The variation in religion and our evolutionary history

As my post on intelligence was quite successful, I thought perhaps I would offer up something similar on religion, since that’s a topic where I have been giving opinions based on fragments of my own views for some time. The point in this post is to unpack the general set of ideas and frameworks that I take for granted and are tacitly operating with as background priors.

If you have been reading me back more than ten years ago, you know that there was a period between 2005 and 2008 when I wrote a fair amount about religion. This was the several years when Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was at the center of the culture, and near enough after 9/11 that there remained a fresh interest in Islamic radicalism and religious fundamentalism (e.g., The End of Faith). I wrote enough about the topic that I even got invited to a conference about religion and evolution, and received books from publishers on religion and evolution.

But that period cooled off because at a certain point my views were changing only on the margin, and stabilized into a form which conditions my ideas in a stable state. The distance between me in 2018 and me in 2008 on this topic is one to two orders of magnitude smaller than the distance between me in 2008 and me in 2004.

Instead of defining religion a priori, I will describe my perception of the dynamics and phenomena in terms of scale and history (small to large, earlier to later).

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A pagan psychology does not a pagan society make

Ross Douthat has a column in The New York Times, The Return of Paganism: Maybe there actually is a genuinely post-Christian future for America. He concludes:

That embarrassment may not last forever; perhaps a prophet of a new harmonized paganism is waiting in the wings. Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

Thirteen years ago I also stumbled in such an inchoate direction in a post, A Prayer For The Emperor. Douthat in fact linked to this post from his perch at The American Scene, though he may not recall it.

I think Douthat is making a distinction implicitly in The New York Times column between a pagan psychology, which bubbles up out of human innate cognitive architecture, and a pagan religious society, which takes the cognitive froth and reshapes it into collective ritual and belief.

Human intuitions regarding the supernatural seem to be fundamentally animistic. We imbue places and animals with spirit. In general, I agree with the scholars who argue that this is an outcome of “overactive agency detection.” A world filled with the illusion of life and danger may induce more stress and anxiety, but in the Darwinian context, excessive vigilance is a virtue, not a vice.

“Religion nerds” like Douthat and Rod Dreher actually have a fair amount in common in their assumptions and cognitive style with hyper-rational atheists such as Armin Navabi (Navabi comes out of a “religion nerd” background). As Roman Catholic Christians Douthat and Dreher must give a nod to the mystical, and Dreher, in particular, has asserted the importance of the sensory in reawakening his religious faith. But both scaffold, channel and discipline their supernatural intuitions into very precise streams. Similarly, Navabi’s understanding of religion is as a system.

One of the elements of the religious systems developed over the past 3,000 years in complex societies characterized by specialization, and the emergence of a literate ruling class (or at least a ruling class which makes recourse to a literate caste), is that animistic and spirit-soaked component of religion has receded. Some intellectual historians have argued that the atheism of early modern Europe can be understood as the logical conclusion of a rationalist streak within Reformed Protestantism, which reduced the supernatural singularly to God and his host. Whereas other forms of Christianity perceived the world as filled with false gods who were faces of genuine demons, the rationalist form of Reformed Protestantism dismissed false gods as human inventions. This diminution of the supernatural then might lead one to the next logical step, banishing even God from the universe!

I do not think this was a special event in world history. We are all aware that the same tendency was pregnant within Hinduism, Buddhism, and in Chinese societies, with certain sects and factions pushing toward atheism and materialism. In the world of early Islam skeptics also existed, often drawing from the older traditions of the Classical World. Strangely, it is in the European Christian world that the supernatural-skeptical tradition was mostly absent. One might suppose this might have something to do with near monopoly of the religious class on intellectual activity in Western Europe for many centuries. Those who were personally skeptical likely kept that to themselves due to their vocation.

But these currents have always floated above the populace, whose practice and beliefs were much more demotic. The existence of religious reform and revival, and zealous cults, within most societies is due in large part to the deviationism that characterizes the religious sentiments of the populace at large. Though the mythos, ritual, and panoply of the great religions attract the people to them, the reality is that all these could exist without the formal and rationalist element which is necessitated by the systematizing tendencies of the intelligentsia.

What we see in the decline of the customary Christian sects and denominations in American society is in some ways a loss of the power of cultural elites. Arguably this period of the dominance of several forms of Christianity was itself a temporary period, with the early republic characterized by a large proportion of unchurched and free-thinkers, as well as a plethora of radical sects. The decades after World War II were an exception, which we took to be the new normal.

The broader decline in trust in institutions, the popularization of culture, and the disdain toward elites, has manifested now a turning away from organized religion. But the populace still wants to believe, and in their hearts they have deep and strong intuitions about the universe. Whether the universe has purpose, it feels like it has purpose. Individuals and subcultures develop ad hoc beliefs and practices to channel these feelings and sentiments, but there is no broad social system or identity to bind them together into a formal whole.

A “harmonized paganism”, as Douthat may say, may not manifest because a it needs a harmonious society, and that is not something we have. State paganism needs a powerful state with a self-confident elite culture. State paganism needs an Emperor, to be the axis mundi between Heaven and Earth. Elite Western Christianity is collapsing, but it being replaced popular paganism, and that is because elite high culture no longer has the prestige it once did, and all is demotic. The ancient world was not a mass society, it was a culture defined by rules, and bound by ritual. The consumer society is driven bottom-up decision making, the impulse of the mob.

What we are seeing is the reemergence of hunter-gatherer animism writ large.

Muslims are not a People of the Book


Recently I became a patron of the Secular Jihadists podcast. Ten years ago this wouldn’t be a big deal, but as a “grown-up” with three kids I’m much more careful to where I expend my discretionary income. So take that as a stronger endorsement than usual. I think Secular Jihadists is offering a nonsubstitutable good today. By which I mean a robust, but not cliched or hackneyed, critique of the religion of Islam. For various reasons the modern-day cultural Left has become operationally Islamophilic in public, while the political Right isn’t really too concerned with details of fact and nuance when they level critiques against Islam.

On this week’s episode, the hosts talked about the life of Muhammad, focusing some of the rather unpalatable aspects of his biographies as they’ve been passed down in tradition (in the Hadiths), or as can be found in the Koran. Armin Navabi points out that the prophet of Islam married Safiyya bint Huyeiy Ibn Akhtab on the day her father and husband were killed by his forces. Therefore Navabi’s interpretation, which is entirely in keeping with our modern values, is that Muhammad raped a woman on the day her father and husband were killed.

Of course, this behavior is not shocking in the pre-modern world. In the Illiad Hector’s widow, Andromache, eventually becomes the concubine of Neoptolemus. He is the son of Achilles, who killed Hector. And, in many traditions, Neoptolemus is the one who kills Andromache’s infant son by Hector, Astyanax. Eventually, the son of Neoptolemus by Andromache inherits his kingdom.

Obviously, the Illiad plays things up for drama, but I think it correctly reflects the values of a pre-modern tribal society. One of my favorite books is Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. Like the Illiad, the Hebrew Bible has within it stories that reflect values of pre-modern societies very different from ours. Moses, like Muhammad, was a military and political leader as well as a religious prophet, and so it is entirely unsurprising that he was a participant in and director of what we would today term war crimes.

The question from the perspective of the hosts of the Secular Jihadists podcast is how Muslims will react to the fact that in the Koran itself, which most Muslims take to be the literal recitation of the words of God through Muhammad, documents the founder of the religion engaging in sex and war crimes. I think the truth though is that most Muslims won’t be very impacted by these revelations, because for most Muslims Islam is not reducible to the revelation within the Koran.

“Higher religions” tend to have scriptures and texts which serve as the scaffold for their intellectual superstructure. But most people who believe in these religions never read these texts. That’s because most people don’t read much, period. The organized institutional and multi-ethnic religions which have emerged over the last 3,000 years have a complex division of labor among the producers of religious “goods and services”, as well as among the consumers and identifiers. A minority are highly intellectualized, and these are the types who will record the history of the religion.

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Render unto Caesar worldly goods

At Tanner Greer’s recommendation, I purchased a copy of Imperial China 900-1800. Now that I’ve received it I realize that I read a few chapters of Imperial China 900-1800in 2008, before abandoning the project due to sloth. Older and wiser.

As I’m reading this book, I’ve been giving thought how I would respond to this comment:

…not only were priests an independent power source from kings, but no matter how deeply interrelated each was in principle independent of the other, with their own independent spheres: the secular sphere and the religious sphere. This fact too was important in shaping the modern world, in that modernity assumes that government is fundamentally secular in a way that would have been unfamiliar to pre-moderns outside of Latin Christendom.

This is a common view. Fareed Zakaria, for example, expresses something similar in The Future of Freedom, whereby the emergence of an independent Western Church after the Fall of Rome created space for secularization and the development of liberal democratic institutions through decentralization of power.

And yet after having just read History of Japan, and reading again about the Battle of Anegawa, where Oda Nobunaga completed a chapter of his crushing of institutional Buddhism as an independent power in Japan, I wonder what the above even means. A standard model would argue that in East Asia religion suffused life, philosophy tended toward monism, and there was no separation between this world and that. The Emperor of Japan descended from the Sun Goddess. The Emperor of China was the Son of Heaven, though Heaven was not conceived of in an anthropomorphic sense. And yet the kingship of nations such as France and England have exhibited a sacral nature, and to this day the monarch of England is also the head of its established religion.

About when I abandoned my plan to read Imperial China I read Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. One of the many things that stuck with me from that book was just how radical in regards to religion the federal government established by the American Founders was at the time. While the American states had all had an established religion, due to the pluralism of the new nation, and the personal secularism of many of the Founders, no consideration was given to privileging religion on the national level. This concerned many leading thinkers, some of whom suggested that simply declaring Christianity in the general sense the national religion would have been sufficient (and for all practical purposes Protestant Christianity was the national religion, even though church-state separationists such as Andrew Jackson were punctilious in making this not a de jure matter).

With hindsight, it seems clear that having a “national religion” only makes sense in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, and the collapse of the religious system of Western Christendom during the medieval period. The medieval Western Church was characterized by a great deal of diversity and variation. But something happened during early modernity, whereby that variation produced too many tensions and factionalized. Eventually, this shattered the tacit understandings and compromises which allowed for external unity. In nations where monarchs supported Protestant Reformers, national churches emerged, and become official arms of the state for all practical purposes. In Catholic Europe, a reaction produced a newly muscular and standardized church, which stood opposed to the new official Protestantism on very similar terms. The Roman Catholic church remained international, but it also became the national churches of nations as diverse as Poland, Ireland, and Spain.

Though many people assert that the Roman Empire became “officially” Christian with the conversion of Constantine, or perhaps during the reign of Theodosius the Great at the end of the 4th century, the reality is that the Roman Empire was not a totalitarian state. The dissolution of paganism occurred more through slow decay and death, as the cessation of subsidies from the state starved elite paganism, and persistent missionary efforts blanketed the population with nominal Christianity.

The assertion above that “government is fundamentally secular in a way that would have been unfamiliar to pre-moderns outside of Latin Christendom” always strikes me as strange because of my familiarity with Chinese history and philosophy, and the interpretation of how the Chinese seem to have viewed “church”-state relations. It is often said that the Chinese are superstitious, but not religious. In other words, what China lacked in the vigor of organized religion, it made up for in widespread belief in supernaturalism. This is broadly correct, but the same could be said for the West for most of its history. That is, many pre-modern peasants were not religious as much as they were superstitious, and their Christianity was a thin skein upon folk beliefs.

The issue rather is with the cultural elite, and what their beliefs were. There is a line of argument that philosophical dualism, and a particular sort of disenchantment with the world and a rationalism, was pregnant within Western Christianity, and came to fruition with Calvinism and modern forms of Catholicism. In the ancient world, Christians believed that magic was real, and that the pagans worshipped true supernatural forces, but that these were rooted in the devil. The argument proceeds that in early modernity this belief gave way to more rationalist views, whereby God remained true, but non-Christian beliefs were rooted in falsehood, rather than demons. Magic was now simply trickery.

And yet History of Japan notes that even before Oda Nobunaga’s crushing of the Buddhist clerical powers of the 16th century the society was going through broad secularization, as popular and elite enthusiasm for religion abated. Though the Tokugawa regime enforced Buddhist registration by families across Japan, this was a measure that enabled control and regulation, not one which promoted religion as such. Japanese intellectuals during this period were influenced by currents skeptical of supernaturalism that had its roots in Chinese Confucianism, and this in its turn can be found to have prefigured by anti-supernaturalist threads as far back as Xunzi.

Curiously, the Japanese system after the decline of the Fujiwara and the rise of the Shogun dynasties recollects the mythologies of dual kingship, with a sacred and a secular king, in other societies. To me, this reinforces my own current position that all the semantical distinction between secular and sacred power and how they differ between societies elides more than it illuminates. My own materialist bent leads me to suggest that in fact, secularization in early modernity at the two antipodes of Eurasia were natural and likely inevitable developments with mass societies and more powerful states. A coercive state did not need to rely on supernatural power to persuade a populace, and the workaday nature of bureaucratic governance, in any case, would not reflect positively upon a religious order that was fused with that state.

Naturally, others will have different views. But one of the reasons I am such a fan of Peter Turchin’s project is that I tire of semantic definitions as the axis around which arguments hinge. I am usually unconvinced by the erudition of my interlocutors because in most cases I don’t get a sense that they know more than I do, even though perhaps they may, in fact, be in the right. Rather than calculating, argumentation is often a way for two individuals to assess each other’s knowledge base and sophistication. If there is parity, there will never be a resolution, because personal qualities are more relevant than reality.

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.