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.