In the Second Foundation Trilogy, written by Greg Bear, David Brin, and Gregory Benford, we are told that Hari Seldon was one of the few individuals who was never infected with a particular virus endemic on his home planet. R. Daneel Olivaw had designed this virus to produce a fever. A major consequence of getting sick with this fever is that it made humans duller and less intelligent. This explains Seldon’s comparative brilliance. But why would the immortal robot want to do this? Olivaw had shepherded many planetary civilizations, and after a period of efflorescence and creativity, they would collapse in chaos. In contrast, less creative and duller humans could maintain themselves.
A similar conceit is at the heart of David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo future history. You find out that the enlightened despots who rule this earth consciously dampen technological innovation because they fear its social consequences. “Chung Kuo” maintains its stability through this process.
Gregory recounts what we know about Martin Luther, and how it influences his role in the religious revolution he spearheaded. Luther seems to have been a neurotic, very intelligent, and very stubborn, man. He was a professor, and when he began to push into heretical territory, he refused to conform despite the censure of his colleagues. No doubt many of these fellow professors would be swept along by the Reformation in due course, but they lacked the courage and conviction of someone like Luther. They were followers. He was not.
But, I do have to say that I believe Luther’s role was contingent. He was the spark, but another would have come eventually or may have come earlier. Huldrych Zwingli, for example, was only a few years behind Luther in his thought. The issues that Luther perceived in the Western Christian Church had existed for centuries. John Wycliffe and Jan Hus lived too early.
Though there were many aspects of the time and place that allowed the Reformation to explode in the 16th century in Western Europe, I believe that the ubiquity of the printing press was critical. This early information technology made it far more difficult for cultural elites to manage the flow and distribution of ideas.* In particular, culture elites in power that wished to maintain their power.
Imagined Communities is an overrated book, but it does a good job highlighting the role of information in shaping identities in early modernity. The printing press enabled the reproduction of ideas faster than authorities could crush and contain them. Even if most people were not literate, for various reasons most people knew someone who was literate. And, the press reproduced books so fast and cheaply that programs of mass literacy were finally implementable in much of Europe. In Northern Europe Luther’s emphasis on vernacular Bible reading resulted in much higher literacy quite rapidly in concert with the technological change.
Gregory argues that the Reformation began the long road down the path that led to liberal individualist democratic republicanism and secularism. Some have argued that Calvinism in particular disenchanted he world, and helped drive religion into the private domain, but Rebel in the Ranks points to the example of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century specifically, which introduced the idea of a pluralist society focused on material gains. The fixation on material gains, innovation, and eventually science, unleashed the productivity and cultural efflorescence we see all around us. Consumerism, secularism, and liberalism.
I believe that the likelihood that the West would “break-out” has deeper roots than Martin Luthern and the Reformation. But, the Reformation was an essential proximate mechanism that uncorked the bottle. Everything after follows.
Demotic societies driven by the masses are protean and change rapidly. Elites have less and less control over the tiger they’re riding. The bottom-up process is such that even those who drive it, the participants, don’t see the direction in which they drive. Rebel in the Ranks is about the past influence the present, but it’s hard for me not to think about how the present is going to influence the future.
* Protestantism was more likely to succeed the more printing presses a region had
First, the historical Muhammad existed. This seems to be something I can say with high confidence. Higher than before I read Muhammad and the Empires of Faith. The figure of Muhammad and many banal details of his life seems to be very likely. More likely than the historical Jesus (who I also believe existed as a Jewish reformer and prophet). In addition to Muhammad, something like the Koran in broad form also existed quite early.
Second, I am much more sure than the basis of a crisp and distinct Muslim identity which serves as the core of a universal salvation religion dates to the period in and around the Second Fitna, between 680 and 692. Basically, the texts seem to suggest to me that the Umayyad Caliph who came out of the conflict in victory engaged in fence-mending with the rebel faction, which was based out of the city of Mecca. The last decade of the 690s and early 700s is when we see the proliferation of distinctly Islamic aspects of the Arab Empire, from the phasing out of Greek in administration, to the separation between Muslims and Christians in the church in Damascus where they had earlier worshipped together. This is the period when the formula which we are so familiar with in regards to Muhammad’s prophethood comes to the foreground.
I believe that the middle to late Umayyads formalized and demarcated the sectarian heterodoxies of the Arabs of their Caliphate to create a unified and cohesive ruling elite. But, because the religion emerged out of a Christian matrix within it was the natural opening to conversion by non-Arabs, which had already occurred with assimilated clients of Arab tribes in various forms.
All that being said, I want to distinguish an Islamic identity from the substance and form of what Islam means today. Muhammad and the Empires of Faith makes it clear that the roots of many Islamic traditions and practices do date to the Umayyads (e.g., hadith culture was not created out of thin air). But it is during the Abbassids, after 750, that the flesh was put upon the skeleton of the religion created by the Umayyads. That flesh is a function of the reality that the Abbassid Islam transcended Arab identity through the assimilation of large numbers of Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist, backgrounds. Umayyad already had a potentiality of universality, but when Islam truly became multi-ethnic, with non-Arab Muslims retaining their own independent national identities, a rapid consensus of what Islam was and is emerged.
– The basic “furniture” to assemble the House of Islam was present in the early 7th century
– The foundations of the house date to the last quarter of the 7th century
– The house was completed in the last half of the Umayyad period and into the early Abbassid period
– The house was furnished, decorated, and painted, in the period between 750 and 900 AD, so that by 900 AD it looks just like the house we know today
Last fall Pew updated its religion survey. It showed that Christianity had declined even further over the 2010s. And, it illustrated that that decline was universal over all demographics, but particularly noticeable among the young.
This is pretty interesting, though no longer shocking. It illustrates the reality that the future of religion is hard to predict. In 1994 Barry Kosmin in One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society reported findings from an early 1990s survey that the United States was a very religious nation amongst other developed nations, and that the 1960s decline in church attendance had trailed off. In fact, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the newsweeklies would publish credulous stories about the revival of American religion. Samuel P. Huntington’s last book, written in the early 2000s, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, assumes the general findings of Kosmin’s earlier work, and extrapolates it forward, arguing that America’s foundational Protestant religion would remain a unifying force.
Huntington was wrong. In the early 2000s, Kosmin’s group began seeing evidence of the second wave of secularization. The Robert D. Putnam book, American Grace, written at the end of the 2000s, offers up a reason for this dynamic. In short, Putnam and his coauthor argue that the association of religion with conservative politics turned off many liberals from religion as an institution. Obviously this cannot be the total answer, as Republicans have also become more secular of late. But I think it gets to some of the issues that religion has as a “brand” in the United States. Religion is not about religion as such, but a whole lifestyle.
Pew’s data shows that the process continued after 2010. Whereas when I was a child ~10% or so of the American population had “No Religion,” today that figure is closer to ~25%. Pew reports that there are modest increases for the proportion in the 2010s.
What would the New Atheists from the period between 2005-2010 think about all this? Some of them are still around. Do they see a world lit by rationality? I don’t think the world is rational at all. We’ve seen a collapse of Christianity, but not the rise of scientific materialism.
The religious instincts are still there. By this, I mean basic religious instincts, not the details of religious phenomenon.
In the 1990s many of us thought that the internet would open up a whole new world of information, a world of enlightenment and communication. You could talk to the whole world!
Actually, it turns out that 33.3% of the internet is furious masturbation, 33.3% forwarding conspiracy theories, and 33.3% responding to and reading emails. Similarly, the New Atheists suggest that we just imagine there is no god, a world without Jesus. We are not in that world, but far closer than we might have expected in 2006.
I will finish with a comment from a reader:
One point I want to make is that Woke Religion has zero chance to sustain any kind of cohesive society. It champions a lack of emotional regulation and a regression to raw tribal dynamics in an extremely diverse and multi-ethnic environment. As soon as it triumphs (which appears to be almost here), it will tear itself to pieces. After the purges…
This gets at something real. The 2020s will be “interesting.”
Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao is readable anthropology that explores the resurgence of organized and institutional supernatural beliefs over the last generation in the People’s Republic. Though there is some general historical narrative at the beginning, the core of the book involves chapters on various local informants. Evangelical Protestant pastors, Buddhist lay devotees, and Daoist ritualists.
One of the most interesting and illuminating aspects of The Souls of China is that Johnson has to explain that religion, as it is understood in the West, did not entirely exist in China until the past century or so. Or, more precisely, a broad understanding of religion as it is in the West was not totally understood. By this, I mean the idea of strict and exclusive adherence to a particular institutional religious system with a package of beliefs and practices.
I stipulate broad understanding because the reality is that China has long had exactly these sorts of groups as part of its religious landscape. The first Ming Emperor, in fact, was affiliated originally with a group that had its origins in the White Lotus Society, a cult with Buddhist and Manichaean origins whose members were exclusive and devout adherents. But, these were historically marginalized, and only came to the fore during times of revolution. The first Ming Emperor discarded his radical religious connections upon obtaining power, becoming a patron of Neo-Confucianism.
Rather, typical peasant religion in China was not exclusive, nor was it bound up in a tight system of beliefs. Rather, it was customary, traditional, and part of the organic environment in which people were born, grew up and died. In this way, Chinese popular religion resembled ancient Roman paganism and folk Hinduism today. Buddhist and Daoist priests might perform particular services, but they did not have any particular owner of the identity of a community. Another way of saying this is that villagers in rural China were clients of a religious firm, they weren’t seen as part of the religious firm. This explains why Chinese and other East Asians have been rather liberal about borrowing from and participating in various religious practices (Chinese and Japanese initially assumed Roman Catholicism was a variant of Pure Land Buddhism).
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinese intellectuals underwent a crisis of confidence. In an attempt to modernize, they embraced Western science and a Western understanding of religion. They distinguished between religion and superstition. The former was what we consider institutional religions. Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Islam. The latter, Chinese folk religion. Long before the time of Mao progressive intellectuals and cadres destroyed and tore down the monuments to this folk religion, such as temples and shrines to city gods.
What arose in its place? Though the organic and locally rooted religions of rural China are shown to be coming back in The Souls of China, the explosion of Protestant Christianity, and the attraction of urban Chinese to Tibetan Buddhism, illustrates that urban people have different needs. I think these sorts of religions are very peculiar historically. I’m convinced that the Protestant Reformation, and in particular sectarian forms of Reform and Calvinist Christianity, would not have been possible without the economic and technological changes of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe.
The rise of movements such as fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, Salafist Islam, and “Western Buddhism”* make sense in light of a world of globalization, urbanization, and the detachment of individuals and families from localities. These religions are often the “public face” of religion, but really I think they are religions adapted toward a certain atomized, unmoored, and cosmopolitan world. Evangelical Protestant Christianity is not very thick and can be moved from exurb to exurb rather easily.
What this suggests for the future of religion, I’ll leave as an exercise to readers.
* The highly non-supernatural forms of Buddhism promoted by people of European background.
This weblog began in 2002. Back then the second Iraq War had not started, and the United States was in the throes of dealing with the 9/11 attack. There was a lot of discussion about Islam, and religion, in the public arena (there was a Bernard Lewis renaissance, and it seemed he was on Charlie Rose every other day).
In the 2000s I spent a fair amount of time thinking about and reading about religion. This was not a new thing for me. My family is Muslim, and I was raised in a very normatively conservative Christian region of the country. Though I can’t say I had deep theological conversations with friends, my atheist did come up now and then as it was not typical (for many people I had to explain what the word ‘atheism’ meant). In the 1990s I read a bit of Christian apologetics, older stuff like Summa Theologica, and atheist works such as George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God and Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (on the whole I think the older apologetics are actually more persuasive than the newer ones, but they are harder to parse for contemporary audiences).
Around 9/11 one would probably be accurate in pinning me as a proto-“New Atheist.” But with 9/11 I took a renewed interest in religion, and to be frank I found New Atheism to be unpersuasive. Reading Sam Harris’ End of Faith and Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust in short order really sealed my own views.
Atran’s argument that religion as a natural phenomenon had deep cognitive and evolutionary roots was persuasive to me. Though I agreed with many of Harris’ specific points (e.g., he correctly describes the reality that Islam, in particular, seems to have special difficulties with secular liberal democratic modernity), I found his reduction of religion to a set of propositions not helpful in mapping out the way religious people actually behave in the world out there.
As an adolescent, I had assumed that religion was to be found in sacred books. I believed this because coming from a Muslim family that is what we are taught, and my Christian friends also brandished books which they asserted were foundational, instrumental, and singular, in defining their faith. As a bookish person, this was entirely plausible to me that people would root their lives in books.
But Atran, and the cognitive anthropologists who moved in his circles, pointed out that most people are not bookish at all. Rather than being ruled by reason, by reflection and analysis, they are ruled by emotion, custom, habit, and instinct. The specific contours of religious affiliation and identity are shaped by history, theologies, and liturgies which demarcate, but the roots of the religious sensibility, affinity, and intuition, are ancient and primal.
As an atheist, I do agree with the New Atheists about the God question. But, I profoundly disagree with them about human nature and religion. Religiosity is not the deviation from the straight path, irreligion is!
Since about 2006 or so, with exceptions, I have not focused much on the religion, evolution and psychology question. It did not seem to me that the cognitive anthropologists were making much empirical progress. I had come to the conclusions which inform my current views, and nothing more of interest seemed on the horizon.
Over the past few years, that has changed. The field of cultural evolution has now matured enough so that it’s own insights on religion as a phenomenon can add value. Though, to be fair, this did not come out of a vacuum. In the 2000s David Sloan Wilson wrote, which put forward a view that a functionalist understanding of religion as a cultural adaptation was a valuable paradigm. At the time I was skeptical. Now I am more open to this view, as other researchers have added more theoretical and empirical insight.
So where are we? For decades there has been a line of thinking that religion is adaptive. That it serves particular functions in society or psychology. The authors of Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict propose that religious phenomena are critical in understanding the emergence of social complexity over the last 10,000 years. There is now a debate as to whether this is true or not using data within the cultural evolution community, but the key is that there is debate around data and theory, rather than interminable verbal volleys back and forth.
Not only may religion not be the “root of all evil,” but if some cultural evolutionists are correct religion is indispensable to the emergence of social complexity.
A cultural evolution perspective is important because there was always a lacuna within the cognitive anthropology perspective: how to explain variation between societies in religiosity and the nature of religious expression. Cognitive anthropologists had good arguments for why religious phenomena tended to canalize into certain directions (e.g., why gods are anthropomorphic more often than an essence, like water), but had poor explanations for why people were atheistic or why religiosity went up and down over time. A new preprint out of the cultural evolution perspective offers some answers, The Origins of Religious Disbelief: A Dual Inheritance Approach. The “dual” just means that both genes and culture matter.
Here is the abstract in full:
Religion is a core feature of human nature, yet a comprehensive evolutionary approach to religion must account for religious disbelief. Despite potentially drastic overreporting of religiosity…a third of the world’s 7+ billion human inhabitants may actually be atheists-merely people who do not believe in God or gods. The origins of disbelief thus present a key testing ground for theories of religion. Here, we evaluate the predictions of three prominent theoretical approaches to the origins of disbelief, and find considerable support for dual inheritance (gene-culture coevolution) approach. This dual inheritance model…derives from distinct literatures addressing the putative 1) core social cognitive faculties that enable mental representation of gods…2) the challenges to existential security that motivate people to treat some god candidates as real and strategically important…3) evolved cultural learning processes that influence which god candidates naïve learners treat as real rather than imaginary…and 4) the intuitive processes that sustain belief in gods…and the cognitive reflection that may sometimes undermine it…We explore the varied origins of religious disbelief by analyzing these pathways simultaneously in a large nationally representative (USA, N = 1417) dataset with preregistered analyses. Combined, we find that witnessing fewer credible cultural cues of religious commitment is the most potent predictor of religious disbelief, β = 0.28, followed distantly by reflective cognitive style, β = 0.13, and less advanced mentalizing, β = 0.05. Low cultural exposure to faith predicted about 90% higher odds of atheism than did peak cognitive reflection. Further, cognitive reflection predicted reduced religious belief only among individuals who witness relatively fewer credible contextual cues of faith in others. This work empirically unites four distinct literatures addressing the origins of religious disbelief, highlights the utility of considering both evolved intuitions and cultural evolutionary processes in religious transmission, emphasizes the dual roles of content and context-biased social learning…and sheds light on the shared psychological mechanisms that underpin both religious belief and disbelief.
The coda of the preprint is also worth reading since it has some meta-commentary that I think is probably on the mark.
There is a lot presented in this paper. Overall, it’s good to have a pregistered large sample from the USA, but they need more cultures, and they are aware of this. But, it does seem in the USA the most important factor is broader local cultural attitudes toward religiosity and expressions of religion in public. A shorter way to say it is simple: most people are sheeple. In highly irreligious environments the modal person finds religious propositions uncredible on the face of it. Conversely, in highly religious environments atheistic propositions seem laughable. Just as most people’s religious beliefs don’t come about through deep reflection, most people’s irreligion doesn’t come about through deep reflection. It’s all part of a bigger process of social cognition, and religion in this way shares a lot of characteristics with politics and culture more broadly (do most people in rural Mississippi like country music as opposed to techno because of deep aesthetic judgments?).
All that being said, they do see consistent results that deep analysis of religious questions correlate with atheism. But, this only applies in environments that are not so religious. In other words, the variation is exposed only in a particular environment.
Finally, there is a tendency of more “mind-blind” people to be more atheistic (a major prediction of the cognitive model), but it is a much smaller effect than the broad social impact of religious culture, broadly.
These results, on the whole, are not surprising, though I’m excited to have precise quantities to grapple with. When you summarize a whole society you may miss some details as well. Not only will future lines of research expand cross-culturally, but there will probably be insights sub-culturally.
There has been some work to show that religious intensity is moderately heritable. I would be curious to see follow-ups on this domain, and I do know that some people are working on finding the genomic predictors of religiosity as I write this.
Below some comments emerged reflecting differences in the understanding of religious identity and change. After writing on this blog for 17 years I am tempted to just scream “READ WHAT I’VE WRITTEN!”, but that really doesn’t suffice. So I’ll outline very quickly my general stance, which illuminates my sense of how and why the Roman Empire Christianized 1,600 years ago.
Many modern and intellectual understandings of religion focus on individual preferences and dispositions. In the 1980s Rodney Stark outlined a “supply-side” theory of religion in his book, A Theory of Religion. Stark explicitly utilizes a rational choice framework. In this model, a religious denomination provides a bundle of goods and services. Consumers choose from these various religious “products” in the “marketplace.”
A broader survey of this way of thinking about religion is provided in A Marketplace of Gods. Clearly, there is some insight to be gained from this methodology and framework. Over the past few thousand years of history, we see broad convergent trends in terms of the goods and services provided by the major world/higher/universalistic religions. For example, the common trend of promising a more pleasant afterlife as a reward for meritorious behavior and sincere belief.
Most people have common needs and fears. It is no surprise that similar “brands” will converge upon the same solution. Perhaps what we might today term “product-market fit.”
But, in the 30+ years since A Theory of Religion was published we can test some of its predictions, and to be frank, many haven’t panned out. For example, Stark makes much of the reality that the Communism dampened the availability of religious options in the Eastern Bloc. One of the predictions then is that the fall Communism would have unleashed a wave of conversion to Western religions, just as Eastern Bloc consumers initially flocked to Western consumer goods. In particular, American Protestant sects compete extensively.
Though there has been some proliferation of various Protestant sects, on the whole, the transformation of the religious landscape in Eastern Europe has not fulfilled the predictions of a rational choice theory of religion. In some cases, a mild level of government fiat may be implicated, but this is not the case in places such as the Czech Republic. On the whole, places that were relatively secular before Communism (e.g., Czech Republic) remain secular, while those nations that were more religious before (e.g., Romania) defaulted back to their “traditional” religions. Russia is an interesting case where religious belief and practice is relatively anemic, but Eastern Orthodox Christianity has returned to the center of the culture and state.
Today I recorded a podcast for Rationally Speaking. Julia Galef wanted to talk to me about my recent post, Stuff I Was Wrong About!. It was a long discussion, and I don’t know what will go into the final edit. But we did touch on this point from my post:
…I believe that some sort of complex ethical religious system was going to become dominant in the Roman Empire at some point. If Arbogast had won the Battle of Frigidus I think ultimately Christianity would still have become dominant within the empire (see the resistance to Buddhism in Tibet to envision a possible scenario).
The context here is that there is a tradition with the historiography which sees Theodosius the Great’s conquest of the Western Roman Empire from the usurper Eugenius, who was a puppet of the Frankish general Arbogast, as the final victory of Christianity as the state religion over the customary pagan cults. Though non-Christians, or people with strong non-Christian religious sympathies, were persistent as public figures in the Roman world for decades, the last hope for state paganism seems to have ended with Theodosius’ victory.
There are nuances and details here. Alan Cameron presents a mildly revisionist take in The Last Pagans of Rome, arguing that state paganism was in sharp decline after the withdrawal of public subsidies decades before Theodosius’ victory. But that does not impact my general argument. The emergence of Julian the Apostate as emperor heading a counter-Christian movement in the early 360s, and varying degrees of toleration of non-Christian cults in the decades after, tells us that the rise of Christianity as the Roman state religion was a gradual affair that took decades.
Many people perceive that Constantine’s patronage of the Christian religion in the early 4th-century as analogous to Henry VIII changing the English Church from the Catholic to the Protestant camp.* But this is not so. Though Constantine favored Christians, the ruling class of the Roman state remained predominantly pagan for decades.
There was no break with the pagan past. But a gradual evolution. Even though the Roman Empire had been ruled by Christian emperors for nearly two centuries, Anastasius I was still deified upon his death. Presumably, this was a customary honor which persisted, even though by the early 6th-century everyone understood this was a legacy of pagan emperor-cult.
With the gradual withdrawal of paganism’s hold on the landed aristocracy, the old cults declined as features of public culture due to lack of patronage. And, the eventual extinction of the tradition of philosophy also resulted in the intellectual death of elite paganism. By the early Dark Ages, paganism was associated with rustics and marginal peoples. Even if radical Protestants are correct that Europe’s people remained predominantly pagan their primitive beliefs and practices until the 16th-century, European political systems and elite culture were thoroughly Christian long before that.
Back to the original question: is there a scenario where Christianity did not succeed in capturing the Roman state, and so becoming the Roman religion? If Arbogast had won at the Battle of Frigidus in 394, would paganism have revived in the Western Empire? Perhaps, but, I think Christianity had sunk roots too deeply into the matrix of Roman culture and society to be turned back. The fact that Arbogast’s puppet, Eugenius, was a nominal Christian illustrates the reality that even in the Western Empire, where many elite families had pagan sympathies, the head of state was now expected to be a Christian. Christianity was the normative religion of the state.
We don’t know much about Arbogast. He was a Frank by origin, that is, a German. But the ancient sources indicate that Arbogast was a cultured individual, and assimilated into Romanitas. He was also a pagan, though from what I have read, one of the Greco-Roman variety, and not a devotee of Woden or any German god. There was likely an avenue of assimilation and integration whereby men from barbarian cultures could integrate into the high culture and society of old Rome during Late Antiquity, but we know little about it from Christian sources, who were likely not privy to such circles in any case.
If Arbogast had won at Frigidus and pushed forward a revival of the old pagan religion and Roman traditionalism through state patronage, some sort of short-term revival is likely. But a key issue to observe is that we are not talking about the old religion which Augustus attempted to preserve. The Roman religious culture was literally multicultural and very promiscuous. The 1st-century emperor Vespasian was a devotee of Isis, while the cult of Sol Invictus was popular in the 3rd-century. Roman religious traditions evolved and changed, and Kyle Harper suggests in Fate of Rome that pagan temple building decreased sharply after the Plague of Cyprian in the 260s. One interpretation might be that pagan religious practice itself was evolving in a less monumental and personal direction.
Anyone who takes an interest in early Christianity can observe that it evolves and mutates from its origins as a Jewish sect into something more elaborated in the 2nd-century. Very much a mystery religion of the gentiles. The life and thought of Origen illustrate the nexus between Christians and the broader culture. But the influence did not go in a single direction. Not only did the currents of Roman society affect Christianity, but the currents that led to Christianity shaped Roman society. Prominent Jews were already associated with some of the Julio-Claudians, in particular, Gauis, but the penetration of Near Eastern sects into Roman society was high. Christianity was one of these new religious movements.
Just as Arbogast’s personal evolution as a man of Roman culture is hidden from us, so we perceive the cults of the Great Mother, Mithras, or Isis, darkly through a fog. They seem but shadows of the depth and richness that was early Christianity. And they may indeed have been such. But there is an alternative hypothesis: perhaps a large set of new religious movements were converging toward the same broad configuration, and Christianity was the one which won the race to the top, whether through chance or necessity.
And there was a necessity. In my post The Invention Of World Religions 2,000 Years Ago I argue that “higher religions” evolved to fill a cultural niche that became very open with the rose of the Iron Age Empires. Rome, China, Persia, etc. The argument about whether “big gods” came before or after complex polities is a different one than the question I’m exploring here. Rather than “big gods,” the imperial polities of the last few thousand years seem to need “big systems.”
These systems can take various forms but share broad family features. One of the arguments made for the revival of paganism in the Roman Empire is that in the 9th-century Tang China suppressed the power of Buddhism at the cultural commanding heights. Though emperors could be personally devout Buddhists, the religion never obtained the same stature and monopoly power that Christianity or Islam did in western Eurasia. What this analysis ignores though is that the arrival of Buddhism fundamentally transformed the Chinese religious landscape. The development of complex religious Daoism was clearly due to Buddhist stimulus, while Neo-Confucianism took for granted many metaphysical presuppositions inherited from Buddhism. Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism in China began to operate as three legs of a religious stool.
If “paganism” had revived in the Roman Empire, it would have had a heavily Christian flavor by the 5th-century. The use of the word pagan in a non-pejorative sense is somewhat broad. Many Christians consider those outside of the Abrahamic tradition “pagans.” But there is a world of difference between Indian practitioners of Vedanta, and a Korean shaman. The latter is pagan in a way that is analogous to the augurs of ancient Rome. Those who espouse Vedanta have views sharply at variance with Nicene Christianity, but their philosophical sophistication is no less than that of the heirs of Basil of Caesarea.
The Romans of the Republic practiced what we would today call a “tribal religion.” The similarities between orisha and numina are not coincidental. The Romans of the Republic were a tribal people in a quite literal sense and worshipped gods of particular places. Though some of their elites were already cosmopolitan and Greek-educated, Roman religion and philosophy remained primitive. By 300 AD the situation was very different. Pagan Romans worshipped a variety of gods and adhered to many different cults, but Neoplatonic philosophy added an intellectual sheen to the new paganism, introducing monism whereby all gods might be emanations from the Ultimate. Christianity came out of the same milieu and was somewhat influenced by Neoplatonists, though Neoplatonists were some of the earliest intellectual critics of the religion, and the school remained the refuge for diehard pagans into the 6th-century.
Which brings us to perennialism. The perennial philosophy is the idea that the world’s religious traditions share a single, metaphysical truth or origin. Unlike perennialists, I do not believe in a single metaphysical truth or origin. Rather, I believe that particular social and cultural conditions 2,000 years ago made it very likely that a set of higher religions would emerge. In particular, in large and complex multi-ethnic societies you need more than big gods. You needed big religions.
These higher religions always came with abstruse and complex philosophies opaque to the vast majority of adherents. But these elements were appealing to and justified the project of a large empire for religious professionals. A unitary principle, a Ground of Being, justified the necessity of a vice-reagent of God upon the earth, the son of Heaven, or the Cakravartin. Pre-modern states lacked the tools for genuine totalitarianism or the rapidity of unifying information technology. They required ideological bindings across their administrative classes. Philosophy injected into supernatural systems and then universalized provided just that.
These higher religions had localisms (e.g., Rome), but they were not fundamentally local. Priests and monks could travel across the world with some surety of safety due to the respect given to them by rulers. Rather than appealing to raw power or the capricious favor of household gods, universal rulers could argue that their power was a reflection of the universal gods and universal principles. Just as there was a God in heaven there was an emperor on earth. Karma and the Dharma applied to all peoples.
In evolutionary biology on occasion, there is a rhetorical question asked: why doesn’t evolution favor a single fit species? Why is there diversity? One explanation is that there are different adaptive niches, but even here there is no single species that occupies an adaptive niche across the whole world. Abiotic factors dictate certain parameters in terms of body-plan and behavior for numerous species. They are clearly being pushed and shaped by the same selective forces, but history is such that they are distinct and different.
And so it is with cultural evolution. I have observed that pagan and antique cults of Babylon existed in Mesopotamia in the early centuries of the Common Era. But by the 4th-century they faded and under the Sassanians Mesopotamia became dominated in its public culture by a welter of sects, Christian, Jewish, Gnostic, and Zoroastrian, with combinations thereof. This is important because unlike in the Roman Empire, the Sassanian Persians took a liberal attitude toward religious liberty. There was no coercive imposition of the new religions on the elites. Rather, the elites adopted the new religions to integrate themselves into the Roman and Persian world.
There were selective pressures that militated in favor of this transition. It wasn’t simply an accident of history. It was an inevitable consequence of social complexity.
* I am aware that Henry VIII maintained a basically Catholic Church that had broken from Rome.
Religion is one of those phenomena that is difficult to discuss because so many people (whether believers or not) have strong emotional investments in their opinions on the topic, and, its nature is quite consequential to everyone (whether believers or not). One of the most distinctive aspects of many religions is that names are important as signifiers or pointers to abstruse concepts. At least at the elite level and in “higher” religions. In antiquity, one can think of the homoousios versus homoiousios debate.
More contemporaneously I have long had arguments with people (including columnists at The New York Times) about the misunderstandings of history and religion entailed by the term “Judeo-Christian.” In the broadest sense, the term alludes to the shared common history of Judaism and Christianity, a valid construct. But more precisely it often misleads people into thinking that there is an affinity between Judaism and Christianity, as opposed to Islam, and that Judaism has been a partner with Christian civilization in the emergence of the West (post-Christian “Greater Europe”).
Christians often misunderstand the nature of Judaism due to the bracketing of “Judeo-Christian” from Islam. Judaism, like Islam as it has developed, is highly orthopraxic (everything kosher is halal, though everything halal is not kosher). It emphasizes theology far less than Christianity, just like Islam.* More importantly, due to the explicit and implicit aspects of supersessionism within Christianity modern Christians tend to view Judaism through the lens of their Old Testament. For them, Judaism is simply the prologue to their own religion. The reality is that modern Judaism is actually more accurately thought of as a sister religion to Christianity, not a parent. Both Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity emerged out of the synthesis of Greco-Roman civilization and Jewish religious traditions of the first few centuries of the Common Era. Theological currents in the broader Islamic and Christian civilizational matrix influenced the development of Rabbinical Judaism, the form we in the United States of America think as “Orthodox.”
The usage of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” after World War II, in particular in the USA, was a nod to religious and cultural pluralism. But, it misleads the historically ignorant about the role of Jews in Western civilization between Late Antiquity and early modernity. The fact is that Jews as a distinct people and culture had almost no influence on the societies in which they lived after the Talmud in its roughly current form came into being, but rather, existed as a parallel culture.** They were prominent as a middlemen minority or scapegoats, but they were not unique in both capacities. The emancipation and integration of Jews as Jew in the latter half the 19th-century has been highly transformative but it is historically atypical.
Ross Reat’s Buddhism: A History has brought home to me that similar phenomena apply to the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism. To many Westerners and Indians, Buddhism can be thought of as an extension, deviation, or reaction to Hinduism. That is, Buddhism can be thought of as a “daughter religion” of Hinduism. But the reality that I have seen, and which Reat also argues for, is that Indian Buddhism and Indian Hinduism existed in dialectical tension for 1,500 years between 500 BCE and 1000 CE (when Indian Buddhism was intellectually and culturally exhausted, more or less). He suggests that the Advaita Vedanta philosophical tradition within Hinduism, arguably its most influential and prominent intellectual tradition in modern times, shares many more characteristics with classical Indian Buddhism than the variants of Mahayana Buddhism that flourished and evolved in East Asia.***
One of the similar responses from very different camps to my National Review piece on evolution was that I was wrong to assert evolutionary biology doesn’t have atheistic implications. This perspective came from both some religious evolution skeptics and from atheists who agree with Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.
My own view on this isn’t exactly subtle, but, it’s kind of muddled and has a few moving parts.
First, I am an atheist and have been self-conscious as an atheist since I was eight. Before the age of eight, I didn’t identify as an atheist, but with hindsight, it is clear to me that my views on God were primitive to nonexistent. I may have averred to you that I was a believer in Allah, but compared to the vast majority of people who would say such a thing Allah was not real to me as a person who really operates in this universe. Allah was an abstraction. And one of little deep interest to me.
Therefore, I can say that my understanding of evolution has no implication for my atheism in its origin because I was an atheist long before I understood evolution. That’s just an empirical fact. It is also an empirical fact that there are a reasonable number of evolutionary biologists who hold various religious viewpoints. To my knowledge, there are no Protestant fundamentalist evolutionary biologists, as that’s a logical contradiction, but there are very diverse viewpoints excluding this.
These people are real, and I can’t deny their existence. Just as my atheism predated my understanding of evolution, their understanding of evolution did not necessarily result in a diminishment of their religion (though perhaps it modified it in some way).
Of course, these people could be logically wrong. And I think that’s what the religious evolution skeptics and fundamentalists of various sorts agree on. There are several issues with this. I think it misunderstands what religion as a phenomenon is: it’s not about a logical set of propositions. Even Aquinas’ effort is not airtight, and many are not convinced by Alvin Plantinga’s modern attempts utilizing modal logic. Religion is vague and amorphous enough as a phenomenon that I think it will always slip away from any formal refutation.
I am not here proposing ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. There are plenty of ways in which religion seems to intrude into domains of science or domains which can be scientifically informed. It’s just that religion is not a clear and distinct entity. And to be frank neither is science. Just as religion is often falsely reduced to a creed, so science is falsely reduced to a method. I do not believe there is an ‘out-of-the-box’ method that determines science. Rather, it is an outlook, sensibility, and culture, which iteratively attempts to explore patterns in the world around us and explain them.
Personally, I do think the scientific sensibility does lean one to a position of being skeptical of religious explanations. But this is more an intuition rather than a deduction. I don’t think science ‘disproves’ religion any more than religion ‘disproves’ science.
In the piece above I wanted to set aside my own personal views, which are tentative and inchoate, and simply observe that many scientists disagree with them in relation to their faith and their practice. The reality is that there are many great evolutionary biologists who are religious, and I have no issue with that. At this point in my life, I’m not too concerned that someone somewhere is wrong. I’d rather just learn things.
Note: I’ve been writing since 2002. I’ve probably held this sort of view since 2004 or so. I have probably written it before, but at this point, I guess I need to rewrite it. Also, I appreciate the “New Atheists” in their consistency, though I disagree with some of their assumptions about human psychology.
There seem to two critical issues that these authors want to highlight: problems in analysis, and problems in the underlying data. In terms of the analysis, the authors suggest that because the Seshat database relies on written evidence it is going to be biased toward more recent dates because writing tends to be found later in social development and complexity. They reanalyzed the data by pushing the emergence of big gods back by a century and found the direction of the effect reverse. In other words, they are saying that the result was not robust. A second issue that impacted the analysis is that the authors of the preprint assert that since so many missing values from preliterate societies were recoded as an absence of big gods what the results are showing is a negative correlation of missing entries with complex societies.
A second broader issue seems to be a suggestion that Seshat itself is riddled with too many errors to be reliable.
As someone deeply interested in the scientific question I don’t have a strong opinion as to what’s going on here (though I am probably a bit skeptical of the idea that Seshat is without much value considering the time and effort I know Peter Turchin and his collaborators have put into it). Feelings seem to be getting heated online, but I’m hoping that open-science will win in the end.
Peter Turchin and Patrick Savage have put up preliminaryresponses. No doubt there will be more back and forth. But one major improvement over many historical discussions is that this is playing out transparently through data analyses, then the standard “historian here, let me assert my expertise here to shut you down….” (a lot of historians on Twitter behave in a mendacious manner in my opinion, because I often know enough about many historical topics to see exactly how they are laundering their credentials to support sophistry in a manner that is opaque to their trusting audience).