Atheism waxes and wanes, but the godless abide

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.

If you have gotten to this part of the post, please read The Origins of Religious Disbelief: A Dual Inheritance Approach. It is well done!


Against homo religious

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.

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The creation of perennialism 2,000 years ago

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.


The invention of world religions 2,000 years ago

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.***

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Religion and science, a foggy battlefield

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.


Rumbles in religion and cultural evolution

A few months ago I posted Society Creates God, God Does Not Create Society, which was a write-up of a paper in Nature, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history. The study was of interest to me because it seemed to test the hypothesis and argument presented in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Their conclusion using the Seshat historical database was in the negative in relation to the hypothesis. That is, big societies gave rise to big gods, big gods did not seem to give rise to big societies.

Now a different group of researchers, some of them associated with the model of big gods leading to big societies, have shot back with an intense critique of the paper in preprint form, Corrected analyses show that moralizing gods precede complex societies but serious data concerns remain.

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 preliminary responses. 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).


Society creates god, god does not create society

Several years ago I read Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. This was after a long hiatus from reading about the topic of religion from a broad evolutionary perspective. In the 2000s, I read Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and A Theory of Religion, to name a few works. These are all very different treatments of religious phenomena, from an evolutionary, cognitive, and economic, perspective respectively. But, they are united by examining religious as a ‘natural’ process, and culture as a reducible and analyzable phenomenon.

This is distinct from what you’d find in “Religious Studies”, a field with a more humanistic and historical perspective. Some of the early practitioners in this field, such as Mircea Eliade, were influenced by perennialism, so the epistemological stance tends to differ from the more positivist and scientific frameworks above.

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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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