Saturday, March 04, 2006

Visualizing the distribution   posted by Razib @ 3/04/2006 04:24:00 PM

I have talked about the problem with comparing Muslims and Christians before. Well, sometimes a picture gives you a better gestalt perception, so this is what I'm imagining. This sort of thing is important because I believe that the distribution of attitudes, behaviors, etc. of a religious group help determine the norm of reaction for individuals. I've addressed the issue in relation to heritability of political orientation before, that is, the social matrix in which one expresses their predispositions mediated by their starting genotype influences the path of their development and their suite of personality traits. Consider for example a "born nutcase." No matter what, he might be a "nutcase" in the context of his environment, but raised in a Protestant area of Belfast he might be a bit different than if he was raised within an Amish community in Pennsylvania. In both contexts people might be, "Wow, that guy is out of control," but the absolute expression of the traits might different a great geal. In short, society matters.

In the context of Muslims and Christians, I also want to emphasize that the full character of the distribution has an effect on the development of subcomponents. To give an example, the Christian Reconstruction theonomists might resemble Salafi radicals in their legalistic attempt to overturn the rule of Man by the rule of God, but they have to dampen their rhetoric and tactics because they lay at such an extreme and marginal end of the Christian distribution. For conservative American Christians, the secular culture matters, and has a great attractive and modulating effect. This piece in The New York Times, Rebels with a Cross, chronicles the evangelical Christian counter-culture which takes it cues from punk and rebel strands in the mainstream. This sort of religious response doesn't exist among Muslims because the punk and rebel "scene" isn't really as well developed, at least publically, within the Muslim culture. An explicit example of how the mainstream culture mediates individuals outside the middle of the distribution can be illustrated by the fact that in the late 1990s I recall Jerry Falwell expressing the opinion that if he thought it was feasible he would push to ban pornography (On The O'Reilly Factor). As it was, he knew this wasn't a practical program, so he focused on other issues.

Back to Muslims, when I say things like "Muslim culture," I am falling into a very expansive, and imprecise, typology. But, to some extent it is a generalization that I think is useful in analyzing nutcases like the London bombers. Many disaffected Muslim youth get extracted out of their local, traditional, Muslim subculture, and immerse themselves in a transnational ideology of radical violent Salafism. Modern communication technology and the ease of transporation makes a worldwide "Muslim" culture possible in this sense, floating on the surface of local Islams, in them, but never of them. The nature of the "distribution" of Muslims across the range of the planet is I think roughly as I show above in terms of a host of metrics in comparison to Christians (American, European, Latin American, African, etc.), ranging from religious freedom to affront at insult. There are tensions within transnational Christianity, for example between African and Western branches of the Anglican Communion in relation to homosexuality. On this issue Muslim Africans do not have a Western "balance" to generate any discourse, homosexuality is haram, no ifs, ands or buts from liberal progressive Muslims. The overall conservative nature of worldwide Islam because of the nature of how it is expressed in regional subcultures has an powerful attractive influence on some individuals who are raised in the West. They shift their position on the distribution so far to the "left" so as to be outside the range of the normal in Britain, or the United States. In my post Going back to the Meccan Well I imply that modernity has tied together Muslim subcultures more tightly than in the past, while my posts on the Hui Muslims of China were explorations of how a Muslim subculture in a non-Muslim context evolves when isolated and allowed to explore culture space without a "guiding hand" from the worldwide consensus. The existence of female imams in China shows how isolation can allow a subculture to explore unimagined territories.

I began thinking about this after the recent manifesto by various intellectuals taking a stand against Islamism in Jyllands-Posten. Some people have pointed out that individuals like Salman Rushdie & Ayaan Hirsi Ali have no credibility in the Islamic community. Well, no shit sherlock! But, I began thinking about the role of atheists within a culture, and I recalled Sam Harris speaking in front a group of liberal Christians, expressing an unalloyed stand against organized religion. These Christians were rather civil, and shockingly open to some of Harris' ideas. The point here is that though the likes of Sam Harris will likely never speak in front of a group of Southern Baptists, liberal Christians may speak to moderate Christians, who may speak to conservative Christians, so that ideas generated by individuals like Sam Harris may possibly eventually find themselves at the "other end of the swimming pool," so to speak. It seems that there are a non-trivial number of atheists from Muslim backgrounds, and I have heard "through the grapevine" that there are many unbelievers in Muslim countries, often in positions of power or influence. This seems plausible insofar as Communist and other radical Leftist doctrines have found purchase in many of these nations, and even if most of the individuals associated with these ideologies are not atheists, it seems possible that a substantial fraction are. Nevertheless, the dominant religious ethos in these nations is shifted far to the "left" of the distribution, so these individuals are generally silent or quiet (see Why I am not a Muslim for what happens when the "mask slips" and secularists in Islamic nations express what they really think). The distribution in Muslim countries is marginally bimodal in that I suspect over at the far, far, right where you have explicit atheists there are a non-trivial number. But, these individuals have no influence on the zeitgeist because there is a large chasm in the distribution. In an ideal scenario liberal Muslims could "triangulate" using the atheists for their rhetorical purposes, and also serve as conduits for radical ideas. As it is, there is a "hole" in the fitness landscape that ideas explore in Muslim nations where liberal religionists should be.

So where does that leave us? Well, in the battle for ideas, I think we secularists need to give people like Khaled Abou El Fadl some breathing room, and frankly support. Once there is a critical mass of people like El Fadl, who are numerous enough to warrant attention for the "respectable" Muslim masses, they can serve as conduits for ideas propounded by secularists to the right (like liberal Christians, El Fadl has said that apostates need to be taken seriously). In many ways I share the sentiment of many religious conservatives who express disbelief at the "sophistry" of liberal religionists in reworking the foundations of their religious texts to be more in line with the dominant norms of liberal society. To some extent I have had a difficult time in even believing that the individuals in question really believe what they assert. Thinkers like Marcus Borg and Paul Tillich are nearly inscrutable to me, while the simple truths expressed by religious fundamentalists are easy to comprehend. Nevertheless, over time I have read more cognitive science, history of religion and Biblical criticism, and I am less inclined to fault people for "inconsistency" than I was in the past. To some extent the Post Modernists are right, language is imprecise, texts must flow through the sieve of culture. Even "fudamentalists" interpret the texts that they claim to be reading purely and plainly.

When it comes to studying humans our species is in a bind, because it is hard to step outside ourselves. But to some extent, do that we must. And we must also look at the long view and keep in mind the full ecology of ideas.