Saturday, December 02, 2006

The idea of ideas   posted by Razib @ 12/02/2006 11:27:00 PM

TNR has a review of a book titled There Is No Crime For Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire. It surveys the relationship between violence and coercion as the persecuted sect of Christianity transformed into the universal religion of the imperium. Two important points:
Because the title of persecuted church was so powerful, there were plenty of candidates for it. Gaddis begins with the Donatists, but goes on to chronicle the numerous confrontations, whether Christological, ecclesiological, or political, that produced the fractured religious landscape of the late Roman Empire. Anomoians versus Homoians versus Homoousians; monks versus bishops; Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and Constantinople against one another.... The violent conflicts and scandals of this era of "robber councils" and militarized monks are the caffeine that carries Gibbon through many pages of his great work, and they energize Gaddis as well
The point of Michael Gaddis's book is surely not that Christianity has a propensity for violence, or that its professions of love are hypocritical. Its point is simpler, more banal, and, although it is mentioned almost in passing, much more important: that "Christian scripture and doctrine contained the basis both for violence and for the condemnation of violence." The same could be said of every rich scriptural tradition in the world. The great Christian theologians of late antiquity seem not to have forgotten this ambivalence; and neither, at a time when religions are again beginning to test their moral muscles against one another, should we.

Over the past few years I've asserted that explicitly worked out ideas often matter less in terms of their inferences than we might think. In the domain of religion, that means the doctrine and theology matter less in ordering society and making decisions than we might assume if we view religion as an axiomatically determined system which consists of entailed propositions. In politics, this means that the specific political philosophies are often less important than the fluid alliances that emerge out of social tribalism over a local time scale. This has tended to make me far more skeptical of naive functionalism in the domain of culture and history than in the past. Causative hypotheses in this paradigm tend be ad hoc. Consider that Confucianism was once assumed to be the reason than East Asia lagged the West economically and politically (early 20th century), but with the rise of the Asian economices in the late 20th century it was the source of dynamism (e.g., Confucian family values and hard work), but after 1998 it was the root of Crony Capitalism. This sort of coupling between ideas and consequences has a tendency to explain everything, and therefore nothing.

In The Corner John Derbyshire recently quipped whether it would have made a difference if Christianity was Quaternary (as opposed to Trinitary). Some scholars would offer that it does make a difference. Rodney Stark has posited that Christian Trinitarianism is an optimum for reason, freedom, individualism and all the good things we love (see One True God). I don't believe Stark, the main reason reason being that psychologists tend to find that religionists the world over tend have an internal self-conception of God in a henotheistic sense, whether they be notionally unitary, trinitary, polytheistic, monistic, etc. I don't believe at taking people at their word, self-perception and conception is a tricky business. Ask half of the 98% of humans who perceive that they are above average in intelligence. And yet to be serious, it does make a difference whether Christianity is Trinitarian or Quaternarian in a fundamental way, these are issues which have resulted in people getting killed.

Consider the difference between Alawites, Shia and Sunnis. Most of you might find the differences of little interest (e.g., the semi-literates who occasionally opine that the differences are irrelevant to a nuclear bomb). I tend to think tit is all mumbo-jumbo myself. That being said, I don't have much patience for people who aren't interested in the difference but who still offer opinions on Iran or Syria, because though the differences aren't really important on a functional level (e.g., I don't believe that Shiism entails a greater otherworldiness vs. Sunnism, resulting in a less conducive culture for capitalism), they are important to the people who espouse them. The issue is not the character of the tribal markers, but that they serve as markers. If Mickey Kaus knew what Alawites were he wouldn't say something as idiotic as asserting that Syria was a "Sunni regime," ergo, it wouldn't have influence on the Shia (in the area of facts, Syria has also had a long standing alliance with Iran going back decades, and the Iranian Islamic regime lost a lot of credibility amongst other Islamists when he looked the other way when Syria gutted thousands of Muslim radicals and their families in Hama in 1983). Recently a ScienceBlogger made the mistake of asserting that Iran was an Arab country. This is a common mistake, nevertheless, it isn't really one we can accept anymore seeing as how the ethnic geopolitics of this region now have important ramifications for our own republic (USA). Why would this matter? Consider....

Iranians are Arab Shia
Iraqis are 75% Arab, of whom the vast majority are Shia
Iran has an influence on the Arab Shia


Iranians are non-Arab Shia
Iraqis are 75% Arab, of whom the vast majority are Shia
Iran has an influence on the Arab Shia

You see, you just went from a situation where Iranians and Iraqi Shia are ethno-linguistically and religiously identical, to one where they have a strong religious connection, but a minimal ethno-linguistic one. The identity of Iran is that of a Persian nation, Farsi speaking, with a large and powerful Turkic minority. Though Iranian Shia and Iraqi Shia are religiously the same (Twelver Shia), they don't speak the same language. That is relevant I would think, language presents barriers. During the Iran-Iraq War the Iranian leadership assumed that the Shia of southern Iraq would welcome their co-religionists when the Islamic regime went on the offensive and encircled Basra. Wrong. The Iraqi Shia weren't keen on Iranian rule, though they certainly didn't flourish under Sunni autocracy, they dug in and repelled their Shia co-religionists.

It's complicated. And yes, rather boring, and the differences are trivial really. Nevertheless, they do matter. If you can't be bothered to comprehend these differences, well, leave it to others who can to manage your foreign policy. Or for that matter, comment on this blog on foreign policy related threads. Speak of what you know, wasted ASCII characters are a shame. Nevertheless, when you do know, be careful about taking ideas seriously in and of themselves.