What religion is

It’s been about 10 years since I addressed this topic. Largely because I have no new thoughts. But probably after 10 years, it’s useful to revisit/clarify on this topic to clarify confusions, since people have a lot of opinions on this topic.

People mean different things when they mean “religion,” and the different meanings are not contradictory, nor in conflict.

At the lowest level in terms of individual cognition religion emerges from deep intuitions about the nature of the universe. Colloquially one might say that religion bubbles out of our unconscious.

In relation to social units, say the clan or tribe, religion consists of these intuitions about the nature of the universe and the world around us, bound together with rituals and verbal descriptions and narratives. These rituals and communal narratives help forge some sort of group Weltanschauung that has a functional utility in terms of inter-group competition and relations. Here religion steps out of the individual and becomes an expression of collective consensus.

As human societies became more complex the role of religious professionals became more elaborated. The common role of a shaman can be thought of as a magician, one who manipulates and operates in the domain of the supernatural. Shamans are common and ubiquitous in pre-state societies (even if a tribe does not have a “professional” shaman, someone takes on the role when needed). The priest adds on top of this institutional authority, often supra-clan or tribal. No king, no priest. Eventually, though the shaman-priest took on the role of the metaphysician. The metaphysician generates abstract principles and rationales, which can transcend the tribe or ethnicity, and allows religion to generate meta-ethnic civilizational identities in the service of priestly functions.

So in the post-Axial Age, the religious professional is often shaman, priest, and philosopher.

In relation to my post about why I am not a New Atheist, New Atheists, and the hyper-verbal expositors of modern organized religion, often tend to reduce religion to a branch of philosophy with some textual revelatory buttress. By refuting the philosophy of religion, they think that they refute religion in toto.  But what they refute is only the latest and most elaborated structural expression of the religious phenomenon.

What about the priest? Though I am wary of the term “political religion,” due to semantic confusion, it seems clear that the function of the priest can be stripped of its supernatural valence. Many of the most objectionable characteristics of religion for people of liberal orientations derives from the institutionalized priestly functions. Unfortunately, the persistence of the priest in the absence of gods, shamanic powers and metaphysical justification opens the doors to secular totalitarianism.

Finally, it seems almost impossible to stamp out the shaman. Shamanism is like music. You can banish it through institutional sanctions, but once those sanctions disappear, shamanism reappears.

These different aspects of religiosity exist and persist simultaneously in most contexts, but sometimes in tension. Philosophers and priests often take a dim view of shamanic religiosity. In organized religion of the modern sort shamanism is marginalized, or highly constrained and regulated in sacraments. But the recession of state-sponsored Christianity across much of the West has arguably resulted in a resurgence of shamanism, and the proliferation of diverse supernatural beliefs which had previously been suppressed (much of East Asia is characterized by relative weakness of philosophical religion but the strength of shamanism).

Jade Eggs anyone?

The relevance of all this in relation to New Atheism is that New Atheism seems to posit a religious “Blank Slate.” That is, children are indoctrinated in religion at a small age, previous to which they had been atheists. Part of this is due to the fact that the philosophical-metaphysical aspect of religion is quite clearly indoctrination, and often of a superficial sort at that (judging by how weak most believer’s grasp of theology is). But the communal and psychological aspects are not indoctrination, as much as specific instantiations of general human sentiments, dispositions, and intuitions. The erasure of a Christian, Buddhist or Islamic religious orientation will not necessarily leave in its wake a mind primed for scientific naturalism. Rather, it will simply be one shorn of Axial-Age accretions, reverted back to the shamanic age…

As someone who is an atheist, I have never had strong intuitions that lead me to find shamanism plausible. Additionally, the philosophical arguments are wanting for me in relation to God, though they are interesting (thanks to reader Thursday I’m reading Edward Feser’s work). Finally, obviously, I take a dim view of the conformity and structure which the priests attempt to impose upon us.  But I do not presume I am not typical.

Accepting that most people are damned, and liberal pluralism

Here is how I learned it. Once upon a time in the West, the Church aimed to save all of society by bringing everyone under the umbrella of the Truth. The shattering of Western Christendom with the Reformation caused a problem. If the Catholics were right, then the Protestants were damned, and if the Protestants were right, the Catholics were damned. You know all about the “Wars of Religion,” which occupied Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Ultimately this led to the Westphalian system and a gradual acceptance that there would no longer be One True Religion in the West. Monarchs who even took a skeptical view on religion, such as Frederick the Great, arose in the 18th century. In this case, you had a Calvinist Hohenzollern dynasty which could not bring its Lutheran populace on board. In Saxony, you eventually had Catholic dukes ruling over a Protestant populace.

But another aspect of the collapse of universal Christianity in the West was the emergence of radical Protestant groups which understood most of society to be damned and beyond redemption. The separatism of the Amish is an extreme case of this. They don’t even attempt to convert anyone to their religion, which has turned into an ethnicity. This withdrawal of radical Protestants from attempting to force the temporal world to their will has expressed itself most fully in the United States of America, which never had a state-supported religion on the federal level, a radical innovation in its day.

This strain of Christianity is suspicious of the state and society in part because of the suppression their beliefs and practices by both the state and society in which they first emerged. But their relegation of the majority to the ranks of the damned also allows for a modus vivendi in this life. As a contrast, see this apologia for the Pope Pius IX behavior in the Mortara case in First Things, Non Possumus.

The basic argument seems to be that the Pope was motivated by the salvation which was being offered to the soul of the child baptized by the family’s maid. The curious thing is that the whole time I was reading the piece I was thinking about Islamists who would argue that coercive conversion of children of other religions to Islam is still good on the balance because they are now Muslims. The general way this wors is somehow a child is tricked into saying the shahada, and Islam enjoins that once converted one can not apostatize (the Kafir Kalash of Pakistan are suspicious of their children being around their Muslim neighbors because this has happened many times in the past to them).

Some of the same extreme “compassion” seems to be cropping up in American politics, as a deviation from the Truth is no longer tolerated. Pius IX was out of step with his time, as secular liberalism was on the rise. Today I wonder if that liberal in its own turn may have to give ground to a new totalitarianism.

Cultural and religious relics as clues to cultural process

Much of the public is given the impression that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under the reign of Constantine. Though it is hard to deny that it was the favored religion, especially by the end of his rule, modern ideas of the “official” religion of a given state are somewhat anachronistic for this period and place. In The Last Pagans of Rome Alan Cameron argues that the true death-blow to non-Christian religions in the Roman Empire occurred during the reign of Gratian, 50 years after Constantine, with the cessation of subsidies to the traditional religion (a contrasting view is that elite paganism was vital as a public force up until Theodosius the Great’s conquest of the Western Empire).

In The Final Pagan Generation the author reviews the almost imperceptible change that occurred in the lives of the Roman elite, who looked back to a continuous cultural lineage that drew from the late republic. These elite men and women exhibited passivity and complacency, as the norms which had come before would presumably obtain until the end of time. What they did not understand is that there are periods when societies go through rapid changes, so that a rupture occurs between the past and the future in the span of a lifetime.

Whether you think elite public paganism lost its vitality in the last decades of the 4th century or sometime in the 5th, the reality is that it was a spent force by the time Justinian began his the marginalization of the last of the Neoplatonic philosophers around 500.

Of course, this does not mean that sub-pagan practices did not persist among the European peasantry for centuries. But the reality is that they were at least nominally Christian, and a coherent sense of traditional religious identity apart from that outward affiliation did not exist (at least after Christianization).

Which brings me to the people of the Mani peninsula, in the southern Peloponnese. This isolated region was reputed to retain the practices of Greek paganism as late as the year 1000 A.D. Let me quote Constantine VII, Byzantine emperor from 913 to 959:

Be it known that the inhabitants of Castle Maina are not from the race of aforesaid Slavs (Melingoi and Ezeritai dwelling on the Taygetus) but from the older Romaioi, who up to the present time are termed Hellenes by the local inhabitants on account of their being in olden times idolaters and worshippers of idols like the ancient Greeks, and who were baptized and became Christians in the reign of the glorious Basil. The place in which they live is waterless and inaccessible but has olives from which they gain some consolation.

The Basil in question reigned from 867 to 886.

Of course, we don’t know if Constantine and his contemporaries were correct in all the details of the people of Mani. It seems unlikely that he would have misidentified them as Greek as opposed to Slavs (whose paganism was more recent), but perhaps they practiced a debased form of folk Christianity mixed with old superstitions? But, if they did continue to practice the religion of ancient Greece it illustrates how persistent traditional beliefs than be in a world where the state and cultural elites have more limited purview than one might have thought. It seems unlikely that the people of Mani would have been unfamiliar with Christianity (there are ruins of churches going back to the 4th century in the area), but they may have been socially isolated enough that the incentives to convert to the new religion did not exist.

The Tengerrese people of East Java, who remain Hindu, maybe a modern analogy. The worshippers of the gods of the old Norse were by chance the Sami, who did not become fully Christian until after the Reformation. And up until the Islamic period, the city of Harran remained predominantly pagan (the Persians were close enough that the East Roman authorities respected the religious liberties of these people lest they defect).

New Atheism is dead, long live New Atheism


Scott Alexander asks How Did New Atheism Fail So Badly? It’s in response to an obnoxiously fact-free Baffler rant. I think what Scott is alluding to here is the lack of fashionability of “New Atheism.”

But in the American context, I do think that New Atheism arose is a particular time and context, George W. Bush’s America, and has declined in salience in another one, where standard-bearer of the Republican party is a cultural Christian at best. The previous President, Barack Obama, was a liberal Christian who admitted that he believed in evolution more than angels.

Today a larger fraction of Millennials are irreligious than they are Evangelical Protestants. The proportion of Americans who said they had “No religion” in 2000 was 8%. Today it is 18%.

Addendum: I think some of Scott’s commenters are correct that the rise to prominence of Islam as something that good liberals need to defend in public, no matter their private contempt for the religion (which they share with me candidly of course), also makes New Atheism kind of less attractive.

As many Americans think the Bible is a book of fables as that it is the literal word of God


America, that is, the United States of America, has long been a huge exception for the secularization model. Basically as a society develops and modernizes it becomes more secular. At least that’s the model.

In the 1980s Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge wrote The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Stark and Bainbridge’s work was predominantly empirical; they looked at survey data to present a model of the American religious landscape. But they also had a theoretical framework, whereby religion was modeled with a rational choice framework on the individual religion, and denominations and sects were viewed as “firms” providing “goods and services” to “customers.”

A whole field emerged over time which attempted to use the methods and models of economics to explain religious phenomena. Larry Witham’s Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion surveys the various scholars in this discipline. I’ve read the book, and what I will say is that like many imperial ventures, this one failed. The predictions of the “supply-side” model of religion haven’t panned out.

In 2004 Samuel Huntington wrote in Who Are We? that the United States likely had a more Christian future than the present. He was actually writing this as a massive wave of secularization was going on in the United States; the second since that of the 1960s had abated.

For a long time, people were in denial about this. After all the United States had been the great exception to the secularization trend in the developed world. Their priors were strong. And the market also provided what consumers wanted; books such as God is Back and Jesus in Beijing catered to the demand. Writing in the early 2000s the author of Jesus in Beijing suggested that 20 to 30 percent of China would be Christian two to three decades, so between 2023 and 2033 (from the publication of the book). Credible statistics in 2017 put the current number of Christians in China at 2 to 5 percent.

In 2009 I took John Tierney of The New York Times to task for dismissing the secularization hypothesis in a column. I emailed him my blog post, and he denied that it showed what it showed. Today I suspect he’d admit that I was more right than he was.

Today everyone is talking about the Pew survey which shows the marginalization of the Anglo-Protestant America which I grew up in. This marginalization is due to secularization broadly, and non-Hispanic whites in particular. You don’t need Pew to tell you this.

At the top of this post you see the response to the GSS query BIBLE, which asks respondents how they view the Bible in relation to whether it is God’s literal word, inspired word, or a book of fables. I limited the data to non-Hispanic whites. In 2016 as many people viewed the Bible as a book of fables as the word of God. In 2000 twice as many people viewed it as the word of God as a book of fables. That is a huge change.

Note: Robert Putnam’s American Grace is probably the best book which highlights the complex cultural forces which ushered in the second wave of secularization. The short answer is that the culture wars diminished Christianity in the eyes of liberals.

When white people were “ethnic”

In the period between 2005 and 2010 I spent a fair amount of time reading about American history. And one aspect which interested me was the nature of the assimilation of white Americans of non-Protestant background, in particular Roman Catholics and Jews. This was triggered by reading The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, where the author argues that the modern American conception of church-state separation is difficult to understand in practice unless religion is defined as something similar to low church American Protestantism

Though the American founding was famously eclectic and tolerant, as befitted a republic designed by men with elite Enlightenment sensibilities, it was culturally without a doubt Protestant in heritage, if not belief. The American Revolutionary Zeitgeist was steeped in British-influenced anti-Catholicism. In keeping with the same sort of Protestant populism which inspired the Gordon riots a broad swath of American colonial opinion was critical of the Quebec Act for giving French speaking Catholics a modicum of religious liberty and equality before the law.

Despite this historical context the relationship between the Roman Catholic population and the American republic in the early years was relatively amicable. Most of the priests were French Canadians, and Catholic population was highly assimilated and integrated. The great change occurred with the arrival of large numbers of Roman Catholic Irish, as well as a Irish American clerical ascendency which drew upon a revival in the Church in Ireland.

John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom is probably the best history of the religion in the United States that I read during that period. Not because it’s comprehensive, it’s not. Rather, because it focuses on the tension between the Church and the American republic and society, and how it resolved itself, and how that resolution unravelled.

Periodically people in the media make allusions to the ability of the American republic and culture to assimilate Catholics and Jews, and how that might apply to Muslims today. The discussion really frustrates me because there is almost never an acknowledgement that Roman Catholics experienced various degrees of low-grade persecution during periods of the 19th century. The Ursuline Convent riots are just the most sensational incident, and the Know Nothing movement turned into a political party.

The expansion of public schooling in parts of this was country tied to anti-Catholicism. But the Catholics did not take this passively. The emergence of a whole counter-culture, and parochial schools, suggested that they were ready to fight back to maintain their identity. The powerful Irish clerics who served as de facto leaders of the Roman Catholic faithful seem to have wanted to establish a modus vivendi with the American government which recognized the Church’s corporate role in society. By and large American elites and culture rejected this attempt to import a European style model to the New World.

By the late 19th century a movement began in the American Roman Catholic Church which became labeled the Americanist heresy. Despite its official condemnation I would argue that “Americanism” eventually became the de facto ideology of most American Roman Catholics. As Catholics conceded and assimilated toward American liberal and democratic norms in their everyday life, the hostility from the general public declined, and by the middle of the 20th century Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew articulated a vision of religious harmony among white Americans.

It should be rather obvious from the above that I believe this religious harmony was achieved in large part through concessions that American Catholics made to the folkways of the United States. You see the same dynamic in Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism. Second, in Catholicism and American Freedom McGreevy lays out the great unravelling of the Catholic hierarchy’s understanding with American society which occurred in the 1960s, as social liberalism went far beyond what even the most progressive Roman Catholic intellectuals were ready to countenance. And in this cultural revolution Catholics were shocked to find that their Jewish allies made common cause with mainline Protestants and post-Protestants.

The reason I am writing this is that the American landscape today is different in deep ways from that of the 19th and early 20th century. The lessons of Catholic and Jewish assimilation to a Protestant understanding of religion were achieved through bitter conflict, and the rejection of a corporatist accommodation between the American government and religious minorities, as was achieved in several European countries. The modern ideas of religious pluralism are fundamentally different from the explicit understanding of Protestant supremacy which ruled the day a century ago, and only slowly faded with assimilation of non-Protestants.

The dusk of Oriental Christendom

In the last quarter of the 20th century environmental concerns were such that the dangers of the loss of habitat would be couched in terms of “tigers will go extinct in our lifetimes if we don’t preserve the the lands in which they live.”

In some ways it seems that the lot of Oriental Christians, those ethno-religious groups which inhabit the territory from Egypt through the Fertile Crescent, are similar. The first quarter of the 21st century is seeing the extirpation of whole communities.

Just another of the many stories of this genre you see, Christians, in an Epochal Shift, Are Leaving the Middle East:

The exodus leaves the Middle East overwhelmingly dominated by Islam, whose rival sects often clash, raising the prospect that radicalism in the region will deepen. Conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have erupted across the Middle East, squeezing out Christians in places such as Iraq and Syria and forcing them to carve out new lives abroad, in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.

“The disappearance of such minorities sets the stage for more radical groups to dominate in society,” said Mr. Johnson of the loss of Christians and Jews in the Middle East. “Religious minorities, at the very least, have a moderating effect.”

Though many are concerned about rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West to the point of aiding and abetting apologia for the religion, the media is rather sanguine and straightforward about the role of Islam in creating a hostile and dangerous environment for Christians in the Middle East. The truth of what’s going on is just too obvious to obfuscate. Here are some interesting facts:

* A small suburb of Stockholm has become a sort of Mecca for Oriental Christians.

* The collapse of the Iraqi Christian community followed the American invasion under an evangelical Protestant president and democratization.

* The correlation between toleration of Christians and pro-American alignment on the part of the government is weak to non-existent. Saudi Arabia has no churches because public Christianity is banned, and they are an American ally. In anti-American Iran Christians live difficult lives, but arguably with more safety than in Iraq and Egypt, and with more freedom than Saudi Arabia.

* The period of mass movements since the Arab Spring has not been positive for Christians and ethnic minorities in general.

* The indigenous Christian communities in the Fertile Crescent (those from Jordan, Syria, and Iraq) will almost certainly congregate in Lebanon, where their numbers and power is great enough that they are not at the mercy of the majority in terms of their status.

* There are too many Copts (millions) to imagine that Egypt will lose its Christians within this generation, but the outflow is enough that major Diaspora communities will arise.

One dynamic to note is that once these communities relocate to abroad they will change in fundamental ways. The author of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East wanted to record the lives of minorities in their traditional environments because he understood once they were transplanted they would transform, and eventually assimilate into the majority if the record of Arab Christians in the West is any precedent.

Note: I like a lot of Philip Jenkins work, but The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died is a particular good book.

Modernity is not magic with Muslims

There are many reasons I have become very skeptical of the media over the years. Though I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory paradigms, it is obvious that the mainstream media often combines fidelity to precise narratives with a lack of detailed knowledge about the topics they are covering. In other words, they’re stenographers with an agenda. When you don’t know the topic they are expositing upon they can seem quite persuasive. But when you do know the topic they are addressing the emperor can be revealed to be naked. Naturally this warrants concern in most people who observe this, as if they are catching errors in the matrix.*

One area that this problem crops often for me is in regards to media coverage of Islam and and the Middle East. Most reporters don’t seem to really know much about their beat in a deep sense, so they are superficially taking in facts and putting them through coarse interpretative filters.

To name names, David Kirkpatrick covers the Middle East for The New York Times. I read his stuff, and he is not a bad journalist, but he clearly has no deep familiarity with the history of the Middle East or the details of Islam. His work is like a pop-tart; sweet, temporarily filling, but long on a sugar-rush and short on filling substance. For example, he can talk about a contrast between peaceful Sufis and Islamist militants Libya, without knowing that Sufi orders were often militant organizations, and that Libyan independence after World War II was spearheaded by a militant Sufi order. (I know this, so I’m passing this on to you!)

But readers of The New York Times “know” that Sufis are peaceful. So for prose contrast it makes sense that Kirkpatrick would bring that up. Never mind that this is so reductive to be useless in terms of getting people a better picture of reality.

In the interests of adding context, let me add something to the story about FGM in Michigan which is prominent in the news today. A Dr. Jumana Nagarwala is accused of practicing FGM on young girls. Though it is not emphasized in the American media (because it wouldn’t mean much), it seems she is from the Dawoodi Bohra of Ismailis. In India the Bohra community is well known, as it is a very distinct group from the majority of Muslims, who are Sunni, and even most Shia. Its origins seem to be among the mercantile castes of the Gujarat coast, who were converted to a particular Ismaili sect of Shia Islam.

I have some “book learning” about this sect under my belt because I read Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras about 15 years ago on the recommendation of my friend Aziz Poonawalla, who is a member of this community. Mullahs on the Mainframe was topical in the post-9/11 era because it seemed to depict a community which was both modern and religiously orthodox and observant, with fewer tensions being a minority in the West than other groups of Muslims. I don’t want to rehash that line of argument too much; descriptively it is correct that Daudi Bohras are a well behaved minority who attain success, combined with adherence to traditional beliefs and practices (Daudi Bohras, like many conservative Islamists, tend to “look” obviously Muslim because of matters of grooming and dress).

But another aspect of the Daudi Bohra community is that it is one of the few in South Asia that practices FGM. I don’t know or care about the prevalence, extent, or origin of the practice among the Bohra. When I saw the doctor’s name, which seemed South Asian, I immediately suspected she was from the community (the type of headscarf seemed familiar too).

The point of this post is not to demonize the Daudi Bohra community; the vast majority of the world’s Muslims who engage in FGM are not Daudi Bohra. The Shafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence is the big offender in terms of numbers. Indonesian Sunnis are Shafi, so that nation often praised for its tolerant version of Islam has a very high proportion of FGM. Rather, it is to point out that the neat narrative frameworks we prefer are often not descriptively correct nor predictively useful. Since 9/11 rather than a more complex and nuanced view of Islam it seems that opinion leaders have been converging upon the idea that the religion is either with the angels or the devils, rather than a man-made thing which occupies the area in the middle.

The reliance on theories and heuristics which appeal to our sensibilities as right and true misleads in many ways. The arc of history bends toward justice, but the path is winding. The Protestant Reformation was rooted in the more literate and well off classes, and aimed to rid corruption from the Christian church. In the process it unleashed horrible intolerance, cultural genocide, and conflicts which resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Not taking a view on the Reformation as a whole, it is clear that its consequences are not so simply integrated into the Whig version of history when taken in full.

Ultimately we need to rush less quickly toward our preferred conclusions, which align neatly with our prior models. Rather, we need to explore the sideways and what we think are certainly dead-ends, because sometimes those dead-ends will open up startling new landscapes (by the way, I think the “rationalist” community is much better at this than the general thinking public, though that’s not saying much).

* When I was in grad school an acquaintance mentioned this in relation to Jonah Lehrer before his exposure. Lehrer was persuasive whenever he was talking about a topic he wasn’t familiar with, but was clearly out of his depth whenever it approached something he was familiar with.