Saturday, January 16, 2010

After the fact   posted by Razib @ 1/16/2010 12:18:00 AM

Daniel Larison has a post up where he criticizes a David Brooks column. Here's what Larison observes (Brooks' quote within):
David Brooks is right that culture and habits matter, but this one line rang false:
There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.

Of course, it seems odd to count the first part of this statement against practitioners of voodoo at the present time, since a natural disaster is one of the most obvious ways in which we see the capriciousness of life on display, but more important it seems to me that Brooks' description simply gets voodoo wrong. He is describing these beliefs as if they were fatalistic, when practitioners of voodoo believe that they can use their rites to influence things and be empowered.

There is of course a strong tendency to look at the religion a society adheres to and compare that to the society itself. Then one simply maps a set of traits from the religion to the society to establish a causal relationship. Most of the relationships abduced in this manner are often very plausible at first blush. But their track record is weak.

For example, there is usually a tacit assumption that "higher religion," formally institutionalized, and often codified in a text, is associated with, and fosters, "higher civilization." Presumably according to Max Weber et al. a religion with the intellectual subtly of Calvinism is far more likely to give rise to a robust capitalist order than a more primal faith which is essentially animism. I think this is an eminently plausible relation to assert. But consider the one society in the world today which places a primal animist tradition at the center of its national life; Japan.* How primitive a culture is that?

The moral for me is that the plausibility of a relation is often highly conditioned on focusing on a narrow set of facts. But if you expand the sample space and look at counter-examples,** or attempt to generate inferences and see how the empirical data fit those inferences, it all becomes very murky.

Note: The type of people who convert to Christianity in South Korea and Buddhism in the United States are in many ways similar; forward elements which are more urbane and educated than the population at large. By contrast, in South Korea Buddhism is a reservoir of a more traditionalist and conservative sentiment, as is Christianity in the United States. These facts likely have little to do with the nature of these religions, and more to do with contingent historical circumstances.

* In West African societies Vodun is a common system of belief, as Voodoo is in Haiti. But the difference between Shinto and Vodun/Voodoo is that the Japanese elite accepts Shinto as a robust part of the national identity. By contrast West African nations have generally attempted to suppress Vodun. If one presumed that acceptance of animism goes along with being primitive, then one predicts that Japan is more primitive than Haiti or West Africa, where the elites reject their indigenous animistic tradition.

** Most people are very ignorant of cross-cultural data, especially when it comes to religion.