How Christian Militarism slowed the spread of Christianity

In 1250 AD Mindauguas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, accepted Christianity. This was to be a “Clovis moment” for the Lithuanian tribes, but history took a different path. Mindaugas’ nobles rebelled, he apostatized, and he was eventually killed. Only in 1386 did the Lithuanian elite accept Christianity; more specifically, in its Western Latin Rite form. If you read S. C. Rowell’s Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295–1345, you will know that the author believes the Lithuanian elite prevaricated on the conversion in part because it allowed them to balance at an equipoise between the Latin West, represented by Poland and the Germans who were colonizing the Baltic, and Orthodox Christian east, representing the people who had once been ruled by Kievan Rus (the Lithuanian elite intermarried extensively with their Orthodox subjects).

But, to me, and others, there seems another reason that the Lithuanian tribes balked at Christianization: the fact that it was the religion of their sometimes genocidal enemies, the German-speaking Christian military orders that dominated the Baltic coast. The Baltic Crusades, which enabled knights from the German-speaking lands to sally forth into the pagan eastern Baltic region starting around 1200 AD, created a level of ethnoreligious animus that was extremely strong for Europe during this period. Rowell notes that though the Lithuanians began converting to Christianity in large numbers in 1386 (though those nobles and warriors settled to the west and east often assimilated to local Christian cultures), there were pagan Letts on the lands of German military elites in Livonia on into the early 1400’s. The reason that this delay occurred is that pagan peasants were economically far more exploitable than Christian peasants, who could appeal to the Church. These nobles, who were themselves the descendants of Christian Crusaders, excluded the Church’s missionaries from their lands for decades while Lithuania to the south was being baptized. This phenomenon prefigures some dynamics we know from chattel slavery in the American South, where some planters discouraged evangelization among their slaves for the purposes of more efficient economic control.

One model that people routinely have is that pagan resistance to Christianization was inevitable. On a microlevel this seems correct, but on a macrolevel for Northern Europe, Christianity was the only metaethnic high culture transnational religious identity that was on offer. At some point, the Northern European proto-states were going to become Christian. It was a matter of when. We see this in Ireland, where the Christianization process was entirely endogenous and occurred gradually and piecemeal. This resembles Alan Cameron’s model of the decline of Roman paganism in The Last Pagans of Rome. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, you see a different model, where the Northern European kings convert to integrate themselves into the international system of Christian states, and also consolidate their rule over their polity. Unlike the Irish example, where conversion was gradual and organic, these top-down conversions tend to be more of a cultural rupture and instantiate resistance from entrenched interests that are disfavored by the new Christian regime that erupted overnight. That being said, these top-down conversions seem to result in faster (nominal) baptism of the population than the more gradual conversion of the Romans after Constantine or the Irish between 400 and 600 AD.

But there is a downside the Lithuanian example illustrates: the fusion of Christianity with incipient militaristic states with an ethnonational basis resulted in  Christianity becoming associated with an enemy state and people from the pagan perspective. This is illustrated in Chris Tyrmen’s God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, where citizens of a besieged West Slavic city march outside of the gates and explain to the German soldiers that they had already converted to the “German religion.” If Christianity had not become associated with German identity would the Wends have resisted the new religion for so long? If the Germans had not synthesized their ethnic identity with their religion, would they have been so brutal to the Slavic heathens to their east? I doubt both of these. There is a more powerful recent historical illustration of this phenomenon. By the late 1500’s Latin Rite Christianity was becoming a popular religion in southern Japan, and Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi both favored it tacitly above Buddhism. But there were cases where Iberian Christians proudly identified the new religion as a fifth column in the spread of their political regime, and this prompted Tokugawa Ieyasu to suppress the new faith, not on theological, but political grounds.

Christianity was the strength of the state and nation. The religion gave a metaethnic and creedal vigor to the Portuguese and Castilian monarchies and drove the Sword Brothers and the Teutonic Knights to acts of both valor and viciousness. But the other edge of this sword is that the Christian religion became associated with the enemy, dispossession and oppression. If Europe had remained small tribes after the fall of Rome, and Christianity had spread as in Ireland, gradually from tribe to tribe over the centuries, I wonder if the pagan holdouts in Scandinavia and the Baltic may have fallen to the faith of Christ earlier because it would not have been seen as alien and imperial.

(the late sociologist and historian of religion Rodney Stark explicitly argued that the shifted from the Roman model, where individual conversion was critical, to the Northern European one, where trickle down was operative, produced a slower and thinner Christianization)

American is more secular than it was a generation ago

The Wall Street Journal has an op-ed, Religion Is Dying? Don’t Believe It Many of the ‘Nones’ aren’t secular; they belong to minority faiths. The problem is how to count them, which engages in a lot of sophistry. The co-authors worked with the late Rodney Stark, who died on July 21st of 2022 (seven days before publication). Stark has argued for fifty years that the vibrancy of religion is determined by the offerings that people can choose from. A “religious free market” like the US is optimal for the phenomenon. This is why the secularization of the US over the last thirty years has been disturbing since it goes against their theory.

The authors of the op-ed assert:

Data from five recent U.S. population surveys point to the vibrancy, ubiquity and growth of religion in the U.S. Americans are becoming more religious, and religious institutions are thriving. Consistent with some previous studies but contrary to widely held assumptions, many people who report no religious affiliation—and even many self-identified atheists and agnostics—exhibit substantial levels of religious practice and belief.

The evidence is mostly sophistry. It is probably true that there are more small churches as the big churches collapse, but a lot of small churches may still mean fewer religious people than a few big churches.

Here is belief in God and religious attendance from the GSS (one of their sources), and the trend is obvious:

We’re still mostly a religious nation. But there has been a massive breaking of the uniform religious consensus that was the norm in the 80’s and 90’s, where nominally religious people thought being irreligious was a step too far.

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.”