Friday, December 02, 2005

Intercultural variance   posted by Razib @ 12/02/2005 05:44:00 PM

In my previous post where I elaborated on "theological incorrectness" and the deceptiveness of the tendency for humans to ascribe their behaviors and actions to beliefs which are shown to be irrelevant upon further scrutiny, I might have given the impression that the ideas themselves do not matter. I didn't explicitly say that, and I think it is important to distinguish between evoked and epidemiological aspects of culture. The former refers to aspects of culture which are generalized and universal reflections of the expression of behavorial phenotypes within a social matrix that are inevitable because of the architecture of our brains. For example, the universality of some sort of music, or symbolic artistry. Epidemiological culture refers to ideas which are replicated between minds and often exhibit intergroup variation, basically, memes. There are several major factors that will affect the fitness of memes, a) cognitive transmission biases, b) the replicative design of the meme (a meme that encourages universal skepticism might be too self-cannibalizing) and c) functional utility on the individual and cultural level (a meme which encourages suicide or celibacy will not spread).

It seems mean intercultural differences are significant, contra the standard narrative you get from evo psych types who seem to want to pretend that cultural differences are trivial epiphenomena. The reality is that of the major "high religions," it is the Abrahamic ones which have been characterized by strong tendencies toward exclusion, persecution and fanaticism. This is not to deny that Indian or Chinese cultural traditions have also been characterized by religious acrimony, but, it seems less frequent and central to the identity of the culture.1 The tensions that emerge out of Abrahamic religions can be seen across vast swaths of western Eurasia, and the conflict between paganism and Christianity in Europe was recapitulated in a rather set form repeatedly over 1,000 years as the former gave way to the latter in a step-wise fashion. There is also a systematic difference between the character of the spread of the Abrahamic memeplexes and the the expansion of Buddhism as a pancultural religion, or, the Hinduization of groups in South Asia over time. If one reads about the acceptance of Buddhism in Tibet, Korea or Japan by 'barbarian' kings who wish to attain for themselves the imprimatur of civilized monarchs, one is struck by the far milder tensions between the new religion and the indigenous belief systems (Bon, Korean shamanism and Shinto, respectively, are all vital traditions which complement the Buddhist worldviews which suffuse the culture).

Nevertheless, even though the expectation for the modal behavior of those who espouse Abrahamic religions is likely different from those who adhere to non-Abrahamic religions, it is important to not forget that there is considerable variation around such expectations. The rather tolerant modern Congregationalism has little in common with its direct Puritan forebears. If fact, it might not be the expectation that is truly important, but the tendency toward variance of expression of the Abrahamic religions which results in their tendency toward fanaticism and utopianism of various sorts. Additionally, both expectation and variance must be interpreted in the context of other factors which result in confounding of models based solely on ideas (i.e., psychology, historical stochasticity and contingency). If one looks at the historical evidence it seems strongly plausible that religious faction and conflict was generally driven from above by temporal and clerical elites. Even in the case where the masses enthusiastically took up religiously motivated causes, as amongst the "Jew burners" of the medieval Rhineland, historical scholarship can usually glean strongly material motives amongst the primary players (in fact, the Church's writ was relatively weak in the Rhineland and local notables who were in debt to prominent Jews seem to have mobilized the mobs, who might have been drawn in large part from their cronies). In other words, religious sanction was might have been a mask for more conventional violent conflicts between groups separated by outward markers. Finally, in recent years the rise of Hindutva, the history of State Shinto in Japan and the emergence of 'Buddhist fundamentalism' in Sri Lanka and Myanmar suggest that the modes that characterize Abrahamic religions can be exported to other religious systems.2

1 - Quite often in China religious conflict is closely coupled with social and political factors, and "persecution" is more easily understood as a byproduct political events. For example, the defrocking of tens of thousands of monks during the Tang dynasty and the repossession of monestaries was not because of doctrinal conflicts, rather, Buddhism had become an institutional rival to the monarchy, which in China always tended to result in an assertion of the monarchy at the expense of the alternative institution. In India, religious wars between Jain and Hindu kings in southern India was a somewhat exceptional and peculiar event in terms of its explicit religious aspect.

2 - It is important to note that Hindutva is like more plausibly modeled as a ethno-nationalist movement than a religious one. Also, I think it is illustrative that Sri Lankan Buddhist fundamentalists have sometimes been labelled 'Protestant Buddhists,' because of the influence of apologists who formed a neo-Buddhist movement and creed in explicit response to Protestant missionaries in the 19th century.