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

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.

January 6, 2011

How America is a little like Pakistan

Recently a “hot story” in the barbaric nation that is Pakistan is that a politician did not know how to recite a prayer properly. An important back story here is that Muslims generally pray in Arabic, but most Muslims are not Arabic language speakers (and in any case, colloquial Arabic is very different from “Classical Arabic” which is derived from the language of the Koran). So deviation from appropriate pronunciation is a major problem for Muslims as a practical matter. And, since the words one recites in ritual prayer are derived from the Koran they are the literal Word of God as transmitted to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. Proper delivery is of the essence (and for your information, I can still bust out sura Fatiha, thank you very much).

But the major point illustrated by the incident is the importance of public piety in Pakistan. The father of the nation of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was so Westernized that he had to have mullahs prep him on how to recite lines of the Koran during speeches. He was himself from a heretical Muslim sect (heretical in the eyes of the Sunni majority at least), the Ismailis, and married a woman of Zoroastrian background. Like much of the Pakistani elite today and upper class men of the British Empire during that period Jinnah had a soft spot for various liquors. Pakistan has come a long way from those days, re-branding itself as an extremist nation par excellence. The “moderates” may be the majority, but they are not moved to place themselves between the extremists and their victims.

And this brings me to the USA. How is it like Pakistan? We’ve also have come a long way since the Founding in terms of the respectable “orthodoxy” which we demand of our politicians. A new Pew survey on religion in Congress puts this into stark relief:

Perhaps the greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated – those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” According to information gathered by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum, no members of Congress say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth of U.S. adults (16%) are not affiliated with any particular faith. Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation, which is similar to the percentage of the public that says they don’t know or refuses to specify their faith.

Barack Hussein Obama, a man who believes in evolution more than angels, has to constantly tout his Christian faith. This, during a period of American history witnessing massive increases in secularity. What a change this is! Of the early American presidents the first six were arguably not orthodox Christians, as defined by an acceptance of the Nicene Creed. Andrew Jackson, the first conventional Christian president, refused to set aside a day of prayer, in deference to the strict church-state separation advocated by the Democratic party of the era, and derived from Thomas Jefferson’s position. As for Jefferson himself, he was a man who expressed profound personal skepticism of the religious truth claims of his era, going so far as to bowdlerize the Bible, removing most of the supernatural incidents. He was also associated with the equivalent of New Atheists during the late Enlightenment. Radical anti-clericalists such as Thomas Paine, who he invited to the United States in 1802 during his presidency. Can you imagine an American president admitting friendship with Richard Dawkins today?

But that’s the surface. Like Andrew Sullivan I assume that many non-believers in politics are “in the closet.” But how many? The Pew survey correctly notes that around 16% of Americans are not affiliated with any religion. So if Congress was representative, you’d have 16% unaffiliated. But Congress isn’t representative. I found educational data from the 111th Congress, and calculated like so:

- 64% have graduate degrees

- 30% have undergraduate degrees

- 1% have some college

- 5% are high school graduates

Using the GSS you can see how belief in God and religion affiliation tracks education. Below are the proportions for the total sample and for liberals in the 2000s:

Less Than HS HS Some college College Grad
Atheist 2 2.5 2 3 4
Agnostic 3 4 3 7 9
None 15 15 13 15 18
Less Than HS HS Some college College Grad
Atheist 2 5 4 6 7
Agnostic 7 5 6 17 12
None 16 23 26 32 30

Weighting Congress by education, I get the following values:

Predicated All
Atheist 4
Agnostic 8
None 17
Predicated Liberals
Atheist 7
Agnostic 13
None 30

This is almost certainly an underestimate.  Most of the people with graduate educations in Congress have finished a professional degree. They’re lawyers. The “graduate” category in the GSS is a catchall, and is likely not as elite. Additionally, a more fine-grained analysis would take into account the university which individuals graduated from. Elite universities tend to have very secular student bodies. You can also drill-down to a more a fine-grained scale. Over 30% of Jews in the GSS with graduate educations are atheists or agnostics. I am willing to believe that most of the Jews in Congress are not deep believers in HaShem.

What one could really do is create some sort of regression model with demographic inputs which would predict the odds of someone being an atheist or irreligious. The data from Congress is there to input after we’ve see how the independent variables predict the outcome in the general population.

Of course, I agree that it is insane for a politician to come out as an atheist. There is simply no win in this; many people would be turned off, at the gain of few voters. Around half of Americans admit to simply not being willing to vote for an atheist as president.

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