The gay Muslim Roman Emperor

Last year I wrote The Myth Of Arabian Paganism, And The Jewish-Christian Origins Of The Umayyads. My overall contention is that Islam-qua-Islam was retconned in the 8th century back to the 7th century. The post was inspired by a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the Arabian peninsula was mostly Christian or Jewish by the 6th century A.D. This matters, because traditional Islamic historiography depicts Muhammad’s Mecca at the end of the 6th century as a pagan cult center. This was the “age of darkness” in Islamic tradition, one of polytheism and idol-worship. A neat idea, except for the fact that the ruling elites of North Arabia were are clearly Christian by 600 AD.

To recap, I think the Ummayads emerged in the milieu of Miaphysite Christianity in the Levantine littoral. The Arabs who conquered the Near East in the 7th century emerged out of a Nabataean background, not, a Hijazi one. The shift toward a Hijazi orientation for early Islam, and the importance of Mecca and Muhammad, come out of the Second Fitna in the 680s.

All that being said, I don’t discount a pagan substrate in Arab spirituality in totality. The Nabataean Agriculture famously describes the continuous practice of Mesopotamian paganism in rural Iraq into the 10th century A.D., three centuries after the Muslim conquest.

I do assume that Mecca had some cultic significance in ancient Arabian religious geography. After the Second Fitna this Mecca spiritual energy was co-opted (Muhammad becomes much bigger after this period, and Arabs stop worshipping in Christian churches in Damascus). The existence of the Kaba and veneration of the black rock is a testament to this.

All this leads to an obscure fact (to me) that I want to relay: the pagan practices that persist in Mecca were clearly very widespread in ancient Arabia because the Roman Emperor Elagabalus partook of them. If you know the name of Elagabalus it is because of his peculiar sexual practices, as well as his disastrous reign as Emperor. He attempted to supersede the customary religion of Rome with that of his native Syria. He was from a family of hereditary pagan priests of Arab origin. Here is what got my attention:

A lavish temple called the Elagabalium was built on the east face of the Palatine Hill to house Elagabal…who was represented by a black conical meteorite from Emesa…This was a baetylus. Herodian wrote “this stone is worshipped as though it were sent from heaven; on it there are some small projecting pieces and markings that are pointed out, which the people would like to believe are a rough picture of the sun, because this is how they see them”…

I joked that Elagabalus was Muslim when I found this out. Obviously, he was not Muslim. But the Kaba in Mecca famously has a black stone which is clearly a meteorite. Elagabalus’ peculiar religious enthusiasms persist down to the present day in Islam.

The rise of a Christian elite

The above plot from a Peter Turchin blog post, Easter, Early Christians, and Cliodynamics, illustrates a sigmoid curve in the rise of Christianity among Roman elites (elites are relevant since we have data from them). If this is a topic you are interested in, Michelle Salzman’s The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire and Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD are excellent reads on how this transition happened.

Moving away from the autocatalytic model, and describing what happened verbally, in a given population only a minority is strongly motivated on particular details of religion or ideology. Most seem comfortable aligning themselves with the “spirit of the times.” This is true even in the early modern period, as England was forced into Protestantism, while much of Austria and Hungary were dragged back to Roman Catholicism (see Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe). Only in the 17th century do you start to see populations resisting the demands or preferences of their rulers (e.g., the House of Hohenzollern converted to the Reformed faith but their subjects remained Lutheran, while the Saxons remained Lutheran after the Wettins converted to Catholicism).

What does this imply? The pagans who remained pagan in 450 AD could be more sure about the sincerity and conviction of their fellow dissenters from regnant orthodoxy than pagans from 350 AD. The Christians of 400 AD were less sure about the deep sincerity of the beliefs of their peers than Christians in 300 AD were.

Thinking in terms of millennia

Reading Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion has me thinking about the Pantheon. I visited Rome and stood outside (and inside) the Pantheon in 2010. I still remember the feeling of being in such an ancient and pristine building. It’s pretty awesome. That is, literally awe-inspiring.

How did this building persist? In 609 Emperor Phocas donated it to the Roman Church, which transformed it into a church (it is still used for some religious purposes). This did not prevent total despoilation and parts of the Pantheon were removed or destroyed. But, on the whole co-option by Christianity, a persistent institution, allowed for this monument from deep antiquity to come down to the present in relatively intact form.

I think this gets at something deep in terms of how we can preserve artifacts and ideas long after we are gone.

God is back! (in Russia)

For over ten years I have been making fun of John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s 2009 book God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is that anyone who was looking at the data could see the period between 2000 and 2020 has witnessed a massive secularization in the most powerful nation in the world. Being generous to the metrics for religion, the United States has become twice as secular in a single generation (i.e., 10% “no religion” in 1990 vs.
20% in 2020).

This was a surprise to social scientists. If you read Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge’s The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation, written in the mid-1980s, descriptively it seems that the United States went through a cultural change in the 1960s where many marginal Christians ‘defected’ to irreligion, “New Religious Movements”, or nominal adherence (e.g., no church attendance), but that by the 1970s that trend had played itself out and a ‘new normal’ equilibrium had been established.

This is the story you are told in Barry Kosmin’s 1993 One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, based on the 1990 “Religious Identification Survey.” America was an 85:5:10 nation. 85% Christian, 10% “Nones” and 5% “Other religion” (the largest proportion of these being Jews). Samuel Huntington’s last book, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, assumes this as a background condition. But by the time that the book was published, there was already evidence in the data, including from Kosmin’s follow-up surveys, that the old equilibrium was changing.

Rodney Stark, who by the 2000s had become a semi-Christian apologist, who has a “supply-side” religious framework which argues that secularization couldn’t happen anymore, actually came out with research trying to show that actually American’s weren’t getting more irreligious. But these attempts seem to have stopped by 2010 when scholars couldn’t ignore the writing on the wall.

By the end of the 2000s, Robert Putnam assembled the data and presented a causal hypothesis in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Putnam and his coauthor offer a simple story: as American Christianity became politicized in a polarized culture war, many defected. This is the case particularly for those with more liberal or Left ideologies, and younger people. Whether you believe this story is irrelevant to the descriptive reality. And 2016, with the election of Donald J. Trump, illustrates that secularization has even started to work its way into the Republican party.

And it’s not just America, though to be frank, we’re the most important dynamic. Despite the fact that the 2000s were focused on Islamic terrorism, the Arab world is now undergoing mass disillusion with religion. Believe it or not, “New Atheism” is still relevant in the Muslim world! Richard Dawkins is viewed negatively by much of the Western intelligentsia today for his dim view of Islam, but he is still a heroic figure to freethinkers in the Muslim world. It’s still 2006 in places like Bangladesh or Algeria. Religious violence against freethinkers is actually a sign of secularization because freethinkers are getting bold enough to express their views in public.

Then there is China. In 2003 Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China And Changing the Global Balance of Power was published. Written early in the George W. Bush administration this book was catnip for Christian conservatives, presenting the vision of a China which was substantially Christian, and whose conservative Protestant Christianity would result in a pro-Israel orientation!

I’ve tracked the numbers and read some books on the topic of religion in China today, and overall it’s a complicated story. Obviously, China is not undergoing “secularization,” but neither are mainland Chinese becoming devout Christians in the same way that the religion is dominant (if still a minority) in a place like South Korea. Jesus in Beijing suggests that 10% of Chinese were Christian by the year 2000, but the best estimates put the figure close to 5% today (more conservative estimates would put it at 2%…it’s complicated not just because of “high churn” “House Churches”, but because some “Christians” are pretty heterodox. Google “Eastern Lightning”). There is a revival of “traditional religion” in China as well. But, I don’t think anyone can assert that China is more religious in a deep sense any more than they were in 2000.

Which brings me to Russia. Recently the World Values Survey came out with its 2017-2020 “wave.” You can find out many interesting things from this website (also, you can pull down the raw data). For example, ~20% of mainland Chinese in the survey believe in God. The figure is 80% for self-identified Protestants and Muslims in China (the sample sizes are ~50 for these two groups), the same proportion as self-identified Buddhists (N~250 for that religion)!

But, what is striking me to is that over the past 30 years Russia has become far more religious, while the USA has gotten less religious. Here are results for selected nations (the exclusion only makes a difference for Japan):

These results pass the qualitative “smell test.” The USA and Spain have both gotten more secular in the last generation. While Russia seems to have embraced religious social conservatism under Vladimir Putin.

We need to be careful about how we interpret these data. For example, if you ask if people “belong” to a church, 90% of Russians say they do not. The figure for Americans is 40%. And 32% of Americans are avowed “active members” as opposed to 3% of Russians. Russians have a strong identity with Orthodox Christianity in 2020, but they are not actively practicing Christians in a way that American Protestants would recognize.

One question you might ask is that is this about age effects? No. If anything, very young Russians seem a bit more secular.  It seems that the generation that came of age under Gorbechev and Yeltsin was raised without religious identity, has proactively embraced it as adults as they have aged.

Is God back? Not necessarily. But the average is definitely over.

How Technology Drives Religious “Fundamentalism”

Since I’m a book-nerd I probably would put the printing press as one of the top five technologies of the period between 1000 and 2000 A.D. I’ve written before about how I think the printing press drove rapid cultural and social change. But in this post, I want to make explicit something which I’ve long believed: the mass production of very cheap books allowed for the development of “religious fundamentalism” that we see in the modern world.

Martin Luther and his fellow travelers opened up a vast new domain of reading for the lay public by their assertion that reading scripture was essential for any believing Christian and their relationship to their God. This is why Luther and colleagues furiously produced Bibles in the vernacular so that the people could have access to God’s words themselves. This was new, as most people during the Middle Ages were illiterate, and the Church provided Christianity through liturgies. For the literate, the Bible was in Latin in any case, inaccessible to the lay worshipper.

People participated in public Christianity and were guided by their priests. A “personal” relationship with God may have been possible for some mystics, but for most people, the Church was the avenue through which salvation occurred.

The Reformation changed that by opening the door to a radically individualist and demotic Christianity. Protestantism is strongly associated with increased literacy in Europe, just as the density of printing presses is associated with a greater propensity for a region to become Protestant. Though the state Protestant churches attempted to take on a very similar guiding position that the Roman Catholic church explicitly claimed as its role in society, they were subordinate to the nation-state, and Luther and Calvin had opened up an alternative path for lay worshippers in private devotion to the scripture.

This is not limited to Christianity. The Ottomans famously banned printing presses for Muslims for centuries, but the genie could only be kept in the bottle for so long. Korans with the original Arabic on one page and translation on the other are now widely available, as well as books relating to the Hadith. Though Islam is self-consciously a religion of the book, for most of its history most believers were illiterate, and very few had Korans. And even if they had a Koran most Muslims were not Arabic speakers, and the Arabic speakers who were literate may have had difficulty with the archaic Arabic in the Koran. ‘

The words of the Koran are the words of God, therefore they had a magical quality. The meaning was less important than repeating the words of magic, and that was often the purview of the prayer leader, a representative of the ulema. With the exception of some Shia groups, Islam does not have an official clerical class, but operationally the ulema are like rabbis in Judaism, providing advice, guidance, and instruction in affairs of religion.

Just as in Christianity the spread of religious literature to the masses resulted in “reform” movements and changes in behavior and self-identity. In some areas and cases, the power of the traditional ulema was broken. After all, with cheap books, anyone could learn the law of God and master his Word.

The same pattern can be found in other populist reform movements across many religions (e.g., Won Buddhism and Arya Samaj). The “higher religions” tend to have religious scriptures or revelations of various forms, and eventually, these were all put down in the physical form. When the printing press made these sacred books cheap, they spread across much of the population, breaking the information monopoly of religious elites.

With the spread of cheap Bibles and religious pamphlets, along with literacy which allowed many more people to reflect and identify with a particular sect or confession, the strength of an explicit religious identity deepened across the world. One of the facts which I find amazing and interesting is that in the 16th century it was plausible that peasants on the lands of particular rulers were naturally obligated to follow the religion of the ruler, even after the ruler converted to a new religion. Oftentimes this was grudging, as the new Protestant faith often overturned old festivals and the familiar calendar. By the 17th century, this was not feasible. The House of Stuart was overthrown due to its defection from the Protestant religion in England, while in Germany many rulers who changed their religion faced hostility and suspicion from their people. When the rulers of Saxony converted to Catholicism, the people remained Lutheran (in fact, for some time the only Catholic priests in Saxony were those which served the royal household!). Similarly, when the rulers of Prussia embraced Reformed Christianity, their people remained Lutheran.

The religious book transformed the nature of religion, from being guided by religious professionals, to being a coordinated project of elites along with bottom-up enthusiasm from the masses. In the process, it made religion much dumber, as it took on the shape of its guiders, who were a combination of intelligent and stupid. The textual method of Salafists and Protestant Fundamentalists is, to be frank dumb as shit. If you teach dumb people to read Holy Books, it won’t make them smart. Rather, it has turned religion somewhat dumber.

Book-populism can lead to strange directions. Pentecostalism is not very focused on scripture. But it is clearly inspired by democratic populism, which rests on the back of an educated citizenry. It is hard to think that the same religion produced St. Thomas Aquinas and the trussed-up shamans who are Pentecostal preachers, but here we are.

The integration and evolution of religion within civilization has been a matter of scaffolding it with accouterments of functionality and form which made it acceptable and useful to elites and high culture. It is a long march from the fetish idol in the wood, to temples of ancient Egypt, finally to the Sistine Chapel. But the Reformation ended the long march of elite religion, and demotic and populist urges and passions once more came to the fore. The shamans and demons burst out of our deep psyches, that which had been sublimated and suppressed but wrapped now in the lexical garb of higher religion.

Civilization, rational, ingenious, enables the return of the repressed.

Martin Luther opened pandora’s box

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.

This was what came to mind when I read Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. The author has a big thesis, that the Reformation is critical to understanding and explaining the modern world. That seems broadly correct, but the “Reformation” means so many things at an important place and time that it’s almost trivially true.

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

Umayyad invention of the idea of Islam

A few months ago I wrote The Myth Of Arabian Paganism, And The Jewish-Christian Origins Of The Umayyads. Some readers suggested I look at Sean Anthony’s Muhammad and the Empires of Faith: The Making of the Prophet of Islam. After finishing Muhammad and the Empires of Faith there are no major revisions I would make the earlier post. But, there are some changes in the details of my confidence of various aspects of the post.

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.

To recap:

– 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

Real New Atheism Has Never Been Tried

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.

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!