Friday, April 20, 2007

Democracy now!   posted by Razib @ 4/20/2007 12:26:00 PM

The Economist has a long piece (it seems free) about Creationism around the world. What strikes me is how nutty the most "grass roots" religions are in comparison to "top down" ones (the latter are more opaque and obscure when they want to sidestep the absurdity of their religious claims). For example,, in the Muslim world Turkey in particular cranks out Creationist crap now just like American fundamentalist Protestants do (they used to just import and translate, but now they are apparently translating from Turkish into European languages). In Africa and Brazil it seems grassroots/Protestant churches are more vigorous about promoting anti-science than established Catholic ones. Why? One answer could be that the sola scriptura results in a natural Biblical literalism. I doubt it, and the reason is that many of these groups are not modeled upon Calvinist churches which emphasize scholarly and close scripture reading, they're Pentecostal, (in Brazil and Latin America the overwhelming majority of Protestants are Pentecostal) groups whose "ministers" are loose in their mastery of literacy (because the Holy Ghost speaks to them). One could make the sola scriptura argument for Muslims as well. Again, I think similar objections hold: Muslims, like many fundamentalist Protestants, aren't big readers of their canonical texts. They repeat sound bites drilled into them on high. There are plenty of anecdotal examples to suggest that this might not be a bad thing, insofar as literalism often collapses after a close reading of the text (since many people living in the Third World are illiterate, or functionally so, close reading isn't really possible).

So what's going on? I suspect that the difference here is organization. Protestant groups are highly fissionable. When American denominations have gone in a liberal direction (Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.) conservative factions have broken away (e.g., the Free Methodists). Similarly, just as the Southern Baptists have become ever more conservative more liberal congregations have created dissident umbrella organizations. The point is that the relatively loose organizational structure of Protestantism in many nations results in an increased variance in the modal belief set of denominations. Extremely "modernist" Christian (and post-Christian) movements have come out of Protestantism, but so have extremely fundamentalist "reactionary" movements. Catholicism has within it a range of opinions, but its institutional superstructure tends to constrain the manifestation of this at the elite levels. Sunni Islam is far more like Protestantism in its looseness of organization, and so grass roots organizations will express the full range of beliefs. But, while Protestantism might have the same variance as Sunni Islam, I don't think its mean is the same. That is, while liberal Protestant groups are legion (in the USA they collect together in The National Council of Churches), the cognates are thinner on the ground in Islam.

Ultimately, I think the world wide dynamism of Creationism is simply an outgrowth of the power of mass culture, and the democratic impulse. If the voice of the people is the voice of God, you will see on exhibit a rather low g product that conforms to the tastes and aptitudes of the conventional consumers of ideas. Paul Bloom argued in Wired for Creationism that there are strong psychological impulses in regards to theorizing about categories which tilts the playing field in favor of Creationism, until social and cultural conditioning wean many off their intuitions. Fundamentalist Protestantism and modal Islam are simply natural expressions of these cognitive intuitions. This trend is not limited to these two traditions, in In Spite of the Gods Edward Luce recounts the surreal experience of visiting a "research" institute in central India devoted to exploring all the salubrious byproducts of the cow. Some of the work seemed worthwhile, but Luce was a bit taken aback when asked to remove his shoes (out of respect) and walk through the feces and urine of the cows under study. The guide explained that the healing properties of these bovine byproducts were well attested and that Luce had nothing to fear. Clearly the attempt by some Hindu "fundamentalists" map their religious ideas onto the modern world resemble the quixotic intellectual endeavors of Muslim and Christian fundamentalists (a minority of Hindus have created their own form of Creationism as well). The cognitive and sociocultural processes are the same here, the rise of mass culture not only results in the transformation of science into magic, but also implies the attempt to convert emotionally salient magic into science.