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.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

The "Jews" of Afghanistan?   posted by Razib @ 1/03/2010 09:59:00 PM

Hazaras Hustle to Head of the Class in Afghanistan:
For much of this country's history, the Hazara were typically servants, cleaners, porters and little else, a largely Shiite minority sidelined for generations, and in some instances massacred, by Pashtun rulers.


The Hazara resurgence is not so geographically concentrated. The principal Hazara provinces, while relatively safe, remain impoverished and, their leaders complain, are bypassed by the foreign aid sent to Pashtun areas as a carrot to lure people from the insurgency.

Instead, it is a revival built largely on education, an asset Hazaras could carry with them during their years as refugees.

"With education you can take everything you want," says Qasim, one of Mustafa's classmates, a 15-year-old Hazara who moved to Kabul, the Afghan capital, from the northern city of Kunduz five years ago because his parents wanted better-educated children.

The old Afghan rulers "wanted to exploit Hazara people, and they didn't want us to become leaders in this country or to improve," he said. But that will change. "By studying we can dictate our future."

The Hazara gains have already been rapid. Two Hazara-dominated provinces, Bamian and Daykondi, have the highest passing rates on admissions exams for the country's top rung of universities, according to officials from the Ministry of Higher Education. In the high school graduating class of 2008, three-fourths of students in Daykondi who took the test passed, and two-thirds in Bamian, compared with the national rate of 22 percent.

As some of you know during the Taliban years the part-Mongol Shia Hazaras were targeted for cultural, and sometimes physical, genocide. From what I know their residence in the highlands of central Afghanistan is partially a function of their marginalization; many persecuted minorities withdraw to geographically isolated regions to escape notice. In any case, at the current pace it looks like the Hazaras will flood the service sectors of the Afghan economy in the near future. I assume there will be demands for quotas for Tajiks and Pashtuns at some point....

Update: A friend who has been to Afghanistan and is well versed in South Asia scholarship has expressed some skepticism of the article and the selection biasing of the statistics cited.


Saturday, January 02, 2010

Nicholas Wade & Razib Khan on   posted by Razib @ 1/02/2010 12:05:00 AM

Here. Or embedded:

We talk about The Faith Instinct.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The old old time religion   posted by Razib @ 12/23/2009 10:55:00 PM

Ross Douthat, Into The Mystic:
But as the Pew chart suggests, there is one sense in which religion was less influential in mid-century American life than it is today, and that's the realm of personal mystical experience. Slightly more people went to church in 1962, but many fewer people went out looking for their own private encounters with the numinous. This isn’t a surprising correlation, since the traditional Christian churches tended to either discourage mystical freelancing or (in the case of Catholicism) encourage it only within the framework of monastic discipline. The churches constrained and channeled Americans' religious impulses; their declining influence let a hundred mystic flowers bloom. Christianity became less culturally powerful, but religion itself - whether you were a tongues-speaking Pentecostal, a Gaia-communing pantheist, or some combination thereof - became much more freewheeling and intense.

Whether atheists, agnostics, and secular-minded Americans should prefer this dispensation depends on which raises their hackles more: Having laws and moral norms that are heavily influenced by Christianity, or having a culture that's heavily influenced by mysticism and supernaturalism. If you favor legal abortion, no-fault divorce, and easy access to pornography, today's America is a more pleasant place to live than the America of mid-century. (Especially if, like some atheists, you find pantheism to be the most congenial form of theism.) But if you don't like having your seatmate on an airplane ask if you've been born again...if you don't like being harangued at cocktail parties about the Mayan apocalypse or the healing power of crystals...if you don't like seeing the shelves at your local bookstores filled up by authors who claim to have conversed with the Almighty...well, then you might legitimately feel nostalgia for an earlier, less mystical America.

I recently recorded a diavlog with Nicholas Wade on The Faith Instinct. In that book Nicholas outlines the change in religion from its "primitive" state to what we would term "higher religion." Higher religion is built on the foundations of primitive religion, as institutional religion becomes less powerful in the lives people in the Western world people seem to be reverting back to their cognitive "default" settings. More often when you strip away adherence to theology you do not get atheism, you get animism.

Is this good for the small set of atheists and asupernaturalists? On an interpersonal level it might add a bit more confusion to one's life, as you never know which direction someone trying to sell you on supernaturalism is going to come from. But on a societal level it probably reduces the ability of religious elites to manipulate sects as cohesive functional units toward their ends.


Why are Mormons the American success story?   posted by Razib @ 12/23/2009 03:53:00 PM

I was skimming through a book on Scandinavian migration to Utah the other day, these Scandinavians being converts to Mormonism. The author noted that while most Scandinavian Americans settled in areas where farming was relatively easy, these converts went to Utah, which is a less than optimal territory when it comes to per unit productivity. Fair enough. But it got me thinking about why Mormons are so successful: perhaps it's just a function of migration. There were lots of American sects which arose during the early 19th century. The Disciples of Christ and the Seventh Day Adventists derive from the same period of religious ferment during the Second Great Awakening. But the Mormons have been the most successful. Why?

Perhaps it was the Mormon theology, the awesomeness of Joseph Smith. Or perhaps Mormons really are the One True Faith and god is on their side. But then I remembered that the original Mormons were New Englanders, and that most of New England's population in 1800 derived from the period between 1630-1640. The 20-30,000 who left England to establish a Puritan utopia in the New World. In the colonial period, and up to the Civil War, New Englanders were the most fertile group of Americans. Those Puritans who emigrated to New England in the 17th century, and remained (many went back to England during the period of Cromwell), have been extremely successful genetically in relation to their relatives in the home country. The reason is the simple Malthusian nature of biological increase; America had more room for growth (though England's population did grow very fast in the two centuries after the Puritans left, it did not match America).

The Utah Mormons are not the only descendants of Joseph Smith's religious idea. The Community of Christ, once the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, and long under the stewardship of the Smith family, remained in the Midwest while Brigham Young led the migration west. Today the Community of Christ is in many ways a small mainline Protestant denomination, having lost or never developing the uniqueness of the Utah Mormons in terms of their theology. Numerically and socially it is relatively marginal, to the point where many Americans would be surprised as its existence (splinter Mormon sects which practice polygamy get a lot more press for obvious reasons).

The Community of Christ might illustrate the dynamic of attraction and absorption which occurs to splinter sects within a mature society. Over time minorities standardize their norms with that of the majority as they become respectable. This means they lose their distinctive cohesion. By contrast, the Utah Mormons were a people apart for several generations because of the nature of geographical distance in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Only with the rise of modern communication have they been assimilating, deemphasizing (at least in public) some of the more exotic aspects of their theology which might shock mainstream Christians. But because of the long incubation period in Utah the Church of Latter Day Saints remains fundamentally separate from what most Christians refer to as the "Great Tradition" of orthodox Christianity. By analogy to biology what occurred was an instance of allopatric religious speciation. In this model the great success of Mormons rests on their human geography during their formative period.

Some world historians point out that it has been nearly 1,500 since the last great distinctive world religion arose which challenged the status quo. Sikhism and Mormonism are instances of religious speciation, but they are small potatoes compared to Islam. Additionally, both of these traditions have shown some evidence of drifting back into their parent tradition (though Sikhs resist this, Hindus often claim Sikhs as simply a Hindu sect, while some Mormons have been slowly emphasizing their shared commonalities with other Christians). Perhaps modern communication technology and mobility will prevent future religious fissions on planet Earth? Perhaps subsequent to Islam the technological and communication gaps which new religions utilized to overturn older orders simply closed? In fact, if you read the travels of Ibn Battuta you might conclude that Islam itself served as a critical catalyst in closing up all the remaining gaps and discontinuities across the Old World oikoumene!


Friday, December 18, 2009

Cultures of constraint; Islam, India and Marxism   posted by Razib @ 12/18/2009 10:11:00 PM

Pew has a new report, Global Restrictions on Religion (HT JohnPI). It illustrates rather clearly some general trends which I've been mulling over for several years looking at cross-cultural data. Here's a 2-dimensional chart which plots the 50 most populous nations in their data set along an axis of governmental vs. social restrictions on religion.


There are the set of countries which have been shaped by Marxism in the recent past, or still are officially Marxist, which have strong legal sanctions against organized religion. China, Eritrea and Uzbekistan fall into this camp. But look at Russia. Perhaps Russian intolerance is a function of its Eastern Orthodoxy, but it seems plausible that Communist era elites have simply continued the tendency to control "subversive" religious groups that they had honed during the Soviet period (most Western nations were very restrictive of minority religions when the Russian Revolution occurred, but during the Soviet period many evolved toward a more tolerant state).

Then there are the Muslim countries. While China has official atheism, religious groups can flourish (at least within the natural bounds of the religiosity of the Chinese people, which seems to be set rather low) so long as they keep a low profile and don't get on the wrong side of the state. But in many Muslim countries hostility toward non-mainstream religious movements runs very deep. I don't need to elaborate on this, Muslims are the modern apotheosis of the Abrahamists of old, atheists toward other gods and promoters of their own (listening to the radio recently I noticed how talk show hosts given Muslims a pass when they get all effusive about how incredible their religion is. If a white Christian did this it would seem gauche). This probably explains on some level the extreme outrage in Muslim majority countries when Muslim expression in the non-Muslim majority countries is restrained. This response is totally not dampened by the strong tendency for Muslims to severely constrain the rights of non-Muslims when they themselves are in the majority. The Single Truth needs no apology, and why would one want to be fair and balanced between Truth and delusion? (I think back here to debates between pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity, as the latter brushed aside the pleas from the former for tolerance of belief and practice by arguing in effect that freedom of religion would only give succor to delusion and was therefore ultimately an obscenity. This stance remained dominant in the West down to the Enlightenment)

Finally, there's India. By India, I don't mean the nation of India. I mean the civilization, which includes Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and yes, Pakistan. Poking through survey data it seems that Hindus are quite religious, like Muslims, but they are far less atheistic, as one would expect. The philosophical aspects of Hinduism which tend toward universalism and cultural parallelism seem to percolate down rather far (though the survey data I see probably excludes the illiterate masses). On the other hand, like Muslims Hindus seem to have really strong attitudes when it comes to religious defection or switching. India has laws discouraging or banning conversion which might be appropriate in the Muslim or (post-)Marxist world. When looking at survey data on South Asians from India in the UK or USA it is interesting to me that though the Hindus are only moderately religious in their self-conception, very few avow that they have "No Religion." This is in strong contrast with East Asia, and among East Asian immigrants, who routinely assert that they have no religious affiliation. While Indian Hindus by and large have no need to convert the world in totality to their religion, as Muslims and Marxists must in regards to their faiths, they are strong believers in the necessity of some religious identity. Additionally, they have an attachment to the idea that people should not defect or switch between identities, lest inter-communal harmony be disrupted.

In the report they express some surprise that Africa is relatively tolerant. I am not. From what I have read religious conversion and switching is very common in Africa, from Protestantism to Catholicism to Islam and back. Even heads of state have switched religions without extreme controversy. Perhaps this has something to do with the sheer fragmentation and diversity of most African nations, which are cleaved along many dimensions besides religion. Additionally, the roots of any given organized religion are generally rather shallow in most of these nations. So unlike Indian civilization switching religion doesn't carry a lot of historical baggage. The best analogy to Africa seems like the United States, which also have a huge diversity of religious sects, and where switching is generally not particularly surprising or controversial. Individual preference is balanced with communal identification.

Finally, I want to note the distinction between some European nations which are secular (France) and East Asian ones (Korea, Japan). Without the totalist influence of Marxism East Asian nations tend to take a relatively muted stance toward religion. Just as Sri Lankan Buddhists show that the identitarian reflex of Indians is not a function of Hinduism, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong all illustrate that without official Marxism there is relatively robust tolerance of religious sectarianism. The power of one organized religion in East Asia was always much less than it was in Europe. Talking to many Europeans who are secular, though they themselves are not believers, they often find "non-traditional" religions rather weird. There is clearly a particular favoritism toward the traditional religion of a society, and a suspicion of new religions. This in some ways resembles the Indian attitude, except it is much more stripped of any supernatural content in terms of belief.

Here are two maps which illustrate the axes above:



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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Religious identity vs. religious activity (and God is not back!)   posted by Razib @ 12/06/2009 01:47:00 PM

One of the more irritating things which seems to crop up in popularizations of international trends is the idea that religion is reviving all over the world. It is probably not as plainly false as the idea in common currency from the Enlightenment down to the 20th century that religion will disappear in the generation to come, but it sure sells a lot of books. God Is Back is one of the more mindless and superficial books in this line of thought which has come out recently, but re-reading some of Samuel Huntington's books in the last few months it is clear that the idea there is a world wide religious revival did seep into the background assumptions of academics around the turn of the century as well. In fact, in Who Are We? Huntington operated under the assumption, and related data, that there was a mass religious revival occurring in the United States at the time that there was actually a second mass wave of secularization occurring since the 1960s (the reality was already evident from the data, but Huntington's theoretical filter or expectation led him to simply selection bias the data appropriately to fit his narrative).

Here's some data from the Pew Global Project. I've ordered by the biggest % drops between the young and middle aged cohorts:

Religion “Very Important” by age

18-39 40-59 60+
Spain 9 21 30
South Korea 11 20 *
Argentina 27 43 57
Poland 20 29 49
Russia 13 17 27
Japan 7 9 22
Mexico 52 61 77
US 48 55 64
France 8 9 15
Egypt 69 76 *
India 70 77 75
Jordan 77 84 *
Lebanon 46 50 *
Britain 15 16 23
Australia 18 19 29
Brazil 72 75 84
South Africa 80 83 82
Turkey 83 84 88
Pakistan 95 96 *
German 21 21 25
Indonesia 95 95 *
Nigeria 94 94 *
Tanzania 94 92 *

Currently the data on cross-generational differences in religiosity resemble those of sex-differences in religiosity: either no difference, or one category (men or the young) is invariably less religious than the other. But here's another result which I haven't harped on quite as much:

Attitudes toward Christians

Unfavorable Favorable Ratio
US 3 87 29
Tanzania 6 92 15.33
Russia 7 88 12.57
Britain 7 83 11.86
Poland 8 88 11
Australia 8 84 10.5
South Africa 10 83 8.3
Germany 12 83 6.92
Lebanon 14 85 6.07
France 17 82 4.82
Argentina 14 66 4.71
Nigeria 17 78 4.59
Brazil 21 79 3.76
Jordan 25 73 2.92
Spain 24 67 2.79
Mexico 28 47 1.68
S. Korea 36 53 1.47
India 37 49 1.32
Japan 38 48 1.26
Indonesia 41 51 1.24
Egypt 46 52 1.13
Pakistan 60 24 0.4
China 55 22 0.4
Turkey 74 10 0.14

This is the ratio of fav. to unfav. in relation to Christianity. It is no surprise that the United States is at the top. But look at how low China is on the list. Christians aren't special here, the Chinese tend to be unfavorable toward Jews and Muslims too. I think this is to some extent a measure of nationalism. But I also think it sheds light on the thesis of a book from a few years ago, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. Evangelical Christians often claim that over 100 million Chinese are already Christian. The Chinese state gives numbers closer to 20 million. Independent estimates are somewhere in the middle. But the general thesis is China will follow in the wake of South Korea, and become a partly Christianized society. Though Christians remain a minority in South Korean society they are very influential, and the current President has been accused of bias in favor of Protestants. In terms of geopolitics the assumption is that an Evangelically-tinged China will lean toward a pro-Israel position against the Islamic world. I have argued before that this is all premature, and Christianity's success in South Korea is somewhat dependent on particular cultural and historical streams which may not be repeated in China. These data show that the Chinese population are still unfamiliar with Christianity, and do not view it positively, leaning against the likelihood of mass conversion in the near future (in South Korea Christianity was associated with the anti-colonial movement, and the colonial power, Japan, was non-Christian).

The connection between nationalism and religion explains I think what's going on with Turkey being at the bottom of the list. In the rest of the survey Turkey does show itself to be on the moderate/liberal end as far as Muslim nations go (only a minority of Turks have a positive view of Saudi Arabia, whereas most Muslims in the other nations surveyed had a positive view). But historically the identity of Turks has been connected to their role as ghazis, warriors for the faith, who are on the front line pushing into Christian Europe. Turkey's rivalry with Greece has clear civilizational aspects. Though Turks are by and large religious Muslims, and their attitudes toward Christianity and Islam are suffused with their perceptions of what it means to be a Turk, and their national identity. This makes sense when you see the numbers for Russia and the secular nations of Western Europe; despite the fact that Western European nations are now dominated by populations which dissent from the core propositions of the Christian faith their populations are still strongly connected emotionally to Christianity. The Christian religion is the religion that they are not.

I suspect all of this seems curious as unintelligible from the American perspective. Many authors who write about religion and its 21st century revival assume an American model, where religion is a matter of individual choice and personal fulfillment. In other words, religion can be treated as a consumer good of a sort, with more transcendent valence perhaps, but still a matter of individual volition in theory if not practice. This is less intelligible in other nations. Even atheist Americans can take these stances as a given. Consider the reaction to a book written about secularity in Denmark, to which the Danes reacted with irritation, as they perceived the American author as incorrectly assuming that the Danes were secular because they lacked strong religious beliefs!

Of course I do think religion can come back. This charts show how:


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Vox Dei   posted by Razib @ 12/03/2009 10:53:00 PM

David Killoren points me to this Ed Yong post, Creating God in one's own image. It is based on the paper Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs:
People often reason egocentrically about others' beliefs, using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. Correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging evidence suggests that people may be even more egocentric when reasoning about a religious agent's beliefs (e.g., God). In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1–4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.

Ed hits the main points well as usual, so let me jump to the discussion:
these data provide insight into the sources of people's own religious beliefs. Although people obviously acquire religious beliefs from a variety of external sources, from parents to broader cultural influences, these data suggest that the self may serve as an important source of religious beliefs as well. Not only are believers likely to acquire the beliefs and theology of others around them, but may also seek out believers and theologies that share their own personal beliefs. If people seek out religious communities that match their own personal views on major social, moral, or political issues, then the information coming from religious sources is likely to further validate and strengthen their own personal convictions and values. Religious belief has generally been treated as a process of socialization whereby people's personal beliefs about God come to reflect what they learn from those around them, but these data suggest that the inverse causal process may be important as well: people's personal beliefs may guide their own religious beliefs and the religious communities they seek to be part of.

Finally, these data have interesting implications for the impact of religious thought on judgment and decision-making. People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.

There is always debate about how religion affects cognition and culture, and how cognition and culture affects religion. I suspect that in religious environments the default stance is that religion affects cognition and culture. Religion is after all assumed to be true, a reflection of some transcendent reality. It stands to reason that its impact upon humans would be significant if you believe that it is an expression of the ultimate reality (if you are a person to whom "ultimate reality" means something, you know what I mean, though I don't really myself). But many atheists hold to the same view. The New Atheists often put at religion's feet all the evil done in its name (though generally minimizing power of religion as a force for altruistic action or social cohesion). This view seems to hold that religion is something clear and distinct. More generally in civilized societies religion is a matter of rational and systematic reflection, detailed practice, and mindful contemplation.

On the other hand, there are those who emphasize how religion reflects social and cognitive presuppositions. For example, most American Christians would assert that their religion naturally leans toward an anti-racist perspective. This would not be something recognizable to R. L. Dabney. Consider the arguments of Susan Wise Bauer, a Reformed Christian historian, on the stance of many Christian Southerners to slavery. But in other writings she cites Dabney, who is still apparently influential among conservative Presbyterians (some have even attempted to defend slavery because it is Biblical, but to my knowledge very few conservative Christians will follow along here, instead relying in interpretations such as Bauer's). Even "conservative" and "orthodox" and "traditional" Christians seem quite clearly influenced by the distribution of norms around them. Similarly, I recall several years ago finding rather interesting the arguments of Indian Christians on why arranged marriage is Biblically preferred to love matches, with citations of specific instances in the Bible (consider the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca). Over the last few decades cognitive anthropologists who study religion have described models and reported results which show how religious phenomena, the bundle of traits which we bracket into religion, emerge from normal human psychological and social dynamics. Some scholars have even shown that the mental model of gods across cultures is actually invariant, though the verbal descriptions are very distinct. If you consider the power of culture to change religion, the shift from pacifist to non-pacifist stance among early Christians, or pro-racist to anti-racist stance among 20th century Christians, becomes more intelligible.

I tend toward the second model in terms of its utility in what can be gleaned about human social processes. If, for example, I read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament would I be able to predict which group was the more pacific, American Jews or white Evangelicals? I don't think so. Scott Atran reported in In Gods We Trust that religious believers showed little correlation above expectation in the inferences they made about correct behavior in specific situations in relation to their avowed religious beliefs. In other words, when people couldn't talk to each other and reach a religiously correct consensus, they simply gave a random range of answers. Both the Chinese Muslims and "Hidden Christians" of Japan moved in strange directions in relation to their co-religionists due to isolation. It seems plausible that to a great extent Emile Durkheim was right, religion is a reflection of society. But, it is also strongly constrained by human cognitive biases.

The connection between some of these ideas and what Ed Yong asserts is obvious:
Epley's results are sure to spark controversy, but their most important lesson is that relying on a deity to guide one's decisions and judgments is little more than spiritual sockpuppetry.

David Killoren has an alternative model:
I can think of at least one other plausible interpretation of this study.

If you believe in God, you probably think God is morally omniscient. That is: you believe that, if any given action X is wrong, then God knows that X is wrong - and conversely, if God believes that any given action X is wrong, then X really is wrong. (You might think God is morally omniscient because you are a theological voluntarist. But even if you deny voluntarism, as many believers do, you probably still think God is morally omniscient, if you believe in God.)

But if you think God is morally omniscient, then you would be irrational if you believe that, say, abortion is wrong (or permissible, or whatever) without thinking that God shares your belief. Given God's omniscience, a given judgment is correct if and only if God agrees with it. So your endorsement of any given judgment has the immediate implication that God shares your view.

The result is that, if you believe God is morally omniscient, then your moral beliefs also serve as conjectures about God's attitudes. Thus, in order to explain Epley's results, we don't need Yong's "Sockpuppet Hypothesis," as I'll call it. Epley's results are precisely what we should expect if religious believers consider God to be morally omniscient, regardless of whether religious believers treat God like a ventriloquist treats a dummy.

Killoren has an analogy clarifying what he's trying to get at:
An analogy can help here. Suppose I think that Dr. Smith, a famous scientist, knows everything there is to know about biology. Then, if I believe that platypuses are not mammals, I should believe that Dr. Smith believes that platypuses are not mammals. (After all, if I believed that Dr. Smith considers platypuses to be mammals, and believed that Dr. Smith knows everything about biology, then I would be crazy to think platypuses are not mammals.) But this doesn't mean Dr. Smith is my sockpuppet. If Dr. Smith were to tell me that platypuses are mammals, I’d believe him, even if I previously thought otherwise.

I can see where Killoren is coming from. When I was more deeply interested in philosophy of religion, and to a great extent thought religion was mostly about belief systems, I would probably be willing to go along with it. But at this point I think Ed Yong's thesis is more plausible because it is simple and dumb, and most people are simple and dumb. If you need to use an analogy that suggests that some cognitive cycles are being eaten up here, and I believe most moral cognition which has a religious tinge is actually "hard and fast" and more reflexive than this. Of course, in Tim Harford's The Logic of Life he shows that in the aggregate human behavior can quite often operate in a logical fashion as if it is undergirded by a chain of clean propositions derived from axioms. But I wasn't quite convinced by Harford's apologia; I'm still with Dan Ariely.

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On insults and religion   posted by Razib @ 12/03/2009 09:59:00 AM

When I was a younger man I recall watching a documentary on missionaries in Mississippi. They were Southern Baptists who were on a mission to "save" everyone (this included Roman Catholics and Protestants who had not had a "Born Again" experience). At one point the missionaries encountered a man from Pakistan, who was a Muslim. They confronted him aggressively as to whether he worshiped "idols." From what I saw their tactics seemed more a way to allow these individuals to act out and be obnoxious than convert people (social science research shows that conversions usually happen through networks of friends, not from encountering the random missionary). Later that year a friend of my younger brother, who was Baptist, saw my dad praying. He asked me whether we worshiped idols. He even slipped a little doll in front of my dad's prayer rug, an act which my brother found really offensive. At the time I wondered if conservative Baptist churches around the country were sharing literature and tactics which verged in this obnoxious direction (I also had another friend inquire if I was Hindu after there was a sermon on Hinduism. I told him I was not, at which point he still regaled me with the gist of how horrible demonic Hinduism was).

This sort of behavior is very boorish. On the other hand, it brought home to me the importance of intersubjectivity. As an atheist to me all religion was human-created, so the behavior of my Baptist friends and acquaintances when it came to other religions was boorish, but not offensive. But religion is important for most humans. Religions, and societies more generally, tend to share explicit and implicit norms and values. They allow individuals to differentiate between the acceptable and unacceptable. In a society where there is pluralism this is a more difficult task.

The importance of intersubjectivity is why I roll my eyes when Egypts grand mufti talks about an "insult to Islam". It is important to remember that Islam by its very nature is an insult to many religions. That is, the core beliefs of Islam are an offense. There is a lot of exegesis on exactly what Islam says about the People of the Book, but there is little doubt about what it says about "idolatry." For example, Hindus who revere idols and consider themselves polytheists are insulted by Islam constantly.* The holiest books of Islam are basically hate-texts against polytheists and those who revere idolts. Among South Asian Muslims the "idolatrous" practices of Hindus are fodder for much humor in social situations.** Even the command to convert the world is offensive to many.

At one point I was a regular participant on the comment boards of Talk Islam and Sepia Mutiny. It was interesting to contrast the two, for though Sepia Mutiny is not explicitly a religious weblog, most participants are from Hindu or Sikh religious traditions (Dharmic). On Talk Islam I repeatedly explained, and made the argument, that one could be sincerely religious, and, accept a common underlying and equivalent truth of all religions. Aziz found this an implausible or false assertion, as for him the nature of religion is such that you adhere to a faith you believe the closest to the truth, and you wish others would also adhere to the nearest approximation of the ultimate truth. By contrast, on the Sepia Mutiny it was clear that many simply could not comprehend why Christians and Muslims had to proselytize by the nature of their faith. For them, it was a given that all religions express aspects of the ultimate truth, and attempts to convert individuals to another tradition is simply cultural aggression which sows discord and is an implicit affront. From long discussions it was clear that the two groups had a very primitive or non-existent understanding of the perspective of the other. Some of the concerns of adherents of Indian religions also emerge among Jews. They perceive Christian attempts to convert them as a form of cultural genocide, but that is because their presuppositions about religion are fundamentally different from those of Evangelical Christians. Jews also have issues with Christians who "compliment" their tradition by asserting that their own religion is simply a "completion" of Judaism. Muslims often prove their pluralist bona fides by observing that they respect all prophets who have come before, and view the People of the Book of having received a true message from God. Of course, these traditions are less than flattered, because most Muslims also believe that their traditions are distortions and degenerations from Islam (Muslims view their faith as the "primal religion." This view is shared by many conservative Christians as well), ergo, the necessity of Muhammad as the seal of prophets.

As an atheist with no strong emotional connection to any religion I view this with some curiosity and intellectual interest. But, I also think that it brings up a pragmatic issue: genuine religious pluralism has to lead toward religious segregation. The Ottoman millet model, which also existed in Europe in the relationship of Jews to the polity, is in some ways the "natural" state of religious pluralism. But what about the United States? I think we have turned Catholics and Jews into operational Protestants. To assimilate then Muslims have to cede ground on the importance of orthopraxy and Hindus have to accept the ubiquity of religious defection. In Muslim countries Christians no longer act out on the injunction in the New Testament to preach their faith, because they've been turned into People of the Book, who exist as religious fossils. The Parsi attitude toward conversions is probably shaped in part by their inculcation of Hindu attitudes. And so forth.***

Addendum: For many religious people I've found that the very avowal of atheism is somewhat offensive to them. At least judging by their negative and uncomfortable body language. A few times people have even asked if atheism is too strong of a world, and perhaps I'm just "not religious" or "secular."

* Many Hindus reject idol reverence and consider themselves monotheists. Perhaps most in the West. But many Hindus will assert that they are polytheists, and accept the importance of the representation of gods in worship.

** When I was a child some old guy at a party where everyone was a South Asian Muslim started talking about how Hindus consumed cow feces. I really hated this stuff, since this was invariably before we ate, but people always thought this was really funny. But at this party there was a younger man who was offended by this. He asserted that in fair play Muslims should not mock other religions, even in private. I recall everyone was shocked and dumbfounded. It was clear they'd never even run into this sort of argument, and the conversation moved to other topics. I have been told by Hindus that the inverse mockery also occurs. No surprise.

*** There was always an implicit ethnic Persian aspect of Zoroastrianism. But the historical record attests to Zoroastrians among many non-ethnic Persians, from Armenians to Turks, to converts from Christianity.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fake fact, America is not secularizing   posted by Razib @ 11/19/2009 06:20:00 PM

How Will Religion Evolve?, asks John Tierney. He notes:
If there is a religious instinct, how do we make sense of the declining church attendance in western Europe? As an agnostic myself, I've tended to see the European trend as a harbinger of a general move toward secularism as societies become richer and more educated. But you don't see that trend in the United States, where church attendance is still robust, and Nicholas told me that he sees a long future for religion: "The extent to which people practice religion in modern states may wax and wane, depending on social circumstances like war or privation, but religion is unlikely to disappear entirely."

The fake fact is that church attendance is not declining. It is. Compared to secular regions of Europe any region of the United States is very religious, but, the number of Americans who declare No Religion has doubled between 1990 and 2008, from 8% to 15%. Perhaps one might label this the "Silent Secularization," in contrast to the 1960s when the power of Mainline Protestantism as a cultural arbiter was broken in a very public manner through the Counterculture, along with the subsequent prominence of the Christian Right from the late 1970s on.

I think there are several reasons that the secularization of the of the 1990s, when more than 1 million per year joined the ranks of those with no religious affiliation, has been a silent phenomenon. First, the period from 1980 onward has been one where conservative politics has set the tone, and the Christian Right has been a major power broker. Despite the fact hat 600,000 people a year were joining the ranks of those with no religion in the 2000s, the president was a conservative Protestant, and Congress was dominated by figures who acknowledged the legitimacy of the Religious Right (though I tend to lean toward the proposition that economic conservatives still control the Republican party, or did, for most of this period).

Second, the secularization of the 1990s, in contrast to the 1960s, was relatively low key and banal. It wasn't flashy. It probably mostly involved nominal Christians who finally severed their vestigial ties to religion (the American Religious Identification Survey 2008 suggests that nominal white Catholics in particular defected in massive numbers). With the strong skew to the youth, these were probably Gen-Xers who decided to go hiking or jamming with their garage band on Sundays, but maintaining normal jobs and lives. By contrast, the growth of the megachurch made much better copy. In many ways conservative Protestants are the modern Counterculture, going against the dominant currents of the society (e.g., the "True Love Waits" movement). But interestingly, despite growing at the expense of Mainline Protestants, Evangelical Protestants are not making Protestantism more theologically conservative.

In any case, contrary to John Tierney's assumption, church attendance has been declining. GSS variables ATTEND and YEAR show the trend. It's all a function of the doubling of those with "No Religion" though. If you limit the sample to Protestants & Catholics, there's little change over the decades....


My review of The Faith Instinct   posted by Razib @ 11/19/2009 02:03:00 AM

Over at ScienceBlogs now. It's a dense book and I only focused on a few major elements. Like the God of the philosophers sometimes it seems like attempts to analyze religion always have to face up to the fact that the phenomenon is awesomely complex, and we look through the glass darkly.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Netherlands & SDA   posted by Razib @ 11/18/2009 11:17:00 PM

In case you didn't know, the SDA Archive has more than the GSS. For example, something called the Dutch Prejudice Survey 1998. Poking around, I confirmed a general trend you see in the GSS, more educated people tend to be ideologically polarized:

Though I am skeptical that more education makes one more intelligent, I do think that education can make one more reflective about one's beliefs and align those beliefs more coherent with one's political preferences. Since everyone in the mainstream seems to agree that college is something that more and more young people should do, we can expect fewer totally incoherent swing voters, but also more ideological polarization.

Or look at this, a massive increase in the "None" category in regards to religion down the age cohorts, and in particular a collapse of Catholicism. In the youngest age cohorts Catholics and Protestants are at parity once more.

I assume that this is a function of latency in Catholic secularization vis-a-vis Protestants. Now looking at religious intensity across the two confessions for those under the age of 40, and the difference is stark:

A much larger number of young Protestants are frequency church-goers. Looks like Protestantism went through secularization first, but adapted and bounced back, or is just institutionally more robust in a secular-dominated environment (Dutch Protestants are divided between various groups, according to the degree of liberalism, orthodoxy, etc.). A quick spot check with the WVS in Germany shows that this dynamic is not true in there, where Catholics seem moderately more observant than Protestants.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Faith Instinct in National Review   posted by Razib @ 11/17/2009 09:08:00 PM

John Derbyshire has review of The Faith Instinct up. He hits the major points well. I should elaborate on something. In Darwin's Cathedral David Sloan Wilson outlines two dimensions of religion, the horizontal and the vertical. The vertical is pretty straightforward, supernatural agents and forces. The cognition of religious ideas. The horizontal is the communitarian aspect of religion which sociologists such as Emile Durkheim focused on. That is, religion's functional role in society. The two are somewhat related of course, but I think it's a neat division which is useful.

I think the vertical aspect probably is a byproduct of cognitive biases we have. In other words, pleiotropy, whereby selection for agency detection, social intelligence, and innate theories of how the world works (folk biology and physics), generate intuitions which we bracket in the category "supernatural" as a response (this ranges from animism to astrology to theism). In contrast, I can see quite clearly how the horizontal aspect can foster group-level success, and so might be a target of selection. But, I don't necessarily think that it is really religion as such which is the target of selection; instead, they are collective and communal impulses. They may be channeled in a religious manner, but clearly can manifest in other ways. This is why I think organized religion, which is hooked into the horizontal dimension, seems to be collapsing more than "spirituality" in many nations. Many of the intuitions which generate religious impulse are strongly biologically specified, so will persist even after indoctrination ceases. By contrast I suspect that the collective and ritualistic impulses can manifest in ways we perceive as secular. Of course, this last point might be a matter of semantics, as evident by the term "political religion".

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Faith as an adaptation   posted by Razib @ 11/14/2009 06:11:00 PM

Nicholas Wade has an article up in The New York Times, The God Gene, which serves as a precis of the central arguments of The Faith Instinct, his new book. The title is catchy, but it should really be "The God Phene." Depending on how you measure it, religiosity is a heritable trait, with its variance being controlled by variance across many genes. There is as likely to be a "God Gene" as a "Smart Gene" or "Height Gene." In other words, not too likely.

I have been putting off putting up a review of The Faith Instinct because there's a lot of ground to cover. The portions which emphasized the role of common belief, "imagistic arousal" and ritual in cementing common bonds among men and allowing for maximal force of collective action were persuasive to me. As someone who has never served in the military I am not personally familiar with the "band of bothers" dynamic, but the role of chanting, posing and synchronous mindfulness & action in sport is obvious. It's no coincidence that high stakes athletics and religion tend to go hand & hand. Wade's references to William McNeill's Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History were very intriguing, and I have to check that book out at some point.

Though it is clear to me that there is utility in tribal gods binding a deme together to engage in collective action, I am more skeptical of the central function which Wade places upon religion as a driver of the cognitive biases which are likely to predict religion. Women are more religious than men. One plausible explanation for this is more men than women are socially retarded, and it is social retards who find supernatural agents less intuitively plausible, and are also liable to admit to this belief and not conform with the modal norms of society. The thesis in The Faith Instinct is that group level selection, on the level of tribal units, selected for those demes where religiosity was more pronounced, as those groups could engage in more effective collective action. Much of the argument is derived from Samuel Bowles from what I can tell. The problem of course is that the sex engaged in the warfare which is the specific manifestation of intergroup competition and subject to natural selection, males, seem to be less predisposed to belief in supernatural agents. Of course sex differences should be slow to evolve, so it suggests that if selection was operative upon religion as a trait it hasn't swept away all the various cobwebs of evolutionary history in terms of the lower-level traits which come together to form the religious phenotype.

An alternative model for why religion is universal in humans from the adaptationist one is that it is a byproduct of various other cognitive traits which are useful, just as heat is produced during work. More specifically, in books like Religion Explained & In Gods We Trust cognitive anthropologists Pascal Boyer & Scott Atran argue that basic intuitions which naturally lead one to supernatural inferences derive from extremely useful cognitive features; agency detection, theory of mind, and flavors of folk psychology. Supernatural intuitions don't constitute religion, and Wade et al. are not suggesting that it is simply theism which confers a selective benefit, but rather the entire cultural package of religious belief & practice, the "integrative" as well as the supernatural aspect. The problem that seems to emerge from these overlapping models is that I do not see why group selection dynamics operating upon biological traits are necessary to explain religious instincts as we see them today. Religion just doesn't seem that tightly integrated of a feature, but a more diffuse phenotype (as evident by the novel fusion of philosophy with religion which occurred during the Axial Age). Rather, it seems a cultural adaptation which hooks into previously extant and ubiquitous psychological intuitions.

But a fuller review at ScienceBlogs soon.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Many nations are getting more religious, but young people are still less religious   posted by Razib @ 10/28/2009 12:13:00 AM

One thing that has bothered me, or at least piqued my interest, are two seemingly contradictory facts:

1) Many regions & nations have seen a resurgence of religion in the past generation (i.e., 1980s to 2010). The post-Communist and Islamic world most prominently. There is quantitative data for the post-Communist world, while for the Islamic world it is more impressionistic (e.g., the shift toward more stark outward "conservatism" in dress among the young).

2) But The World Values Survey does not show a skew toward religiosity among the young for most nations. Very few in fact. This is a bit curious in light of some plausible background assumptions. For example, religious people have more children the world over within each nation (though religiosity at the national level may have a more unpredictable relationship to fertility, as evident in Western Europe).

I decided to present the data which I'm basing the second assertion on. The WVS has several "waves." I decided to look at wave 5, wave 4 and wave 2, which were done during the mid to late 2000s, around 2000 and 1990 respectively. I also looked at the question:
How important is God in your life? Please use this scale to indicate- 10 means very important and 1 means not at all important.

The WVS interface outputs mean values (as well as standard deviations). You can then drill-down and cross with age of the respondents in 3 classes:, 15-29, 30-49, and 50+. I was curious as to age related changes, so I simply put the mean values of the importance of God by age class into the linest function. So, if the mean values were 7, 8 and 9 for the age classes from youngest to oldest, the linest would output a slope of 1 as I omitted x values (so the classes would be recoded implicitly as 1, 2, 3, etc. for x's). If you reversed it, it would output -1. So, negative values indicate that the younger are more religious than the old. Here are some trends in the data.....

Here are some charts ordered by the values generated by linest by wave. The countries at the top exhibit larger differences between the young and old. Observe the large asymmetry in the number with positive vs. negative values (that is, many more nations have more secular young than old). You need to click to see the larger version.

Some of the nations span the waves (many do not). 30 nations span wave 5 and wave 4. Here are the correlations between the same columns across waves:

Mean religiosity = 0.98
Trend of religiosity by age = 0.84

I don't know if the samples are representative (though the developed world ones do seem to be, I've checked with independent surveys and they often match up well), but the two waves seem consistent with each other here.

Now let's compare wave 2 and wave 5. So from from ~1990- to ~2005.

Mean religiosity = 0.92
Trend of religiosity by age = 0.77

How about differences in mean religiosity from wave 2 to wave 5? Here we see a bias toward greater religiosity in the 26 countries found in both waves.

The results match expectation. The nations to the right, those which have seen the most increase in religiosity are post-Communist ones. No surprise there. The nation furthest to the left is Spain, it's gone through the most striking shift toward secularism since 1990. That is in line with what the news reports, the position of the Catholic Church at the center of Spanish life has been collapsing since the 1980s (more accurately, since the end of the Franco regime).

One assumes that the difference in religiosity by age cohort is a feature of less religious societies. If everyone is religious, as is the case in some Muslim and African countries, then there can't be any variance. Merging all 3 waves together, here's a scatter plot which shows the trend:

Now a labelled plot of wave 5.

An interesting point of contrast is China and Spain. In the 1970s Spain was still a pro-clerical right-wing authoritarian regime, while China was an atheist left-wing regime. Political pressures toward conforming to a particular attitude toward religion have abated in both nations over the past generation, and while Spain has become much more secular, China seems to more religious. The mean value of the importance of God in one's life in China is 3.7 in the youngest age group, and 3.5 in the oldest (survey taken in 2007). In 1990 it was 1.5 and 1.8 respectively.

The big test would be to see how the 15-29 compared to 30-49 between wave 2 and wave 5. I'm a little worn out by this right now, so I'll look at that systematically tomorrow (or the next day), but spot checking Russia seems to show that the rank-order holds, but all age cohorts became more religious (not relevant for the youngest cohort in wave 5 because they weren't surveyed in 1990). In Spain the 15-29 year olds in wave 2 who became 30-49 year olds in wave 5 are invariant. If you want to get a jump ahead of me, here are some raw data file (excel):




Here are two preliminary comments:

* All the post-Communist nations have seen a resurgence in religion (perhaps with the exception of the Czech Republic). But this is a phenomenon which has "lifted all boats," older people who were militant atheists who went on anti-religious rampages in their youth have been swept along, just as generations who barely remember Communism exhibit the nominal culturally grounded religious sensibilities normal in many societies. I've read a fair number of news stories over the years about the generational "God-gap" in the post-Communist states, but I suspect that it makes a punchier story-line than to suggest that there's been a broader societal shift. That it isn't a case of atheistic pensioners vs. youthful churchgoers.

* The Muslim countries are really weird. On most of the religious data in the WVS the only nations which approach or surpass them consistently are the African ones, and these do not exhibit the uniformity of outlook of the Muslim ones, especially the "core" Muslim nations of the Middle East. In some of the surveys for Pakistan no Pakistanis in a sample of 2,000 will admit to not believing in God, and in one survey all the respondents gave the highest value for the importance of God in their life on a 1 to 10 scale. By all, I mean all 2,000. It isn't implausible to me that somehow someone who was really religious just recoded the survey data to make Pakistan seem more religious than it was, but if so that bespeaks a zealous conformity of outlook in the society. But overall many of the Muslim nations are so religious that there isn't variation in belief by age group because there isn't variation much of belief, period. Everyone's on the same page. When you see women donning the hijab or men growing beards I think perhaps we should reconceptualize what's going on, as it isn't renewed orthodoxy (belief) as opposed to a change in orthopraxy. Of course it may be that Muslim nations do exhibit variation in religiosity, but they're just off the scale here. I suspect of the funniest shock-documentary projects would be to have someone run into a public square in the Muslim world screaming that God is dead. Of course, it might be a suicide mission!

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

American "Nones", sex differences   posted by Razib @ 9/23/2009 11:49:00 AM

American Religious Identification Survey 2008 has a new survey, American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population. Not surprising, but interesting:
There are a couple of additional findings worth noting here. Looking at retention by gender, Nones are more likely to retain men than women: 66% of men who reported no religion at age 12 were Nones at the time of their participation in ARIS 2008, but only 47% of females who reported no religion at age 12 remained Nones. Of those who reported having a religion at age 12, 15% of men left while only 9% of women did. It appears that American women have a greater affinity for religion than men. And conversely men have greater affinity for secularity than women.

Also, 49% of male "Nones" are atheists & agnostics in terms of stated beliefs. 36% of female "Nones" are. In terms of asserting that one is an atheist or agnostic, 11% of male "Nones" admit to that, while 8% of females do.

Related: Male vs. female religiosity difference.

H/T Talk Islam

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bye bye Kalash! It was good while it lasted....   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 03:39:00 PM

Taliban targets descendants of Alexander the Great.* In this case, we're talking about the Kalash of Pakistan, a non-Muslim cultural relict in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. The Kalash are like the Mari of Russia, a relatively isolated group who managed to maintain their explicit pagan religious traditions down to the modern era, at which point a legal framework allowed for them to practice their customs in the face of hostility from the world religion which had come to dominate their region. In the case of the Kalash, that authority and legal framework was that of the British. On the other side of the border in Afghanistan the more numerous cultural kin of the Kafir Kalash were forcibly converted to Islam in 1896

Though there are plenty of supply-side theories of religion which posit individual ("rational") choice as the driver of change, historically this has not been so useful. I've noted before that in Reformation Europe Protestantism was initially very successful in converting much of the population across broad swaths of Austria, Bohemia and into Poland. Not only that, but Protestantism's initial strength was almost always in what might be termed the "upper middle classes" (literate urbanites) and the lower nobility. But if the Protestants failed to secure political power, which usually meant the monarchy, generally there was a swing back toward Roman Catholicism. Both the Huguenots and Dutch Protestants started out as a small, motivated, and well organized minority (today around 20-30% of the population of the Netherlands is Roman Catholic, but I've read that during the height of the Protestant revolt against Spanish Catholic rule in fact only 10% of the population was Protestant, but these included much of the elite as well as very motivated refugees from Antwerp). But the Dutch Protestants managed to take control of the political machinery of the Netherlands and achieve independence from the distant Catholic rulers; the Huguenots did not.

A more explicit analogy with the Kafir Kalash is what occurred with the population of ancient Haran. In the 6th century Justinian the Great was getting around to imposing religious uniformity on on the East Roman Empire. The Empire had been Christian for a long time, but there were still large minorities of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, etc. Missionaries were sent to Anatolia to convert rustic populations who remained pagan, and persecutions of Jews & Samaritans triggered revolts in Palestine. A force was sent to Baalbek to stamp out the pagan enclave there, the Academy in Athens, a redoubt of Neoplatonism, was scattered, and the last active center of ancient Egyptian paganism at Philae was shuttered. But Haran was spared from conversion because of an accident of geopolitics; it was too close to the Sassanid Empire, and Khosrau I fancied himself a patron of culture, which including the dispersed members of the Athenian Academy. Some members of the Academy reputedly settled in Haran, with its pagan population, and Khosrau secured religious freedom for this area under a treaty with the Byzantines. The proximity of the Persian forces meant that it was reasonable for the Byzantines to grant this concession. Haran's peculiar religious mix persisted down into the Islamic era, when they became the Sabians, and were instrumental in the translation of Greek works into Arabic under the Abbasids.

As for the Kalash, their persistence is only due to a combination of historical accidents (the Durand Line), their isolation, as well as their backwardness. The importance of the last fact is that they have been underdeveloped enough to maintain very high fertility rate, compensating somewhat for the high rate of conversion to Islam. As I have noted before, paganism tends to cede before higher religions at a particular level of social complexity. With modern communication and transportation the ability of the Kalash to be protected by isolation is diminished. One way that the Kalash could preserve their identity would be to align with another higher religion. This is a common occurrence in Southeast Asia, where ethnic minorities resist converting to the majority religion because it connotes assimilation to the majority ethnicity. Instead, many minorities in Burma, Thailand, etc., convert to Christianity, acquiring the ideological and institutional armamentarium which might serve as a check on conversion. In Indonesia pagan groups often redefine themselves as Hindu, and so enter into a relationship with the institutional structures of Balinese Hinduism.

This is not feasible in Pakistan. Religious minorities are under extreme pressure. The Kalash have no cultural future, extinction is their lot. It is a matter of 10 years or 30 years. No more. After that point they'll be photographs in National Geographic. This is frankly the lot of non-Muslims in many Muslim nations (the best option is to escape abroad, as a substantial minority of Mandaens have, and the Church of the East did in the 20th century. Or, remain segregated and isolated and numerous enough in your own geographic enclaves, such as the Yazidis).**

* They're a genetic isolate, probably not derived from Alexander's sojourn in the east.

** The main exceptions to the grim record of religious minorities under Islamic majorities is in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In both these regions conversion to Christianity from Islam is known and accepted. In Nigeria Islam has barely increased as a proportion of the population, while Christianity has nearly doubled to parity. In Indonesia there has been a marginal decrease in the proportion of Muslims since the 1960s, probably because of the conversion of nominal Javanese Muslims to Christianity and Hinduism (Hinduism is considered by many Javanese to be their ancestral religion, and there remain Hindu Javanese minorities).

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Civilization saved the Church?   posted by Razib @ 9/20/2009 12:39:00 AM

One question which I have touched upon repeatedly is why is it that in some regions languages of elites replace those of the populace, and in other regions the inverse occurs? This is one reason why I'm very interested in genetic studies of populations, they add a new dimension to the large set of often confusing, contradictory and cloudy "facts" we have on hand. Among Anatolian Turks for example there is still a noticeable imprint of East Eurasian ancestry, though by & large it seems that Anatolian Turks are the descendants of those acculturated to a Turkish identity from a Greek, Armenian or Kurdish past (the main qualification is that I have read, though am not sure as to the veracity of the claims, that large numbers of Orthodox Christian Turkish speakers who switched language, but not religion, have been totally Hellenized after the exchange of populations). In contrast it is difficult to find any genetic evidence that the Magyars actually settled among the peoples of what is today Hungary (Pannonia), even though their origin was likely from the Volga region (some of the difference might simply be that it is harder to detect deviations from expectation if the Magyars were more similar to the peoples of Pannonia than the Turks were to the natives of Anatolia, as is likely the case).

In the lands of the former Roman Empire most of the Latin domains quickly assimilated the Germanic military elites to the native culture, in both religion & language. There are two glaring exceptions to this: Britain & the Balkans. Several years ago I read The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe, and I began thinking of the processes described in this book when reading the chapter on post-Roman Britain in The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000. To my mild pleasure I then came upon this passage:
This model for the Anglo-Saxon settlements, which I broadly accept, thus has the invaders settling in the very small groups, initially covering ahandful of local communities for the mostpart, which could as in Wales, be called tribal. Political leadership would have been very simple and informal, though of course necessarily military, for a fragmented conquest is still a conquest. THis picture further fits with the archaeolgy of early Anglo-Saxon settlements and cemeteries, which shows a very simple material culture, far simpler in every respect than that found anywhere in the ex-Roman Continent outside the Balkans.

My pleasure was not due to excitement about the collapse of Roman civilization. Rather, it was that I had anticipated an analogy which the author later spotlighted, suggesting to me that the correspondence is striking enough to be obvious to independent observers. What occurred by and large in the Balkans, and to an even greater extent in Britain, is that the complex of literate Roman city-centered society yielded to decentralized village-based societies, and barbarism seems to assimilated the peasants left behind after the withdrawal of the Imperial forces. Though one can find some evidence of exogenous genetic input indicating non-trivial population movements, especially in Britain, it does not seem that the native substrate was replaced in the majority across these regions (see the links here). In Britain the old models of pots-not-peoples seems falsified by suggestive gradients of alleles of Germanic provenance from East Anglia, the Dark Age "Saxon Shore." But, in terms of total genome content the English as a whole seem to resemble the other peoples of the British Isles more than they do the populations of northern Germany (though again, there are regional variations within England, with East Anglia and the former "Danelaw" showing signs of the more recent gene flow). In the Balkans genetic relationships between populations seem to follow geography more than language; the Bulgarians resemble Romanians, not the Czechs, who are close to the Hungarians.

And yet despite the genes there was a massive cultural discontinuity between Roman Britain and the Balkans, and what came after. It is now fashionable to assert that the Roman world "transformed," and did not "fall," after 476. This view seems least defensible in the case of these two regions. Not only did Romanitas disappear, but the physical character of these societies as evident from the archaeology show rupture and regression. The fall of Roman Britain can be pegged to a specific date, 410, when the legions were recalled to the continent. This did not mean that the barbarian hordes struck immediately, rather, in the decades after political fragmentation and a reassertion of the native Celtic tribal traditions seem to have occurred. In The Inheritance of Rome the author suggests that the political prominence of what were once marginal regions, Wales and southern Scotland, is a reflection of the fact that these areas held the deepest stores of Celtic tribal cultural capital which might fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Latin civilization. To battle a militarized society one requires a militarized society, and the peoples of the Celtic marchlands fit that bill. It is here that there is a contrast between Britain and the Balkans: Britain was far less Latinized than the Balkans. Latinization had proceeded in Spain, Gaul (France) and the Balkans to the point that ib these regions the natives were initially termed "Romans" by barbarian conquerors. The persistence of Latin-derived languages in the Balkans into the modern era is also witness to the thoroughness of Latinization. Romanian, the persistence of the Vlachs, as well as the recently extinct language of Dalmatian can not be ignored. Of course Greece and the region around Constantinople were presumably Greek speaking. And there were obviously regions where the ancestor of Albanian was spoken. But it seems likely that Latin was the dominant language among the peasants across much of the Balkans, most certainly above the Jirecek Line. Justinian the Great, the last East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor who spoke Latin as a first language, was born near Skopje, the capital of modern day Macedonia. In Britain the working assumption is that the peasantry spoke a Celtic language related to modern Welsh, though the elite used Latin frequently, and Latin was the dominant written language. Though the Celtic inhabitants of Britain had adopted many Roman customs, they remained Britons, while the Thracians, Illyarians, Dacians, etc., of the Balkans had adopted Roman ways to the point where they termed themselves Roman.

There was also another difference between the British and Balkan case, in the former instance Roman influence disappeared for centuries (only to reappear via the Franks in the early 7th century), while in the latter the lines of Imperial control washed over barbarized regions many times over the centuries. In The Fall of the Roman Empire Peter Heather contends that the northern Balkans were effectively lost in the early 5th century to barbarians as a sort of "No Man's Land" where city-based civilization simply was untenable. But by the late 5th to 6th centuries it seems that the Empire reasserted its control and pushed secure boundaries out toward the Danube. By the year 600 almost the whole of the Balkan interior excepting Greece itself was lost to the Avars (see A History of Byzantine State & Society). The period between the collapse of Roman control of the interior and the later medieval emergence of nations which we would recognize such as the Serbs and Bulgarians is unclear and to a great extent lost to history. There were indications and references of massive Slavic migrations, though these groups were usually under the hegemony of non-Slavic groups such as the Avars and Bulgars. But as I pointed out above, the primary predictive variable of genetic change in the Balkans is geography, not language (this does not mean that language has no effect, I am simply suggesting that outsiders do not seem to have totally replaced the local population in toto).

With this general sketch in place, let's move to the similarities. Britain, in particular the regions which became England, and the Balkans were barbarized and descended into a "Dark Age" in a classic sense (obviously I exclude the persistent arc of city-based culture which clung to the coasts and exhibited some depth in Greece in the case of the Balkans). Writing disappears. The local language is replaced (though with important exceptions in the Balkans). And Christianity also fades. The replacement of Celtic language with Anglo-Saxon dialects was so total, with so little borrowing, that the model of replacement does not seem totally implausible. Archaeologists have also uncovered extreme discontinuities in more prosaic aspects of culture such as how farmsteads are laid out. But as I said above from what I can tell the genetic data point to Anglo-Saxon input of only a minority, if a substantial one at that with local concentrations, across England. We are then faced with the possibility that the local Romano-British elites, along with the more thoroughly Celtic peasants, assimilated into the Anglo-Saxon culture (there are textual indications of the persistence of British subjects of Anglo-Saxon rulers in England into the era of the Venerable Bede, see Norman Davies' The Isles). The genetic data indicate the same in the Balkans, though here I am less familiar with the research, and it seems much thinner than in reference to the British for social and political reasons (i.e., British people are interested in their genetic history and can fund that interest).

In The Early Slavs the author argues that the natives simply went barbarian. Though Roman civilization was predominantly peasant-based, and caught in a Malthusian trap, it was still quantitatively different in terms of its economic and social complexity from those of societies beyond the limes (see The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization). The cultural toolkit of Slavic tribes pushing into the Balkans in the wake of the collapse of Roman rule was far simpler than that which had been dominant prior to their arrival. In a localized world shorn of Roman networks of trade it may be that peasants saw in the barbarian culture something more adaptable and appropriate in light of the new structural conditions of their lives. On the margins of subsistence perhaps those who shed affiliation with what was now a distant political power fared best. The same may have been true for the Celtic peasants who lived under Anglo-Saxon rulers, and tilled the soil with Anglo-Saxon immigrants (the weregild for Celts in Anglo-Saxon Britain was less than for Anglo-Saxons, so the incentives were strong to switch if possible). We have copious data in the case of local elites who assimilate to the norms and values of their barbarian conquerors in the post-Roman states of the West (e.g., Romans of senatorial background like Cyprian, rival of Boethius, raising sons with a strongly Gothic cultural orientation), as well as the Visigothic elites conquered by Muslim Arabs & Berbers (who were at that point barbarians). But that is a function of the fact that the elites are literate, or employ those who are literate, and leave hallmarks of cultural shifts in their correspondences or actions.

This brings me to the title of the post. It is classic chestnut of wisdom that the Christian Church was the vessel which preserved elements of classical civilization for posterity through the Dark Ages. This model is tendentious, in large part because partisan Christians and anti-Christians wish to come to different conclusions, select their data, and cull their analysis, until they arrive at the inferences which they prefer. It is a dodge to admit that the issue is complex, but dodge I will. Rather, let us note that religion, and religious institutions, have been powerful forces across history. It seems rather obvious that "higher religions" have a strong cultural fitness advantage in any complex civilization. By higher religion, I refer to religious systems which combine primal religious sentiment with philosophical content as well as robust institutional organizations. Over the long term only higher religions can resist the spread of other higher religions. There are cases where non-higher religions can arrest or suspend the expansion of higher religions, but these are always temporary setbacks. Lithuania, Japan and Tibet are detailed case studies of temporary setbacks which only delayed the dominance of higher religions. Often higher religions imported from the outside stimulate the emergence of a complex literary society because of the need of a class of text oriented religious professionals to interpret the scriptures and commentaries which justify the existence of such institutions. In theory the Bible, the Koran, the Palin Canon, are causally prior to the variegated religious institutions which accumulate around them. In the model that the Roman Christian Church preserved Roman civilization the institution which arose due to the Christian scriptures as a side effect also served to maintain and perpetuate aspects of Roman culture which were not necessarily related to Christian religiosity (though naturally justifications were often presented as to why secular works were spiritually edifying or useful).

So why the inversion in my title? One cynical and obviously irreligious perspective contends that the specific belief content of higher religions is actually co-opted as a post facto rationale for organically emerging institutions which are products of complex societies. This can be approached from a religious perspective; many early Christian thinkers offered that a singular and unified political order was the ideal seedbed for a singular religion which expressed the fullness of truth (there are analogs to this sort of thinking among Buddhists when a potential chakravartin appears on the scene). The point is that higher religions seem to coexist with higher civilizations. In some cases they bring higher civilization to a lower one, and in other cases they are the products of higher civilizations (e.g., Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire, Buddhism in the early phase of Indo-Aryan literate states in the Indian subcontinent).

But what if a higher civilization regresses to the state of a lower one? To some extent the collapse of the social and economic order in the Post-Roman world fits the bill, and Christianity remained a robust presence. But so did the Latin language in what became France, Spain and Italy. It is in these regions that the term "transformation" as opposed to "fall" apply the most. There was a shift away from direct taxation and toward what became feudalism, and an evolution from a civilian aristocracy into a military caste. Literacy became less prominent a feature of the cultural landscape, though it did not disappear (e.g., Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville and Boethius & Cassiodorus, the province of specialists rather than elites as a whole). But the contrast with the total collapse in what became England and the sharp reordering of the cultural landscape in the Balkans is obvious. The decline of Christianity (to the point of near total extinction in England) and the need for missionary efforts centuries after the collapse suggest to me that higher religion is not robust when higher civilization disappears.

I discount the suggestion that concerted persecution led to de-Christianization. Pagan societies and states did persecute Christians (or adherents of higher religions with foreign connections in general, such as the case with Buddhism in late Tang China), but on the whole they were more systematically tolerant of religious pluralism than civilizations where higher religions were dominant. Pagan Lithuania remained pagan for a relatively long time in part because it lay between Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia, and conversion to either religion would have aligned it with one of the states irrevocably (Lithuania eventually became Catholic and was absorbed into the Polish political and cultural orbit). But during the period when this state remained officially pagan large numbers of Christians were under Lithuanian rule, and at the height of the state the majority of the population was no doubt Christian, as were large numbers of Lithuanian nobles. There are many other examples which illustrate the trend whereby pagan persecution of adherents of higher religions is sporadic and situational, and not persistent, structural and systematic, so I won't belabor the point.

What I am positing then is that the process of barbarization led not just to the discarding of language, but also of Christian religion, in both England the Balkans. In France, Spain and Italy the pagan or heretic (Arian) rulers of predominantly Catholic populations acceded to the religious sentiments of the ruled. In the Balkans and England it seems that the rulers had no such inclination, and the institutional framework of the Christian Church simply withered without the proper structural preconditions. There are cases where even Christian rulers can be paganized by their population, as seems to have occurred with Samo. Protestant critics of the depth of Catholic Christianization of illiterate peasants in Medieval Europe have already assembled a large amount of scholarship which allows us to comprehend how nominal Christians might shift their identity to that of identified pagans. The Christian priesthood was also often illiterate and quite ignorant of the details of their religion during this period (though sometimes the deviation was from the other end, an archbishop of Toulouse in the 18th century was a materialist and atheist, see The Pursuit of Glory). Here is a quote from The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914:
...While roughly a third of village schools were run by the Orthodox Church, the priests had little influence on their flock. They were themselves hardly more than peasants and were deeply ignorant; studying theology and doctrine were the domain of the robed 'black clergy' in the monasteries, who fulfilled no pastoral duties. Knowledge of the Christian doctrine was therefore minimal, as Maksim Gorky heard from a Kazan peasant, who said that God 'cannot be everywhere at once, too many men hae been born fro that., But he will succeed, you see. But I can't understand Christ at all! He serves no purpose as far as I'm concerned. There is no God and that's enough. But there's another! The son, they say. So what if he's God's son. God isn't dead, not that I know of'

This describes late 19th century Russia, but I have read similar accounts from Prussian peasants of the 18th century who were left without a pastor for a generation because of a bureaucratic problem. These peasants' worldviews were only recorded because there was an inquisition into their beliefs after the burial of a bull which occurred in the locality to ensure a good harvest (the peasants' rationale was quite inchoate, but the burial of bulls was actually a custom of the Baltic peoples of that region, so I suspect the reemergence of the practice reflected folktales which had preserved fragments of the old religion). Books such as Theological Incorrectness report data that illustrate the reality that cross-culturally most lay persons exhibit religious sentiments and intuitions which are roughly the same. A tendency to "default" toward animism when philosophical religion disappears because of a lack of institutional support shouldn't be too surprising.

With all that said, it is understandable then why higher religion goes extinct with a regression to barbarism, just as literacy, civilized arts and economies of scale go into decline. What I am contending then is that the suggestion that Christianity was responsible for the perpetuation of classical high culture is incoherent, the same level of civilizational complexity which would allow for the perpetuation of classical high culture in some form may also be necessary for the perpetuation of Christianity! What if Constantine had lost at Milvian Bridge? If you are familiar with Rodney Stark's oeuvre then you will respond that this was irrelevant, and perhaps even counterproductive, as Christianity was a bottom-up movement with a better religious product which was inevitably going to become dominant. Looking from the year 300 I think that this is a defensible position. But years ago I read an alternative history short story which posits that Europe would be dominated by illiterate savages if Maxentius had defeated Constantine. This is fictionalization, but lays out the extreme case that but for Christianity Rome & Greece would have been lost forever. As it is, I think that this is likely wrong. Chinese civilization persisted after the collapse of the Han even though that polity did not have an organized religion like Christianity (in fact, Buddhism as a foreign religion spread after the fall of the Han and influenced indigenous religious traditions such as Daoism into competitive imitation). As a point of fact, it was the pagan Sabians of Haran who were heavily overrepresented in the translation of Greek classics in the service of the Abbasid Caliphs because the Sabians revered ancient pagan works. Haran's paganism was a historical accident, as they were protected by the Persian Shahs from forced conversion by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. If Christianity had not become the dominant religion of the Roman world I suspect some other religious system would have become the vessel for classical culture. Higher civilization begets higher religion, or adopts higher religion.

Simple models of causality in the social or historical realm assume the unproblematic teasing apart of variables. Many anti-religionists assert that all evil done in the name of religion is necessarily contingent upon religion. Many religionists assert that all good done in the name of religion is necessarily contingent upon religion. I think both views are probably wrong. Religion may be the root of some evil and the root of some good, but I doubt it is the root of all good or evil, and I believe we tend to overestimate how much of a root it is in any specific behavior. Religious suicide bombing seems very comprehensible today, but the atheist anarchist movement of 19th century Russia also engaged in a great deal of suicidal terrorism.

The historical data I survey above tell me that there is a very easy way to destroy organized religion: destroy organization. That is what I believe occurred in Britain and the Balkans. Without scale, complexity and organization the Christian Church could not flourish. Even the bottom-up "Primitive Church" of the early Empire was likely dependent upon the structure which the Roman Empire provided. The Christianization of much of Europe after the fall of Empire was concomitant with the rise of complex polities which wished to integrate themselves into the Christian commonwealth of states, as well as the ambitions of kings who were eager to justify centralization of power into one individual with the ideology of one true religion. If globalization is here to the stay, then the global religions are here to stay. Additionally, the vast majority of the world religions all emerged in the period between 600 BC and 600 AD. We're probably at some sort of competitive equilibrium, and without some major exogenous shock it looks like the market is saturated.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Did iatrogenic harm select for supernatural beliefs?   posted by agnostic @ 9/16/2009 08:10:00 PM

Toward the end of this episode of EconTalk, Nassim Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan) talks about religion and the history of medicine. He notes that one of the benefits of adhering to religious practices was that you probably avoided going to a doctor when you were in trouble -- you prayed to a god or whatever other supernatural entity your religion said would help you out. Why was this a benefit? Because before roughly 50 to 100 years ago, going to the doctor was worse than doing nothing. He bled you, gave your wife a disease by not washing his hands while delivering her baby, etc.

Basically, before very recent times, doctors were parasites. They did not specialize in healing you, but in conning you into thinking that they could heal you -- for a small fee -- all while making you worse, on average. This makes me think: there would have been a selection pressure on human beings to be skeptical of materialist claims about the world -- or at least about the nature of ourselves -- and thus, by default, to be naturally inclined toward supernatural beliefs. Of course, praying to Zeus might not have done an awful lot of good -- but at least it wouldn't have given you new infections like a hospital would, and at least it wouldn't have bled you dry. (And there may have been some benefit from all the social interactions that you got by attending religious services regularly vs. being socially isolated.)

Natural selection operates on the tiniest differences in relative fitness, and for most of human existence there must have been more than a little difference in fitness between those who eagerly sought out the help of a medicine man / doctor and those who just went to church (or wherever) and prayed to the spirits instead. This may be an original hypothesis, but I don't claim so since I haven't read much on the various theories of why religion is part of human nature. Taleb came pretty close to saying so, but not explicitly. Most economists talk about what's rational or utility-maximizing, without making that final link to evolutionary fitness. To its credit, the idea has a pretty solid basis for the necessary differences in relative fitness between believers and non-believers.

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Monday, September 07, 2009

Those tolerant Bektashis!   posted by Razib @ 9/07/2009 03:11:00 PM

Slate has a "dispatch" from the peculiar nation of Albania. The second is titled Albania, the Muslim World's Most Pro-American State. I do think it would be an exaggeration to analogize this title to one which asserts "France, the Catholic World's most laicist state!" Albania is a bit more Muslim than France is Roman Catholic from the data I can see, but we're a long way from the time when France was the "Eldest Daughter of the Church." Times change, despite cultural baggage.

But I want to focus on some passages about the Bektashi sect which is based out of Albania:

This syncretism formed the perfect ground for the spread of Albania's second-most-popular faith, Bektashism, a secretive, heterodox Shiite sect with which roughly 40 percent of the country's Muslims identify (the rest are Sunni). The Bektashi are one of several Shiite sects known by Muslim heresiographers as Ghulat ("exaggerators"): those who have exceeded the proper bounds of religion by ascribing divinity to human beings (typically, to Ali, the first Shiite imam). Bektashism, like other Ghulat sects, contains many Christian-like elements: belief in a trinity (of God, Mohammed, and Ali), confessions, drinking wine, and a ceremonial supper resembling the Eucharist.

Bektashism and other Ghulat sects are shrouded in mystery in large part because their members have been persecuted as heretics. The Bektashis are most similar to the Alevis (also known as Kizilbash) of Turkey, where the Bektashis once had their headquarters. Some scholars have said Alevis and Bektashis are two names for one people; at the very least, they appear to share a common origin. Turkey's Alevis, sometimes called Alevi-Bektashis, are thought to number between 10 million and 20 million. They have no mosques, no muezzins, no ban on alcohol, no obligation of daily prayer, and no fasting during Ramadan. Several Western missionaries, as historian Matti Moosa has documented, have said that the Alevis are "a corrupt Christian sect" and that they accepted "Jesus Christ as the Son of God under the name of Ali" but could not profess this openly for fear of Sunni persecution.


As we sip a sweet peach tea, the dedebaba explains that tolerance of other religions is Bektashism's most important principle. "We all adore the same God," he says. "All the prophets, from Adam to Mohammed, were sent to spread his message." The dedebaba's faith, which contains a strong mystical strain, is often described as a Sufi order. But, he tells me, "though similar to Sufism, Bektashism cannot be considered a part of it."

He willingly discusses some aspects of his faith: "God, Mohammed, and Ali are a trinity-they are inseparable." He confirms the existence of others, like ritual meals and confessions, but he says no more: "Not everything in our religion can be said." Wiping his brow with a white handkerchief, he tells me he has undergone two heart surgeries in the United States. "In Detroit," he says, "we have a Bektashi tekke. When I go there, it is like a little Albania!"

There's a lot there. I've actually tried to do some digging into the background of some of the esoteric and obscure religious sects of the former Ottoman domains. Numbers, beliefs and practices are really hard to come by. There are two primary reasons. First, these groups have spent hundreds of years being persecuted by Sunni religious authorities, while in Albania they had to go through the gauntlet of Communism. Keeping a low profile has now become an essential part of their religious tradition. Secondarily, many of the sources are biased insofar as they are Sunni, and so wish to exaggerate how outlandish or deviant the beliefs and practices of these groups are. There is for example a peculiar convergence between some Sunnis and Christians in viewing these sects as Christianized, though the underlying reason for the depiction naturally differs.

The passage above was dense with obscurity, but if you know the words and background history you might be a bit surprised. For example, the Bektashis are often portrayed as syncretistic and peaceful Muslims, as opposed those intolerant Sunnis. But this is a sect which came to prominence in large part through its ties to the Janissary military order. Its suppression was incidental to the abolition of the Janissaries in the Ottoman Empire. Secondarily, that strange word, "Kizilbash." That's a pointer to another distant, but very likely, connection which the Bektashis have: with the Safavid dynasty of Iran. The Safavids started out as a Turkish Kizilbash movement, out of the same religious milieu as the "syncretistic" and "tolerant" Bektashi or Alevi, who suffered under Sunni Ottoman oppression. But they ended up conquering Iran, and forcibly converting the Sunni population in that nation to Shi'ism.

If you didn't know these specific historical events, and the contingencies entailed, it might be a great deal more plausible that these heterodox Shia sects are somehow naturally more tolerant. But when you're an oppressed minority you see the virtue of tolerance firsthand. When the shoe is on the other foot this principle of the religion seems to fade.

Note: For me the most frustrating thing about groups like the Bektashis and Alevis is that the range of numbers you get is enormous. You can find data which suggests that 40% of Albanians are of Bektashi background, and data which asserts that only 1% of Albanians are Bektashi. In Turkey, where the Alevis face more social marginalization the numbers are even harder to come by (naturally mainstream sources give low numbers, while the Alevis give very high numbers).


Saturday, August 29, 2009

We are all Protestants now....   posted by Razib @ 8/29/2009 01:34:00 AM

There are different models of how religion and society interact with each other. The American model is not universal, and Americans sometimes are confused about the relationship between religion and society in other cultures. Nevertheless, the American model is robust and seems to be capable of powerful assimilative feats.* In the early 19th century the Roman Catholic church was rapidly Americanizing in a manner we would recognize today, but the enormous influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants at mid-century reversed this process. The Irish dominated hierarchy attempted to force the American political order to accept a form of official pillarization, but by and large this failed. Catholics did form a separate stream of civil society, but the persistence of a religious subculture seems to have been a function of the constant stream of new immigrants. Over a century later American Catholics, excepting a small "traditionalist" minority, have transformed themselves into another denomination.

A very similar process occurred with American Jews, though due to their small numbers they never faced-off against the Anglo-Protestant elite in the manner which the Catholics did. Orthodox Judaism, which most Jews around the world, secular or religious, would recognize as Judaism, is a minority faction in the United States. Rather, the more acculturated Reform and Conservative movements dominate. The Reform in particular has a long history of attempting rather consciously to transform itself into another Protestant denomination in form if not belief (though with the liberalization of mainline Protestantism there has been some convergence with Reform Jewish religious ideas).

The Japanese Americans who remain Buddhists (most of the community converted to Christian or are secular) adhere to the Buddhists Churches of America. And so on. Now the same with Hinduism, Old Faith Innovates in a New Land:
Ganesha is revered as the remover of obstacles, and his festival is considered an auspicious time to begin new endeavors, not least an experiment in adapting an old religion for a new land. And of the singers, most of whom grew up in India, none had ever heard of a Hindu choir before.
Choirs are virtually unheard of in temples in India because worshipers tend not to cohere into anything resembling an attentive congregation, said Vasudha Narayanan, a professor of religion and the director of the Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions at the University of Florida.

Some religious people get offended when I contend that it is the fate of all American religions to turn Protestant (non-Protestants that is). But unless you seal yourself off such as the Amish and Hasidic Jews have done to various extents, or replenish yourself with unassimilated immigrants, this is what simply happens. As someone not invested in any particular religious belief I generally think it best that the religions of the United States operate in a common cultural currency, the currency of confessional denominationalism. Even religions devoid of a creed such as Unitarian-Universalism wear their New England Congregationalist (ergo, Protestant Christian) origins on their sleeve.

Addendum: Though to be fair, even within the United States it seems that Greater New England and the South have developed in two very different trajectories when it comes to their interpretation of the appropriate exterior forms of Protestant worship and organization. It would be interesting to see if non-Protestants in these regions reflect these differences between Baptists and Congregationalists, for example.

* I would contend that the American model has been successfully planted in South Korea, much of Africa and parts of Latin America.



Sunday, June 21, 2009

Religious people are breeding, producing more religion....(?)   posted by Razib @ 6/21/2009 02:12:00 PM

I've pointed to the World Values Survey before. It comes in 5 waves spaced out over 2 decades, and has substantial, if not total, coverage. Additionally, for many non-developed countries the educational data to me suggest some high SES skew in terms of representativeness (though spot checking the American data that looks very representative, as there have been other national surveys you can cross-reference it with). On some of my blogs a few commenters have started to follow up posts and use the WVS to answer questions, instead of offering of speculations. It's not as complicated of an interface as the GSS, but it isn't as flexible either. Nevertheless, there are some obvious questions one might ask.

For example in general within societies the religious have more offspring than the non-religious. Even controlling for variables there is often a significant effect. That implies that over time if religiosity is heritable (whether biologically or culturally) societies should become more religious. So a priori assertions such as Mark Steyn's that Turkish secularism is doomed because the rural religious have outbred the citified secularists seem plausible. The WVS can help us answer this sort of question.

For example, if the religious are outbreeding the non-religious and religion is substantially heritable so as to counteract any rate of defection than younger age cohorts should be noticeably more religious, right? Are they in Turkey? I use Turkey as an example to illustrate how useful the WVS can be.

So first go to

I've circled some areas red to click through.

Click the area where I've circled read. You need to jump through some hoops (it uses POST to go from page to page).

I've broken down the importance of religion as a function of age. There is no trend toward greater religiosity among the young.

I've now broken down by both and age & sex. As in most societies secularism is more pronounced with youth among males.

I went back and looked at another question in regards to the influence of religious leaders on voting. There is no trend of younger people being more supportive of this. There are plenty of other religion & government related questions you can ask. When Steyn made that assertion I made sure to remember to poke around Turkey's WVS results, and they don't seem to support it. The theory is coherent, but the facts do that match. I hope this is a lesson for readers. Theory provides free information. But since there are tools to check inferences one makes from assumptions one should do so before taking theory as a given (all the above took me 3 minutes, excluding screen capture & Photoshop).

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Polygyny as a function of nation and religion   posted by Razib @ 6/07/2009 01:38:00 PM

TGGP has a post up where he looks at attitudes toward polygyny in predominantly Muslim nations. The question is:
To what extent do you agree or disagree with men having more than one wife? Do you strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree?

I decided to break-down by religion in those nations which had a large non-Muslim population. Results below.







Muslim Hindu Muslim Roman Catholic Muslim Roman Catholic Muslim Protestant Shia Sunni Muslim Christian
Agree strongly 1.5 1.9 3 0 5.7 1.8 53.5 12.9 0 0 2.6 1.8
Agree 3.9 1.9 16.8 4.6 13.8 0 20.5 9.6 1.7 1 8 1.8
Neither 12.2 5.6 10.4 3.1 10.2 3.1 7.8 9.8 3.5 4 9.5 1.8
Disagree 48.2 50.5 44 40 17 7.7 8.6 27.2 25 40.6 79.7 94.6
Strongly disagree 34.2 40.2 25.7 52.3 53.3 87.4 9.5 40.4 69.8 54.4 0.1 0

Update: Above I only posted those Muslim nations with large enough religious minorities for there to be comparisons. Here are the frequencies who "strongly agree" + "agree" with men having more than one wife for all the nations:

Algeria - 43
Bangladesh - 5.5
Indonesia - 18.7
Iran - 11.5
Iraq - 47.1
Jordan - 18.7
Morocco - 37.5
Nigeria - 39.4
Pakistan - 1.1
Saudi Arabia - 42.1
Turkey - 15.6
Egypt - 10.3

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Abortion and the effect of Catholicism and nationality   posted by Razib @ 6/03/2009 09:38:00 PM

A few years ago the Inductivist found that Protestant & Orthodox countries favored abortion to a greater degree than Roman Catholic ones. He did add though that many of the nations in the former category were nominally in the category (e.g., Sweden) I have always been curious about if Catholicism has any effect on attitudes toward abortion within nations. It is known in the USA that there isn't much of a difference between Catholics and non-Catholics on this topic, rather, it is conservative Protestants stand out. The World Values Survey has a question which asks if abortion is ever justifiable. I thought it would be interesting to break these data down between Catholics and non-Catholics in various countries.

I look at nations which had large Catholic and non-Catholic populations. Not just non-religious (like France), but with religious identified non-Catholics. For example, the Netherlands has large historical Catholic and Protestant populations. I used WVS waves 3 & 4 and aggregated them together. I looked at WVS 5 separately. So some nations are entered twice. Where there were no Protestants, such as in Bosnia, I used Orthodox Christians. In a few Latin American nations Protestants were distinct from Evangelicals. The former usually includes members of historic immigrant communities with culturally Protestant traditions. Their numbers were small in any case, so I simply substituted Evangelical, which usually refers to relatively recent converts to Pentecostalism.

As you can see, most of the variation is between nations, not within them. In many cases Protestants are more pro-life than Catholics. In nations such as Chile most Protestants are relatively conservative evangelicals, disproportionately from the lower socioeconomic strata. In the Netherlands I suspect it has to do with the conservative Protestant Bible Belt, while most liberal Dutch Reformed have simply become "Nones."

Protestant/Orthodox Catholic
Great Britan 14.5 38.5
Netherlands 29.9 19.8
USA 23.7 27.8
Canada 33.3 28.9
Australia 21 27.6
Brazil 75.2 65.1
Chile 73.5 61.2
Ghana 65.3 63
Colombia 87.6 72.6
Trinidad 68.2 60.8
Germany 18 17.5
Albania 12.7 25.7
Bosnia 32.9 43.1
Chile 84.8 69.3
Czech Republic 17.8 19.6
South Korea 41.6 40.6
Latvia 25.2 30.6
Netherlands 23.5 18.2
Nigeria 70.2 59.1
Puerto Rico 84.3 77
South Africa 64.2 61.3
Zimbabwe 92.4 88.9
Switzerland 22.1 21.9
Uganda 76.9 74.2
Great Britan 25.2 32.7
Tanzania 87.2 91.5
USA 35 38.2
Venezuela 81 70
Northern Ireland 40.3 62.6

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

God Is Back, John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge don't know what they're talking about   posted by Razib @ 5/27/2009 08:44:00 PM

Rod Dreher points me to a John Gray review of God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. He criticizes the supply-side model of religion which John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge are promoting and assume as a given. The model's exemplar is the American South, where people basically "shop" for a church, which can be considered a "firm," offering a unique set of particular services which allow for brand differentiation (if you're poor and like to be entertained, join the Holy Rollers, if you're rich and want to network, join the Episcopalians). The model hasn't been totally supported, it's a theory, so you need to test it. It doesn't seem, for example, that Eastern Europe has been converted to it despite the post-Communist boomlet in evangelical Protestantism. Rather these societies have remained staunchy secular (e.g., Czech Republic) or shifted to a cultural-cartel based system common in much of the world (e.g., Russia). In societies where the supply-side model has flourished, such as South Korea, it turns out that the logistic curve hit "saturation" around ~50%, which was not a prediction of the model since denominations will emerge to fill the preferences of nearly everyone in a society.

In any case, that's not the main reason I'm posting this. Micklethwait and Wooldridge know about publishing and selling books, the thesis is what one could charitably term as "provocative," and surely angry secularists and heartened religionists might make impulse purchases at the bookstore to see what the authors are claiming. But there's a problem: the authors don't have a good grasp of the topic they're presuming to cover. They seem to have the same level of fluency as someone who reads the religion sections of major world newspapers, or makes sure to jot down the religious affiliation of a newsworthy individual or group. If this is your level of understanding you'll be mislead, since you won't know enough to figure out that they're out of their depth. A scholar such as Philip Jenkins produces much better popularization of the topic because religion is something he actually knows in depth, as opposed to being the current flavor of the month he's reporting on. If you read a Philip Jenkins book you'll encounter data which you can't find in The New York Times or The Economist. Also, it's important to remember that Wooldridge and Micklethwait are pushing foward an American model of religiosity when the United States is going through a wave of secularization. The data were obvious as far back as 2000, when the American Religious Identification Survey showed an enormous amount of disaffiliation, but it's been verified by a lot of work in the past few years. I suspect that Micklethwait & Wooldridge started writing the book before the more well known results, and so had to run with the ball. Of course it could be that they know their simplifications are going to mislead people. But I doubt it.

Note: I do agree that the American/supply-side model is becoming more common across the world, but that doesn't mean it will become ubiquitous in the coming years. There are regions of the United States even, such as Utah, parts of the Upper Midwest and New England, which seem to follow different systems.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is the world getting more religious?   posted by Razib @ 5/13/2009 12:40:00 AM

I was in the bookstore and decided to look through God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. The authors work at The Economist, so I assumed it was going to be more reportage than a popular distillation of scholarship. I haven't read the whole thing, but that seems about right, skimming through I kept picking up errors or tendentious assertions. The very title is, in my opinion, only tenuously rooted in any factual secular trend. Secularization theory's overreach has given rise to a huge counter-literature which argues for the progressively more fervent religiosity of the world. But much of this has little to do with scholarship. Just as George Lakoff knows his audience, and so tailors his "scientific" message in the interests of getting his ideas out there through book sales, so the popular press knows very well that articles and books about the resurgence of religion will sell well. After all, there are many religious people out there. A few years ago David Aikman published Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. The book had a natural base when it came to potential sales. No matter that he tended to push highbound estimates for the number of Christians in China, the business is demand side driven.

We don't need to talk about China. There's a nation where the mainstream media has been hyping religious revival for the past generation that hasn't been happening: the United States. As far back as the 2000 Religious Identification Survey it was clear that the 1990s were a period of major decline in denominational affiliation. Those data have been confirmed over the past decade. The religious revival in the United States was simply in the minds of hopeful evangelicals, and terrified secular liberals who wanted to hype the power of the religious Right so as to elicit a counterresponse from the Left. And of course cover stories on the rise of evangelical America sell copy (again, scared secularists and enthusiastic evangelicals).

So what's the data around the world? Let's look at the World Vaues Survey. There are five "waves" to the WVS, and of these the last four have had a question of the form: For each of the following aspects, indicate how important it is in your life. Religion. The answers are:

1 Very important
2 Important
3 Not at all important

Below the fold I've the data from waves 2, 3, 4 and 5 for all the nations. Some obviously don't have data for a particular wave. Wave 2 is from around 1990 (some are as early 1989, with a few as late as 1993). Wave 3 is from around 1995-1998. Wave 4 around 2000. And wave 5 is from 2005-2008. The numbers represent the proportion who agreed that religion was "very important."

24.8 28


35.2 46.5 33.4

Austria 24.4

82.4 87.8
Belarus 12.3 21.8 12.2
Belgium 15.3
35.1 34.4
Brazil 57 64.6
Bulgaria 11.6 15.5 16.5 18.9
Burkina Faso

Canada 30.7
30.2 32
Chile 51.4 42.8 46.6 39.9
China 1.4 4.3 2.7 6.7

25.6 25.8

Czech Republic 9 9.3 7.3
Denmark 8.5

97.3 95.4
El Salvador

Estonia 4.5 8.1 5.5

Finland 14.5 13.4 13.8 17.6
France 13.9
10.9 13
Germany 12.7 10.9 7.2 11.2

Great Britain 16.2
12.6 21

Hong Kong

Hungary 23.2 21.6 19.8
Iceland 23.8
India 49.3 48.9



94 96.1

Italy 34.3
33 34.4
Japan 5.8 6.8 7.3 6.5

96 94.5

Latvia 6.8 12.8 10.7
Lithuania 15.7 13.5 14.3
35.2 47.6
Malta 71.2


Mexico 34.3 43.5 68 59
30.7 35.2 31.8

94.3 90.6
Netherlands 22.1
16.7 12.5
New Zealand
Nigeria 85.3 91.8 92.9
Northern Ireland 34.2
Norway 15.2 12.1

80.5 81.8
55 52.6 49.6
78.5 86.8
Poland 51.6 46.9 44.7 47.8
Portugal 17.1
Puerto Rico
71.4 75.6
Romania 41.8 38.4 51.3 58
Russia 11.8 14.4 12.1 13.7

Saudi Arabia


25.8 24.5 25.7
Slovakia 24.6 24.2 27.2
Slovenia 17.4
12.3 15.3
South Africa 66.2 68.2 69.8 70.3
South Korea 25.6 20 23.3 21.2
Spain 23.1 25.4 18.5 14.9
Sweden 9.9 9.6
Switzerland 23.8 14.7



Turkey 61.2 83.4 80.8 74.7

20.9 21.6 18.3

USA 52.9 56.1 57.1 47.4
61.2 64

10 7.2



Yes, there are almost certainly issues about representativeness across these samples over the years. And the data are spotty. But in any case, there a few cases where we have other sources which confirm the trend line. Spain has become notably more secular over the past 20 years. China has seen an increase in religion over the past 20 years. But I don't see a very strong trend in either direction on a worldwide basis, and I assume a lot of the jumping around individually probably has to do with the nature of the sample . The point is that there hasn't been a massive secular trend in increased religiosity. But who cares? John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge will sell a lot of copies of their book predicated on a likely moronic axiom (judging by the elementary errors that I quickly spotted they don't know much about the topic besides what they read in newspapers).

Here's a line graph where I placed all the nations with at least 3 data points. See if you can discern anything from the noise....

I invite readers to weight the data by the populations of these nations and see if, for example, the likely enormous relative increase in religiosity in China from hardly anyone being religious to a small minority being religious is making a worldwide difference. Doing a scatter of wave 2 on wave 5 for those nations which had those two gave an incredible slope of 1.01!

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Atheist societies?   posted by Razib @ 5/09/2009 08:17:00 PM

Julian Sanchez has a post up, A "God-Shaped-Hole" Shaped Hole. He notes:
Which brings us around to the core problem with Stuttaford's claim. As James Joyner observes, it's a little doubtful whether the need to worship deities can really be an ineradicable, hardwired human trait when polls show that in much of Western Europe, the proportion of the population describing itself as atheist or agnostic approaches or exceeds the 50 percent mark.

This is a common perception, but I'm pretty sure it is also wrong. Sam Harris has described Sweden as an atheist society, while an American sociologist has written of Denmark as a society without God. I think the issue here is that the relative reference frame of the United States distorts the perceptions of American thinkers (combined with the sort of Europeans that they might meet at conferences or at the jobs expats land in abroad). Yes, the proportion of atheists in Scandinavia is on the order of 1 magnitude greater than the United States, but at less than 5% of the population in the United States that is still less than 50% of the population. Below the fold I've put data I gathered from The World Values (limiting to surveys performed from 1995 onward, because of the reality that East European nations exhibited a spike in God belief after the fall of Communism), the Eurobarometer 2005 and a BBC sponsored survey.

World Values Survey Eurobarometer
BBC Survey

Believe in God
Personal God Life Force, Spirit No God or Spirit or Life Force No belief in God
Vietnam 18.8

Czech 40.3 19 50 30
Estonia 51.6 16 54 26
Germany 52.4 47 25 25
Sweden 54.7 23 53 23
Japan 54.9

Netherlands 59.6 34 37 27
France 61.5 34 27 33
Slovenia 64.8 37 46 16
Bulgaria 66.7

Hungary 67.4 44 31 19
Norway 68.8 32 47 17
Denmark 68.9 31 49 19
Russia 69.5

Great Britain 71.8 38 40 20 21
Belgium 73.1 43 29 27
Luxembourg 73.2 44 28 22
Latvia 76.2 37 49 10
Taiwan 76.4

Serbia 77

Ukraine 77.7

New Zealand 79.3

Belarus 79.4

Australia 81.8

Finland 82 41 41 16
Slovakia 82.2 61 26 11
Switzerland 83.1 48 39 9
Iceland 84.4 38 48 11
Armenia 85.6

Austria 86.3 54 34

Lithuania 86.3 49 36 12
Bosnia 86.6

Croatia 86.6 67 25 7
Uruguay 86.7

Spain 86.9 59 21 18
Singapore 87.1

Macedonia 87.4

Canada 89.3

Greece 91 81 16 3
Dominican Republic 92.7

Albania 92.7

Georgia 93.2

Northern Ireland 93.2

Argentina 93.4

Moldova 93.4

Italy 93.5 74 16 6
India 94.6

Kyrgyzstan 95

Mexico 95.4

Ireland 95.7 73 22 4
United States 95.9

Portugal 96.3 81 12 6
Romania 96.6 90 8 1
Poland 97.3 80 15 1
Chile 97.5

Azerbaijan 97.8

Turkey 98 95 2 1
Peru 98.3

South Africa 98.9

Bangladesh 99

Venezuela 99.1

Columbia 99.1

Brazil 99.1

Tanzania 99.3

Puerto Rico 99.3

Zimbabwe 99.4

Uganda 99.4

El Salvador 99.4

Iran 99.4

Malta 99.5 95 3 1
Nigeria 99.5

Philippines 99.6

Iraq 99.8

Algeria 99.8

Jordan 99.8

Indonesia 99.9

Saudi Arabia 99.9

Pakistan 100

Egypt 100

Morocco 100

South Korea




I'm pretty sure that the WVS result for Germany is screwed up by some problems with how they weighted the "East German" and "West German" results. There are also certainly some issues with how the question was worded (most surveys show fewer self-described atheists than those who agree with an atheist position in relation to God), as well as the problem of representativeness (it looks to me that for Third World countries like India the WVS is skewed toward a higher SES judging by the levels of education). But you get the picture. Europe and East Asia, unlike the United States, South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America, have a great number of "unaffiliated theists." This shouldn't be too surprising to Americans, the proportion of atheists & agnostics among those with "No Religion" has remained constant for a generation from what I know, at around 25%.

Update: Because of questions in the comments I thought I would add the "fifth wave" WVS results from 2005-2008, which had a question which allowed people to sort themselves into "religious person," "not a religious person" and "atheist." Since people tend to avoid the term atheist this is a lowballing of the proportion who don't believe in God. But, because of cross-cultural differences in what it means to be a "religious person," that proportion might also be somewhat deceptive and an underestimate of those who are somehow affiliated with a religious denomination.

Religious Person Not Religious Person Convinced Atheist
South Korea 30.1 41.3 28.6
Vietnam 39.2 37.3 23.6
Germany 42.9 38 19.2
China 21.8 60.3 17.9
Sweden 33.4 49.3 17.3
France 46.9 36 17.1
Taiwan 40.3 42.9 16.8
Andorra 48.1 37.6 14.2
Japan 24.2 62.1 13.7
Great Britain 48.7 40.9 10.4
Australia 52.1 38 9.9
Slovenia 72.6 17.6 9.8
Switzerland 64.8 27.3 7.9
Netherlands 59.9 35.6 7.5
Spain 45.6 47 7.4
New Zealand 49.8 43.3 7
Hong Kong 27.3 67.4 5.4
Bulgaria 63.6 31.2 5.3
Russia 73.6 22 4.4
Serbia 85.5 10.6 4
USA 72.1 24.4 3.6
Chile 64.7 32 3.2
Finland 60.1 36.8 3.1
Ukraine 80.7 16.3 3
Mexico 75.4 21.7 2.9
Italy 88 9.3 2.7
Iraq 54.7 42.6 2.7
India 77.9 19.5 2.5
Malaysia 89.1 8.6 2.3
Argentina 81.2 16.6 2.3
Cyprus 61.6 36.3 2.1
Burkina Faso 91.6 6.9 1.6
Peru 82 16.6 1.4
Poland 94.6 4 1.4
South Africa 81.3 17.5 1.2
Brazil 88 10.8 1.2
Moldova 84.1 15 1
Romania 93.4 6 0.6
Zambia 89.5 9.9 0.5
Ghana 91.5 8 0.5
Colombia 80 19.5 0.5
Trinidad & Tobago 84.1 15.5 0.5
Turkey 82.6 16.9 0.5
Mali 97.6 2 0.4
Ethiopia 81.1 18.5 0.4
Georgia 96.6 3.1 0.3
Indonesia 84.6 15.2 0.3
Thailand 35.5 64.3 0.2
Jordan 92.2 7.7 0.1
Iran 83.7 16.2 0.1
Rwanda 94.2 5.7 0.1
Morocco 91.8 8.2 0

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

The paradox of the unaffiliated   posted by Razib @ 5/02/2009 02:28:00 PM

There was a recent Pew survey which came out which showed that around half of Americans "changed religions" in their lifetime. Not too surprising, though there is obviously a qualitative difference in switching from being a Methodist to Presbyterian, as opposed to going from Methodist to Buddhist. But one of the interesting findings, which I suspect many will not be surprised by, is that the "unaffiliated," those with no religion, have low retention rates. About half of those raised with no religion affiliate with a religion as an adulthood. This is being spun as a surprise, but I remember from the 1990s the "surprise" by Gallup researchers that 1/2 of those who claimed no religion were raised with no religion. So it seems that this dynamic hasn't changed that much. The "paradox" is that the population with with no religion has doubled in the last generation because of bleeding from Christian affiliation. Obviously this is due to the reality that the religious form 80-90% of the population, and the nonreligious form 10-20% of the population (depending on how you design the survey), so marginal defections from the former can swamp out substantial defection from the latter. This isn't that insightful, and in any case there are religious groups which exhibit the same high "churn," Mormons and Buddhists for example.

Another issue is the use of self-report survey data to analyze why people changed their religion. You have to be careful about this; the ethnographic data suggest that joining another religion is well predicted by participation in social networks, not the various personal factors people give (from what I know, it is something of a faux paus among many religious groups to admit that their denominational identity has something to do with their parents and social milieu, as opposed to a proactive personal choice). This makes sense, who wants to admit that they joined religion X because all their friends were of religion X, as opposed to some particular mystical or philosophical insight? I think this dynamic explains the high churn rates for small sects and the nonreligious; because they are outnumbered they often interact socially with those who don't share their beliefs and are exposed to more diverse networks.  Cults get around this by imposing behaviors which limit contact with outsiders, but the nonreligious don't have this sort of organizational aspect to their identity so naturally there's going to be a lot of defection. A prediction from this hypothesis would be that defection rates for nonreligious people will be higher the higher the proportion of religious in the particular area. The rise in the proportion of nonreligious in American society wide probably will result in some reduction in the velocity of defection on the margins in the future.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Your religion is false   posted by Razib @ 4/15/2009 09:52:00 AM

Joel Grus, who was a blogger at Gene Expression in 2002, and who is responsible for the banner graphic, has a weblog up promoting his book Your religion is false! (But so is everyone elses.).


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Religion, the United States, Sweden, South Korea and Japan   posted by Razib @ 4/14/2009 10:59:00 PM

It turns out that the World Values Survey has a decent web interface, rather like the GSS. As an exercise I thought I would compare 4 nations when it came to religious attitudes, the United States, Sweden, South Korea and Japan. The United States because most readers are American. Sweden because it is the apotheosis of European secularity. Japan because it is generally presumed to be an apathetic non-Western nation when it comes to religion. And South Korea, which sends more Christianity missionaries than any nation aside from the United States. The data for South Korea are usually a revelation for Americans, as we are conditioned by the dominant role of conservative Protestantism among our own ethnic Korean population, it is somewhat of a surprise when digging into the data to note that Korea is a much more secular nation than the United States.

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Religious person A religious person 44.9 % 26.5 % 30.9 % 38.9 % 82.5 %
Not a religious person 41.4 % 59.7 % 37.7 % 54.4 % 16.0 %
A convinced atheist 13.7 % 13.8 % 31.4 % 6.7 % 1.4 %
Total 4531 (100%) 1186 (100%) 1198 (100%) 968 (100%) 1180 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
How important is God in your life Not at all important 13.7 % 12.6 % 12.2 % 28.9 % 3.7 %
2 7.6 % 9.8 % 8.1 % 11.4 % 1.7 %
3 9.1 % 13.1 % 10.6 % 11.0 % 2.1 %
4 4.9 % 3.7 % 7.0 % 7.7 % 1.8 %
5 11.2 % 11.6 % 17.2 % 12.2 % 3.8 %
6 10.1 % 21.6 % 8.1 % 6.1 % 3.9 %
7 7.2 % 9.2 % 7.5 % 5.6 % 6.1 %
8 7.6 % 8.7 % 7.3 % 5.4 % 8.6 %
9 5.5 % 2.8 % 6.1 % 2.8 % 9.9 %
Very important 23.1 % 6.9 % 15.9 % 9.0 % 58.3 %
Total 4586 (100%) 1194 (100%) 1198 (100%) 996 (100%) 1198 (100%)
Base for mean 4586 1194 1198 996 1198
Mean 5.8 5.0 5.5 4.1 8.5
Standard Deviation 3.21 2.65 2.99 2.97 2.45

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Get comfort and strength from religion No 44.8 % 64.9 % 32.9 % 66.8 % 20.4 %
Yes 55.2 % 35.1 % 67.1 % 33.2 % 79.6 %
Total 3874 (100%) 950 (100%) 856 (100%) 895 (100%) 1173 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Statement: good and evil Clear guidelines about what is good and evil 30.7 % 19.2 % 37.0 % 15.8 % 49.2 %
Depends upon circumstances at the time 64.4 % 69.3 % 63.0 % 81.0 % 46.6 %
Disagree with both 4.9 % 11.5 % - 3.2 % 4.2 %
Total 4661 (100%) 1277 (100%) 1199 (100%) 999 (100%) 1186 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Belong to religious denomination No 35.4 % 55.6 % 36.8 % 24.2 % 21.5 %
Yes 64.6 % 44.4 % 63.2 % 75.8 % 78.5 %
Total 4614 (100%) 1267 (100%) 1196 (100%) 1015 (100%) 1136 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
How often do you attend religious services More than once a week 8.0 % 1.7 % 13.1 % 0.5 % 16.4 %
Once a week 12.9 % 2.4 % 17.1 % 3.3 % 28.8 %
Once a month 9.3 % 8.3 % 8.0 % 5.6 % 15.1 %
Only on special holy days/Christmas/Easter days 19.9 % 43.2 % 11.2 % 10.6 % 10.5 %
Once a year 14.3 % 22.1 % 6.9 % 21.4 % 7.0 %
Less often 15.5 % 13.8 % 27.6 % 13.2 % 7.5 %
Never practically never 19.9 % 8.6 % 16.0 % 45.6 % 14.8 %
Total 4752 (100%) 1343 (100%) 1198 (100%) 1013 (100%) 1198 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Moments of prayer, meditation... No 41.5 % 60.1 % 41.1 % 56.0 % 10.7 %
Yes 58.5 % 39.9 % 58.9 % 44.0 % 89.3 %
Total 4384 (100%) 1229 (100%) 954 (100%) 1004 (100%) 1198 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Politicians who don´t believe in God are unfit for public office Agree strongly 6.3 % 2.3 % 2.9 % 1.7 % 17.8 %
Agree 9.1 % 5.5 % 7.4 % 2.3 % 20.5 %
Neither agree or disagree 31.0 % 50.8 % 30.5 % 11.5 % 26.0 %
Disagree 32.5 % 26.1 % 41.9 % 37.0 % 27.3 %
Strongly disagree 21.1 % 15.3 % 17.2 % 47.5 % 8.5 %
Total 4602 (100%) 1328 (100%) 1074 (100%) 1010 (100%) 1190 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Religious leaders should not influence how people vote Agree strongly 28.6 % 33.0 % 25.0 % 34.3 % 22.3 %
Agree 40.5 % 41.2 % 44.4 % 33.9 % 41.5 %
Neither agree or disagree 16.2 % 20.4 % 19.1 % 10.2 % 14.1 %
Disagree 10.8 % 3.5 % 8.4 % 14.4 % 18.3 %
Strongly disagree 3.8 % 1.9 % 3.1 % 7.3 % 3.8 %
Total 4651 (100%) 1326 (100%) 1122 (100%) 1009 (100%) 1194 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Better if more people with strong religious beliefs in public office Agree strongly 6.9 % 1.4 % 6.3 % 2.1 % 17.6 %
Agree 14.8 % 3.9 % 18.0 % 6.7 % 31.0 %
Neither agree or disagree 29.0 % 31.6 % 36.2 % 21.3 % 26.5 %
Disagree 30.4 % 36.3 % 28.2 % 38.3 % 19.2 %
Strongly disagree 18.8 % 26.7 % 11.3 % 31.6 % 5.7 %
Total 4540 (100%) 1324 (100%) 1028 (100%) 1003 (100%) 1185 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Religious leaders should not influence government Agree strongly 24.1 % 33.1 % 20.6 % 24.4 % 17.0 %
Agree 34.7 % 39.2 % 36.7 % 27.4 % 34.0 %
Neither agree or disagree 23.0 % 22.0 % 30.3 % 20.3 % 19.7 %
Disagree 14.1 % 4.0 % 9.7 % 21.1 % 23.6 %
Strongly disagree 4.1 % 1.7 % 2.7 % 6.8 % 5.7 %
Total 4607 (100%) 1320 (100%) 1103 (100%) 995 (100%) 1189 (100%)

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Justifiable: cheating on taxes Never justifiable 68.8 % 83.5 % 74.7 % 50.7 % 62.1 %
2 11.1 % 6.2 % 11.6 % 17.1 % 11.0 %
3 6.7 % 4.0 % 6.1 % 10.0 % 7.4 %
4 3.1 % 1.5 % 2.1 % 5.4 % 4.0 %
5 4.4 % 2.4 % 2.8 % 8.3 % 5.0 %
6 1.9 % 0.7 % 1.0 % 2.5 % 3.7 %
7 1.1 % 0.1 % 0.5 % 2.4 % 1.9 %
8 1.0 % 0.3 % 0.3 % 2.1 % 1.5 %
9 0.4 % 0.2 % 0.3 % 0.5 % 0.9 %
Always justifiable 1.3 % 1.2 % 0.7 % 1.0 % 2.4 %
Total 4718 (100%) 1312 (100%) 1199 (100%) 1009 (100%) 1198 (100%)
Base for mean 4718 1312 1199 1009 1198
Mean 1.9 1.5 1.6 2.4 2.3
Standard Deviation 1.81 1.40 1.38 2.01 2.20

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Justifiable: someone accepting a bribe Never justifiable 78.4 % 83.0 % 80.2 % 68.5 % 80.0 %
2 8.7 % 5.1 % 10.3 % 13.0 % 7.4 %
3 4.7 % 3.9 % 4.7 % 7.3 % 3.6 %
4 2.3 % 1.6 % 1.8 % 3.4 % 2.8 %
5 2.6 % 3.3 % 1.6 % 2.8 % 2.6 %
6 1.0 % 1.1 % 0.3 % 1.4 % 1.2 %
7 0.7 % 0.2 % 0.5 % 1.4 % 0.7 %
8 0.7 % 0.8 % 0.1 % 1.2 % 0.7 %
9 0.3 % 0.2 % 0.3 % 0.1 % 0.4 %
Always justifiable 0.7 % 0.9 % 0.4 % 1.0 % 0.6 %
Total 4724 (100%) 1314 (100%) 1199 (100%) 1013 (100%) 1198 (100%)
Base for mean 4724 1314 1199 1013 1198
Mean 1.6 1.5 1.4 1.8 1.6
Standard Deviation 1.46 1.48 1.14 1.68 1.48

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Justifiable: homosexuality Never justifiable 31.8 % 29.8 % 52.7 % 8.7 % 31.6 %
2 5.6 % 5.7 % 9.8 % 2.8 % 3.6 %
3 6.0 % 9.2 % 7.3 % 2.8 % 4.1 %
4 4.4 % 5.3 % 4.6 % 2.4 % 4.7 %
5 13.6 % 15.8 % 11.9 % 10.0 % 16.1 %
6 7.5 % 12.0 % 3.0 % 3.3 % 11.1 %
7 4.2 % 4.1 % 3.8 % 4.3 % 4.6 %
8 5.8 % 6.6 % 3.5 % 8.4 % 5.3 %
9 3.5 % 2.2 % 1.0 % 6.6 % 4.7 %
Always justifiable 17.6 % 9.4 % 2.3 % 50.6 % 14.1 %
Total 4553 (100%) 1200 (100%) 1199 (100%) 978 (100%) 1177 (100%)
Base for mean 4553 1200 1199 978 1177
Mean 4.8 4.4 2.8 7.7 4.8
Standard Deviation 3.40 2.98 2.44 3.07 3.25

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Justifiable: abortion Never justifiable 22.3 % 14.6 % 36.9 % 5.4 % 29.7 %
2 7.0 % 7.4 % 10.8 % 1.7 % 7.0 %
3 8.5 % 12.4 % 10.2 % 4.2 % 6.2 %
4 6.0 % 7.6 % 7.1 % 3.2 % 5.5 %
5 16.6 % 21.3 % 17.1 % 11.8 % 15.4 %
6 9.9 % 14.6 % 4.8 % 7.7 % 12.2 %
7 6.4 % 6.2 % 5.5 % 8.3 % 5.8 %
8 8.2 % 8.7 % 3.8 % 14.1 % 7.1 %
9 3.7 % 2.6 % 2.2 % 8.1 % 2.9 %
Always justifiable 11.4 % 4.5 % 1.7 % 35.4 % 8.1 %
Total 4607 (100%) 1224 (100%) 1199 (100%) 993 (100%) 1191 (100%)
Base for mean 4607 1224 1199 993 1191
Mean 4.9 4.7 3.4 7.4 4.4
Standard Deviation 3.02 2.50 2.46 2.72 2.97

Weight [with split ups]
Total Japan Republic of Korea Sweden United States
Justifiable: divorce Never justifiable 9.3 % 5.5 % 21.0 % 2.1 % 7.5 %
2 3.8 % 2.8 % 7.7 % 1.3 % 2.8 %
3 5.8 % 6.5 % 8.1 % 2.0 % 6.2 %
4 5.9 % 5.3 % 7.2 % 4.8 % 6.1 %
5 20.0 % 19.3 % 23.7 % 12.2 % 23.7 %
6 12.0 % 16.5 % 8.1 % 6.4 % 15.9 %
7 7.9 % 6.7 % 7.7 % 8.0 % 9.4 %
8 10.7 % 12.1 % 6.9 % 14.0 % 10.3 %
9 6.1 % 5.8 % 4.8 % 8.9 % 5.4 %
Always justifiable 18.5 % 19.5 % 4.9 % 40.3 % 12.6 %
Total 4630 (100%) 1233 (100%) 1198 (100%) 1004 (100%) 1195 (100%)
Base for mean 4630 1233 1198 1004 1195
Mean 6.1 6.4 4.6 7.8 5.9
Standard Deviation 2.81 2.62 2.70 2.42 2.53

The data are open to many interpretations. You can actually do more fine-grained analysis, but I'll leave that for the readers. I would say:

1) South Koreans are more religious than the Japanese, but also just as starkly they are more polarized. Look at the first table and how many Koreans asserted that they were convinced atheists, as opposed to the more mellow Japanese and Swedes. Japan and Sweden are clearly more secular than South Korea, but since religious controversy isn't a feature of their public life, atheism vs. theism is less of an issue.

2) From a Western perspective the American & Swedish data are rather easy to interpret. The high rates of Swedish affiliation despite their secularity is simply due to the history of the established Lutheran church in that nation (only recently disestablished last I checked), and the customary attachment which most Swedes have to the institution. Aside from that, Sweden is secular and the United States not so much. South Korea and Japan are harder to interpret. Despite being very secular Japan is obviously rather conservative when it comes to many social mores, and Korea exhibits the same tendency. Rather than pinning down a specific explanation it is important to note that the role of institutional organized religion has been relatively marginal in these two societies until recently, and what role it did play was of low prestige compared to that in Western societies. In fact it can be argued that South Korea is simultaneously becoming a more religious and liberal society.

3) Despite the fact that Sweden has high rates of nominal affiliation to the Lutheran church, ceremonial and ritual religion seems to be a more common feature of the lives of the Japanese.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Younger people accept evolution   posted by Razib @ 2/16/2009 09:35:00 PM

The Inductivist has already reported that younger people are more likely to accept evolution. But it is also true that younger people are less Christian than older people. But does the trend hold within religious groups? That is, are younger people more open to evolution, or is that more secular people are more open to evolution and younger people are more secular? I decided to check Protestants and Catholics in the GSS broken down into three age brackets, 18-35, 36-50 and 51+ (the sample sizes are decent). I used the SCITEST4 variable, affirmative or not for "Humans evolved from animals." I also checked for those individuals in the sample who believe that "God Definitely Exists."

Humans Evolved From Animals


Protestant Catholic
Defintely True 11.6 22.3
Probably True 30.8 42.5
Probably Not True 17.8 16.3
Definitely Not True 39.9 18.9


Protestant Catholic
Defintely True 10.9 18.1
Probably True 28.5 44.3
Probably Not True 16.4 21.5
Definitely Not True 44.2 16.2


Protestant Catholic
Defintely True 8.9 12.6
Probably True 23.5 37.3
Probably Not True 15.7 19.7
Definitely Not True 52 30.4

All Who Say God Definitely Exists, Opinions on Evolution
Defintely True 12.3
Probably True 28.2
Probably Not True 17.3
Definitely Not True 42.2

Defintely True 8.2
Probably True 27.5
Probably Not True 17.8
Definitely Not True 46.5

Defintely True 7
Probably True 20.4
Probably Not True 15.4
Definitely Not True 57.2

I looks like there's some foundation to optimism here....


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Right & wrong is not about religion   posted by Razib @ 2/15/2009 10:25:00 PM

At least according to most Americans. The full report of the Pew Religious Landscape Survey has some data not available on the website. There is a question of the form: When it comes to questions of right and wrong, which of the following do you look to most for guidance? I think the results will surprise....

  Religious teachings & beliefs Philosophy & reason Practical experience & common sense Scientific Information Don't know/Refused
Evangelical 52 4 39 2 3
Mainline 24 9 59 4 4
Historically Black 43 4 47 3 3
Catholic 22 10 57 7 5
Mormon 58 4 33 2 3
Orthodox 25 11 52 8 5
Jehovah's Witness 73 3 19 1 5
Other Christian 19 25 42 7 4
Jewish 10 15 60 9 6
Muslim 33 10 41 14 2
Buddhist 4 27 51 12 5
Hindu 9 15 55 18 4
Other Faiths 5 25 58 8 4
Unaffiliated 6 16 66 10 3

America is the land of pragmatism I guess.

Addendum: I want to make clear that I'm not assuming a Blank Slate model where the sources of moral intuition or reason that people offer up is actually the real source, as opposed to a post facto confabulation. The survey is simply interesting to me as a window into the public's own self-perception.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Age Problem, or a God Problem?   posted by Razib @ 11/18/2008 06:43:00 PM

I noticed today that Heather Mac Donald has just engaged in another dialog with Michael Novak about God over at Beliefnet. As an unabashed vocal unbeliever Heather is exceptional on the American Right (compare to George F. Will's relative diffidence about his agnosticism). Simultaneously, there has been some concern that the youth vote swung so decisively toward the Democrats this election. Since it is also known that the young people are more secular than past generations, I wonder if some of the shift might not simply be due to the stronger association between American conservatism and a specific religious tradition (conservative Protestantism). Below the fold are tables which I generated using the GSS. I combined ages and political ideologies to simplify the categories (e.g., adding extremely and slightly liberal together with liberal into one category). Also, I filtered the sample so that all respondents were white.

18-35 35+ % Change from Older To Younger
Liberal 31.2 21.8 30%
Moderate 38.7 38.9 -1%
Conservative 30.1 39.3 -31%

Confidence In The Exist of God

18-35 35+ % Change from Older To Younger
Don't Believe 2.8 2.2 21%
No Way To Find Out 6.5 3.7 43%
Some Higher Power 9.6 9 6%
Believe Sometimes 4.9 4.5 8%
Believe But Doubts 21.2 16.5 22%
Know God Exists 55 64.1 -17%

Know God Exists

18-35 35+ % Change from Older To Younger
Liberal 22.3 17.6 21%
Moderate 37.2 38.7 -4%
Conservative 40.5 44.2 -9%

Don't Believe, No Way to Find Out, Some Higher Power, Believe Sometimes, Believe But Doubts

18-35 35+ % Change from Older to Younger
Liberal 40.9 31.8 22%
Moderate 36.2 36.1 0%
Conservative 23 32 -39%

I am struck by the decline in self-identified conservatives who are not 100% sure that God exists. Below is a chart showing the change in the proportion of more secular sectors. I simply added all the categories except for the two most religious ones.


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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Different American conservatisms: Mormons and Southerners   posted by Razib @ 11/13/2008 08:27:00 PM

puritans.jpgA few friends have emailed me some objections to the four culture model of american history. In short, though New England Puritans, Highland South Scotch-Irish and Lowland South Cavaliers are reasonable cultural entities which are easy to put a finger on, the Mid-Atlantic is a hodge-podge which to a great extent is simply thrown in a bin together for simplicity. In 1750 Pennsylvania was the first American colony where people of British descent became a minority. This sort of diversity makes it rather peculiar to speak of a Mid-Atlantic cultural folkway in which Germans, Dutch, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Swedes and Long Island Yankees can be thrown together into one pot. It's somewhat like assigning the term "environmental" to all the components of variance in quantitative genetics of a phenotype which can not be attributed to genetics. You know what it isn't, but what is it?

But that's just an aside. You might infer from the image above that the point of this post is not to explore what the term "Mid-Atlantic" can tell us in any model of social history. Instead, I want to focus on one aspect of American coalitional politics which might be of interest in the next 4 years: Mormon America is a representative of the New England Puritan cultural tradition in "Red America." A map is going to be more informative here than words.

yankeemap.jpgWhen I say Mormons are "Puritan," I'm not saying this as a figure of speech; Mormon America is to a great extent both a direct cultural and genetic descendant of New England Puritanism! The proportion of "English" ancestry in Mormon America is somewhat exaggerated by the fact that missions were sent to England and so you had direct migrants from Europe to Utah. But this can't explain the whole of the phenomenon, American Mormonism began as a religion of Greater New England. First in upstate New York, and later in northern Ohio. Its relocation to the Midwest was problematic for a host of reasons, but the fact that they were often neighbors of people whose origins were in the South and they were quite clearly Yankees probably exacerbated tensions.

Mormonism is a very communitarian religion, not unexpected from a faith with Puritan origins. Mormon settlements in Utah were laid out like New England towns, as opposed to isolated yeoman farmsteads. Brigham Young socialized water usage to optimally allocate resources for irrigation. A tendency toward campaigns for temperance and high fertility were features of New England society. Mormons are famously fertile (relatively) and do not drink. In Wisconsin administrators preferred Yankee settlers because they were more likely to be willing to raise money for pubic goods such as schools than migrants from the South. Mormons may be low-tax Republicans, but those in good standing tithe a very large proportion of their income obligately in their private life (10% from what I recall), while the church runs itself like a corporation which has economies of scale.

Unlike evangelical Christians in the South, Mormons do not acceptwith resignation that many youth may "raise hell" before settling down. Mormons do not accept the Protestant contention that salvation is through faith alone. Behavior matters. Social pathologies and the personal disorder which has been a feature of Southern cultural life since its inception are not features of Mormon America, which reflects Puritan fixation on public order as a check on private liberty.

Over the past generation Mormons and Southern Protestants have entered into a de facto alliance because of their social traditionalism. The recent controversy over Proposition 8 in California will likely result in even more esteem for the Mormon church from structurally suspicious evangelicals (they do not believe Mormons are Christian, and resent that they claim that they are Christian). In other ways Mormons have come to identify themselves with conservative Protestant America, which to a great extent means Southern America. There are data which show that while 70% of Brigham Young University students rejected Creationism in 1930, 70% now accept it. I believe this is due to cultural influence from evangelical Protestantism, with whom Mormons are now politically allied.

But I believe that the differences between Puritan Mormon America and Southern evangelical America need to be kept in mind. Some of Mitt Romney's supporters were irritated that some conservative kingmakers (e.g., Richard Land) were leaning to Fred Thompson because of cultural affinities. Culture matters. Mormons may be aligned with the South, but the alliance will always play out in the framework of differences in cultural priors. Mitt Romney is a social conservative, and likely was before he had to lie to become governor of Massachusetts. But he is not a Southern social conservative, and that matters, and when he pretended to be he seemed phony.

Addendum: One can encapsulate what I'm trying to get at by considering an even more extreme case: Jews & black Americans. These two groups are most Left-leaning and Democratic demographics in American society, but, they obviously aren't equivalent and there are qualitative differences in their liberalism. This doesn't mean that the position of both these groups on the American Left is in question, but there will always be a tension within the alliance.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Why diversity can be a problem   posted by Razib @ 9/04/2008 10:19:00 AM

Many readers of this weblog are familiar with Robert Putnam's research showing that communitarianism may be inversely correlated with diversity. In the American context we're likely to view this through the prism of race and ethnicity. But Peter Turchin in his work tends to focus on religion and other ideologies as the group identities around which humans coalesce. Humans obviously have a need for conformity and solidarity; I recall as a child a Steelers fan getting into a fight with a Browns fan. So it should not be hard to observe the problems which ideological diversity produce even in an ethnically and racially homogeneous nation such as South Korea.

Last week there were mass demonstrations of Buddhists in South Korea against the religious parochialism of the current president, a Presbyterian elder. The president is already unpopular for other reasons, so I don't personally believe that this unrest is a necessary outcome of religious tension. Rather, as documented in books such as The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, a social context where individuals feel under stress and insecure will often produce intergroup conflict. In an age of plenty there is elbow room between factions because of the growing pie, but when we smell the Malthusian trap in the air group level affinities come to the fore as you don't want to become isolated as an individual without communal capital which you can leverage.

South Korea is I suspect a case where these dynamics might become more important in the coming years because of its religious diversity. Additionally, religious tension is not a new feature of the culture. It isn't too hard to find instances of fundamentalist Christians attacking Buddhism. This is similar to cases in Brazil where evangelicals have destroyed statues of the Virgin Mary. There several recent incidents associated with the current head of state which precipitated the present crisis, but note this:
But tension has been building up since December, when newly elected president Lee began filling his first cabinet with Christians. At least a half of his new ministers were people professing to be Christians, with the prime minister, Han Seung Soo, said to be a Roman Catholic. Not a single cabinet minister professed to be Buddhist.


Of the 15 members of Lee's Cabinet, 12 are Christian and one is Buddhist while the affiliation of two others was not immediately available.

So obviously there's some disagreement, but one can assume here that though Christians are 1/3 of the population they are the substantial majority of the cabinet. Is this prejudice? Discrimination? Do Buddhists have grounds to be angry? As I have noted before in South Korea Christianity has a strong correlation with higher socioeconomic status. If one assumes that cabinet level positions sample from the social and educational elites, then they will naturally tend to preponderantly be Christians! Of course since the president is a zealous Christian one can always be suspicious of his motive and method, so as a precautionary principle one could argue that there should have been an affirmative action to reach out to Buddhists so that the cabinet "looked like the nation."

In the United States we're so hung up on racial and ethnic factions that we often don't notice that the disparate representations of different religious groups in government. Check the religious affiliations of Congress and Governors. Thank God we live well below the Malthusian limit!

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Male vs. female religiosity difference   posted by Razib @ 8/24/2008 09:36:00 PM

A few years ago Bryan Caplan argued that the cross-cultural male-female sex difference was due some innate differences. And specifically the differences he postulated explained why the less religious a society was the greater the sex difference. I took data from Rodney Stark's original paper (N = 54 nations), log-transformed the proportions of males and females who claimed to be religious, and plotted them along with the sex ratio (sorted by increasing male religiosity from left to right). As you can plainly see, the trends converge as the societies become progressively more religious and the sex ratio attenuates. Full disclosure, I discarded China from the list of nations because it was such an outlier of irreligiosity compared to every other nation and I didn't want to change the scaling too much. Stark has a follow up paper which explores this pattern of greater sex differences in religiosity with decreased traditionalism in the social milieu.

As Bryan notes Stark has his own particular model for why this sex difference persists. I have some issues in the details with Bryan's hypotheses, but I think he's going in the right direction. That being said, I wonder if some of the differences across societies might be viewed through individual vs. group dynamics. In societies where religions are personal choices, and "switching" or "defecting" does not entail high costs, then it is rational to "shop around" for the best bundle of characteristics which are congenial to your own preferences (or, one can opt-out of the whole institution). Some sort of neoclassical inspired rational choice model might work very well in these societies; the United States is probably one such culture (about 16% of Americans "switch" in their lifetime according to the Religious Identification Survey). But a society like Saudi Arabia or even Italy is far less of a rational individualist utopia; traditional religions operate like monopolies and there are powerful group level pressures to conform at the expense of personal actualization. Men and women have the same cognitive biases, but they're channeled and express in very different ways.

Finally, I was curious as to insights from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey. Trends were hard to spot; whatever group level effects I'm alluding to might be extant only on the scale of national cultures. But, I did notice that when there were two Protestant denominations which split on liberal-conservative lines, such as the American and Southern Baptists, or the Presbyterian Church in America and Presbyterian Church USA, the conservative denomination had proportionately more males. One hypothesis might be that the constraints, or disincentives via social sanction and ostracism, are low enough in the more liberal sects that they suffer high male defection rates vis-a-vis their conservative counterparts. Unfortunately the N for the GSS to answer these questions just isn't there, so I'll have to dig elsewhere....


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Large minority of atheists are religious   posted by Razib @ 8/23/2008 09:36:00 PM

Just noticed something weird. Seems like around 20% of atheists in the United States self-identify as a member of a religion. By atheist, I mean someone who states that they "Do not believe in God." 19% of Buddhists are atheists. 10% of Jews. 5% of Muslims and Hindus. 9% of "Other Faiths." And of course, 22% of the Unaffiliated (those without a religious identification). To get to my 20% number I just went to the Pew US Religious Landscape Survey, checked belief in God by religion and cross-referenced with the proportion within the sample of each religion. I think it's a rather peculiar situation that the same proportion of atheists are religious as non-religious are atheists! Chart and data below the fold....
  % atheist % in population % atheist X % in population
Evangelical 0 26.3 0.0
Mainline 1 18.1 18.1
Historically Black 0 6.9 0.0
Catholic 1 23.9 23.9
Mormon 0 1.7 0.0
Orthodox 4 0.7 2.8
Jehovah's Witness 0 0.6 0.0
Other Christian 1 0.3 0.3
Jew 10 1.7 17
Muslim 5 0.7 3.5
Buddhism 19 0.6 11.4
Hindu 5 0.4 2
Other Faith 9 1.2 10.8
Unaffiliated 22 16.1 354.2


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The triumph of Catholicism   posted by Razib @ 8/13/2008 03:24:00 PM

Most of you have heard about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation (which, more accurately should probably be termed the Catholic Reformation). But after posting earlier on the parameters which affect the shape and constraints of religious change, I thought it was important to mention something: in the second half the 16th century Catholicism was very close to becoming purely a Mediterranean sect of Christianity. In other words, Catholicism seemed on the verge of disappearing from Germany to the same extent that it did from England by and large. In East Central Europe, the precursors to the modern states of the Czech and Slovak Republics, Poland and Hungary, it was also being marginalized by Lutheranism, the Reformed Churches as well as even more extreme groups such as Unitarians. France had a large Huguenot minority which was represented disproportionately among the gentry and nobility. If you want to read about the extent of the rollback in the face of Protestantism check out The Thirty Years' War, The Reformation and Divided by Faith. All of them explore the massive penetration and domination of Protestantism among the Polish and Austrian nobility and the near collapse of Catholic parishes in regions which we today view as staunchly Roman Catholic.

But a Catholic world dominated by the peninsular Mediterranean never became. Today we have a German Pope, and the previous Pontif was Polish. Vast swaths of southern and western Germany remain Catholic, while the Protestant minority in France was expelled in the later 17th century (aside from mountainous redoubts such as Cevannes). What happened? The short answer is that the Hapsburgs happened. The Church operated in concert with the Holy Roman Emperor and other monarchs to reinvigorate the institutional framework of Roman Catholicism. The Jesuits were famously instrumental in this process of reform. But this was not a pure program of persuasion; Protestants who were not noble were often given the choice of emigration or conversion to the Catholic faith. Whole districts in Austria where Catholic parishes were no longer a feature of the landscape were re-Catholicized in a few years simply through imperial fiat. The mostly Protestant nobility could not be forced to convert, but they were blocked from patronage and access to the offices which brought glory upon their houses and maintained their fortunes. Additionally, though their private worship was given some latitude on their estates initially a step-by-step process of removal of these privileges also occurred over several generations. The result was that noble lineages who remained in the re-Catholicized regions of the Hapsburg Empire converted to the established religion, while those who would not give up their Protestant faith emigrated to regions where they could practice freely.

There are two domains of the former Hapsburg Empire which retain a large Protestant population; Hungary and Transylvania. And they illustrate the power of imperial fiat in driving religious change, because for much of the early modern period Transylvania was under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. Hungary was divided by a western Hapsburg domain and an eastern Ottoman portion. Not surprisingly, it is in the east that Protestant populations are most numerous because it is in the east that the re-Catholicization program was operative for the shortest period since these regions were under Turkish rule for most of the 17th century. The moral of the story here is that the diplomatic history of Europe between 1600 and 1800 can very accurately predict the religious configuration that we see today. Mass social movements simply could not succeed without the support of the elite, and the potentate had wide powers with which he or she could reshape that elite.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Comparing across American religions   posted by Razib @ 6/23/2008 01:44:00 PM

The Pew US Religious Landscape Survey has come out with its second week of survey results, now focusing in more detail on the beliefs of various groups. Nice way to compare across groups. I've collected and reformatted a selection of responses and their frequencies for four groups, Evangelicals (excluding Historically Black Churches), Mainline Protestants, Catholics and Muslims. I havd argued before that the median religious beliefs of American Muslims are closer to Evangelical Christians than to the religious as a whole. Therefore, one has to be careful when comparing "moderate Christians" to "moderate Muslims," since the former is likely to have far more liberal religious and social beliefs than the latter, though they might be appropriately termed so in the spectrum of their tradition. The results seem to suggest that I was mostly right; though American Muslims are somewhat less conservative than Evangelicals. Interestingly, note that Roman Catholics and Mainline Protestants are hard to distinguish.

(Caution: don't read that much into the percentages on the margins. 6% of atheists and 14% of agnostics believe in a Personal God according to the survey! Also, readers will probably be interested in the detailed tables which breakdown by denominations)

Evangelical Muslim Catholic Mainline Protestant
Abortion legal in all cases 9 13 16 20
Homosexuality should be accepted by society 26 27 58 56
Receives answers to prayer once a week 29 31 15 14
Attend religion service more than once a week 30 17 9 8
Own religion is one true faith leading to eternal life 36 33 16 12
Only one true way to interpret religion 41 33 19 14
Gov. should do more to protect morality 50 59 43 33
Scripture literally true word of god 59 50 23 22
Frequency of prayer 78 71 58 53
Religion very important 79 72 56 52
Belief in God: absolutely certain 90 82 72 73


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Are the unchurched criminals?   posted by Razib @ 6/21/2008 09:53:00 PM

43% of young men who never go to church have a record, according to the Inductivist:
The same kind of pattern holds here. For men, 43% of those who never go to church have been arrested, while only 13% of the most frequent attenders have. The corresponding percentages for females is 14% and 8%.

The results are from the GSS. The main question I would have are the affects of the background environment; in many socially conservative environments the expectation of involvement in a church is very strong and unchurched status could be a signal for anti-social tendencies. I know whereof I speak, I grew up for a while in a 3/4 Republican 99% white region of the Mountain West and those who were unchurched were often those who were "up to no good" (a small minority were secular liberals, but only a very small minority). My own prediction would be that this would be a more common phenomenon in a very religious country like the United States.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Religion & politics of American faculty   posted by Razib @ 6/20/2008 11:46:00 PM

A post at my other weblog on a survey that came out last year. Nothing too surprising except for the disciplinary breakdowns....


Saturday, June 07, 2008

On causes and religion   posted by Razib @ 6/07/2008 03:31:00 PM

Alan Jacobs of The American Scene has a piece in The Wall Street Journal titled Too Much Faith in Faith (also see Ross Douthat). He starts:
If there is one agreed-upon point in the current war of words about religion, it is that religion is a very powerful force. Perhaps you believe, with that vigorous atheist Christopher Hitchens, that "religion poisons everything"; or, with the Christian historian and sociologist Rodney Stark, that religion created modern science and ended slavery. Or, like a significant majority of the British public recently polled by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that religion is a "social evil," a "cause of conflict and confusion." But in any case you're likely to think that, for good or ill, the sheer impact of religion is enormous.

Is it, though?....

As they say, read the whole thing. Alan, as a Christian, place particular focus on the New Atheists who wish to leave at religion's feet all evil done it in its name but explain away as incidental all the good whose motivation was putatively supernatural. But he does note there are those such as Rodney Stark, an extremely pro-Christian sociologist, who would ascribe to religion all the good in the world while staying relatively silent on the evil enacted in the name of God (or, the usual special pleading that "that's not the real fill-in-the-blank-religion"). Below are a few general responses I have to Alan's piece.

1) Religion means different things at different times and different contexts, and it means a lot. That's a mouthful, but what I mean by this is that there is a lot of debate on what exactly religion entails on the margins. There are particular core traits which people recognize as religious, but the fact that almost every random functionally unrecognizable material remain has been classified as a "religious cult object" by archaeologists illustrates the catchall nature of religion. Additionally, different religions have different emphases; some are more focused on "orthopraxy," and some are more fixated on "orthodoxy."

The distinction is important in Christian cultures because I think it can be argued that Christian religiosity in the modern West, especially the Protestant West, is highly focused on doxy, belief, as opposed to praxy, practice. In most other major world religions one may make a point that praxy is much more emphasized on a relative scale. This contrast lay at the heart of the book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, where the author makes the case that American legal structures are designed to accommodate Protestantesque religions (I think one can make the case that Reform Judaism is Protestantized, and one can also argue that American Catholicism has a fundamentally Protestant character in terms of how believers relate to their church despite what Church teaching might be). These structures are not well prepared to deal with the different needs of orthopraxic traditions. This is not to say that all major religions do not have both dimensions, but I think it is clear that profession of a precise belief plays an outsized role in terms of identity for an evangelical Christian in comparison to those who consider themselves Hindus or Jews.

Multi-dimensionality is also important, religion as a phenomenon bleeds into many aspects of life and draws from a multitude of human propensities. One major failing, in my opinion, of militant atheism is its tendency to overestimate the religiousness of any particular act which is claimed to be religious. I've made this sort of argument most explicitly about Christmas; for some people the season has obvious religious intent and meaning, but it is clear that the main features of Christmas as a cultural festival were co-opted from pre-Christian and non-Christian practices. The Christmas tree, yule log and ginger cookie making all have explicit pre-Christian antecedents and pagan religious significance (the latter is clear when you note that the Christian Church often banned many of these practices). This does not mean that these practices are anti-Christian, or even that they can not be given Christian significance (e.g., the Star of Bethlehem at the top of many Christmas trees), but rather that the religiosity, or lack thereof, of any particular practice is a very complicated issue to ascertain.

If you evaluated a sample space of human characteristics, and then tabulated the number of those characteristics which contribute in some manner to religiosity or the religious phenomenon I would daresay one might note that a substantial subset of the former are contained in the latter. The intersection is most clear in what some scholars might term a political religion, mass social movements often spearheaded by a charismatic figure which posit an eschatology. Obviously political religion intersects substantially with supernatural religion in terms of its parameters. In fact, on many occasions political religion starts to mimic supernatural religion; e.g., the bizarre legends which Kim Jong-Il's regime in North Korea promotes about the miracles attendant upon the day of his birth, such as flowers blooming in winter! The power of political religion is clear to us today in the modern world, but we can see that it lacks the temporal robusticity that supernatural religion has. The god of political religion is a material figure who dies, and the only way to maintain the charisma around his person is to engage in apotheosis and supernaturalize him (note the peculiar preservation of the body of Lenin). Supernatural religions on the other hand persevere beyond the death of their founders and can connect the generations of the past to those of the future through the mediating power of supernatural agents, whose concrete existence is irrelevant to their affect on human cognitive states.

What does this have to do with Alan's post? Obviously men such as Richard Dawkins are opposed to the evils of religion, but they are often accused of not paying proper attention to atheistic Communism and Nazism. Let's sidestep the fact that Nazism had at least a Deistic core, Communism was avowedly an atheist ideology. The New Atheists might claim that the evil of Communism was not committed in the name of, or because of, atheism, but rather due to collectivist and totalitarian political ideology. But, I would hold that these are exactly the aspects of religion which the New Atheists use as a cudgel against religion! If you read Dawkins' The God Delusion he obviously has contempt for the hypothesis of God itself as infantile, but his most trenchant critiques hinge upon the material consequences of religion, the irrationality of behavior and policy (from his perspective) which are rooted in religious ideology. But the homophobia, patriarchy and Puritanism which were extant in the former Communist countries strongly suggests that social characteristics which secular liberal elites decry because of their associations with religion will not be mysteriously banished with the death of the gods. It is to me somewhat ironic that the New Atheists often invert the concepts of religionists, whereas the latter might posit a utopia under the aegis of their god the former seem to project a godless future where the dark hand of the divine has been removed and so the lion may now lay with the lamb! It seems they forgot to remember that His Dark Materials was fiction.

2) The previous point attempted to emphasize that because religion is so broad, and so interconnected with various other aspects of human sociality, it is very difficult to adduce that religion as such is the causal factor underlying a particular dynamic. I think that the missteps by scholars such as Max Weber in overemphasizing the importance of religious ideas in driving the nature of a society or culture illustrate this. Weber famously suggested that a Calvinist ethic drive the rise of modern capitalism, using Germany as an example. Though there are debates as to the validity of Weber's assertions (the majority seem to believe the idea falsified, though there is a revisionist minority), his assumption that East Asian societies would never modernize economically because of their Confucian/Buddhist religious sensibilities shows the weakness of this sort of black-box approach to religion.

One point which Alan suggests is that those who accept the claims of religionists in terms of their rationale for a given behavior needs to be treated with skepticism. Humans are incredibly fluent fabulists, and not only can we lie to others with relative ease, that ease comes more easily when we lie to ourselves. This is a general observation; in extreme cases one would assume that those who destroy the lives of others in their own self-interest engage in self-deception as to assuage their own guilt. Obviously a woman who kills her own child because she believes that he is Satan incarnate is insane and delusional, that's not the sort of normal cognition which I'm talking about. Rather, humans have a tendency to attribute cause to the random, virtuous ultimate intent behind short term gratification via vice. Consider the psychology of a serial killer such as Jeffery Dahmer who converted to Christianity before his death. Dahmer may sincerely have believed his conversion was due to his personal experience with God, but I assume many would wonder if part of his mind was very intent on absolving himself of his sins, and that the Christian God was the avenue toward such absolution. These dynamics are not limited to religion, consider a man who cheats on his wife because such behavior is "natural," or a capitalist who exploits his employees and cheats his consumers justifying it somehow via the natural workings of a free market. Human psychology is complex, and our decision making process is not driven by a unitary rational agent. Most importantly, we do not have easy access to our own subconscious mental processes which shape the course of our decisions, though we freely manufacture explanations which give us a sense of the reasoning behind our decisions.

3) In point #1 I tried to suggested that religion is such an expansive phenomenon, intercalated with other social processes, that we need to be very careful in ascribing any particular good or evil to religion as such. In point #2 I try to point out that the psychology of religion is also rather complex, and how people relate to their religion, and the explanations they offer about how they relate, should be taken with a grain of salt. These are generally negative points, expressions of skepticism and agnosticism about the assertions which religionists and anti-religionists regularly make. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason Sam Harris naively explores the irrationality of religion by taking at face value the assertions of religionists. To me this is like making inferences about mantle geophysics by examining what you see from satellite photographs in terms of surface topography.

But this negation of positive assertions does not mean that one can not make generalizations about religion. Muslims tend not to drink alcohol, Jews tend not to eat pork, and Christians tend not make distinctions of kind among believers. These are generalizations which capture particular trends. Jews who adhere to halakah and Muslims who follow sharia, or Hindus who follow prescribed customs & traditions deviate from expectation unless you know their religious identity. But does this make a difference in the shape of the world around us? To some extent, yes. On the other hand, how much does it matter?

I approach issues from the perspective of an atheist. I don't think there are transcendent supernatural truths in the universe, or, more precisely I don't know what terms like "transcendent supernatural truths" are supposed to mean, nor do I feel that the claims made by any religion I've encountered are coherent. For most religionists this is not true, claims of a supernatural grounding to the universe are plausible to them. I suspect this is in large part a function of human propensity toward detecting and assuming agency in the universe around us. The world has purpose, and behind purpose must be agency, and an intelligent agent. The baroque theologies and institutional scaffolding which we attribute to religion are built upon this foundation, and no matter the cathedral that you construct with your mortar the necessary precondition and ultimate constraint are resident within the essence of your building material.

Therefore, I believe laws that are presumed to emanate from God on High have more power and hold on human psychology than laws which are derived from man. But the reality is also that by and large gods don't walk amongst us, and believers must rely upon priesthoods or personal judgement to interpret the will of God. And this is a critical point: the power of divine law lay in its origins on the ultimate Ground of Being, but how we implement the law is highly contingent upon personal circumstance. For me the clearest example was of a Muslim ruler in Africa who had enslaved all non-Muslims within his domains and so perceived a deficit of revenue. His solution was simple, he imposed a very high tax upon his Muslim subjects, and when they were not able to pay the tax he obtained from a religious scholar a ruling that those who disobey their ruler are apostates and non-Muslims, and since his subjects could no longer pay their tax they were now available for enslavement. This is an extreme case, but I mention it to show the ingenuity of human interpretation. Islamic banking is a more prosaic illustration of how one can satisfy the letter of the law to one's own sincere satisfaction and yet remain transparently self-interested to outside observers.

This is not to deny that a particular religious dispensation might ensure and encourage particular changes, but the rationales for those changes, and their permanence, should be questioned. For example, in parts of Southeast Asia some individuals in pagan communities have converted to Islam or Christianity and praised the frugality which their new religion enabled. The explanation is that particular feasts which the village would throw to placate ancestors and tribal gods were a severe economic burden, and those who converted to a world religion would obviously have opted out of the collections for these pagan events. Over time these communities will almost certainly become uniformly Christian or Muslim. At that point does one suppose that the economic expenditures of the community would be reduced permanently because of the lack of servicing of tribal gods and ancestors? I doubt it, rather, the extant evidence from Christian and Muslim communities suggests that these religious traditions have festivals and institutions which require funds from all believers who are capable of paying (i.e., those who are not destitute). Early converts of course would receive a windfall benefit during the transition between the old and new religion, because they would have opted out of the institutional system of the old before that of the new had arisen. I use the above example to show how one must focus on dynamics and epiphenomenal details when examining social and historical questions. The early Protestants accused the Roman Catholic church of being debased and pagan, and looked back to the primitive Christians as their exemplars, but I suspect that the nature of the Roman Catholic church resembled Roman state paganism because universal religions which depend upon state patronage develop particular characteristics. Additionally, sectarian dissenters as a self-selected minority have their own peculiar characteristics which might make some critiques inevitable byproducts of the structural relations of the social and political system.

4) Though I do think it is likely that there are differences between the world religions on the margins in terms of how they habituate their believers, I think we need to be cautious of generalizations because there is often a sharp deviation between ideals and practice, and humans are given toward conflating their own circumstance with broad causes. It maybe that Islam is by its nature or historical development a more masculine religion than Christianity in terms of its appeal and methods, but I believe a more fruitful and easy to establish pattern is the general importance of religion in generating outgroup vs. ingroup dynamics. In other words, the sharp ritualistic differences between Rabbinical Jews and high caste Hindus in Kerala were less important in their judgement of each other than the fact that both adhered to strict rules in regards to ritual purity. To me the fundamental importance of obligate vegetarianism among many high caste Hindus is not the functional role this might play in terms of shifting nutritional intakes, but the fact that those on nutritional margins could not emulate this "costly signaller." It is notable that some low caste groups are scavengers upon meat because if they did not engage in these practices they might starve. The details of the hundreds of commandments which Orthodox Jews follow and the multitudinous interpretations of the implementation of these commandments is less important than the fact that the ritual lifestyle entails separation from those who do not adhere to said rituals. The details of the Nicene Creed are less important than the fact that some accept it, and some do not.

The ingroup-outgroup dynamics in world religions lead to the emergence of fictive kinship. Anthropologists and sociologists have done a great deal of work about the functional importance of religious groups for individuals in terms of generating social networks and undergirding civil society. Social networks and the emergence of civil society are not necessarily features of religion, but religion is sufficient to generate both, so its utility is rather clear. Japan is a society where religious belief and practice are far less salient features of mass culture than the United States, and yet it seems to have a robust civil society. So what's going on? Well, the Japanese are an extremely homogeneous people, their fictive kinship is based upon national identity. When New Atheists assert that the Japanese do not need religion to create a society which is characterized by low levels of social pathology as defined by little interpersonal violence they do not elucidate exactly the mechanisms and parameters which exist in the vacuum of powerful institutional religion.

I think that's about it for now. I think Alan's piece was a serious attempt to grapple with a lived reality which both the New Atheists and many religious thinkers don't seem to acknowledge. One would assume that if you were an empiricist that this would matter, but that doesn't sell books does it?


Monday, May 12, 2008

President apostate?   posted by Razib @ 5/12/2008 12:50:00 PM

Edward Luttwak has a column (via The Corner) up pointing out that by Muslim measures Barack Obama is an apostate; so it is permissible that he should be killed. This is true, and I think if you asked most Muslims they would accede to the principle here. But as a matter of practicality these sorts of laws aren't enacted or enforced in all circumstances without sensitivity to other parameters; unlike Barack Obama the former president of Argentina, Carlos Menem, converted to Roman Catholicism from Islam as an adult (there have also been African leaders who converted from Islam to Christianity, but I don't believe they visited the Arab world), and he remained on good terms with the Arab nations. If you look at the cases where apostasy is an issue, they seem to fall into two broad categories. The first is one of crass material interest on the part of Muslims and marginality in the case of non-Muslims; in other words, there is a rational reason for a Muslim to use the letter of the law against the apostate or non-Muslim, and that individual who is being persecuted has very little recourse because of their lack of power. Second, there is the perception that the individual is being too vocal and so disrupting social norms and public disorder. It seems from all that I have heard atheism is known and tolerated in the Muslim world so long as atheists remain silent; the problem is public profession of views which go against majority norms. I strongly suspect in the case of the president of the United States most Islamic powers that be would simply ignore the letter of the law (that is, the consensus of Muslim scholars over the ages).

This does not imply that I think the attitudes of Muslims are appropriate to the modern world. Nor do I think it implies that the probability of Obama being assassinated due to his religious history is the same, all things controlled, as someone who had a less complicated past. I'm arguing simply that his "apostasy" really shouldn't be the primary predictor when we consider this issue; powerful men are simply held to different standards in our species, that's culturally invariant and the biggest issue of context in this case.

Addendum: I'm going to take a moment here to make a political comment which I hope won't spawn a thread-closing tirade from readers; but conservatives often complain that liberals don't take cultural complexity into account when they're making models of societies. Additionally, they often accuse liberals of adhering to an idealized noble savage conception of non-Western peoples (e.g., I have heard some liberals argue that Obama's Muslim background will even encourage good feelings from the Islamic world!). Unfortunately, many conservatives are guilty of the same; simple models make good rhetoric and ignorance breeds supreme confidence (I've been guilty of this, you've been guilty of this). But if any individual looks to their own life, their social circle and their culture, they will see a great deal of texture, subtly and nuance which can't be shoehorned into the avowed heuristics.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mass conversions from Islam to Christianity?   posted by Razib @ 4/10/2008 08:54:00 PM

Pajamas Media has a post up, Muslims Leaving Islam in Droves, which seems to be getting a bit of linkage. There's a lot of weird stuff in this post, so I figured I'd offer a little quick commentary on the assertions and data. I'm not going to do detailed citations at this point of why I believe what I believe in the interests of time, but if you dig deeper into the ethnography I think you'll see that I'm not making things up.

First, there's the assertion of mass conversions from Islam to Christianity in Africa. The link provided with an Al-Jazeerah transcript (translated) suggests that either Ahmad al-Qataani, leader of the Companions Lighthouse for the Science of Islamic Law in Libya, is stupid or mendacious. There's a lot of wacko contentions, but the big picture is this: in 1900 Africa was a predominantly pagan continent. Even regions which had long been historically dominated by Muslim elites, such as Senegal, was only lightly Islamicized at the level of the populace. In other words, institutional Islam has very shallow roots in much of Sub-Saharan Africa where it has historically been the only high religion. One can infer this from the fact that in East Africa the coastal margins were dominated by Muslim entrepots, and yet the majority of the population today is Christian in states such as Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania. Why? Because for whatever reason Muslims did not convert the interior tribes (I suspect that the fact that these peoples were a source of slaves as pagans, but would be forbidden if Muslims, might have played some role). An analogy might be Scandinavia in the late 10th century, when some warlords had converted to Christianity (e.g., Harald Bluetooth) and Christians were a presence as a minority across many regions, but paganism was still the dominant religion.

Since 1900 the proportion of Muslims has increased, but the proportion of Christians has increased far faster. Whereas the ratio of Muslims to Christians was lopsided in favor of Muslims in 1900 (with most Christians resident in Ethiopia), today there are more Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Southern and interior Central and East Africa the dominance of Christianity should be no surprise; Islam never penetrated these regions except in the form of the occasional trader, slave or otherwise. In contrast, in West Africa and in the Horn of Africa Islam arrived as an elite religion of the courts, a vector for high civilization (converting Nubia, almost conquering Ethiopia). But one needs to remember that the presence of Islam in Nigeria or the Guinea coast was never equivalent to that in Algeria or Egypt; Kambiz tells me that Muslim women in Ethiopia go topless on occasion. I think that tells you all you need to know about the penetration of Islamic values into many of these societies. The arrival of European colonialism resulted in a new avenue toward assimilation into a high culture which had nothing to do with Islam, and since 1950 the "forest zone" in much of West Africa has been Christianized. The fact that a long serving president of Benin converted from Christianity to Islam to Christianity again should illustrate the fluidity of religion in Sub-Saharan Africa (I suspect American readers might appreciate the protean & personal nature of religious affiliation in much of Sub-Saharan African better than Europeans or Asians).

The article also has out-of-control fantasies by Christian evangelists:
Although al-Qataani points to Africa, there is another phenomenon based on repulsion from Islamist dictatorship, corruption, and terrorist violence. In Iran as many as 1 million people have surreptitiously converted to Evangelical Christianity in the last five years. Pastor Hormoz Shariat claims to have converted 50,000 of them through his U.S.-based Farsi-language satellite ministry. He contrasts the upswing to the efforts of evangelical missionaries in Iran between 1830 and 1979, whose 149 years of work built a Christian community of only 3,000. One Iranian religious scholar believes youth are abandoning Islam because it is identified with the corrupt Iranian government. Now the Iranian Majlis (parliament) is debating the death penalty for conversion.

It's not impossible that there might be 1 million crypto-Christians in Iran, but do note this is a nation of 71 million. I'm sure I have enough Iranian readers to get a sense of these sorts of claims because if there really are 1 million crypto-Christians most Iranian Americans should know of them through their extended families, right? The exuberance of Christian evangelists is understandable, but the media tends to be way too credulous. Remember that some evangelical Christians claim there are over 100 million Christians in China, though surveys suggest considerably less (though more than the Chinese government admits). There are also anecdotal accounts of how hostile to Islam some Iraqis are now that Shia clericalism has somewhat of an influence. There's a problem with this though: a disproportionate number of emigrants from Iraq today are from its ancient Christian communities. It seems rather tasteless to fan flames over likely non-existent potentials to convert Iraqi Muslims to Christianity when the indigenous Christians are being driven out, and it seems that we are seeing the last generation of Christianity in Iraq (I am very skeptical that the Chaldaean Diaspora in Sweden will flock back to Iraq once it is more stable, just as the Church of the East Diaspora in the United States did not return after the expulsions of the early 20th century).

The rest of the article alludes to apostasy and conversion to Christianity in Russia, Europe and other parts of the world. I suspect the numbers for Malaysia are a bit exaggerated, especially since the source is a mufti who likely wants to justify a more aggressive role for his office, but secularization has been attested for French citizens whose families are traditionally Muslim, and Russia has a long history of converting and assimilating "Tatars" into its population. A portion of the noble Russian boyar class were derived from the elites of Turkic peoples who were brought into the fold of the expanding Empire. In places like Albania the population is predominantly secular and Christians, Hare Krishnas and Muslims are all attempting to find converts in the population.

In any case, I suspect the article was meant as a propaganda piece. I suppose it is important to rally the troops...but I'm generally not too fond of making stuff up, since that sort of behavior tends to come back and bite you. I also think some people will take it a bit too literally so I wanted to clarify a few issues....

Note: If you are interested a scholarly exposition of data, Philip Jenkins' books are pretty good. He's pro-Christian, but he is pretty good about not making stuff up or deceiving readers.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Why civilizations may clash more, not less   posted by Razib @ 4/08/2008 12:48:00 AM

Update: Added a chart.

One of the major themes of the past few decades has been the perception that greater cultural homogenization is occurring because of globalization, which is enabled by the changes in technological and institutional parameters. Shared material culture & values may piggyback along the cresting wave of economic integration and growth. An extremely optimistic model might be that we are seeing the emergence of a vast world market unified by a common set of mediating institutions and core values. There is obviously something to this. A substantial number of Muslims defend their religion's feminist credentials and decry polygyny, while Buddhists reframe their own independent tradition as an elucidation of a universal rational spiritual tradition. These responses show the power of Western culture in setting the terms of debate. But these general trends need to be tempered by an attention to the details, the specifics of which may not entail the results in all cases which our general framework would lead us to expect.

Consider the issue of language. The consistent belly-aching over the mass extinction of obscure languages is just the latest chapter in thousands of years of linguistic winnowing. Today the Iberian peninsula is home to a group of related languages aside from Basque. 2,000 years ago it hosted tongues of disparate families; Basque, Celtic, Latin, Punic and a medley of southern Iberian languages such as Tartessian. With the extinction of most and the emergence of a few large blocks one may perhaps argue that there is more discontinuity, not less, when it comes to speech. The logic here is that a welter of dialects would tend to fade into each other, and even when there would be a "jump" across language families (e.g., Finnic to Slavic) there would be a greater number of mediating dialects sharing lexical features to facilitate cross-fertilization. With the rise of nation-states and the expansion of originally narrow dialects into lingua francas which quickly monopolize the public spaces (e.g., modern Italian and French as descendants of particular Florentine or Parisian dialects) these intermediary variants no longer play their roles. Oligopolies of languages sponsored by nation-states force bridge dialects to fade to the margins. What are bridge dialects? Catalan and Occitan are two that I have in mind. Because of the decentralized nature of the modern Spanish polity the former looks like it may have a future, but the latter is slowly being crushed by the dominance of French.

Though language is emotionally salient for many, that is really not what I had in mind. In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order Samuel Huntington presented a thesis which used religion as the major organizing principle around which societies cohere. I am willing to accept this more or less (though language is obviously a major fissure as well). I have argued before that communication improvements are a major reason that I believe Islam is becoming more centralized in terms of belief and practice; the ummah is realizing its unity much more concretely than in the past. Recently I was reading a history of Burma, and the author noted that in the past many Muslims who were in areas where they were a minority were difficult to distinguish from non-Muslims. Most of their practices were similar to their neighbors, and they did not dress any differently, men and women prayed in a mixed setting etc. Much the same could be said of 19th century Bengal, where the outlook of Muslim and Hindu peasants didn't differ greatly and veneration of Hindu and Sufi saints bled into each other, resulting in an operationally syncretistic milieu, the perfect matrix for groups like the Baul to operate and receive patronage. Among abangan Muslims in Java the Ramayana remains very popular. In China the Hui Muslim intellectuals of the 18th century justified the high status of their religion on Confucian principles. In Vietnam the Cham Muslims were known to syncretize their Islam with that of the Mahayana Buddhism of their Vietnamese neighbors. The examples are endless, and one can generalize beyond Islam in South and East Asia.

Things have changed a great deal. In many of these regions Islam has gone through periods of "reform" and new found adherence to "orthodoxy." I suspect that santri Muslims in Java would assert that the spread of their form of Islam simply has to do with education; their Islam is the more authentic Islam, that of the abangan is debased weak tea. In China ties with the West enabled by modern transportation (broadly construed) resulted in a rethinking of the Hui relationship with the majority culture; instead of Confucius as the arbiter of correct thought they began to look to Muslim eminences from Southwest Asia as their authentic sages. In Kerala in South India Yemeni ulema who were reforming the Islam of that region instructed peasant women to no longer go topless as had been their custom when working in the fields. What you see here is a tightening of the ship, a purging and paring back of heterodoxy, heresy and laxity allowed and engendered by isolation.

Or do you? There aren't any black & white answers here, I don't think one can totally deny the thesis that the early texts of Islam reflect an Arab society at variance with assimilative dynamics manifest on the margins of the Muslim world. But there maybe less to the texts than meets the eyes. When reading about Burmese Muslims, or Hui Muslims, and so on, I was struck by the lack of rationalization they seemed to need for the fact that they were subordinated to non-Muslim rulers and populations. Their minority status was taken as a given, and they freely integrated themselves into a non-Muslim order (e.g., Burmese Muslims who served as soldiers, or Hui who entered the bureaucracy via the examination system). To some extent this contrasts with the pro forma nods to propriety near the "center" of the Muslim world; the fact that the Emirate of Granada was a vassal to Christian powers for centuries was long cause for some concern in the domain of political theory. Muslims in the Russian Empire engaged in soul searching as to whether it was acceptable to render under to the Orthodox Christian Tsarina (Catherine the Great). The logic was simply that of jihad and domination; the only peace was that which prevailed under Islamic dominion. That was the argument, but it was breached and contradicted by practice rather early on.

But why did this argument not seem to come up in some lands where Muslims were a small minority? Clearly there is the issue of practicality. There was no question that the Muslims of Burma were in no position to make demands or wage war against the non-Muslim majority. But, going back to my emphasis on communication and identification there was less of an exemplar of extensive Muslim states which expunge pluralism through a process of cultural attrition. Certainly India came close, but the reality remained that it was a primarily Hindu realm demographically, and the Muslim masses of Bengal were only notionally Islamicized during most of history. The apologia offered by the Emirate of Granada and the Tatars who remained within the Russian Empire was necessary because of the affinity & identification with polities where the dominionist narrative was taken for granted. Specifically, the Ottomans offered refuge to any Muslims who emigrated south into their lands, and the Sultan more or less saw himself as the natural lord of the Muslims of Russia. Tatars who remained within a Christian Empire and integrated did so despite the option of emigration or passive resistance and continued loyalty to the Sultan. The Emirate of Granada had successful models of the triumph of the eternal jihad across the Straits of Gibraltar in the Muslim polities of the Maghreb.

Today the information umbrella of the ummah spans the whole globe. Chinese Muslims are no longer ignorant of the currents of change and conformity in the rest of the Islamic world; rather, they are part of the discussion. But as they shift their marginal units of attention to the broader debates in the Muslim world they decrease the attention spent engaging their non-Muslim neighbors. These sorts of processes are complex; note that there is evidence that 19th century reformist Islamic movements in many parts of China succeeded when they used indigenous mythical formula. The paradox is that on the practical level Chinese means were the most efficient method to arrive to the ends of identification of Muslims as distinct from their non-Muslim Chinese neighbors! I bring this up to caution that even if there is a distinct tendency for many Muslims around the world to assert that they are concurrently moving toward a reassertion of 7th century Islamic values, that may not truly be the reality. This goes to emphasizing that despite the anti-liberal ethos of most Islamic fundamentalist movements, their origins, methods and to some extent practical outcomes, imply that substantively they are the product of dynamics of the last few centuries no matter their late antique packaging & marketing. The ubiquity of modern technology within Islamist circles may not be so aberrant or mercenary, but rather hint at structural features at sharp variance with their public propoganda and self-images.

But packaging matters. When the Muslim women of Kerala began wearing blouses some of their Hindu landlords objected that they were putting on airs. When some of these landlords forced the women to revert to their old style of dress their menfolk rebelled and killed them (these were not sui generis in this part of India, the same incidents occurred between landlords and low caste groups, but without the religious valence). Amartya Sen has objected to the emphasis on the Islamic identity of Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom to the exclusion of their Bengaliness, a dimension which they share with Sen (a culturally Hindu Bengali). I suspect though that Sen's objection may be in vain; perhaps the multi-textured demographic landscape is going to cede ground to the religious oligopolies of the future? The very rugged and chaotic nature of the phenotypic space which cultures had previously explored might have served as a buffer to massive seismic collisions which are now going to be inevitable in the world of crashing cultural plates.

The chart to the left illustrates what I'm talking about. Imagine a bounded region, and variation along a character (e.g., % of red-meat derived protein in diet). The further you go back in time the more local variation you tend to see. As you move closer to the present there is "cultural consolidation."

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Religion: biology ↔ psychology ↔ sociology ↔ history   posted by Razib @ 3/30/2008 01:18:00 AM

On the most recent you can watch Paul Bloom explaining why he thinks the propensity for theism is an innate bias of our species. Several years back Bloom wrote a piece for The Atlantic, Is God an Accident?, where he makes a similar case. But the general outline of Bloom's line of thinking is actually most powerfully argued in Scott Atran's In God's We Trust. The cognitive psychologists and anthropologists who work within this paradigm operate under some background assumptions in regards to our mental architecture. First, human cognitive states are strongly biased by innate tendencies which have a biological origin. Perception and language acquisition are easily explained by nativist treatments, but Atran and others have argued that more obscure biases such as folk biology also exist, while other domains such as theory of mind are broadly accepted within the scholarly community.

One can conceive of a model where on a lower structural level a set of biological parameters interact with exogenous inputs to generate a set of psychological biases. But the subsequent mental skills are not independent, and I suspect broadly distributed ones contingent upon environmental inputs such as language are among the least encapsulated from other cognitive domains. It seems rather clear that language aptitude is one of the components which can be used to explain the facility for mathematical abstraction, but it can not explain the totality of this skill. Cognitive anthropologists have also noted that preliterate peoples have extreme difficulties with comprehending the logic or rationale behind syllogistic reasoning (see Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind), suggesting that there are strong cultural preconditions to particular styles of thinking which may seem natural to us. Even though language, reading and writing all are learned, they are also facilities which we as humans have an innate aptitude for because of our neurobiology (language is obviously "more innate" insofar as it seems that our priming is so strong that it might emerge out of any conventional socialization processes, which literacy is historically and culturally contingent).

Another working assumption of Bloom, Atran & co. is that a great deal of our cognition is implicit. Again, this is well accepted among the community of scholars. It stands to reason that our conscious mind lives under the illusion that it is all that there is, but a substantial body of work tells us that most of our conscious decisions are strongly influenced and primed by subconscious background parameters. Not only does this include priming an individual immediately prior to a psychological task, but it also includes the enormous swath of territory which falls under the category of intuitive thinking. A dense network of background connections and implicit inferences is often an outsized shadow of the visible chains of reflective rationality. Even in structurally transparent and deductive disciplines such as mathematics the dark-net of subconscious facts and assumptions loom large in the process of creativity.

The fact that psychological biases have many different upstream neurobiological and environmental parameters, as well as the syngergistic nature of cognition which produces subsequent cognitive abilities (e.g., mathematics or painting which includes perspective), means that a hypothesis that posits a God Module is obviously going to be false. There are god modules such as the medulla oblongata, but only insofar as they are necessary for the proper functioning of a human in general. But it seems highly unlikely that there is one localized region of the brain which is specifically the causal element for belief in God (i.e., if said region is damaged atheism ensues, but most other cognitive function is left unscathed). This assumption doesn't derive simply from an a priori understanding of how the mind works; we can see it in how the phenotype of theism plays out. The pathological character of many aphasia sufferers is pretty obvious; in contrast the avowed attitude toward the God hypothesis is characterized by a rich range of opinion in terms of both plausibility and character. In other words, religion is more properly characterized as a quantitative trait which exhibits a wide range of continuous variation, subject to a norm of reaction.

Do note that I said avowed attitude; when it comes to theism there are many ways to evaluate belief or lack thereof. Despite wide variations in verbal descriptions of the particular flavor of deity believers assent to, psychologists know that the implicit model of most humans in regards to supernatural agents is strongly constrained. This is one of the main reasons that many cognitive scientists believe that our mental architecture is rigged toward a belief in god; not only do the gods which individuals from widely disparate societies model in their mind's eye differ from the entities which they avow a conscious belief in, but those psychological constructs exhibit a very strong universal central tendency. In other words, the human model of a god, or supernatural agent if you will, seems to be predicated on the various elements of universal neurobiology. Unless strongly constrained by experimental or observational methodologies as in natural science, or a rigorous formalism as in mathematics, our species tends to reason extremely sloppily so that inferences unmoored from experience or unchanneled by formalism invariably explore an enormous sample space of possibilities starting from the same axioms. That humans tend to conceive of the same god-construct despite lack of communication or outside input suggests that the channeling is occurring on an innate level.

Additionally, not only do theists no matter their affiliation agree upon an intuitive model of God, but so do atheists. Paul Bloom has noted that the offspring of secular parents are usually innate Creationists. Many of the ideas bracketed within "religion" are very natural and intuitive. In our gut we know them to be "true" without deep reflection or analysis. Atheism can not exist without theism because it is simply a negation of the latter. It is a conceit of many atheists that children are naturally unbelievers and that they are indoctrinated into a religious system of belief. This is correct; children are indoctrinated into a system of belief, but more specifically they are indoctrinated into a system, not a belief. That in almost all human societies a supernatural model of the world is numerically dominant strongly suggests that these sorts of belief do not necessarily need the institutional scaffolding of established churches or professional priesthoods. Rather, it seems that these features of religion are secondary and subsequent, and that they operate upon the preexistent assumptions of the population. Some atheists live under the delusion that the withering of organized religion will result in the collapse of belief in God or the supernatural; this is not so. Though the extremely high rates of theism in some societies may be an upper bound contingent upon social and historical conditions, in no society does it seem there exists an inverse dynamic where theism is extant at trivial levels. Note that even after 70 years of state sanctioned atheism Russians have now swung back to a default affiliation with their historical religious identity as Orthodox Christians. This is not to say that Russians are a religiously fervent people; rather, the high levels of atheism espoused during the Soviet era was a function of a skewing of the environmental inputs which shifted the median value of the trait distribution. With the norm relaxed the distribution has shifted back.

The plausibility of theism doesn't need to be something we note only in terms of macrosocial metrics in regards to religious affiliation cross-culturally. As I imply above, theism is at root a psychological phenomena, and the bundle of biases and presuppositions which our biology confers upon us stack the deck in terms of weighting the plausibility of god concepts. This applies to atheists as well. We might not believe in god on the conscious level, but that does not mean that we are immune to the priming affect of agents, and likely supernatural agents as well. The folk wisdom about there being no atheists in foxholes is a reflection of this assumption. Now I'm not going to tell anyone who says they don't believe in god that deep down they really do believe in god; rather, I simply believe that many of the psychological characteristics which prime one for finding god plausible are present in those who consciously assert that they don't believe in gods. For example many atheists may feel unnerved in cemeteries despite a materialist world-view; the psychological response may be a result of social conditioning, but it is also possibly a cognitive reflex at an intersection of environmental inputs (think snake aversion as something similar).

So far I have alluded to biology & psychology, but what about the higher-level social sciences? Paul Bloom and most cognitive scientists are focused on the first two disciplines, so they tend to strongly adhere to a model that religion is a byproduct of our cognitive architecture. An analogy might be the heat given off by the functioning of a car's engine; the heat is not a designed product of the various components of the engine, but it is an inevitable byproduct of the physical processes entailed by combustion. Similarly, theism may not be an adaptation to any exogenous selection pressure, but the intersection of various adaptive psychological characters such as agency detection, theory of mind and folk biology necessarily lead to the plausibility of supernatural agents within the minds of most humans. Because of Bloom's disciplinary focus he tends to not be very open toward a functionalist explanation for theism; that theism (or religion) is an adaptive trait which increases individual fitness. Insofar as explanations at a lower level of organization are preferable to those at a higher level, I think that Bloom's skepticism is warranted. But even cognitive anthropologists who tend to focus on the psychological dimensions of theism can't dismiss the social aspects of religion, and a substantial body of social science research implies that variation in religious belief might track other social variables.

Instead of repeating the functionalist explanations elucidated by scientists such as David Sloan Wilson (see Darwin's Cathedral), I think it is easy to illustrate the relation of these various theories by using an analogy with narrative. Despite the attempts of authors who dabble in "experimental fiction" it seems pretty obvious that a great story has a dimension of temporal permanence derived from the timelessness of the primary themes and styles. The Epic of Gilgamesh speaks to us even after 4,000 years, and many of its motifs are still extant in the heroic fantasy genre. Despite the lack of qualitative originality in plot and the constraints upon the plausible range of the psychology of characters we continue to consume fiction because our brains are attracted to particular themes arranged in a familiar structure. One could contend that fiction is a waste of time, but it seems likely that the same mental ticks which draw us to compelling stories are useful in other areas of life.

But narrative is not only a byproduct of our promiscuous mental functioning, it is an essential part of myth-making and religion. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer has reported on research which suggests that minimally counterintuitive stories are the ones which are most memorable and "sticky" over the long-term. In other words, experimental fiction is just too weird to really make a deep impact, you don't have any common basis for associative memory to operate. In contrast, exceedingly conventional and banal narratives just don't add anything new to the base of data. A boring story is a boring story. But a familiar scenario with just the right amount of spice adds enough twists and turns within the comprehensible base to make it memorable enough to catalog and retrieve later. This explains why most science fiction and fantasy tends to constrain the deviation from normality; you can't relate to a story where most of it is unfamiliar or disorienting.

Of course narrative is an essential part of religion. Even "primitive" religions have a robust narrative base; tales of gods & heroes unfettered by abstruse theologies. The story of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels has a power to draw people in and inspire them toward belief & action. In contrast, despite the fact that Christians accept the divine provenance of Deuteronomy, very few believers have ever recounted to me how it inspires them or serves as the ground of their faith. Just as narrative emerges naturally as a byproduct of our overall psychological architecture, it also immediately slots into the overall cultural entity which we label "religion." I suspect the exact same model is applicable to gods; their plausibility precedes their integration into a religious framework and does not derive from direct adaptation. But the universal nature of religious frameworks as well as storytelling implies that these byproduct traits are almost always subject to co-option by cultural systems which are canalized toward a particular configuration.

But what is driving that canalization? I suspect there is some functional selection going on. Like many social science generalizations I'm not sure I can be very general here. David Sloan Wilson has collected data which shows that religious fundamentalism is more noticeable in economically depressed regions. Which way does the causality run here? I suspect that it is generally in the direction of economic insecurity to religious fundamentalism. The sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has elucidated a rational choice inspired framework which posits that religious institutions are firms which offer products which satisfy a fragmented market of religious consumers. This model seems highly plausible for the United States, but there are doubts as to its validity in other cultures where religious switching is not as socially acceptable or viable. Similarly, many of Wilson's adaptive arguments for the functional significance of religion are quite likely more relevant in societies which lack the accoutrements of the welfare state so that religious institutions have few competitors or substitutes. In other words, generalizations about the functional significance of religious institutions may not hold across many environments. Nevertheless, though generalizations on higher levels of organization are less impressive when compared to the relatively simplicity and universality of a biopsychological paradigm, I think it is necessary that we analyze the expression of religion outside the bounds of the human mind. After all, though religious ideas are fundamentally mental, they are embedded within a social matrix and have a geopolitical relevance in terms of how they shape human relations and action.

We can, for instance, see that over the past few thousand years local tribal religions have ceded ground to the dominance of institutional religions which often have multiple products under the same brand name. The number of supernatural agents seems to be decreasing through a process of competition concurrent with the decrease in polities, languages and ethnic groups. But though institutional religions have gone through a process of consolidation this dynamic has limits; the fragmentation of Christianity during the Reformation or the schisms within the first centuries of Islam attest to this. Though religious institutions far exceed the scale of Dunbar's Number, a One-World-Religion seems as plausible as a One-World-Government. Psychologists have also attempted to move into broader domains of social science. Scott Atran has been at the forefront of attempting to synthesize the cognitivist viewpoint with an analysis of the nature of religious terrorism. Atran emphasizes the power of religious narratives & rituals in cementing group cohesion. The functionalist interpretation on this is pretty obvious; this is a case where heat from one process is quickly being utilized to generate energy through another.

To some extent analysis of religious is like the species problem; we should measure the definition against the utility it provides in a particular context. Species define the joints around which nature is carved, and religion is a label for a cluster of integrated characters which we humans imbue with ontological significance. Both species and religion are important to understand, and can serve as frameworks for robust research programs, but a final definition will never be attained so long as scholars in disparate fields have distinct ends. A diversity of ends does not imply that these ends are contradictory, rather, when you have a many dimensional character it is necessary to observe from a variety of angles to obtain the clearest picture.

Addendum: I want to add something: theism & religion are very robust phenomena. This is why adaptationist explanations are so compelling. That's why an analogy to misunderstandings due to intuitive physics (e.g., flat earth, variance of acceleration in proportion to mass of an objection) is informative, but only to some extent. Overactive agency detection feeds into something which is far more than the sum of their parts, the falsifiable manifestations of religion such as Young Earth Creationism can resist disconfirmation because of their association with psychological tendencies such as group conformity enforced by common rituals & beliefs. To say religion is a spandrel or exaptation understates its interaction with other aspects of human culture so as to make it inevitable and resistant to suppression.

Related: The nature of religion and Breaking the Spell, Modes of religion, Who Dan Dennett think he be foolin'?, An evolutionary anthropology of religion, , God lives, deal with it!, , Belief & belief in belief, Logical consistency is irreligious, God & moralityAre people naturally religious? Yes.... , The round-eyed Buddha, Nerds are nuts, Atheism, Heresy and Hesychasm, The God Delusion - Amongst the unbelievers , Innate atheism & variation across societies, "Hard-wired" for God, Buddhism, a religion or not?, Why do people believe in God?, Is religion an adaptation?, Theological incorrectness - when people behave how they shouldn't....sort of , The gods of the cognitive scientists

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Religion is good (broadly speaking)   posted by Razib @ 3/24/2008 07:49:00 AM

Via Over Coming Bias, The science of religion - Where angels no longer fear to tread:
It is an ambitious shopping list. Fortunately, other researchers have blazed a trail. Patrick McNamara, for example, is the head of the Evolutionary Neurobehaviour Laboratory at Boston University's School of Medicine. He works with people who suffer from Parkinson's disease. This illness is caused by low levels of a messenger molecule called dopamine in certain parts of the brain. In a preliminary study, Dr McNamara discovered that those with Parkinson's had lower levels of religiosity than healthy individuals, and that the difference seemed to correlate with the disease's severity. He therefore suspects a link with dopamine levels and is now conducting a follow-up involving some patients who are taking dopamine-boosting medicine and some of whom are not.

Any bets on what's causing this? I suspect low dopamine individuals are less likely to be socially conforming, so the effect on religiosity might be weaker in a society where religion is less important than the United States. But nice to see some neurochemical work on this. In the future perhaps neuroscientists will be able to advise parents on the optimal mixture of the "soup" in their offsprings' brains to increase the chances of religiosity, or decrease it? (Randall Parker has been talking about this for years)

But probably the most interesting reported research in the piece has to do with group selection & functionalism:

To test whether religion might have emerged as a way of improving group co-operation while reducing the need to keep an eye out for free-riders, Dr Sosis drew on a catalogue of 19th-century American communes published in 1988 by Yaacov Oved of Tel Aviv University. Dr Sosis picked 200 of these for his analysis; 88 were religious and 112 were secular. Dr Oved's data include the span of each commune's existence and Dr Sosis found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year.

A follow-up study that Dr Sosis conducted in collaboration with Eric Bressler of McMaster University in Canada focused on 83 of these communes (30 religious, 53 secular) to see if the amount of time they survived correlated with the strictures and expectations they imposed on the behaviour of their members. The two researchers examined things like food consumption, attitudes to material possessions, rules about communication, rituals and taboos, and rules about marriage and sexual relationships.

As they expected, they found that the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted (one is still going, at the grand old age of 149). But the same did not hold true of secular communes, where the oldest was 40. Dr Sosis therefore concludes that ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community-what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.

Dr Sosis has also studied modern secular and religious kibbutzim in Israel. Because a kibbutz, by its nature, depends on group co-operation, the principal difference between the two is the use of religious ritual. Within religious communities, men are expected to pray three times daily in groups of at least ten, while women are not. It should, therefore, be possible to observe whether group rituals do improve co-operation, based on the behaviour of men and women.

To do so, Dr Sosis teamed up with Bradley Ruffle, an economist at Ben-Gurion University, in Israel. They devised a game to be played by two members of a kibbutz. This was a variant of what is known to economists as the common-pool-resource dilemma, which involves two people trying to divide a pot of money without knowing how much the other is asking for. In the version of the game devised by Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle, each participant was told that there was an envelope with 100 shekels in it (between 1/6th and 1/8th of normal monthly income). Both players could request money from the envelope, but if the sum of their requests exceeded its contents, neither got any cash. If, however, their request equalled, or was less than, the 100 shekels, not only did they keep the money, but the amount left was increased by 50% and split between them.

Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle picked the common-pool-resource dilemma because the communal lives of kibbutz members mean they often face similar dilemmas over things such as communal food, power and cars. The researchers' hypothesis was that in religious kibbutzim men would be better collaborators (and thus would take less) than women, while in secular kibbutzim men and women would take about the same. And that was exactly what happened.

These sorts of data are relatively persuave to me about the functional power of religious institutions and social dynamics. Of course, apparent deviations from the trendline will be important to examine too. This is the closest thing to a website I could find for the Explaining Religion Project.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mitty Romney is hyper-typical for a Mormon   posted by Razib @ 2/27/2008 11:01:00 PM

The Audacious Epigone crunches the Pew Religion Survey and comes up with some more insights....


Monday, February 25, 2008

Pew Religion in America   posted by Razib @ 2/25/2008 07:02:00 PM

Pew is out with a new survey of religion in America. I've only skimmed it so far, but it has lots of interesting stuff. Note for example that this survey suggests that are marginally more self-identified Buddhists in America than Muslims (this is probably a function of the fact that Buddhism, and generally Buddhist ideas and concepts, have a much wider appeal to white Americans than Islam, whose "product" is less strong differentiated from forms of Christianity).

Check the methodology.

Via Rod Dreher.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Religion & loneliness   posted by Razib @ 2/17/2008 02:08:00 PM

God (and Gadgets) of the Lonely?:
I've been hanging out with fellow atheists for a while now, and one of the more common discussions I've had when the topic of religion comes up is, why are people religious? The two most common answers I've heard from atheist friends and acquaintances are that religion is a fantasy designed to explain the mysterious and otherwise unexplainable, and that religion is a fantasy designed to make people feel less alone in the universe. As those of you who've been reading Mixing Memory for a while may have noticed, these discussions have led me to be somewhat obsessed with understanding the psychological origins of religion. While the final answer to why people are religious is a long, long way off, I can say with some confidence that the first of the two answers above is almost certainly wrong. People's religious impulses stem from much more mundane sources than the mysteriousness of the world around us. That's not to say that religion can't serve to help explain the otherwise inexplicable, or that this isn't an important purpose of religion, but it doesn't seem to be one of the fundamental or original purposes of it. Instead, it seems that religion's social functions are actually more foundational. This leads to the second answer above -- the one that says religion is around to make us feel less lonely -- seeming plausible. Most of the research on the social aspects of religion to date, however, has been on its function in communities. A paper in this month's issue of Psychological Science, however, takes a more direct look at the role of loneliness in religion.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What's in a name?   posted by Razib @ 2/12/2008 12:39:00 AM

A few weeks I read a The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800. A fair proportion of the book discussed the introduction of Roman Catholicism into China during the late Ming period (early 17th century) down to the denouement of the rites controversy. Because China and the West had developed on different intellectual tracks for 2,000 years before this meeting of the minds, so to speak, the Jesuits had to grapple with the fact that details of translation were of great import. For example, they introduced the neologism Lord of Heaven to distinguish their monotheistic god from the traditional Chinese concepts of Lord on High and Heaven (the personal and impersonal forms of the divine respectively). The missionaries were worried about conflations within the Chinese mind between the new religion and their preexistent supernatural beliefs; an issue emphasized by the repeated lack of distinction by locals between the exoteric aspects of Roman Catholicism and Pure Land Buddhism. Speaking of which, the Jesuits regularly utilized realistic European paintings of religious scenes, individuals and events, in their attempt to impress & imprint upon the natives the sensory pageantry of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. But they had to cease displays of the Madonna with the infant Jesus because Mary was often assumed to be a rendering of Guan Yin, a bodhisattva of compassion. Now reading T'ang China I stumble upon a passage where the author points to scholars who suggest that the evolution of the male bodhisattva Avalokitesvara into Guan Yin and the associated imagery was influenced by Nestorian Christianity's depiction of Mary! It is not surprising that crypto-Christians in Japan cloaked their Mary veneration within devotions to the Japanese variant of Guan Yin.

The possibility that Guan Yin might be phylogenetically related to Mary mother of Jesus is only that, a possibility. Alternatively, it seems plausible that both serve as a specific focus for relatively universal cognitive reflexes easily evoked in most contexts. Nevertheless, it would be richly ironic if the Jesuits turned away from excessive attention to Mary because of a confusion with Guan Yin because the latter had integrated aspects of Mary into her persona and presentation in the first place! From the outside as an irreligious person the often vacuous assertions of religious liberals that all faiths manifest the same truths actually makes some sense; but whereas the religious would interpret the truth as a transcendent supernatural one the materialist would simply give the nod to universal human psychological propensities intersecting with generic exogenous inputs (e.g., you look upon the star filled sky and feel a sense of awe). All that being said, to many religious people the specific name given to these cognitive constructs is very, very, important. In the days of yore when religion was simply an extension of tribal custom & tradition adherence to the name of a god was a cultural marker. All men are fundamentally human, variations upon the theme, but in a patrilineage which specific man you are descended from (at least notionally) determine all aspects of your social relations. Similarly, which god to which you bend the knee is critical in determining your circle of kin and fictive kin. The basic building blocks are psychologically universal, but the specific twists are socially functional, leveraging other cognitive tendencies in the process (conformity and xenophobia). Remember, the last of the pagan philosophers quipped that the Christians of the time were killing each other over one letter, i, whether one adhered to the doctrine of homoiousia or homoousia. Though to be fair, the difference was over the weighty matter of whether the three aspects of the Trinity were of similar or same substance...whatever that means.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Necessity & sufficiency & Islam; Barack Obama is an apostate!   posted by Razib @ 1/16/2008 03:19:00 PM

Mark Kirkorian points out that Barack Obama is a Muslim apostate:
Several implications: first, Obama's has a unique opportunity - even a responsibility - to speak out on behalf of former Muslims under threat of death for converting to other faiths. Second, there are likely to be even more lunatics trying to kill him than there would be otherwise. And third, how would a President Obama be greeted by, say, the king of "Saudi" Arabia? Probably the same way a President Lieberman would be, and that could actually be a big selling point in his favor, but it's something we can't just pretend doesn't exist.

By a broad interpretation Kirkorian is correct to assert that Obama would be considered an apostate by many Muslims if the facts of his biography were to be presented before them (I am an apostate as well by the definition that is being assumed here). Additionally, his conversion to another religion is also highly problematic, non-religious individuals who nevertheless do not opt-out of Islamic identity/culture and turn toward aggressive atheism or another religion are tolerated to some extent in many Muslim societies. Converts to other religion though are seen as a more obvious affront.

But there's a big problem with Kirkorian's inferences: they exist in in a vacuum of the true distribution of empirical data and take Muslim axioms at face value. This is common among many conservative American intellectuals who wish to rebut the anodyne reassurance from the mainstream that Islam is "really a religion of peace." So fixated on countering the "Islam is peace" propaganda conservative intellectuals don't bother to learn much about how the religion is actually practiced to compare the facts to the various inferences they make about how it would be practiced. If you look at a list of former Muslims you note several politicians, most prominently Carlos Menem, the former president of Argentina. Menem of course had good relations with the Arab world.

What gives here? We know that some apostates are threatened with death, or even killed. Context matters. Many of the attacks on apostates have other factors which serve to push Muslims to action upon their avowed axioms. The Afghan convert to Christian, Abdul Rahman, wasn't the most mentally stable individual. In the Muslim world apostasy and blasphemy laws are often enforced or implemented opportunistically; quite often there are other reasons that principals bringing the charges have for prosecution (e.g., confiscation of property).

I do think it is important that the Mark Kirkorians of the world point out the illiberalism which is accepted within the Muslim world. But that being said, I do worry that they take their own rhetoric a bit too literally. After all, consumption of alcohol does exist within the Muslim world, to the point where a king of Saudi Arabia had to abdicate because he couldn't mask his addiction anymore. To some extent I wonder if a certain Anglo-American naivete about the relationship between word & deed is at work here; a tendency to take as concrete assertions which are embedded & expressed within the constraints of practical day to day realities. On the other hand, I also think part of the issue is that when you are outside of a culture you only see the explicit axioms which are averred and are unaware of the implicit pragmatism which defines day to day life. Finally, it is important to note that though I think that the Islamic attitude toward apostasy is not sufficient to explain the outbursts of violence and intimidation to those who leave the fold, it is necessary.


Friday, November 23, 2007

The mystical sense   posted by Razib @ 11/23/2007 09:48:00 PM

Reading the Bhagavad Gita I am struck (as usual) by commonalities between mystical philosophies rooted in a method of psychological introspection and meditation. For example, the tendency toward monism is marked across many traditions which emerge out of specific religious or philosophical movements. This even includes the monotheistic religions of the West, whose creeds and beliefs tend to notionally reject monism and imply the separation of a personal God from his Creation. The Perennial Philosphy emergred from this empirical observation of the relatively uniform experience of mystics, and the field of Religious Studies has been influenced this idea, in particular through the work of Mircea Eliade. Eliade and his fellow travelers conceive of religious experience as a window into a sacred reality, distinct from the profane world. Obviously, I don't believe this. Rather, I am struck by the fact that very few mystics ever report that they have looked upon the 6
3 essences of the universe
. Or any specific deviation from the One. Rather, mystical trance seems to blur distinctions across categories as all perception melts into a unitary underlying essence, whether you call it God or the One. In contrast to mysticism theology tends to explore a huge sample space of possibilities and configurations. Why is this? I suspect it is because theology tends to rely on explicit chains of inferences based on verbal logic, and quite often individuals may differ in their sense of what is implied by a particular proposition. In contrast, the heightened consciousness of mysticism and the sense of the One is probably reflecting underlying neurological realities. The One isn't the real nature of the universe, it is simply the common output the brain pops out when put under the ascetic stresses or mental techniques which mystics utilize to change their consciousness. I am generally skeptical of neurotheology when it claims to explain religion, but I do believe it is on its way to accurately sketching out the shape of mysticism (obviously it doesn't explain religion because I think that mysticism is simply a subset of religion, not the totality of it).


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why God's Harvard will always get corrupted by Satan   posted by Razib @ 11/13/2007 08:15:00 PM

For several years I've been suggesting that people should be relatively unconcerned by the rise of the evangelical Christian counter-culture, and in particular its more ambitious projects, such as Patrick Henry College. My rationale was primarily one based on American history and the experience of Christian anti-modernists with founding institutions to battle back against the de-sectarianization of earlier redoubts. For example, Harvard was founded to train Calvinist ministers. Princeton was founded to train Calvinist ministers after Harvard was suborned from within (it became a stronghold of Unitarianism before its sectarian aspect disappeared). Eventually Wheaton became the Harvard of American evangelicalism. The disquiet over the non-renewal of the contract of a faculty member who was converting to Roman Catholicism suggests to me that the cracks of ecumenicalism are looming on the horizon.

But that's just the American evidence. I think we can increase the sample space from the founding of Christianity, as well as look at other nations. Reading about the Reformation recently I noted again that to engage in full takeover of a society Protestants had to capture the elite, and especially the monarch or potentate. France and the Austrian lands of Germany were initially strongly influenced by the Protestant Reformation, and parity was achieved at least at the level of the nobility. But over time the Catholic monarch forced religious conformity. In places like Holland the small Protestant minority were highly motivated, and without a powerful monarch they were able to engage in full takeover of the society. In Scandinavia and England the change occurred by fiat from on high (Scotland might be an exception to the rule, but its monarchy was particularly weak during this period and the nobles dictated the religion of the young future king James). These "magisterial" Protestants were in many ways quite traditional, and as evidenced by Martin Luther's screed written against the peasants who rebelled against their lords in 1525. They were willing to aid and abet the powers that be and violate the spirit of their original dissent from the central authority of the papacy. On the other hand there were dissenters, radical Protestants, who wished to reorder society through their own interpretation of scripture. The Munster Rebellion is the most antimonian manifestation of this tendency. These attempts to purify the society failed and most radical Protestants accepted that they were the Elect and that the culture at large was going to be outside of salvation.

Though mainstream Calvinism is popular among American evangelicals, it is from the radical Reformation that anti-modernist Protestanta derive their true energy and which they most resemble. Though some groups, such as the Jehovah's Witness, have stayed true to the separatist vision, of late some evangelical Protestants have attempted to refashion the broader culture in their own image. Obviously I think they are bound to fail. The attempt to fuse radical Protestantism with the City of Man always results in the latter consuming the former, just as Christian Rock or Rap seems second-hand and derivative. The utopian streak derived from primitive Christianity can have no truck with the amoral and pragmatic necessities of the world (the Pope who was no longer a Prince became a far more luminous spiritual figure). Many radical Protestants look back to the Christian Church before it was championed by the Roman Empire, and suggest that it was the Empire which converted the Church and not the reverse. But of course that early Church's purity was enabled by the fact that it was a minority sect which self-selected its members for their devotion to a separatist quasi-state within the Roman Empire. Any attempts to turn the Roman Empire into a Christian utopia would have foundered on the reality that the institutional structures and purity of belief suitable for a separatist subculture are impractical for a universal political dispensation.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

High church & low, reflection and reflex   posted by Razib @ 11/08/2007 01:10:00 AM

I've been reading a bit of the literature of the cognitive science of religion, as well as a good deal of material on the Reformation (for the former, see In Gods We Trust and Religion Explained). Trying to make heads or tails of the dynamics which we see in the world around us isn't easy (at least for me). One of the major issues which crops up when psychologists explore how individuals model their gods is a dichotomy between a reflective conception and a reflexive intuition. People can give rough sketches of their theology of choice, but when prompted with little warning to narrate their god acting upon the world the implied characteristics tend to differ sharply from the formula which they earlier provided. The implication is that in parallel with a conscious god-model adhered to for the purposes of group identity most humans have an implicit subconscious model which they use in day to day cognitive processes. Some workers posit that this dual nature of god-concepts explains the tension between elite religion and folk religion, the high church and the low. The process of sect formation and religious revivalism may be the natural byproduct of this tension, as the masses attempt to draw away from elite attempts to shoe-horn theism into a hyper-rational and abstract system which doesn't satisfy their psychological needs and intuitions (in the American context this would be the switch from liberal Protestantism to evangelical Protestantism; though the latter is more orthodox in its theology, it is still considerably more penetrable than some of the abstruse material generated by modernist icons such as Paul Tillich).

With that, I was interested in some of the facts relayed in The Protestant Reformation: Beliefs and Practices:

The Reformation may eventually have become a popular movement, but it had its origins in the intellectual developments associated with Humanism and the Renaissance. The early reformers were virtually all of them university-educated men. Most of them were trained theologians, but they had also had a solid grounding in classical scholarship and in the techniques of logic and rhetoric....

The "university-educated" portion really jumped out at me. Remember that this was a period when most of the populace was not functionally literate! The Reformation was a world-shaking event. Luther and Calvin and their fellow travelers ushered in a period of communal bloodshed which culminated in the international Thirty Years' War, which many take to be a turning in point Europe's love affair with state sponsored religion (the discontinuity is not so sharp, note the revocation of the Edict of Nantes which postdates the Peace of Westphalia by a generation).

Obviously there were other contingent factors which played a role in the Reformation besides the intellectual firepower of men such as Martin Luther. Most people can probably agree that the printing press was a critical catalyst in the emergence of a robust republic of letters which served as the vehicle for a rapid sweep of new ideas across populations. But that catalyst needed a substrate to operate upon, so ideas in and of themselves did matter. I was interested to discover that John Calvin, the hero of the Reformed movement and the god-father of many Christian conservatives, was not a literalist. For example, believed that Genesis was a simplified narrative aimed toward a particular audience. In fact many of the reformers were taken aback by the simplistic reception of their message among the masses; some radicals took to sola scriptura and began to use the Bible as proof text for all elements of their lives. Many of these were the precursors of the Anabaptists, who were persecuted by Lutherans and Calvinists as well as Catholics. Additionally, the sophisticated arguments exposited by the intellectuals were not well understood by the typical enthusiastic convert. At one point one of Luther's followers, Andreas Karlstadt, preached against the Catholic interpretation of the eucharist to a sympathetic crowd, but was expelled a few days later by the same people for not celebrating the eucharist in the "proper" (i.e., Catholic) manner.

But to me iconoclasm is the most interesting phenomenon. The destruction of images, sculptures and art-work in general as "idolatry" is very familiar. In both Korea and Brazil radical Protestants have engaged in the destruction of religious imagery of their "idolatrous" opposition within the past few years, and we don't even need to talk about the Bamiyan Buddhas. The reformer Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich was disturbed by the more enthusiastic iconoclasts who were destroying works in his name, and tried to salvage some of the stained glass in his church in vain. His followers were no longer under his control when it came to some questions whose correctness they needed no scholarly guidance on. The most extreme case of iconoclasm in the modern or early modern era is clearly manifest in Islam; Wahhabi radicals have been engaging in the destruction of sacred architecture and sites for several centuries. Though Islam is ostensibly an unadorned monotheism, as a practical matter there is a fair amount of veneration of saints and holy men, particularly around their burial sites. John Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave because his followers were worried about the likelihood that such a site would become one of pilgrimage for those who venerated him. It seems clear that these recurrent manifestations of iconoclasm are natural implicit inversions of the tendency to imbue in objects and places a sacred importance. The rage of iconoclasm and the passion that it elicits issues from the fact that the destroyers understand very well the natural impulse to venerate particular persons and the objects and places which are imbued with their charisma.

On the one hand folk religions, whether Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Hindu, exhibit similar tendencies and manifest the same general motifs. But this ocean of intuitive religious sensibility is periodically roiled by "reformist" tendencies from waves from on high which are able to spread quickly because of their transmission via explicit verbal creeds and arguments. Folk religion is limited in its spatial expanse because of its relationship to objects in the landscape, relics of obscure saints and sacred places of parochial importance. Its roots are deep, but its canopy is narrow. In contrast elite reformist movements are portable bits of data, memes, which are constrained only by the information technology and the necessary lubricant of mobile and literate evangelists. Ergo, the printing press combined with a standing cadre of intellectuals (generalized subsided by the Catholic Church ironically!) enabled the Reformation to explode beyond the control of monarchs bent on strangling it (remember that Henry the VIII was against it before he was for it!). Events such as St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre show the power of these emerging memeplexes to crystallize divisions and coalesce ingroup-outgroup sentiments. But as these movements spread and diffused down the social ladder the tightness and integrity of the myriad memes becomes garbled; nuanced theological arguments reduce down to intuitively tractable maxims such as the destruction of idols. The various currents and tensions working at cross-purposes likely cycle over time and produce a metastable equilibrium.

Addendum: Not only did Protestantism emerge as an idea promoted by a small group of intellectuals, its initial successes were among urban or elite segments of the populace. The French Protestants, the Huguenots, were able to hold their own in the face of Catholic persecution for several centuries because of their concentration among the higher orders of society and the critical mass in the cities of particular regions. In Poland, Austria and Hungary at one point the higher nobility seems to have turned predominantly Protestant. In Poland persistent (though weak) pressure from the monarchy combined with the historical circumstance that Protestantism became associated with traditional enemies (Prussia and Sweden) resulted in the re-Catholicization of of the nobility by the 18th century. In Austria the Hapsburgs forced a re-Catholicization through incentive and coercion. In Hungary a Protestant minority remained despite widespread defection, but this was due to the historical coincidence, as the south and east of the country was under Ottoman domination and so beyond the reach of the Counter-Reformation. I bring up these minutiae to show that even though Protestantism as an idea swept many elites, it was generally successful in sinking deep roots only where the apex of the political order favored it for a substantial period of time (England, Scandinavia, the principalities of northern Germany, Geneva, and the Netherlands). Conversely, even if the Reformation did not succeed it often left a lasting impact. The French Protestants who fled in the late 17th century from persecution and forced conversion to Catholicism left a lasting mark across the globe, from South Africa to Berlin to England. Even though the Reformation was never a mass movement in Italy, some of the most radical thinkers were Italian, and shaped the course of movements such Unitarianism in Transylvania. And remember that the most prominent Unitarian of the age, Michael Servetus, was Spanish!

Finally, I don't want to emphasize historical contingency too much. During the first decade or so of the Reformation the Hapsburg monarchy was dealing with a Turkish march deep into central Europe. The Ottomans were beaten back from Vienna only in 1529, and for a century and a half afterward they were a persistent drain on the Hapsburg treasury. Some have argued that the Ottoman offensive of the early 16th century was a necessary precondition in giving Martin Luther and other radicals respite from attempts by the center to bring them into line. This is possibly correct, but that does not mean that the Reformation of the early 16th century was a once-in-a-universe phenomenon. With the printing press, the emergence of a larger middle class and the coalescence of proto-nations during the Renaissance it seems that the likelihood for religious discord was high. The Hussite rebellion shows that many of the preconditions were already extant during the late medieval period. A convergence between the explosion of Martin Luther and the Turkish worries of the Holy Roman Emperor might have been fortuitous for the Reformation, but it seems likely that if Suleiman the Magnificent had turned all his attention to Persia in the east any success of stamping out of the heretics would only have delayed the inevitable reckoning with the pent up social pressures and the technology to unleash them.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Religion as a social marker   posted by Razib @ 11/04/2007 09:01:00 AM

Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science has an interesting post where they present two charts; one displays average religious attendance vs. average income and another within-state correlation of religious attendance vs, average income. The red data points show states where George W. Bush won the popular vote in 2004 and blue John Kerry. Two conclusions:
  • People in richer states are less religious (this mirrors world-wide trends)
  • The rich are more likely to attend church in Bush-voting states and less likely in Kerry-voting states

There is an important caveat here: religious attendance is not a perfect proxy for religiosity. In some cultural contexts religious affiliation and attendance are critical social markers. You can see data from many Catholic countries which attests to this, disaffiliation is very strong among the lower and working classes due to anti-clerical socialist movements as well as the association between the powerful & the Roman Catholic elites. But this does not necessarily mean that there is no religious sentiment among the non-affiliated population, for example, in Chile the lower classes who have traditionally been apathetic to Roman Catholicism are converting wholesale to evangelical & charismatic Protestant groups. This manifests the division between denominations and sects. The former exist at low tension with society, make modest demands, and are avenues toward respectability. In the United States Episcopalianism is a classic denomination. Sects on the other hand tend to exist at some remove from the rest of the population & make significant demands on adherents. The Assemblies of God would be a sect. In general the history of most religious groups in the United States exhibits the transition from sect to denomination. Methodism is a case in point; initially an evangelical revival movement derived from Anglicanism it is now a respectable mainline denomination. Some religious groups manifest several tendencies; Roman Catholicism for example has several sectarian movements which nevertheless remain under the umbrella of the Church.

How does this work in relation to the data we have above? From what I know in the American South religion still exists as a social marker. Episcopalians are at the top, Presbyterians below them, then Methodists, then Baptists, and finally various sects with charismatic tendencies. Presidential candidate John Edwards illustrates this; raised in a working class Baptist family he is now a member of the United Methodist church, which is more in keeping with both his rise in the class system as well as his more liberal religious inclinations and politics. What about the rest of the country? It seems likely that in many regions of the United States association with religious institutions no longer serve as necessary accessories in the lives of public citizens. At the commanding heights of public life religion still seems rather important, note the overwhelming avowed affiliation of United States members of Congress. On the margins religious affiliation probably matters even outside of the South, but the affect is weak enough that the often tepid and skeptical inclinations of Western cultural elites has resulted in disaffiliation. For lower status individuals the small absolute marginal return on sectarian affiliation is still high enough that they will still affiliate. Consider new Korean immigrants who do not speak English well; the local Korean Presbyterian church likely serves a very practical role in their lives in terms of connecting them to a community in which they are comfortable and which returns tangible practical benefits. In the South non-affiliation is atypical enough that the negative consequences are strong enough that elites still make sure to find a "church home" so as to embed themselves in a religious institution.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why Middle Eastern cults matter, East Asian ones, not so much....   posted by Razib @ 10/11/2007 12:01:00 PM

Steve Sailer has an amusing post related to the one below about Middle Eastern religious diversity. It really isn't that easy to keep track of. I've emphasized quasi-Muslim groups, but what about the faction within Eastern Christianity? For example, start here and see if you can follow the links and make sense of it all. I also noted that most Muslims probably don't know about the large number of heterodox believers in Turkey to emphasize that even hypothetical "cultural insiders" really aren't, or at least they aren't knowledgeable to the level of granularity which is necessary for an accurate model. Why does this matter in the first place? First, locally it affects lives. Consider the Yezidi woman stoned for falling in love with a Sunni boy. The choices of hundreds of millions are scaffolded tightly by Bronze Age early Iron Age belief systems. Second, globally it is critical in generating a model of local power structures & relations. Look up Syria in CIA Factbook and you note that it is 3/4 Sunni. Syria then is a Sunni country? Well yes, except for the fact that the ruling clique is predominantly Alawite, a religious faction which is aligned with the Ithna Ashari Shia, who are dominant in Iran. Syria is often aligned with Shia groups in Lebanon and has had an alliance with Iran of long standing (during Iran-Iraq war Arab Baathist Syria was aligned against Arab Baathist Iraq and with Iran). But it isn't like the Middle East is the only region in the world with religious diversity, consider South Korea, which is about 1/4 Christian, 1/4 Buddhist and 1/2 non-affiliated (and many minor religions as well). Despite this diversity this is generally only of academic interest (though involvement of Korean Christians in missionary activities does have some geopolitical import). Why is the Middle East different?

I think it is fair to observe that religion is a central part of one's life in the Middle East in a manner that it is not in East Asia, but that is a trivial observation. Why does it matter so much? To understand that I think you need to go back late antiquity and the early medieval period. With the conversion of the Eastern Roman Empire to Christianity and the resurgence of Zoroastrianism in Sassanid Persia you started to see the fusion of a particular exclusive institutional religion with imperialism. Within the Sassanid state the situation of non-Zoroastrians varied dependent upon their relations with Rome. The progenitors of what became termed the Nestorian Church were Christian, but anti-Roman for theological reasons. It was tolerated, even encouraged among non-Iranian peoples. In contrast those Christian groups who had closer relations with Roman movements across the border were perceived as fifth columnists. Within the Roman Empire, what became Byzantium, theological faction was a major excuse for social and political convulsions and machinations (the famous Green and Blue factions behind the Nika Riots in Constantinople even favored different theological positions!). As the 5th and 6th centuries proceeded pagans were expelled from public life and forcibly converted. The long history of the persecution of Jews also began in earnest. In Persia the Shahs attempted to induce Armenian nobles to give up their Christianity and accept Zoroastrianism so that they could be totally assimilated into the warrior caste of the Sassanids. The rise of Islam extended this concept further, as non-Muslims were given formalized but secondary positions within society. Over the centuries Muslims took over all major secular roles (remember that St. John of Damascus held a leading position at the Umayyad court, as did his father, so it was not always so) and the non-Arab groups relegated their old languages (e.g., Aramaic, Coptic, Greek) to their liturgy. This meant that the main distinction within society was religious, and religious leaders became the representatives of their communities (though this might have been prefigured a bit during the Byzantine and Sassanid periods) in relation to the dominant Muslim ruling caste. During the Ottoman period Middle Eastern & Balkan society was organized into Millets, and the substitution of ethnic for religious identity continued (ethnic identity as such is a tricky concept and in many ways is rather modern for most peoples in any case). Though European style nationalism emerged in the form of pan-Turkism and pan-Arabism in the 19th and 20th century, these movements have not eliminated the tendency to default back to a religious identity, a phenomenon which has deep cultural roots because of the aforementioned histoy.

East Asia is a study in contrast. Though religious movements and sentiments are often powerful, consider the Yellow Turbans or the Taipings, society has never been organized on confessional lines and religious institutions have repeatedly been subordinated and marginalized in relation to the state. Buddhism is a common religious bond across East Asia, but for most of history it has not had the relationship with the ruling clique that Christianity or Islam cultivated in Western Eurasia. When the Buddhist establishment became too powerful after a few centuries of ascendancy the Chinese state defrocked hundreds of thousands of monks and repossessed their lands. In Korea the Choson dynasty expelled the Buddhist religion from the centers of power and forced the monasteries to the mountains. In Japan religion was sharply controlled and an instrument of central power. The Tokugawa forced every family in Japan to register with a Buddhist temple not because of their piety, but to root out Christianity, which they perceived as a foreign religion and a tool of Western imperialism (Tokugawa Ieyasu's predecessors, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi forged some ties with Christianity in part to marginalize the power of the Buddhist establishment). The Jesuit switch from dressing like Buddhist monks to Confucian Mandarins in China was a calculated maneuver once they realized that the elite held clerics in contempt.

All this is not to imply that East Asia was a hot-bed of anti-clericalism which anticipated 19th century European nationalism. Buddhism was a major vector for the spread of Chinese civilization in early Japan, and Confucianism was patronized in both Choson Korea and to a lesser extent Tokugawa Japan. In China many Emperors were personal believers in Buddhism and Daoism and a variety of other religions. The key is that the relationship of religion to individuals and the community was (and is) often open, fluid and contextual. One might be a devotee to a form of Mahayana Buddhism on the one hand, but curtail the power of the clerisy in the interests of national strength. The founder of the Ming dynasty was educated at a Buddhist monastery but later championed Confucianism in the interests of securing the approval of the bureaucracy in his rebellion against the Mongols. The state might offer funds to various religions which provided services to the populace, both spiritual and material, as well as serving as glues for civil society, without elevating one to prominence.

Such an opportunistic and non-dogmatic attitude persists today in East Asia. Shinto priests conduct ceremonies of life and the Buddhists those of death in Japan. In Korea a substantial number of Christians were once Buddhists and Buddhists were once Christians, and a subset of individuals promiscuously attend services in different religions concurrently. Small "New Religious Movements" always bubble in the cultural background. In China the trinity of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism had attained nearly official status as three coequal customary religious dispensations, along with local cults beneath them as well as the impersonal worship of Heaven above them. Christians have had leading positions in the 20th century across East Asia without resulting in total conversion of the society. Sun Ya-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and Lee Teng-hui were Christians (though the sincerity of the Christianity of the second has long been questioned, while the last also experimented with Buddhism seriously). The past two presidents of South Korea have come from the small but influential Catholic minority (while some of the previous presidents and dictators have been Protestant and Buddhist).

Some of you might wonder how this dovetails with the known persecution of Christians in China. I think that one must be careful about exaggerating the extent of the persecution (there are no Christians being thrown to the tigers!), and, one can look to the past to comprehend the root of the hostility. In the 9th century concomitant with the persecution of Buddhism foreign religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism, Christianity and Islam were suppressed. Buddhism itself was criticized by Confucian Mandarins as inimical to Chinese culture, a foreign import which undermined filial piety. In Japan Catholic Christianity's relationships with foreign powers was an important consideration the turn of the state against it. In South Korea Christianity was looked upon positively in the 20th century first because adherents of that religion resisted the Japanese colonialists, and second, it was the faith of the American protectors of their state. So long as religion or faith is not perceived as disrupting the order and harmony of the society it may find tolerance, but once it is perceived as destabilizing to social order it is often proscribed (see the Chinese rites controversy).

In the Middle East religion is society, in East Asia it is a part of society. The Japanese state encouraged the Diaspora community to convert to the local religion of their new homelands, and that has generally been the tendency of East Asians abroad (the main exception here is in Muslim countries where food taboos tend to impose a break, but, a substantial number of Chinese in Southeast Asia seem to have converted nevertheless but simply lost their ethnicity and become Malayized, so to speak). This attitude is likely relatively familiar and comprehensible to many Westerners, for whom religion has become both private and a function of personal choice. Substantial numbers of Americans do not wear their faith on their sleeves and will change affiliations for relatively trivial reasons (e.g., Howard Dean become a Congregationalist because the Episcopal Church opposed a bike path in Burlington and is raising his children as Jews). On the other hand some Westerners have a different attitude, and their religion is an essential part of their identity, and changing their religion is a major event in their life (I do not want to minimize the religious identity of East Asian Protestant converts, nevertheless they are not as numerous within their society). One can point to many groups of evangelical Christians as manifesting some of these tendencies, but also consider Jews, who conceive of themselves as a faith and a nation. The hostility that some liberal Jews exhibit toward attempts by evangelicals to convert them, leading toward the accusations of cultural genocide, show that the mentality that one is born into a religion and that changing one's identity is an event of grave consequence is not alien to the Western mindset (e.g., "cultural Catholicism" and so on). In the Middle East one remains what one is born, Edward Said remained identified as an Arab Christian by others to his dying day despite his avowed atheism. One of the founders of pan-Arabism was Michel Aflaq, a Christian, was claimed to have converted to Islam upon his death by the ostensibly secular government of Iraq. Why? Religion mattered in Arab nationalism so much that one of its leading lights could not remain a Christian, he had to be fully assimilated into the Islamic identity. Said himself asserted that though he was not a Muslim by birth or profession his civilization was Islam. Would it make sense to say that Japanese civilization is Buddhist? Certainly Buddhism has had a major impact upon Japanese civilization, but Buddhism is not Japanese civilization. Some Arabs might make the argument that Islam is Arab civilization! (this is obviously less true of Persians)

Middle Eastern society is carved up at the joints of religion. Centuries of persecution by Muslims has resulted in the non-orthodox engaging in habitual dissimulation and obfuscation. Religion is both highly salient and obscured. Consider crytpo-Jews in Spain, their Jewishness was secret and important at the same time. The most important variable in Middle Eastern life is one fraught with deception and double-speak, the skeleton of the society is garbed in superficiality. Fundamentalist Protestants have attacked Buddhist temples in South Korea and there are often complaints from Buddhists that their Christian acquaintances and superiors attempt to coerce them into converting, but the magnitude of the social distance and tension seems to be far less than in the Middle East. Individuals and families span the religious divides and theoretically choice is the primary factor in determining one's religion. The centrality of Islam in Middle Eastern culture is such that a non-Muslim head of state is not conceivable (this served as a check upon Boutros Boutros-Ghali's ambition in Egyptian politics). In contrast, East Asian societies have repeatedly been lead by people from a minority religious tradition. In Thailand Therevada Buddhism is the official religion (though in a much looser sense than say Shia Islam in Iran), but the general who leads the military junta is a Muslim. The Middle Eastern fixation on a head of state who is of the dominant religion is not unique, Carlos Menem of Argentina converted from Islam to Catholicism because the Argentine constitution of the time required that for the head of state.

The pillarization of Middle Eastern society means that one must understand the pillars and their relationships to each other to model the culture properly. Religion is not a private matter, but a public parameter which operates in shaping the dynamics which characterize the sociey. The choices available in one's life, the opinions and alliances one makes, are strongly contingent upon one's notional confession. Obviously other segments of the hierarchy matter, clan and tribe and such, but for the smaller groups the tribe is coterminous with the confession. In any culture the psychological complexities and interests which a set of religious beliefs accrue to an individual are important in understanding their actions, but in the Middle East the principle ascends up the ladder of complexity that so that sociological complexities and interests accrue for religious identities of groups. So why does belief in obscure and esoteric religious systems matter so much in the Middle East? First, because it matters to individuals in how they relate to the world around them. Second, these beliefs demarcate the boundaries of important organs within the body politic which are critical in and of themselves as units of action within the society.

Addendum: Any discussion of religion is under-girded by assumptions. For example, how important is belief & practice in determining behavior as opposed to material considerations? I don't think it is a black & white issue, people vary and circumstances vary, though I think over the long term material considerations tend to loom larger than esoterica of belief or constrains of ritual. Nevertheless, belief & ritual are critical in demarcating boundaries between groups, and no matter their putative substantive rationale the chasms between groups are relevant to our lives. The general thrust of my argument above is that in establishing ingroup vs. outgroup boundaries religion is a much better guide in the Middle East than in East Asia, or even the United States. Such generalizations are subject to variance of course, but I think the ratio of within to between group variance is much lower in the Middle East in terms of affiliation and identity when it comes to the trait of religion.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Obscure Middle Eastern religious cults - part n   posted by Razib @ 10/10/2007 02:09:00 PM

Long time readers know I am interested in the existence in the Middle East of obscure, esoteric and cryptic religious groups. The knowledge of these groups is sketchy and often only surfaces due to geopolitical considerations or current events. Otherwise, why would some Americans know of the Yazidi Kurds of Iraq? These obscure groups can sometimes be quite numerous, the quasi-Shia Alevis of Turkey form about 20% of that nation's population (something most Muslims who do not live in Turkey are totally unaware of from what I can tell). I use terms like "quasi-Shia" because many of these groups are secretive about their beliefs and consultation of 10 different sources will produce 10 different answers as to their theologies, customs and provenance. The secrecy seems to have a natural origin: persecution. Islam in the Middle East is a religion which has often proscribed heterodox cults. Toleration toward religious minorities was fixed rather early on to putative "Peoples of the Book," other groups were officially not tolerated. This resulted common "work arounds." For example, the pagans of Haran were tolerated as Sabians, a group referred to in early Islamic literature (I say pagans because the people of Haran seemed to believe in a religion which originally emerged from late classical paganism as opposed to one of the "world religions"). Another common way to finesse the issue of toleration has been the slotting in of various assorted groups into the catchall category of Shia. The Alawites of Syria for example have followed this path. Most Sunni Muslims accept that Shia are Muslim, even if substandard ones, so it is a good way to ensure safety. But even "Shia" groups like the Alawites and Alevis keep a low profile, culturally conditioned from centuries pf persecution at the hands of the Ottoman Sunni orthodoxy.

Today I "stumbled" upon another weird sect, this one very numerous in a nation of interest called Iran. The group goes by various names, Yarsan/Yaresan, Kakeyi, Ahl-e Haqq or Ahl-i Haqq. The Nizari Ismaili community published a description of the group in the 1940s, in part because people were confusing them with the Nizaris. I'm not going to summarize their beliefs except to say that it has some core overlaps with Shia ideas, but "extends" them rather far and introduces ideas like reincarnation which don't seem conventional in Islam. Looking on google books & scholar I can say this: 1) adherents are disproportionately Kurdish, but it is multi-ethnic and accepts converts 2) it is grudgingly accepted as Shia within Iran but this seems to be a pragmatic consideration because 3) estimates of its numbers range from tens of thousands to 5 million, but somewhere around the magnitude of 1 million seems about right. Most of these within Iran, so the group is probably a few percent of the nation's population.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Fear not the future   posted by Razib @ 9/28/2007 11:56:00 PM

What is contingent across the arc of human cultural development? What is inevitable? Interesting, if difficult to answer, questions. Last year I posted No fear of Patrick Henry College - the Borg shall assimilate. My argument was simple: an explicitly Christian institution which attempts to take over "secular" culture will be assimilated. There are long, and tiresome, historical debates about whether this in fact happened to the Christian churches when the Roman state adopted them and turned them into the Universal Church. But more recently, and specifically in the context of universities, there has been a long track record in the United States of Christian institutions being founded to stem the tide, only themselves to be swallowed up by the rising waters.

Harvard was originally a training ground for Calvinist ministers. Over its first century it became progressively more heterodox. Princeton was founded explicitly to serve as a second Harvard, a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy. It too was suborned. Wheaton college is in many ways the Harvard of contemporary evangelical America; and it reaffirmed its Protestant credentials when it fired a professor who converted to Catholicism. Nevertheless, the act itself was not without controversy on the campus, suggesting that the commitment toward ideological purity has wavered. Additionally, it seems clear to me that Wheaton's loyalty to one American subculture has resulted in constraining its influence. Patrick Henry College reached out, its aim was to conquer the public space. But last spring while I was busy at something I like to call "life" a shakeup occurred at Patrick Henry, half a dozen faculty members left (there are fewer than two dozen told faculty members). Why? Ideological conformity and theological purity were being compromised. Patrick Henry aimed for the stars, recruited bright students and challenged the faculty. But such an environment naturally leads to intellectual hubris and the pushing of boundaries. Mental meekness and dullness often go together. Like an invasive species unleashed to control a pest any attempt to conquer the mainstream by mastering its toolkit may inevitably be self-defeating.

This is not just true of the evangelical Christian subculture. Books like Bobos in Paradise document the paradoxical stances of the bohemian bourgeois; 60s radicals turned "socially conscious" entrepreneurs & mercenary professionals. American culture is a massive and uncontrollable river. On occasion it changes course or jumps its bed, but it has its own will and logic and can process anything thrown into its maw. The extruded cultural material is often totally transformed, but the the human tendency to self-delude is great enough that those who have been reprogrammed by the river truly believe that they have won. There's no point in standing athwart history if it will only drown you; 'tis far more productive to make use of the power of the current and outfit your ship appropriately so that your journey is as smooth and pleasant as possible.

Related: The New York Times has an interesting article about a new Christian college, New St. Andrews. I obviously don't share their presuppositions, but I do respect their passion for learning. As long as books & faith are their focus they will persevere on their island surrounded by the river. If they challenge it then I suspect their fate is predestined.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Drink as I say   posted by Razib @ 8/25/2007 01:07:00 PM

I'm reading When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise And Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty, a history of the Abbasids. This on page 169 caught my attention:
...the caliph called for wine. A golden goblet was brought and the drink was poured into it. Ma'mum drank and handed it to Hasan....Hasan, a good Muslim had never drunk wine, yet to refuse could be seen as an insult to the caliph...'Commander of the Faithful,' he said, 'I will drink it with your permission and following your order,' for if the caliph himself had commanded him to do it, how could it conflict with Islam? The caliph replied that if it had not been his order, he would not have held out the goblet to him. So the tension was relaxed and they drank together

There are many references in this book to the consumption of wine at the court of the Abbasids, and even the patronage of a genre of poetry focused upon wine. I knew the general outline of this, and amongst Muslim rulers alcohol consumption doesn't seem that rare. I recall that the Mughal ruler Jehangir was an alcoholic, as was Saud bin Abdul Aziz, the king of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and early 1960s (his problems with alcohol were one of the reasons that he was forced to abdicate by his brothers). Of course, Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol, and yet here you have the titular spiritual leaders of the Islamic world, the caliphs, making it a normal part of their lifestyle. What's going on here?

One of the main reasons that I have generally turned a skeptical eye toward explanations of religious constraint upon behavior are these sorts of examples. From an atheist perspective I had always tended to view religions as clear and distinct sets of axioms; but operationally the practice seems far more subject to social consensus and individual rationalization. This isn't only an issue with religions, I have known of environmentalists who drive SUVs, self-proclaimed social conservatives who are heavy users of drugs and indulge in non-standard sexual practices, and so on. I'm sure most people can repeat such examples. Years ago when I found out that George H.W. Bush had switched from being pro-choice to pro-life, as had Ronald Reagan to some extent (Reagan's pro-choice period was more that he simply signed laws decriminalizing abortion in California as governor), I assumed this was conscious political opportunism. The same for Al Gore or Jesse Jackson, who made the inverted transition. And surely some aspect of political calculation was at work here on the ultimate level, but what about the proximate cognitive processes? Humans are good at rationalization, and I'm not sure anymore that the elder Bush or Reagan were insincere in their rather fortuitous conversions. Or, at least part of their minds were pretty convinced that their change in opinion had more to do with reflective shifts in the underlying assumptions and values and not an exogenous push due to circumstance.

In short, humans beings perceive themselves to be reflective beings shaped by essential axioms open to conscious inspection. But the reality is that human behavior and psychology seems to exhibit a great deal of contextual contingency which shape a host of cognitive processes insulated from conscious inspection. We regularly seem to make up, and believe in, stories which reinforce our self-perception that we are rational beings with free will who make decisions and form beliefs by carefully taking into account data filtered via our avowed norms. But cognitive psychology shows that humans can be easily influenced by priming inputs which they are not conscious of in regards to the choices they make, all the while happily regaling researchers with their theories that sketch out the underlying causal factors behind their behavior. Yet it seems here that as in the case above the reason is posterior to the act; constructed post facto to give intellectual support to decisions made via other means.

Surely there is a method to the madness, and the outline of human behavior is constrained by a host of concrete parameters (biology, sociology, history, even rational calculation!). But, the biases which serve as weighted parameters in the function that generates the distribution of human behavior are likely more complex, contingent and opaque to the naked eye then we might have hoped for. Just as "friction," "bounded rationality" and "behavioral economics" are emerging as necessary and essential tools in economics, so broad brush histories and anthropologies must take into account the multi-dimensional nature of human psychology and the disjunction between the stories we tell and the dynamics which drive us.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Religiosity and personality: How are they correlated?   posted by agnostic @ 8/13/2007 01:01:00 AM

Bad news for atheists: individuals low in religiosity are more likely to have a "slacker" personality. And worse news: this is true even among intellectually gifted people. First, a disclaimer that I consider myself an atheist, though I would never use that term.* So no guff about having an agenda. Also, though obvious, it needs to be said that correlations don't tell you about particular individuals -- if you're a nose-to-the-grindstone atheist, then great. My purpose here is to describe correlations of interest to students of psychology or religion, as well as to deflate some of the smug -- and in this case false -- stereotypes that some atheists have about religious people.

In the interest of time (that is, to save me time), I'll be quoting most of the results since the authors provide enough exposition already. Throughout, the quoted article is McCullough et al. (2003).

Beginning with a review of the Eysenckian work done:**

Cross-sectional studies using Eysenck's P-E-N model (e.g., Eysenck, 1991) indicate that religiousness, as measured by a variety of indicators including frequency of attendance at worship services, frequency of private prayer, and positive attitudes toward religion, is inversely related to Eysenckian Psychoticism (e.g., Francis, 1997; Francis & Bolger, 1997; Francis, Lewis, Brown, Philipchalk, & Lester, 1995; Lewis & Maltby, 1995, 1996; Maltby, 1997, 1999; Maltby, Talley, Cooper, & Leslie, 1995; Robinson, 1990; Smith, 1996; Svensen, White, & Caird, 1992; Wilde & Joseph, 1997) but essentially uncorrelated with Extraversion or Neuroticism. Indeed, the basic finding that religiousness is negatively related to Eysenckian Psychoticism (i.e., sex-adjusted correlations in the neighborhood of -.30) (e.g., Francis et al., 1995) and essentially uncorrelated with Eysenckian Neuroticism and Extraversion has been replicated with children, adolescents, adults, and older adults from around the world.

And then a review of the Big Five work done:

Several recent studies have employed measures of the constructs in the Big Five, or five-factor personality taxonomy (e.g., John & Srivastava, 1999; McCrae & Costa, 1999), to examine the association of religiousness and personality. Kosek (1999), MacDonald (2000), and Taylor and MacDonald (1999) found that measures of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness were positively associated with measures of religious involvement and intrinsic religious orientation. These results are not surprising in light of the robust link between Eysenckian Psychoticism and religiousness because Eysenckian Psychoticism appears to be a conflation of Big Five Conscientiousness and Agreeableness (Costa & McCrae, 1995).

The authors' original contribution used data from the Terman Longitudinal Study to examine the relationship between religiosity in early adulthood and personality traits in adolescence. The latter were judged by teachers and parents, not self-reported. It's also worth noting that the students in this study were selected to have an IQ of at least 135, a point to which we return. Of the 1528 students in the TLS, the authors looked at 492 of them (280 male) for whom the relevant data was obtainable. Their findings:

Conscientiousness (beta = .14) was also a significant predictor of [early adulthood] religiousness, suggesting that for each standard unit increase in adolescents' Conscientiousness, their religiousness in [early adulthood] increased by .14 standard units.

And although other personality traits did correlate with religiosity:

Table 1 shows that children who were rated as Open to Experience (r = .11), Conscientious (r = .20), and Agreeable (r = .15) in adolescence went on to be slightly more religious 19 years later, p less than .05. In addition, adolescents who became highly religious reported having had relatively strong religious upbringings, r = .43, p less than .001.

These did not remain after their correlation with Conscientiousness was accounted for:

In part, the Openness-religiousness association may simply reflect the variance that Openness shares with the rest of the Big Five -- and Conscientiousness in particular -- in this sample. Measures of Openness and Conscientiousness were related at r = .43, which is not surprising because participants' traits were being evaluated within an achievement setting (i.e., they were rated by their teachers as well as parents), which might cause children who are more conscientious about their studies and assignments also to appear more open to experience (i.e., higher in intellect). Indeed, when we controlled for the intercorrelations among the Big Five through multiple regression, Openness and Agreeableness did not retain significant unique associations with religiousness, but Conscientiousness did.

So that's the reality. Atheists like the author of the following comment will no longer be able to assume they are more conscientious (original emphasis):

Personally, I trust atheists the most. I think they're more likely to keep their word than some Christians who think they're automatically going to Heaven solely because they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I think atheists, in general, are more conscientious about their actions because they don't want to face negative consequences in the here-and-now.

As anyone knows, that attitude is not exceptional among those who wear the atheist label. Nor can they move the goalposts and suggest that, yes, this may hold in general, but since atheists are smart, we don't need religion to make ourselves more conscientious -- "Only retards need a written rule system for how to behave," as brainiacs can rely on their superior common sense to behave diligently. But the TLS data contradict this self-satisfied pap as well: even among MENSA-level people, religiosity correlates positively with Conscientiousness. To be blunt, it's time for atheists to stop patting themselves on the back about how conscientious they are, since as a group they score lower than more religious people.

On a related note, I'm getting pretty sick of atheists congratulating themselves for having low divorce rates or infidelity rates. Steve Sailer has suggested that one reason why Massachussetts citizens have lower divorce rates is that they marry much later in life, so that would-be homewreckers take one look at their wrinkled, sagging skin and say, "Yeah, no thanks." Inductivist showed from GSS data that atheists commit less adultery, but I posited the same reason that Steve would have: for a variety of reasons, they're just not attractive enough to would-be homewreckers, sheer age being the most obvious one (just look at the putz in the article linked to in the beginning of this paragraph). And because infidelity correlates with Psychoticism or low Agreeableness and low Conscientiousness, we expect atheists to cheat more -- ceteris paribus, but in real life things aren't equal and thus most atheists are not put to the same tests of temptation.

In closing, although I'd like for religiosity to hold no relation to Conscientiousness, the real world does not care what I'd like. (On a side note, it's odd how frequently atheists fall victim to the moralistic fallacy in this way, given how many of them profess a belief in a universe indifferent to their desires.) Religious nutballs who paint atheists as deformed scoundrels are wrong, but merely not being a wretch hardly merits all the more-ethical-than-thou braggadocio coming from the other side. The data are in, and it's high time that some atheists lose the vainglory.

* "Atheist" understandably makes a person think of a permanent student activist who works in a used bookstore and argues with his co-workers over which progressive rock album is the best.

** If you want the full references to what McCullough et al. (2003) quote, it shouldn't be difficult to look it up on Google -- how many articles on religion and personality could the given authors publish in a given year? If that doesn't work, then email me. I just don't want to waste space listing out all their references.


McCullough, M., J. Tsang, & S. Brion (2003). Personality traits in adolescence as predictors of religiousness in early adulthood: Findings from the Terman Longitudinal Study. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 29, 980-91.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Dayananda Saraswati, and Hindu 'fundamentalism'   posted by Razib @ 8/06/2007 12:51:00 PM

I've been reading about Hinduism recently, a few textbook introductions + some of the canonical scriptures. Mostly this is in the interest of trying to place it within a greater framework of my understanding of how cultures evolve and relate to one another. One of the books I'm going through deals with seminal early thinkers in Hindu nationalism (or proto-nationalism). Of these is Dayananda Saraswati, a Gujarati Brahmin who founded the reformist Hindu sect Arya Samaj. I have long known of the general ideas of Saraswati, but it is different seeing quotations where he elaborates upon his beliefs. The radical, almost "Salafist" character of his thoughts, jumps out at you.

I have posted before about how some religious people, usually the more systematically inclined, have a tendency of reducing the whole universe to a collection of phenomena which can be explained by their religious texts. Saraswati illustrates this, he seems to prefigure modern Hindutva thinkers in reinterpreting the sacred Hindu texts so as to show how they anticipate and describe the whole world. For example, he points to just where in the Hindu canon Europe and the New World are described. Naturally they had to be there, the Vedas are perfect and timeless descriptions of the universe. I could not but help recall the exact same tendency of Christians in terms of mapping real geography to Biblical geography. Additionally, though Saraswati is contemptuous of Islam and Christianity and views Vedic Hinduism as the One True Religion, it is jarring to see him take some pleasure in the iconoclasm of Muslims as they engaged in cultural assault on a massive scale, destroying idols and temple complexes. This reminded me much of many fundamentalists who seem to exhibit more animus toward their notional co-religionists than the enemy far away. The Salafist "reformers" in Saudi Arabia were responsible for the destruction of much of Arabia's older religious architecture (dating from the Caliphate down to the Ottoman period) during the 18th century, exemplified by their attack upon the tomb of the prophet Muhammad. Saraswati's minimalist and notionally reconstructionist (that is, back to first principles) world view will be familiar to anyone who takes an interest in Christian or Muslim fundamentalism. For example, on the one hand he discards post-Vedic Hinduism, the use of images, polytheism (incarnation), philosophical monism, and so on. And yet he also promotes radical planks based on his reading of the Vedas. He accepts the utility of caste and the submission of the lower orders to the higher (a duopoly of Brahmin and Kshatriya dominance aided by economically productive Vaishyas served by humble Sudras). But, he rejects that this hierarchy is one of birth, rather, Saraswati promotes a nobility of attainment and accepts that as some rise from their station of origin others shall fall. It is clearly simply a reinstatement of the Platonic system, the people of gold shall rule over the lower orders. Additionally, Saraswati notes positively the European custom of individuals choosing their own spouses, which was something that really jumped out at me knowing the normative traditions within South Asia. But in my own family it turns out that the religious fundamentalists are also the ones most open to these sorts of modes so long as they can be justified and affixed within their understanding of the religious order. In other words, custom & tradition are secondary in relation to revealed axioms.

Dayananda Saraswati lived during the 19th century, the heyday of British rule. He did not speak a Western language, so his reading of the Koran and Bible were in translations. Therefore, I am struck by the question: what proportion of the ideas that he elaborates upon are 'native' and what proportion 'foreign'? A definitive answer is difficult and ultimately impossible, we can't do a phylogenetic analysis using a coalescent model here. But it does strike me as interesting that a whole host of reformist movements arose in various world religions during the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Salafism in Arabia, the Deobandi movement in South Asia, the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka (where a substantial portion of nominal Christians converted to Buddhism), muscular Christianity and later fundamentalism in the West. One the one hand one could assert that minimalist fundamentalist (for lack of a better word) is a natural outcome of diffusion from the center of European culture. That is, the success of Europe and its Christian religion resulted in conscious (Brahmo Samaj) and unconscious (Arya Samaj) imitators throughout the world. Another argument could be that given particular parameters concomitant with the rise of the modern world and the transition from the mass society to the middle class one the "higher religions" which arose in mass societies characterized by a pyramid shaped stratification will naturally be canalized toward specific convergent evolutionary paths. A form of cultural selection, so to speak. For example, mass literacy and wealth outside of the rentier classes and castes might almost always lead to a reinterpretation of texts and customs which had been the dictatorial preserve of aristocratic elites. Finally, one could also hold that both factors noted above are at play, though there are particular natural developmental pathways elicited by the same parameters, the magnitude of the directional movement might be shaped by emulation and precedent from one particular source. The Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka for example was aided in large part by Westerners from Christian backgrounds who defected toward non-Christian religious traditions. The Theosophical Society played a large role in promoting Indian nationalism and was even associated with Saraswati's Arya Samaj for a period. These sorts of questions can only be answered by someone with a larger database than I currently have, but I don't think that they are intractable given enough time and full access to theoretical tools.

Note: Many ideas are common throughout all "higher" cultures. For example, philosophical monism & and dualism existed in both the West and India at different periods, though in the West the latter was victorious, while in India the former was. Similarly, the atheist critiques of the Carvaka school in relation to many aspects of Hinduism can be found in Islam and Christianity, though obviously they would add one God to the universe.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Talking about religion without a shared religon   posted by Razib @ 8/04/2007 03:46:00 PM

Via Daniel Larison I came upon this YouTube of Mitt Romney freaking out about a radio talk show host's characterizations of his religion. A few years ago I wrote about Mormonism with the Romney candidacy in mind. My main aim was to get some facts out there, and offer a tentative prediction that the candidate's Mormonism would be a serious problem. The main line of evidence I offered was that Romeny's core target audience, Christian social conservatives, would also be the same group most allergic on abstract theological grounds toward supporting a Mormon (I believe that only a few very liberal Episcopalian churches accept Mormon baptism as valid when taking converts, for example). I don't believe it will prevent the majority of social conservatives from backing Romney, rather, I simply believe that the erosion of support could be great enough to be a deal breaker (the fact that Romney has evolved from being a moderate to a conservative recently and rather quickly doesn't help). I doubt Romney will get the nomination, but I do think that his candidacy will pave the way for the viability of future Mormons because the exoticism factor will be somewhat defused. After all, two generations ago many conservative Protestants were skeptical of John F. Kennedy because of his nominal Catholicism, but 3 years ago there was skepticism of John Kerry because he wasn't Catholic enough from the same sector. Though the underlying differences between Protestantism and Catholicism remain (though one could argue that post-Vatican II Catholicism is more congenial toward accommodation with Protestantism), the familiarity with Catholics & Catholicism on the part of many evangelical Protestants has taken the bite off in terms of comfort (though in many parts of the American South Protestants are likely to make a distinction between "Christian" and "Catholic," which I've noted even percolates into the pages of periodicals such as The Houston Chronicle).

My post from a few weeks ago, In the name of a word, highlighted what I believe to be the power of nominal terms and theories in coalescing groups around the banner of unified community set against others. The Mormon Church has some exotic beliefs, but the reality is that the typical Mormon really isn't that different from the typical American Jew, Protestant or Catholic. Nevertheless, the theological differences between Mormonism and other American religions is not something that is going to disappear in the near future. Rather, the reason that I believe that Mormon candidates for president will be less dogged by after Mitt Romney is that his campaign will humanize Mormonism. Once people can think of Mormons in a concrete manner they can focus less on the abstract differences, which most people have only the vaguest grasp of anyhow. That being said, I do think it is important to note that America is becoming a more religiously diverse nation in absolute terms, in other words, the variance in the characters which define the major religions is increasing.

I think it can be argued that the period between 1950-1980 was the high water mark in homogenization of American religion since the first wave of Irish famine immigrants, as Jews and Catholics were brought under the umbrella of mainline Protestantism. Today the majority of Catholics are sociologically difficult to distinguish from Protestants, and they tend to even speak of their religion in a very "Protestant" way. But after 1980 the rise of the Christian Right, and the great increase in those with "no religion" and New & Eastern religions fragmented the theological marketplace. A few years ago I reviewed The impossibility of religious freedom, a book where the author argues that separation of church and state was only viable because of a very narrow understanding of religion as such in a Protestant America. Because our government, and to some extent or laws, gives special dispensations toward religion those in positions of authority come into play in terms of defining exactly what the bounds of a particular religion might be. If someone says "my Muslim religion prevents me from engaging in x," that is very different operationally from "my personal philosophy prevents me from engaging in x." In America someone who espoused a philosophy which violated laws would simply be prosecuted, this is not a nation where philosophies are given special consideration, but, it is a nation where religions are given special considerations. Therefore, the authorities have to determine if the religion of Islam does entail what the individual who claims to be Muslim believes it entails. The fact that religions are diverse, riven with faction and difference of opinion, naturally leads toward the subjective opinions of outsiders carrying great weight in terms of who and what is a legitimate expression of a given faith.

This means that people of different religions need to communicate to each other, often about rather obscure terms which the typical religionist has an imprecise grasp of. Though higher religions are generally supplemented by a large philosophical body of work, in a day to day context in nations such as Japan, India, Spain or Iran, where one religious tradition is overwhelmingly dominant, such details are irrelevant and religion as such is simply a lived experience that emerges out of the conventional social experience. That is not necessarily true in the United States, where there is no common religion, and one can not take for granted the religious truths held by others or a common grounding of premises. Because one can not expect a Christian to bone up on the nitty-gritty details of Islam, Muslims are likely to engage in usage of analogy. For example, a mosque is like a church, an imam is like a minister, and so on. These analogies are imprecise and always lose subtly and nuance. Communicating the details of religion across different religions isn't like working through a mathematical proof together, there's a lot of fuzziness and disagreement, and the native in one religious tradition might not necessarily be clear or reflecting unified consensus within their religion in the first place (the quest for the "Muslim Martin Luther" always seems to end up at the tail of the distribution of belief).

This results in a lot of confusion. If you watched the Romney video you'll see that he gets into a religious argument with the host of the radio show, who reads him some church authorized text. Romney is rather incensed, and tries to get across the reality that he is the expert on his own religion and that the host is not understanding some nuanced details. I won't get into whether Romney is trying to pull a fast one, rather, I will agree that those outside of a religious tradition will often attempt to assemble some Truths and work with them as if they are axioms from which one can derive clear and distinct propositions. In this way one can communicate with a religionist on their own ground, just as someone enters a technical field of study from the outside and masters the formalism so as to be fluent in the discussion. Unfortunately, this is not really something that works. I simply do not believe that most religious propositions derive from clear & distinct axioms, and the elasticity of interpretation is something that is very difficult to comprehend or conceive of from the outside of a religious tradition. Atheists (like myself at one point) often tend to engage in this sort of behavior, stating religious axioms and then showing they are absurd and contradictory, ergo, the religious system is shown to be false or incoherent. But it does not happen with atheists alone, I have entered into discussions with non-Christians who brandish the Nicene Creed to show exactly what Christianity really says and is. The fact is that the history of Christianity can not be reduced to a set of creeds or short axioms, it is a cultural brand which is highly contingent upon historical events and its particular social matrix. Now, I don't believe that Christianity is predicated on divine revelation, nor do I think that the way Christians live today is the most straightforward application of their foundational texts, but the reality of how Christians practiced and have practiced shows that looking closely at texts for determination as to why human action is the way it is is pretty futile (it doesn't help that a person of a particular religion will tell you they do what they do because their religious text tells them, even if other members of the same religion come to wildly different interpretations and justifications). Personally, I am generally skeptical of the inferences made by Christians, whatever their stripe, from their holy texts. But then, I am not Christian, and critically, I am not embedded in their social environment, and so my plausibility matrix is very, very, different.

As Americans we live in, and will continue to live in, a religiously pluralistic environment. Additionally, particular religions will have material consequences on us all because the tribunes of our state are themselves religious and will exhibit natural influences from that direction. The fact that a minority of American Christians have specific theological beliefs intertwined with the geopolitics of the Middle East is a background condition of our world, the fact that I might think those theological beliefs are absurd is irrelevant in the proximate framework. As an American it is probably important to have a minimal level of familiarity with the primary religious dispensations which dominate the marketplace of ideas. That being said, it is important not to pretend that the reading of the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon, and so on, result in a perfect understanding of the religious phenomenon. Less than a month ago I got into a pretty long internet discussion about the factual claims of Mormonism with a group of Mormons. I went to a high school that was about half Mormon, and most of my closer friends by graduation were of that religion. I have read the Book of Mormon and some supplemental literature about the Church before, so I thought I went into the discussion "knowing my shit," so to speak. Well, it didn't turn out that way. To make a long story short some sophisticated Mormons don't read the Book of Mormon in a very obvious way, to my understanding. Instead of believing in magnificent civilizations seeded by mass migrations from the Old World, they offered a much more parsimonious and frankly nearly unfalsifiable narrative of minimal colonization by a small family in a very small geographic area that was absorbed by the indigenous substrate. Most Mormons don't believe this from what I can tell (personal communication with my friends), but enough do that I had to pause and reassess what I believed about what Mormons believed. Similarly, a few years ago I asserted blithely that Sunni Muslims do not believe in free will in response to a commentary by an American Sunni Muslim who blandly seemed to assert exactly such a thing. Now, the reality is that there were always counter-trends within Sufi groups to the normative consensus in Sunni Islam, but I suspect that another thing that is happening today with American Sunni Islam is that in the process of assimilating American religious terminology it is becoming operationally "Protestantized." There are thousand "real Islams," and it just seems to turn out that the real Islam maps on pretty well to local cultural conditions.

Where does that leave us? I think there are several dynamics we have to keep in mind. First, American religions seem to be converging upon common characteristics which are descended from the Radical Reformation (e.g., individualism, operational Arminianism, etc.). Second, the theological variance is increasing, at least in the short term, as the marketplace is being saturated with new denominations and religious groups. Third, the increased diversity means that it is extremely difficult to talk about religion in a straightforward manner without getting into a lot of overhead to clarify definitions. After all, there are many different interpretations of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, etc., which are numerous on the American landscape. Before even one can map concepts from one religion to another, one must clarify exactly which flavor of religion one is encountering when one talks to Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and so on. I don't know where this is going, but if I had to bet I suspect that a vague civil religion will become identified with the elites that marginalizes the numerous sects in the public space. The sects will continue to be vibrant with a large number of Americans, but they won't be important players in public policy because there will just be too many different loci of power to deal with. The protection and respect a religion receives will be directly proportional to its numbers & power. Very small religions won't be religions at all, but cults. So I suppose in the end nothing really changes, there is simply a quantitative shift in emphasis.


Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Way of the master   posted by Razib @ 8/02/2007 07:42:00 PM

Confucius Making a Comeback In Money-Driven Modern China. The article notes that there is some debate about what exactly "Confucianism" is. The original ideas of Confucius were a distillation of the traditional customs & rites of ancient China which he attempted to preserve and promote through his tumultuous times. The original canon was modified and interpreted by by his successors, Mencius & Xunzi, transformed by the rise of the Chinese Empire, and finally influenced by Buddhist metaphysics (Neo-Confucianism). Like many elite religio-philosophical systems Confucianism is extremely flexible & rich, providing precedent & justification both for service to the a autocrat as well as moralistic objection to his tyranny. After the first Chinese Empire collapsed because of its totalitarian tendencies, encapsulated by the amoral utilitarian Legalist philosophy, the ruling dynasty which succeeded that of the First Emperor buttressed their legitimacy with Confucian thought. Though the outer facade spoke with a gentle Confucian voice the state apparatus in some ways was more indebted to the blind efficiency of Legalism. The point is not the words one speaks, it is that adherence to the Way allows one speak with more authority, the voice of Heaven. I wonder if in the near future Chinese will view the genuine Communist period (i.e., between 1950-1980) as similar to the Qin dynasty, which was at its peak for only 16 years.


Monday, July 30, 2007

Religion promotes cooperation?   posted by Razib @ 7/30/2007 12:19:00 PM

Religious concepts promote cooperation:

Participants primed with religious concepts gave their partner an average of $4.22, compared with only $1.84 in the control group. But those who declared themselves religious before the study were no more generous than non-believers.

"The effect of the religious prime was both large and surprising, especially considering that during exit interviews the participants were unaware of having been religiously primed," says Shariff.

A second study introduced a third group, primed with words associated with civic responsibility such as "jury", contract", and "police." This group behaved almost identically to that primed with religious concepts.

You can read the full working paper for free. There were two groups. One consisted of 50 UBC students, and the second a somewhat larger and more diverse group from the Vancouver, BC, area. The basic finding was that "priming" subjects with religious terms seemed to elevate generosity during an un-iterated Ultimatum Game, where the 'rational actor' should just keep all the money. In the first sample there wasn't even a statistically significant difference between religious & irreligious students in how they reacted to the priming. The second study was more equivocal, and the authors in the discussion suggest that part of the reason that the irreligious tended to be less responsive toward religious priming was that the greater stringency of the test for 'atheism' filtered the individuals to a greater degree who were defined as non-religious, and a small number of subjects might simply even lack the implicit resonances of supernatural agents. Finally, the second study also showed that subjects could be primed toward generosity by exposing them to civic terminology.

First, the authors note the problems with their small and narrow sample sizes. Though statistically significant and powerful, the effects were derived from people from the Vancouver area, or, college students at UBC. I didn't see controlling for the fact that there is likely some correlation between ethnicity and religion in British Columbia. Specifically, a disproportionate number of secular British Columbians are likely to be Chinese origin. Second, cognition expresses and develops within a cultural context. In a society with less civic engagement and activity than Canada I would not be surprised if the effect of secular priming was trivial. Similarly, in a society that is extremely secular (Japan?) one might see far greater response to civic priming than the supernatural equivalent. Third, the authors suggest that the response of theistic and non-theistic individuals in the first group to supernatural concepts suggests an implicit association between religious concepts and altruistic behavior. I have suggested myself that the anthropomorphic bias which is a pillar of religiosity exists in many, or all, atheists. Rejection of a deity might be sincere on the explicit level, but the implicit mind might still be strongly shaped by early cultural conditioning. The secular individuals in the UBC sample were no doubt aware of the valences and power of religious beliefs and ideas, and it seems plausible that lifetime implicit associations would have been built up.

Overall, this study is good because as the researchers point out there is a lot of armchair bullshitting on this topic. I get plenty of it in the comments of my weblogs. This study shows supernatural agents can act as mediators of human action as posited by many. It also shows that secular institutions and values can trigger the same change in behavior. What does this tell us on the fundamental level? I'm not sure, after all, the typical modern human has been exposed to several thousand years of philosophical religion which has embedded within it an explicit moral/ethical dimension. Similarly, bureaucratic government and the ideologies of mass societies are "in the air," so to speak. In some "primitive" societies gods are seem as much more amoral creatures than in "advanced" cultures; they are mischievous agents who humans must placate and deceive. Additionally, they have no well developed theories of statecraft or a conception of law enforced by political fiat. It would be interesting to do this sort of study in a primitive society, though obviously the lack of literacy would cause problems with the priming the researchers used in this case.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

In the name of a word   posted by Razib @ 7/21/2007 04:16:00 PM

The Man Who is Thursday has a long post titled Christocentrists: Mormons as Non-Christians. His basic argument is that there are some necessary preconditions assumed with the term "Christian" which Mormons violate, and so though they are followers of Jesus Christ, who they believe is the Son of God, they should not be considered Christians. The post points out my own main issue with the Mormon contention that they Christians: I do not think that other Christians, Muslims or Jews could consider them monotheists,1 so the fact that they revere Jesus Christ as their savior seems like a moot point. Of course, as someone who is not a Christian I don't have a strong opinion on this topic, I can grant Mormons their own self-definition as Christians and I can respect that other Christian groups do not consider them Christians. For me the primary issue is the mapping of the term Christian to a set of characteristics, after all the transmission of information is for me the primary role of terminology.

The Man Who is Thursday is a Christian (from the frozen north I gather), so the debate has more salience for him. What for me is an illustration of linguistic peculiarities and an anthropological curiosity is for him something which goes to the root of his beliefs about the ontology of the universe. This highlights the critical role that names play in the ecology of human social relations and the arc of history. I have made the point before that psychological and anthropological study has unmasked the reality that the vast majority of humans who subscribe with deep sincerity to "higher religions" do not truly conceptualize with any clarity the metaphysics to which they accede and profess as distinctive elements of their creed. In other words, the varieties of theology promoted by Muslims, Trinitarian Christians and devotional Hinduism have little relevance toward the psychological state of the individual believer when focused upon their deity of choice, the mental model of supernatural agency seems a human universal. But, despite this fundamental similarity the names ascribed to abstruse philosophical systems are essential toward coalescing groups which engage in conflict. The schisms of early Christianity, rooted in extremely fine and subtle philosophical distinctions, which sometimes resulted in persecutions and deaths, are illustrations of this principle. Similarly, the hostility of a substantial fraction of evangelical Christians to Mitt Romney despite his social conservatism, in principle (if of recent origin) and practice (in his personal life), also show the power of names.

But this is not restricted to religion. Consider the reluctance that many southern whites had in discarding their historical affiliation with the Democratic party. Or the latency that many who operationally change political orientation exhibit when it comes to shedding their old self-identification for a new (many neoconservatives remained Democrats for far longer than their political change would have implied). These latencies are important to consider because they have real world impact. I suspect that the tendency for many southerners to retain at least local Democratic affiliation slowed down the progress of the conservative revolution. Similarly, I would not be surprised if a Mormon nominee in the Republican party is not of much concern in a generation or two, but until then the latency of identification is going to have real world consequences (e.g., the nomination of Rudi Gulianni because conservatives won't coalesce around any one candidate?).

Addendum: In the current context the importance of names is pretty obvious in a place like Iraq. The emergence of a Arab Shia majority within the borders of what we call Iraq is probably only a fact of the past two hundred years. It seems that as modern irrigation techniques opened up vast swaths of southern Iraq to settlement by nomads who became farmers, there was a switch between a Sunni religious identity to a Shia one, in part due to the missionary activities of the residents of the Shia holy cities around which the farmlands lay. Over time there was a particular mapping between being Shia in Iraq (a southern peasant) and a Sunni Arab (a northerner, a nomad, or a part of the Ottoman era power structure). Fissures that emerge due to different interests of course can become crystallized as a "Shia vs. Sunni" conflict, though there are a host of other parameters at work (as illustrated by the fact that the Shia of southern Iraq ultimately repulsed the Iranian invasion during the 1980s). But the importance of a name should not be overemphasized, after all, Sunni Kurds have no qualms with pragmatically aligning with the Shia Arabs so as to marginalize their Sunni Arab co-religionists. The critical thing about names is their plasticity and manipulability, they are mental constructs and so extremely malleable after considerations of latency and cognitive friction are taken into account.

Update: From the comments, this makes my point much clearer:
....The associated metaphysics is secondary to the potentiation of collective action. Once a flag gets carried across a tribal border, be it a tribal flag, a national flag, a religious flag or whatever in the home context, across the tribal border it’s generally a de facto tribal flag.

I want to emphasize that this issue isn't limited to religion & metaphysics. After all, how many communists read Das Kapital front to back? Religious or political movements need the appropriate psychological "hooks" to have mass appeal, but they also seem to gain credibility through the generation of obscure intellectual justifications.

1 - There is some question among Jews and Muslims whether Trinitarian Christians are monotheists. But, the key is that there is a question; I do not think with Mormons there can be a question.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Judaism, a religion and a people   posted by Razib @ 7/10/2007 10:47:00 PM

Some of the comments below stumbled upon a topic which I think is important to highlight: that many Americans Jews who consider themselves religious wouldn't really be considered religious in a non-Jewish context. Most of you likely know that Judaism is both a religion and a nation (ethnicity). This isn't that exceptional. Some Zoroastrians present their own faith in the same way, as do many Hindus and some neo-Pagan reconstructionists (e.g., the Asatru). But in an America framed by Protestant assumptions about the centrality of religious profession, confession and adherence to a creed, when someone asserts that they are of a religion x the background schema of Americans is to assume that that entails adherence to a set of belief axioms. But check out some of the data from the American Jewish Identity Survey:
Belief that God performs miracles

Disagree strongly Disagree somewhat Agree somewhat Agree strongly
Jews by religion 11% 17% 31% 36%
No religion 7% 11% 31% 47%

I am contrasting Jews who have some religious affiliation (as opposed to avowedly secular Jews who have only an ethnic attachment) with those Americans who claim "No religion" (which can range from New Age theists all the way to materialist atheists). The point is that even religious Jews in the United States are in many ways more like the non-religious than they are like other denominations. This is reflected in their political liberalism as well as their hostility toward manifestations of "fundamentalist" religion (e.g., Creationism).


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Lenin vs. God   posted by Razib @ 5/30/2007 10:08:00 AM

Michael Shermer's Skeptic Society has an interesting article up based on And God Created Lenin: Marxism vs Religion In Russia, 1917-1929, which chronicles the futile attempt by the Communists to exterminate religion. One must make a distinction here between religion and a specific religious system and organization.

In The Rise of Western Christendom by Peter Brown I was struck by two simultaneous processes as the Roman Empire withdrew from portions of Germany and Britain and the barbarians rushed in. First, there is the archaeological record of the persistence of folk Christianity for centuries (e.g., amongst the presumably post-Roman peasant subjects of the Avars, or the British remnant under pagan Anglo-Saxon rule). But second, there is the almost invariable creeping advance of doctrinal deviation and religious syncretism once the institutional "police" disappear from the scene. This was in clear evidence in portions of Germany which came under Carlognian direct rule after a long period of Merovingian neglect. St. Boniface records nominally Christian priests regularly taking part in pagan cults and garbling the most basic professions of their faith. A more recent example are the Kakure Kirishitan, Japanese "Hidden Christians" who reemerged after the opening of their nation to the West during the 19th century. In the early 17th century hundreds of thousands of Japanese on Kyushu were at least nominal Roman Catholic Christians (Nagasaki was a Catholic city). The victorious Tokugawa Shogunate persecuted and suppressed Catholicism because of its perception as a "foreign" religion and made every Japanese family register with a Buddhist temple. Though the vast majority of Christians seem to have left the religion (many of these were only notional in any case), a small minority kept their religious identity as Catholics under a mask of crypto-Buddhism. Over the centuries they absorbed outward Buddhist motifs and passed on their Christianity orally. By recontact many of these "Christians" needed to be reoriented toward orthodoxy, so deviated had their religion become from its original character without institutional support. Note that though the surface layer of ritual and belief became distorted rather quickly, the basal psychological attachments with the ancestral faith along with the religious impulse still drove these believers forward to put their lives at risk (one can see this clearly among "Hidden Jews" as well).

Earlier, I have pointed to the fact that Russia seems to have gone through religious "awakening" in the last 15 years. This, despite 70 years of state supported atheism. Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin were both baptized into the Orthodox Church & professed believers, a signal as to the direction of the wind. But, I will not reject the assertion that many of these "conversions" are superficial. A few years back I read a piece which pointed out that a disproportionate number of devout Christians during the Soviet period were of Jewish ethnic origin, a group already under suspicion during the later phases of the Communist state which looked toward Russian Orthodoxy as a source of solace. With the reconversion of much of the non-Jewish Russian elite after the fall of Communism many of these Jewish Christians were shocked to observe that those who had once persecuted them on account of their religious convictions were now attempting to marginalize them within the Russian Orthodox Church itself, presumably driven by anti-Semitic convictions. In Evolution for Everyone David S. Wilson holds out the hope that a non-theistic "religion" may serve some of the same group cohesive functional roles (the "horizontal" aspect) without any nod to a supernatural element (the "vertical" dimension). To some extent I think the reassertion of religious identification in places like Russia and Serbia fits this mold in that many people who affiliate with the Orthodox religion are likely only minimally interested in, or believers in, the supernatural. Slobodan Milosevic never disavowed his atheism, but during the late 1980s he built up his power within what was then Yugoslavia by aligning himself with the Eastern Orthodox religion, even attending ceremonies presided over by clerics. Of course, what one generation might do out of expedience another might accept with sincerity. The conversion of the pagan aristocracy of Rome to Christianity in the early 5th century was a forgone conclusion, their own religious traditions to which they had stubbornly clung to in the face of a century of Christian Roman Emperors was simply no longer a viable option in a polity which now proscribed their rituals and persecuted their beliefs. But by the 6th century no doubt the descendants of once proudly pagan families were now sincere and devout Christians (as attested by their patronage of the Church).

The point here is that religious systems and beliefs are embedded within functionally relevant institutional structures. Even if the former are altered or eliminated, the latter are often needful. Observe the cults of personality, mass rallies and cultivation of youth within the Party structure within Communist states which ostensibly have banished religious feeling. Similarly, even with the collapse of the latter as scaffolding the basal religious impulse will seek outlet in the psychology of a great many human beings. The synergy of both have often been powerful and historically significant forces, as attested by the relationship between Christianity and the rise of monarchy in northern Europe or the spread of Islam during the 7th century.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Why the gods will not die   posted by Razib @ 5/25/2007 04:35:00 PM

Over at my other weblog I have a long response to the Edge piece which argues for the power of the Secularization Hypothesis, roughly, that with modernity there comes a falling away from supernaturalism. In short, the authors dig into some data, but like those who make arguments about the inevitable conquest of secularity by religion, their narrative is characterized by selection bias. That is, where the data is powerfully in favor of their argument they draw upon surveys, where it is not powerful or argues against their case they just quote impressions about how non-religious people really are, and sometimes they just pull data out of context (e.g., focus here on South Korea). In any case, I'm just here to remind people of a little history: atheism and theism have basically always been around. The finally victory of either will likely not be won in the human future, as retreat seems to herald future advances. The relative power of atheism or theism varies over time and space, but neither morph ever seems to fix. The sample space of data is so large that like a high school essay it isn't that hard assemble a list of data which support your thesis. It is natural then that the various camps will have their court propagandists outlining their case. But this just really masks the true variation and diversity on this character and its multi-dimensional nature.


Friday, May 18, 2007

God's Contintent, Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis   posted by Razib @ 5/18/2007 08:33:00 PM

Philip Jenkins' God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis is a very good book. In fact, I recommend anyone interested in Islam & Europe to buy it and read it! It is dense on data and citation, and the narrative benefits from the author's multi-faceted understanding of the history and development of religions and religious institutions. While Jenkins' previous two books, The Next Christendom & The New Faces of Christianity, painted a vibrant & fresh portrait of Christianity across the world, from Africa to Latin America and Asia, God's Continent is geographically more narrow-focused, though thematically broader. Unlike many academics Jenkins has the ability to be sympathetic toward his subjects without seeming patronizing or turning into an advocate (though on occasion he does verge upon the latter). Importantly, as an Episcopalian he does not necessarily view all religions as fundamentally outmoded and primitive, allowing contempt to cloud the narrative. Though his sympathies and potential biases are pretty obvious, the data are so abundant that it takes little effort to arrive at conclusions at variance with the author's.

Despite the occasional lapses from objectivity, God's Continent is not a work of rhetoric steeped in anecdote and reliant upon shared norms to render it credible scholarship, its empirical bent is central, the narrative is an extended argument awash in data. The Next Christendom was a tightly presented brief that the future of the Christian religion lay the Third World, specifically, in Latin America, Africa and Asia. In it Jenkins' made the case that the Secularization Hypothesis is false, that it applies primarily to Europe, and that the United States is not an exceptional nation in its religiosity, rather, it is reflective of the worldwide vitality of organized religion. In large measure The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity were aimed at a secular and progressive Western audience out of touch with the realities of religious expression, but whose own lives might soon be impacted by the changes being wrought by demography. After all, it is entirely plausible that within the next generation the Pope is more likely to be an African prince of the Church than a conservative German theologian. This is a very different book with a different audience. Though Jenkins does spend a fair amount of time engaging secular liberals and their confusions regarding the nature of the religion of the masses of "Europeans," his most biting rebuttals seem to be aimed at American conservatives who glory in visions of Eurabia. There are numerous quotations of Front Page Magazine, Mark Steyn and Claire Berlinski, mostly to emphasize the exaggerations and substantive weakness of the claims. God's Continent relays clearly the message that the reports of Christendom's demise are greatly exaggerated. I won't repeat the general arguments made by the likes of Steyn and Berlinski, rather, the first half of Jenkins' book does the leg work by simply collecting data and doing elementary school level math. Here are, for example, the number of just evangelical Christians vs. Muslims in Europe, inclusive of the Russian Federation:
Some Religious Minorities in Europe (includes Russia)

Evangelicals, Charismatics and Pentecostals 8%4.6%8.2%9.8%

The author's point in offering these data is that no one speaks of the evangelical "bounce back" in Europe, even though it is a reality, and numerically more significant than the Muslim presence. Jenkins does suggest that there are those on the Left who are wedded to the Secularization Hypothesis, and continue to view religion as the opium of the masses which is naturally going to fade away. And so they dismiss, ignore, or minimize, the vitality of Christian religious movements within the continent. But it seems his greater irritation is toward American conservatives, who prematurely mourn a religious civilization as if it is dead and buried for the sake of politics and propaganda.

Jenkins offers several reasons why commentators have a tendency to view Europe as "Allah's Continent" even though only a small proportion of the residents of Europe are Muslim. First, scholars tend to count one as "Muslim" on the slightest pretext, because Islamic identity is viewed as a catchall. In contrast, Christian affiliation is associated more closely with a pro-active identification. This results in the exaggeration of the number of religious Muslims and an underestimate of Europeans with sentiment or sympathy toward Christianity. In other words, while secular individuals from a Muslim background can be assumed to have some relationship with the Islamic cultural complex, the same certainly applies to secular individuals from a Christian background! Jenkins himself regularly repeats the claim that "8-10% of French are Muslims or of Muslim origin." The latter is key, it is well known that French "Muslims" are nearly as secular in their habits as French "Catholics," and a recent survey found that 4% of respondents identified as Muslim. This implies that a non-trivial number (assuming that around 1 out of 10 French citizens is of ethnic identity which is conventionally Muslim) of French Muslims have even disavowed a nominal association with the religion, which is parallel with a concurrent decline of Catholic identification in the mainstream French population since the 1960s. Second, there is the regional concentration of Muslims. Rotterdam is half Muslim (in a nation that is 4% Muslim). Greater London is 10% Muslim (in a nation that is 2.5% Muslim). Paris is surrounding by suburbs dominated by ethnic North Africans. There are other dense "pockets" of Muslims throughout Europe, from the industrial heartland of Germany to Malmo to Copenhagen. Muslims are highly concentrated in particular locales, and this ties in to the third issue, and that is that the European elites also concentrate in the same urban conurbations where Muslims are preponderant. Brussels, the capital of the EU, is 20% Muslim! I am always surprised when I read papers in England complaining that a television show with one non-white character out of 10 does not "reflect Britain." But a quick survey of the UK Census shows that this is in fact a proportional representation of Britain (in fact, more than a proportional representation). Nevertheless, it is not a representation of London, and that I believe is the critical variable, because the chattering class naturally conflates its own circumstance with that of the nation. Fourth, Muslims are a problem. Issues of class and race are confounded with the role of religion, but Islam qua Islam and its relation to the West are obviously of some importance in the world at this point. Even if only half of South Asians in Britain are Muslim, they are the half which grips the attention of the media and the public because their impact is not banal or workaday. Discussions about "Asians" and their problems in Britain elide the reality that the "Asians" are invariably the Muslims. Fifth, there is politics at work. Parties on the Far Right in the late 20th century emerged in large part because of the Muslim problem, so it is in their interest to heighten its threat. Elites on the Left co-opt Muslims as tools in their own conflicts and culture wars with the Right, high and low. If Muslims serve as the new revolutionary class then it is in the Left's interest to promote them and encourage the perception of the power of this constituency, as well as to facilitate its mobilization under the leadership of individuals with whom other segments of society can negotiate. In the United States there is the peculiar synergy of jingoism and anti-Europeanism that is the hallmark of much of the New Right combined with the neoconservative perception that anti-Semitism is locally on the rise across Europe and that Islam and Islamism are both regional and worldwide problems which the continent is not addressing.

Against the salience of the Islamic presence on the European continent Jenkins makes a powerful case that Christianity is still a vital, if not preeminent, force on the cultural landscape. He rebuts the common assertion that Europeans are atheistic & materialistic in the majority with a simple appeal to the same survey which I have pointed to. Europeans have become sharply detached from organized Christianity, but majorities still retain sympathy with supernaturalism broadly construed, and large minorities (in some nations the majority, e.g., Greece, Spain, Poland and Ireland) of religious believers remain with a strong Christian identity. And then there is the gray land of Europeans who are weakly connected to Christian orthodoxy, but have powerful cultural affinities with their traditional denominational backgrounds (Edward Said, an atheist from an Anglican religious background, often said that Islam was his civilization. Similarly, it seems plausible to say that many atheists in the West are of the Christian civilization, whether they like to admit it or not). The large numbers of Europeans who make recourse to rituals such as baptism & confirmation attest to this sentimental attachment. Additionally, there are some metrics on which Europeans might be said to exhibit greater religiosity than Americans. For example, the enormous numbers of Catholics who make pilgrimages to holy sites throughout the continent dwarfs any cognate in North America, no doubt in part because of the relative dearth of "sacred spaces" in the United States in comparison to Europe, but also perhaps because that is part of European religious practice which has no equivalent in the United States. Though it seems fair to say that the average European is less religious than the average American, it is also important to remember that many European cultures are not characterized by the wall of church-state separation which Americans take for granted, and religious assumptions may "guide" the society in a manner surprising to some. For example, on the issue of abortion Europeans have had a range of responses, with some states as liberal in their laws as the United States (generally in Scandinavia and Britain), but most more conservative (Germany), and some rather restrictive (Portugal). This diversity is a function of the fact that religious forces, especially the Catholic Church, are political actors who serve to act as breaks upon "progressive" social tendencies. While in the United States such as activism might be seen as improper, or evidence of the power of the Religious Right, in nations where the church is given a nod in the Constitution (though not necessarily established) and explicitly religious parties have long existed such objections are not feasible.

Jenkins also bridges some of the ideas in his previous books by pointing out that a substantial proportion of the immigrants to Europe are Christian. These communities serve as vital hubs of religious evangelism and Christian belief. To some extent one might wonder what Third World Christianity has to do with European Christianity, but of course many religious denominations are international. Just as there is a global Islam, the revivalism of which has world-wide ramifications, so the beliefs of Christians outside of Europe impacts those within Europe. The Anglican Communion is now demographically a predominantly African Christian community. Similarly, Roman Catholicism is a religion with a representation on every continent, and its primary regions of growth lay in Africa and to a lesser extent Asia. For Roman Catholicism this is critical because the sharp decline in the number of seminarians across Europe, excepting Poland, has resulted in the common presence of non-white priests and monastics. In parts of France immigrants and transplants from Francophone West Africa have been critical in filling the breach left by the lack of replenishment of clerical ranks from the native populace. In other situations we have peoples who are reaching & pushing back to the "mother church." African Lutherans are uncompromising in their criticism of the Lutheran hierarchy of northern Europe, who they accuse of being decadent and ineffectual. The Mizo peoples of northeast India were originally converted to Christianity by Welsh Protestant nonconformists, but with the decline of fidelity to organized Christianity in Britain they have now sent missionaries back to Wales (in some ways one might contend this is an expanded recapitulation of the evangelization of Anglo-Saxon Britain from Ireland during the late 6th and early 7th century, as the Irish themselves were converted to Christianity by the Romano-British). The zeal of Korean missionaries is also well known, and their recent problems in the Middle East show just how seriously they take the "Great Commission" (I do find it rather peculiar when 3/4 of their fellow Koreans remain non-Christian that they venture off to foreign lands like the Irish who ventured into the pagan lands of barbarian Europe). The point here is not that the Scotch will be converted back toward "orthodox" Presbyterianism by the Koreans, it is that the same international religious tendrils which have wafted the embers of Islam across the Mediterranean also have resulted in an indwelling of Christians from across to the world to the continent which has been the faith's traditional home. Even if native Europeans were totally lacking in any religious vision or sentiment, Islam is certainly not the only alternative on the scene, for immigrants from other Christian hands have replanted a very vital strand of contemporary Christianity, heavily influenced by the Pentecostal movement, upon European soil.

Emphasizing the native European attachment to Christianity (revival movements, staunchly Christian nations like Poland), as well as immigrant Christianity communities, allows Jenkins to make his case that Islam does not look across a godless continent filled with nihilists, unchallenged and unassailable. When intellectuals, American and European, speak of the death of Christianity and the post-Christian landscape, they are highlighting two distinct dynamics. First, the European elite is in many ways post-Christian. Tony Blair, though an Anglican of some religious convictions, is diffident and tentative in expressing his Christian faith in public. European statesmen such as Francois Mitterrand have been openly irreligious, while even in Catholic Poland until recently the head of state was personally an unbeliever. Though American elites are often accused of being "out of touch," Jenkins argues that European elites exhibit a far greater distance from their "hinterlands" in terms of outlook and world-view (he suggests that the small size and low number of cultural capitals results in a far greater centralization in terms of elite socialization). Dutch elites in the immigrant filled cities no doubt find it easy to forget that their nation is host to a "Bible Belt" of Calvinist believers. Nations as disparate as Norway, France and Scotland have regions of elevated Christianity commitment. But these concentrations of organized Christianity highlight the second trend: the reemergence of the ancient classical pattern where Christianity is simply a major cult within a religiously diverse landscape. The analogy is not totally apt insofar as unlike late antiquity Christians and Christianity still command the heights of the culture, and are a far greater proportion of the population identify as Christians. Additionally, while late antique Europeans lived in a landscape where pagan religious assumptions were normative and served as the cultural backdrop, today's post-Christians live in the shadows of their Christian cultural past. Nevertheless, Europeans have ushered in an age where a wide range of beliefs are acceptable and in currency, just as it was so in late antiquity. This is a time when the Prince of Wales admits that he would prefer to be a defender of the faiths, not a faith. European is post-Christian insofar as Christian assumptions are not unchallenged and always at the center of the cultural discourse because the culture is by definition and necessity explicitly Christian. In decades past the Roman Catholic Church in Italy would not have to reiterate its central role in Italian life, because that would be a given. But today the presence of a Muslim minority, as well as the rise of secularity, means that Italian Catholicism must pro-actively make the case for its relevance and centrality.

And it is this counter-reaction which Jenkins argues is nearly inevitable. He offers a historical perspective, in 1798 the Pope was held captive as anti-Christian revolution swept Europe. Many savants of the age predicted the death of Christianity and the ancien regime. Despite the restoration after the fall of Napoleon, the ancien regime did fall and transform into the modern era of nation-states, but Christianity did not die. It is also important to remember the power of anti-clericalism throughout much of the 19th and early 20th century, and the allure and appeal of radical politics for the European working classes. In 1881 Italian nationalists attempted to seize the body of Pius IX and throw it into the Tiber river. In France the Catholicism and laicism have been at tension for two centuries. If Europeans tire of the ennui of secular materialism and consumer decadence it seems far more plausible that indigenous religious traditions, prominently local Christianities, will serve the role as the vehicle for a revived organized supernaturalism as opposed to Islam. There are already signs that in parts of northern Europe where Islam is prominent that locals are exploring their relationship with Christianity anew. In Scandinavia the Lutheran churches were (or are) arms of the state. In Denmark they term it the Distant Church, and these churches exhibit all the sclerotic tendencies of government bureaucracies. But just as Pietism arose in response to the cooling of Reformation embers, so a second look at religious traditions visited only in passing, at confirmation and marriage, may be induced by the alternative example of Islamic religious communities which are defined by their relationship to their god. The pessimism in regards to European Christianity seems to resemble the nostalgia that some intellectuals felt toward classical paganism, which encapsulated a native spirituality more congenial with nationalist sentiment. European neo-Paganism is in fact a reconstructed tradition which serves as a religious focus for a wholesale re-identification with a national past, mythic or not. But in the generality it failed as a mass movement, and the reason is simple: paganism died in Europe as an organized and explicit movement, its influence was felt within the cultural substratum in custom and tradition, and re-scaffolding these folkways in a systematic manner into a new religious movement proved impossible because the chain of connection across the generations had been broken. The same is not true of Christianity, hundreds of millions of Europeans remain Christian believers, the chain of belief has not been broken! Christianity is not a memory, but a living tradition in some recess, but that recess has been a draw down from a high point after the revivals of the 19th century in the face of 18th century rationalism.

God's Continent spends a great deal of time on the role and nature of Islam in Europe. Jenkins offers many ideas and posits future trends which might surprise some. I won't cover these in detail in this post, but rather will follow up later, as I want to keep the focus on Christianity. But I have to ask, why the relative ignorance of much of the data that Jenkins presents in his book? Part of it is surely human psychology. Readers of this weblog are intelligent, but they can get carried away as much as anyone. A regular reader of this weblog (going on 5 years) conflated the fact that the majority of elementary age children in Rotterdam were Muslim (the city is, as I said, half Muslim) with the possibility that the majority of Dutch children were Muslim! Another reader in a chat was worried about the numbers of Muslims in France, and when I asked him numbers he assumed they were in the 20-30% range. I respectively offered that the concern is laudable, but one should take 5 seconds and go to Google to look at the range of data (15% is probably the high bound). Another reader responded that in France the problem was that one can't speak out against immigrants and Islam. I was busy so I didn't respond that the National Front has been a powerful anti-immigrant force (though ineffectual) for a generation now, winning 10-20% of the national vote, so such a contention seems highly misleading. Th reader was likely not stupid, but they were simply blurting out impressionistic thoughts and telegraphing sentiments common in the right-wing press (i.e., the inevitable "Death of Europe," its weakness in the face of Islam and jihadism, etc.). I have been guilty of this myself. A few years ago I asked on an e-list I was a member of "what northern European nation will become Muslim first?" By "first" I meant in this generation, within 10-20 yeas. I was stupid and lazy, and basically engaging in intellectual masturbation instead of courting the data.

I regret the time wasted on this, though it was enjoyable at the time. In some ways it was a byproduct of the web-masturbatory tendencies of the whole "warblogger" period, where people who knew nothing felt free to say anything about everything. I wasn't a total retard, but my working hypothesis was that a "tipping point" might be reached where Europeans start to convert to Islam. Now, if I was an absolute ignoramus this sort of model might be plausible, but, I did know some history. I'd read a fair amount of Roman, Byzantine and Islamic history, and I had a sense of how "religious change" occurs. I also knew that the idea that Christianity wasn't a lower class religion, that in fact it was a cult of the urban "middle class," and that it spread to the society at large via elite patronage after the conversion of Constantine and the suppression of pagan cults during the reign of Theodosius. Finally, I'd also read a fair amount of sociology of religion and knew of the importance of social networks in the spread of new religions, and the utility bundles which they needed to bring to be successful. In expressing views which seem laughably simplistic in hindsight I was catering to my masturbatory tendencies and my detestation of Islam, using worst case scenarios to stoke my own sense of Schadenfreude, that the Europeans were getting what was coming to those pussies. My own animus toward the central tendency of the Muslim religion remains, but I have come to grips to the likelihood that to grapple with reality one must model it properly. So small details matter, for example, 1/3 of the Muslims within Europe (excluding Russia) aren't immigrants or their children. Rather, they're part of the old communities of the Balkans. This is relevant to projecting the impact that non-white immigrants have upon European Islam, and making an identity between racial minorities and Islam. The cultural influence of Islam and is relationship with race and class are important, plausible high bound estimates of the number of Muslims (e.g., assuming no defection and a broad definition of "Muslim") allow us to arrive at a ~20% figure for what proportion of the residents of European are of that faith in 2050. The Republic of Macedonia is about 33% Muslim. These are members of the Albanian ethnic minority, a long established community in the Balkans. Though today a co-dominion between the Christian Slavs and Muslim Albanians has been achieved, it is only after a civil war in which the Albanians reacted to what they perceived to be overbearing domination and prejudice. An analogy between Macedonia in the 1990s and Europe in 2050 is not totally apt, insofar as Muslims in Macedonia are established as one ethnic community speaking a common language, sharing a common history, and also deriving some support from neighboring Albania. But, this might be a situation which allows us to get a sense of the outer boundary of the problems which Islam might cause, in regards to serving as a focus for rebellion of a minority community which demands concessions from the majority. Nevertheless, it is a far cry from the imposition of Sharia across Europe and domination by mullahs and clerics.

My own concern with this issue as an American has to do with my interest in Europe, the font of Western civilization, and the source of modernity as we understand it. To Americans "Europe" can mean many things. To some liberals it is a socialist utopia of secularism. To many conservatives it is a decadent civilization which we must look to as a warning, a caution about what America might become if it turns its back on its own peculiar cultural traditions. I think that we Americans have to get over some of these issues, and take and accept Europe on its own terms. It is a great civilization, of which we Americans are a branch. It lives to validate its own purpose, and not serve as a prop for our own political quarrels forward our own national interest. Of course, I believe that acknowledging this reality does serve American national interests, but that is a separate issue altogether. Do most liberals know that German abortion laws are stricter than those of the United States? What about the prevalence of right-wing parties which promote a racialist ideology? Do conservatives know that the greatest number of Christians still reside on the European continent? If they are Catholic do they give thought to what their pessimism implies for the Bishop of Rome and the great religious centers and sites of their faith? Presumably conservatives glory in the canon of Western civilization, but will they sit still in the face of the transformation of the lands from which that canon emerged? There is one particular issue which I think puts into stark relief the wrongheaded attitude that Americans have toward Europe: Turkey. Some conservatives seem to want Turkish admission to the E.U. solely for its proximate impact, as it might please our military ally and somehow aid in the "War on Terror." Many liberals see it as part of the multicultural project, a testament to the inclusiveness of modern civilization. But what about the Europeans? After all, they're the ones who have to live out this experiment! The European elite is conflicted, and the populace seems dead set against it. I won't elucidate the reasons why Turkish admission is not a "good idea," but the promotion of this position on the shallow grounds which I have seen on both the American Right and Left highlights the fact that in some ways my nation's elites look to Europe as if it was just another part of the great world "Out There," just as blacks and other minorities are charming and "diverse" people in the far off lands away from the Upper East Side or the other redoubts of the American oligarchy. In the interests of short term tactical position within their own social systems, their own set of hierarchies, they are willing to sell down the river the civilization with which we most definitely have a "special relationship."

The birth, death, and evolution of cultures are complex topics. Like a ball of yarn it is almost impossible with untangle all the strands to get a clear picture of the underlying structure. That being said, the largest threads can be extricated and they serve as a infrastructure which scaffolds the overall structure. Religion is one of the those "infrastructures" within "culture" in its broadest sense. Religion is either the justification or the cause of social change, of public debate, the trigger for cataclysmic wars and the mediator of the most banal of social exchanges. I have written copiously about the different things that religion can mean, that it can be. Like the felicitous alignment of molecules within ore to generate a magnetic field, organized religion can be a powerful cultural force to channel social impulses in concurrent directions. But the basic raw material of magnetism is always there within a molecule, even if they are not aligned together within the ore. We can not project demographics with a linear model which assumes that fertility rates will stay constant, nor can we assume that the increased "secularism" in the West which began during the 1960s will continue without end. We can also evaluate hypotheses about mass conversions of Europeans to Islam by using models and analogies to other situations and scenarios where such things did occur. Masses of Africans converted to Islam and Christianity within this century, while Papuans accept the "white man's religion" so as to imbibe some of his magical technology. European warlords took upon the mantle of Christianity to validate their monarchies within the commonwealth of post-Roman states, one God and one King. And with them came peoples, willingly or not. It does not take a deep understanding or knowledge of history to dismiss the probability that Europeans will look to the ghettos and housing projects for their spiritual renewal, even assuming that they are the soulless golems which some of their critics accuse them of. Rather than focusing on the Europeans it is more important to look to European Islam, because it seems highly like that though it will be a junior partner in the dance with post-Christendom, it will definitely have something to say and help shape the course of events.

Note: I'm going to delete any comments that I perceive do not add value. If you reply to a non-valued comment I'll just delete your whole comment too, so just be warned. This post is partly for Google, and partly to encourage people to read this book and draw their own conclusions. More data is welcome! Your uninformed opinion, not so much.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hitchens on religion   posted by p-ter @ 4/26/2007 07:34:00 AM

I haven't read any of the books carrying the torch for the "New Atheism", but I dig Christopher Hitchens's style, maybe I'll make an exception. Slate has published an excerpt from his forthcoming book, God is Not Great.


Monday, April 23, 2007

The adaptiveness of religion   posted by Razib @ 4/23/2007 11:27:00 PM

I have a long post on my other blog about the reality that in I believe religion must be analyzed at different levels of organization. On the one hand, religious beliefs must be "fit" in the context of what representations our minds can accept, find plausible and memorable. But higher up the chain of organization religion can play a utilitarian role in demarcating and differentiating social groups. The relationship between these two levels is fleshed out in more detail in the post. Below the fold I've placed a list of my main posts on religion over the past year....

The nature of religion and Breaking the Spell
Modes of religion
Who Dan Dennett think he be foolin'?
An evolutionary anthropology of religion
God lives, deal with it!
Belief & belief in belief
Logical consistency is irreligious
God & morality
Are people naturally religious? Yes....
The round-eyed Buddha
Nerds are nuts
Atheism, Heresy and Hesychasm
The God Delusion - Amongst the unbelievers
Innate atheism & variation across societies
"Hard-wired" for God
Buddhism, a religion or not?
Why do people believe in God?
Is religion an adaptation?
Theological incorrectness - when people behave how they shouldn't....sort of
The gods of the cognitive scientists


Religion-normed   posted by Razib @ 4/23/2007 11:20:00 PM

I have said many times that phrases like "moderate Muslim" must be normed to the distribution of attitudes amongst Muslims. To be in the moderate/median central region of the distribution of Islamic beliefs is not the same as being in the moderate/median central region of the distribution of Christian beliefs. I have made it pretty obvious that over the years I have come to the conclusion that selection, so to speak, will probably eventually shift the Muslim median religio-phenotype closer to the Christian one. That being said, Ali Eteraz pointed me to an interesting site, Apostasy and Islam - 100+ Notable Islamic Voices affirming the Freedom of Faith. On the one hand, it is a good thing that there notable Muslims who agree that it is not acceptable that those who disavow the Islamic religion are subject to the death penalty, at least de jure, in much of world. But, the fact that 100 scholars need to be firm and vocal on this issue tells you about the "state of Islam".


Friday, April 20, 2007

God, the theory and the practice....   posted by Razib @ 4/20/2007 11:52:00 PM

In the comments the unicorn-riding TGGP says:
When I was religious I didn't have a problem with evolution, because my idea of God was omniscient enough to arrange a deterministic universe in such a manner so as to produce the results He wanted without having to get up off His Holy Couch very often to get stuff done. I suppose it doesn't make much sense for an omnipotent God to be so lazy, but that's just what I figured I would do in His position.

Though theists in the Abrahamic tradition do generally avow a belief in god who is omniscient & omnipotent (among other characteristics), outside of the constraints of time & space, psychological & anthropological research tends to converge upon the consensus that the human working cognitive conceptualization of "god" doesn't include these traits. Unscripted narrations where god is integrated into human affairs always imply a model of the deity bounded by time & space & partaking of the same banal universe as believers, though exhibiting powers and perceptions of far greater magnitude than that of mortals.1 This makes sense when one considers that the human mind itself has constraints in terms of how it can model the universe, and a god which transcends the universe is simply beyond gestalt comprehension. An analogy might be that one can believe in higher spatial dimensions than the three we perceive as a matter of logic, but a intuitive conceptualization of higher dimensionality spaces is beyond the grasp of the human mind.2

In any case, the cognitive reality that humans have in their mind the concept of a limited god, despite their sincere professions of belief in a transcendent one, seems to make theistic evolution somewhat more understandable as a natural response to the facts of the universe.3 If the implicit internal models of gods have within them constraints imposed by natural processes then a deity who utilizes such processes easily drops out of the chain of inferences. This does not speak to the theological plausibility of such a god (i.e., working from first principles in regards to the nature of god as a being with traits x, y, z, etc.), but human beliefs and thoughts are not internally consistent.

1 - Participants in the studies of which I'm referring to are prompted to generate novel stories where the gods in which they believe in operate upon the universe over which they have dominion. Working backward from the characteristics of these stories, that is, working up the chain of implied inferences invariably leads researchers to conclude that the conceptualization of the god within these narrations contradicts an omniscient & omnipotent being outside of the universe. This model is consistent to the cross-cultural universality of particular times, places and objects being propitious and sacred to the gods, even though said gods are often notionally unbounded from time & space.

2 -To be clear, the anthropomorphic gods of yore remain ascendant within the human cognitive substrate, no matter the historical fact of their intellectual defeat at the hands of philosophical theism. Humans now believe in the god of the philosophers, but they imagine the god of the ancestors. I contend that many of the "paradoxical" behaviors of theists in response to tragedies or successes and the character of their relationship with the gods whom they avow to believe in can be explained by this "double truth," the disjunction between the philosophical & the cognitive deity.

3 - This does not speak to the validity of theological arguments for theistic evolution, rather, it only suggests that the reason the concept might "make sense" to a large number of theists is because follows from their implicit god-concept.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Pope on evolution   posted by the @ 4/11/2007 06:48:00 PM

AP and others have the story.

Benedict added that the immense time span that evolution covers made it impossible to conduct experiments in a controlled environment to finally verify or disprove the theory.

"We cannot haul 10,000 generations into the laboratory," he said.

Setting aside the inappropriately narrow view of how science is done, this is factually incorrect. 10k E. coli generations take ~1 year. 10k yeast generations is <2 years. There are yeast strains that have been evolving in wine for hundreds of years.

See also chemostat

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Nerds are nuts   posted by Razib @ 4/04/2007 04:59:00 AM

Reading In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, I stumbled upon this passage on page 151:
...Whereas the Congress Party was dominated by lawyers and journalists, the RSS was dominated by people from a scientific background. Both groups were almost exclusively Brahmin in their formative years...three out of four of Hedegwar's [the founder, who was a doctor -Razib] successors were also from scientific backgrounds: M.S. Golwalker...was a zoologist...Rajendra Singh was a physicist; and K.S. an engineer....

Some quick "background." The RSS is a prominent member of the Hindutva movement, roughly, Hindu nationalism. Some people have termed them "Hindu fundamentalists," suggesting an equivalence with reactionary religious movements the world over. There is a problem with such a broad brush term: some proponents and adherents of Hindutva are not themselves particularly religious and make no effort to pretend that they are. Rather, they are individuals who are attracted to the movement for racial-nationalist reasons, they view "Hindus" as a people as much, or more than, a religion. One could make an argument that the "Christian Right" or "Islamism" are not at the root concerned or driven by religious motives, but, members of both these movements would assert at least a pretense toward religiosity almost universally.

With that preamble out of the way, I was not surprised that the RSS had a core cadre of scientifically oriented leaders. This is a common tendency amongst faux reactionary movements with a religious element. I say faux because these movements tend to be extremely innovative and progressive in the process of attempting to recreate a mythic golden past. The militancy of some of the organizations in the Hindutva movement, like the VHP and RSS, has been asserted by some Hindu intellectuals as being...un-Hindu. Some of the early intellectuals in the movement admitted that they were attempting to fight back against Islam and Christianity by co-opting some of the modalities of these two religions. The question becomes at what point does pragmatic methodology suborn the ultimate ends? I won't offer an answer because I have little interest in that topic, at least in this post. Rather, I want to move back to the point about scientists and their involvement in "fundamentalist" religious movements. Scientifically trained individuals are over represented within Islam in the Salafist Terror Network. As a child the fundamentalist engineer was a cut-out stereotype amongst the circle of graduate students in the natural sciences from Muslim backgrounds that my parents socialized amongst. Ethnological research confirms that Islamist movements are highly concentrated within departments of engineering at universities. Engineers are also very prominent in the Creationist movement in the United States. If civilizations can be analogized to organisms, then a particular subset of technically minded folk get very strange when interfacing with the world around us...and turn into fundamentalists.

So why the tendency for technical people to be so prominent in these groups? First, let me clarify that just because technical folk are heavily over represented amongst religious radicals does not mean that religious radicals are necessarily a large demographic among technical folk. Rather, amongst the set of religious radicals the technicians seem to rise up to positions of power and provide excellent recruits.

There is I think a socioeconomic angle on this. Years back I was curious as to the class origin of different scientific professions. I didn't find much, but the data I did gather implied that engineers are generally more likely to be from less affluent backgrounds than more abstract and less practical fields like botany or astronomy. This makes sense, engineering is one of the best tickets to a middle class livelihood, and it might necessitate fewer social graces (acquired through "breeding") than medicine or law. As it happens, oftentimes fundamentalist movements draw much of their strength from upwardly mobile groups who are striving to ascend up from lower to lower-middle-class status. Though the Hindutva movement in India is mostly upper caste, it is not concentrated amongst the English speaking super elite who are quite Westernized, but rather its strength lay amongst the non-Western sub-elites (e.g., merchants in small to mid-sized cities) or the petite bourgeois. Islamism in much of the world can be traced to the anomie generated by the transformation of "traditional" societies through urbanization and other assorted dislocations, and as peasants enter the modern world Islamic orthodoxy is a way to moor themselves within the new urban matrix and the world of wage labor. Similarly, the rise of the Christian Right can be tied in part to the entrance of evangelicals into the broad middle class as the Old South became the New South and air conditioning led to the blossoming of the Sun Belt.

But there are likely other factors at play which are not sociological or cultural, but individual. Fundamentalists tend to be "literalists," and have a tendency to look at their religious texts as divine manuals which describe and prescribe every aspect of the world. In some ways this is a new tendency in our species, at least as a mass movement. One can definitely trace scriptural fundamentalism to the Protestant Reformation with the call to sola scriptura, but in the West its contemporary origin can be found in the reaction in the late 19th century and early 20th century to textual analysis of the Bible by modernists. The assault on the historicity of the Bible, combined with both mass literacy and a democratic culture in the United States, led inevitably to a crass literalism that birthed the peculiarities which we see before us in the form of Creationism and its sisters. A literal reading of the Bible leads to ludicrous conclusions, but if one perceives that the game is all or nothing, then perhaps one must assert the truth value of Genesis as if it was a scientific treatise. Religious professionals have often been skeptical of literalism because a deep knowledge of languages and the translation process highlights various ambiguities and gray shades, but for those whom the text is plain and unadorned by deeper knowledge its meaning is "clear" and must be take at its word. Scientists and engineers live in a world of axioms, laws and theories, which though rough and ready, must be taken as truths for predictions and models to be valid. You make assumptions, you construct a model, and you project a range of values bounded by errors. Once science is established you take it is as a given and don't engage in excessive philosophical reflection. This is "normal science." The axioms are validated by their utility in an instrumental fashion in engineering and model building. Obviously religious truths are different. Plainly, the direct material benefits of religion, magic, is easily falsifiable. The indirect benefits, the afterlife, etc., are often beyond verification. A critical examination of the Hebrew Bible shows all sorts of fallacious assumptions. For example, there is an implication that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around the earth. Though these contentions are not defensible, there are a host of other assertions which are less plainly incorrect, or at least seem to be refuted only by a more complex suite of contingent facts (e.g., the historical sciences in the form of geology and evolutionary biology falsify the creation account, but these are complex stories which require acceptance of a chain of inferences). Obviously many religious people have a deep emotional attachment to their faith. If one is told that one's religion is based on a book, and that book plainly seems to imply ludicrous assertions, how to square this circle? Many a scientific mind simply accepts the ludicrous axioms and starts to generate inferences. Consider the Water Canopy Theory. Or, the Hindutva ideology that Aryans originated in India, spread to the rest of the world, and so brought civilization (the gift of the Indians). Or that Hindu mythology records the ancient use of nuclear weapons and spaceships. There are even books like Human Devolution: a Vedic alternative to Darwin's theory. Strictly speaking much of this work is not irrational, insofar as it exhibits internal logical coherency. The axioms are simply ludicrous.

Which gets me back to the way scientists think: though some scientists are very philosophical, the way in which science is taught is often not particularly focused on the nature and reasoning beyond the axioms given. PV = nRT. Why? There are quick primers in regards to the root of the Ideal Gas Law, but the key is to take this law and utilize it to solve problems. But what if PV = nRT is subjective, a misinterpretation. Perhaps a cultural mix-up resulted in a transcription error which introduced the gas constant, R. This is an idiotic question to ask in science. If you're taking a course on the kinetics of gases you don't have long discussions lingering upon the nature of motion and gas particles, those are assumed. In contrast in softer disciplines the very concept of "motion" an "particles" are subject to critique because the objects of study are far more slippery. Is it the "Red Sea" or "Sea of Reeds"? Does the Bible refer to Mary as a virgin or an unmarried woman? Does the color coding of the Aryans and Dasas in the Vedas refer to literal differences in complexion, or are they narrative conventions? Language lacks the interpersonal precision of mathematics, and while uniformitarianism has served us admirably in the natural sciences, the dynamic nature of idiom, phrase and speech within shifting context means that teasing apart meaning from the records of the past can be a difficult feat which requires care, erudition and common sense.

Up until this point I have focused on the way scientists work, and the necessity of background assumptions, and the relative short shrift they often give to the "meta" analysis of background concepts. Though I don't want to push this line of thought too far, I will offer the following illustrations of behaviors which I think are not totally unlike the manner in which some fundamentalists behave. Someone tells a child to "pull the door behind" them. He proceeds to unscrew the hinges and drag the front door across to the street to his house. Siblings are told that there is life after death by their parent. They proceed to plan the death of one so that some confirmation of this possibility can be ascertained. These two instances are real examples of individuals who exhibit Autism/Asperger's Syndrome. Anyone who would behave in this way lacks common social sense. I believe that a disproportionate number of those who are attracted to fundamentalism tend to lack the same perspective and contextualizing capacity in regards to their religious beliefs. If they can do some matrix algebra too, they're nerds. On a mass scale, consider that both Salafis among Muslims and Puritans among Calvinists debated whether all that was not mentioned within their Holy Texts as permissible were therefore impermissible. I suspect that for most people common sense might persuade one to the conclusion that these sort of debates imply a lack of a sense of proportion, frankly, of normalcy.

In sum:
  • Hard core religious fundamentalists are somewhat atypical psychologically
  • Scientists and engineers are also atypical psychologically
  • Some of the traits modal within these two sets intersect
  • Resulting in a disproportionate number of scientists amongst fundamentalists
  • Science converges upon rock solid truths, which become the axioms for the next set of projections and investigations. Fundamentalism presents itself as axioms and clear and distinct inferences from those axioms. Both are fundamentally elegant and simple cognitive processes, but, the content is so radically different that the outcomes in regards to truth value are very different
  • Mass literacy and mass society, as well as the decentralization of authority and power, likely made fundamentalism inevitable as the basal level of individuals with susceptible psychological profiles could now have direct access to the axioms in question (texts)
  • Just as some scientists tend to take ideas to their "logical extremes" (e.g., the "paradoxes" of physics) no matter the dictates of common sense, so some fundamentalists take the logical conclusion of their religious texts to extremes
  • No matter the religion it seems that modernity will produce faux reactionary fundamentalism because of the nature of normal human variation combined with universal inputs (e.g., the rise of normative consumerism, urbanization, etc.).

Note: Much of what I said above applies to non-religious domains. After all, many scientists were once Communists and Nazis.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

The seeds of fundamentalism?   posted by Razib @ 3/29/2007 04:32:00 PM

In the discussion thread for the Ayaan Hirsi Ali post there was some mooting of the nature of Islamic fundamentalism. I think this story is illustrative of the issues at work that might surprise:
...Khan told him he first became attracted to radical Islam because the tradition he grew up with was forcing him into an arranged marriage. The radical Imams were offering him a way out.

"A lot of guys I know, actually, have become radicalized, or initially took the first steps towards learning more about Islam and their way of life as a result of them being tried to being forced to marry someone they don't want to marry," Butt tells Simon.

Of course "traditional" South Asian youth don't object to arranged marriages, it is those who are inculcated with "Western" values who tend to find them abhorrent in conception. The fact is that the folkways that immigrants from Third World countries bring with them aren't really appropriate for their new cultures, and so their children have to find their own way (I know whereof I speak!). Fundamentalist Islam rooted in the Salafist movement is a safety valve for many of these first generation immigrants because it is a modern creation. I don't want to get into the details of the origins of the Salafi movement, but the reality is that some of its early thinkers were actually quite liberal. The manner it which it mutated makes that seem a bizarre possibility, but it is as it is. My own personal experience is that my more "fundamentalist" relatives are amongst the most open to rejection cultural tradition, so long as that rejection can be grounded in Islamic principles. The malleability of such principles are, I believe, the root of the mutagenic nature of an ideology which presents itself as timeless, and yet is very much a sign of the times. Most immigrant youth do not have the orientation to become atheists whose individualistic self-absorption transcend deep group ties. That's why the emergence of more "liberal" Islams is essential. Some of that process is going on now as Muslims rework the meaning of their religion in a Western cultural context. But part of the dynamic also has to be from without, just as Western culture forced Jews to accommodate outside of the ghetto, and America denied the Roman Catholic Church any status but that of just another denomination amongst many, so we must get our heads out of the multicultural sand and delegitimatize the sense of entitlement that many "community leaders" of a reactionary bent have in the Muslim community (this is more true for our friends across the pond).


INFIDEL, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali   posted by Diana @ 3/29/2007 07:53:00 AM

Note from Razib: This discussion thread will be heavily moderated. If you're not going to be interesting, be banal and polite. Otherwise, be interesting. My point in Islam threads isn't to sit there listening to self-important prigs repeat the same talking points I've heard since 9/11. Been there, done that (myself). Let's add some value.
End Note

Reviewers of Hirsi Ali's autobiography, Infidel, should be required to put relevant cards on the table. Accordingly, here are mine: I am a reluctant atheist, which I mean that I wish I could believe in some comforting suprapersonal code, but I don't (and I have a particular contempt for the latterday "god of the gaps"); that said, I am nervous about and wary of Islam finding a beachhead in the West, even as I reject anguished warnings of the immanence of Eurabia and creeping dhimmitude.

Also, I had no particular interest in reading Hirsi Ali's book. (Parenthetically, I knew of her long before the Theo Van Gogh murder, and it occurred to me when I first heard of her and apprehended her striking physical presence, that she would eventually end up in the United States. I did not, of course, foresee the terrible events that precipitated her move, but I suspected that Holland was simply too small a country to contain her.) I have so far been unimpressed by the intellectual calibre of other Muslim critics. They have zero credibility in the Muslim world and their criticisms of Islam may be valid but the only noteworthy thing about them is that they are undergoing enlightenment two centuries after it became unremarkable in the West. I sympathize, but for my crowd, the thrill is gone.

What sparked my interest in reading Hirsi Ali's was a fierce irritation at the constant references to religion in American public life since 9/11. This was bad enough when the hectoring came from the right, but now it's coming from the left. I could and did ignore the Baptist who said that god doesn't hear the prayers of a Jew, because he's a hick that no one in the cultural elite, among whom I live and work, takes seriously. I don't pray and I don't care. I scorned the leftists who brandished this nobody in my face as an example of the horrors of American anti-Semitism, when it was nothing of the sort.

Now these same people go on Air America to tell the world that Jesus was a leftist (no links, but I heard it) and they supply ludicrous, a-historical examples to prove their non-existent case. This "who can be more sanctimonious" religious competition is driving me crazy, but it has had the salutary effect of clarifying my attitudes. So I paid renewed attention to this literal firebrand. I wanted to see if I could learn anything from her book than the fact that another smart girl grew up and left god-as-daddy with her dolls.

I did. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I am pleased to report, is a much more interesting, deep (and flawed, like all heroic figures) person than any collection of newspaper reports can convey. Those looking for a simple "I hate Islam" manifesto will be disappointed by Infidel. The book -- which should more properly be called "Apostate"-- is a calm, lucid, balanced account of a nightmarish upbringing. She wasn't really raised, as Westerners understand it, she just grew taller while being dragged around to various third world hellholes (Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and then Nairobi), due to her father's clan-based opposition to Somali dictator Siad Barre. Hirsi Ali's mother, grandmother, older brother and younger sister existed on charity doled out by her father's clan members. Hirsi Ali watched her once-vibrant and enterprising mother become distorted with bitterness, subjecting Hirsi Ali's to routine beatings, while turning her outwardly docile middle child into the family drudge.

It is revealing that Ayaan Hirsi Ali divides her autobiography into two parts, entitled "My Childhood," and "My Freedom." The animating force of her life is to tell the world that Islam is essentially infantilizing. The first half of the book, which encompasses the first 22 years of her life, is riveting reading. She describes the ideal of Somali womanwood: to be baarri, whose closest approximation in English would be virtue: "If you are a Somali woman you must learn to tell yourself that God is just and all-knowing and will reward you in the Hereafter." Hirsi Ali explains: "If her husband is cruel, if he rapes her and then taunts her about it, if he decides to take another wife, or beats her, she lowers her gaze and hides her tears. And she works, faultlessly."

Have you ever wondered about the bewildering complexity of Somalia's clan structure? This is the book for you. Somali life, as she describes it, consists of complete, utter, subservience to family and clan, yet it is pervaded by suspicion and violence. When she is a little girl, her one-year older brother pushes her into a shit-filled latrine. And whose fault is it? Ayaan's, because she failed to be suspicious. It's a world where feelings are considered weakness, and pride is everything.

No review can do justice to how crowded with incident and packed with colorful, fantastic characters the first half of the book is. She is moved from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia to a series of dwellings in Nairobi. She and her younger sister are gentially mutilated by their nomad-born grandmother. She learns Arabic, Amharic, English and Swahili. She becomes infatuated with Islamic fundamentalism but describes the process as so natural we never question its inevitability. A crazed Quran teacher shoves her head against a wall and fractures her skull; the hospital costs are covered by (what else?) the clan. Other wandering preachers of Islam drift in and out of the exile Somali community. She elopes with a gorgeous cousin strictly for the sex; they ditch each other quickly and figure out a way to "unmarry" each other. (Hint: the clan works out the details.) She rescues family members streaming out of Mogadishu by bribing Kenyan border police. This is all portrayed expertly, with deft omissions (to keep the story in control; whole books could be written about the era of African history she witnessed), swift pacing, and tight narrative.

The amount of human suffering that Hirsi Ali witnesses in Africa is sometimes overwhelming, and one wonders whether the second part of the book doesn't show evidence of some post-traumatic stress disorder. As Ian Buruma points out, her account of Dutch life is a bit too pat, too admiring. But should we not empathize with Hirsi Ali? after living the life she has, and witnessing what she has, Holland is a paradise. But, as she herself points out, it's a hard-won paradise, created by centuries of conflict between Catholic and Protestant, reclaimed from the sea. Her Dutch experience sounds reported and not fully lived, as her life in Africa was. (Perhaps this is true of the difference between life in Africa and life in Europe and has nothing to do with Hirsi Ali's specific experience -- I report, you decide.)

In Holland, Hirsi Ali committed two signal mistakes. The first was that she fabricated the reasons for claiming asylum in Holland. The fabrications were minor and were common knowledge, but her status could and should have been legally regularized before she stood for Parliament. More seriously, Hirsi Ali's collaboration with Theo Van Gogh on Submission occurred after she was elected to Parliament. Van Gogh's November 2004 murder was not her fault, but Hirsi Ali was a public servant at the time, and would have done her cause of protecting Muslim women greater service by focusing on the passage of laws to protect them, than by auditioning to be the Karen Finlay/Andres Serrano of Holland. These judgement mistakes made her vulnerable to a Swift Boat slandering on a Dutch television show from which her reputation suffered. Family members denied that Hirsi Ali was forced into an arranged marriage and was not genitally mutilated. These slanders continue to be retailed in the Muslim blogosphere and are thoroughly and convincingly refuted in the book. No one who reads the description of her mutilation can doubt that she experienced this horrific abuse; her detailing of the arranged marriage is as watertight as the grass jugs her grandmother used to weave by hand.

Hirsi Ali isn't the first prophet to experience dishonor in her country. What she can do to modernize and moderate Islam is doubtful, as she is now by public profession no more a part of the Ummah. She's our girl now and part of our furious debate about how to get along with Islam. The same neoconservatives whose chief guru cynically valued religion as social control for dummies have insincerely gushed over her book not because she has embraced enlightenment, but because she has rejected Islam.

Hirsi Ali thinks the West is falling apart. I disagree: we've never had it so good, and it's getting better all the time. She thinks that Muslims will destroy the West with higher birthrates: I doubt this. Pim Fortuyn favored a Cold War with Islam. I don't think that's necessary.

However, Fortuyn also said, "I don't want to fight for the rights of women and homosexuals again," and that, I think, is the heart of the issue, although I wouldn't put it that way. Here's how I would put it: "the law of the land is the law." Those of you who wish to keep your youth Muslim and live in the West must figure out a way to reconcile Islam with the dominant culture. If you can't, expect more Hirsi Alis. In fact, expect more Hirsi Alis even if you do -- it's the price of the ticket. The stupid among your children will be seduced by bling; the brilliant, by science.

And, unlike the chicken littles of the Right blogosphere, I think that is exactly what we are saying, if rather mumblingly, hesitantly and stammeringly. Sometimes, it's not way you say, it's what you do. That Puerto Rican girl on the subway isn't exchanging her t-shirt that says, "I must, I must, I must improve my bust," for a burqa. Our industrialists and molecular biologists and physicists aren't going to stop thinking and innovating and creating. They are an army much more powerful than the Quran, yes. We will insist, acidly, on our freedoms, on our laws, on our science, and our crummy t-shirts. If the Muslims in our midst can't handle it, that's their problem. The fact that Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards is disgusting and unacceptable but it is evidence of Islam's fragility, not our weakness.

Finally, we will protect the apostates from Islam who come to our free societies for refuge. If Hirsi Ali has helped us to focus our minds on that task, she deserves our gratitude.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The round-eyed Buddha   posted by Razib @ 3/28/2007 05:14:00 PM

Over at my other blog I've posted several times about Buddhism. The main reason was to clarify a boundary condition when it came to the discussion of the evolution and psychology of religion. When addressing the intersection of these two disciplines and their relevance to modeling religious phenomena it was important to emphasize the relative lack of importance of written texts and elite formulations upon the modal mental representation amongst the believers. In large part this is because many Westerners who are by temperament anti-religious, and in their personal ontology scientific materialists, will tend to excuse Buddhism from the general critique which they apply to other faiths. When discussing religion as a natural phenomenon, that is with an analytic gaze, one must approach it from some remove, and the view that many secularists have of Buddhism as being the "atheistic religion" tends to result in less skepticism then would otherwise be the case. That being said, I am not as ignorant of the elite traditions of Buddhism, and the view from the "commanding" heights, as some SB readers assumed. Additionally, I do not believe that elites or their formulations are irrelevant. Rather, their importance must be modulated and held in perspective, people may kill each other over the fact that they are Shia or Sunni, and tens of millions may be expended to "convert" a people from the profession of belief in one god to another, but all the while the conflicts may not be based on any substantive psychological distinction. In any case, with that in mind I picked up All is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West, a history of the interplay of Buddhist ideas and Western intellectual history.

The author, Lawrence Sutin, is a secular Jew who is clearly a religious seeker and sympathetic with a broadly ecumenical world view (he states as much in the forward). It shows in the text, as he is very conversant in the details of the contemporary American Buddhist "scene," and sympathetic toward the community while being objective enough to shed light upon shortcomings (e.g., ethical lapses amongst the leadership). But his treatment of the first thousand years is a bit sketchier, Sutin is obviously relying on only partially digested secondary sources. For example, at one point he states that Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 4th century, and later on he says it arrived in the 5th century. Actually, it was the 6th century. In covering the last flowering of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent centered around pre-Islamic Bengal he states that the Buddhist Pala kings were conquered by Muslim warlords from central Asia, but in fact the Palas fell to the Hindu Sena dynasty (who are often considered anti-Buddhist), who were then defeated by Turkic invaders. These are minor historical errors in the broad sweep of the story, but it does suggest that the author has a relatively vague sense of early Asian Buddhism. On the other hand, as you shift the time scale closer to the present, and address the various flirtations with Buddhism by modern European intellectuals starting with the Sinophilia of late 17th century, the author becomes far more confident and detailed in his description and analysis. Fundamentally, Sutin's narrative is one which focuses on the transformation of Buddhism into a modern Western religion through several centuries of interaction, spanning the Age of Exploration down to the post-colonial period. As such, it will be of special interest to Western converts to Buddhism and those who are "fellow travelers" in regards to Buddhist beliefs.

Nevertheless, despite its contemporary skew All is Change is still illuminating as a guide to the literature of Eurasia's cultural development after the rise of the "world" religions. Though not an expert himself, Suttin does a good job of offering bite-sized summaries of the current state of scholarship in regards to questions about the possible influence of Buddhism upon Christianity, and Christianity upon Buddhism. The reality seems to be that the exact answer to most of these questions are not extractable from the morass of human history, the possibility remains that features of Buddhism such as monasticism might have played a role in serving as an indirect template for early Christianity. Or, inversely, that Nestorian Christianity, or religions influenced by this eastern variant of Christianity such as Manichaeanism, may have played a role in the genesis of Pure Land Buddhism, whose evangelical flavor and theistic bent have long been observed by Westerners as at least superficially analogous to religions with which they are more familiar with. But from the perspective of cultural science it is also critical to entertain the possibility that many aspect of transcultural religions which exhibit similarities may also be naturally evoked properties of the human mind's interaction with its environmental substratum. For example, the idea in parts of the early Christian Church that the soul may enter into a process of transmigration need not necessarily imply an influence of Indian religious thought (with Buddhism as the vector). Reincarnation seems a common religious idea which can be found in a variety of pre-Christian religious traditions in Europe (e.g., the Celtic world). This does not mean that an influence from Buddhism was not possible, it simply suggests that a hard reliance on diffusionism of universally recurrent motifs should be treated with caution. In contrast to the typical muddle the tale of Barlaam and Josaphat is clearly a garbled retelling of the life of the Buddha, which can be attested by the 8th century in Christian Georgia. In terms of specific & precise "small ideas" it seems that diffusionism is far easier to appeal to, unless one believes in a sort of Jungian meta-consciousness. I think Sutin's narrative converges upon the most plausible explanation for cross-cultural influences and similarities, between the 6th century BCE and 6th century CE Eurasia was slowly shifting from "civilization" being defined as islands in a sea of tribal barbarism toward a robust network of cultures and meta-civilizations with multiple foci of creativity (e.g., even though the Western Roman Empire fell, the Byzantines during the 6th century fundamentally maintained continuity with late antiquity and kept the fire of Roman Christian civilization alive). Within this common pool of networked cultures idea could move relatively fast if they were selected, e.g., bureaucratic states arose all across Eurasia within a few centuries. But, one might also offer that bureaucratic states might simply be a 'natural' form which large political agglomerations focused upon urban areas must take as a necessity for their perpetuation.

With the rise of Islam the Buddhist and Christian worlds were separated and interacted only via the new mediator civilization. Sutin's story is therefore relatively brisk until one reaches the 16th century, when European colonialism began to make inroads into societies where Buddhism was the dominant religion. The early interactions also show the importance of semantics and form to elites. In Japan the Jesuits dressed like Buddhist monks because Buddhism had a relatively high status there in the eyes of the ruling caste. In China the Jesuits switched to aping Confucian officials in their style of dress and avoided associations with Buddhist monks because they were considered to be rabble. Additionally, across the chasm of centuries and languages problems arose because the Christians had to make sure that their religion was not viewed as just another sect of Buddhism. Catholics initially adopted some of the terminology of Pure Land Buddhism only to abandon this because of the ensuing confusion. Latin religious phrases which had no intelligible Chinese resonance were necessary lest the similarity of terminologies (e.g., for "God") result in the lack of distinction between the faiths.

This brings me to reiterate the point that modal religiosity on the ground was often little different between the various world religions. One reason that semantics was crucial was that conventional beliefs of the culturally naive could easily confuse devotions to bodhisattvas with that of the Christian religion. Such confusions were not unknown going in the other direction, along the coast of western India the Portuguese spared some Hindu statuary which depicted the three faces of the godhead precisely because they assumed that it must be their familiar Trinity. Histories of the Chinese Jews consistently reiterates that the native elite had difficulties distinguishing this religion from Islam, and to some extent Christians also were easily confused with the other monotheistic religions. Perhaps because of these confusions the early missionaries, such as Francis Xavier, focused on bringing lettered elites to Christianity first. In late Ming China a small core group of intellectuals along with members of the court had sympathy with Catholic Christianity, while in Japan the conversion of the populace in Kyushu was primarily a top-down affair through the conversion of daimyos. The choice to "start at the top" during the early centuries caused problems due to the connection between Christianity and a particular political faction. The fall of their patrons was one reason that Catholicism went into decline in China (with the rise of the vigorous Manchus and their suspicion of the Jesuit's foreign connections and the rejection of the ancestor cult by the Catholic Church) and was exterminated in Japan (where the ruling shoguns looked with suspicion at Christians who seemed to be allying with Iberian powers). It is important to remember that for several centuries the Jesuits were the face of Christianity for many East Asians. I think this prefigures in some ways the introduction of Buddhism to the West.

Jumping to the 19th century Sutin's story really starts kicking into high gear. This is when Arthur Schopenhauer makes a strong case for Buddhism as a religion superior to Christianity, which is fundamentally non-theistic. Like many intellectuals of the time Schopenhauer contended that many core features of Christianity were derivable from Buddhism, and the racial conceptions of the time played into his model, as he conceived of the Buddhist element as what made Christianity distinct from Semitic Judaism. Since Schopenhauer thought of of Buddhism as an "Aryan" religion he believed in the future northern Europeans would naturally defect from the "Mediterranean" derived Christianity to the new religion, which was non-theistic to boot. Other intellectuals had differing opinions, racialist thinker Arthur Gobineau believed Buddhism was rooted in an anti-Aryan cultural rebellion in the Indian subcontinent, so he did not believe that the religion was fundamentally a sound basis for European spirituality. From a few intellectuals the Buddhist ideas spread by the end of the 19th century to have cultural influence via the rise of spiritualism and neo-Eastern religions, centered around the Theosophical Society. Though many of the new religious adepts claimed tutelage under Eastern mentors, in general the primary mode of transmission seems to be textual. Transcendentalism in New England was less shaped by real Brahmins from India than the readings of Hindu scriptures enabled by Orientalist translators. On occasion a Western enthusiast would also produce a translation of a Buddhist text. Obviously Buddhism was not a mass religion being spread through a "Great Awakening" (as men like Schopenhauer might have dreamed), but an elite sect which combined elements of esoterica and rationalism. Schopenhauer's contention that Buddhism was non-theistic was and remains a common viewpoint among Westerners, who dismiss forms which seem operationally theistic (Pure Land) as debased or culturally muddied (e.g., "that's not real Buddhism").

But the influence of Buddhism upon a small core of Western intellectuals was not without consequences for lands traditionally Buddhist. Men like Anagarika Dharmapala, born David Hewavitarne to a Christian Sinhalese family, were strongly influenced by individuals from the Theosophical society to fight back against the inroads of Christianity in Sri Lanka. Though a resistance movement to Christian missionaries was already emerging, the impact of Westerners was clearly non-trivial in the emergence of what has sometimes been termed a "Protestant Buddhism." The term is meant to be ironic, but I think it reflects the crystallization of an elite Buddhism which could communicate effectively and intelligibly with Westerners, Christian and non-Christian. Though elite Buddhism has always had a transparent and fundamental non-theistic side, Buddhism does exhibit some axiomatic logic, many of the 19th century intellectuals in the West reinterpreted Buddhism through a definite Enlightenment lens. This sensibility has also spread to many elite Asians, many of whom already saw Buddhism as a meditative avocation as opposed to a mass religion. Just as Native Americans sincerely embrace a self-perception of being "close to Nature" after several centuries of European depiction as Noble Savages, so educated Asian Buddhists can see in their religion's ambiguities and complexities vis-a-vis the uncompromising simple message of the Abrahamic faiths as a testament to its sophistication. Dharmapala was also a man of his time insofar as he fused Buddhism with Sinhalese racial identity (mimicking Western racialists who would declare that Europe was the faith, and that the faith was Europe), formulating the precursor to the compound identity espoused by many Sinhalese nationalists today.

In many ways it seems to me that Christianity and Buddhism are inverted in their sociological role in the Pacific Rim and the West. I have spoken to many Taiwanese converts to Christianity who speak of how it is a more rational religion than "superstitious" Buddhism. And yet one can find the exact same sentiments from Westerners who accept Buddhism after leaving a Christian background. In South Korea Christians tend to be more well educated than Buddhists, while in the United States the reverse is true. In Japan Christianity and its ideas are culturally prominent in relation to its numbers, and one may say the same about Buddhism in much of the West. This illustrates I think a parallel process to modal religiosity, and that is the systematic rational religiosity of segments of the elite. If by chance Buddhism had lodged itself in the lower classes of the West its modal nature in the West would be, I suspect, far different. Similarly, in Taiwan Christianity is a middle class religion, while in parts of North India is fundamentally a lower class religion. These social realities may strongly shape belief and practice.

The history of the Buddhist Churches of America is shows the nature of the cleavages in Western Buddhism. This ethnic Japanese offshoot of Pure Land Buddhism has been present on American soil for a century, but it remains by and large stuck in its ghetto, and has had very little impact upon the convert community. In contrast, Zen has been far more influential, and I think that that is due to Zen's more individualistic and less devotional orientation. Western "seekers" aren't looking for another "Church," they are looking for the Way. Similarly, Sokka Gakkai devotional form of Buddhism is known to have a far larger proportion of blacks and Latinos than is common amongst converts. I believe this is a function of the fact that Sokka Gakkai resembles religion as these communities experience and understand them to a far greater extent than mainstream American Buddhism, which has been shaped by an elite white sensibility.

In regards to the elite sensibility, I think it is important to observe, as Sutin does, that a disproportionate number of Buddhists in the United States are of Jewish ancestry. Sutin states that about 1/3 of American Buddhist leaders are Jewish ethnically, and offers that some have estimated that 3/4 of the whites who reside in Dharamsala are Jewish. Sutin offers that the attraction of Buddhism is of a spirituality that speaks to Jews who can not find what they are looking for in their natal religion, but do not wish to turn to "rival" religions like Christianity. Sutin is under the impression that Jews did not convert to Christianity in great numbers in the past, or today. This is false. The American Jewish Identity Survey shows that a large minority of Jews are Christian, and the historical record is clear that converts formed a large minority of "Jews" in many nations of the West in the past few centuries. But, surveys of Jewish identity do show that Christian Jews, for lack of a better word, tend to be much closer in socioeconomic profile to the Christian population than Jews. I would argue that Jews attracted to "New Religions" or neo-Eastern faiths are of a different orientation than those who would be attracted to conservative Christianity. In The Future of Religion the authors show that Jews are very over represented in "New Religion Movements" (e.g., Hare Krishna), as the educated as a whole are. This doesn't surprise insofar as small exotic sects often have an appeal to avant garde elites. Some have made the case that Hellenistic Jews were the core of the early Christian community, viewing this faith as a way to assimilate into Roman society without turning their back on their Jewishness, so I think we are seeing the same process again in a different guise.

Finally, the entrance of an enormous immigrant Buddhist community in the last generation is changing things. Theravada traditions arrived from southeast Asia with the waves of Cambodian refugees, as did Mahayana movements with the Vietnamese. A new pulse of Chinese immigrants in the last generation also has resulted in a boom for Buddhism in that community (which, like the Japanese, had been nominally Christianized after the Oriental Exclusion Act). These factions haven't interfaced much with the large convert community, the small Japanese Buddhist Church, or the devotional movements. Religion is a hard thing to define, and it means many things to many people. The difficult part is to keep all the various elements in mind and assign them their appropriate quantitative weights in making our model of the world, and making each weight appropriate to the context. This means an exploration of psychology, evolution, sociology and history, in the general and specific cases.

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The Unchurched   posted by Razib @ 3/28/2007 02:12:00 AM

Unchurched Population Nears 100 Million in the U.S.:
A new survey released by The Barna Group, which has been tracking America's religious behavior and beliefs since 1984, reveals that one out of every three adults (33%) is classified as unchurched - meaning they have not attended a religious service of any type during the past six months....

Some population segments are notorious church avoiders. For instance, 47% of political liberals are unchurched, more than twice the percentage found among political conservatives (19%). African Americans were less likely to be unchurched (25%) than were whites (32%) or Hispanics (34%). Asians, however, doubled the national average: 63% were unchurched....

There has been some talk about the boom in Asian American evangelical Christianity, but it is important to keep in mind that the rate of growth is in part a function of the fact that the "untapped" market is still rather large. Of course, The American Religious Identification Survey found:
...between 1990-2001 the proportion of the newly enlarged Asian American population who are Christian has fallen from 63% to 43%, while those professing Asian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc) has risen from 15% to 28%.

Many of the non-Christian religions don't have as strong a congregational tradition as Christianity. But, the finding that Asian Americans are more secular than other ethnicities is a pretty robust and consistent finding.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Noruz & Iran   posted by Razib @ 3/24/2007 12:06:00 PM

A few weeks ago we discussed the extent of non-Islamic cultural practices in Iran, in particular, Noruz, the Zoroastrian New Year. In an article about the Kurds and Noruz here is a tidbit of interest:
The holiday is a much bigger deal next door in Iran - ancient Persia is the birthplace of the Zoroastrian religion, and the government practically shuts down for weeks. The Kurds are given fewer days off and hold fewer rituals, but Noruz remains an important holiday, in part because it is used to commemorate one of the founding myths of Kurdish identity.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Numbers, numbers   posted by Razib @ 3/17/2007 11:20:00 AM

The survey about medical doctors & evolution from a few years back has been nicely reformatted. Interestingly, adding the % of Hindu docs and assuming that 1/3 of the Muslims are South Asians gives the regularly quoted figure that "5% of American doctors are Indian American" some backing. I was surprised that males were such a large % of docs, but I suppose that there are a lot of older practitioners in the field from before the time that med school graduation rates were around 50/50 gender wise. Also, recently The New York Times repeated the standard "estimated six million Muslims who live in the United States" figure. The number comes from Muslim groups, so some skepticism is warranted because most religious groups try and inflate their numbers (more estimates) when possible (and Muslims in particular have been aiming to find figures which would show that they are nearly as numerous as Jews). The American Religious Identification Survey found only 1.1 million Muslims. But, I realized there is another way to check which numbers might be correct: these quotes also imply that 1/3 of American Muslims are South Asian. That sounds about right, either South Asians or blacks are the most numerous group of Muslims. Unlike religious data, the Census does collect ethnic data. Checking the most recent Census data it seems likely that the total number of South Asian Americans (Indian + Pakistani + Bangladeshi + Sri Lankan + Nepali) is somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million (here are the numbers for Asian Indian in 2005, you can also find Pakistani American by selecting "population group" to the left, though Bangladeshis and other groups will take some googling or trolling the Census site). Let's take 3 million to err on the side of a high number, and use 6 million for Muslims since it is nice & round. If 1/3 of American Muslims are South Asian, that means 2/3 of American South Asians are Muslim! This is not true. Around 85-90% of American South Asians are from India. Let's be generous (to Muslims) and assume that all 15% of the non-Indians are Muslim (obviously most Sinhalese are not, and a disproportionate number of Bangladeshis in the USA are likely Hindu and Pakistanis likely Christian). Let's also assume that 15% of Indians are Muslim, since that's about their proportion in the Indian population (this is probably an overestimate as American South Asians are biased toward particular regions and ethnic-caste groups, and none of these are Muslim). You get a total of 825,000 Muslim South Asians. Assuming that 1/3 of Muslims are South Asian, you get 2,475,000 American Muslims. Assuming 1/5 of Muslims are South Asian, you get 4,125,000 Muslims. To reach 6 million fewer than 15% of American Muslims must be South Asian. 1) This is not plausible, all the proportions are between 1/4 and 1/3. Though aggregate numbers are not something you can guess by visual inspection, proportions are. People couldn't pretend that half of American Muslims were Albanian, for example, because the number of brown, white, black and Asian Muslims is pretty obvious in a mixed gathering (yes, I know there are ethnic mosques, but you can count those up separately). Note that I'm also being a bit generous with the number of South Asians (it is likely closer to 2.8 million than 3), and the % who are are Muslim (likely less than 10% of Asian Indians are Muslim, groups like Gujarati Hindus, Punjabi Sikhs and Malayalee Christians are highly overrepresented among American Asian Indians). Anyway, checking the numbers took me all of 15 minutes (I'm including writing up this post, double checking it for errors). I know people are on a deadline, but seriously, "the paper of record"?

Update: Here is how not to comment on a post which took me 15 minutes of simple multiplication and division. Please, do read what I write before offering an opinion!

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Friday, March 16, 2007

The Faiths of the Founding Fathers   posted by Razib @ 3/16/2007 12:07:00 AM

Just read The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Summary:

George Washington - Deistic Episcopalian, rejected orthodox beliefs & sacramental practices

John Adams - Unitarian Christian or Deist, a anti-Trinitarian, but a strong believer in the supernatural

Thomas Jefferson - Deistic Episcopalian, leaned toward a more materialist Deism, firmly anti-Orthodox

James Madison - Deistic Episcopalian, leaned toward a more impersonal Deism, firmly anti-Orthodox

James Monroe - Deistic Episcopalian, extremely silent in regards to religion publicly or privately (though averse to evangelicalism)

These are the first five presidents of the United States, John Quincy Adams, the sixth, was the son of John Adams, and like him a Unitarian of Christian inclination. Though the modern Unitarian-Universalist Association has a non-Christian majority, and a large non-theist "Humanist" minority, in the late 18th and early 19th century Unitarianism was a form of Christianity which rejected the Athanasian Creed in regards to the Trinity. It emerged out of the "Left-wing" of the Congregationalist Church in New England. Some of them were explicit in claiming to be latter day Arians, a heretical sect which was popular in the 4th century, and persisted amongst Germanic peoples into the 6th century (the Lombards of Italy were Arians as late as the 7th century). Though there is firm evidence for Thomas Jefferson's rejection of orthodox Christianity in his private letters, he, like the other presidents besides Adams, were often affiliated with Episcopal churches. The behavior of Washington and Monroe though did not indicate a deep faith in the cardinal points of this church, while Madison was clearly more Unitarian in the beliefs he held then conventionally Protestant. Nevertheless all of these men would have counted themselves as Christians, while a large majority of contemporary Americans might reject that label for them. Over the past generation most American presidents (Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush II) have expressed an evangelical faith, and yet the first five presidents were very different, and highly anti-mystical Christians who abhorred "enthusiasm."

What happened? Though there is evidence that John Quincy Adams was more conventionally Christian than his father (that is, his Unitarianism was less thorough or deep), the first Christian in a sense that many Americans would find intelligible would be Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a conventionally orthodox Presbyterian, if not necessarily fundamentalist (there is private correspondence where praises all Christian religions, and includes Catholicism). After this period to our knowledge most of the presidents did not approach the heterodoxy of someone like Thomas Jefferson, though as late as the first decade of the 20th century William Howard Taft was a confirmed Unitarian who rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ. And yet today we have a scenario where Mitt Romney's peculiar religion makes nomination as candidate for president more difficult than it would otherwise be. What's going on here? Are Americans fundamentally more religious and orthodox?

I doubt it. I believe what is happening is that the broad populism of American politics has percolated upward the necessary values which a tribune of the people must possess to represent that people. During the first half of the 19th century most states abolished their property qualifications, and so the pool of voters became far broader than that which would elected a George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. These voters would come from a lower social station, and perhaps be less open to a Deism whose roots lay in the Freemason clubs and university campuses of the early nation. But universal white male sufferage was not the end of the story, as I note above religious orthodoxy was not a necessary prerequisite into the 20th century. The rise of mass culture and communication, the invasiveness of modern media into the lives of public figures, all these have likely pushed politicans to flatten the distinctions which might separate them from their constituents. Some have characterized the United Statse as a country where the elite are as secular as Swedens and masses as religious as Indians, but the reality is that at the founding the political elite was far more out of step with popular religious opinion, and what we are seeing now is more of a convergence.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The "God Gap"   posted by Razib @ 3/13/2007 01:09:00 AM

Christian pollster George Barna has a new report out which addresses the religious differences between Republicans and Democrats. Money shot:
A new survey from The Barna Group explores the so-called "God gap" between Republicans and Democrats, examining 32 measures of religious commitment, belief and activity. The study shows that while Republicans continue to hold advantage in attracting born again Christian voters, Democrats are not as far behind on measures of Christian commitment as might be assumed.
The eight most significant differences were almost exclusively in the domain of beliefs and commitment, rather than the arena of behavior.

Update: Inductivist has the goods. Not surprisingly, the God Gap does exist for whites, and more so for Latinos. But not for blacks.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Why do people believe in God?   posted by Razib @ 3/03/2007 11:10:00 PM

The New York Times Magazine has a long piece which profiles the various naturalistic hypotheses which explain the origin of religious belief. The usual suspects show up. Scott Atran, author of In Gods We Trust looms large, while Justin L. Barrett, who I interviewed last year, also gets some face time. The author of the piece tries to establish a rough dichotomy between adaptationists and non-adaptationists, with the cognitively oriented scientists in the latter camp, and more conventional functionalists in the former. For the purposes of an article in The New York Times Magazine this is acceptable, it adds a necessary element of dramatic tension, but this is a gross oversimplification. Additionally, it should be noted that individuals such as Steven Pinker who are often perceived as adaptationist in their conception of cognitive function support Atran and the non-adaptionists on this question.

One thing that both these groups can agree upon, even if you take the dichotomy at face value, is that religion needs to conceived of as more than a plain set of axioms which serve as the blueprint for behavior and belief. I've been blogging about religion for a while now because I think it is an interesting and significant social phenomenon which touches upon our lives, whether we believe or not. If you talk about foreign policy in the Middle East, for example, it is imperative that you know the general sectarian landscape, as well as the psychological salience of religious identity on a deep level, and the ramifications that might have in how humans behave and act. As a congenitally irreligious person this process of understanding has been a scientific and scholarly one, I don't have recourse to introspection informed by my own religious sensibilities since I generally lack one.

Over time I have started to hold some assumptions as givens as I develop my ideas, otherwise each post would continue to grow in length as I elucidate the theoretical and empirical framework in which I am working within. This is one reason I do express some irritation with those in the comment boxes who are plainly talking out of their ass and repeating intuitions & convential wisdom which they've had nailed down since their bullshit sessions in their freshmen year at university. Life is short and I don't have much patience for mind-farting, even if you think it smells oh so nice. I am not interested in religion because I think that such talk will give me insight into the deep nature of the universe, rather, people are killing themselves in the name of an entity that seems manifestly implausible to me, and that requires some explaining. An explanation can be generated by a precise formulation of the problem at hand and patient data collection. Most discussions about religion are neither precise nor do they trade much in facts. Consider this comment on one of my posts:
Could you please break this statement down for me? On a day to day level, to practising Muslims, how exactly does Islam not promote peace? In what ways do the five pillars cause violence? Shahadah, praying, zakat, Hajj (if possible), and fasting during Ramadan, to most Muslims, this is what Islam consists of. To the dissapointment of most "Islamist ideolouges", I would actually argue that the average Muslim doesn't view Islam as some sort of political movement. At least not yet,and definitely not at the abstrract level that Islamists would desire.

Regular readers will anticipate my irritation with these sort of comments: they tend to imply that "Islam" (or any religion) is something which exists out there, prior to and apart from human belief or practice. "Islam is the 5 pillars..." or "Islam is peace." One of the most common problems with religion are the word games which people into. For example, "You believe in love, and god is love, so you believe in god, and so you aren't an atheist...." This is all fine & dandy, but these word games don't really explain much about the world in my opinion, and I'm not invested in the word atheist or theist. Similarly, I don't care what most Muslims think Islam is, or what the accepted majority of Muslims believe the pillars of the faith are, because such things are prior ideals whose implications in the real world are not always clear. Religion is for me a posterior phenomenon, it characterizes the beliefs and practices of a collection of human beings who avow an affinity for a particular word as a group marker, and these beliefs and practices have a focus upon supernatural concepts which violate some ofour banal and prosaic intuitions about how the world works. There is no "real" Islam, or "real" Christianity, there is simply the distribution of beliefs and practices of a number of individuals which exhibit ranges, variances and central tendencies. The average believer is then important, but sometimes minority practices are also important. Most Muslims are not terrorist nutballs, but my own interest is disproportionately toward the terrorist nutballs since their behaviors might result in my death or discomfort, or that of those who I care for. In contrast, I am less interested in the briefs of elite religious professionals which exhibit little relation to the world as it is (e.g., theological) because I doubt that there is relevance to these beliefs for non-believers (and even for the majority of believers I believe the relevance of theology is symbolic, a group marker).

I emphasize the various dimensions of religion because a part of the problem that comes with discussing scholars who study the topic is that they are addressing different levels of organization. The article emphasizes three primary camps:

1) Cognitive anthropologists who believe that religion is a cultural byproduct of the necessary architecture of our minds (i.e., non-adaptationists)

2) Group selectionists who tend to take a functionalist tack in regards to religious beliefs and institutions

3) Behavioral scientists which utilize game theory and its related disciplines in analyzing the "rational" import of religious belief

An astute reader can probably guess that a major issue here is that group 1 is addressing a different level of religion than group 2 or 3. Specifically, functionalists who are looking at religion through the lens of broad cultural institutions and mass society, bound by common confession of faith and ritual. In Darwin's Cathedral David S. Wilson lays out his argument using various examples, e.g., the Calvinist religion, or water temples in Bali. One problem is that functionalist explanations often do not hold up to closer analysis, as illustrated by my co-blogger David B's analysis of the Nuer conquest of the Dinka (a canonical example of the superiority of one cultural complex over another). Additionally, the functionalists often have an issue in regards to accepting the explanations of peoples whom they are studying without peeling back the cognitive layers. Modern psychology makes clear that humans are natural fabulists, and we concoct rationales promiscuously and unconsciously, even when they are clearly false or implausible. One reason many tribal people give for shifting toward a world religion, or altering their practice, is that it is simply economically more efficient. For example in East Java slametan is a ritual feast which is ubiquitous as way to cement relationships, mark important festivals and show one's status and generosity. Some conversions to more "orthodox" Islam are justified by the fact that this form of Islam, shorn of Javanese cultural accretions, is simply cheaper and not as wasteful, as slametan is no longer necessary. The exact same reason is given by pagans who convert to Christianity other parts of Southeast Asia, the cost of a ritual feast is obviated by conversion to a religion which bans the practice. In these situations Christianity and a less culturally mediated form of Islam are presented as more rational by the converts, and anthropologists who study these peoples do see them abandoning expensive feasts. But, life isn't always so simple, and the bequests by wealthy Christians or Muslims made to houses of worship or charities shows that wealth signaling continues via other methods. 1,500 years ago in Europe the conversion of pagans to Christianity resulted in a similar abandonment of traditional ritual be replaced by the Saints Calendar. Of course religions do differ, and it is notable that the worshipers of philosophically girded faiths seem to withstand the test of time against those cults which focus on the worship of cult statuary endowed with large penises or the heads of animals. Yet I think that it is more complex than simply assuming that more "primitive" religions by their nature were what resulted in lesser cultural fitness, rather, one could assert that a common causal component is at work in the rise of expansionist and aggressive states and the religions which they champion.

In contrast to Wilson game theorists and those who come out of economics tend to focus on the individual utility of religion. But, this utility is scaffolded in a group level context. Just as co-ethnics may start credit cooperatives, so co-religionists in a foreign land pass a currency of trust bound together by a communal god to whom they owe fealty. Jewish & Jain merchants are classic examples of this, small religious minorities who enter into businesses which require a high level of trust to smooth transactions. It is no surprise that the diamond business in Antwerp is controlled by religious Jews as a particular caste of Jains. The article frames these strategies as adaptationist, and they are, as religious adherence maintains and reinforces belonging to the social group upon which one depends. Recall that in the pre-modern time individuals did not live as an island, that their lives were defined by, and contingent upon, communal ties of trust and cooperation. This form of adaptationism is not as thoroughly functionalist as David S. Wilson's models, such as the water temple, because group solidarity can be engendered by a wide range of beliefs. The nature of the god matters less than the common and universal aspect of that god.

Finally, there is the byproduct school. One analogy I've used for this idea is that just as a car's engine generates heat, so a mind's function generates religion (and art). One can reduce the heat that the engine turning it off, which is clearly not feasible. But, the byproduct heat can also be put to use (to warm up passengers). The various components of the engine, as outlined in the article, are:

* Agent detection
* Causal reasoning
* Theory of mind

There are almost certainly more. The cognitive anthropologist's basic model is that in a the typical human being these cognitive tools interact in a manner which produces byproduct phenomena, religion being a prime one. This is why they reject a simple adaptionist narrative for religion: belief per se is not what is being selected for, but the various propensities and competencies which make that belief highly likely to emerge. The distributed nature of the characters which give rise to religion is, I believe, the reason that atheists exist: each element above (and more) exhibit variation within the population, and so a small proportion always exist who are highly likely to find supernatural beliefs uncompelling because of the architecture of their minds. If, for example, you are weak on agency detection and causal reasoning a simple teleological argument for the existence of god might seem extremely inscrutable. Similarly, an autistic individual who has difficulty forming models of the minds of flesh & blood humans around them might find it nearly impossible to comprehend on a gestalt level the possibility that a noncorporeal entity which they have never seen exists out there and wishes to have a special personal relationship with all humans. Engines are after all designed and constructed differently, and so the amount of heat which they generate might vary (as might their performance at various tasks).*

And yet as I said: the heat of an engine can be put to good use, it is energy, even if a somewhat chaotic and uncontrolled form. This is why the dichotomy between adaptationist and non-adaptationist views is problematic. A "strong form" adaptationist model is, to my mind, implausible. Powerful directional selective forces exhaust variation as all the alleles become fixed, and though atheists are in a majority, it seems that religious zeal, interest and propensity does exhibit variation through all societies. This implies that the underlying components still exhibit variation. Nevertheless, it is clear that religious beliefs can yield a utilitarian value, behavioral economists have shown that highly zealous individuals may defy "rational" expectation. As human culture has become progressively more complex the niches have proliferated, and frequency dependent selection and the importance of mixed behavioral strategies in complex societies may likely play roles in perpetuating variation in belief and practice. In a society where the vast majority are religious it maybe that a "free rider" atheist minority can always make a living simply because the religious majority can rationally assume everyone will be altruistic based on common godly belief. In other words, a form of the Hawk and Dove game might be at work. Similarly, group level selective effects might come to bear and co-opt religious belief, even if that beliefs initial origins had nothing to do with increased fitness.

Why does this matter? First, I believe it is important to put into their place doctrinal elements in religious systems. They do have importance, but for too many they become the root and ends of all religion. Too many atheists who accept this line waste their time engaging in debate precisely because they believe that falsifying doctrine, or showing its incoherency, will result in disbelief. The problem with this idea is that the body of evidence is growing that doctrine exhibits a very weak hold on the mind, and theological details are generally incomprehensible to most humans aside from notional attachments (e.g., Christians and Muslims know the basic outlines of the theological differences which define their faiths, but, the identity of being part of the faith and a personal understanding of god is far more important on a day to day level than the nuances of tawhid or Substance and Natures). Second, if religion is a natural phenomenon that opens the window for future engineering. Consider the role of Southern white Protestant Christianity in cementing the orthodoxies of its day, or the influence of evangelicals in northern abolitionism. Religious spirit is an important factor in amplifying the magnitude of any social vector, for good or ill. If you can't kill the tiger, learn to ride it so that you may drive your enemies before you.

* I believe that this quantitative genetic model explains why atheism varies between societies over time and space: the distribution of belief exhibits a norm of reaction in disparate environments.

Related: Theological Incorrectness. Why Religion. The gods of the cognitive scientists. Reflections on the "God Module." "Hard-wired" for God. Innate atheism and variation between societies. Atheism, Heresy and Hesychasm. Modes of Religion.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Religion & Politics & Derb   posted by Razib @ 2/20/2007 11:35:00 PM

Check out Derb's latest column for NRO.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Why Sam Harris & co. matter   posted by Razib @ 2/19/2007 10:25:00 PM

Recently Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been making the rounds on the talk shows because of a new book. A few weeks ago she was on a Boston radio show, and you can listen to the whole interview, but, I suggest you fast forward to 24:30 and listen to the female Muslim caller. Listen to her voice, the outrage and shock, the tremor because she can't abide what she hears. I generally listen to a radio feed while I'm at work and Ali has been on a few shows, and this is a common response. Whatever reasoned critiques this variety of caller has of Ali's assertions (I am, for example, not positively inclined toward Ayaan's recent tack of repackaging herself as a Muslim by culture), the emotional impact of seeing their religion criticized and verbally raped makes them nearly unhinged. This is not an abnormal reaction, people attach great value to their religious identity, and when it is assaulted, even rhetorically, they take it quite personally. Remember that the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was in large part justified by their 'atheism,' their public disrespect of the traditional gods not their own. The concept of blasphemy, violation of taboo, is pretty universal. That being said, after the 18th century Christendom, and what became post-Christian Western civilization, shed the taboo against criticizing religion. It is simply part of the freedoms we take for granted. Most of the callers who have reacted with outrage against Ayaan Hirsi Ali are immigrants, and to me it seems quite clear that their outlook has been shaped by the inviolable nature of Islam and Islamic ideals in their societies of origin. When people talk of a "Western Islam," I think one of the things one must look to as a metric or indicator is acceptance of violation and blasphemy, a disrespect that Christianity has become accustomed to over the past few centuries.

One may contend that provocateurs such as Ayaan and Sam Harris go too far in violating the public pieties, but if you listen closely to what the caller asserts you can see why such a violation is necessary. Her reiteration of the "true Islam" in direct contradiction to the general way Islam is practiced does nothing to establish a common ground, it reflects the dreamland of her own imaginings. Fundamentally, those like myself who are secular but generally disinclined toward engaging in an anti-religious jihad because we see neither the point or the possibility of a final victory are skeptical of the hope of a modus vivendi when the delusion extends from down on high toward the mundane world of facts on the ground. Believe what you will of the divine, but accept the reality of the profane and do not fib like a child because you wish it to be so. Your parents may tell you that you are the most beautiful and smartest child of them all, but once you enter preschool you start seeing that there is more to the world than you could ever have imagined. So let's hope that preschool is in session, inshallah.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Interesting twist in the Sullivan-Harris debate   posted by the @ 2/15/2007 07:48:00 PM

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan have been debating religion. Here's an interesting excerpt from Sullivan's Feb 14 entry:

...That is because I have never met a human being or a human mind that is "contingency-free", and never will. No child grows up without the contingent facts of their family, place, genes, and any number of details that make us who we are. You and I would be very different people if we had different contingent genetics and different contingent histories. This is the experience of being human, an experience eternally different from the dream of your new, unfettered, purely rational "education," where the young are severed from the toxins of contingent culture and faith and family....

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Crime and Religion   posted by DavidB @ 1/22/2007 05:10:00 AM

Having seen Razib's post below, I thought it would be interesting to look at the British Prison Statistics, which include a breakdown of the religious affiliation of people in prison. The bottom line is that atheists do seem to be a relatively wicked lot, but the religious can hardly claim to be above temptation. Some religious groups in particular seem to be well above average in criminality.

For male prisoners (the great majority), the percentage of prisoners in the main religious groups (in 2002, England and Wales) is as follows:

Roman Catholic.......17
Free Church...........2
Other Christian.......3
(total Christian.....58)
Other religions.......3
No religion..........32

'Other religions' include Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jews, each with less than 1% of the prison population, though Hindus and Buddhists come close to 1%.

Of course, these figures are meaningless without some comparative figures for proportions in the general population. The 2001 Census for England and Wales for the first time included a question on religious affiliation. The results are broken down by sex and broad age group (Census Table S107) [Added: correction, it should be Table S103]. For comparison with prisoners, it is probably most appropriate to take the group of males aged 25-49. There is a complication that about 7% of respondents declined to answer the question. If we exclude these from the total, the percentages of the main religious groups among those who did reply to the question were as follows:

No religion...23

No other group had more than 1 % of the population

It therefore does seem that those claiming 'no religion' are statistically somewhat over-represented among the British prison population, compared to those in the general population, while Christians and Hindus are under-represented. On the other hand, Muslims are heavily over-represented. [Added: it has been pointed out that some of these will have converted to Islam while in prison. See the comments board.] Buddhists, with less than 0.5% of the general population, but nearly 1% of the prison population, are also over-represented. This may be partly because Buddhists tend to be serving long sentences, which puzzled me until it occurred to me that they would include Chinese and South East Asian drug smugglers and Triad gangsters. I suspect that among Christians, Roman Catholics, with 17% of the prison population, are also somewhat over-represented. The general population Census does not break 'Christians' down into denominations, but it is usually reckoned that between 10% and 15% of the population are Catholics.

I wouldn't take any of this very seriously as evidence for the effect of religion on criminality (or vice versa), as so many other factors would be involved.

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