Saturday, July 21, 2007

In the name of a word   posted by Razib @ 7/21/2007 04:16:00 PM

The Man Who is Thursday has a long post titled Christocentrists: Mormons as Non-Christians. His basic argument is that there are some necessary preconditions assumed with the term "Christian" which Mormons violate, and so though they are followers of Jesus Christ, who they believe is the Son of God, they should not be considered Christians. The post points out my own main issue with the Mormon contention that they Christians: I do not think that other Christians, Muslims or Jews could consider them monotheists,1 so the fact that they revere Jesus Christ as their savior seems like a moot point. Of course, as someone who is not a Christian I don't have a strong opinion on this topic, I can grant Mormons their own self-definition as Christians and I can respect that other Christian groups do not consider them Christians. For me the primary issue is the mapping of the term Christian to a set of characteristics, after all the transmission of information is for me the primary role of terminology.

The Man Who is Thursday is a Christian (from the frozen north I gather), so the debate has more salience for him. What for me is an illustration of linguistic peculiarities and an anthropological curiosity is for him something which goes to the root of his beliefs about the ontology of the universe. This highlights the critical role that names play in the ecology of human social relations and the arc of history. I have made the point before that psychological and anthropological study has unmasked the reality that the vast majority of humans who subscribe with deep sincerity to "higher religions" do not truly conceptualize with any clarity the metaphysics to which they accede and profess as distinctive elements of their creed. In other words, the varieties of theology promoted by Muslims, Trinitarian Christians and devotional Hinduism have little relevance toward the psychological state of the individual believer when focused upon their deity of choice, the mental model of supernatural agency seems a human universal. But, despite this fundamental similarity the names ascribed to abstruse philosophical systems are essential toward coalescing groups which engage in conflict. The schisms of early Christianity, rooted in extremely fine and subtle philosophical distinctions, which sometimes resulted in persecutions and deaths, are illustrations of this principle. Similarly, the hostility of a substantial fraction of evangelical Christians to Mitt Romney despite his social conservatism, in principle (if of recent origin) and practice (in his personal life), also show the power of names.

But this is not restricted to religion. Consider the reluctance that many southern whites had in discarding their historical affiliation with the Democratic party. Or the latency that many who operationally change political orientation exhibit when it comes to shedding their old self-identification for a new (many neoconservatives remained Democrats for far longer than their political change would have implied). These latencies are important to consider because they have real world impact. I suspect that the tendency for many southerners to retain at least local Democratic affiliation slowed down the progress of the conservative revolution. Similarly, I would not be surprised if a Mormon nominee in the Republican party is not of much concern in a generation or two, but until then the latency of identification is going to have real world consequences (e.g., the nomination of Rudi Gulianni because conservatives won't coalesce around any one candidate?).

Addendum: In the current context the importance of names is pretty obvious in a place like Iraq. The emergence of a Arab Shia majority within the borders of what we call Iraq is probably only a fact of the past two hundred years. It seems that as modern irrigation techniques opened up vast swaths of southern Iraq to settlement by nomads who became farmers, there was a switch between a Sunni religious identity to a Shia one, in part due to the missionary activities of the residents of the Shia holy cities around which the farmlands lay. Over time there was a particular mapping between being Shia in Iraq (a southern peasant) and a Sunni Arab (a northerner, a nomad, or a part of the Ottoman era power structure). Fissures that emerge due to different interests of course can become crystallized as a "Shia vs. Sunni" conflict, though there are a host of other parameters at work (as illustrated by the fact that the Shia of southern Iraq ultimately repulsed the Iranian invasion during the 1980s). But the importance of a name should not be overemphasized, after all, Sunni Kurds have no qualms with pragmatically aligning with the Shia Arabs so as to marginalize their Sunni Arab co-religionists. The critical thing about names is their plasticity and manipulability, they are mental constructs and so extremely malleable after considerations of latency and cognitive friction are taken into account.

Update: From the comments, this makes my point much clearer:
....The associated metaphysics is secondary to the potentiation of collective action. Once a flag gets carried across a tribal border, be it a tribal flag, a national flag, a religious flag or whatever in the home context, across the tribal border it’s generally a de facto tribal flag.

I want to emphasize that this issue isn't limited to religion & metaphysics. After all, how many communists read Das Kapital front to back? Religious or political movements need the appropriate psychological "hooks" to have mass appeal, but they also seem to gain credibility through the generation of obscure intellectual justifications.

1 - There is some question among Jews and Muslims whether Trinitarian Christians are monotheists. But, the key is that there is a question; I do not think with Mormons there can be a question.