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.

Several years ago I began to look again at the scientific study of religion due to the work of Ara Norenzayan. He seemed to be fusing the evolutionary and cognitive perspective so as to inform how religion might be adaptively useful on a cultural level through co-option of mental mechanisms. Though not rejecting adaptationism, most cognitive anthropologists did not talk much about selective value of religious phenomena, as opposed the psychological mechanistic origins of supernatural intuitions.

Big Gods was a step forward. The thesis was simple: moralistic high gods were major additions to the prosocial toolkit of humans, allowing for the emergence of complex polities beyond the level of the clan. There were two major ways in which Norenzayan tested this hypothesis. The first was experimentally, by showing that priming subjects with “agents” they were less likely to behave unethically. That is, you didn’t do wrong because an ethical supernatural judge was always watching. The second method was using historical methods looking at the changes across societies over the past 10,000 years. Here there were suggestions that “big gods” preceded the rise of social complexity.

I have expressed some skepticism about the priming research in light of the “replication crisis” in psychology. Now it looks like the second path of analysis may provide different results than Norenzayan’s original thesis. A research group using a large dataset have found that complex societies give rise to moralistic high gods, moralistic high gods don’t give rise to complex societies. Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history:

The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles…The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies…Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity…the relationship between the two is disputed…and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions…powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations…generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

The second figure from the paper shows the general trend:

In the first panel you see that social complexity rises, and as it plateaus moralizing gods show up. The second panel shows the distribution of time difference between the emergence of the plateau and moralistic gods across their data set. What’s striking is how soon moralizing gods shows up after the spike in social complexity.

In the ancient world, early Christian writers explicitly asserted that it was not a coincidence that their savior arrived with the rise of the Roman Empire. They contended that a universal religion, Christianity, required a universal empire, Rome. There are two ways you can look at this. First, that the causal arrow is such that social complexity leads to moralizing gods, and that’s that. The former is a necessary condition for the latter. Second, one could suggest that moralizing gods are a cultural adaptation to large complex societies, one of many, that dampen instability and allow for the persistence of those societies. That is, social complexity leads to moralistic gods, who maintain and sustain social complexity. To be frank, I suspect the answer will be closer to the second. But we’ll see.

Another result that was not anticipated I suspect is that ritual religion emerged before moralizing gods. In other words, instead of “Big Gods,” it might be “Big Rules.” With hindsight, I don’t think this is coincidental since cohesive generalizable rules are probably essential for social complexity and winning in inter-group competition. It’s not a surprise that legal codes emerge first in Mesopotamia, where you had the world’s first anonymous urban societies. And rituals lend themselves to mass social movements in public to bind groups. I think it will turn out that moralizing gods were grafted on top of these general rulesets, which allow for coordination, cooperation, and cohesion, so as to increase their import and solidify their necessity due to the connection with supernatural agents, which personalize the sets of rules from on high.

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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What religion is

It’s been about 10 years since I addressed this topic. Largely because I have no new thoughts. But probably after 10 years, it’s useful to revisit/clarify on this topic to clarify confusions, since people have a lot of opinions on this topic.

People mean different things when they mean “religion,” and the different meanings are not contradictory, nor in conflict.

At the lowest level in terms of individual cognition religion emerges from deep intuitions about the nature of the universe. Colloquially one might say that religion bubbles out of our unconscious.

In relation to social units, say the clan or tribe, religion consists of these intuitions about the nature of the universe and the world around us, bound together with rituals and verbal descriptions and narratives. These rituals and communal narratives help forge some sort of group Weltanschauung that has a functional utility in terms of inter-group competition and relations. Here religion steps out of the individual and becomes an expression of collective consensus.

As human societies became more complex the role of religious professionals became more elaborated. The common role of a shaman can be thought of as a magician, one who manipulates and operates in the domain of the supernatural. Shamans are common and ubiquitous in pre-state societies (even if a tribe does not have a “professional” shaman, someone takes on the role when needed). The priest adds on top of this institutional authority, often supra-clan or tribal. No king, no priest. Eventually, though the shaman-priest took on the role of the metaphysician. The metaphysician generates abstract principles and rationales, which can transcend the tribe or ethnicity, and allows religion to generate meta-ethnic civilizational identities in the service of priestly functions.

So in the post-Axial Age, the religious professional is often shaman, priest, and philosopher.

In relation to my post about why I am not a New Atheist, New Atheists, and the hyper-verbal expositors of modern organized religion, often tend to reduce religion to a branch of philosophy with some textual revelatory buttress. By refuting the philosophy of religion, they think that they refute religion in toto.  But what they refute is only the latest and most elaborated structural expression of the religious phenomenon.

What about the priest? Though I am wary of the term “political religion,” due to semantic confusion, it seems clear that the function of the priest can be stripped of its supernatural valence. Many of the most objectionable characteristics of religion for people of liberal orientations derives from the institutionalized priestly functions. Unfortunately, the persistence of the priest in the absence of gods, shamanic powers and metaphysical justification opens the doors to secular totalitarianism.

Finally, it seems almost impossible to stamp out the shaman. Shamanism is like music. You can banish it through institutional sanctions, but once those sanctions disappear, shamanism reappears.

These different aspects of religiosity exist and persist simultaneously in most contexts, but sometimes in tension. Philosophers and priests often take a dim view of shamanic religiosity. In organized religion of the modern sort shamanism is marginalized, or highly constrained and regulated in sacraments. But the recession of state-sponsored Christianity across much of the West has arguably resulted in a resurgence of shamanism, and the proliferation of diverse supernatural beliefs which had previously been suppressed (much of East Asia is characterized by relative weakness of philosophical religion but the strength of shamanism).

Jade Eggs anyone?

The relevance of all this in relation to New Atheism is that New Atheism seems to posit a religious “Blank Slate.” That is, children are indoctrinated in religion at a small age, previous to which they had been atheists. Part of this is due to the fact that the philosophical-metaphysical aspect of religion is quite clearly indoctrination, and often of a superficial sort at that (judging by how weak most believer’s grasp of theology is). But the communal and psychological aspects are not indoctrination, as much as specific instantiations of general human sentiments, dispositions, and intuitions. The erasure of a Christian, Buddhist or Islamic religious orientation will not necessarily leave in its wake a mind primed for scientific naturalism. Rather, it will simply be one shorn of Axial-Age accretions, reverted back to the shamanic age…

As someone who is an atheist, I have never had strong intuitions that lead me to find shamanism plausible. Additionally, the philosophical arguments are wanting for me in relation to God, though they are interesting (thanks to reader Thursday I’m reading Edward Feser’s work). Finally, obviously, I take a dim view of the conformity and structure which the priests attempt to impose upon us.  But I do not presume I am not typical.

Cultural and religious relics as clues to cultural process

Much of the public is given the impression that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under the reign of Constantine. Though it is hard to deny that it was the favored religion, especially by the end of his rule, modern ideas of the “official” religion of a given state are somewhat anachronistic for this period and place. In The Last Pagans of Rome Alan Cameron argues that the true death-blow to non-Christian religions in the Roman Empire occurred during the reign of Gratian, 50 years after Constantine, with the cessation of subsidies to the traditional religion (a contrasting view is that elite paganism was vital as a public force up until Theodosius the Great’s conquest of the Western Empire).

In The Final Pagan Generation the author reviews the almost imperceptible change that occurred in the lives of the Roman elite, who looked back to a continuous cultural lineage that drew from the late republic. These elite men and women exhibited passivity and complacency, as the norms which had come before would presumably obtain until the end of time. What they did not understand is that there are periods when societies go through rapid changes, so that a rupture occurs between the past and the future in the span of a lifetime.

Whether you think elite public paganism lost its vitality in the last decades of the 4th century or sometime in the 5th, the reality is that it was a spent force by the time Justinian began his the marginalization of the last of the Neoplatonic philosophers around 500.

Of course, this does not mean that sub-pagan practices did not persist among the European peasantry for centuries. But the reality is that they were at least nominally Christian, and a coherent sense of traditional religious identity apart from that outward affiliation did not exist (at least after Christianization).

Which brings me to the people of the Mani peninsula, in the southern Peloponnese. This isolated region was reputed to retain the practices of Greek paganism as late as the year 1000 A.D. Let me quote Constantine VII, Byzantine emperor from 913 to 959:

Be it known that the inhabitants of Castle Maina are not from the race of aforesaid Slavs (Melingoi and Ezeritai dwelling on the Taygetus) but from the older Romaioi, who up to the present time are termed Hellenes by the local inhabitants on account of their being in olden times idolaters and worshippers of idols like the ancient Greeks, and who were baptized and became Christians in the reign of the glorious Basil. The place in which they live is waterless and inaccessible but has olives from which they gain some consolation.

The Basil in question reigned from 867 to 886.

Of course, we don’t know if Constantine and his contemporaries were correct in all the details of the people of Mani. It seems unlikely that he would have misidentified them as Greek as opposed to Slavs (whose paganism was more recent), but perhaps they practiced a debased form of folk Christianity mixed with old superstitions? But, if they did continue to practice the religion of ancient Greece it illustrates how persistent traditional beliefs than be in a world where the state and cultural elites have more limited purview than one might have thought. It seems unlikely that the people of Mani would have been unfamiliar with Christianity (there are ruins of churches going back to the 4th century in the area), but they may have been socially isolated enough that the incentives to convert to the new religion did not exist.

The Tengerrese people of East Java, who remain Hindu, maybe a modern analogy. The worshippers of the gods of the old Norse were by chance the Sami, who did not become fully Christian until after the Reformation. And up until the Islamic period, the city of Harran remained predominantly pagan (the Persians were close enough that the East Roman authorities respected the religious liberties of these people lest they defect).

The four modes of atheism

I have mentioned Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict before. It’s worth reading. I’d describe it as a cross between In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Of course, that means I’m not sure I got the maximal utility from reading it since it leans on so much that I already internalized. But it’s a great introduction to the modern scientific study of religion.

But there was one aspect which I found rather novel, because it introduced new data to me. In particular, the author tackled the origin of atheism, and why it might vary as a function of location and time.

There are four causes of atheism that are surveyed in Big Gods:

1) Personality (low social intelligence)
2) Hyper-analytic cognitive style
3) Societal apathy toward religion
4) Lack of strong modeling of religiosity

The first two are straightforward. There has long been a hypothesis that those with lower social intelligence or weaker in ‘theory of mind’ have a more difficult time to find personal gods plausible. In short, theism depends on a relatively normal theory of mind. Looking at people on the autism spectrum who recounted their ideas of religion and god the author confirmed the intuition. Autistic individuals tended to be less religious, and, if religious, presented a model of God that was often highly impersonal and abstract.

One issue that is important to highlight here: I suspect that many great theological “truths” actually derive from individuals who engage in excessive intellectualism around the idea of god. For the average human applying formal logic to theism is probably beside the point, though these sorts of religious intellectuals loom large in the books because…they are the ones writing the books.

This relates to the second issue. The author and his colleagues did research where they primed individuals by engaging them in highly analytic thought. Correcting for background variables they found that this biased respondents toward an impersonal god or atheism appreciably. Again, I think it gets to the fact that for most humans supernatural beliefs are about the synthesis of intuitions and passions. Excessive intellectualization is more likely to engender skepticism, or, a hyper-formal model of religion (which I think has become religion qua religion for some).

The last two elements are related. In Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God he observes that in highly secular Scandinavia many respondents found it difficult to articulate strong feelings toward religion. It was simply not a prominent social institution in the society, though it was still part of the cultural furniture. But like furniture, it didn’t stand out. Societies with strong states, robust institutions, and impartial rule of law, along with some modicum of prosperity, tend to have lower levels of religiosity, and weaker passions about the topic from respondents. Once religiosity becomes less salient in a broad sense, then it becomes less of a concern in general for individuals.

A separate dynamic is that once people stop acting in a way that indicates that religion is important and true, others who take social cues begin to internalize this as evidence that religion isn’t that important. The authors give the example that there is social science that people who are raised Christian by parents who don’t go to church are far more likely to leave Christianity as adults because their parents did not credibly signal that religion was actually important enough to sacrifice any time and effort for. Perhaps another example which works as an analogy is that the vast majority of the children of interfaith Jewish-Christian marriages who were raised as Jews end up marrying non-Jews.

I think the first two factors in the list above explain the low but consistent basal rate of atheists and heterodox thinkers across history. One thousand years ago in Syria the poet Al-Ma’arri made statements such as below:

Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.

Al-Ma’arri was a brilliant eccentric, so he was tolerated. Some of his quips prefigure H. L. Mencken’s, as when he said that “The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

The other two forms of irreligiosity lead to standard models of secularization through increased affluence and decreased social relevance of religion as an institution. The United States was long the exception to this trend, but as recounted in books such as American Grace, it seems that secularization is starting to have its impact on the United States as well. Basically, as social norms shift to relax incentives toward being religious, more marginal believers will start expressing irreligiosity. At some point, some will start to conform to irreligiosity.

Of course, this sort of secularization is fragile. Aside from the sorts of demographic arguments made in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, examples such as post-Soviet Russia (and the post-Soviet nation-states more generally), as well as the progressively more religious nature of the Baathist resistance to American occupation in Iraq, illustrate that religion can bounce back rather fast, even within a generation or severl years. The social contexts for this resurgence are outlined in the book, but they illustrate that in some ways secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate.

As many Americans think the Bible is a book of fables as that it is the literal word of God

America, that is, the United States of America, has long been a huge exception for the secularization model. Basically as a society develops and modernizes it becomes more secular. At least that’s the model.

In the 1980s Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge wrote The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Stark and Bainbridge’s work was predominantly empirical; they looked at survey data to present a model of the American religious landscape. But they also had a theoretical framework, whereby religion was modeled with a rational choice framework on the individual religion, and denominations and sects were viewed as “firms” providing “goods and services” to “customers.”

A whole field emerged over time which attempted to use the methods and models of economics to explain religious phenomena. Larry Witham’s Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion surveys the various scholars in this discipline. I’ve read the book, and what I will say is that like many imperial ventures, this one failed. The predictions of the “supply-side” model of religion haven’t panned out.

In 2004 Samuel Huntington wrote in Who Are We? that the United States likely had a more Christian future than the present. He was actually writing this as a massive wave of secularization was going on in the United States; the second since that of the 1960s had abated.

For a long time, people were in denial about this. After all the United States had been the great exception to the secularization trend in the developed world. Their priors were strong. And the market also provided what consumers wanted; books such as God is Back and Jesus in Beijing catered to the demand. Writing in the early 2000s the author of Jesus in Beijing suggested that 20 to 30 percent of China would be Christian two to three decades, so between 2023 and 2033 (from the publication of the book). Credible statistics in 2017 put the current number of Christians in China at 2 to 5 percent.

In 2009 I took John Tierney of The New York Times to task for dismissing the secularization hypothesis in a column. I emailed him my blog post, and he denied that it showed what it showed. Today I suspect he’d admit that I was more right than he was.

Today everyone is talking about the Pew survey which shows the marginalization of the Anglo-Protestant America which I grew up in. This marginalization is due to secularization broadly, and non-Hispanic whites in particular. You don’t need Pew to tell you this.

At the top of this post you see the response to the GSS query BIBLE, which asks respondents how they view the Bible in relation to whether it is God’s literal word, inspired word, or a book of fables. I limited the data to non-Hispanic whites. In 2016 as many people viewed the Bible as a book of fables as the word of God. In 2000 twice as many people viewed it as the word of God as a book of fables. That is a huge change.

Note: Robert Putnam’s American Grace is probably the best book which highlights the complex cultural forces which ushered in the second wave of secularization. The short answer is that the culture wars diminished Christianity in the eyes of liberals.

When white people were “ethnic”

In the period between 2005 and 2010 I spent a fair amount of time reading about American history. And one aspect which interested me was the nature of the assimilation of white Americans of non-Protestant background, in particular Roman Catholics and Jews. This was triggered by reading The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, where the author argues that the modern American conception of church-state separation is difficult to understand in practice unless religion is defined as something similar to low church American Protestantism

Though the American founding was famously eclectic and tolerant, as befitted a republic designed by men with elite Enlightenment sensibilities, it was culturally without a doubt Protestant in heritage, if not belief. The American Revolutionary Zeitgeist was steeped in British-influenced anti-Catholicism. In keeping with the same sort of Protestant populism which inspired the Gordon riots a broad swath of American colonial opinion was critical of the Quebec Act for giving French speaking Catholics a modicum of religious liberty and equality before the law.

Despite this historical context the relationship between the Roman Catholic population and the American republic in the early years was relatively amicable. Most of the priests were French Canadians, and Catholic population was highly assimilated and integrated. The great change occurred with the arrival of large numbers of Roman Catholic Irish, as well as a Irish American clerical ascendency which drew upon a revival in the Church in Ireland.

John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom is probably the best history of the religion in the United States that I read during that period. Not because it’s comprehensive, it’s not. Rather, because it focuses on the tension between the Church and the American republic and society, and how it resolved itself, and how that resolution unravelled.

Periodically people in the media make allusions to the ability of the American republic and culture to assimilate Catholics and Jews, and how that might apply to Muslims today. The discussion really frustrates me because there is almost never an acknowledgement that Roman Catholics experienced various degrees of low-grade persecution during periods of the 19th century. The Ursuline Convent riots are just the most sensational incident, and the Know Nothing movement turned into a political party.

The expansion of public schooling in parts of this was country tied to anti-Catholicism. But the Catholics did not take this passively. The emergence of a whole counter-culture, and parochial schools, suggested that they were ready to fight back to maintain their identity. The powerful Irish clerics who served as de facto leaders of the Roman Catholic faithful seem to have wanted to establish a modus vivendi with the American government which recognized the Church’s corporate role in society. By and large American elites and culture rejected this attempt to import a European style model to the New World.

By the late 19th century a movement began in the American Roman Catholic Church which became labeled the Americanist heresy. Despite its official condemnation I would argue that “Americanism” eventually became the de facto ideology of most American Roman Catholics. As Catholics conceded and assimilated toward American liberal and democratic norms in their everyday life, the hostility from the general public declined, and by the middle of the 20th century Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew articulated a vision of religious harmony among white Americans.

It should be rather obvious from the above that I believe this religious harmony was achieved in large part through concessions that American Catholics made to the folkways of the United States. You see the same dynamic in Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism. Second, in Catholicism and American Freedom McGreevy lays out the great unravelling of the Catholic hierarchy’s understanding with American society which occurred in the 1960s, as social liberalism went far beyond what even the most progressive Roman Catholic intellectuals were ready to countenance. And in this cultural revolution Catholics were shocked to find that their Jewish allies made common cause with mainline Protestants and post-Protestants.

The reason I am writing this is that the American landscape today is different in deep ways from that of the 19th and early 20th century. The lessons of Catholic and Jewish assimilation to a Protestant understanding of religion were achieved through bitter conflict, and the rejection of a corporatist accommodation between the American government and religious minorities, as was achieved in several European countries. The modern ideas of religious pluralism are fundamentally different from the explicit understanding of Protestant supremacy which ruled the day a century ago, and only slowly faded with assimilation of non-Protestants.

The lesson of Erasmus: the center that could not hold

The return of the civilian

“On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them”
-Niccolò Machiavelli

The sentiments expressed above are typical of Renaissance men, prone to archaisms and love of ancient learning. As all stylized facts are, the dichotomy between a dark Middle Ages and a flourishing Renaissance are clearly overwrought, and an artifact in some ways of the reality that the victors write history. A passionate intellectual such as Abelard is clearly a familiar figure despite the reality that he flourished in the early part of the High Middle Ages. And the period described in Aristotle’s Children was not lacking in brilliance on the whole.

But generalizations also have a basis. Henry the VIII reputedly wrote Defence of the Seven Sacraments as a rebuke to the assaults from the nascent Protestant tradition. For his services the Pope gave the king the title Defender of the Faith. It is no surprise that Thomas More “aided” in the composition, but the point is that a Renaissance monarch was expected to be a cultured individual for whom writing a theological treatise was not ludicrous.

Though one should not take the analogy too far, in some ways the polities of the medieval period in Western Europe exhibited a social structure not unlike that of the Bronze Age. Literacy was one of the hallmarks of Romanitas, and later of Christian civilization. But literacy was not broad-based in Western Europe, but rather concentrated in a particular caste, that of the priests. In the Bronze Age literacy was also defined by its caste association, that of the scribes. In contrast, kings fought. Their rule was by divine right, whether as living gods on earth, or as vice-reagents of the national deity. Similarly, monarchs during the medieval period ruled as representatives of the God on high.

During the Iron Age the antipodes of Eurasia were dominated by polities and civilizations which were predicated on military rule, but at whose peak civilian norms reigned supreme. Even as militaristic a figure as Julius Caesar was a cultural patron who also wrote The Gallic Wars. Similarly the Chinese emperors were manifestly civilian figures, who often also had personal skills in the arts which they cultivated. It wasn’t until the reign of the emperor Justin in the year 518 that Rome first had an illiterate ruler (and this is implausible enough that some historians attribute this claim as one intended to be scurrilous toward Justin and his successor and nephew, Justinian).

The fall of the Western Roman Empire ended this civilian ascendancy, which in any case was being eroded by the necessary rise of military emperors to defend the borders against barbarian incursions. Once the German tribes, Roman allies or not, took the reins of power there were deep fundamental transformations of the order of society. Though great rulers such as Charlemagne were patrons of learning and Roman civilization, he himself remained very much a barbarian warlord.

The ruling elite of medieval Europe were manifestly a military elite. The feudal system demanded that they provide service in the armies of their lords, and that service entailed outfitting themselves and a retinue. Martial skills were a necessity. The legacy of this physical aspect to being part of the ruling elite persists down to the present day. Both of the two young princes in the House of Windsor have had military careers, while hunting remained a major part of every nobleman’s life down to the early modern period (apparently Louis XVI’s diaries are filled with days which simply state “went hunting”).

The gun and the printing press

Events such as the Battle of Crecy, the rise of the Swiss infantry, and the ubiquity of the gun, heralded the end of the military elite as a necessity. Gentility of birth became a matter of mores and manners, and the reemergence of an almost classical model of education and cultivation took hold.

Along with the the rise of the gun, there was the printing press. The existence of ancient graffiti in Egypt and Rome tells us that we should be cautious about assuming that literacy was rare in antiquity, but we should also admit that it was not quite common (when men of the lower classes were allowed in the legions in the late republic there were accommodations made for the fact that many would be illiterate).

The printing press was a technology that made production of printed works much easier. And so Europe was indudated with pamphlets and books. This was not always due to the literate content, as illustrations were quite influential. But it is hard to deny that this spread of information technology probably triggered a blooming of the “republic of letters” not out of chance, but necessity. The intellectuals of the medieval period were by and large clerics, but now they were joined by newly emerged urban professionals and the leisured nobility.

The Age of the Princes and their Liberal Critic

As medieval Western Christendom entered into the final stages of putrefaction something new was ripening within it. I do not believe it is coincidental that the Iberian powers were pushing forward and exploring the world beyond Europe in the decades before Martin Luther, and during the same period new learning was overturning the long reigning scholasticism.

At the center of much of the cultural religious ferment was Desiderius Erasmus. Born in 1466, he was the illegitimate son of a priest, and became a priest himself. After a fashion he was man of the later medieval period, born of a cleric who violated his vows of chastity, in the decades after the papacy was riven between different claimants, and conciliarism attempted to throw the Western Church back to a more antiquated style of governance. This was the age of the Borgia and Medici popes.

Erasmus’ accomplishments are legion in the field of humanities. Today he would be a stellar public intellectual, as well as a productive research scholar. He was the prince of the republic of letters of his day.

Like many Catholic reformers Erasmus aimed to sweep the superstition from his faith, and mocked and criticized the corruptions that he saw in the Church. With his pen he attempted to reform Christian civilization in his own image, sincere of faith and theologically orthodox, shorn of the idolatrous excesses of the medieval Catholicism, with its cult of saints and Marian devotions, as well as contemptuous of the hypocrisy of the clerical class as a whole (though still reverential of its role in performing the sacraments).

Erasmus was instrumental in the rebirth of the liberal arts in Europe in his day. But it seems clear that Erasmus was also fundamentally a liberal person in his attitude toward deviation from what he himself thought was true and right. And, events at the end of his life also suggest that he was much more accepting of the imperfections of the institutions which he critiqued throughout his whole life than others would be.

The Age of the Zealot

The last 19 years of Erasmus’ life overlapped with the Reformation. At the peak of his fame and influence men such as Luther reached out to him, but Erasmus did not return their enthusiasm in kind. The Reformation unleashed atavistic passions, and much of the world Erasmus had known, that he had critiqued and chided, collapsed before him.

Where Erasmus inveighed against the corruption of the Catholic Church, zealous new converts to the Protestant cause destroyed church property and relics, and expelled priests from their territory. When the Jews did not convert to Luther’s form of Christianity, he attacked them. When the peasants rose up against their lords, analogizing their rebellion to that of Luther and his colleagues, he justified their slaughter. When Erasmus temporized Luther attacked him.

Though there were long periods of peace in the decades after Erasmus’ death, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre became emblematic of an age. The period of the Reformation is also one of the age of Wars of Religion. The whole map of Europe transformed due to religious disputes, and between 25 to 50 percent of the population of the German nation died during the Thirty Years War due to causes rooted in the war itself.

In Northern Europe they burned witches. In Southern Europe the inquisition was in full effect. In France Protestants and Catholics lived separate lives, until the French monarchy gave the Protestants a choice of conversion or emigration.

Ideas With Consequences

In Erasmus’ life and work we see the shadow of the future. Some figures just subsequent to him, such as Montaigne, echoed his liberality of spirit. But they were marginalized for centuries by the intolerance of Luther, the controlling character of Calvin, and the machinations of the Jesuits. The power of monarchs grew, as they dispossessed the Catholic Church, or claimed that the Catholic Church gave them divine right to rule.

Charity toward those with whom one disagreed with, a plea of Erasmus in his later  years, disappeared. And what reason had the Catholics to be generous to the Protestants after the iconoclastic attacks on their sacred sites and objects? Protestants when they were expelled or forcibly converted by Catholics? Reformed when they were driven out of Lutheran and Catholic lands? Baptists when they were oppressed everywhere?

The decline of the centrality of fighting as the primary task of nobles, and the rise of humanist and cultured values among the aristocracy, was coincident with wars which tore the fabric of Europe apart for generations, over and over.

The Exhausted Return

Of course as I write today in 2017 the figure of Erasmus strikes many moderns, whatever our religious inclinations, as an admirable one. His emphasis on heart, and the fact that his heart was in the right place, are appealing. His liberality of spirit, his low tolerance for hypocrisy and corruption, but acceptance of genuine disagreement due to human fallibility, are characteristics many of us would wish we could cultivate more.

But it’s nearly 500 years since he died, and it took about two centuries after he died for the long road to enlightenment to put us where we are now. Erasmus shows us that a moderate position, taking the middle path, speaking in the language of intellectuals, has difficulties with the zealots who spew the argot of the street. John Calvin had a humanist education, as did many of the Reformers were humanists, but that did not prevent him from burning a heretic and giving voice to his inner totalitarian (though I do understand that Geneva was not totalitarian in a way we would understand it today). Humanism became a tool, part of one’s education, as opposed to the broad liberal minded spirit with Erasmus exemplified.

When learning is instrumentalized, when it is reduced purely to a tool in the service of society, that enslavement saps something out of its spirit. The idea of truth, the valorization of it above other things, likely does have broader cultural consequences. Without truth, I believe that our species reverts to zero-sum and negative-sum “games.” That was our past. I believe it could be our future.