« The Olsen Twins: MZ or DZ? | Gene Expression Front Page | Polio Outbreak in Nigeria, Suppression of Dissent and the Origin of AIDS »
July 02, 2004

Beneath the "text"

In my post below Ikram & Luke get into it over the issue of the importance of axiomatic or foundational facts in the shaping of modern day Islam. As I asserted before, Islam is diverse enough that generalizations are by definition difficult. But, this applies to all religions, partly because I feel in many ways religious beliefs are opaque to a straight-forward application of reason. That is, analysis of texts and statements by the founders of any given religion can lead individuals to drastically varying conclusions. Upon further examination, one might find that for many the conclusions one comes to about any particular topic when seen in light of a religious text seem suspiciously congruent with a whole suite of opinions set apart from religious issues. In other words, God does not dictate a person's beliefs as much as justify and buttress them.

I agree with congitive scientists Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer that all religions share various features that appeal to and trigger psychological needs and templates. This explains why it is so plausible for peope to assert that "all religions are the same at heart," that they are the expressions of the same truth in various guises. To some extent, Allah, Jesus, Krishna or Avalokitesvara are the just alternate names for the same individual, that is, the generic supernatural agent which the majority of human beings intuit must exist. Some religious traditions, like Hinduism, make this explicit, while others, like Islam, tend to be more circumscribed, for example asserting the unity and uniqueness of the God of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammed. But even in the case of Islam, there are exceptions to the rule, for instance, Sufi leader Zir Khan says: "They had different terminologies, different systems of practice, but there was an essential unity. I believe that essential unity can be discovered in all religious traditions" (he studies with the Dalai Lama, so one assumes this is not cant).

Just as there are horizontal differences between religions, there is a vertical spectrum of the understanding of religion and its experience. The evolutionary psychological viewpoint, which emphasizes the common features and the empirical reality of religious experience, is highly relevant to the majority of humans. Though believers typically hold counter-intuitive and fantastical beliefs about gods, they also interact with them through prayer and devotion as if they were personalized beings who experience time serially. The litany could go on, but the gist is that all religions tend to manifest a particular core of behaviors, assent to certain beliefs and fill various needs. This is what makes understanding of cross-cultural religious expression and practice rather easy, humans have an intuitive understanding of the various facets of religion on the emotional and practical levels.

But, it is a reality that there exists on top of the universal religious mode notional differences, couched in abstract language, which implies that religions must be very different. Quite often, to recognize the differences between notionally distinct sects, one must be culturally fluent and able to pick up the cues and shibboleths that people throw out to mark themselves. There are numerous historical examples of this. When the first European Catholic missionaries ventured to the Far East, they dressed like Buddhist monks in a process of acculturation. Confucian mandarins and Japanese daimyos assumed that they were a an exotic sect of Buddhists. This is in keeping with persistent conflations of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the pre-modern era in China, to the Chinese, all these seemed to be the same religion. Similarly, when Buddhism entered China, many assumed it was a variant of Daoism. Finally, the most amusing confusions can be found in multicultural entrepots like Calicut in Southern India.

Here you have two cases where:

1) The Chinese assumed Hindus were Buddhists, though they were familiar enough with Muslims at this point to recognize them for what they were.
2) The Europeans assumed Hindus were Catholics, though they were familiar enough with Muslims to know what they were.

Though above I have highlighted how easy it is to not be able to see much difference between religions when you are not cultural fluent, this obviously does not translate normally into everyday experience, where people are aware that they are of a particular religion. Though the differences are often notional, a changing of terminology seems to trigger strong responses in people, and like attachment to sports franchises, people can become fanatic about something which to outsiders might seem trivial. Remember, wars were engaged in the 4th and 5th centuries over debates about the nature of Christ, philospohical issues that were beyond the understanding of most common people.

So who can understand the details that display the deep differences that are supposed to define various faiths? Generally, they are religious professionals and members of the literate elite. These individuals are, I believe, atypical of most human beings in their psychological profile. I believe this segment of the population has more than its fair share of those prone to hyper-rationalization and bouts of emotionally charged mysticism. This matters, because this segment of the population is usually responsible for mobilization and direction of communal resources toward (ostensibly) group ends.

Rationalizing religion is futile and logically impossible (religion isn't rational!). Works like Aquinas' Summa Theologica are peculiar, because they are explicit in that there is a way for the elite (reason) and another for the masses (faith). But even in this work, there are constant appeal to Church Fathers and axiomatic assumptions based on faith. The founding works of a religion are often the products of decades of haphazard and collaborative compilation. The thoughts and ideas expounded by a religious leader are often shaped by the context of the times. Human communication is often characterized by varying levels of fidelity and internal incoherency.

Hyper-rational individuals often take a group of texts which are often contradictory and convey a message which is obviously conditioned by the needs of the time, and reformulate it in a fashion where a predictable chain inferences is extractable (from their vantage point). Unfortunately for the rationalizer, the axioms are often unclear and give little direction, so the resultant work is often itself contextualized by the time and colored by personal perspective. The result is that hyper-rational believers working in isolation often produce works and ideas that are sharply in conflict in which other, even though they come from the same religious tradition and are working from the same text. Examples include the debate over predestination & free will within Christianity, the validity of the trinitarian theology, whether the Quaran is created or uncreated, a monistic or dualistic metaphysics in Hinduism, and so forth.

So how do religious elites come to a consensus about "truths"? As I just implied, it is developed through consensus. The early Church councils of Christianity are explicit forms of this, as clerics came together, advocated their own positions or texts, and eventually a majority consensus was reached, which most of the minority would assent to. Many of these decisions are likely sensitive to initial conditions and almost random. If there was no churchman with the force of personality of Athanasias, it might very well be that his creed would not have become the standard in Christianity for 1,700 years. Perhaps this particular theological point was a coincidence contigent upon the existence of Athanasias. Similarly, the filoque controversy was probably contingent upon the political and historical events of the era. Nevertheless, though points of belief can emerge randomly out of chaotic historical and social processes, subsequently, these beliefs can make their own history because of the emotional hold they may have upon elites [1].

So where are we?


  • There is a common template of religious belief, shared by the "masses."
  • This is often modified by the elites through rational modes of thought that are a poor fit to religious texts and truth assertions.
  • These modifications are often unpredictable and random, though resultant theological distinctions often mark the boundaries between various religions.

But there is a serious problem with this story: religious life throughout the world is not characterized by almost random cells of believers with variant theologies. Rather, there are broad groups of faiths. That is, various Islams, Christianities, Hinduisms and Buddhisms. Some of these sects within the broad religions can veer off almost in a random-walk fashion, and sometimes sects in different faith families can begin to resemble each other. But sects are subject to constraints within the texts above. That is, though the majority of a religious text tends to be incoherent, a few principles are often rather clear. Though some sects veer off the conventional path, like "balancing selection" in biology, a few major point of belief tend to constraint most sects within a religious system between, so that there is an core equilibrium that serves as a beacon that determines deviancy and orthodoxy. For example, the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam is considered non-Muslim and heretical by most Muslims in the world because it seems to violate the axiom that Muhammed is the seal of prophets (that is, he is the last prophet). Ahmadiyya will dispute this, but there seems a general consensus among non-Ahmadiyya that they have violated this crucial axiom. Similarly, the National Council of Churches does not allow the Unitarian-Universalist Association to join because they perceive them to be non-Christian. That is, some Unitarian-Universalists may call themselves Christian, but many are not, and the denomination does not affirm a religious creed.

These general principles give religions a general tendency toward approaching a certain median in the outward appearence as far as matters elaborated by elite practioners and adhered to by elite worshippers. The outward appearences also matters to the masses on the emotional level, as a marker that signifies their adherence to a certain "truth" brings psychological rewards.

But do the general broad axioms have any impact on the diversity that we see around us in the different expressions of faith characteristic of each tradition? This post was triggered by Luke's assertion that the example of Muhammed, his status as a warlord, has had long term affects on the development of Islam. The reality, which even the most clever exegete have a difficult time explaining away is that Muhammed was a temporal leader who gave the order to kill other human beings. In contrast, the historical Jesus is more of a blank slate on this level. I do find it plausible that the example of Muhammed tends to place a constraint on the development of a rationalized pacifism within Islam. This is not to mean that Islam is by its nature violent, rather, I suspect that the argument at elite levels for pacificsm that some by their personality might have been prone to make might have had less power because the example of the religious founder refuted it too easily. This does not mean that human cleverness can not reverse the situation. During the medieval period it seems that Christians reconciled their warlike tendencies with the more quietist message of Jesus by looking toward saints who served as more plausible martial models. Muslims could also look to sufi saints as quietest models to justify a thorough pacifism. But, Jesus trumps the saints, and in the end, world-wide Christianity seems to have receded from militarism once it was no longer in the service of the state, that is, the present manifestation might be its "lowest energetic state," a stable equilibrium. In contrast, the example of Muhammed must be explained away to justify a Quaker-like pacificism (I am using the extreme example to illustrate the point).

Finally, let me end by making a few observations. Much of the above speculation is informed by the perception that "Islam has bloody borders" (to quote Samuel Huntington). I am mildly convinced there is something to this, and it is mostly due to what I perceive to be the violent reactions of Muslim minorities in comparison to non-Muslim minorities in positions of religious persecution. In other words, Muslims might take a more pro-active message from Muhammed's early Ummah, which fought back against persecution, while Christians mind tend to find a different message in the example of the martyrs. Nevertheless, "the bloody borders" might be the result of other factors. A map which displays the religions of the world shows something crucial: Islam's spatial distribution guarantees that it has many borders. In contrast, Buddhism is more compact, while much of Christiany's expanse is self-contained and insulated. Another fact might be that bloody borders are a combination of the spatial distribution and axiomatic factors. Or, it might be that the spatial distribution (constant interaction with non-Muslims) resulted in the emphasis of certain axiomatic factors. In other words, it's complicated.

I might totally agree that something is wrong, but I am not so sure what went wrong. And the latter point is crucial, because proposed solutions are always contingent on the chain of reasoning that leads from cause to effect.

[1] The most ridiculous examples are heated religious debates that emerge out of what are, to the eyes of scholars, typographical errors by ancient scribes!

Posted by razib at 03:56 PM