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

October 9, 2017

The four modes of atheism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 1, 2017

Female Genital Mutilation IS a Muslim Issue. And, it’s a Medical Issue. And, it’s an African Issue. And, it’s a Human Rights Issue.


Slate has put up an extremely misleading article up, Female Genital Mutilation Isn’t a Muslim Issue. It’s a Medical Issue.

Articles such as the one above are why people end up eventually not believing the media at all. First, a few minutes of Googling will show that female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision is not simply an issue related to African culture, and does have some relationship to Islam. From the article:

…The ancient, barbaric practice originated in pre-Islamic Africa and has endured irrespective of the prevalent religion of the area. Today, it is primarily a cultural problem in central Africa, with Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt and Somalia on the list alongside Christian-majority ones such as Ethiopia and Eritrea. Though much lower in comparison to many African nations, the practice is also seen in Iraq and Yemen.

I do have to wonder if this is one case where liberal progressive concern for not seeming to be racist against Africans by imputing upon them barbaric cultural practices is trumped by their concern not to disparage Islam by its promotion of barbaric religious practices. As Oliver Scott Curry has shown, a simple scatter plot illuminates the correlation between Islam and FGM, even though the practice is found among plenty of non-Muslim Africans.

Additionally, the chart has a lacunae. Do you know the country with the largest number of women in the world who are the victims of FGM? Indonesia! (obviously, not an African country, just the world’s largest Muslim country, famed for its moderate practice of Islam) Why Indonesia?

In about fifteen seconds of Googling you’ll get to an article on Wikipedia which states that of the Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence the Shafi considers female circumcision obligatory. The Hanbali school considers the practice strongly encouraged, while the Hanafi and Maliki schools consider it preferred.

If you look at a map of where the Sunni schools are dominant you see that much of East Africa and all of Southeast Asia are Shafi. Take a look at the correlation between the Shafi school and FGM on the map above (it may not be totally accurate, so take it with a grain of salt; the map suggests FGM doesn’t happen in Malaysia, but this VICE article says there are surveys that 93 percent of Muslim women have been subject to some form of circumcision).

The writer of the Slate piece is an American Muslim doctor, not a religious scholar. His family is from Pakistan. Therefore, unless they were Dawoodi Bohra he would have no real knowledge of FGM. Though it is preferred in the historical Hanafi tradition dominant among South Asian Muslims, it rare to nonexistent among them today (and may always have been so, as the Hanafi tradition originally was popular among culturally very different Persians and Turks). I know this from personal experience, as I come from a family with many members who are professional ulema, and this was never a practice that they mentioned or alluded to (in contrast to male circumcision).

When I first began to hear about female circumcision (now usually referred to as FGM) in the media I accepted the line that it was a cultural practice, usually with African associations. I accepted that line because I didn’t know any better, and trusted the media to not lie, and my own Islamic background didn’t suggest that this was a necessary practice of the religion. But some discussions with people and using something called the internet quickly made it clear that I did not understand what it was to be Muslim in Indonesia, much of Africa, or among Iraqi Kurds.

A certain type of anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim thinker infers from the Quran all that is Islam. This is simply not a valid way to go about understanding the history of Muslims and their modern cultures. And yet you have the Muslim writer in Slate asserting “Further, there is no religious sanction for the procedure found in the Quran.” (actually, there is no sanction for the almost universal practice of male circumcision among Muslims in the Quran either)

This reference misunderstands how Islam and most Muslims have related to their religion historically. The Quran is not equivalent to the Christian Bible. Rather, it is more like the Hebrew Bible to Rabbinical Jews. It is a starting point, but not the ending point. Religious practice is more often dependent upon Hadith, Sunnah, and later commentaries by learned jurists, as well as interpretations by living jurists.

From the viewpoint of many Muslim Americans this is a ridiculous way to look at the religion. As an atheist I would assert descriptively that their view of Islam has mapped itself upon a phenomenology of religion which derives directly from American confessional Protestantism, but that’s a digression. For the vast majority of the world’s Muslim, observant or not, devout or not, the religion as transmitted and interpreted by the ulema through these extensive post-Quranic materials and subsequent commentaries is what serves as the intellectual superstructure for belief and practice. The wisdom of the ummah and ulema.

Does this mean that FGM is “uniquely Islamic”? Obviously it is not. As an atheist I don’t think there’s any real essence to a religion in any case. A religion is what people say a religion is. For whatever reason Shafi ulema have asserted that their interpretation of the Islamic religion is such that FGM is obligatory. The fact that over 90% of Muslim women in the 90% Muslim nation of Indonesia have been subject to FGM, and that it is a Shafi nation, is not a coincidence. Nor is it a cultural holdover form the pre-Islamic period. That Iraq Kurdish Muslims, who are Sunni and Shafi, and are the locus of FGM in that nation, is not a coincidence.

Despite the often historically positive comments in relation to FGM in other Sunni traditions, the prevalence of the practice is low to nonexistent in nations dominated by the other traditions. That does show that there is no determinative relationship, and traditions can be reinterpreted.

Additionally, among many Christian groups, and among non-Shafi Muslims, FGM is prevalent in Africa. Looking at the history of the Shafi school much of its jurisprudence was elaborated under the Mamluk Sultans of Cairo. FGM has a long history in Egypt, so without further researcher I have the suspicion that the strong emphasis on the practice within this school is a function of its history in this region of East Africa.

Overall, I think it is wrong to assert that FGM is necessarily or uniquely about Islam. But, it clearly may be sufficiently about Islam, and denying that many hundreds of millions of the worlds Muslims accept as authoritative religious rulings which enjoin the practice upon them as meritorious is simply promoting falsehood.

The claims made in the Slate piece come from a Kevin Drum piece which show that clearly Islam is not uniquely associated with FGM in Africa. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think this post has shown that there is some association between Islam and FGM. I don’t expect a Muslim American doctor to actually know about the historical details of why different schools of Islam law have different opinions…because Islamic law is pretty unimportant and trivial in America to most Muslims, who follow a few major orthopraxic norms (e.g., don’t drink, don’t eat pork, etc.). I do wish though that the editors at Slate had looked a bit more closely at this piece in a critical-rational manner.

But I don’t expect the media at this point to be critically rational about theses sorts of things. The conclusion was one which the editors were probably happy with, so they didn’t look too closely.  That’s fine. But some of their readers will spend more than five minutes on the factual questions.

Addendum: Unlike in Judaism, circumcision in Islam is not necessarily obligatory (among the Hanafi and Maliki is simply high preferred). As I note above it is not mentioned in the Quran. There probably wasn’t a need because all the peoples of Arabia were circumcised when the Quran was compiled.

Addendum II: Unlike the editors of Slate, and probably the Muslim American author above (who I assume spends more time fruitfully catching up on oncology journals rather than treatises on Islamic law), I knew off the top of my head the distribution of schools of Islamic law geographically, as well as the soft spot the Shafi had for FGM. So Indonesia did not surprise me at all.

But what do I know? I’m just a humble geneticist, not someone who went to j-school to learn how to report!

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