Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

June 8, 2019

To understand Islam one must understand religion

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:09 pm

Over the last few months, the traffic on this website has increased. The proportion of pageviews from India is now approaching parity with the proportion from the USA. To me, this suggests that perhaps it would be useful to outline a few things anyone who has read me in the past would probably know, but new readers will not know. I am in particular aiming this post to moderately above average intelligence readers, such as “Scorpion Eater.” Someone used to being the “smartest person in the room” due to the normal mediocre company of the unread or dull. The sort of person who leaves long comments on other peoples’ posts or articles. There’s a reason they aren’t writing anything original themselves.

In addition to being moderately intelligent, I also want to target the “internet Hindu” segment of the audience. I don’t mean the term pejoratively here, but more as a bracket for a wide range of people of different stances. One of the strangest things about internet Hindus in my experience is that:

1) They, like many Muslims, believe Islam is a religion of preternatural characteristics

2) Despite not being Muslim, and often hostile to Islam, they are convinced they know all about Muslims and Islam, even better than people who might be Muslim or of Muslim origin. They can get themselves inside the minds of Muslims

An analogy might be talking to a white nationalist who is convinced of the unique prowess of black people and seems inordinately confident that they know more about black history than black people themselves.

One thing that both internet Hindus and many atheists have in common is they lack a good intuitive feel for the phenomenology of religion. An internet Hindu or a village atheist will respond to the question of “what is Islam” with “read the Koran!”

I was myself a typical village atheist, or more precisely a philosophical atheist (I had read books like Atheism: a philosophical justification and The Case Against God) in 2003 when I read Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: An Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Atran is a cognitive anthropologist, who treats religion as a natural phenomenon. He is part of the “naturalistic paradigm” within anthropology. A small group of scholars, these intellectuals bring a multi-disciplinary framework to analyzing human cultures, with a strong theoretical basis in cognitive science and evolutionary biology. This is in contrast to the more common “thick description” that is the norm in much of modern anthropology,  which offers few broad generalities (or a Marxist viewpoint, which offers the same generality).

In Gods We Trust is a very dense book. Religion Explained is a similar work but written a bit more accessibly for the lay audience. But you get the picture.

What is the biggest takeaway from cognitive anthropology and religion? That religious phenomenon can best be understood as a manifestation of common psychological intuitions. The reduction of religion to complex theologies is to a great extent a propagandistic narrative promoted by religious professionals, who have written the histories of religion for the past 2,500 years. Those who exhibit mastery of texts, and dispense ritual, will naturally reduce religion to texts and rituals. That’s what they control.

But the underlying psychological impulses remain. This explains why “atheistic” Communist societies so often develop personality cults of charismatic leaders. The religious impulse is simply projected upon a different target.  Strip away the books and the incense, and the human mind still has as the basic fundaments of the religious phenotype.

How does this apply to Islam? In the book Theological Incorrectness, the anthropologist D. Jason Slone reports on his fieldwork in Sri Lanka amongst Theravada Buddhists,  Hindus, and  Muslims. Using psychological experiments, which remove participants from easy to comprehend cues and scripts, he showed that all three religious groups had the same conception of god(s). This is interesting, because, in theory, Hinduism and Islam have different conceptions of gods, while Theravada Buddhism deemphasizes gods.

One reaction to these findings, which tend to be cross-cultural (that is, humans tend to have the same conceptual framework for a god despite theological distinctions), is that believers misunderstand their religion.  I think a better interpretation is that religion can be thought of as two tracks, a conscious verbal track, which is quite superficial, and a deep cognitive track, which is harder to elucidate but primal and universal.

To illustrate, most Christians believe in a Trinitarian God, three persons with one substance. But this is really just a verbal script.  Most Christians don’t even know the technical philosophy of substances and essences which serve as the basis for the Trinity.

All of this brings me back to Islam and the internet Hindu. Muslims are wont to promote a story of a miracle in the Arabian desert 1,400 years ago, and the emergence of the armies of Islam from that desert with Koran in hand. Soon they accomplished a conquest of Persia and much of the Roman Empire.  This incredibly violent and organized religion then smashed against India and raped and assaulted the Hindu civilization. Finally, the assault ended, and India recovered,  though Islam is still a specter haunting South Asia.

I have a revisionist take. I think the most probable model is one where Islam developed organically in the 7th and 8th centuries after the conquest of the Arabs. The Arabs were probably something close to what we’d recognize as heretical Christians but developed Islam to separate and elevate themselves from their subjects. More precisely, Sunni Islam cannot be understood until deep into the 9th century, after the Mu’tazilite period, and the rise of law as the dominant tradition with the Islamic sciences.

The Koran cannot explain Islam because most Muslims were and are illiterate in the Arabic of the Koran, and Islam itself did not develop in its full form until well after various elements of the Koran had already come into being. The weakness of scripture in predicting religion can be illustrated by the fact that the Hebrew Bible is more violent than the Koran,  but Jews have been relatively pacific since the 2nd century A.D. (the reality of two failed rebellions left its mark on Jewish memory).

Of course, Muslim fundamentalists will tell you this is nonsense. That their religion is all about the Koran. That it’s a special religion.   And the internet Hindu agrees.  It is special (though in their case not a “good” way).

I am skeptical of that. I agree with Samuel Huntington’s empirical observation that “Islam has bloody borders.” At least today. But I would offer caution on chalking it up to something primal. In 1900 we might be wondering about in Jesus Christ’s message made it so that Christianity was an imperial religion of world domination and hegemony. Today we would laugh at that.

Note: I’m usually pretty lax about moderation on this blog, but if you are stupid, and you probably are, I will like trash your comment.  This post exists mostly to familiarize people with books.

May 27, 2019

How Indians invented the universal religion

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:24 am

One of my favorite podcasts is Two for Tea, which tends toward “centrist-edgelordism”. The latest guest is, Armin Navabi, who I have nicknamed the Ayatollah. Armin is literally one of the most logical people I have ever known of, at least in the domain of those who are not visibly already extremely at one end of the spectrum. His views on religion come from this rationalist perspective, and that is where I part ways with him because I don’t see rationality as powerful a force as he does in shaping human behavior.

But in this post, I want to disagree with something Armin said in relation to the history of religion: that universalism and post-tribal religion was invented by Christianity and the Abrahamic tradition. This is clearly false.

From Ashoka’s Edict 13, put down in the 3rd century before Christ:

Now, it is the conquest by the Dharma that the Beloved of the Gods considers as the best conquest. And this one (the conquest by the Dharma) was won here, on the borders, and even 600 yojanas (leagues) from here, where the king Antiochos reigns, and beyond where reign the four kings Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander, likewise in the south, where live the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni.

The usual interpretation is that Ashoka was a partisan of the Buddhist school. But whether he or wasn’t (some revisionists claim that the Buddhists coopted him), the fact is that Ashoka was involved in the proselytizing of Indian religious views to non-Indians. This gave rise in the subsequent generations to Indo-Greek kings, such as Menander, who seem to have patronized Buddhism. Again, revisionists might suggest that Menander was not a Buddhist himself, and what did it mean to be Buddhist anyway in the 2nd century B.C.? But, we know that Buddhism arrived in China in the 1st century A.D., almost certainly from Central Asia.

My overall point is that even before the death of Jesus Christ (assuming someone who fit that general description lived, which is the majority consensus), Buddhism was already an international religion. By the time of the birth of Christ, it was probably as important a cultural force in Central Asia, among Iranian-speaking peoples, as it was in India.

This post though is not to engage in “but everything was invented in India!” To be honest, I think the emergence of Buddhism and Christianity as portable universal religions was probably somewhat inevitable in Eurasia during the Iron Age. I don’t discredit the idea that some forms of Buddhism may have had an influence on early Christianity, as the Persian Church was coextensive with a large population of Buddhists in Central Asia, and before the identification of Christianity with the Roman Empire in the 4th century arguably Persia was more congenial to the religion. But the cross-fertilization of religious ideas occurred in many directions.

But, I do wonder at the emergence of universalism within India in particular, because this is a region now renowned for its acceptance of particularism. Buddhism was one of many religious and philosophical movements that rebelled against the traditional religious structures and beliefs of India, which eventually gave rise to Hinduism. The genetic record seems to suggest that jati (caste) and ethno-social segregation has a deep history in South Asia.  Perhaps then a universal religion like Buddhism developed early within India due to a Hegelian dialectical process.

Universalism as an ideology takes root where it is most needed to counter-act ideologies of particularism?

May 16, 2019

Religion and science, a foggy battlefield

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 9:22 pm

One of the similar responses from very different camps to my National Review piece on evolution was that I was wrong to assert evolutionary biology doesn’t have atheistic implications. This perspective came from both some religious evolution skeptics and from atheists who agree with Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.

My own view on this isn’t exactly subtle, but, it’s kind of muddled and has a few moving parts.

First, I am an atheist and have been self-conscious as an atheist since I was eight. Before the age of eight, I didn’t identify as an atheist, but with hindsight, it is clear to me that my views on God were primitive to nonexistent. I may have averred to you that I was a believer in Allah, but compared to the vast majority of people who would say such a thing Allah was not real to me as a person who really operates in this universe. Allah was an abstraction. And one of little deep interest to me.

Therefore,  I can say that my understanding of evolution has no implication for my atheism in its origin because I was an atheist long before I understood evolution. That’s just an empirical fact. It is also an empirical fact that there are a reasonable number of evolutionary biologists who hold various religious viewpoints. To my knowledge, there are no Protestant fundamentalist evolutionary biologists, as that’s a logical contradiction, but there are very diverse viewpoints excluding this.

These people are real, and I can’t deny their existence. Just as my atheism predated my understanding of evolution, their understanding of evolution did not necessarily result in a diminishment of their religion (though perhaps it modified it in some way).

Of course, these people could be logically wrong. And I think that’s what the religious evolution skeptics and fundamentalists of various sorts agree on. There are several issues with this. I think it misunderstands what religion as a phenomenon is: it’s not about a logical set of propositions. Even Aquinas’ effort is not airtight, and many are not convinced by Alvin Plantinga’s modern attempts utilizing modal logic. Religion is vague and amorphous enough as a phenomenon that I think it will always slip away from any formal refutation.

I am not here proposing ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. There are plenty of ways in which religion seems to intrude into domains of science or domains which can be scientifically informed. It’s just that religion is not a clear and distinct entity. And to be frank neither is science. Just as religion is often falsely reduced to a creed, so science is falsely reduced to a method. I do not believe there is an ‘out-of-the-box’ method that determines science. Rather, it is an outlook, sensibility, and culture, which iteratively attempts to explore patterns in the world around us and explain them.

Personally, I do think the scientific sensibility does lean one to a position of being skeptical of religious explanations. But this is more an intuition rather than a deduction. I don’t think science ‘disproves’ religion any more than religion ‘disproves’ science.

In the piece above I wanted to set aside my own personal views, which are tentative and inchoate, and simply observe that many scientists disagree with them in relation to their faith and their practice. The reality is that there are many great evolutionary biologists who are religious, and I have no issue with that. At this point in my life, I’m not too concerned that someone somewhere is wrong. I’d rather just learn things.

Note: I’ve been writing since 2002. I’ve probably held this sort of view since 2004 or so. I have probably written it before, but at this point, I guess I need to rewrite it. Also, I appreciate the “New Atheists” in their consistency, though I disagree with some of their assumptions about human psychology.

May 5, 2019

Rumbles in religion and cultural evolution

Filed under: History,Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:28 am

A few months ago I posted Society Creates God, God Does Not Create Society, which was a write-up of a paper in Nature, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history. The study was of interest to me because it seemed to test the hypothesis and argument presented in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Their conclusion using the Seshat historical database was in the negative in relation to the hypothesis. That is, big societies gave rise to big gods, big gods did not seem to give rise to big societies.

Now a different group of researchers, some of them associated with the model of big gods leading to big societies, have shot back with an intense critique of the paper in preprint form, Corrected analyses show that moralizing gods precede complex societies but serious data concerns remain.

There seem to two critical issues that these authors want to highlight: problems in analysis, and problems in the underlying data. In terms of the analysis, the authors suggest that because the Seshat database relies on written evidence it is going to be biased toward more recent dates because writing tends to be found later in social development and complexity. They reanalyzed the data by pushing the emergence of big gods back by a century and found the direction of the effect reverse. In other words, they are saying that the result was not robust. A second issue that impacted the analysis is that the authors of the preprint assert that since so many missing values from preliterate societies were recoded as an absence of big gods what the results are showing is a negative correlation of missing entries with complex societies.

A second broader issue seems to be a suggestion that Seshat itself is riddled with too many errors to be reliable.

As someone deeply interested in the scientific question I don’t have a strong opinion as to what’s going on here (though I am probably a bit skeptical of the idea that Seshat is without much value considering the time and effort I know Peter Turchin and his collaborators have put into it). Feelings seem to be getting heated online, but I’m hoping that open-science will win in the end.

Peter Turchin and Patrick Savage have put up preliminary responses. No doubt there will be more back and forth. But one major improvement over many historical discussions is that this is playing out transparently through data analyses, then the standard “historian here, let me assert my expertise here to shut you down….” (a lot of historians on Twitter behave in a mendacious manner in my opinion, because I often know enough about many historical topics to see exactly how they are laundering their credentials to support sophistry in a manner that is opaque to their trusting audience).

April 14, 2019

Indian Muslims are more latitudinarian than Pakistani Muslims

Filed under: data,Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:13 pm

There is a lot of talk on this weblog. Probably because this is South Asian focus, and we tend to be a loquacious people on the whole (some more than others). But I decided to look in the World Values Survey in regards to the question of whether believers believed their religion was the only acceptable religion.

Before some of you ask about methods and cross-tabs, the website has a late 1990s interface. You too can use it and look up facts!

(also, Hindu intolerance surprised me a bit, though not too much)


March 20, 2019

Society creates god, god does not create society

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:30 pm

Several years ago I read Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. This was after a long hiatus from reading about the topic of religion from a broad evolutionary perspective. In the 2000s, I read Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and A Theory of Religion, to name a few works. These are all very different treatments of religious phenomena, from an evolutionary, cognitive, and economic, perspective respectively. But, they are united by examining religious as a ‘natural’ process, and culture as a reducible and analyzable phenomenon.

This is distinct from what you’d find in “Religious Studies”, a field with a more humanistic and historical perspective. Some of the early practitioners in this field, such as Mircea Eliade, were influenced by perennialism, so the epistemological stance tends to differ from the more positivist and scientific frameworks above.

Several years ago I began to look again at the scientific study of religion due to the work of Ara Norenzayan. He seemed to be fusing the evolutionary and cognitive perspective so as to inform how religion might be adaptively useful on a cultural level through co-option of mental mechanisms. Though not rejecting adaptationism, most cognitive anthropologists did not talk much about selective value of religious phenomena, as opposed the psychological mechanistic origins of supernatural intuitions.

Big Gods was a step forward. The thesis was simple: moralistic high gods were major additions to the prosocial toolkit of humans, allowing for the emergence of complex polities beyond the level of the clan. There were two major ways in which Norenzayan tested this hypothesis. The first was experimentally, by showing that priming subjects with “agents” they were less likely to behave unethically. That is, you didn’t do wrong because an ethical supernatural judge was always watching. The second method was using historical methods looking at the changes across societies over the past 10,000 years. Here there were suggestions that “big gods” preceded the rise of social complexity.

I have expressed some skepticism about the priming research in light of the “replication crisis” in psychology. Now it looks like the second path of analysis may provide different results than Norenzayan’s original thesis. A research group using a large dataset have found that complex societies give rise to moralistic high gods, moralistic high gods don’t give rise to complex societies. Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history:

The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles…The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies…Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity…the relationship between the two is disputed…and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions…powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations…generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

The second figure from the paper shows the general trend:

In the first panel you see that social complexity rises, and as it plateaus moralizing gods show up. The second panel shows the distribution of time difference between the emergence of the plateau and moralistic gods across their data set. What’s striking is how soon moralizing gods shows up after the spike in social complexity.

In the ancient world, early Christian writers explicitly asserted that it was not a coincidence that their savior arrived with the rise of the Roman Empire. They contended that a universal religion, Christianity, required a universal empire, Rome. There are two ways you can look at this. First, that the causal arrow is such that social complexity leads to moralizing gods, and that’s that. The former is a necessary condition for the latter. Second, one could suggest that moralizing gods are a cultural adaptation to large complex societies, one of many, that dampen instability and allow for the persistence of those societies. That is, social complexity leads to moralistic gods, who maintain and sustain social complexity. To be frank, I suspect the answer will be closer to the second. But we’ll see.

Another result that was not anticipated I suspect is that ritual religion emerged before moralizing gods. In other words, instead of “Big Gods,” it might be “Big Rules.” With hindsight, I don’t think this is coincidental since cohesive generalizable rules are probably essential for social complexity and winning in inter-group competition. It’s not a surprise that legal codes emerge first in Mesopotamia, where you had the world’s first anonymous urban societies. And rituals lend themselves to mass social movements in public to bind groups. I think it will turn out that moralizing gods were grafted on top of these general rulesets, which allow for coordination, cooperation, and cohesion, so as to increase their import and solidify their necessity due to the connection with supernatural agents, which personalize the sets of rules from on high.

February 2, 2019

The religious and genetic structure of Bengal & Partition

Filed under: Genetics,Partition,Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:54 pm

I was emailing with a friend of mine about population genetic history and Southeast Asia. I mentioned offhand that there is an east to west cline of Tibeto-Burman ancestry in Bengal. He expressed surprise, assuming Partition had scrambled everything.

As most readers of this weblog know, Partition was less traumatic for Bengal than it was for Punjab. The violence was less extreme, and the population movement also not as massive. And yet looking at the religious map it is clear that some sorting has occurred. The proportion of Hindus in the region that is now Bangladesh has gone from ~25% to about 10% over the past 70 years, or three generations. Though some of this is due to differences in fertility, the main driver has been migration of Hindus out of East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. In contrast, there has not been much of a reciprocal migration of Muslims into Bangladesh.

This results in a peculiarity when I receive genotypes from people of Bengali origin: a large minority of people of Hindu background mention that one or both of their parents have origins in eastern Bengal, what is not Bangladesh. In contrast, I have never received a gentoype from someone who tells me that their family migrated from western Bengal into Bangladesh.

The genetic consequence is simple: there is a larger variance of East Asian ancestry in West Bengal than East Bengal because of more mixing in the west than the east. In contrast, one could probably infer the extent of the migration simply by doing genetic analysis and not looking at Census data!

January 6, 2019

The variation in religion and our evolutionary history

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 3:13 am
As my post on intelligence was quite successful, I thought perhaps I would offer up something similar on religion, since that’s a topic where I have been giving opinions based on fragments of my own views for some time. The point in this post is to unpack the general set of ideas and frameworks that […]

December 13, 2018

A pagan psychology does not a pagan society make

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:14 am

Ross Douthat has a column in The New York Times, The Return of Paganism: Maybe there actually is a genuinely post-Christian future for America. He concludes:

That embarrassment may not last forever; perhaps a prophet of a new harmonized paganism is waiting in the wings. Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

Thirteen years ago I also stumbled in such an inchoate direction in a post, A Prayer For The Emperor. Douthat in fact linked to this post from his perch at The American Scene, though he may not recall it.

I think Douthat is making a distinction implicitly in The New York Times column between a pagan psychology, which bubbles up out of human innate cognitive architecture, and a pagan religious society, which takes the cognitive froth and reshapes it into collective ritual and belief.

Human intuitions regarding the supernatural seem to be fundamentally animistic. We imbue places and animals with spirit. In general, I agree with the scholars who argue that this is an outcome of “overactive agency detection.” A world filled with the illusion of life and danger may induce more stress and anxiety, but in the Darwinian context, excessive vigilance is a virtue, not a vice.

“Religion nerds” like Douthat and Rod Dreher actually have a fair amount in common in their assumptions and cognitive style with hyper-rational atheists such as Armin Navabi (Navabi comes out of a “religion nerd” background). As Roman Catholic Christians Douthat and Dreher must give a nod to the mystical, and Dreher, in particular, has asserted the importance of the sensory in reawakening his religious faith. But both scaffold, channel and discipline their supernatural intuitions into very precise streams. Similarly, Navabi’s understanding of religion is as a system.

One of the elements of the religious systems developed over the past 3,000 years in complex societies characterized by specialization, and the emergence of a literate ruling class (or at least a ruling class which makes recourse to a literate caste), is that animistic and spirit-soaked component of religion has receded. Some intellectual historians have argued that the atheism of early modern Europe can be understood as the logical conclusion of a rationalist streak within Reformed Protestantism, which reduced the supernatural singularly to God and his host. Whereas other forms of Christianity perceived the world as filled with false gods who were faces of genuine demons, the rationalist form of Reformed Protestantism dismissed false gods as human inventions. This diminution of the supernatural then might lead one to the next logical step, banishing even God from the universe!

I do not think this was a special event in world history. We are all aware that the same tendency was pregnant within Hinduism, Buddhism, and in Chinese societies, with certain sects and factions pushing toward atheism and materialism. In the world of early Islam skeptics also existed, often drawing from the older traditions of the Classical World. Strangely, it is in the European Christian world that the supernatural-skeptical tradition was mostly absent. One might suppose this might have something to do with near monopoly of the religious class on intellectual activity in Western Europe for many centuries. Those who were personally skeptical likely kept that to themselves due to their vocation.

But these currents have always floated above the populace, whose practice and beliefs were much more demotic. The existence of religious reform and revival, and zealous cults, within most societies is due in large part to the deviationism that characterizes the religious sentiments of the populace at large. Though the mythos, ritual, and panoply of the great religions attract the people to them, the reality is that all these could exist without the formal and rationalist element which is necessitated by the systematizing tendencies of the intelligentsia.

What we see in the decline of the customary Christian sects and denominations in American society is in some ways a loss of the power of cultural elites. Arguably this period of the dominance of several forms of Christianity was itself a temporary period, with the early republic characterized by a large proportion of unchurched and free-thinkers, as well as a plethora of radical sects. The decades after World War II were an exception, which we took to be the new normal.

The broader decline in trust in institutions, the popularization of culture, and the disdain toward elites, has manifested now a turning away from organized religion. But the populace still wants to believe, and in their hearts they have deep and strong intuitions about the universe. Whether the universe has purpose, it feels like it has purpose. Individuals and subcultures develop ad hoc beliefs and practices to channel these feelings and sentiments, but there is no broad social system or identity to bind them together into a formal whole.

A “harmonized paganism”, as Douthat may say, may not manifest because a it needs a harmonious society, and that is not something we have. State paganism needs a powerful state with a self-confident elite culture. State paganism needs an Emperor, to be the axis mundi between Heaven and Earth. Elite Western Christianity is collapsing, but it being replaced popular paganism, and that is because elite high culture no longer has the prestige it once did, and all is demotic. The ancient world was not a mass society, it was a culture defined by rules, and bound by ritual. The consumer society is driven bottom-up decision making, the impulse of the mob.

What we are seeing is the reemergence of hunter-gatherer animism writ large.

December 5, 2018

Criticizing Islam is turned into “hate speech” on Facebook

Filed under: Islam,Religion — David Hume @ 11:49 pm

Obviously, this isn’t happening to everyone who criticizes Islam. But someone like Abdullah Sameer is getting popular, and he’s a pretty attractive face for apostasy from Islam. He was until recently a rather conservative Muslim himself. He’s the person you need to shut up if you want to retain Muslims.

As he notes manipulating Facebook isn’t that hard for motivated individuals. And the platform has billions of people on it. Hundreds of millions at least are Muslim. For Muslims traditionally apostasy has been a serious crime, analogous to treason. Which is why the customary punishment (albeit often not enforced) is death.

Sameer speaking in a way that makes it obvious he’s not crazy is really the problem from this perspective. So they shut him down by any means necessary. From a Muslim perspective, he’s dragging people down to hell. And Facebook isn’t the public square, they’re a massive corporation that needs to make governments and diverse cultures happy. Though obviously, Facebook doesn’t necessarily support blasphemy laws, it’s probably not a high priority to clamp down on this sort of coordinated behavior. After all, who is going to complain?

People who are passionate ex-Muslims are a small and marginal group. Muslims are a huge group. As for progressives, it’s much more important to throw a shit-fit over something Richard Dawkins says (without any knowledge of what the call to prayer is actually saying), than put the spotlight on this sort of illiberal behavior and the culture from which it emerges. Such are the wages of “allyship.”

September 29, 2018

Muslims are not a People of the Book

Filed under: Cognitive Science,Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:29 pm

Recently I became a patron of the Secular Jihadists podcast. Ten years ago this wouldn’t be a big deal, but as a “grown-up” with three kids I’m much more careful to where I expend my discretionary income. So take that as a stronger endorsement than usual. I think Secular Jihadists is offering a nonsubstitutable good today. By which I mean a robust, but not cliched or hackneyed, critique of the religion of Islam. For various reasons the modern-day cultural Left has become operationally Islamophilic in public, while the political Right isn’t really too concerned with details of fact and nuance when they level critiques against Islam.

On this week’s episode, the hosts talked about the life of Muhammad, focusing some of the rather unpalatable aspects of his biographies as they’ve been passed down in tradition (in the Hadiths), or as can be found in the Koran. Armin Navabi points out that the prophet of Islam married Safiyya bint Huyeiy Ibn Akhtab on the day her father and husband were killed by his forces. Therefore Navabi’s interpretation, which is entirely in keeping with our modern values, is that Muhammad raped a woman on the day her father and husband were killed.

Of course, this behavior is not shocking in the pre-modern world. In the Illiad Hector’s widow, Andromache, eventually becomes the concubine of Neoptolemus. He is the son of Achilles, who killed Hector. And, in many traditions, Neoptolemus is the one who kills Andromache’s infant son by Hector, Astyanax. Eventually, the son of Neoptolemus by Andromache inherits his kingdom.

Obviously, the Illiad plays things up for drama, but I think it correctly reflects the values of a pre-modern tribal society. One of my favorite books is Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. Like the Illiad, the Hebrew Bible has within in stories that reflect values of pre-modern societies very different from ours. Moses, like Muhammad, was a military and political leader as well as a religious prophet, and so it is entirely unsurprising that he was a participant in and director of what we would today term war crimes.

The question from the perspective of the hosts of the Secular Jihadists podcast is how Muslims will react to the fact that in the Koran itself, which most Muslims take to be the literal recitation of the words of God through Muhammad, documents the founder of the religion engaging in sex and war crimes. I think the truth though is that most Muslims won’t be very impacted by these revelations, because for most Muslims Islam is not reducible to the revelation within the Koran.

“Higher religions” tend to have scriptures and texts which serve as the scaffold for their intellectual superstructure. But most people who believe in these religions never read these texts. That’s because most people don’t read much, period. The organized institutional and multi-ethnic religions which have emerged over the last 3,000 years have a complex division of labor among the producers of religious “goods and services”, as well as among the consumers and identifiers. A minority are highly intellectualized, and these are the types who will record the history of the religion.

Nearly 2,000 years after his death we know a great deal about the life and times, and ideas, of the great Christian theologian Origen. We know far less about the life and times of the average believer. But I believe that the structure, organization, and folkways of the Christian church in the first half of the 3rd century were arguably far more instrumental in the religion’s success in the 4th century than the particular philosophical arguments which Origen so brilliantly expounded.

Of course from the perspective of many nonbelievers, this seems perverse. Islam, for one, makes a book the very foundation of the religion. And yet ultimately religion persists not because of specific books and beliefs, but general intuitions and cultural phenomena which are evoked by those intuitions. Many people have strong intuitions about “how the world works.” The beliefs of some indigenous tribes about the role of animistic forces may seem bizarre and strange in the particularity, but in the generality, they are totally comprehensible.

Within Islam, it is commonly asserted that Muhammad was the perfect human being. Ergo, a perfect model of how to behave. Additionally, most Muslims accept that the Koran is a literal and straightforward rendering of the facts of Muhammad’s life. The logical implication of this is that the perfect human being had no compunction making use of sex slaves.

But I think a focus on logic misses the mark in understanding most human cultural phenomena, which have cognitive roots. Our reasoning faculties are slow and faulty. Other aspects of our psychology, often habitual, rule our day to day lives. Of course this varies by person to person. Perhaps the greatest lesson we need to take from the last generation of cognitive science is that those who live by ratiocination more than reflex are a very small and peculiar minority, no matter how they unconsciously rewrite history (because they’re the ones doing the writing).

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.

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