a literal circular firing squad.

Bangladesh is a different case. I won’t rehash it. I will point out though that when I posted about my own identity, as an atheist of Bangladeshi origin, that when put that on reddit the response by one individual was “Who cares”? Obviously there are many things in Bangladesh that warrant attention, but, targeted killing of a reviled minority is apparently not worth notice by some. Fair enough, I suppose.

But I’m not here to emote and reflect. Rather, what does the data say? The World Values Survey has data from Bangaldesh for 1999 to 2004. One of the questions asks: Politicians who don’t believe in God unfit for public office. It seems a rough gauge for attitudes toward atheists. The results are below.


As you can see Bangladesh is roughly in the middle of the list. Observe the contrast with Pakistan. Hostility toward atheism is the majority position in all likelihood, but protests of people in the face of Islamist terror, as well as the persistence of atheists in Bangladeshi culture, indicates that there is a sufficient groundswell of liberal religious civil society that there’s a shot. In contrast in Pakistan you have a society which is now at total conformity when it comes to toleration for free thought.

Raw data:

Question: “Politicians who don´t believe in God unfit for public office”

Country Agree strongly Agree Neither agree or disagree Disagree Strongly disagree No answer Don’t know
Sweden 1.7 2.3 11.4 36.8 47.3 0 0.4
Spain 1.8 8.7 17 40.2 23.7 0 8.7
South Korea 2.6 6.7 27.3 37.5 15.4 0 10.5
Vietnam 4.5 11.9 16.9 47.4 5.8 0 13.5
Bosnia 5.1 10 30.2 25.5 22.2 0 7
Serbia 8.7 16.2 14 34.7 17.2 0 9.2
Canada 6.6 12 21.8 35.9 21.2 0 2.5
India 14.5 18.2 11.3 26.6 8.1 0 21.3
Chile 14 18.3 10 20.6 31.4 0 5.6
Japan 2.2 5.4 49.6 25.5 14.9 0 2.5
Mexico 14.9 21.5 9.2 27.3 16.2 0 10.9
Macedonia 17.7 14.7 16.8 27.5 16.6 0 6.8
Argentina 13.7 20.5 17 31.1 12.3 0 5.4
Kyrgyzstan 10.5 25 19.1 35.2 9.6 0 0.6
Moldova 11.7 28.9 21 24.1 5 0 9.2
Albania 16.1 24.8 24.7 19.2 7.2 0 8
United States 17.6 20.3 25.8 27.1 8.4 0 0.8
Zimbabwe 14.9 36.4 8.3 31.8 3.6 0 5.1
South Africa 22.9 24.6 19 19.9 7.1 0 6.5
Turkey 28.7 28.2 11.5 16.9 9.1 0.1 5.6
Venezuela 35.5 15.8 15.1 18.8 12.7 0 2.2
Uganda 25.2 36.2 14.3 17 4.3 0 3
Bangladesh 30.2 37 5.2 20 2.3 0 5.3
Puerto Rico 36.5 26.9 11.7 19.3 3.6 0.4 1.5
Tanzania 53.4 11.2 11 13.9 8.1 1 1.4
Philippines 26.8 44.4 14.7 11.9 1.9 0 0.2
Algeria 51.7 20.7 8 8.7 3.3 0 7.6
Jordan 66.6 11.1 2.1 6.8 9.3 0 4.1
Iraq 66.1 15.1 0 5.5 6.9 2.2 4.2
Nigeria 56.8 24.2 7.6 6.8 3.6 0 1
Indonesia 59.4 27.9 1.9 7.2 2 0 1.6
Morocco 72.4 14.2 2.7 4.3 1.2 0 5.1
Egypt 70.1 17.6 2.4 4.9 4.9 0 0
Pakistan 82.4 12.5 4 0.9 0.2 0 0
• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: Bangladesh, Religion 
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god-is-back Long-time readers of my content know that about 10 years back I used to make fun of a book by two writers for The Economist, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. It was a sexy thesis, but really it was meant to appeal to paranoid liberals who were scared, as well as reassure religious conservatives worried about “a secular age.” The basic idea was that religious views and values were ascendant again, not a totally crazy thesis on the face of it. The problem is that the data in some regions were already suggesting major changes in the direction of secularism, in particular in the United States. This change took most people by surprise unless they were looking closely. Samuel Huntington’s last book, Who Are We?, was written unfortunately in the late 1990s just before the release of multiple academic surveys which chronicled the rapid de-Christianization of vast swaths of the American populace. In it Huntington took for granted the thesis that America would become more, not less, Christian, as more Asian Americans converted to Christianity, and the Hispanic Catholic fraction increased (contrary to visible evangelical Asian-American Christians, this is the least religious of America’s ethnic groups, and Hispanics are secularizing very fast).

Even though the data are pretty clear, and were for a long time, people tend not to update. And timing is always an issue. For example, the last major wave of secularization in the USA happened in the late 1960s, before which Time Magazine published Religion: Revival’s Crest in 1963. In the early years of my blog I kept having to remind people of facts when they relied on impressions. In 2009 I corrected The New York Times’ John Tierny, who stated that “As an agnostic myself, I’ve tended to see the European trend as a harbinger of a general move toward secularism as societies become richer and more educated. But you don’t see that trend in the United States, where church attendance is still robust….” I happen to know his email address and I sent him my post. He wasn’t convinced that I was right even then. I bet now he would admit that the data were robust.

PF_15.05.05_RLS2_1_310px I suspect that a new survey from Pew (very large sample sizes) is going to change resistance even from holdouts who don’t want to read the writing on the wall, America’s Changing Religious Landscape. The major “shock result”, which has been prefigured elsewhere, is that huge numbers of younger Americans are not religiously affiliated, and larger fractions are now admitting to being atheists and agnostics. The change over the generations has been enormous, going from a nation that’s over 85 percent Christian, to 70 percent Christian, mostly driven by defection. Before the 1990s religious adherence was a matter of social conformity. Far less today when 25 percent of the population does not have an affiliation, and even less so in regions where religious adherence may even be a subculture, rather than a norm. The fraction of the unaffiliated who are atheists and agnostics is also increasing, suggesting that the taboos around these terms are declining (I doubt I’d get as many shocked expressions saying I’m an atheist today in Red America as I did in the early 1990s).

agcover165.jpg What does this portend for the future? Over 1/3 of those born in the 1980s and 1990s have no religion. These are people who will be retiring in the 2040s and 2050s, the grandparents of that era. The trends, which are not guaranteed, mind you, indicate then that future generations may be even more secular, so that the electorate of that period may be extremely polarized in terms of religious culture (as the fractions of evangelicals is holding its own better than other Protestants and Catholics). This result was already evident in Robert D. Putnam’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which received far less attention than Bowling Alone. But it was an important finding. Basically, the association of religion and right-wing politics has been having a secularizing effect on non-right wing Americans, and making ostensibly right-wing individuals more religiously identified. In other words, socially binding cross-cutting institutions are unraveling.

I believe this is more important than the coming “white” minority of 2050. The reasons are manifold. In the early 2000s some Democratic strategists saw an emerging majority from the coalition of minorities. On the other side many on the Right feared the rising tides of color, implicitly or explicitly. Nearing the end of the Obama era we now see how this story did not turn out to be so neat, with one of the proponents of demography-as-Democratic-density now recanting. Obviously we need to be cautious about over-reaction. The white Protestant conservative demographic core of the modern Republican party, and American conservatism, is going to decline somewhat over the generations. But the basic thesis that all non-white populations will vote Democratic indefinitely for generations seems unfounded. And definitions matter. Many Americans of mixed backgrounds may be assumed by Left-liberals to take the black tack of hypodescent, but they may actually simply exhibit more flexible self-identities which do not disassociate them so much from the mainstream (people who are visibly white, but have non-white ancestry, do not react well to racism against non-whites for obvious reasons, but neither are they anti-white, and often identify as white).

In an America where racial boundaries are fuzzier and more malleable, the strictness enforced by social-cultural categories in theory may actually be appealing and bracing. This goes to the heart of genetic vs. cultural distance in variation. Genetic variation rapidly diminishes due to the constraints and conditions of biological inheritance. Cultural inheritance is theoretically more powerful and airtight. As the ethno-biological categories melt on the edges, religious-cultural ones may emerge to more fully demarcate various tribal-political coalitions. And this is part of the reason why religion may increase in salience, despite the rapid expansion of a non-religious population. Confessional politics may come to the United States in an explicit fashion with the decline of implicit normative convention.


51KXqRwj+gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Some of you may wonder as the Americo-centric focus of this post, especially light of another recent Pew survey which highlights religion’s international robustness, The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 (as well as books I’ve blogged such as The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity and Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?). First, international projections are dicier than national ones. More variables are on the move. You can’t predict easily the rapid secularization you saw in Quebec in the 1960s, in the United States in the past 15 years, or, the glimmers of change on the horizon in the Arab world. Second, what happens in the developed world matters more. The huge numbers of African Christians will result in change. But, Catholicism will still be based out of Rome, and intellectual currents out of Western Christianity will likely shape Sub-Saharan African Christianity more than the reverse. Philip Jenkins in his work celebrating African Christianity nonetheless observes that over time indigenous religious traditions begin to align themselves with world-normative practices, often to standards established in Western societies.

• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Religion 
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41Nob9EJOOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ One of the most influential books for me in trying to understand how the American system has operated in relation to “religious freedom” is Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. A lawyer, she recounts how the legal framework of balancing religious freedom and the conformity to law expected by the state arose in the United States in the context of a particular Protestant confessional framework. More precisely, the exact purview of religion was delimited in such a way as to be congenial with the cultural expectations of Anglo-American Protestantism, and what that implied as to the shape of what a “religion” was. Religious traditions in earlier centuries which did not conform to these outlines were subject to cultural censure, or even repression (for example, see Catholicism and American Freedom: A History). Once religious traditions such as Judaism and Catholicism conformed to the normative template of American Protestantism (e.g., self-identity as a congregation of individuals rather than an expression of corporate collective consciousness), tolerance and religious freedom were provided on a liberal basis. In The Impossibility of Religious Freedom the author argues that the emergence of religious groups which have a different conception of what it means to be religious, for example, emphasizing particular practices rather than creeds, is again challenging the ability of authorities to balance the need for conformity to universal laws and the particularities of religious identity.

It strikes me that the period between 1990 and 2010 was peculiar in the history of the United States. Though the nation was atypical in that its founding lacked the explicit imprimatur of a religious tradition, the culture of the United States and its elite was fundamentally derived from that of Anglo-Protestantism. In the 20th century Catholicism and Judaism were both absorbed into this framework (on the terms of Protestantism), reflected in Will Herberg’s post-World War II thesis in Protestant, Catholic, Jew. By the 1990s this consensus had collapsed, and a variety of religious denominations and liberals of a multiculturalist bent aligned together to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I am old enough and conscious enough of these issues to recall this piece of legislation. The old order may have collapsed, but religious belief was still normative, to the point that Bill Clinton was recommending everyone read Stephen Carter’s Culture of Disbelief. As an atheist it struck me as peculiar that religious beliefs were given special latitude in comparison to other beliefs. After all, all religious beliefs were founded on human fictions from where I stood. But, as an observer of human nature it did not strike me as strange, because it is simply a fact that religious beliefs are precious and emotionally fraught for individuals and communities, and have been for much of human history. Even if accommodation was not entailed by the principles of our governance (and it arguably is), it was a prudent action to mollify democratic sentiment.

agcover165.jpg But what’s happened in the past generation is that a massive wave of secularization swept through the culture. In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us the authors report on data which suggests that many people on the cultural Left have abandoned even nominal affinity to religious denominations and identity. Since the 1970s religious conservatives have been talking about “secular humanists,” but as someone who remembers being an atheist in the 1990s it was always obvious that this was a bogeyman with little substance. Only in the past few years have the warnings about secular humanism started to seem plausible, as a large minority of young Americans are actually unabashed secular humanists, with no fond memories of a religious upbringing. The old consensus is collapsing, and where the Left has won on the culture wars, such as gay rights, the lack of affinity with religious sentiments makes them very unfriendly to the arguments of religious conservatives that their sincere views deserve consideration.

This brings me to a post by Rod Dreher, Christians ‘Must Be Made’ to Bow, where he notes that some liberal commentators seem to be suggesting that religious truths should be updated in light of the Zeitgeist. As a religious believer of intellectual predilections Dreher believes that some truths are eternal, so changing them would be craven. As I am not religious I don’t think that this is true. Rather, religious sensitivities will eventually abate as older beliefs will be “contextualized.” In fact many American conservatives agree with this idea , except they agree with it for Islam, not Christianity. They assume that Muslims should reinterpret their religion to be more in keeping with liberal democratic norms of a plural and secular society, just as secular liberals do. The problem is that what is good for thee is not so congenial for me, even if Christianity in the previous hundred years was broken multiple times by the ascendant liberal democratic order.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Religion 
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Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_cover One of the first things that the author of 2002’s Religion Explained had to address is the fact that everyone thinks they have the “explanation” for religion. Unlike quantum physics, or even population genetics, people think they “get” religion, and have a pretty good intuition and understanding of the phenomenon without any scholarly inquiry. Most people grew up religious, and know plenty of religious people. Naturally everyone has a theory to sell you informed by their experiences. This is clear in the comments of this weblog where people start with an assumed definition of religion, and then proceed to enter into a chain of reasoning with their axiomatic definition in mind, totally oblivious to the possibility that there might be a diversity of opinions as to the important aspects of religious phenomenon. This causes a problem when people begin at different starting points. Religion is obviously important. That is why Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations used it to delimit civilizations. Religion is also expansive.

In modern times the expansiveness can be a problem in terms of getting definitions right in any sort of conversation about the topic. On the one hand adherents of “higher religions” often dismiss supernatural beliefs outside of the purview of their organized systems as “superstition,” constraining the space of possibilities to an absurdly narrow set (this can be taken to extremes when narrow sects define all religions outside of their umbrella as “cults”). At the other extreme there are others who wish to include “political religion” more wholeheartedly in the discussion. In my opinion doing so makes it difficult to discuss religious phenomena in a historical context, as political religion is relatively novel and recent. Theological-Incorrectness-Jason-Slone As a phenomenon with many features it is not surprising that there are many other traits which resemble religion, but this logic rapidly leads to loss of any intelligible specificity. Therefore as a necessary precondition I tend to assume that religion must have supernatural agents at their heart. Basically, gods. But, all the accoutrements of organized “higher” religions, which crystallized in the period between 600 BC and 600 AD (from Buddhism to Islam), are not necessary to understand religion. In fact, as outlined in books such as Theological Incorrectness, taking the claims of organized world religions at face value can mislead in terms of the beliefs and behaviors of the mass of the rank and file, whose spiritual world is still strongly shaped by the same cognitive parameters one finds in primal “animistic” faiths. Summa Theologica is not only impenetrable to the vast number of believers, but it is totally irrelevant. And yet the concerns of intellectuals loom large in any attempt to understand the nature of higher religions, because they tend to occupy positions of power, prestige, and prominence. And importantly, they are the ones writing down the history of their faith.

9780195178036 It is useful then to differentiate between religion in the generality, which likely has deep evolutionary roots in our species. This is characterized by modal intuitions about the supernatural nature of the world. A universe of spirits, gods, and unseen forces. Then there are the complex processed cultural units of production and consumption which are the “world religions” of the past few thousand years, which have achieved a sort of stable oligopoly power over the loyalties of the vast majority of the world’s population. They are not inchoate and organic, bottom up reifications of the foam of cognitive process, perhaps co-opted toward functional or aesthetic purposes. Rather, world religions are clearly products of complex post-Neolithic agricultural societies which exhibit niche specialization and social stratification. They are the end, not the beginning. A complex melange of distinct cultural threads brought together into one unit of consumption for the masses and the elites, which binds society together into an organic whole. Think of the world religions as the Soylent of their era.

warandpeaceandwar The historical context of this is well known, all the way back to Karl Jaspers. Over two thousand years ago the ideas which we would later term philosophy arose in the eastern Mediterranean, in northern India, and northern China. They were absorbed by various organized religions in each locale. The complex social-political order of those years also persist in the institutional and bureaucratic outline of these religious organizations. Ergo, the Roman Catholic Church is the shadow of the Roman Empire. The Sangha probably reflects the corporate nature of South Asian society even at that early time. Though some set of elite practitioners of these religions tended toward philosophical rationalism, others were attracted toward mystical movements which elevate the existential and esoteric elements of religious experience. Both mystical and rational variants of religion exhibit a commonality in that they are patronized by elites with leisure to spare upon introspection or reflection. Formal liturgical traditions co-opt the human propensity for heightened emotional arousal in collective group contexts to ritualize subordination and submission to central authorities, which serve as the axis mundi which binds the divine to the world and proxies for the gods.

0226901351 This only scratches the surface of the phenomenon in question. And these are not academic matters; religion is a powerful force in the world around us. This is why studies such as this in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia, are heartening to see. The importance is not the topic of study, or even the conclusion, but the methods. Using phylogenetic techniques the authors get a crisper understanding of the dynamics. Even if one quibbles with their conclusions one can at least grapple with it formally. Nature has a good piece surveying the response, though please ignore the hyperbole in the title!

The gist of this conclusion to me seems to be similar to the one in relation to lactase persistence: cultural and social change set the preconditions for evolutionary change, evolutionary change did not trigger cultural and social change. Complex multi-ethnic expansive societies arose somewhat over 2,000 years ago. The world religions developed in this environment as natural adaptations, which allowed for these societies to persist over time and space in a manner that was recognizable. The diffuse world of gods and spirits were distilled down to the portable essence which would serve to bind and tie diverse peoples together (in practice for much of history this only applied to the elites, as the populace still retained what basically could be termed folk paganism). The verbal models supplemented by formalism is probably what is needed to truly gain a deep insight into the nature of a phenomenon as slippery by ubiquitous as religion.

• Category: History • Tags: Cognitive Science, Religion 
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200px-IbnWarraqwhyIAmNotMuslim There’s an old joke that people in Alabama can be rest assured that when scholars tote up social statistics there’s always Mississippi to make sure that their state isn’t the last one listed. Sometimes I feel that way when thinking about comparing Bangladesh to Pakistan. Right now it is big news that an atheist blogger has been killed in Bangladesh, presumably by Islamic militants or sympathizers thereof. Naturally people are bringing this to my attention because 1) I was born in Bangladesh 2) I’m an atheist 3) I’m a blogger. But there are some important differences. From what I am to gather this blogger was focused on issues relating to atheism and secularism, and, his core audience was Bangladeshi. I write to a mostly American audience, and religion as a political issue is not a primary focus of mine (as opposed to a scholarly interest). Honestly I am more frightened of dying of a disease than being hacked to death by Islamist radicals if I were to visit Bangladesh, because I’m not that prominent.* Though this is certainly another argument for why I might want to avoid that country. In How The Scots Invented the Modern World the author points out that the last person killed on account of their atheism in the British Isles lived around 1700. Though the killing of Avijit Roy is not quite analogous, because it was a vigilante action, it illustrates the social sentiment broadly in society that blasphemy may be a capital crime in some parts of the world, hundreds of years after this sort of fanaticism abated in the West.

gsi2-chp1-9 Of more interest to me is that there is an atheist movement in public in Bangladesh at all. This is after all a very underdeveloped nation (Pakistan is still more economically developed) which is highly religious. It is also a nation where religious minorities occupy a somewhat precarious position. Nevertheless, against the standard and trajectory of Pakistan Bangladesh is relatively liberal and advanced when it comes to religious liberty from a Western perspective. The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh is a Hindu. Unlike Pakistan the Ahmadis receive some official protection. One of the two major political parties, and the one currently in power, has maintained a stronger commitment to secularism in the face of pressure from the religious elements than its socialist analog in Pakistan (though it too has caved to aspects of Islamicization of society since the 1970s).**

The reasons for this difference are multifaceted. It could be as simple as the historical contingency that the United States buttressed the Islamic autocracy of Zia ul-Huq in the 1980s. Though today Pakistan is a byword for Islamic extremism, I tend to be of the opinion that its origins can be understood more as an instance of ‘religious nationalism,’ akin to Revisionist Zionism. The founder of Pakistan had a religious background which would be unacceptable to many Pakistanis today, and his personal piety was minimal. Pakistan initially served as a redoubt in the Indian subcontinent against Hindu numerical dominance, not the catspaw in Sunni radical millenarianism. It was a place where the traditional Muslim elites could take their rightful role as the political leaders, rather than being marginalized as would have been the case in a democratic India. Over time this national identity, of which religion was a part, though never a totality, has become more and more tied in with currents in international Sunni Islamic radicalism (to the obvious detriment of the non-Sunni minorities, including Shia such as the founder of the nation himself).

But this isn’t just a matter of sentiments on high. Rather, the reserves of secularism and tolerance for heterodoxy run deeper in modern Bangladesh than they do in Pakistan. Though >80 percent of both Pakistani and Bangaldeshi Muslims agree that Sharia should be the law of the land, less than half of Bangaldeshis who agree with this proposition believe that those who leave Islam should be subject to the death penalty according to Pew. It is notable that there are people willing to speak the record on video defending the right to Roy expressing his atheism. An English language newspaper in Bangladesh reflects this sentiment. Looking around the web about Pakistani atheism, it seems quite closeted, and columnists who write about it seem to parse their words carefully so as to avoid vigilante attention.

Writing about the modest protests The Guardian notes:

The attacks starkly underline an increasing gulf between secular bloggers and conservative Islamic groups, often covertly connected with Islamist parties. Secularists have urged authorities to ban religion-based politics, while Islamists have pressed for blasphemy laws to prevent criticism of their faith.

It is important to note that despite the groundswell of anger from the usual suspects among Muslims, there is still a strong enough secular liberal intelligentsia in Bangladesh which can speak in favor of someone as religiously marginal as an atheist from a Hindu background. The murder is a tragedy, but the reaction is to some extent heartening, and I hope heralds a future where social conflict can give way to the driving of religion into the private sphere (I think banning religious parties is usually counterproductive, for the record. I’d also oppose banning them on principle even if it was productive).

* Though I checked, and it is interesting that I have more Twitter followers from Bangladesh than Germany, probably on account of my name.

** The Awami League and the People’s Party respectively.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Bangladesh, Religion 
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In relation to what happened in Paris today, Ezra Klein ends a passionate post with this:

These murders can’t be explained by a close read of an editorial product, and they needn’t be condemned on free speech grounds. They can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do, and the condemnation doesn’t need to be any more complex than saying unprovoked mass slaughter is wrong.

This is a tragedy. It is a crime. It is not a statement, or a controversy.

Darwins-Cathedral-cover Much of the above is so wrong that it is jaw-dropping. Does Klein really believe this? Is it copy rushed out in the moment? If you read history and observe patterns in human culture it is clear that most societies hold certain metaphysical ideas sacred. Sacrosanct. This came home to me years ago when reading Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval — America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. One of the most radical acts of the Founding Fathers was to not base the federal government of the United States under the imprimatur of a particular divine order. All organized complex societies across history had done so, from the Chinese Empires under Heaven, to Augustus’ traditionalist attempt to resurrect older Roman family religious practices, to the religiously justified polities which arose under Christianity and Islam. Arguably the first cities were theocratic in their organized structure! Socrates was famously brought under charges of impiety against the gods of Athens. This may have been a pretense, but it illustrates the principle. Athens was not a theocracy in the manner that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy, but in ancient societies religious sensibilities suffused everyday life. In fact they often did not have a separate word for religion, so ubiquitous was the melange of ritual and supernatural in the agora and the hearth.

World Values Survey

World Values Survey

This co-mingling of religious and communal identity is not an aberration, but the human norm over most of history. In much of the world it still is the norm. Dishonoring the gods of barbarians and unbelievers has long been a matter of course. Churches were built over temples and mosques over churches for a reason. To show the power of one communal identity and the eclipse of another. Gods and people were interchangeable in the psyche. When the Assyrians sacked Babylon they dragged away the statue of the god Marduk in chains. But individuals dishonoring the gods of their own people was always a matter of serious concern, violating public order, and potentially undermining social harmony (often, innovation in religious practice prefigured rebellion). It doesn’t take much to imagine that there might be functional reason for societies to establish taboos of what is inviolate and sacred, and sanction those who trespass.

41PkQaRolCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The modern West, and to an extent the modern world writ large, upturns these conventional sensibilities, lionizing individual self-actualization to the point where almost all public communal taboos are open to question and critique. This is a radical overturning of conventional human assumptions. Even within the West most nations have limits on freedom of expression around particular topics of great emotional sensitivity (e.g., Holocaust denial in Germany). The fact that religion is no longer in that class is a reflection of the marginalization of religion in the life of the modern West. But the post-materialist Western viewpoint is not the dominant one throughout the world. Dissent from it is not madness, it is simply different.

Ramna Kali Mandir Hindu temple, destroyed by Pakistani army in 1971

Ramna Kali Mandir Hindu temple, destroyed by Pakistani army in 1971

So the behavior of Islamic radicals is definitely not beyond comprehension. Rather, it is totally explicable, and in many societies and times would be entirely normal and healthy behavior. Attacking the religion of the folk is understood to be synonymous with attacking the folk. That is why Thomas Jefferson had to elucidate his views on religion in the first place, they did not come naturally to people in the 18th century. They had to be inculcated over generations. Even if Islamic radicals in the West prey upon the marginalized, they reflect ancient and primal methods of social outrage and sanction. What you see here is the reality of living in a multicultural world where there is no a harmony of values and norms, and free movement of individuals who don’t necessarily subscribe to the social viewpoints of the lands in which they settle. With the rise of globalization a jockeying of civilizational values through channels of travel and across nodes of cosmopolitan cities will naturally occur, because different Weltanschauung abrade against each other uncomfortably when their demands are at cross-purposes. The norm of free speech and acceptance of blasphemy as a fundamental right is young to the world.* We shouldn’t think anything otherwise, and turn the world upside to conform to our prejudices of what is good, true, and beautiful.

One can agree that something is evil without asserting that it is inexplicable. Just because you can not understand someone’s language does not imply that their speech has no content or structure.

* Just to be clear, I stridently support an absolutist stand on free speech. I just don’t live under the delusion that it is somehow natural or eternal. It is a historical artifact. One I cherish, but not one I take for granted.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Charlie Hebdo, Religion 
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524202 The Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher and Sam Harris debate about Islam is all over the interwebs, and seems like something of a Rorschach test. On my Twitter some people seem awfully impressed by Ben, while others (including me) think that it’s a pretty good illustration of the shallowness of contemporary Left liberalism when it comes to religion. One response is that “you can’t generalize about 1.5 billion people.” No, I don’t mean Catholics, I mean Muslims. When it comes to Christianity, or white males, Left liberals seem comfortable generalizing about a pattern of patriarchy or oppression, no matter that some white Christian males were at the forefront of movements such as abolitionism. Words like “problematic” or “complex” and “nuanced” don’t come up when people begin to hold forth upon the “white male Christian patriarchy.” It’s a vast monolith. Imagine if someone stated there was a problem with child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and the response was that “you can’t generalize, most Catholic priests are not child abusers!” True. But enough are that it’s a problem. Affleck’s immediate response is that Maher and 0226056767 Harris’ assertions were “Gross and Racist.” This emotive explosion is really at the heart of it, criticism of Islam triggered a disgust and aversion response, not a rational reaction. Not that we should expect Ben Affleck to engage in deep analysis, just as Maher and Harris are not deep thinkers on religion either. One strange thing I note about Ben Affleck’s angry reaction is that he challenged Maher and Harris on their lack of deep scholarly credentials in Islam. Now, if a Muslim had demanded this it would kind of make sense, but I don’t understand why a secular liberal would talk as if only the ulema could speak authoritatively about Islam. This is somewhat similar to the Yale Humanist association objecting to Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking about Islam, and demanding that someone with academic credentials be invited as well. Shall we impose the same criterion when it comes to Christianity? Only pastors and priests need apply?

No_god_but_God_(Reza_Aslan_book)_US_cover Over at The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog there is a post up, Ben Affleck and Bill Maher are both wrong about Islamic fundamentalism. First, this idea that there is a “moderate Islam” and a “fundamentalist Islam” is only useful to some extent. A genuinely textured argument needs to introduce more multitudes, from the philosphically esoteric Ismaili sect, which in its most numerous Nizari form tends toward what one might call a liberal form of modern Islam, to various traditionalist Sunnis who reject the Salafi/Deobani views but still express very conservative perspectives. The assassin of Salman Tarseer was from the Barelvi download (1) movement, which is the “moderate” traditionalist alternative to the various Salafi and Deobandi “conservative” currents which have been roiling Pakistan over the past few generations. I put the quotes because the Salafi and Deobandi movements are reformist, and to a great extent the products of the past few hundred years and strongly shaped by a modernist viewpoint, even if their modus operandi strikes us as reactionary. The fact is that traditional Islam has accepted as a majority consensus that apostasy from Islam should result in the death penalty. But there was also a lot of latitude in this area, and in pre-modern times political entities were not totalitarian. These sorts of edicts may not have been enforced much at all (analogy, Theodosius’ banning of public paganism in the late 4th century probably was not enforced across much of the Empire, though it did allow for interventions in some cases, such as the destruction of the Serapeum). Additionally, the reality is that for particular classes and individuals there was a wide tolerance toward free thought. The great physician al-Razi clearly would be considered a free thinker, while the poet al-Ma’arri was a caustic atheist (no surprise that ISIS beheaded one of his statues).

The modern age is arguably one of more conformity due to the ease of communication & travel, and the homogenizing power of the force of the state and mass media. In any case, Wonkblog assertions:

Overall, the picture that emerges of fundamentalism among the world’s Muslims is considerably more complicated than either Affleck or Maher seem to realize. There’s no doubt that, particularly among some Middle Eastern Muslims, support for intolerant practices runs high. It’s quite easy to criticize these practices when a repressive regime is inflicting them upon an unwilling population. But things get much more difficult when such practices reflect the will of the people, as they seem to do in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt.

On the other hand, majorities of Muslims in many countries — particularly Western countries — find these practices abhorrent. Maher tries to speak in broad brushstrokes of a “global Islam,” but Pew’s data show that such a thing doesn’t really exist.

2120250 How to be polite about it? This is stupid. First, repressive regimes fall back on Islamic populism when they are weak. The Baathist autocracies were Arab nationalist and secular. What they are doing when putting Islam front and center is pandering to public sentiment, which is becoming more and more conservative over the generations. And things don’t get more difficult when barbarism reflects the will of the people. When the people are tyrannical their will is irrelevant. That’s presumably why you have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not surprising that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam endorsed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference did not vouchsafe that one could change religions. Second, numbers are of the essence. Western Muslims are important to Western people, because they live among us, but they are numerically trivial. Wonkblog provides the fraction of selected Muslim nations (or Muslims in selected nations) where proportions agree that apostates from Islam should be executed (which is truly the historical traditionalist view, even if there are details of implementation which make it difficult, and there are some dissenting views which are becoming louder). Pew also helpfully provides the number of Muslims in each nation estimated for 2010.

Nation % death penalty for apostates Muslim Population Muslim Population death penalty for apostates
Kazakhstan 0 8887000 0
Albania 1 2601000 26010
Turkey 2 74660000 1493200
Kosovo 2 2104000 42080
Bosnia 2 1564000 31280
Kyrgyzstan 5 4927000 246350
Tajikistan 6 7006000 420360
Russia 6 16379000 982740
Indonesia 13 204847000 26630110
Lebanon 13 2542000 330460
Tunisia 16 10937521 1750003
Thailand 21 3952000 829920
Bangladesh 36 148607000 53498520
Iraq 38 31108000 11821040
Malaysia 53 17139000 9083670
Jordan 58 6397000 3710260
Palestine 59 4298000 2535820
Egypt 64 80024000 51215360
Pakistan 64 178097000 113982080
Afghanistan 78 29047000 22656660
835123521 301285923

200px-IbnWarraqwhyIAmNotMuslim The nations surveyed represent about half of the world’s Muslims (>800 million of ~1.5 billion). These data indicate that 36 percent of the these Muslims favor the death penalty for apostates. Much of the balance in terms of population is going to be in Africa and other Middle Eastern nations (e.g., Iran) and India. I don’t know how things will shake out, though Nigerian Muslims are not particularly liberal, and I am curious if Indian Muslims would be any more liberal than Bangladeshi Muslims. In any case, we are faced with a glass half empty and half full situation. The majority of Muslims certainly do reject the death penalty for apostates today. But the minority who accept it as normative represent hundreds of millions of individuals. I tend to see the half empty aspect because I really don’t care what peaceful Muslims who focus on their mystical inner life do. They’re free to practice their superstition in the privacy of their homes, or in public spaces which they own, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. The problem is that the hundreds of millions who have what I might say are “problematic” viewpoints, if I was a pretentious liberal who enjoyed equivocating, would quite likely break my leg. This is not an academic concern, I agree with Shadi Hamid that democracy and liberalism have not made their peace in much of the Arab world. To some extent the masses will always be suspicious of liberalism, because they are a dull and uncreative sort. The American populace supports banning flag burning, and often curtailment of various kinds of speech. Elites, whether on the Left or Right step in to block these sentiments through the courts. Elites in Muslim nations need to grow some balls in this area, though the pattern of assassination of those who speak against the barbarians in their midst from Tunisia to Pakistan illustrates how deadly serious these issues are.

Finally, U.N. Report Details ISIS Abuse of Women and Children:

According to witnesses cited in the report, Islamic State fighters dumped more than 60 Turkmen and Yazidi children in an orphanage in Mosul after they had witnessed the killing of their parents by the fighters. “It appears some of the older children may have been physically and sexually assaulted,” the report notes. “Later, ISIL fighters returned to the orphanage and made the children pose with ISIL flags so they could take photos of them.

In a barbaric pre-modern age the children would have been killed. So perhaps ISIS is not quite as 7th century as they like to proclaim. But the intersection of modernity, taking the photos, and barbarity on display here is reminiscent of Rwanda more than anything else. But this is more worrisome to me:

The report said the Yazidi girl who was abducted by Islamic State fighters when they attacked her village on Aug. 3 was raped several times by different men before she was sold in a market.

“Women and girls are brought with price tags for the buyers to choose and negotiate the sale,” the report said. “The buyers were said to be mostly youth from the local communities. Apparently ISIL was ‘selling’ these Yazidi women to the youth as a means of inducing them to join their ranks.”

51ys5CPEhdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria do have rational self-interested reasons to align with ISIS, at least temporarily. The barbaric behavior meted out to Shia and non-Muslims is generally not something they have to worry about themselves, and some have even collaborated for material gains. Though there are impositions on their personal freedom, from the perspective of a Sunni Arab the erstwhile Maliki regime and that of Assad’s may not have been better bets. But no one forces you go to a slave market and buy slaves. Civilization seems to rest lightly upon the shoulders of some. That is gross. You may not want to generalize about the religion of 1.5 billion, but if I was a Christian or Yezidi in the Fertile Crescent and I saw Sunni Arabs I know what I would do. Run. Don’t ask if they are moderate or fundamentalist. Just run.

Addendum: It is here that my friend Omar Ali may ask if I am perhaps giving succor to the average Fox-News-watching imbecile . In other words, being frank and honest about the warts and all of international Islam might cause problems for Western Muslims. I don’t have suggestions for my Middle Eastern friends, but for South Asians there’s an easy recourse: bow down before the idols of your ancestors. Arabs, Turks, and Persians think you’re black Hindus anyway, so why not go whole-hog? (so to speak) You’re just replacing a thousand little idols for one black stone you otherwise worship. A simple name change will suffice. Of course the idiots will think you’re Muslim anyway, but eat a ham sandwich and prove them wrong.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Islam, Religion 
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download (1) Bayesian statistics has made The New York Times, The Odds, Continually Updated. One illustration of the utility of Bayesian methods left out of the piece is in phylogenetics. For example, Mr. Bayes. Just to see how far we’ve come, I like to retell a story from a professor of mine. When he was in grad school ~15 years ago it was assumed that they’d never be able to implement the far less exhaustive maximum likelihood method due to limitations of computational power.

But the reason I want to highlight this article, aside from that it is a good article overall, is this section:

Take, for instance, a study concluding that single women who were ovulating were 20 percent more likely to vote for President Obama in 2012 than those who were not. (In married women, the effect was reversed.)

Continue reading the main story
Dr. Gelman re-evaluated the study using Bayesian statistics. That allowed him to look at probability not simply as a matter of results and sample sizes, but in the light of other information that could affect those results.

He factored in data showing that people rarely change their voting preference over an election cycle, let alone a menstrual cycle. When he did, the study’s statistical significance evaporated. (The paper’s lead author, Kristina M. Durante of the University of Texas, San Antonio, said she stood by the finding.)

Cairo University class of 1978, no headscarves

Cairo University class of 1978, no headscarves

There are plenty of sexy papers published on ovulation and menstrual cycles and how they correlate with a particular outcome. If you look for correlations enough they will come (assuming you use p = 0.05). That’s common sense. But another issue to consider here is that you have a model, and the predictions that the model makes don’t hold in a rather simple case where the cause and effect seem obvious (i.e., voting patterns should change over time since ovulation changes over time). This sort of sanity check is important when you go drudging through statistics, but also when you are tackling complex phenomena at a high level.

Whenever I talk about Islam people offer up opinions about how the Koran serves as a sort of template or guidebook in terms of behavior, and that explains Islamic civilizations real pathologies. This is not an implausible model, and I held to it myself when I was younger.

Cairo University class of 2004, lots of headscarves

Cairo University class of 2004, lots of headscarves

There are two problems. First, most of the people making this assertion don’t know enough history or religion to even plausibly evaluate the model in their own head. That’s just a fact, and why I’m so dismissive of so many people. The limits of your knowledge are the limits of your model building. Second, there’s a deeper issue which I first encountered in the mid-aughts: there’s a good deal of evidence from cognitive psychology that people barely understand in a coherent manner the ‘messages’ of their scriptural texts. This is outlined in books like In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. One also has to remember that for almost all of human history, and to a great extent today, most humans were either illiterate or functionally so. More importantly psychological experiments which attempt to ferret out exactly how scriptural texts would impact peoples’ beliefs show that there’s no real ratiocination going on. Rather, it seems to be that reasoning in a religious context is a process of collective rationalization.

• Category: Science • Tags: Religion 
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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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download In response to one of my posts someone characterizes a historian as having stated that “the Christianization of Europe as a culturally created event that needn’t have occurred.” The “standard model” in history (which has detractors*) is that in the 390s the Western Roman Empire underwent a traditionalist pagan religious-cultural revival, snuffed out by Theodosius the Great victory at Frigidus. But what if Arbogast had won? This might present us with an alternative history where paganism revives, and Christianity is reduced to a sect among sects. Some have made the case that this is in fact what occurred in China in the 9th century to Buddhism. Though Buddhism persisted as a religion in China, it no longer threatened to absorb the Chinese elite as partners a project of cultural hegemony. The fall of Buddhism as the religion of the elite in the 9th century led to the rise of Neo-Confucianism, which in various forms dominated Chinese high culture up to the fall of the Manchu dynasty (in their capacity as non-Chinese potentates the Manchus did patronize Tibetan Buddhism).

And this fact gives us insight I think into the nature and fundamental basis of Christianization in Europe, and elsewhere. The book The Barbarian Conversion tells the story of the Christianization of the polities of northern Europe after the fall of Rome, the transformation of pagan tribal domains into Christian proto-nation-states. But one need not specify anything particular to Christianity, because many of the same dynamics which transformed the pagan tribal federations of northern Europe could also apply to Asia in relation to Buddhism. The conversion to Christianity in northern Europe was often halting, with traditionalist reactions sometimes turning violent. The same phenomenon also accompanied Buddhism’s arrival in Tibet and Japan.

In China and India Buddhism ultimately did not capture the culture in a way that occurred in Burma or Tibet. But the indigenous response illustrates that the clock could never be rolled back in a cultural sense. Neo-Confucianism and Puranic Hinduism were fundamentally different from the variants of Confucianism and Hinduism which Buddhism had confronted and often marginalized. The native, older, traditions were transmuted into something different by the confrontation with Buddhism. If Christianity had been dethroned from its role at the center of the state in the late 4th century, then almost certain Roman traditionalism would have absorbed many of the ideological and ritual innovations of Christianity in relation to the older forms of religious worship. To some extent one can argue that the religious ferment in 6th century Iran, as Zoroastrianism was buffeted by reformist and revolutionary movements, illustrates exactly this impact of Christianity in late antiquity. The Persians at various times flirted with Christianity in various forms (Mesopotamia under Persian rule had very few Zoroastrians, and was likely majority Christianity), but settled on their primal religion. If the Arabs an Islam had not halted the process I suspect that Christian competition and cultural influence would have modulated Zoroastrianism, just as Buddhism reshaped Confucianism and Hinduism.

The broader point is that human cultural evolution is not totally contingent, but seems to fall into broad convergent patterns. All of the world’s “higher religions” exhibit broad similarities (e.g., synthesizing ritual, ethics, and metaphysics). Beginning with the Axial Age, the process of religious innovation seems to have ended a little over one thousand years later with the rise of Islam. One can think of this process as cultural ‘selective sweeps’ across a terrain rich with expansionary opportunities. But once the space was filled by higher religions one saw a sort of cultural equilibrium attained.

* Revisionist scholars who believe that the ‘pagan revival’ has been overblown or exaggerated.

• Category: History • Tags: Religion 
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300px-Quan_Am_1656On Twitter and elsewhere (e.g., on this weblog, in real life) I often get into confusing arguments with people when it comes to religion because I approach the topic from a somewhat strange angle. Specifically, it is one which integrates cognitive science, evolutionary anthropology, intellectual history and sociology. My interest in this topic was more in evidence in the middle years of the last decade (yes, I’ve been blogging a long time!). One of the last long posts on the topic I published in 2007 was titled Levels of analysis of religion, Atran, Boyer & Wilson. The shorter version is that I believe it is important to understand religion from the ground up. Ergo,

– Religion as a cognitive phenomenon which emerges out of banal basic human intuitions

– Religion as a social phenomenon which emerges out of the interaction and cooperation of individuals within groups

– Religion as a social phenomenon which emerges out of the interaction and conflict across groups

– Religion as political phenomenon which emerges out of the interaction of different groups, constructing a ‘meta-ethnic’ identity (using Peter Turchin’s terminology)

– Religion as an intellectual phenomenon, which can be bracketed into two classes, the mystical and the philosophical-rational

The last is to a great extent what we moderns think of religion as. That is, religion qua religion. Some who are more aware of history and anthropology might acknowledge a phase of ‘primal religion,’ which is pre-philosophical. Animism and such. What my study of religion suggested to me is that the fixation upon religion as a intellectual system totally misses the primary reasons that religion exists, and why it has existed for all of human history and has had adherents across most of humanity. To see how this is relevant, analyses of individual religious believers of various world faiths has emphasized how incredibly similar their conceptualizations of the supernatural world is when stripped away of the exoteric terminology. By this, I mean that terms such as ‘monotheistic,’ ‘henotheistic’, and ‘polytheistic,’ do not really sink deep into the mental architecture of humans. They’re surface concepts with a logical coherency, such as non-euclidean geometry. But intuitively they’re as substantive as the colors upon a flag.

Obviously I’ve moved onto to other things, but perhaps the field has also updated. I checked out Justin Barrett’s Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds to see if the scholarship has moved in this decade. I’ll read it when I have time. My personal experience is that most educated people are weak on understanding the lower levels of the organization of the religious phenomenon. The psychology and social structure. Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained is a rather easy introduction. David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral is probably the best treatment of a neo-functionalist understanding of religious organization. Scott Atran’s In God’s We Trust is a harder read, but worth it.

• Category: Science • Tags: Cognitive Science, Religion 
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Very interested in Roman & Chinese history

The core focus of this weblog is genetics. Anyone who knows me in “real life” is also aware that this focus is not something that manifests only on the internet, or at the workplace, but suffuses my whole life. Genetics is to me as crack is to Bobby Brown. This is not necessarily always a good thing, as I’ve found my interest in other areas of science diminishing because I lack the marginal time to explore them to the same depth as I can genetical topics. But such is life. Choices are made. Opportunity costs present themselves.

Nevertheless I do maintain other non-scientific areas of fixation. Long time readers are aware that in particular I follow developments in Roman and Chinese history (though currently I am reading Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, in my minimal spare time). This has caused some situations of embarrassment. Why? If you take a look at me it is clear that I am a brown-skinned person whose familial origins (or at least ~90% on the order of the past 2,000 years) derive from the Indian subcontinent. Many people have an intuition that there is something off or strange in my geographic focus on Europe and East Asia, and so query me somewhat deeply as to how I became interested in these topics. Often there is the obvious initial assumption that my ‘natural’ areas of interest should be South Asia, or, for those who understand that my name denotes someone of a Muslim background, the Islamic world. I explain my curiosity about macrohistory and domains which abut ‘world systems theory’, and so naturally the data density of Roman and Chinese historiagraphy are what draws me to these two topics.*

My own personal and subjective experience is why I am very interested in the Reza Aslan kerfuffle, which I became aware of only over the past day or so. If you don’t want to follow the link, basically a Fox News interviewer expressed implied disapproval and obvious skepticism that Aslan, a professing Muslim, would write an analysis of the life of Jesus, Zealot (the surprise and initial question isn’t that big of a deal, see this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air). I think it is important to observe here that Aslan was an evangelical Christian before he was a believing Muslim. Though raised in a nominal Muslim Persian family (his father is an atheist, his mother is now an evangelical Christian), the first religion which he accepted with deep conviction was evangelical Protestant Christianity. As is clear in his earlier work No god but God today Aslan is a liberal Muslim, whose confessional identity seems more a coincidence of his cultural background than anything else. There has been much debate on the internet as to his academic qualifications. Though Aslan seems to have resume padded somewhat, to assert he is not a historian of religion because his Ph.D. is in the sociology of religion strikes me as saying that someone who receives a degree in biochemistry out of a chemistry department is not a biologist. Perhaps true by the letter of the law, but I don’t think that that captures the spirit of what the public means by biologist, which is closer to life scientist (a rubric under which biochemists are included). I do think though that the closest analogy to Aslan is Karen Armstrong, who is not an academic, and is known more for her popular works on a variety of religions, as well as a confusing religious identity (ex-Catholic nun who is a “freelance monotheist”). Armstrong and Aslan are to the history of religion what Stephen Jay Gould was to evolutionary biology, having greater heft and status outside of the academy than within.

But there is an undercurrent to the critique of Reza Aslan and a skepticism of his objectivity that exposes the peculiar assumptions of post-moderns when it comes to the scholarly inquiry of humanity by specific humans, who are themselves part of the topic in question. The Fox News interviewer, and others, obviously wondered as to the motives and objectivity of a Muslim who deigns to profile the seminal individual at the heart of Christianity. And yet the same could be said of a Muslim who wishes to profile the seminal individual at the heart of Islam. Even assessments of subjectivity are protean and…subjective! Ultimately there is no “view from nowhere,” but only a striving for Epoché, and awareness that where one starts influences where one ends. And the reality is that the same individuals who who hurl calumny upon Aslan likely have little concern with the possible bias of Robert Spencer, who in some circles is an expert on Islam and a professing Christian. And yet some of the same individuals who might defend Aslan’s right to discussion of the life of Jesus (not least because Jesus is actually a figure within Islam too of some note), might wonder if non-Muslims who study Islam are ‘Orientalists’!

Which brings me back to my own circumstance. I was careful to stipulate that my intellectual predilections have given rise to situations of embarrassment, because I am not in any case embarrassed about my particular scholarly interests. Rather, those individuals who express surprise, curiosity, and even wonder, about my diverse and novel (to them) obsessions often realize that their reaction is unmasking particular presuppositions as to what an individual’s proper domain of focus “should be” contingent upon their ethnic identity. Ultimately it is the rooted in a similar structure of axioms about what drives curiosity as the Fox News interviewer; a Muslim interested in Jesus must have ulterior motives relating to Islam and Christianity. In actuality this is often true, as many Muslims who are deeply interested in Jesus from what I can tell only want to authenticate Islam’s narrative about Jesus. But this is entirely transparent after casual conversation, just as it is transparent when some Christian’s interest in the Hebrew Bible and Judaism is purely an ends toward how the latter culminate and are fulfilled by the former. Bias which clouds truth is often the easiest to pick out.

The point is that subjective perspective is real, but there is a topography and a landscape to bias and perception. There are genuine Orientalists and apologists whose ruminations are not of primary scholarly interest. But, there are individuals who approach topics outside of their presumed ken and awareness who illuminate it in novel and surprising ways, in part due to their ‘outsider’ status, which is not synonymous with being objective. Subjectivity is real, pervasive, and a struggle to account for, but it does not render the landscape of scholarship flat, uniform, and only amenable to deconstruction via a coarse paradigm of power relationships or civilizational conflict. At one extreme you have some practitioners of ‘postcolonial’ theory who use identity politics as a rhetorical cudgel in the service of now fashionable Left radical politics. In contrast you have others who leverage the ascendant epistemological relativism of the age implicitly toward what would be termed by postcolonialists as an “Orientalist” aim!”**

All things that are new are old. A Greek history of the Persian wars is going to be rather different from a Persian narrative. That’s common sense. Over the late 20th century, and into the early 21st, this common sense intuition about the reality of bias has sprawled itself into a whole elaborate Theory, that has struck deep roots in the intellectual substrate of educated Westerners. These roots are expansive across the social and political spectrum, as ‘conservatives’ who may assert the traditional rhetoric of objectivity naturally fall back on relativist arguments as if it was as natural as breathing. For example, the idea that the “Founding Fathers” need to be judged in the light of their times is descriptively clear, but often becomes nested in a series of moralistic judgments, or lack thereof (i.e., in this case cultural Leftists often project the idea of time-invariant moral universals, while cultural Rightists implicitly promote evolving moral standards). Biases and subjectivity may be complex, but how to deal with them often requires only coarse dumb rules of transparency and clarity. Ultimately more often than not there are no hidden narratives, superstructures, and filaments of conspiracy and intent. And in Reza Aslan’s case a simple materialist narrative has to be given some weight. How many copies of a biography of the Imam Ali would sell compared to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Both arguably have intellectual merit, but one is far more valuable in personal recompense. Talking about Jesus is good for one’s bottom line.

* Additionally, in terms of moral-ethical systems I tend to find much more that is congenial in the Chinese and non-Christian Greco-Roman corpus than in the South Asian or Islamic.

** If you want a clear example of this, I have been accused by explicitly Zionist Jews of being a crypto-Muslim whose interest in Jewish history is a clear tell as to my political preferences. That is, the only motive that someone from a Muslim background might have for being interested in Judaism and Jews is to serve the aims of anti-Zionist politics.

• Category: Science • Tags: Religion 
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Update: Just to be clear, I think the variation across cultures is probably explained in large part by confusion as to what is being asked, and differential sampling. In particular, I suspect that the ‘Turkey” sample is more representative than the “Bangladesh” sample, because Turkey is a more developed society.


I’ve mentioned before that many (most?) Muslims are Creationists, broadly understood. According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey 42 percent of American Muslims accept that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on earth. This is roughly in line with the American public, if a touch on the Creationist side. The numbers are similar in Turkey. Also, it must be mentioned that unlike most I have some experience with educated (and scientifically trained) Muslims, and can attest to the fact that many are Creationists (my family).

So the results of a new survey of the world’s Muslims by Pew took me aback a bit, in that it reports widespread acceptance of evolution among Muslims. To add to the plausibility the results for Turkey are in line with previous findings: a bit more of Turkey’s population are Creationist than not. The results for highly secularized European Muslim populations are plausible, though the gap between Albania and Kosovo is somewhat strange. But look at the results for Bangladesh and Lebanon!

I have to admit some skepticism. My concerns are twofold: first, many of these questions may be interpreted differently from society to society, so that comparison may be difficult. This is why I tended to focus on within-region comparisons when ingesting the other survey responses (Pakistan vs. Bangladesh, Lebanon vs. Palestinian territories). Second, I am not sure as to the representativeness of the sample. Do the opinions surveyed actually reflect the broader society? In extremely poor nations like Bangladesh I have difficulty even comprehending how illiterate subsistence farmers would interpret some of these questions, their perceptions of modern abstractions of nationality and identity are generally so inchoate.

There’s also a broader dynamic which needs to be addressed: modernization in many cases leads to greater ‘conservatism’ of belief and practice. Older subsistence farming societies are often tolerant and accepting of diversity of opinion on a macro-social scale because they are fragmented enough that such variation can be accommodated without too much controversy. In contrast, urbanizing societies characterized by upwardly mobile middle classes living cheek by jowl often exhibit simultaneous patterns of secularization and radicalization, with the latter often defined by appeals to a reversion to tradition and proper adherence to formality and ritual (often these are novel constructions and modern interpretations of ancient motifs). Turkey’s Creationism in relation to Bangladesh may simply be due to the relative social advancement of the former in relation to the latter, where broad based mass popular culture has attained a level of power and self-determination to challenge elite narratives. Ultimately the terminal state of this challenge seems to be capitulation and co-option by the elites, but until that moment one is confronted by the reality of dramatic ideological tensions between the elite and aspirant elite factions.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Religion 
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Over at The American Conservative Noah Millman and Rod Dreher are having a discussion over the basic premise that founding texts (e.g., Bible, Koran) and individuals (e.g., Jesus, Muhammad) have a deep influence upon the nature of a religion. Long time readers will be aware that I side much more with Millman on this. In fact I recall that years ago in the comments of Ross Douthat’s old blog at The Atlantic (alas, comments are gone from their archives) I took the more maximalist position that theology and logical coherency are not particularly relevant toward understanding religious phenomena in an exchange with Noah (he made an analogy with law, and I responded that that proved my point about the pliability of religious ideas).

The basic axis of the debate is simple enough. Observers, such as Andrew Sullivan, point out that Muhammad’s life was characterized by a level of directed violence due to this actions which has no analog in the life of Jesus. As Muslims view Muhammad as the perfect man, worthy of emulation, the logic would be that a violent man would result in a violent religion. As Islam is probably the most violent religion today (though yes, Christians commit the most violence because of the simple fact that the United States is a superpower; but Christianity is not particularly relevant to the rationale), the logic is eminently plausible. Conversely, Jesus’ life was one of passivity in the face of violence. Therefore, any violence in the history of Christianity is in contravention to the basic spirit of the religion.

There are two primary issues, one relatively concrete, and another more abstract but fundamental. The concrete one is that it is trite but true to state that Muhammad was his own Constantine. That is, he was not simply a spiritual teacher, but also a temporal ruler. More broadly, while Christianity became an imperial religion, Islam was born an imperial religion. This makes comparisons between the early years of the faiths difficult, because one could argue that Islam recapitulated in 40 years (going from an persecuted sect to the imperial ideology) what took Christianity 400 years! Since founding texts and canons tend to crystallize in the early phase of a religion’s life cycle it stands to reason that their character would be shaped by their local historical-social context. The project of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the late 4th and early 5th centuries was in large part to refashion Christianity from a counter-cultural cult whose base consisted of the urban lower middle class to a universal imperial religion suitable for aristocratic patronage and adherence (see: Through the Eye of the Needle). During the Protestant Reformation, and down to the Second Great Awakening, this turn toward the elites has been asserted by radical Christians of a “primitive” bent to have been an error, at variance from the fundamental core of the faith (see: Restorationism)). That may be true, but until the Enlightenment the general outline of the Christian relationship to the political order was exactly the one promoted by St. Augustine and his heirs in the 5th century. That was Christianity. For non-believers what Christianity should have been is irrelevant. What Christianity was and is is the primary concern.

In other words, what Dreher, Sullivan, and many others see as the cause of social and cultural phenomena may actually be the product of that phenomena in the first place (e.g., the oppressive and Machiavellian aspects of Muhammad and the early Muslim community being a function of the fact that early Islam had to deal with almost immediate profane temporal power). Jesus may have been born in a violent Roman Empire, and ultimately the subject of violent acts from the Roman authorities and his enemies among other Jews, but he was heir to a relatively non-violent tradition among the Pharisees (what became Talmudic Judaism and later Orthodox Judaism) which eventually achieved near total acceptance among Jews* after the defeat of Simon bar Kokhba. It is famously pointed out by many that many of the more conciliatory Surahs promulgated by Muhammad date to the period when the Muslim community was weak, while the more hegemonic ones were when the community was hegemonic. This goes to the point that specific context influences the weight of values which are expressed at the founding of a religion. The early Christians and Jews lived under a Roman dominion which was far more powerful than the tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia, and there was no realistic possibility that they could overturn the pagan order (as evidenced by the outcomes of the quixotic Jewish revolts of the 1st and 2nd century, which totally obliterated Jewish militancy).

But this brings me to the more fundamental issue. Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit. This is a difficult issue to approach, because even believers who are vague on peculiarities of the details of theology (i.e., nearly all of them!) nevertheless espouse that theology as true. Very few Christians that I have spoken to actually understand the substance of the elements of the Athanasian Creed, though they accept it on faith. Similarly, very few Sunni Muslims could explain with any level of coherency why al-Ghazali‘s refutation of the Hellenistic tendency within early Islam shaped their own theology (if they are Sunni it by definition does!). Conversely, very few Shia could explain why their own tradition retains within its intellectual toolkit the esoteric Hellenistic philosophy which the Sunni have rejected. That’s because almost no believers actually make recourse to their own religion’s intellectual toolkit.

This is the hard part for many intellectuals, religious or irreligious, to understand. For intellectuals ideas have consequences, and they shape their lives. Their religious world view is naturally inflected by this. And most importantly they confuse their own comprehension of religious life, the profession of creeds rationally understand and mystical reflection viscerally experienced, with modal religiosity. This has important consequences, because intellectuals write, and writing is permanent. It echoes down through the ages. Therefore our understanding of the broad scope of religious history is naturally shaped by how intellectuals view religion. In a superficial sense the history of religion is the history of theology, because theology is so amenable to preservation.

To give a concrete example of the confusions that false theoretical commitments can entail, one can model the Reformation as being caused in a necessary and sufficient fashion by Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses. And yet what of radicals such as John Wycliffe and Jan Huss? Arguably Catharism was theologically and institutionally more radical than any Christian mass movement before the 19th century (the Munster Rebellion failed, abortive attempts before Mormonism to reshape Christianity’s Nicene root never took). An excessively materialist reduction of the Reformation is that the arrival of the printing press meant that the Roman Catholic church’s ideological monopoly was no longer enforceable. This seems entirely too pat. Not only that, but though the Reformation resulted in greater ideological diversity at the institutional level, the pre-Tridentine Renaissance Church was quite theologically diverse (this was one of the major criticisms of the “reformers”!). A more thorough understanding of the forces, inevitable and contingent, which led to the outbreak of Europe’s religious fracture in the 16th century surely has to include the diverse social and culture forces shaping people at the time, as well the specific personality of Martin Luther and his confederates.

And yet though Luther’s personality may have had some effect on the initial shape of the Reformation, it seems that to some extent a reordering of the Renaissance Church was inevitable, and if not Luther, then someone else. In other words personalities and ideas are necessary, but the Reformation was frankly not rate limited in terms of theology. There are always many ideas floating around suitable for selection. Theological innovation can not operate on the historical scale without much broader social forces which enable it to flourish (e.g., Hungarian Unitarianism, which has Italian intellectual roots, owes it existence to the patronage of a prince). And importantly the institutional Protestant movements themselves imposed severe checks as excessive theological innovation once intellectuals began to turn against the historic traditions of ancient Christian church (e.g., the Trinity, which is not derivable sola scriptura in any obvious sense).

Ultimately my own personal revelation on these issues occurred in the mid-aughts. Though I have always been skeptical of God, and an explicit and self-conscious atheist from childhood on, I found religious beliefs peculiar and difficult to comprehend in any intuitive sense. This led me early on to reading the source texts and scriptures, as well as theological commentaries (e.g., Summa Theologica, and I’ve read the whole of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament multiple times, and Genesis dozens). In this way I felt I understood on some deep level why people were religious. But I was wrong. When I read Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust it opened up a whole landscape of cognitive anthropology which explained with much greater accuracy the paradoxes of religious belief and behavior with which I was confronted. The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology. A deductive theory of religion derived from axioms of creed fails in large part because there is no evidence that the vast majority of religious believers have internalized the sophisticated aspects of their theologies and scriptures in any deep and substantive sense. To give a concrete example, Sri Lankan Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims can give explicit explanations to at least a rudimentary level as to the differences of their respective religious beliefs. But when prompted to explain their understanding of the supernatural in a manner which was unscripted, and which was not amenable to a fall back upon indoctrinated verbal formulas, their conceptions of god(s) were fundamentally the same! (see: Theological Incorrectness). The superficiality of theological system building is also evident in the fact that when confronted with radicalism derived from the logic of shared axioms during the Reformation prominent Protestant thinkers fell back upon tradition and revelation to defend the common creeds inherited from the early Roman church.

And that is why one should always been cautious of taking theology, textual analysis, and intellectualism too seriously when it comes to religion. Mathematicians can derive proofs from logical analysis. Those proofs are invariant across individuals and subcultures. They are true in a fundamental sense. Though natural science attempts to validate and refine theories and formal models which are robust, it fails when there is no empirical check upon the model building. Outside of pure math our powers of ratiocination are overwhelmed by subjective decisions along the chain of propositions. Separate theologians and have them derive from first principles, and there will be no similarity in their final inferences about the nature of God and the universe. Elite theological conformity is a function of social conformity, not the power of intellectual rigor. When isolation is imposed upon a community of religious believers for any given period of time they are almost always defined by a rapid shift toward heterodoxy, as they lose contact with the broader elite consensus (see: Dao of Muhammad as an example of how strongly an alien milieu can totally transform a familiar religious group unless that subculture remains in contact with the broader community).

Theology is not a cause of any great robustness on the macro scale. Nor does it explain much of micro scale behavior. Where does that leave us to be “serious” about religion? As Noah Millman stated it requires a deep program of empirical analysis and research of massive multi-disciplinary scope. Almost no one is interested in such a program from what I have seen. In my post below several readers ask why I think Islam is inherently violent. After reading this I think you now understand I don’t think this at all, I don’t think Islam is inherently anything. When it comes to religious phenomena I am very much a nominalist. One could say that I’m a nominalist when it comes to the species concept, and I am, but species have much more clear and distinct bounded phenomenological structure than religion does. Rather, when I say that Islamic extremists are qualitatively not like Christian extremists, I am making a descriptive and empirical observation, without much theoretical baggage. My interlocutors have a difficult time comprehending this because to be frank I don’t expect many of them to have thought about religious phenomena in more than a superficial fashion in ideologically motivated arguments. Or, more often, ideologically motivated quorums of consensus.

On many specific issues I agree with Rod Dreher a great deal when it comes to Islam. I do think too many Muslims and their liberal fellow travelers attempt to squelch justified critique of the religion by making accusations of bigotry (I’m on the receiving end regularly). Obviously I disagree with that. But, where I part with Rod is his “theory of religion.” As a religious believer with a deep intellectual predisposition I doubt Rod Dreher and I will be able to agree on the primal point at issue. Not only do I believe that the theologies of all religion are false, but I believe that they’re predominantly just intellectual foam generated from the churning of broader social and historical forces. Some segments of the priestly class will always find institutional politics exhausting, mystical experience out of their character, and legal commentaries excessively mundane. These will be drawn to philosophical dimension of religious phenomena. Which is fine as far as it goes, but too often there is an unfortunate tendency toward reducing religion to just this narrow dimension. But I have minimal confidence that most people will accept that the Christianity church has little to do with Jesus and that Islam has little to do with Muhammad. And yet I think that’s the truth of it….

Addendum: I don’t write these posts often to clarify my viewpoints because I’ve written them before. Here’s one from 2006. Between then and now I have no sense that people have bothered to actually read and understand the phenomena which they have such passionate and confident views of.

* Naturally Hellenistic Jews went even further in reconciling themselves with Roman power, by assimilating into Greco-Roman culture more thoroughly.

• Category: Science • Tags: Religion 
Razib Khan
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