Meta-ethnic identities to world-swallowing memes

One of Peter Turchin’s ideas which have had a major impact on me is that of a “meta-ethnic” identity, and how that fits perfectly with what we might term “world religions.” Meta-ethnic identity isn’t a fancy construct, but the name itself gives essential information. In the world of the Bronze Age human societies were scaling beyond tribe, but they lacked the ideological toolkit, or what Samo Burja calls “social technology,” to maintain institutional continuity. In Brotherhood of Kings the author outlines how Bronze Age Near Eastern polities established diplomatic relationships by extending the idea of biological kinship. There was no great creativity, and the analogy was imperfect enough to cause confusion (e.g., Egyptian ideas of status and kinship were substantively different from Levantine and Mesopotamian ones, which led to inefficiencies).

The development of religions which span ethnicities, and unite people in spiritual and ideological kinship and affinity, breaks the biological analogy enough to be flexible and portable. Common books and mythologies serve as transmission vehicles of meta-ethnic norms. As I have noted before, the reason that most of the world religions emerged between the period of 500 BC and 500 AD (give or take a few centuries and definitions) is that this was the period of social technological innovation. Once the major players shook out, ideological oligopolies stabilized into a new equilibrium. There may even have been structural reasons in relation to the scaling of human civilizations that mean the number of world religions was never going to converge upon one (e.g., I believe that Islam is best thought of as an offshoot of Christianity which emerged almost accidentally from the perspective of the principals; perhaps in the pre-printing press world Christianity simply ‘outran its supply lines’).

But though the horizontal nature of meta-ethnic identities seems to have obtained an equilibrium, there has been a great shift in their vertical impact, from the top to the bottom of the social hierarchy. In 360 A.D. Julian the Apostate renounced Christianity, the religion in which he was raised, and embraced Neoplatonism and Late Antique Paganism. This was feasible at the time because Christianity identity had not become solid among the Roman elites, who were still in the main nominally pagan, though there was a vociferous rising Christian minority. But over time Christianity swallowed the Roman elite, so rulers who may privately have had little sympathy or piety would never have engaged in apostasy.

But why? The Reformation and the conundrum of Akbar tell us why. Richard Eaton argues in India in the Persianate Age that Akbar wanted to leave Islam behind for much of his life. By the end, he even innovated and created his own pantheistic religion. He and some of the later Mughals (e.g., Dara Shikoh) were clearly influenced by the Brahmins and other Indian religious thinkers in their circle and felt keenly the tension between world-normative Islam, and the assimilative power of the Indic religious tradition. Just like Julian, Akbar was raised as a conventional follower of a monotheistic religion but became emotionally and intellectually invested in something different, and more ancient. But Akbar never went as far as Julian, who clearly wished to marginalize Christianity in a way that Akbar could never marginalize Islam. The reason is that Julian’s elites were religiously plural, and their identity was still weak and new. By the time of Akbar the Islamic military elites that the Mughals relied upon could imagine no other religious identity than world-normative Islam, to which they were bound by family and cultural ties (e.g., most were Turk, Afghan, and Persian, not Indian converts; Akbar would have been unable to build his rule around Hindu Rajputs alone).

By the 16th century in much of the world meta-ethnic identities have percolated down from the elites to the ruling class. One reason the Reformation happened in much of Europe is that the nobility and proto-bourgeoisie were quite open to the religious change, as winds of reform were blowing through late medieval Westen Christianity. In contrast, the peasantry was less relevant. The little information we have indicates that in places like Denmark and England the rural peasantry was not enthused about changing their folkways through the Reformation commanded from on high, and imposed by elites and sub-elites. But they did eventually change.

The point here can be illustrated by a 17th Cambodian king who converted to Islam. His nobles overthrew him. Similarly, when the Hohenzollern’s became Reformed Christians in the 17 century, the people whom they ruled remained Lutheran. They would not convert. Confessional meta-ethnic had percolated and suffused mass identity by the 17th century in much of the world so that elites could not control it, dictate it.

Today we are far beyond that. The collapse of religious identity in the 1960s in the United States was unpredicted. Its stabilization in the 1970s and 1980s was unanticipated by secularization theory as well. But it’s subsequent collapse again in the 1990s and into the 21st century was also not anticipated (Samuel Huntington’s last work was written in the 1990s and published in the early 2000s, before the research was in about secularization, leading to some erroneous conclusions about the power of religious assimilation). Bottom-up dynamics are hard to model* and occur through information and communication channels which elites and scholars may not have access too (think conspiracy theories).

Meta-ethnic identity emerged during the Iron Age to add solidity to the political structures of the period. They were tools for the elites operationally, no matter the sincerity with which most people held to them. Though peasants had nominal affinities, their deeper beliefs were often animist, and their most important affiliations were in the local community. But with the printing press and thicker more pervasive political and cultural institutions, elite identities became popular identities. Elite control faded away, as popular passions took over.

In the 1990s many of us had delusions about what the internet would do. How information would illuminate and enlighten. What has really happened is that information production and consumption are now driven by popular passions in totality. Meta-ethnic identities emerged to foster social cohesion and stability. Today their protean uncontrolled nature may actually lead to the collapse of societies, as passions are unleashed with no conscious direction and guided by no initiated cabal. The information does not aid humans, it is now parasitic upon our minds and the infrastructure that we created to facilitate it’s spread.

* Is this true? Any modelers in the house? That’s my impression.

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7 thoughts on “Meta-ethnic identities to world-swallowing memes

  1. I recently ran across this in Philip Tetlock’s 2003 Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions. It seems relevant.

    “the SVPM [sacred value protection model] model posits that when people discover that members of their community have compromised sacred values, they experience an aversive arousal state–moral outrage–that has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components: harsh trait attributions to norm violators, anger and contempt, and enthusiastic support for norm and meta-norm enforcement (punishing both violators and those who shirk their fair share of the burdensome task of punishing violators for the public good).”

    The article concludes, “Research on sacred values … posits people to be intuitive theologians … Intuitive theologians are suspicious, and unapologetically so, of the classic Enlightenment values of open-minded inquiry and free markets. Opportunity costs be damned, some trade-offs should never be proposed [no statues for slave-owning sinners], some statistical truths never used, and some lines of causal/counter-factual inquiry never pursued.”

    One does not have to be explicitly religious to be an implicit theologian.

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  2. Sorry for this longer post again, but I want to contribute some, from my perspective, important aspects which can’t be summed up in a few words:

    @Razib: “In the world of the Bronze Age human societies were scaling beyond tribe, but they lacked the ideological toolkit, or what Samo Burja calls “social technology,” to maintain institutional continuity.”

    I don’t agree with that. We have plenty of examples for ethnic and transethnic religiously based or at least strengthened networks, which worked for many, many generations in Europe. The problem was that these wider unities, at some point, diversified from each other and the network collapsed, eventually.

    But we’re talking about many generations. One could ask, how long did the Christian unity last, or the Islamic one? How long until they split up in religous-dogmatic-ideological, oftentimes even ethnic based “schools” which, at times, fought each other to the death?

    ” The collapse of religious identity in the 1960s in the United States was unpredicted. Its stabilization in the 1970s and 1980s was unanticipated by secularization theory as well. But it’s subsequent collapse again in the 1990s and into the 21st century was also not anticipated (Samuel Huntington’s last work was written in the 1990s and published in the early 2000s, before the research was in about secularization, leading to some erroneous conclusions about the power of religious assimilation).”

    Christianity was always a “weak religion”, which means it had very soft and naive elements in it, which don’t align well with the social and natural reality of this world. It has too much ballast and was mainly helpful in destroying the clan and tribe based societies in favour of a clearly hierarchical, socially disciplined, state based society in the West.

    As soon as this was achieved, the Christian religion became even more of a burden for further development and progress and while the sovereigns and state administration before relied on the church to control its people, now they wanted to get rid of the intermediary, like they wanted to get rid of the patriarch and clan chief before. The ruling class and state is the most efficient if having direct access to the individual subject, everything in between can be a hindrance.

    Now the “simple people” too had many negative effects of Christianity for their well-being and success, but when the traditional values were destroyed in the West, what remained of conservative family, clan, tribe and folk ways was oftentimes associated, in various ways, with the local Christian beliefs and institution of the church.

    So while the Catholic church destroyed most of the ethnic and folk ways before, it kept some remains alive, which was still better than nothing, but of course not the optimum and ripe to be replaced.

    However, after WW2 the churches became, largely, and heavily, affected by the post-war Cultural Marxist turn on society and the Liberal tendencies of the Western Capitalist system. This led to a situation in which all high churches became corrupted and lost the last remains of useful conservative and folk ways, while at the same time being unable to keep in touch with the Liberal shifting majority. So they, essentially, lost both by trying to compromise:
    – The national-conservative people
    – The Liberal and Leftist people
    What remains are only those highly religious people, some structural conservative ones, and the “lowest level churches”, with sects which sell mad, rather silly products to people “in need of it”. But those are unable to create the new “Volkskirchen”, churches of the people, of the folk, of the large majority, with their niche products.

    So it was, in a way, all quite predictable and inevitable, in the current societal and economic setting.

    “What has really happened is that information production and consumption are now driven by popular passions in totality.”

    Probably it seems that way, but in reality we can watch a manipulative social control system which evolves from the ashes of free communication on the internet, created by the Oligarchy which ruled before and gets, this way, its full control back or even better, extends it in an unprecedented way.

    There are only weak glimpses of unpredictable tendencies which really matter right now, the large majority of content and social movements being under control of the Oligarchy. And even the content and activities they don’t like, being in their favour, because they push of two alternatives, the one they prefer.

    This is very evident on numerous occasions, as is the fact that the manipulation gets easier and easier to do, the more control they can exert on social media and the internet as a whole, which they want to gain, with the “woke movement”.

    I would compare this with Christianity: The reasonable Germanic sovereign cared little for Christian beliefs, what he wanted was to keep his aristocracy, clan chiefs and patriarchs under control, making them accept his “god given rule” and the church based administration for his “subjects”. So he sent in the priests and monks, to “convert his pagans”, exactly for that reason, whether he “believed in Jesus Christ” or not. And if he believed, he might have believed what the priest told him, that with the cross on his flag he will win in battle and his dynasty will rule, if praying the right way, forever – or better to the end of the world and of course the nice place in heaven besides god, because of his “conversion efforts”.

    The most absurd thing that ever took place was that the Roman state, which already had a far better and more developed citizen status and moral, at its start, became Christian. Because from this level, it was a major setback contributing big time to the decline and fall of Rome.

    Christianity and Islam only helped to build states and higher culture where there was none before. Where there was a higher culture and state, they, as a rule, destroyed much more than they helped, because they limited the intellectual and practical options in a highly detrimental way.
    They were only a relatively successful “tool” in controlling a formerly almost exclusively tribalistic society.

    That doesn’t mean a religion, ideology or common “great idea” doesn’t help in keeping things together, but if we get concrete, we have to look at the content. And if the content is to make everybody equal by making everybody but the divine ruler a slave, this is for sure no promising ideology for lifting up humanity on the long run.
    Its only good in keeping people down. Now some might prefer to keep people down, but then those in charge should do the right things, which again, the rulers did not, not for the people, not for the greater good, not more than pre-Christian and pre-Islam rulers generally speaking, with some exceptions in the social-welfare sphere, where they both did good, at least originally.

    Most religious concepts around lack some very fundamental truths which are indisputable for a reasonable human being. They have great content, all major religions do, but they also have a great amount of ballast. And free and thinking people just see the ballast and won’t swallow it, so the religion has to be very practical and useful otherwise, for being accepted even though its so faulty.

    Islamism managed to create a social revolutionary narrative which offers, for many rather simple-minded and desperate people, such an alternative after the Western failure, after the West lost its utopies and alternatives altogether for this Neoliberal crap oscillating between economic Libertarianism and Cultural Marxist totalitarian control with a small Oligarchy on top deciding which element they want to use for which purpose.
    Christianity didn’t even manage that, it became a tolerated part of the corrupted regime on its higher level and immensely stupid only, even without the simple alternatives Islamists offer, on its lower.

    The time has come for new narratives and the chaos we observe is just the primordial soup from which it will emerge – hopefully.
    Because neither the Neoliberal Oligarchy which suffocates all true values nor the radical Islamist tyranny are good alternatives.

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  3. I have noticed there are some relatively obscure forms of “liturgical religion” adhered to by Western elites, mainly in the form of Traditional Catholicism and certain forms of Anglicanism, though much of this seems to be more about the preservation of art and music than deep identity

    With the decline of Christianity in the West, I would be interested in how new forms of religion start to develop. I have seen a certain nascent cultus involving the left, with its own mythos (often frighteningly rewritten “history”) and worship practices.

    A great example is the LGBT creation of the “Marsha Johnson” heroine, or the leftist veneration of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the case of the latter, I have literally cene miniature altars to her.

    I think some of these new meta-ethnicities are beginning to show up, (both MAGA evangelicals and alphabet people) and that will make for an interesting century.

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  4. “The information does not aid humans, it is now parasitic upon our minds and the infrastructure that we created to facilitate it’s spread.”

    Take a break, and try some meditation. You can do it “raw”, without any added values.

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  5. perhaps in the pre-printing press world Christianity simply ‘outran its supply lines’…

    dunno, but this is a superb bit of imagery!

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  6. “In 360 A.D. Julian the Apostate renounced Christianity, the religion in which he was raised, and embraced Neoplatonism and Late Antique Paganism.”

    Julian was trying to beat something –Christianity which had a strong institutional base and an intellectual superstructure — with nothing.

    The pagan cults were local and had no overarching set of ideas. Neoplatonism was not a rationalization of paganism. It was, like most Hellenistic philosophical movements tolerant of paganism as being something that the hoi poli liked but no philosopher took seriously.

    As Gibbon said: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”

    Hinduism is the test and proof. There philosophers had rationalized popular religion into an overarching scheme of great coherence. It was a something that could go up against other religions.

    If Sikhism had been more developed when Akbar was on the throne, might he have been able to adopt it as a way between Islam and Hinduism?

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  7. I second A. Karhukainen – you can do meditation raw without any added ‘values’, in fact that is its simplest form, and it is useful. I won’t say useful how, because everyone’s experience and what they get out of it is different, but it’s good.

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