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August 15, 2018

Hinduism was not invented by the British (or Muslims)

Filed under: Hinduism,Postcolonialism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:20 pm

I’m reading a book titled The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. It’s works within the postcolonial framework. Unlike a lot of postcolonial scholarship it isn’t bluster and rhetoric riddled with basic historical errors. The author presents a lot of interesting facts. But, as I’ve said elsewhere I disagree with the thesis of the book, which is that modern Islamic identity can be understood primarily through its interaction with European colonialism.

This isn’t to say colonialism doesn’t matter. It does matter. It’s just that Muslims are not inactive substrate upon which European agents operate. Muslims, and Islam as a civilization, has its own life, orientation, and self-conceptions, which exist somewhat apart from Europeans, and the West (I say somewhat because it is hard to understand the modern West and Islam without their coevolutionary dance over the centuries). Colonialism did not create the idea of the Muslim world de novo, it operated upon the idea of the Ummah which predated the modern West, and in fact emerged in tension with the ancient late antique Near East and Turan in the 7th and 8th centuries AD.

But this post is not about Islam. From the comments:

The big tragedy during the unmitigated disaster that was the partition upon the Hindus, many realized was that while there was a thing known as Ummah, there was no such thing as the Hindus. There are Muslims, but they are actually the largest plurality. There was no such thing as the Hindus. There was the Brahmins. There was the Namashudra. There was the Punjabi. There was the Thakur…

This to my mind is a much stronger position to defend than the ideas above in relation to Islam. To a great extent modern day, Hindu nationalism seems to be about creating an analog to the Dar-ul-Islam and Christendom for Hindus, many centuries after Muslims and Christians. But, I do think I disagree with this. It seems clear that Megasthenes, al-Biruni, and Faxian all had a sense of Indians, or Hindus as we were all called then, as a distinct, albeit variegated, people.

Hinduism as a particular confession with a creedal orientation is a relatively recent affair. Perhaps you can date it to Adi Shankara. Or even as late as Arya Samaj. That doesn’t matter. Hinduism as a distinctive civilization of Indians, with consistent particular unifying beliefs, is very ancient and dates to antiquity.

One might object that this only applies to the twice-born varna. But the Maurya were like of sudra origin. And South Indian polities welcomed Brahmins, who they clearly saw as part of their civilization, albeit different and apart.

Of course one might change the goalposts with some semantics. I myself liked to be clever and would say that Hinduism was invented by Muslims or Westerners a few years ago. But thinking more deeply, I think that that was just a stylistic pose by me, attempting to burnish my heterodoxy, as opposed to reflecting the first order substance.

Addendum: Genetics is now making it clear to me that the matrix of “Dravidian” and “Indo-Aryan” proto-India were closely connected and emerged around the same time, probably in tension, conflict, and interaction. Religious ideas we’d term “Hindu” probably didn’t exist 4,000 years ago, but the openness of South and North India to engagement and cultural exchange in the historical period is not I think coincidental, but reflects primal commonalities derived from the tumult in the centuries after the decline of the IVC.

July 26, 2018

Render unto Caesar worldly goods

Filed under: History,Religion,Secularism — Razib Khan @ 11:11 pm

At Tanner Greer’s recommendation, I purchased a copy of Imperial China 900-1800. Now that I’ve received it I realize that I read a few chapters of Imperial China 900-1800in 2008, before abandoning the project due to sloth. Older and wiser.

As I’m reading this book, I’ve been giving thought how I would respond to this comment:

…not only were priests an independent power source from kings, but no matter how deeply interrelated each was in principle independent of the other, with their own independent spheres: the secular sphere and the religious sphere. This fact too was important in shaping the modern world, in that modernity assumes that government is fundamentally secular in a way that would have been unfamiliar to pre-moderns outside of Latin Christendom.

This is a common view. Fareed Zakaria, for example, expresses something similar in The Future of Freedom, whereby the emergence of an independent Western Church after the Fall of Rome created space for secularization and the development of liberal democratic institutions through decentralization of power.

And yet after having just read History of Japan, and reading again about the Battle of Anegawa, where Oda Nobunaga completed a chapter of his crushing of institutional Buddhism as an independent power in Japan, I wonder what the above even means. A standard model would argue that in East Asia religion suffused life, philosophy tended toward monism, and there was no separation between this world and that. The Emperor of Japan descended from the Sun Goddess. The Emperor of China was the Son of Heaven, though Heaven was not conceived of in an anthropomorphic sense. And yet the kingship of nations such as France and England have exhibited a sacral nature, and to this day the monarch of England is also the head of its established religion.

About when I abandoned my plan to read Imperial China I read Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. One of the many things that stuck with me from that book was just how radical in regards to religion the federal government established by the American Founders was at the time. While the American states had all had an established religion, due to the pluralism of the new nation, and the personal secularism of many of the Founders, no consideration was given to privileging religion on the national level. This concerned many leading thinkers, some of whom suggested that simply declaring Christianity in the general sense the national religion would have been sufficient (and for all practical purposes Protestant Christianity was the national religion, even though church-state separationists such as Andrew Jackson were punctilious in making this not a de jure matter).

With hindsight, it seems clear that having a “national religion” only makes sense in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, and the collapse of the religious system of Western Christendom during the medieval period. The medieval Western Church was characterized by a great deal of diversity and variation. But something happened during early modernity, whereby that variation produced too many tensions and factionalized. Eventually, this shattered the tacit understandings and compromises which allowed for external unity. In nations where monarchs supported Protestant Reformers, national churches emerged, and become official arms of the state for all practical purposes. In Catholic Europe, a reaction produced a newly muscular and standardized church, which stood opposed to the new official Protestantism on very similar terms. The Roman Catholic church remained international, but it also became the national churches of nations as diverse as Poland, Ireland, and Spain.

Though many people assert that the Roman Empire became “officially” Christian with the conversion of Constantine, or perhaps during the reign of Theodosius the Great at the end of the 4th century, the reality is that the Roman Empire was not a totalitarian state. The dissolution of paganism occurred more through slow decay and death, as the cessation of subsidies from the state starved elite paganism, and persistent missionary efforts blanketed the population with nominal Christianity.

The assertion above that “government is fundamentally secular in a way that would have been unfamiliar to pre-moderns outside of Latin Christendom” always strikes me as strange because of my familiarity with Chinese history and philosophy, and the interpretation of how the Chinese seem to have viewed “church”-state relations. It is often said that the Chinese are superstitious, but not religious. In other words, what China lacked in the vigor of organized religion, it made up for in widespread belief in supernaturalism. This is broadly correct, but the same could be said for the West for most of its history. That is, many pre-modern peasants were not religious as much as they were superstitious, and their Christianity was a thin skein upon folk beliefs.

The issue rather is with the cultural elite, and what their beliefs were. There is a line of argument that philosophical dualism, and a particular sort of disenchantment with the world and a rationalism, was pregnant within Western Christianity, and came to fruition with Calvinism and modern forms of Catholicism. In the ancient world, Christians believed that magic was real, and that the pagans worshipped true supernatural forces, but that these were rooted in the devil. The argument proceeds that in early modernity this belief gave way to more rationalist views, whereby God remained true, but non-Christian beliefs were rooted in falsehood, rather than demons. Magic was now simply trickery.

And yet History of Japan notes that even before Oda Nobunaga’s crushing of the Buddhist clerical powers of the 16th century the society was going through broad secularization, as popular and elite enthusiasm for religion abated. Though the Tokugawa regime enforced Buddhist registration by families across Japan, this was a measure that enabled control and regulation, not one which promoted religion as such. Japanese intellectuals during this period were influenced by currents skeptical of supernaturalism that had its roots in Chinese Confucianism, and this in its turn can be found to have prefigured by anti-supernaturalist threads as far back as Xunzi.

Curiously, the Japanese system after the decline of the Fujiwara and the rise of the Shogun dynasties recollects the mythologies of dual kingship, with a sacred and a secular king, in other societies. To me, this reinforces my own current position that all the semantical distinction between secular and sacred power and how they differ between societies elides more than it illuminates. My own materialist bent leads me to suggest that in fact, secularization in early modernity at the two antipodes of Eurasia were natural and likely inevitable developments with mass societies and more powerful states. A coercive state did not need to rely on supernatural power to persuade a populace, and the workaday nature of bureaucratic governance, in any case, would not reflect positively upon a religious order that was fused with that state.

Naturally, others will have different views. But one of the reasons I am such a fan of Peter Turchin’s project is that I tire of semantic definitions as the axis around which arguments hinge. I am usually unconvinced by the erudition of my interlocutors because in most cases I don’t get a sense that they know more than I do, even though perhaps they may, in fact, be in the right. Rather than calculating, argumentation is often a way for two individuals to assess each other’s knowledge base and sophistication. If there is parity, there will never be a resolution, because personal qualities are more relevant than reality.

July 18, 2018

On the semiotics of secularism and nakedness of village atheism in the culture war

Filed under: American secularism,Ex-Muslims,Islam,Religion — David Hume @ 6:32 am


One of the great celebrity “village atheists” of our day, Richard Dawkins, has “stepped in it” again by eliciting a fury over his attitudes toward Islamic culture, and his love for certain aspects of English Christian culture. Neither of these positions is novel or surprising from Richard Dawkins. For many years Richard Dawkins has expressed his love of Christmas as a cultural tradition freighted with memories which he recalls fondly. In contrast, Dawkins has long expressed a negative view of Islamic culture.

Of course, a single tweet like the above is loaded with cultural signifiers, meanings, and implications. Many are accusing Richard Dawkins of being a bigot. Here is one dictionary definition of a bigot:

…a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.

This seems to fit Richard Dawkins very well in a broad sense. Dawkins is quite intolerant of many religious groups. In 2006, during the peak of Richard Dawkins’ fame as a celebrity village atheist in the 2000s, when he was promoting books such as The God Delusion and filming documentaries such as The Root of all Evil, he made little effort to hide his contempt and disdain for religion and the religious. Consider this exchange with Colorado pastor Ted Haggard:

As an atheist from an English background, Dawkins is disdainful and contemptuous of American evangelical Protestant Christianity. Haggard becomes offended during the course of the above interview with Dawkins, today we would say “triggered”, because of Dawkins’ acidic brandishing of his infidel views with no apology or grace. He even analogizes Haggards’ megachurch worship service to the Nazi Nuremberg Rally!

At the time Dawkins’ role as a controversialist was clearly something he relished. His views were close to his heart. I doubt he was engaging in this behavior and espousing these beliefs for the sake of fame or wealth. He was already famous and wealthy because of his scientific writings. Books such as The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene are modern masterpieces of scientific exposition. When it comes to promoting to the interested public a general understanding of the logic of evolutionary biology, Dawkins is unquestionably one of the modern masters, with both talent and inclination.

His turn as an anti-religious polemicist was clearly driven by a personal passion about religion and an animus toward it. This was long evident in public pronouncements, but they reflected vigorous private views. The only time I have been in a small room with Dawkins he spoke mostly about science. But he also got a few gratuitous jabs in at the Roman Catholic Church. Many have suggested that Dawkins’ views on religion are colored by his background as a middle-class Englishmen, and it is hard to imagine that he did not absorb a bit of “anti-Popish” sentiment from his Anglo-Protestant milieu.

I have very mixed feelings about what used to be called the New Atheism. But one of its most unfortunate ticks for me is that in rhetoric it often presumes that religion is a matter of ratiocination when the truth is we all know that religion is a socially embedded phenomenon which has deep emotional resonances. The New Atheists themselves reflect the reality of the latter in their passion. Dawkins is an example of this as well in his affection for certain cultural expressions of Christianity which to him recollect memories of his upbringing and broader social milieu. His clear distaste for evangelical Protestant Christianity of the American variety is almost certainly wrapped up in a particular set of reflexive aversions shared by many middle-class secular intellectuals of the Anglosphere towards that subculture, which is perceived to be down-market, crass, and quite a bit ridiculous.

But where he gets in trouble is that Dawkins’ tweets often reflect a visceral distaste for Islamic culture. His reactions indicate an emotional aversion which transcends rationality, though that aversion is rooted in some realities and not just his imagination.

The importance of emotion and its importance as against objective rationality can be illustrated again by Christmas. As a child from a Muslim background who had little affinity with religion, I generally had warm experiences with secularized American Christmases. As an adult atheist raising my children as atheists (if that makes sense), Christmas is culturally important for a variety of reasons. But your mileage may vary. There are atheists from Jewish backgrounds who eschew Christmas because of its cultural and historical valences, and their dissenting from mainstream norms is one of the ways that they express their identity as Jews.

One can give more explicit examples. I was acquainted with a woman from a Bosnian Muslim background many years ago. Though not exceedingly religious, she had a strong aversion to the cultural expression of Christmas. Her reasons were personal and understandable: she had fled the Balkan conflict as a child and had been traumatized by religious persecution. For her even secularized manifestations of the Christmas tradition had associated memories which were highly negative. Her experiences were her experiences, and my experiences are my experiences. There isn’t one “objective” response to Christmas, there are different “subjective” reactions framed by one’s personal history and cultural affinities.

But there are wheels-within-wheels, subjectivities-within-subjectivities, and truths-within-truths.

Many in the ex-Muslim community are fiercely protective of Richard Dawkins. Why? Because Richard Dawkins stands unflinchingly with them, “in solidarity” as they say in 2018. To get the “ex-Muslim” perspective, it is probably best to read Ali Rizvi’s The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. Unlike myself, Rizvi and his fellow travelers were at some point confessing and believing Muslims. Something I can never say personally. My cultural background means that I can recite surah fatiha to this day, and I have performed the call to prayer, but I was not really raised culturally within Islam. This means I have neither extremely strong or negative feelings associated with Islamic culture, though I take a dim view of Islam the religion and Muslim societies. But, like many Americans, they are still somewhat exotic and alien to me. Matters of reflection rather than reaction.

The reason ex-Muslims defend Richard Dawkins and revere the New Atheists (e.g, Sam Harris) is that the cultural winds in the West over the past generation have shifted, and the Left has been engaging in “allyship” with Islam, or more specifically Muslim minorities in the West. The vast majority of atheists are on the Left, and the Left is the camp notionally more amenable to secularism. But when it comes to Islam it is now the fashion on the cultural Left to express affinity and sympathy for Islam, and more concretely Muslims.

Richard Dawkins and the other New Atheists are distinctive in being conservative in the literal sense on the issue of Islam, and not temporizing and moderating. Their stance has not changed over the decade as Islam has become almost trendy on the Left where most of them are at home. And for this, they are cherished by activists and dissenters from within the Muslim community who are pushing for a full-throated atheism. Consider the case of a Canadian woman of Egyptian ethnicity, Yasmine Mohammed, who has written a memoir, “From Al Qaeda to Atheism.” The title should give you a flavor of her personal experiences, and why she has a visceral aversion to the Islamophilia which is de rigueur on the cultural Left.

The ex-Muslim community is a minority-within-a-minority. Many ex-Muslims are in an uncomfortable position because their critique of Islam as a regressive and authoritarian religion is consonant with talking points on the Right, but most of them identify on the Left (and, they perceive the Right as the camp of regression and authority!). In The Atheist Muslim Rizvi recounts the experiences of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. When she arrived in the United States about ten years ago she took a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institution (AEI). Broadly on the Right, this affiliation drew some raised eyebrows and critiques from commentators on the Left. Her extreme anti-Islamic views had already caused difficulties, but for many liberals an affiliation with AEI was the last straw. At the time I suspected that she was going to war with the army she had, not the army that she necessarily would have preferred. Rizvi, who brought more detailed information to the table, confirms this in The Atheist Muslim: Ali took the fellowship from the American Enterprise Institute after being rejected by other think tanks. They were, rightly, worried about the controversy around her due to her rather strident secularism in relation to Islam (a stance she has moderated over the years).

Ali’s conundrum ten years ago is more broadly symptomatic of an issue that characterizes the cultural Left in 2018 due to coalitional politics: a strident secularism that takes an anti-Islamic tone is so out of fashion among many liberals that the ex-Muslim activists are out of fashion among many liberals. They are an inconvenient minority-within-a-minority.

The rights of women in Western Muslim communities are still a concern with Leftists. But, these issues need to be approached sensitively and carefully, because the politics of coalition and the instinct toward allyship means that it is important to not demonize Western Muslims or even Islam! (this explains why many secular white liberals feel comfortable explaining to me the “real Islam” if I am overly critical of the religion for their taste) The last part is where ex-Muslims dissent fiercely because most argue that Islam, as it is constructed today, is fundamentally and structurally oppressive and reactionary. The paradox for ex-Muslims is that the Left normally has instincts to stand with those who oppose oppression and reaction, but in this case, they are muted.

The exception being people like Richard Dawkins. Like the child shouting out, “the emperor has no clothes!”, the likes of Dawkins and Harris give voice to a primal aversion to the demon-haunted reactionary ideological edifice that is Islam. Though in public very few Left-liberals who are aware of the norms of their community will say negative things about Islam qua Islam, and even less about Muslims, in private many are quite clear-eyed about Islam as a religion and uncomfortable with the practices of Muslims. Solidary is for the public. Reality is for private. Or as a friend once explained “Of course it’s a fucked up religion. But I don’t want to get my head chopped off or be accused of being racist.”

There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. 24% if the world’s population. Their numbers are growing rapidly because of Islam’s concentration in the high fertility areas of the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Though Muslims are likely to be a minority religion in the West for decades to come, they are a majority in some regions of Europe already (mostly urban ghettos). As such they naturally impose their cultural values as the dominant ones in public spaces where they are numerically preponderant. Many of those values are quite conservative and restrictive of individual liberty. That conservatism reflects the cultural values that Muslim immigrants bring to the West, but also the historical importance of Islamic law, shariah, which dates back over 1,000 years, and as such preserves in chrysalis view of a highly archaic nature in some ways.

From the perspective of ex-Muslims, who grew up within Muslim communities in the West, and for whom the demographic and cultural heft of the nearly 2 billion strong Ummah is a lived reality, the mainstream Left view of Muslims and Islam as marginal and oppressed is highly myopic, not factually true, and extremely conditioned by the relatively insulated worlds which most middle-class secular liberals live. To be entirely frank, for a particular set of cosmopolitan Westerner, the Islamic world, the Islamic culture, is one which they view through the lens of consumption, as a life-stage. Though they may experience the diversity of a Muslim neighborhood as a tourist dining out, and taking in the smells, or by living as a young adult in a heavily Muslim area of a European city. But they will retire in the fullness of time to a life of bourgeois contentment in a secular white community with Christmas trees. Islam is an abstraction. For those for whom Islam is more concrete, there’s a bit more skin the game.

Note: Below is a speech given by my friend Sarah Haider in 2015. I think the situation has gotten “worse” in relation to the issues she cares about.

July 16, 2018

A “carvaka” perspective historicity of myth and religion

Filed under: History,Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:29 pm

A comment thread below discussed the issues relating to the historicity of Jesus, Muhammad, and Hindu figures such as Ram and Krishna. The assertion is that while Jesus and Muhammad are historical figures, Ram and Krishna are mythological.

To some extent, this is a religiously fraught topic. People from Abrahamic backgrounds are wont to dismiss Dharmic tradition as pagan, heathen, and yes, mythological. In many Abrahamic traditions pagan gods, a class into which Hindu deities are often bracketed, are emanations of true supernatural powers, but demonic ones. In the West, this tendency within Christianity has been pushed to the background. But it still exists in more conservative denominations and traditions.

Therefore, those who adhere to false and marginal religions have “myths.” Those who adhere to true and cultural dominant religions have “stories” or “narratives.” That is the cultural context which we must admit. Even in places where non-Abrahamic religions or traditions are dominant, the past few centuries of European cultural and imperial hegemony have imposed certain interpretive frameworks which are Abrahamic.

And yet that being said, as someone who believes all religious supernatural claims come from the realm of our minds, as opposed to reality, there is a qualitative difference between Jesus, Muhammad, and Ram and Krishna. If Ram and Krishna did exist, they are individuals who lived in “prehistory.” That is, from a period not accessible to us even at some remove through non-religious text. In this way, they are like Abraham or Zoroaster. In contrast, the Buddha, Confucius, Mahavira, and various figures in Hebrew legend and myth such as David, Solomon, and Jeremiah are liminal figures. The world in which they lived was stepping out of prehistory and archaeology, and into the written word, but it was not a fully-fleshed world.

Finally, you have the prophets and religious leaders who are “of history.” Jesus, along with Muhammed and Mani are generally agreed to be figures of history. But we don’t have contemporaneous records of their lives outside of religious traditions, and even in that case only from texts dated to later periods from when they flourished. This means that the context and the details of who these figures were may not align with what current religious tradition suggests and argues for their significance (though since Manichaeanism is dead as a living religion that is a separate case).

A common revisionist case for the nature of the “historical Jesus,” is that he was a Jewish reformer in the tradition of Rabbi Hillel. The emergence of a religion of universal salvation, as https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B007704Y80/geneexpressio-20/ref=as_at/?imprToken=7Pf5MaPk2ep905.wf7pKBw&slotNum=0&creativeASIN=B073NP8WT3&linkCode=w61&imprToken=m0OZklw2PrvfVdj7GKuBrQ&slotNum=56opposed to a different form of Judaism, was a process which then developed in the generations https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B007704Y80/geneexpressio-20/ref=as_at/?imprToken=7Pf5MaPk2ep905.wf7pKBw&slotNum=0&creativeASIN=B073NP8WT3&linkCode=w61&imprToken=m0OZklw2PrvfVdj7GKuBrQ&slotNum=56after the death of the historical Jesus, the Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef. Roman Christianity as a sect cannot be understood without appreciating its birth in an Empire where syncretistic “mystery cults” were revolutionizing popular religious life (e.g., Mithraism). The elite Roman Christianity of the 3th to 6th centuries cannot be understood without the cultural priors brought to the religion by converts from aristocratic or educated backgrounds steeped in Greek philosophy (e.g., Origen, Athanasius, and in the West Augustine).

In short, a person around whom the legend and myth of Jesus grew almost certainly existed. But the Jesus of myth is to a great extent the creation of a Christianity which developed long after he died.*

Much the same can be said of Islam. A certain legend exists of Muhammad the warlord within Islamic traditions. But outside of these records, in the contemporaneous ones of the Byzantines, he is not noted (little remains of the records of the Persians and Ethiopians). This would not be surprising, because outside of modern Yemen, and the liminal zones of the Levant and the fringe of the desert on the western shore of the Euphrates, Arabia was of little consequence. So long as the spice flowed (e.g., frankincense), the goings on of the Arabs were not of note unless they impinged upon the civilized world.https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B007704Y80/geneexpressio-20/ref=as_at/?imprToken=7Pf5MaPk2ep905.wf7pKBw&slotNum=0&creativeASIN=B073NP8WT3&linkCode=w61&imprToken=m0OZklw2PrvfVdj7GKuBrQ&slotNum=56

And yet that did happen indeed, with the defeat of the Byzantines at Yarmouk and the Persians at al-Qādisiyyah. But as highlighted by revisionist scholars, the Byzantines took many decades to perceive in the Arab armies as anything but heretics and schismatics. This is also echoed in some ways in particular Islamic traditions which emphasize the relative impiety of the Umayyad Caliphate, denigrated in some sources as the “Arab Kingdom” due to its ethnocentric nature.

Compared to the later Abbasid period we don’t know much about the Umayyads. Part of the reason is that the winners write the histories, and the Abbasids won. In Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, he argues that Muawiyah was clearly a far more influential and important figure in Islamic history than one might think from the attention he receives from classical scholars and thinkers. But that’s because the Shia detest him, while the Abbasids and the Sunni Islam which evolved under their aegis minimized him.

But there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that compared to the Abbasids the Umayyads were very much a skeletal barracks-state where Arabs imposed an ethnic dominion, rather than a religious one. Even in the Islamic histories, there are attestations of Christian Arab tribes who were exempt from the jizya tax, while mawlā individuals of Persian origin were subject to the same indignities of non-Muslim Persians.

In fact, archaeological evidence shows that Umayyads in Syria patronized the creation of mosaics which continued the Late Antique Hellenic visual tradition, depicting both humans and animals. And, Greek was the administrative language of the Umayyads for the first few generations. The last of the Church Fathers, John of Damascus, was a Greek-speaker of Syrian background who served as a civil official under the Umayyads in the years around 700 A.D.  In contrast, the elite Barmakid family which was so prominent under the early Abbasids were of Buddhist background, but had to convert to Islam to become part of administrative apparatus which was becoming distinctively Muslim by this period.

All this is to set up the contention that Islam as we understand it, just like Christianity as we understand it, may actually not be the product of the first few decades of its flourishing as commonly understood, but of a later period when certain orthodoxies were understood and internalized, and grand narratives were later retroactively imposed. This aligns with the arguments in Lost Enlightenment and Warriors of the Cloisters that Islam, as we understand it today, was fundamentally shaped by the shift to the east initiated by the early Abbasids.

Which brings me to Mormonism, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unlike Jesus or Muhammad, there is no great debate about the details about the life of the Joseph Smith, the prophet of the religion that became Mormonism. Smith was born in Greater New England, and the Mormon church emerged as a sect in the Restorationist Protestant tradition. Its cultural context was among the Yankees of the American North. Smith’s family had been involved in radical Christianity, in https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B007704Y80/geneexpressio-20/ref=as_at/?imprToken=7Pf5MaPk2ep905.wf7pKBw&slotNum=0&creativeASIN=B073NP8WT3&linkCode=w61&imprToken=m0OZklw2PrvfVdj7GKuBrQ&slotNum=56particular, the Universalist Church.

Over the decades of Smith’s life as leader of the church, and later after his death, his sect became a new religion, fundamentally different from the Protestant milieu in which it emerged. Mormon religion early on took a jaundiced view of Nicene Christianity, holding to the Restorationist perspective that all other Christian churches were fallen and corrupt. But Mormonism deviated by innovating and transforming its theology, away from the dominant orthodoxy as articulated by early thinkers such as Bishop Irenaeus.

Due to secret revelations late in Joseph Smith’s life, Mormon leaders developed a Christology which was fundamentally different from that of other Christian traditions. Rejecting Trinitarianism and much of Greek metaphysics, Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was God the Heavenly Father’s bodily son, with Lucifer being his rebellious brother. Additionally, God the Heavenly Father has a Heavenly Mother, who is his wife. Father and Mother live on a planet in this universe in physical bodies.

There is much more which is exotic and strange to non-Mormons, whether Christian or not, in their theology. But, because Mormonism has existed in the light of history non-Mormons can look upon its claims with a much more critical eye. It is obvious, to many, that early Mormonism was just another Restorationist Christian church. Why did Mormonism deviate so far from mainstream American Christianity in its beliefs and practices?

It is important to remember that Mormonism is simply the westernmost and most successful offshoot of Joseph Smith’s religion. The Community of Christ, previously known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, remained located in Missouri when most of the community migrated west. Under the leadership of the descendants of Joseph Smith, the midwestern Mormons eventually merged back into the mainstream of liberal Protestant Christianity. Why?

I suspect one of the reasons that this occurred is simply the fact that the western Mormons became a very distinct ethno-cultural community, geographically separated from other Americans. In contrast, the Midwestern Mormons remained just another church among churches, albeit with a peculiar origin. And, like many “independent churches” in Africa founded in the 20th century, as it matured and stabilized, it slowly moves back into the mainstream of the dominant tendency of American Protestantism (with a few doctrinal quirks).

Since I began talking about Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions, to Hinduism we come back. A lot of the discussion online (and on this weblog) is difficult to follow because there is Hinduism, and then there is Hinduism. Hinduism as the religion of the people of India is an old concept, and a generic one. But elite philosophical schools of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta, crystallized much later, even down into the period when Muslims began to first make incursions into India.

I have alluded to here to the book The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. The focus on Greeks and Indians is due to the fact that aside from the Chinese these were the two ancient cultures which developed a fully elaborated philosophy that we in the modern world would understand, from metaphysics to ethics (Jewish and Persian philosophy in a distinctive sense tended toward religion).

Though they exhibited different biases and emphases, but it is clear that the Greeks saw in Indian “gymnosophists” kindred souls. The great Neoplatonist, Plotinus, reputedly inquired into the nature of Indian philosophy through meetings with scholars in Persia according to his classical biographers. The correspondence between Advaita Vedanta and Neoplatonism is rather clear, and probably due to a common set of monistic ideas which were in currency across the trading network between Alexandria and southern India, as well as through Persia, which spanned the edge of Roman Syria and into modern Pakistan, as well as ruling substantial Buddhist domains in Turan.

One of the generalizations often made about the development of Hinduism in the subcontinent over the past 1,000 years is that it is as if Islam did not even exist. That is, the indigenous religious traditions persisted and maintained themselves at such a remove that their evolutionary development was unperturbed by the exogenous cultural intrusion.

Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia, presents the argument that both Muslims and Hindus exhibited much more religious fluidity until the past few centuries. This is often argued in the context of peasant folk religion, where this is obviously true. But the author makes the case that groups like Hussaini Brahmins were much more numerous in earlier periods, especially before the emergence of a later Mughal orthodoxy under the aegis of Naqshbandi Sufis. Not only did this mean the forced conversion of many Ismailis to Sunni Islam, but also the shift of some liminal groups away from Islam and toward adherence to a Sanskritized Hindu identity. The reason for this is obvious: heretical or ghulat sects of Islam are viewed far more negatively by Sunni enforces of orthodoxy than Hindus, who were outside of the pale of Islamic writ in any case. This is analogous to the early decades of the Christian Roman Empire, when persecutions were directed primarily to heretical sects, rather than the pagan majority, which was neglected.

As must be clear by this point: Christians, Muslims, and though I have not addressed it, Jews, seem to have “cleaned” up their history.** In fact, one might even say they “retconned” their history so that present beliefs naturally lead from ancient beliefs, even though that is hard to see logically and empirically quite often where the ancient leads to the modern (e.g., reading the Synoptic Gospels, and then the Athanasian Creed, is confusing without any historical context).  I believe that many modernist Hindus, living in a world of explicit and demarcated confessions, and formal beliefs and portable and digestible holy texts, have attempted to do something similar.

First, Hinduism becomes a religion of deep antiquity, despite its historical development over the past 2,000 years. Just as modern Muslims, Jews, and Christians look to the legendary Abraham, who lived 4,000 years ago, outside of the gaze of history, so modern Hindus look to the mythos of Ram, Krishna, and the Vedas, and built their house upon those rocks. This, despite the detachment of multitudinous folk Hinduisms from this ancient foundation, as well as the relatively tenuous connections of highly intellectualized philosophical Hinduism to the concrete and corporeal character of the early Vedas (Vedas venerated by vegetarian “Hindu fundamentalists” which clearly depict vigorous beef-eating warriors!).

Second, the localized diversity of Hinduism becomes flattened in an atomized world characterized by anomie. Just as ‘traditional’ Javanese Hinduism tends to flourish in the village, but not in the urban centers, so ‘traditional’ Hinduism of locality is not portable or plausible in the great fleshpots of modern India. Urban Hindus need something that gives them religious succor and is also in keeping with their understanding of their traditional origins. Something that is not a rupture from the past, but an extension and evolution. A “perfection” as Christians would say of Judaism and Salafi Muslims of traditional Islam.

Just as urban Indonesian Muslims who shift from abangan Islam to a more “orthodox” world-normative santri Islam view themselves as reclaiming a more pure and primal Islam, so it strikes me that modern Indians who adhere to a “Vedic religion,” stripped of locality and universalized and extended, create a mythos and narrative of reclamation, not innovation.

Over the 21st century, India will urbanize, and the villages will fade away in memory and with time. It is plausible that as this occurs modern urban Hinduism will produce a relatively standardized, and yes, deracinated, a spirituality which is more amenable to a people who move from one end of the country to another, as their professions take them on peregrinations over their lifetime.

To some extent the Abrahamic religions, and Buddhism, have already been through this. Torn away from a specific soil that nurtures them in a distinct local culture, these religious traditions have developed portable variants, which eventually become normative, uniting disparate peoples with distinct folkways. As India becomes its own world, and different cultures within it synthesize and merge, a need will develop for a more portable and flexible Hinduism. Both secular Hinduism and Hindu fundamentalism are faces of this transition, and both are likely the seeds of sectarian traditions which will wax and elaborate over the coming decades.

* Reading the Gospels, this is most clear in the writings of “John.” A grand and conceited figure, in contrast with the modest Jewish prophet of Mark.

** Orthodox Judaism as we understand really congealed in the 6th century with the Babylonian Talmud. Therefore, I argue it is a sister religion to Christianity, with both deriving from sects of Classical Judaism. Some scholars have in fact argued that Christianity is an extreme derivative of a form of Hellenistic Judaism!

June 11, 2018

Bangladeshi freethinker shot dead

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 5:28 pm

Freethinking writer and politician shot dead in Bangladesh:

Shahzahan Bachchu was known locally and within the secular Bangladeshi movement as an outspoken, sometimes fiery activist for secularism. He printed poetry and books related to humanism and freethought via his publishing house Bishaka Prakashani (Star Publishers). He was also a political activist, serving as former general secretary of Munshiganj district unit of the Communist Party.

He was reportedly shot and killed this evening near his village home at Kakaldi in Munshiganj district near the capital Dhaka.

The fool hath said in his heart, There is a God.

June 8, 2018

On the rectification of names and religion

Filed under: anthropology,Religion — Razib Khan @ 3:30 pm

A major influence on my thinking about human social phenomenon is Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Atran, along with other scholars such as Dan Sperber and younger researchers such as Harvey Whitehouse, work within a “naturalistic” paradigm, as opposed to the more interpretative framework currently ascendant within American anthropology.

The interpretive framework emphasizes “thick description,” and avoids generalities (unless they are convenient ones!), as well as exhibiting a suspicion of synthesis with the natural sciences. Ways of thinking such as post-colonialism are part of the umbrella of paradigms which are consonant with interpretive anthropology’s premises.

Both naturalistic and interpretive frameworks are useful. But I believe in modern discourse the latter is given almost monopolistic power to adjudicate on factual matters, even though in other contexts those who engage in interpretation are wont to say that facts are fictions!

Let’s start with the idea that the idea of religion qua religion is Protestant, Christian, or Abrahamic. I’ve seen all three flavors of the argument using a narrow definition of religion. It’s hard to deny that Christianity, and often in particular Protestantism, have resulted in a reorganization and reimagining of non-Christian religions. For example, the “confessionalization” of South Korea after World War II, and the transformation of Won Buddhism into an institution which resembles Protestantism would be a case in point. Or the emergence of Arya Samaj in the 19th century, and its relationship to the stimulative effect of evangelical Protestantism.

It is hard to deny confessional Protestantism is a very particular form of religion, and a clear and distinct one. The emphasis on individual volition in this view of religion makes it such that identity is clear and distinct through adherence to a precise formula and community. Practitioners are self-conscious in their identity. They come to it, it is not given to them.

But is it fair to say that religion by necessity must follow the outlines of confessional Protestantism? Or that it has to be a congregational faith with exclusive boundaries, as the Abrahamic faiths tend to be?

Not necessarily. A Ju/’hoansi tribesman in the Kalahari does not follow any of the organized world religions. He or she surely does not have the word for religion in their language, unless he or she is in extensive contact with missionaries. But the Ju/’hoansi have a rich supernatural world in which they believe, and which is seamlessly woven into their lives.

Do the Ju/’hoansi  have a religion or not? If you asked them they might not know what you are talking about. The Ju/’hoansi lack many of the institutions which modern societies have, so they don’t need all the labels of modern societies. Do the Ju/’hoansi have “daycare”? Again, they would look at you in a very confused manner. But the do have  Ju/’hoansi some alloparenting. It’s just something implicit, tacit, and taken for granted. It might not be labelled daycare, but that’s what it is. Functionally they have daycare, even it’s not institutionalized.

To bring it back to the central focus of this weblog, there has been some assertion that Hinduism as such was invented/defined by the British. That Hinduism as a coherent ideology is a very distinct and novel thing from the welter of beliefs and practiced of Indians more generally.

It is clear there is some truth in this. The Hinduism of a Brahmin expositor of Sanatana Dharma is distinct from the local spirituality of a adivasi group, and both differ from something like Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

But the reality is that Hinduism is not particularly unique. American Presbyterians exhibit self-conscious identity and adherence to elite-mediated belief and practice. This sort of individualistic confessional Christianity is arguably the apotheosis of a modernist conception of religion. But this is a relatively new development in the West among Christians.

The vast majority of the European peasantry did not exhibit this sort of Christian self-consciousness before the later medieval centuries, and much of it did not become self-conscious until after the Reformation period. This is one reason that some Reformed Protestants argue that Europe was not Christianized until after the Reformation. Peasants may have had a sense that they were Christians, and others were heathens, but the full liturgy and deep catechism were not necessarily a part of their lives (in contrast to the elite).

And yet it seems ridiculous to assert in the context of the Crusades, the rise of Gothic cathedrals, and the conversion of Northern and Eastern Europe by missionaries, that Europe was not Christian before the late medieval period. Individual Europeans may not have been self-conscious confessional Christians, but everyone around them was at least nominally a Christian. Additionally, the Christian Church, whether West or East, saw itself as bringing salvation to everyone within the society, high or low, poor or rich, and devout or ignorant. Many Europeans were not Christian in the individual way modern evangelical Protestants would understand, but European civilization was Christian.

I think this is the best way to understand what Hinduism was, and what it became. Indian civilization was long seen to be distinct by the ancients. It was not a random and disparate collection of peoples, but a civilization with various centers, and jostling competition between aspirant elites.

It is well known in the pre-modern period “Hindu” seems to have bracketed people who lived in India. From the Muslim perspective all non-Muslims who lived in the subcontinent. It was a geographical designation more than a religious one as such. But it is clear that already by the time of the arrival of Muslims in the Sindh in the 8th century, and definitely by the era when Al-Biruni wrote his well known ethnography of South Asia around 1000 AD, that Indian religion had taken on some distinctive forms and outlines, even if it was not self-consciously termed Hinduism. It is clear because outsiders describe normative Indian religious practices and beliefs that we would recognize today (e.g., reincarnation).

There are two other elements to this broader issue. First, it curious that the British had to define Hinduism, when it seems Muslims had been doing so for the whole period after the initial incursions. Al-Biruni made the most thorough early attempt, and his writings on India would make an Orientalist proud. And I say that not as a dismissal, but a description. Al-Biruni seemed rather clear-eyed that Indian hostility to Muslim was due to the predatory character of the warlords who also patronized his scholarship. The focus on the British reflects the recency-bias in post-colonial studies, where the only colonialism and conquest of interest is tht which is executed by Europeans.

Additionally, I am  convinced by the arguments in Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, and Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World, that Turanian Buddhism was essential and instrumental in shaping Islam as we understand it from the Abbassid period onward (in particular, the emergence of madrassa and the hadith traditions). Though Turanian Buddhism is clearly not Hindu, connections to India to the south and China to the east were part of a broader “Buddhist international” which flourished in the 4th to 7th century.

This is not to deny the distinctiveness of the Islam Al-Biruni used as a contrast to Indian religious thought. But, by his life Central Asian Buddhism was extirpated, and he would not have been able to see the influence of that Indian-influenced tradition on Islam because it had become thoroughly integrated.

Second, Indian religious civilization was successfully exported to the east so it was not constitutively associated with being Indian. The Balinese of Indonesia and the Cham of Vietnam are recognizably Hindu. It would be curious to tell them that the British defined Hinduism in the early modern period…when they were practicing Hinduism 1,000 years ago. The Ankgor temple complex was built in the 12th century, when Hinduism was Cambodia’s dominant elite religion.

Finally, an addendum to my post on caste and genetics. I read Castes of Mind many years ago. I think many of the arguments in that book aren’t necessarily invalidated by the genetic data. But, we need to think hard about whether we really expected the genetic data given the thesis that British colonialism was highly determinative in shaping the hierarchy and structure of South Asian society.

In fact, the genetic data makes it clear that most South Asian communities have been distinct and endogamous for several thousand years. That the genetic differences between castes groupings and jati within regions are closer to what you could expect of from differences between antipodes of a continent. And, within a given region ancestry which is closer to West/Central Eurasian tends to be enriched in groups “higher” up the modern caste ladder, across the subcontinent (at least if there is a correlation).

Additionally, this is not well known, but the genetic structure seems to exist even if you remove Indo-Aryans from the picture. Groups such as the Reddys and Nadars in South India who do not have any northern/western affinity at all are still genetically quite distinct from adivasis and scheduled castes in the local region. They also tend to have more West/Central Eurasian ancestry than adivasis and scheduled castes in the local region.

April 16, 2018

Our existence is an offense to moderate Muslims!

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 6:02 pm

I’m really not incredibly invested in these internecine BP conversations, but this kind of comment honestly convinces me of deep incommensurability:

Perhaps if you don’t go around publicly announcing that you are an ex-Muslim, you will face less problems.

There are lots of “Muslims” who barely practice the religion. But for form’s sake, we say that we believe in Allah and in the Prophet of God. Especially if we have family in Muslim countries.

First, I don’t face problems. But I sympathize with people who are being murdered on account of their irreligion in Muslim countries. I have friends who are Bangladeshi immigrants who were friends with people who were murdered for their lack of belief. It’s pretty disturbing.

So why do I announce my atheism? Because in this country I can. I’m an ex-Muslim only from the perspective of Muslims and anti-Muslim racists. The two groups actually agree on a lot. Because Muslims and anti-Muslims assume I’m a Muslim theist of some sort, of course, I have to announce it so they won’t be confused.

It’s my own conceit and privilege to be wedded more to substance than forms. Now, there are American Muslims like Omar Ali who seems at peace with the substance as well as privileges of Western liberalism (I believe the above individual is an American Muslim?). So I’m not going to full Islamophobe, but these sorts of attitudes suggesting it’s more seemly that we irtidads go back into the closet so preserve public sensitivities really make me suspicious of the Submitters.

I guess this sort of exchange has actually made me more sympathetic to “internet Hindus.” When judgment day comes, go with the side less likely to kill you!

April 10, 2018

White presenting, women presenting, person defends Dharmic terminology from white people

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:54 pm

Not sure if I would have believed this tweet existed if it didn’t. But it does.

But wait, it gets better! More white presenting people defending the cultural sensitivities of people of the Dharmic persuasion.

Now, I do think it is true that Dharmic religious perspectives tend to be made light of on occasion. For example, Hindus have “mythologies.” As opposed to the presumably real Abrahamic “God of history”?

But I don’t think this is going to help the situation. In fact, these sorts of public posturings are more about the person posturing than about what they are posturing about.

From the entry on Newspeak:

In “The Principles of Newspeak”, the appendix to the novel, George Orwell explains that Newspeak usage follows most of the English grammar, yet is a language characterised by a continually diminishing vocabulary; complete thoughts reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning.

January 12, 2018

What religion is

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 8:38 pm

It’s been about 10 years since I addressed this topic. Largely because I have no new thoughts. But probably after 10 years, it’s useful to revisit/clarify on this topic to clarify confusions, since people have a lot of opinions on this topic.

People mean different things when they mean “religion,” and the different meanings are not contradictory, nor in conflict.

At the lowest level in terms of individual cognition religion emerges from deep intuitions about the nature of the universe. Colloquially one might say that religion bubbles out of our unconscious.

In relation to social units, say the clan or tribe, religion consists of these intuitions about the nature of the universe and the world around us, bound together with rituals and verbal descriptions and narratives. These rituals and communal narratives help forge some sort of group Weltanschauung that has a functional utility in terms of inter-group competition and relations. Here religion steps out of the individual and becomes an expression of collective consensus.

As human societies became more complex the role of religious professionals became more elaborated. The common role of a shaman can be thought of as a magician, one who manipulates and operates in the domain of the supernatural. Shamans are common and ubiquitous in pre-state societies (even if a tribe does not have a “professional” shaman, someone takes on the role when needed). The priest adds on top of this institutional authority, often supra-clan or tribal. No king, no priest. Eventually, though the shaman-priest took on the role of the metaphysician. The metaphysician generates abstract principles and rationales, which can transcend the tribe or ethnicity, and allows religion to generate meta-ethnic civilizational identities in the service of priestly functions.

So in the post-Axial Age, the religious professional is often shaman, priest, and philosopher.

In relation to my post about why I am not a New Atheist, New Atheists, and the hyper-verbal expositors of modern organized religion, often tend to reduce religion to a branch of philosophy with some textual revelatory buttress. By refuting the philosophy of religion, they think that they refute religion in toto.  But what they refute is only the latest and most elaborated structural expression of the religious phenomenon.

What about the priest? Though I am wary of the term “political religion,” due to semantic confusion, it seems clear that the function of the priest can be stripped of its supernatural valence. Many of the most objectionable characteristics of religion for people of liberal orientations derives from the institutionalized priestly functions. Unfortunately, the persistence of the priest in the absence of gods, shamanic powers and metaphysical justification opens the doors to secular totalitarianism.

Finally, it seems almost impossible to stamp out the shaman. Shamanism is like music. You can banish it through institutional sanctions, but once those sanctions disappear, shamanism reappears.

These different aspects of religiosity exist and persist simultaneously in most contexts, but sometimes in tension. Philosophers and priests often take a dim view of shamanic religiosity. In organized religion of the modern sort shamanism is marginalized, or highly constrained and regulated in sacraments. But the recession of state-sponsored Christianity across much of the West has arguably resulted in a resurgence of shamanism, and the proliferation of diverse supernatural beliefs which had previously been suppressed (much of East Asia is characterized by relative weakness of philosophical religion but the strength of shamanism).

Jade Eggs anyone?

The relevance of all this in relation to New Atheism is that New Atheism seems to posit a religious “Blank Slate.” That is, children are indoctrinated in religion at a small age, previous to which they had been atheists. Part of this is due to the fact that the philosophical-metaphysical aspect of religion is quite clearly indoctrination, and often of a superficial sort at that (judging by how weak most believer’s grasp of theology is). But the communal and psychological aspects are not indoctrination, as much as specific instantiations of general human sentiments, dispositions, and intuitions. The erasure of a Christian, Buddhist or Islamic religious orientation will not necessarily leave in its wake a mind primed for scientific naturalism. Rather, it will simply be one shorn of Axial-Age accretions, reverted back to the shamanic age…

As someone who is an atheist, I have never had strong intuitions that lead me to find shamanism plausible. Additionally, the philosophical arguments are wanting for me in relation to God, though they are interesting (thanks to reader Thursday I’m reading Edward Feser’s work). Finally, obviously, I take a dim view of the conformity and structure which the priests attempt to impose upon us.  But I do not presume I have typical.

January 9, 2018

Accepting that most people are damned, and liberal puralism

Filed under: Liberalism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:30 pm

Here is how I learned it. Once upon a time in the West, the Church aimed to save all of society by bringing everyone under the umbrella of the Truth. The shattering of Western Christendom with the Reformation caused a problem. If the Catholics were right, then the Protestants were damned, and if the Protestants were right, the Catholics were damned. You know all about the “Wars of Religion,” which occupied Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Ultimately this led to the Westphalian system and a gradual acceptance that there would no longer be One True Religion in the West. Monarchs who even took a skeptical view on religion, such as Frederick the Great, arose in the 18th century. In this case, you had a Calvinist Hohenzollern dynasty which could not bring its Lutheran populace on board. In Saxony, you eventually had Catholic dukes ruling over a Protestant populace.

But another aspect of the collapse of universal Christianity in the West was the emergence of radical Protestant groups which understood most of society to be damned and beyond redemption. The separatism of the Amish is an extreme case of this. They don’t even attempt to convert anyone to their religion, which has turned into an ethnicity. This withdrawal of radical Protestants from attempting to force the temporal world to their will has expressed itself most fully in the United States of America, which never had a state-supported religion on the federal level, a radical innovation in its day.

This strain of Christianity is suspicious of the state and society in part because of the suppression their beliefs and practices by both the state and society in which they first emerged. But their relegation of the majority to the ranks of the damned also allows for a modus vivendi in this life. As a contrast, see this apologia for the Pope Pius IX behavior in the Mortara case in First Things, Non Possumus.

The basic argument seems to be that the Pope was motivated by the salvation which was being offered to the soul of the child baptized by the family’s maid. The curious thing is that the whole time I was reading the piece I was thinking about Islamists who would argue that coercive conversion of children of other religions to Islam is still good on the balance because they are now Muslims. The general way this worse is somehow a child is tricked into saying the shahada, and Islam enjoins that once converted one can not apostatize (the Kafir Kalash of Pakistan are suspicious of their children being around their Muslim neighbors because this has happened many times in the past to them).

Some of the same extreme “compassion” seems to be cropping up in American politics, as a deviation from the Truth is no longer tolerated. Pius IX was out of step with his time, as secular liberalism was on the rise. Today I wonder if that liberal in its own turn may have to give ground to a new totalitarianism.

November 24, 2017

Cultural and religious relics as clues to cultural process

Filed under: Paganism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 5:27 pm

Much of the public is given the impression that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under the reign of Constantine. Though it is hard to deny that it was the favored religion, especially by the end of his rule, modern ideas of the “official” religion of a given state are somewhat anachronistic for this period and place. In The Last Pagans of Rome Alan Cameron argues that the true death-blow to non-Christian religions in the Roman Empire occurred during the reign of Gratian, 50 years after Constantine, with the cessation of subsidies to the traditional religion (a contrasting view is that elite paganism was vital as a public force up until Theodosius the Great’s conquest of the Western Empire).

In The Final Pagan Generation the author reviews the almost imperceptible change that occurred in the lives of the Roman elite, who looked back to a continuous cultural lineage that drew from the late republic. These elite men and women exhibited passivity and complacency, as the norms which had come before would presumably obtain until the end of time. What they did not understand is that there are periods when societies go through rapid changes, so that a rupture occurs between the past and the future in the span of a lifetime.

Whether you think elite public paganism lost its vitality in the last decades of the 4th century or sometime in the 5th, the reality is that it was a spent force by the time Justinian began his the marginalization of the last of the Neoplatonic philosophers around 500.

Of course, this does not mean that sub-pagan practices did not persist among the European peasantry for centuries. But the reality is that they were at least nominally Christian, and a coherent sense of traditional religious identity apart from that outward affiliation did not exist (at least after Christianization).

Which brings me to the people of the Mani peninsula, in the southern Peloponnese. This isolated region was reputed to retain the practices of Greek paganism as late as the year 1000 A.D. Let me quote Constantine VII, Byzantine emperor from 913 to 959:

Be it known that the inhabitants of Castle Maina are not from the race of aforesaid Slavs (Melingoi and Ezeritai dwelling on the Taygetus) but from the older Romaioi, who up to the present time are termed Hellenes by the local inhabitants on account of their being in olden times idolaters and worshippers of idols like the ancient Greeks, and who were baptized and became Christians in the reign of the glorious Basil. The place in which they live is waterless and inaccessible but has olives from which they gain some consolation.

The Basil in question reigned from 867 to 886.

Of course, we don’t know if Constantine and his contemporaries were correct in all the details of the people of Mani. It seems unlikely that he would have misidentified them as Greek as opposed to Slavs (whose paganism was more recent), but perhaps they practiced a debased form of folk Christianity mixed with old superstitions? But, if they did continue to practice the religion of ancient Greece it illustrates how persistent traditional beliefs than be in a world where the state and cultural elites have more limited purview than one might have thought. It seems unlikely that the people of Mani would have been unfamiliar with Christianity (there are ruins of churches going back to the 4th century in the area), but they may have been socially isolated enough that the incentives to convert to the new religion did not exist.

The Tengerrese people of East Java, who remain Hindu, maybe a modern analogy. The worshippers of the gods of the old Norse were by chance the Sami, who did not become fully Christian until after the Reformation. And up until the Islamic period, the city of Harran remained predominantly pagan (the Persians were close enough that the East Roman authorities respected the religious liberties of these people lest they defect).

October 25, 2017

New Atheism is dead, long live New Atheism

Filed under: atheism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:50 pm


Scott Alexander asks How Did New Atheism Fail So Badly? It’s in response to an obnoxiously fact-free Baffler rant. I think what Scott is alluding to here is the lack of fashionability of “New Atheism.”

But in the American context, I do think that New Atheism arose is a particular time and context, George W. Bush’s America, and has declined in salience in another one, where standard-bearer of the Republican party is a cultural Christian at best. The previous President, Barack Obama, was a liberal Christian who admitted that he believed in evolution more than angels.

Today a larger fraction of Millennials are irreligious than they are Evangelical Protestants. The proportion of Americans who said they had “No religion” in 2000 was 8%. Today it is 18%.

Addendum: I think some of Scott’s commenters are correct that the rise to prominence of Islam as something that good liberals need to defend in public, no matter their private contempt for the religion (which they share with me candidly of course), also makes New Atheism kind of less attractive.

October 9, 2017

The four modes of atheism

Filed under: Cognitive Science,Religion,Religon — Razib Khan @ 7:53 pm

I have mentioned Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict before. It’s worth reading. I’d describe it as a cross between In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Of course, that means I’m not sure I got the maximal utility from reading it since it leans on so much that I already internalized. But it’s a great introduction to the modern scientific study of religion.

But there was one aspect which I found rather novel, because it introduced new data to me. In particular, the author tackled the origin of atheism, and why it might vary as a function of location and time.

There are four causes of atheism that are surveyed in Big Gods:

1) Personality (low social intelligence)
2) Hyper-analytic cognitive style
3) Societal apathy toward religion
4) Lack of strong modeling of religiosity

The first two are straightforward. There has long been a hypothesis that those with lower social intelligence or weaker in ‘theory of mind’ have a more difficult time to find personal gods plausible. In short, theism depends on a relatively normal theory of mind. Looking at people on the autism spectrum who recounted their ideas of religion and god the author confirmed the intuition. Autistic individuals tended to be less religious, and, if religious, presented a model of God that was often highly impersonal and abstract.

One issue that is important to highlight here: I suspect that many great theological “truths” actually derive from individuals who engage in excessive intellectualism around the idea of god. For the average human applying formal logic to theism is probably beside the point, though these sorts of religious intellectuals loom large in the books because…they are the ones writing the books.

This relates to the second issue. The author and his colleagues did research where they primed individuals by engaging them in highly analytic thought. Correcting for background variables they found that this biased respondents toward an impersonal god or atheism appreciably. Again, I think it gets to the fact that for most humans supernatural beliefs are about the synthesis of intuitions and passions. Excessive intellectualization is more likely to engender skepticism, or, a hyper-formal model of religion (which I think has become religion qua religion for some).

The last two elements are related. In Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God he observes that in highly secular Scandinavia many respondents found it difficult to articulate strong feelings toward religion. It was simply not a prominent social institution in the society, though it was still part of the cultural furniture. But like furniture, it didn’t stand out. Societies with strong states, robust institutions, and impartial rule of law, along with some modicum of prosperity, tend to have lower levels of religiosity, and weaker passions about the topic from respondents. Once religiosity becomes less salient in a broad sense, then it becomes less of a concern in general for individuals.

A separate dynamic is that once people stop acting in a way that indicates that religion is important and true, others who take social cues begin to internalize this as evidence that religion isn’t that important. The authors give the example that there is social science that people who are raised Christian by parents who don’t go to church are far more likely to leave Christianity as adults because their parents did not credibly signal that religion was actually important enough to sacrifice any time and effort for. Perhaps another example which works as an analogy is that the vast majority of the children of interfaith Jewish-Christian marriages who were raised as Jews end up marrying non-Jews.

I think the first two factors in the list above explain the low but consistent basal rate of atheists and heterodox thinkers across history. One thousand years ago in Syria the poet Al-Ma’arri made statements such as below:

Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.

Al-Ma’arri was a brilliant eccentric, so he was tolerated. Some of his quips prefigure H. L. Mencken’s, as when he said that “The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

The other two forms of irreligiosity lead to standard models of secularization through increased affluence and decreased social relevance of religion as an institution. The United States was long the exception to this trend, but as recounted in books such as American Grace, it seems that secularization is starting to have its impact on the United States as well. Basically, as social norms shift to relax incentives toward being religious, more marginal believers will start expressing irreligiosity. At some point, some will start to conform to irreligiosity.

Of course, this sort of secularization is fragile. Aside from the sorts of demographic arguments made in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, examples such as post-Soviet Russia (and the post-Soviet nation-states more generally), as well as the progressively more religious nature of the Baathist resistance to American occupation in Iraq, illustrate that religion can bounce back rather fast, even within a generation or severl years. The social contexts for this resurgence are outlined in the book, but they illustrate that in some ways secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate.

September 26, 2017

Religion trumps race in Sri Lanka

Filed under: Religion,Rohingya — Razib Khan @ 8:20 pm


Monk-led mob attacks Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka:

“These are Rohingya terrorists who killed Buddhist monks in Myanmar,” the monk said in his live commentary on Facebook, pointing to Rohingya mothers with small children in their arms.

Sri Lanka’s extremist Buddhist monks have close links with their ultra-nationalist counterparts in Myanmar. Both have been accused of orchestrating violence against minority Muslims in the two countries.

South Asians understand that the power of religion as opposed to race more than most people. The craven and obsequious respect granted to Arabs (and to a lesser extent Iranians and Turks) by South Asian Muslims is so natural and taken-for-granted that it only seems that way to outsiders. Despite the fact that Muslims and Hindus of any given region are clearly related by blood (in some cases, whole portions of castes convert in toto), they often speak as if they are racially distinct. Muslims somewhat sincerely, but affirming obviously false West Asian Asian, and Hindus more performatively, by asserting that India is for the Hindu race, from which Muslims are excluded.

The above story is a different dimension: the identification of Sri Lankan Buddhism monks with the Buddhist Burmese against the Rohingya. There is some historical background to this, as both the Sinhala and Burmese are predominantly Theravada Buddhist peoples. During periods of Buddhist decline in Sri Lanka lineages were reinforced form Burma, and vice versa.

The Rohingya, as I have stated, are racially really no different from the people of Bengal. And like Bengalis the Sinhala are a dark-skinned South Asian people (there are still debates as to whether the Indo-European language in Sri Lanka came from Gujarat or Bengal). The Sri Lankans I’ve met could easily pass as Bengali, and in general vice versa.

It’s an interesting observation from an American perspective, where race is the most salient factor in social-political identification. At least explicitly.

September 22, 2017

When all you have is postcolonial theory everything is about the white man

Filed under: Christianity,Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:18 pm

Recently I read a piece, Confronting White Supremacy in Christianity as a Christian South Asian, which is interesting from an anthropological perspective. After all, I don’t know what it’s like to be a progressive South Asian Christian, which is the perspective of this author. But as I read the piece I felt that it elided and conflated so much that a much deeper and richer story was being erased so as to serve up another illustrative of the primacy of white supremacy.

If you read books such as From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East you know that how white American Christians treat non-white Christians can be rather ridiculous. One of the stories I recall reading is of an Arab Christian waiter in Jerusalem who wore a Christian cross, and was very irritated with white Americans with strong Southern accents would inquire when he had converted to Christ. This person of course privately scoffed and reflected that when his ancestors had been Christians for centuries his customer’s ancestors were still worshipping pagan gods.

Here is a passage from the above piece which I think really confuses:

Christianity in India highlights a violent history of white supremacy through colonization and mass conversion by Europeans including, the Portuguese, Irish, Dutch, Italian, French, and English many of whom hold cultural influence that has remained to this day in places like Kerala, Pondicherry, and Goa. Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in the diaspora. For instance, my family converted to Christianity while living under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, an entire system of white supremacy supported by ‘Christian’ values.

The writer is a young Canadian woman whose family is from South Africa of Indian heritage. Additionally, though she never is explicit about it, her family seems to be evangelical Protestant. This is an interesting perspective, but it is a totally different one from that of South Asian Christianity.

Bracketing Kerala with Pondicherry and Goa is simply misleading. Christians are nearly 20% of the population of Kerala,and most are St. Thomas Christians, whose origins predate European contact with India by many centuries. Originally part of the territory of the Persian Church of the East, modern St. Thomas Christians have splintered into numerous groups with varied affiliations, in part due to the trauma of contact with Portuguese Catholicism. But through it all they maintain an indigenous Christian identity which is distinct from any colonial imprint.

Second, large numbers of India’s Christians are converts from Dalit populations, or, tribal peoples in the Northeast who are racially and culturally distinct from other South Asians. The framing in the piece is that South Asian Christianity has to bear the cross of colonialism, but a good argument can be made that for Dalit converts and tribal groups in the Northeast Christianity is the vehicle for resistance to oppression, assimilation, and colonialism on the part of the dominant South Asian cultural matrix.

This is not to say that the piece does not speak to a real dynamic. North American white evangelical Protestantism does is inordinately freighted with racialized baggage. And it is easy to reduce into the Manichaean framework of postcolonial theory, where whites are the sole agents of action in the world. But to the generality Indian Christianity has many disparate threads, and this sort of reduction is misleading.

September 8, 2017

As many Americans think the Bible is a book of fables as that it is the word of God

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 6:07 pm


America, that is, the United States of America, has long been a huge exception for the secularization model. Basically as a society develops and modernizes it becomes more secular. At least that’s the model.

In the 1980s Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge wrote The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Stark and Bainbridge’s work was predominantly empirical; they looked at survey data to present a model of the American religious landscape. But they also had a theoretical framework, whereby religion was modeled with a rational choice framework on the individual religion, and denominations and sects were viewed as “firms” providing “goods and services” to “customers.”

A whole field emerged over time which attempted to use the methods and models of economics to explain religious phenomena. Larry Witham’s Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion surveys the various scholars in this discipline. I’ve read the book, and what I will say is that like many imperial ventures, this one failed. The predictions of the “supply-side” model of religion haven’t panned out.

In 2004 Samuel Huntington wrote in Who Are We? that the United States likely had a more Christian future than the present. He was actually writing this as a massive wave of secularization was going on in the United States; the second since that of the 1960s had abated.

For a long time, people were in denial about this. After all the United States had been the great exception to the secularization trend in the developed world. Their priors were strong. And the market also provided what consumers wanted; books such as God is Back and Jesus in Beijing catered to the demand. Writing in the early 2000s the author of Jesus in Beijing suggested that 20 to 30 percent of China would be Christian two to three decades, so between 2023 and 2033 (from the publication of the book). Credible statistics in 2017 put the current number of Christians in China at 2 to 5 percent.

In 2009 I took John Tierney of The New York Times to task for dismissing the secularization hypothesis in a column. I emailed him my blog post, and he denied that it showed what it showed. Today I suspect he’d admit that I was more right than he was.

Today everyone is talking about the Pew survey which shows the marginalization of the Anglo-Protestant America which I grew up in. This marginalization is due to secularization broadly, and non-Hispanic whites in particular. You don’t need Pew to tell you this.

At the top of this post you see the response to the GSS query BIBLE, which asks respondents how they view the Bible in relation to whether it is God’s literal word, inspired word, or a book of fables. I limited the data to non-Hispanic whites. In 2016 as many people viewed the Bible as a book of fables as the word of God. In 2000 twice as many people viewed it as the word of God as a book of fables. That is a huge change.

Note: Robert Putnam’s American Grace is probably the best book which highlights the complex cultural forces which ushered in the second wave of secularization. The short answer is that the culture wars diminished Christianity in the eyes of liberals.

July 13, 2017

When white people were “ethnic”

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 3:22 pm

In the period between 2005 and 2010 I spent a fair amount of time reading about American history. And one aspect which interested me was the nature of the assimilation of white Americans of non-Protestant background, in particular Roman Catholics and Jews. This was triggered by reading The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, where the author argues that the modern American conception of church-state separation is difficult to understand in practice unless religion is defined as something similar to low church American Protestantism

Though the American founding was famously eclectic and tolerant, as befitted a republic designed by men with elite Enlightenment sensibilities, it was culturally without a doubt Protestant in heritage, if not belief. The American Revolutionary Zeitgeist was steeped in British-influenced anti-Catholicism. In keeping with the same sort of Protestant populism which inspired the Gordon riots a broad swath of American colonial opinion was critical of the Quebec Act for giving French speaking Catholics a modicum of religious liberty and equality before the law.

Despite this historical context the relationship between the Roman Catholic population and the American republic in the early years was relatively amicable. Most of the priests were French Canadians, and Catholic population was highly assimilated and integrated. The great change occurred with the arrival of large numbers of Roman Catholic Irish, as well as a Irish American clerical ascendency which drew upon a revival in the Church in Ireland.

John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom is probably the best history of the religion in the United States that I read during that period. Not because it’s comprehensive, it’s not. Rather, because it focuses on the tension between the Church and the American republic and society, and how it resolved itself, and how that resolution unravelled.

Periodically people in the media make allusions to the ability of the American republic and culture to assimilate Catholics and Jews, and how that might apply to Muslims today. The discussion really frustrates me because there is almost never an acknowledgement that Roman Catholics experienced various degrees of low-grade persecution during periods of the 19th century. The Ursuline Convent riots are just the most sensational incident, and the Know Nothing movement turned into a political party.

The expansion of public schooling in parts of this was country tied to anti-Catholicism. But the Catholics did not take this passively. The emergence of a whole counter-culture, and parochial schools, suggested that they were ready to fight back to maintain their identity. The powerful Irish clerics who served as de facto leaders of the Roman Catholic faithful seem to have wanted to establish a modus vivendi with the American government which recognized the Church’s corporate role in society. By and large American elites and culture rejected this attempt to import a European style model to the New World.

By the late 19th century a movement began in the American Roman Catholic Church which became labeled the Americanist heresy. Despite its official condemnation I would argue that “Americanism” eventually became the de facto ideology of most American Roman Catholics. As Catholics conceded and assimilated toward American liberal and democratic norms in their everyday life, the hostility from the general public declined, and by the middle of the 20th century Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew articulated a vision of religious harmony among white Americans.

It should be rather obvious from the above that I believe this religious harmony was achieved in large part through concessions that American Catholics made to the folkways of the United States. You see the same dynamic in Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism. Second, in Catholicism and American Freedom McGreevy lays out the great unravelling of the Catholic hierarchy’s understanding with American society which occurred in the 1960s, as social liberalism went far beyond what even the most progressive Roman Catholic intellectuals were ready to countenance. And in this cultural revolution Catholics were shocked to find that their Jewish allies made common cause with mainline Protestants and post-Protestants.

The reason I am writing this is that the American landscape today is different in deep ways from that of the 19th and early 20th century. The lessons of Catholic and Jewish assimilation to a Protestant understanding of religion were achieved through bitter conflict, and the rejection of a corporatist accommodation between the American government and religious minorities, as was achieved in several European countries. The modern ideas of religious pluralism are fundamentally different from the explicit understanding of Protestant supremacy which ruled the day a century ago, and only slowly faded with assimilation of non-Protestants.

June 24, 2017

The pork episode of Master of None

Filed under: Aziz Ansari,Religion — Razib Khan @ 7:14 pm


The Aerogram has a piece out, Bacon & (Un)Belief: Religion & American Secularism in Master of None, which reviews The Master of None episode about religion. I kind of agree that it was a little unbelievable in relation to his cousin, and how quickly he became a porkoholic.

That being said I think it is important to note a personal aspect of Aziz Ansari’s relationship to religion. Here’s a correction to an article in The New York Times profiling Aziz:

In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.

Aziz Ansari does not define himself from what I can tell as a bad or liberal Muslim. He says he’s not religious. He happens to be a guy who is an atheist, a very negatively viewed group, who is from a Muslim background a very negatively viewed group. That is one way we have a lot in common.

Also, I had a bacon experience very similar to Aziz. Though in my case it was at a friend’s house where they were Hindus from West Bengal, and my friend was having bacon. My mom came over and I had a piece of bacon in my mouth. She was a little chagrined though she said I’m not supposed to eat pork products.

In general I still don’t eat much pork and ham. But I really love bacon, and have no problem with pork sausages.

June 11, 2017

Sarah Haider on Sam Harris’ show

Filed under: Religion,Sarah Haider — Razib Khan @ 11:55 am

In general I would recommend listening to everything Sarah has to say. She’s speaking for a lot of people. Also see what she has to say about free expression:

June 5, 2017

The issue is how you experience Islam

Filed under: Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:44 pm

Sadiq Khan: This sickening act has nothing to do with the Islam I know: To murder innocent people, especially during Ramadan, is a rejection of the true values of my religion. Since religion is made up I’ll take Khan’s assertion at face value and not dispute them.

The aspect that people like Khan are not emphasizing when they talk about violence having nothing to do with Islam is that most people are not Muslims, and most people (in the West) do not know Muslims in their personal life. So terrorist acts are quite salient as a representation of the religion when that’s the only time it comes to mind in a visceral sense.

This may not be fair to practitioners, but this is how human cognition works. As an analogy, there is a lot of diversity and range of experience for what it means to be an evangelical white Protestant. But for many young secular liberals the salient aspect of this religious movement is its attitude toward abortion and gays. All the charitable giving, or the incredible personal experience of redemption and reform of white evangelical Protestants, is not relevant in a broader social context to most people because these are two policy positions which are salient and distinctive.

Obviously for most Muslims their religion pervades their life, and most of their associations with the religion have to do with family and community. But non-Muslims are not generally part of this world, so it is not a major element of their perception of the religion in a concrete sense. So one strategy for disassociating Islam and violence would be further integration, so that more and more non-Muslims can experience the whole range of the religion. And yet even here it isn’t as if Muslim experiences are distinctive from other religions.

This does not address the elephant: Islam today as a religious civilization is in ferment and change, and a non-trivial element does engage in violent habitually, against other Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

Consider the lives of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan. The majority of Pakistanis would not condone attacks upon these communities, but a motivated minority of the Muslim majority are clearly targeting this two groups for persecution. From the perspective of non-Muslims in Pakistan it is the actions of the minority who are violent toward them that really matters, because their lives are on the line.

There are so simple answers here. Though in the public realm stylized simplicity dominates. That too is a human cognitive bias….

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