Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Evoking the season   posted by Razib @ 12/27/2005 03:25:00 PM

"Culture" is difficult to define. Sometimes it is used to indicate a particular mix of preferences which have a strong correlation with the social elites, i.e., those who enjoy opera, live theater or classical music. In a more prosaic context it is usually thought of as socially transmitted behaviors and folkways that are particular to groups of humans. Some aspects of culture are universal, for instance, artistic expression. But the details of artistic expression allow us to demarcate various cultural units. Many pieces of cultural expression can be bundled together into a cultural unit, for example, the modes of behavior which are dictated by rabbincal Judaism and traditional Islam. But for each individual there are often multiple bundles of culture which coexist, axes of identification. For example, despite the common norms imposed by Rabbnical Judaism there are differences between Yemeni Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. Some of these differences might be the result of the broader cultural matrix in which these two Jewish cultures evolved, for example, Ashkenazi Jewish law forbade polygyny from the 10th century onward, while Yemeni Jewish law did not. It might not be coincidental that Yemeni Jews were embedded in an Islamic social matrix where polygyny was accepted while Ashkenazi Jews interacted with a larger Western Christian culture where monogamy was normative. In short, culture is a bugger.

This makes discussions about culture extremely slippery, and the potentional for miscommunication and misunderstanding are manifold. Discussions aboiut "Christian culture" or "Western culture" or "Islamic culture" are frought with difficulties in defining boundaries, or ascribing to a particular culture a fundamental diagnostic characteristic. I believe one flaw in most discussions is that the tendency to speak in terms of idealized types translates into a neglect of the reality that culture is a distribution of behaviors which ultimately exist in a flux within the minds of humans. Our discourse is often predicated on particular texts, or outward physical manifestations of cultural expression, but we neglect that much of what culture is can only be understood as a dynamic process which emerges out of the swarm of human social interaction, mediated by cognitive preferences.

With that in mind, I want to review a distinction I have made before between evoked and epidemiological culture. Evoked culture can be thought of as human universals which are naturally expressed when one develops within a conventional social and physical environment. Consider language, in the context of human socialization it seems to be an inevitable development. Though a particular language is not hard-wired, the consensus seems to be emerging that a powerful cognitive bias exists to generate complex and recursive syntactical structures buttressed by an enormous lexical memory. In a milder fashion, religious belief can also be thought of as an evoked cultural phenomenon, the existence of an agency detection bias in congress with various other cognitive processes might naturally result in the conception in one's mind that supernatural agents must exist. But, though these general tendencies are universally evoked, how they express themselves in the details may differ greatly. Chinese or English are not hard-wired in the brains of people speaking those languages, and belief in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob must also be learned (I know some theists would disagree with this, but I would argue that the 'innate' god does not exhibit the details of particular religions but is a generic entity). These details must spread by person to person communication, and this is where epidemiological culture comes into play, as it defines the texture and diversity across the cultural landscape. Though the constraints defined by our mental architecture seem to limit language toward particular canals of development and expression, why a language spreads or does not spread is likely not due to cognitive variables.1 Why have English and Mandarin Chinese spread? For that matter why have Indo-European languages been so successful? There are several variables that likely influenced the success of these languages in spreading, but the key one is likely historical luck, the people who spoke English (British conquerors) and Mandarin Chinese (bureaucrats of the Chinese Empire) were of high and successful status and so emulation and imitation resulted in the spread of these languages. Additionally, the tendency to emulate majority preferences amongst individuals would likely result in a 'tipping point' effect so that the process of linguistic spread would be somewhat sigmoidal as the defection of local elites and peers would result in accelerated transition from the old language to the new. But in some cases innate cognitive factors can play a role even in epidemiological culture. Consider Calvinism. Jean Calvin elucidated a neo-Augustinian view that rejected Free Will in his Reformed theology. In response to this theology there arose a faction within Reformed Protestantism of Arminianism, which rejected the logical conclusions of Predestinary Calvinism. To make a long story short, Arminianism won out in the Church of England, and to a large extent in American Protestantism (despite the Calvinistic roots of many denominations). Operationally Arminianism is the dominant system which humans seem to be working under, even if they verbally espouse an Predestinary theology (as many Reformed denominations and Muslims do). The point here is that the relative success of many Christian denominations at the expense of strict Reformed sects might simply be due to the fact that the compromises with operational Free Will that the former have made is more cognitively optimal than strict Calvinist Predestinarian theology. Finally, another way that a cultural trait can spread is through typical functional benefits. For example, agriculture likely spread simply because the fitness of individuals who adhered to this style of subsistence was higher than that of those who did not (as defined by descendents). Many early theories in regards to religion were functional in that they held that common gods served as expressions of communal unity which served to cohere the group against outside threats. In this paradigm the details of culture are less relevant than that individuals within a group share common norms and trade in interchangeable cognitive currency (swearing oaths to the same god, or fighting under the protection of a tribal god).

Which brings me to Christmas. As an atheist from a non-Christian cultural background who was raised not celebrating the holiday within the family (but partook of the general cultural zeitgeist) I have a peculiar perspective. On the issue of whether to say "Merry Christmas" or not, I generally take it as a default setting unless there are other factors which suggest it should be more appropriate to say "Happy Holidays" (reader surveys suggest that most readers of this weblog are not religious, so I would probably say "Happy Holidays" since I suspect that they have as little attachment to the name Christmas as I do). A few weeks ago I was in an email correspondence with a friend of mine who is an evangelical Christian, and I wished him a "Merry Xmas." He asked me if I celebrated Christmas, and how I felt about that if I did since he knew I was an atheist. The gist of my response was that I did celebrate Christmas, but, I did not think that Christmas was fundamentally a Christian holiday in any case, and I have no aversion to the name Christmas, just as he, a non-Catholic Christian, likely did not object to the historical relict of the Catholic mass that is still embedded within the term. I also explained that though I understand that most Christians assert that "Jesus is the reason for the season," I believe that he became the reason for the season. That is, the pagan origins of many Christian traditions are well known, and the association with Yule, Saturnalia and Natalis Sol Invictus are also common knowledge.

Which brings back to some of the ideas I introduced earlier: the public discourse tends to fixate on Christmas as if it is an idealized unitary type that we all have a common understanding of. Pagans will assert that Christmas is a pagan holiday (they'll change the name). Most Christians will assert it is a Christmas holiday. Some Christians will assert that it is a pagan holiday. Many will contend that it has been distorted and become a celebration of the God of the Market. And so on. The amusing reality that mostly Muslim African Senegal has taken up Christmas (as has Shinto-Buddhist Japan) should point us to the possibility that Christmas is a far messier and diffuse concept than the talking points that have erupted would let on. Going back to the idea of "evoked" cultural traits, I began to wonder if it was not inevitable that a prominent holiday would exist in the darkest days of winter amongst agricultural peoples in Europe. Saturnalia was a Mediterranean Latin affair. Yule was a northern European affair. The American Christmas seems to exhibit aspects of both. In a manner it might have been inevitable that the rise of Christianity as the dominant religious mode amongst Europeans would result in the transition of many non-Christian cultural elements into the Christian pantheon, that it would coopt cognitively optimal features of the native cultures. It is to me no surprise that the Christians who have been most prominent in rejecting Christmas as a pagan holiday are descendents of the Radical Reformation which explicitly attempted to revert back to "primitive" Christianity, shorn of cultural accretions and adhering to strictly scripturally approved norms and motifs.2 Some Christian thinkers have attempted to dismiss the pagan aspects of the Christmas holiday as minor trivialities, but the laundry list of holiday "traditions" which have pre-Christian roots is rather long (Christmas cookies, gift giving, the yule log, excessive celebration). I was surprised that even The Catholic Encyclopedia expressed a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the holiday.

Ultimately I suspect that pagans, Christians and non-theists who celebrate "Christmas" (whatever you call it) are evoking common cognitive states and recapitulating many of the cultural motifs which were in circulation across much of Europe prior to the rise of the Christian religion. The fact that Christmas trees can be perceived to be fundamentally Christian is an interesting commentary on the fluidity of cultural motifs. The debates over Christmas are not truly about Christmas, since the holiday itself is a melange of various cultural streams, and like a kaleidoscope can impart to the perceiver multiple conformations. It is an outgrowth of social anomie that results from disputes over who owns the meaning of particular cultural currencies. Though I have asserted multiple times that I believe that religious believers actually believe in the same cognitive God, that does not negate the reality that they will kill each other over disputes predicated on the particular abstract nature of that God, or the term they use for that God (in reality I suspect that the theological disputes are simply masks for a host of cleavages that make intergroup conflict inevitable). Though the general expression of Christmas is rather the same across various groups, what Christmas "means" has crucial significance as a group marker, just as whether the Son was inferior & created or coequal and eternal with the Father corresponded with barbarian-Roman divisions in late antiquity.

As a non-Christian who is part of the majority consensus in regards to the generality and details of the God hypothesis I am attuned to the dynamics of cultural ownership of symbols and ideas.3 But, I do not believe that Christmas is a particular prudent battle which should be waged by unbelievers simply because no matter what people might say, the practice of the holiday tends to exhibit cross-group similarities which bespeaks to the fact that is drawing upon universal evoked sentiments and cultural traits. Granted, non-Christians who adhere to alternative religions have a greater stake in the "meaning of Christmas," whether they want to reappropriate it (as the pagans do) or deny it its central place (as Jews or Muslims or Hindus might), but to me as an unbeliever such debates seem to be lexical details, not substantive differences.

1 - In The Symbolic Species Terrence Deacon does suggest that languages have been reverse engineeringed by our cognitive architecture to "fit" them optimally. But, Deacon is not suggesting here that modern languages are variant in their cognitive optimality, rather, this is a contention that is only intelligible in the grand evolutionary context.

2 - I recommend Antonie Wessels' Europe, was it ever really Christian?: The interaction between gospel and culture for the logical conclusion of Reformed examination of the fundamentals of Christianity. Wessels' examination of the pagan antecedants of many cultural motifs in "Christendom" is enlightening.

3 - From what I can see the "War against Christmas" is in large part driven by corporate-capitalist concerns of minimizing the risk of any offense.