Big societies came before big gods

Some years ago I reviewed a book by Ara Norenzayan called Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict.  Norenzayan’s thesis was that it was a belief in big gods, specifically cosmic gods that cared about human morality, that enabled the creation of large scale human societies.

In small societies, reputation serves as an effective mechanism to keep anti-social behavior to a minimum.  If your entire world is a village with a few hundred people, and it gets around that you shirk duties, stiff friends out of their share of things, or generally are just an immoral person, you’ll eventually be ostracized, or worse, face vengeance from aggrieved parties.

However, as the size of society scales up, reputation increasingly loses its effectiveness.  If I can move between villages, towns, and settlements while scamming people, reputation may never have a chance to catch up.  New mechanisms are needed for cooperation in large scale societies.

Norenzayan’s theory is that one of those mechanisms were big gods, that is, deities worshipped by the overall society, deities that cared about how humans behaved toward one another.  These big gods are in contrast to the relatively small scale amoral spirits that hunter-gatherers typically worship.  The chances that I might act in a prosocial manner toward people in other towns is higher if I think there’s a supernatural cop looking over my shoulder, who will punish me for my immoral ways.

This theory, which puts religion in a crucial role in the formation of civilization, is somewhat at odds with the views of aggressive atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who see supernatural belief as largely a cognitive misfiring, a parasitic meme built on an adaptive over-interpretation of agency in the world, an intuition that once ensured we erred on the side of assuming the rustling in the brush is a predator instead of the wind.

Norenzayan’s conception of moralizing gods also contradicted the scholarly consensus that most gods in ancient religions did not in fact care about human behavior, at least other than receiving the correct libations.  This view, built largely on the lack of moral themes in ancient Greek and middle eastern mythologies, was that moralizing gods were a late addition that only arose during the Axial Age period around 800-300 BC.

The Seshat Project is an effort to add some rigor to these types of discussions by building a database of what is known about early societies.  The database tracks societies in various historical periods noting such things as whether there was a central state, the population, whether writing existed yet, science, common measurement standards, markets, soldiers, a bureaucracy, and whether moralizing high gods were worshiped.

Using the database, a recent study seems to show that big gods come after a society has scaled up to at least a million people, not before.

We analysed standardized Seshat data on social structure and religion for hundreds of societies throughout world history to test the relationship between moralizing gods and social complexity. We coded records for 414 societies spanning the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, based on 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. We found that belief in moralizing gods usually followed the rise of social complexity and tended to appear after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’, which correspond to populations greater than around one million people. We argue that a belief in moralizing gods was not a prerequisite for the expansion of complex human societies but may represent a cultural adaptation that is necessary to maintain cooperation in societies once they have exceeded a certain size. This may result from the need to subject diverse populations in multi-ethnic empires to a common higher-level power.

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My take on this is that while Norenzayan’s wasn’t entirely correct, moralizing gods were not necessary for civilization to develop, he appears to have been right that they are prevalent in developed societies, in contradiction of the long term scholarly consensus.

That said, I think some cautions are in order.  The Seshat database is undoubtedly a good thing, and will represent a major source of information for studying how societies developed.  But it’s worth noting that much of the information in the database comes down to the subjective judgment of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists.  To the credit of the project, it does everything it can to minimize this, but they can’t eliminate it entirely.

There’s also the oft quoted maxim that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence for absence.  The study authors do address this:

Is it possible that moralizing gods actually caused the initial expansion of complexity but you just couldn’t capture that until societies became complex enough to develop writing?

Although we cannot completely rule out this possibility, the fact that written records preceded the development of moralizing gods in the majority of the regions we analysed (by an average period of 400 years)—combined with the fact that evidence for moralizing gods is lacking in the majority of non-literate societies— suggests that such beliefs were not widespread before the invention of writing.

Their position would be stronger if there was writing showing that small scale spirits were still being worshiped during the scale up.  The difficulty here is that no society seems to write down their mythologies in the first few centuries after developing writing.  Early writing seems focused on accounting and overall record keeping.

What we do seem able to say for sure is that the scaling up seemed to require the existence of those accounting and record keeping capabilities.  In other words, writing itself seems to have been far more crucial than big gods.

And it could be argued that for a society to even conceptualize big gods required a broader view that may not have existed until the society had scaled up to a certain size, when writing had been around long enough for at least an incipient sense of history to have developed, and for later generations of writers to build on the ideas of earlier ones.

The authors finish with an interesting question:

If the original function of moralizing gods in world history was to hold together fragile, ethnically diverse coalitions, what might declining belief in such deities mean for the future of societies today? Could secularization in Europe, for example, contribute to the unravelling of supranational forms of governance in the region? If beliefs in big gods decline, what will that mean for cooperation across ethnic groups in the face of migration, warfare, or the spread of xenophobia? Or are the functions of moralizing gods simply being be replaced by other forms of surveillance?

Put another way, what is the long term future of religion?  Does it have a future?  And what do we mean by “religion”?  Does a scientific view of the world count?  Or our civil traditions and rituals?  What kinds of cultural systems might arise in the future that fulfill the same roles that religion has historically filled?  Might technological developments, such as social media, serve to reinstate the old role of reputation, but now on an expanded scale?

Religion, the Axial Age, and theoretic culture

ReligionInHumanEvolutionCoverI recently read the late Robert Bellah’s ‘Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.’  Although the title of the book seems to narrow it to just religion, in ancient societies, religion was just about everything, so the book ended up being about the development of cultures, which isn’t too surprising given Bellah’s background in sociology.

One of the topics Bellah covers is Merlin Donald‘s concept of theoretic culture, that is culture that includes thinking about thinking.  The idea is that world religions, philosophy, science, and other forms of relatively advanced thought are aspects of theoretic culture that developed during the Axial Age.

Bellah discusses different stages of cultural transmission.  Each builds on the previous ones, with theoretic being the final one.

The earliest stage, which strictly speaking isn’t really cultural transmission but it’s a crucial building block, is episodic memory, that is remembering specific events and situations and recalling them when encountering similar new events.  Episodic memory is evolutionarily ancient, going back hundreds of millions of years.  It added the ability for an animal to respond to situations outside of their instincts.

Not nearly as ancient, but still very old, is mimetic culture, the ability to observe what others are doing, learn from it, and adopt it for your own use.  Mimetic culture is most developed in social animals, particularly in primates, and of course most thoroughly in humans.  Long before language, primates observed each other and learned from their actions.  For example, in a tribe of chimpanzees, when one figures out a new way to use a stick to find food, other monkeys observe and adopt the technique, and it becomes part of that tribe’s culture.

It’s from mimetic culture that ritual arises.  And ritual forms a core aspect of Bellah’s thoughts about religion.  Ritual predates religion and, in Bellah’s conception, lies at the center of it.  Ritual is a core part of the enactive aspect of religion, the part that makes the religious beliefs feel real.  It’s also why many other ritualistic aspects of culture, such as civil ceremonies and sports events, often have a borderline religious feel to them.

On top of mimetic culture, we have narrative culture.  (Many call this “mythic culture”, but Bellah prefers the more value neutral term “narrative”.)  Narrative culture, the transmission of cultural information through stories, is almost certainly as old as spoken language.  It’s the predominate form of cultural transmission in oral cultures, that is, cultures that aren’t yet literate.

Bellah refers to pre-axial state cultures, such as ancient Egypt, Sumer, and Akkad, as archaic societies.  He emphasizes that those that had writing remained largely oral in orientation.  Reading and writing in cuneiform and hieroglyphics were complex, difficult, and reserved for a small class of professional scribes.  The majority of these cultures, even among the elite, were still oral.

(I’d never realized this until reading Bellah, but this is why virtually all of the earliest literature is poetry or chants.  Stories told in meter were much easier to remember.  The oldest sagas were almost all orally composed, including such epic poems as the Iliad or the saga of Gilgamesh, or aphoristic collections such as the Vedas.  The oldest writings were recording oral information then widely in circulation.  Prose only begins to proliferate when literacy starts to become more pervasive, at least among the ruling classes, when there is an audience that will be able to read it without having to commit it to memory.  And that only happens with the prevalence of relatively simple writing systems such as the Phoenician and Greek alphabets.)

As archaic societies developed, they began to engage in what Bellah calls mytho-speculation.  This is not just repeating and recording oral mythologies, but speculating about how the world is put together, about the attributes of the gods, and other aspects of reality.  This became prominent in the Egyptian New Kingdom with the rise of theological writing, particularly in the fascinating case of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who attempted to found a new monotheistic religion in Egypt, developing the idea of his god, Aten, in a mytho-speculative manner.

Bellah never explicitly defines mytho-speculation, but I interpret it as someone consciously pondering reality (either sincerely or manipulatively), rather than merely repeating traditional stories that evolved organically across generations and centuries.  Bellah argues that the people later retroactively defined as the pre-Socratic philosophers (that is, Greek philosophers before Socrates), were actually more engaged in mytho-speculation than theoretic culture, that the earliest pre-Socratics didn’t attempt to justify their speculation, they just engaged in it.  Given the very limited knowledge we have of these early pre-Socratics, I think we have to be cautious in categorizing them, but it stands to reason that thought would have evolved through stages.

It’s in the Axial Age that, Bellah argues, theoretic culture arises, that is, culture that thinks explicitly about how to think.  Bellah identifies the pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides as providing a major breakthrough in Greek culture by developing the philosophical argument.  (See Michelle Joelle’s excellent recent post about philosophical arguments.)  What Permenides introduced, Plato more fully developed, and theoretic culture was established in Greek society.

Of course, it wasn’t only in Greece that theoretic culture arose, but also in India with Buddhism, and in China with Confucianism.  This is why this period is called the Axial Age.  (That and the fact that it happens to sit at the mid-point, the axis, of written history, roughly equidistant between the development of writing and modern times.)

I’ve written before that I think the rise of simple phonetic alphabets was what led to the Axial Age, at least in the west.  I’ve read other speculation that it might have been from increases in agricultural production that led to larger surpluses than what had come before, allowing for a larger intellectual class.  I suspect there were multiple causes that reinforced each other.  But, interestingly, Bellah and other scholars seem to think that writing was a result of the Axial Age rather than a cause.  I’m not entirely sure the chronology bears that out, except possibly in India, where post-Harappan writing apparently didn’t get off the ground until after the Axial Age.

I’m also not entirely sure that we can even say that theoretic culture didn’t exist before the Axial Age.  It’s just the earliest time that we have evidence for it since it’s the time that literacy starts to become (relatively) widespread and opportunities for that evidence to be recorded become pervasive.  Who knows what the thinkers in ancient Egypt or Sumer thought, or how much the Greeks might have owed to and built upon their ideas?  It’s worth noting that although writing goes back to around 3000 BC, studying history before the Axial Age is mostly an archaeological exercise, but becomes much more about studying historical documents afterward (again, at least in the west).

But I don’t think there’s much doubt that theoretic culture became far more advanced, as the thoughts of thinkers began to be recorded, read by later thinkers, and built upon in a way far more sophisticated than was possible in oral cultures.  It ushered in a new age of human cognition.

But it’s not like we crossed the theoretic divide and achieved cultural maturity in the Axial Age.  As I’ve written about before, science in particular looks very different today than it did only 400 years ago.  We may have begun the theoretic journey c. 500 BC, but we are still definitely on it, and with the breakneck advances in communication, such as the internet, we may well be entering a new axial age.

Confucianism and the definition of religion

Ru_characterI’ve noted before that defining religion is difficult.  Simple definitions (such as belief in gods) tend to either exclude some religions (such as Buddhism), or include things that most people don’t consider to be a religion (such as constitutional law or science).  Definitions that get the scope about right tend to be hopelessly vague or unwieldy.  This had led some anthropologists to declare that religion as a coherent concept doesn’t really exist.

Given these difficulties, I find areas of thought on the borderlines, on which people debate whether or not it is a religion, to be interesting.  Confucianism is one of those grey areas.  Everyone agrees that it is a philosophy, but the religion part remains controversial.  Examining why some consider Confucianism a religion might be somewhat instructive on what religion intuitively means to us.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who live around 500 BC, during a time when the current governing Zhou dynasty was in decline.  (It’s called the Spring and Autumn period, and conditions seem roughly similar to the 5th century in the Roman Empire’s decline.)  Concerned about how much society had deteriorated in his time, Confucius studied history to see what social, ethical, and governmental practices had worked well, and which hadn’t.  The history available to him at the time included the earlier Zhou dynasty period, and the late history of the preceding Shang dynasty.  He distilled what he learned into the the core of the system we now called Confucianism.

Notice what’s absent here.  Confucius didn’t claim that he had a revelation from any deity.  He didn’t claim to be a prophet.  In fact, he was careful to clarify that he wasn’t adding anything original, that all of his precepts came from studying history.  And he urged his followers to study the same sources that he himself had used.  In other words, his philosophy was developed through reason, and he urged others to go through the same reasoning he had as part of an ongoing process of self cultivation and improvement.

It’s hard to argue with Confucius’s approach.  Many modern day moral philosophers might find a lot to agree with in that approach.  However, before you start thinking of Confucius as a modern Humanist transplanted into ancient China, you should know that Confucianism is very conservative, hierarchical, patriarchal, and relentlessly ritualistic.  Given that it was formulated around 500 BC, during a time of societal hardships and uncertainty, I don’t find these aspects of it too surprising.

Confucianism has a great deal to say about family relations, social norms, and governing philosophy.  On family relations, it often defines the hierarchy between various relationships, usually with those on the inferior side of the relationship urged to be subservient and those on the superior side to be fair.  Fathers are superior to sons, older brothers to younger brothers, brothers to sisters, husbands to wives, etc.  On governing, Confucius calls for rulers to be just and virtuous, and to demonstrate that virtuosity to their people.  (He saw few examples of this in his time.)

Confucianism in its original form didn’t have a metaphysics.  It didn’t posit the idea of any gods or spiritual realm, although it did pay deference to the ideas of China’s state religion.  Neo-Confucianism did introduce a somewhat limited metaphysics in the 12th century, largely in response to the encroachment of Buddhism.  Neo-Confucianism’s metaphysics included the concepts of li (the organizing principles and rules of the world), and qi (roughly analogous to spiritual essence).

Religion in China is interesting.  It seems like each region has its unique folk religion including local gods and ancestor worship.  During the Zhou dynasty, all of these various gods became understood to be subservient to a supreme power, called Tian.  Tian is not regarded in an anthropomorphic manner.  It is often translated as heaven, although sometimes as God, great one, or great all.  For some, this concept is basically what we would call nature, for others it is a pantheistic conception of God and a moral force.

From the Zhou dynasty forward, reverence for heaven was a kind of meta-religion for China.  In many ways, it could be thought of as a type of secularism (in the strict sense of the word) in that it provided a unifying framework for all the disparate folk religions without favoring any particular one.  The Zhou dynasty was the first one to claim a “mandate of heaven” for its rule, which sounds very close to the western concept of “divine right of kings”, but with a few differences.  Only one government at a time can have the mandate, and then only as long as it is virtuous and worthy of that mandate.

(As an aside, I suspect one of the reasons Chinese history is traditionally interpreted as one civilization with different dynasties, rather than successive societies, is this mandate of heaven principle.  If European history were interpreted in this manner, we might talk of the Roman dynasty, the Byzantine dynasty, the Spanish dynasty, the French dynasty, the British dynasty, etc, with periods with no clear dominant power as “warring states” or “intermediate” periods.  Admittedly, the very idea that the mandate of heaven concept has survived in China for three thousand years gives some weight to the continuous civilization claim.)

Confucianism is integrated with, and influenced, many of these ideas.  So, is Confucianism a religion?  Well, it’s complicated.  I’ve discussed before that I think religion has historically met three broad functions.  (These points are my simplification of functions I’ve read from anthropologists and social scientists such as Jared Diamond.)

  1. Explain the world.
  2. Promote the social order.
  3. Provide existential comfort.

Confucianism doesn’t seem to get into 1 very much, although I suppose Neo-Confucianism did to a limited degree, and it’s hard for me to see that it provides too much for 3, but I’m making that judgment as an outsider, so I might be off base.  But Confucianism is definitely involved with 2.  It is intimately concerned with how people should lead their lives, how they should treat each other, and how government should be run.

There’s another aspect I mentioned above.  Confucianism is very pro-ritual.  Indeed, it promotes ritual as a crucial virtue.  And this may be getting at the root of why many people intuitively feel that it is a religion.  The etymology of the word “religion” is thought to be something along the lines of re-connecting, or re-binding.  That can be interpreted to mean reconnecting with an ultimate reality (i.e. a god or gods), reconnecting with doctrine or mantras, reconnecting with your fellow adherents, or all of the above.  And this reconnecting is generally done through ritual.

All of these things involve Confucianism deeply with function 2 above.  Is that enough to make it a religion?  As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, science is deeply involved with 1, but we usually resist calling it a religion.  And most modern religions have a strong connection with 3.  As I mentioned above, I don’t see much of this function in Confucianism.  It seems to defer that function to other aspects of Chinese culture.  Although I suppose if you lived in a society where everyone is following Confucianism, that might be comforting, but that seems true of any cultural system.

One thing that struck me was China’s centuries long history of examinations for entry into its prestigious civil service.  The high stakes examinations were ostensibly to test the applicant’s knowledge of revered Confucian principles, but often amounted to testing their ability to memorize the core Confucian works, word for word.  When I read this, it reminded me of the effort many Muslims put into memorizing the Quran.

What do you think?  Is Confucianism a religion?  Or is religion only that which is concerned with supernatural affairs (whatever ‘supernatural’ means)?  If Confucianism is not a religion, does Neo-Confucianism’s modest metaphysics graduate it to religion status?

This post came from information in ‘Confucianism A Very Short Introduction‘ by Daniel Gardiner, from a Philosophize This podcast on Confucianism, and from numerous Wikipedia articles.  All excellent sources of information if you’re interested in learning more on Confucianism.

The decline of religion in western societies

Huffington Post UK has published the results of a survey showing that half of Britain thinks religion does more harm than good, and that you don’t need it to be a good person.  This seems to be a trend in Europe that was started in the Scandinavian countries.  It’s in contrast to the United States, where religion still has substantial influence, although even here that influence is in decline.  (The percentage of people claiming no religion in the US has gone from 8% to 20% in the last couple of decades.)

The decline of religion in the west seems unprecedented in world history.  Religion dates back to at least the Upper Paleolithic and, prior to the 20th century, was pretty much a cultural universal.  But increasingly, people in developed societies are turning away from it.  Or are they?

I’ve noted before that religion historically had three main functions:

  1. Explaining the world.
  2. Supporting the social order.
  3. Soothing existential anxiety.

This is a simplification of function lists I’ve read from anthropologists and other scientists like Jared Diamond.

In the modern world, science has pretty much taken over 1.  And modern societies have built a number of institutions to handle 2.  (Related to 2, amanimal recently called my attention to a fascinating article comparing religion to sports and the social cohesion benefits of rituals and symbols.)  Indeed, its not uncommon here in the US for our constitution, government, courts, etc, to be referred to as our “civil religion“.

3 has been the one that has taken the longest, from a historical perspective, to replace.  But I think that replacement is happening.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the countries with the strongest social safety nets, the ones that protect their citizens from the worst consequences of the vicissitudes of life, are also the ones at the forefront of religion’s decline.  These social safety nets are reducing the existential anxiety that fueled the need for 3.

This raises an interesting question.  Is religion so much in decline, or are the ancient supernatural religions simply in the process of being replaced?  As I’ve written before, religion is a difficult beast to define.  A historian centuries from now looking back may interpret what’s happening as more of a transition from one set of worldviews to a new set.  They may see our modern emerging “religion” as a syncretization, a merging, of science and civil religion, including the social welfare state.

This is a view typically resisted by both religion’s advocates and its opponents.  They see religion as inescapably linked to its traditional supernatural beliefs.  Along those lines, maybe it’s not religion per se that’s in decline but supernatural beliefs.  Except that many people who are not religious, even in Scandinavia, still hold supernatural beliefs, often retaining belief in a hazy “universal spirit” or “higher power”.

Of course, this may all be a matter of semantics.  An argument could be made that words should be defined according to their common meanings.  And by that measure, religion is in decline, and may, in decades to come, be in danger of extinction.

Could something reverse that decline?  Given 3 above, I’d say yes.  If life were to become harsh and unpredictable again in the west, I think we’d see a resurgence in traditional religion.  The only thing separating us from that resurgence would be a devastating war, a natural catastrophe, or some form of economic collapse.  If any of these happened with sufficient magnitude that civic institutions were overwhelmed, I think it would be a boon for religion.

An interesting thought experiment is to consider what might happen if these types of events happened after traditional religion had died out.  Would totally new religions rise up?  Or would people return to the old ones?

What do you think?  Is religion headed for extinction?  Or is it too hardwired into the human psyche and we’re only seeing a temporary lull?  Could we avoid falling back into religion if civilization collapsed or declined?

Does the Euthyphro dilemma actually prove anything?

English: Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum
English: Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not religious.  I don’t think morality comes from God, gods, or any religious precept.  But often, when I see debates on whether or not morality can only come from God or religion, an atheist philosopher will mention the Euthyphro dilemma, state or imply that the question was conclusively handled over 2300 years by this Plato narrative, and move on as though the matter was settled.  However, I’ve never particularly felt that this narrative really settled anything.

Just to review, the Euthyphro dilemma asks the following question.  Is what is morally good, good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?  This is a question Socrates asks of a man named Euthyphro in the book named, conveniently enough, ‘Euthyphro’, written by Plato.  In the story, Socrates and Euthyphro agree that the answer must be that God, or in their case the gods, command it because it is good.

The answer accepted by Socrates and Euthyphro is often thought to be problematic for Abrahamic theology, since it implies that God is not omnipotent, that he would be subservient to a moral law that he does not control.  I fully understand the theological difficulty with this answer.  It does seem like it should be unacceptable to an orthodox Christian, Jew, or Muslim.

What I don’t understand is the problem with the other answer, the idea that something is good because God commands it.  In the articles I’ve read about this, the concern is that this would make morality arbitrary, subject to God’s whim.  If God commanded that rape and murder were good, the argument goes, that wouldn’t make rape and murder good, would it?

My response is to explore how do we know that rape and murder are not good.  Of course, most of us are horrified by these actions, so that seems to be an excellent reason.  But why are we horrified by them?  If God exists and he created us, the universe, and everything, then it stands to reason that this visceral revulsion we have toward rape and murder was put there by him.  If God is the omnipotent creator of everything, then by definition, everything is his whim, including our deepest moral convictions.

Now, personally, I think it’s unlikely that God is there (except perhaps as a synonym for nature).  From what I can see, morality is a cultural framework built on top of common pro-social instincts.  Instincts that our species, as social animals, evolved for cooperation.  Cooperation that enhanced our survival prospects.  But if I thought God was there, and that he was indeed the creator of all, I wouldn’t have a problem with the good-is-good-because-God-says-so answer.  A philosopher once told me that by accepting that answer, I was “biting a bullet”.  Well, it doesn’t seem like much of a bullet to me.

You could argue that God’s commandments don’t always match the feelings he purportedly put in us, and I think that inconsistency is indeed a dilemma for believers who hold to scriptural inerrancy.  But my understanding is that this is not the central argument of the Euthyphro dilemma.

So, my question is, what am I missing?  What does the Euthyphro dilemma actually prove?  Does it prove anything?  Or is it just a demonstration that people have been struggling to find the basis of morality for at least 2300 years?

Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion?

In a Skeptical Inquirer article that I’m a bit surprised hasn’t received more attention, Scott O. Lilienfeld and Rachel Ammirati take a look at this question: Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion? A Skeptic’s Guide to the Debate – CSI.

In this article, we address the overarching question of whether high levels of certitude are warranted among partisans of either position. In the interest of full disclosure, both authors of this article are atheists. At the same time, we have become concerned by what appears to be unjustified dogmatism by both religious skeptics and believers in discussions concerning an exceedingly complex and multifaceted question. Therefore, we attempt to demonstrate that (a) scientific data bearing indirectly on the question have routinely been neglected by many individuals on both sides of the debate; (b) such data, although informative, do not permit anything approaching conclusive answers to the question of whether religion makes the world a better or worse place. At the same time, such data cast serious doubt on broad-brush contentions (e.g., Dawkins 2006) that religion is usually or always associated with a heightened risk of immoral behavior, including violence. Hence, we view our article as a modest call for greater epistemic humility on the part of ardent defenders of both positions.

This article is a long one, but informative, and if you have strong opinions on this subject, I encourage you to read the full thing.

I think the problem with saying that religion is good or bad is how amorphous that statement is.  We can’t even succinctly define religion, at least not in a way that includes all the movements usually accepted as religious.  In many non-western cultures, the dividing line between that culture’s religion and the rest of the culture is non-existent, meaning that their religion is their culture.

Are there evils committed in the name of religion?  Undoubtedly, and there are plenty of examples.  Are there beneficial acts inspired by religion?  Also undoubtedly, also with plenty of examples.  Another way to think of this is, are there evils committed by cultures?  And are there good acts inspired by cultures?  Again, the answer for both must be yes.  Yet I’ve never heard anyone condemn the overall idea of culture.

This later snippet in the article I think gets at the position that many atheists hold, either explicitly or implicitly.

Some nonbelievers may react to this debate by staking out an alternative position: as scientific thinkers and skeptics, we should be seeking the truth, the consequences be damned. From this perspective, if God does not exist, we should be discouraging uncritical acceptance of religious tenets regardless of whether they exert beneficial or detrimental long-term effects on society. Knowledge, Sir Francis Bacon asserted, is power. In our view, this position is both intellectually consistent and intellectually honest, and we see merit in it. At the same time, advocates of this position need to be forthright in acknowledging that it may entail unknown risks that need to be weighed in public discussions of the value of religion to society.

Actually, I think I recall Dawkins taking this position explicitly.  I have to admit that this used to be my position, although I’ve come to think that it’s probably a position of privilege.  Many of the most religious people are religious because they need the existential comfort that their religion provides them, often because their lives are uncertain, sometimes because their life is dangerous and desperate.

I’m far less comfortable than I used to be with the idea that these people must be disabused of their beliefs.  The standard anti-theist talking points are that removing those beliefs would encourage people to better themselves, that anyone uncomfortable with the idea of convincing them out of their faith is simply being a patronizing snob.

While it makes for a good line, it sounds disturbingly like the rhetoric I often hear from political conservatives when arguing that we shouldn’t help those in poverty.  It may well just be that removing those beliefs would take away a source of comfort for those people, and make their lives more psychologically difficult than they already are.  In any case, attempting to convince such people out of their faith usually just causes hostility.  (I know there are exceptions, but they are exceptions.)

None of this is to say that I think atheists shouldn’t try to sell their worldview, or that clearly dangerous or repressive religious beliefs shouldn’t be challenged.  But we should realize that atheism, like much of skepticism,  is an emotionally expensive proposition.  Those of us who can afford to accept such propositions should be careful not to be cruel to those who cannot.

And as I’m sure many believers will point out, we can’t prove that some version of God doesn’t exist, at least except for the fundamentalist versions.  Whether or not to believe in one of those versions is a philosophical conclusion, and like all philosophical choices, it’s a personal one.

h/t Connor Wood, who did an assessment of this article

On atheism and agnosticism

Bart Ehrman has a post up featuring an interview on his agnosticism.  (If you’re short on time, the most relevant part is at the 2:12 point.)

As someone who myself isn’t a religious believer, but who also strives to be honest on what the limitations of knowledge are in this area, I find a lot to agree with in Ehrman’s comments.  (Although unlike Ehrman, the philosophical problem of evil isn’t the overriding cause of my non-belief.  For me, Biblical issues are definitely one of the factors.)

I long ago lost interest in the atheist versus agnosticism definitional debates, which is why you usually see me refer to myself simply as a non-believer and leave it at that.  Most people know what that means and it usually steps around the “faith in no-God” or “wimpy atheist” arguments.  When I describe my beliefs (or in this case the lack of them), I typically find that I’m claimed by both camps, which is fine since I consider myself to be both.

My observation is that whatever their epistemological position, people’s preference for one label or another has more to do with their attitude toward religion.  I went through my anti-religious phase, but outgrew it, although I remain a staunch opponent of fundamentalism.  So I’m not aggressive about my disbelief.  If you’re a believer and find comfort and meaning in your religion, I have no interest in taking it from you, at least as long as you can respect that I don’t find comfort and meaning in it.

In general, as a moderately liberal non-religious person, I find I have a lot more in common with a liberal believer than I do with, say, an Ayn Rand objectivist.  Even though the objectivist and I likely agree on God, we disagree about so many other things that I’m unlikely to see them as much of an ally just because of that one thing we do agree on.  My real opposition is to dogmatism, and I find it in many places besides religion, and that many believers are my allies in that opposition.

That being said, even though I often find myself in disagreement with them, I do have to admit that in recent years the New Atheist movement has been a source of comfort.  The idea that there are people who’ve come to the same conclusion I did and aren’t afraid to be  honest about it (even if they have a tendency to get carried away), that don’t think my non-belief is a reason for guilt, has lifted a burden of sorts.

I remember a political science professor in college pointing out that radicals of a cause can often make room for moderates in that cause to be accepted.  A decade ago in The Atheism Tapes, Daniel Dennett said that what was needed were uncompromising atheists, who might not be accepted by the public at large, but who could open up a space behind them for those who might.  In that sense, people like Dennett have performed an important service.

What is religion?

Pascal Boyer in his book ‘The Fracture of an Illusion’ asserts that religion does not exist.  Boyer points out that “religion” doesn’t exist as a concept in most societies.  When Boyer, an anthropological expert in religion, says that it doesn’t exist, he’s making a statement that might seem silly on its face.  After all, if religion doesn’t exist, then what divides Christians from Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.

When starting these types of discussions, it’s usually a good idea to define our terms.  So, how should religion be defined?  That turns out to be a difficult matter.  Many people have attempted to define it over the years.  Most definitions are either too vague or convoluted to be useful, or end up excluding things that are commonly accepted as religion.

The difficulty can be exacerbated by the fact that most pre-modern non-western societies have no concept of religion as a separate thing.  For them, there is only the world as they understand it, the unseen forces that control that world, and what works to propitiate or manipulate those forces.  What we would call their religion is often so integral to their lives and overall culture, that the idea of calling it something separate is puzzling to most of them.

The etymology of the word “religion” isn’t much help.  The original meaning of the Latin “religio” is obscure and is probably hopelessly clouded by its later meanings.  Depending on who you ask, the original term can mean: to bind, to connect, to go over again, to repeat, or to have reverence for the gods.

One definition of religion I used to adhere to was belief in a supernatural realm.  But it turns out that there are religions that don’t include belief in the supernatural, although it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of them do.  And, of course, even the term “supernatural” would need to be defined.  Do UFOs count?  If not, then how would we categorize the various UFO cults?

Jared Diamond, in his excellent book ‘The World Until Yesterday‘, lists sixteen different historical definitions, including ones by various social scientists, Karl Marx, Michael Shermer, and Wikipedia (which itself has had several).  All these disparate definitions show just how hard religion as a concept can be to nail down.

Of course, as Diamond notes, if you’re a believer then for you, religion exists because it’s true.  Its function is to guide us to that truth.  The problem with looking at it this way is there have been untold thousands of religions throughout history.  It’s not possible for all of them to be true.  Some universalists may insist that all religions are different aspects of the same truth, but this outlook is contradicted by the orthodoxy of many religions, and universalism could itself be considered a new religion, or family of religions.

Diamond, instead of attempting his own definition, describes religion by the qualities or functions that most have, at least to some extent.  His functions include: supernatural explanations of the world, defusing anxiety through ritual, providing comfort about pain and death, standardized organization, political obedience, moral codes of behavior toward strangers, and justification of war.  Not all religions have all of these functions, but most have at least some of them.

I think Diamond’s list has a lot going for it, but for me, I tend to group those functions into only three.

  1. Explaining the world
  2. Soothing anxiety
  3. Promoting the social order

I’ve combined Diamond’s second and third function into one, and the fourth through sixth ones into another one.  The only one I’m not sure about here is Diamond’s moral code function.  It might be a bit overly reductive to lump it in with “promoting the social order”, but since most ancient religions actually didn’t have this specific function, I tend to think it’s a fair move.  (Although I’m open to being persuaded otherwise.)

In modern society, religion doesn’t do all of these functions to the extent it used to.  For example, except among fundamentalists, explaining the world has largely been taken over by science.

But this raises an interesting question.  Is science a religion?  Most people would emphatically say no, despite it usurping the first function above.  Indeed, even the suggestion would make many scientists nervous, and not just religious ones.  Most of them have no desire to see themselves in competition with mainstream religions, and those that do tend to regard themselves as being against all religions.

But at least one scientist has declared that science is in fact his religion, and that truth is his god.  And some scientists have advocated that science needs to expand beyond merely explaining the world, into the third function above, often most notably in determining morality.  Such people are often accused of scientism, the belief that science is the only source of knowledge.  It’s not unusual for debates about this to devolve into arguments about what the definition of science is.

In many societies, religions are often syncretic, that is composed of multiple source religions.  This is true in China which has a syncretization of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and various local folk religions.  Japan has a similar syncretization that includes Shinto.  Arguably, Christianity is a syncretization of Judaism and some Greek philosophies, and hellenistic Judaism was a syncretization of the pre-exile Hebrew religion, Babylonian cosmology, and Persian Zoroastrianism.

Along these lines, our modern day culture could be considered a syncretization of Christianity and science (with some philosophy thrown in for good measure), with some purists insisting on only one or the other.  And in the case of the US, some civic religion can be thrown in as well, with the Constitution as our sacred text and the supreme court as our Vatican.  The concept of a civic religion probably arises because it fulfills the third function above, another one that traditional religion has somewhat withdrawn from in western societies.

For both religion’s advocates and its opponents, talk of science or philosophy as a religion, or of civic religions, is often extremely objectionable.  Both sides have a vested interest in keeping religion defined as a specific thing that can either be kept pure, or attacked.  Religion is about the sacred, or it’s about superstition.

Yet famous atheists have often accused Communist states of perpetrating a type of political state religion, usually in response to believers pointing out that those regimes were atheistic and oppressive.  And believers sometimes accuse atheism of being its own religion, which many atheists react to with scorn.  Clouding these exchanges is the fact that there were historical attempts to establish state “rationalistic” religions, notably in the French Revolution, and that Humanism did consider itself a religion for a time, although it doesn’t today.

One function that religion still seems to fulfill is the second one I listed above: soothing anxiety.  This is a function that the opponents of religion generally downplay, but it seems to be the sole function that remains the exclusive purview of what we commonly call religion.  Religion tends to be strongest in regions of the world where desperation is common, and weakest where life is secure.  Sub-Saharan Africa is among the most religious regions in the world, while Scandinavia is among the least.

But even here, countries with robust safety nets are gradually reducing the need for this function, or perhaps another way of looking at it, they are usurping it.  Of course, they can’t really soothe the fear of death, but the decline of traditional religions in countries with strong safety nets implies this may not be the crucial need that is often assumed.

So what then is religion?  Is it just the ancient (or not so ancient) worldviews that include belief in non-scientific supernatural forces at work in the world?  Or is it something else?  If so, what?  Is Boyer right that there is no such thing?  Or is religion simply a cultural group that elects to call itself, and is commonly accepted as, a religion?

And if, as many desire, traditional religions someday fade away, will they ultimately be replaced by other cultural systems and philosophies that meet the same functions they fulfilled?  If so, wouldn’t it be accurate to say that those traditional religions had been replaced by new ones, regardless of the label they used?

h/t amanimal for calling my attention to Boyer’s book

How Jesus became God


I think most of my readers know that I’m not religious.  However, I am interested in both the history and anthropology of religion.  This interest has led me to read a number of books by Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar.

In the last decade or so, Ehrman has exposed the public to a wealth of information that was previously only well known among historians, scholars, and clergy.  I’m a fan of his and currently subscribe to his paywalled blog, which if you have the interest and can spare $25 a year (which goes to charity), I highly recommend.

So, it was pretty much a given that I was going to read his latest book, ‘How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee‘.  This is a book about the historical development of how Christians came to regard a rural itinerant preacher as the incarnation of God.

Of course, if you’re a believer, you’ll see this as humanity coming to understand Jesus’s divinity.  Ehrman is himself an agnostic, but bends over backward to remain neutral on the question of whether Jesus actually was or is divine.  This wasn’t enough for some, because this book has already generated a response book from conservative Christians.

Anyway, Ehrman starts off by discussing how ancient societies viewed divinity.  We typically regard it as a thing completely separate from humans, with an uncrossable void between us and the divine.  This is almost certainly an artifact of centuries of monotheism.

But the ancients didn’t have this background.  They were mostly polytheists.  So, it was common for them to contemplate lowly divine beings that were just above humans.  Indeed, it was common to regard humans who had led exemplary lives to have been rewarded with divinity after they died, and for many to be regarded that way even when they lived.  Egyptian pharos and Roman emperors were regarded as gods in their lifetimes.  So the ancients conceived of a continuum of divine beings.

Even in ancient Judaism, there was a continuum.  Despite many signs of polytheism in the early Old Testament books (including in the first of the ten commandments), Jews were firmly monotheistic by Jesus’s time.  But angels were widely regarded as superhuman divine beings, and one particular angel, “the Angel of the Lord” was regarded as the chief angel, often speaking for, and referenced interchangeably with God.  Kings could be semi-divine, and were often referred to as the son of God.

Erhman spends some time discussing the historical Jesus.  Before reading his books, I had concluded that the historical figure, if he ever existed, was essentially inaccessible, a figure hopelessly obscured by the legend.  But Erhman describes the methods that historians have used to build a probable, but never absolute, picture of what the historical figure was like.

These methods include asking whether or not an assertion has multiple independent accounts, if it fits in the known historical context of the times, how close to the events the accounts were written, and how unlikely the assertion originates from the writer’s agenda.  The higher the probability of these conditions, the more probable that a particular assertion about the events or person are true.

Using these methods, most ancient historians see Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher with a message of the imminent kingdom of God.  This person was baptized by John and Baptist, another apocalyptist, and like that earlier preacher, ran afoul of the authorities, most likely by causing an incident in the Jerusalem temple, and was executed by the Romans in a manner common for people perceived to be insurrectionist.

These methods do not lead to the conclusion that Jesus ever declared himself to be divine, although it does seem to be that he saw himself as someone anointed by God to lead Israel in the new age.

After his crucifixion, Ehrman believes that many of Jesus’s followers had visions of him.  Again, Ehrman bends over backward to be neutral on whether these visions were actually Jesus, hallucinations, or delusions of some kind.  He does point out the similarities with modern day sightings of Jesus, the virgin Mary, and lost loved ones.

Ehrman describes two major types of Christologies, or beliefs about when Jesus became divine, when he became the son of God.  “Low Christologies”, which Erhman prefers to call exaltation Christiologies, see Jesus starting out as a human, but becoming exalted at some point to divine status.  “High Christologies”, which Erhman prefers to call incarnation Christologies, see Christ as having been a pre-existing divine being, that was incarnated into the mortal form of Jesus.

Erhman argues that the first Christians held to an exaltation Christology.  At this early stage, he was not considered equivalent to God overall, but as an angel or other divine being.  These earliest Christians probably saw this exaltation as taking place at the resurrection.

As time went on, the exaltation moved earlier in Jesus’s life, to the start of his ministry, at his baptism by John the Baptist.  This is the view developed in the earliest gospel, Mark, which is usually dated to around 65-70 CE.  By the time Luke and Matthew are written (c. 85 CE), Jesus is regarded to have been divine since his birth.

But incarnation Christologies also started pretty early.  Paul, the earliest Christian author, writing in the late 40s and throughout the 50s, held to an incarnation Christology, although he at times quoted earlier exaltation doctrines.  Again, this view regarded Jesus as a divine being, second only to God himself, but not yet equivalent to God.

By the time of the gospel of John, usually dated to around the end of the first century, we see a very high Christology, referring to Jesus as the pre-existent Word, or Logos of God.  John lays out what would become the broad outline of Christian orthodox Christology.  But that outline still left much that would not be defined until later.

Throughout the second, third, and fourth centuries, there were many theological battles, with views that were regarded as orthodox in earlier times eventually often being labeled heresies in later times.  Among the questions debated:

  1. How many Gods were there?
  2. If only one, then was Jesus also God the Father?
  3. If Jesus was a pre-existing divine being, then was he ever truly human?  Or did he just appear to be so?
  4. If Jesus was human, then how could he also be God at the same time?
  5. Was Jesus actually two beings, the human portion, and the divine portion?

There were many answers to these questions.  As time wore on, these issues were debated and resolved, often with those on the losing end of the debates branded as heretics.  Eventually, the theology of the trinity was worked out.  There was only one God, but who was composed of three separate beings, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was God, but was also fully human.  This doctrine is, of course, paradoxical, a fact not lost to many of the ancient debaters.

Ehrman takes the history of theological disputes up to the Council of Nicaea, and shows how the Nicene Creed was actually an attack on a number of beliefs, most notably related to the Arian controversy, that had been declared heretical.  Ehrman also gives some samplings of the theological fights that followed in the sixth and later centuries.

I found this to be a fascinating book.  Ehrman is an excellent writer and often manages to take a dry arcane subject matter and make it interesting.  While he is respectful of religious belief, he doesn’t compromise on conveying the scholarship.  As I stated above, many conservative devout believers will find much of this material disturbing, and many hard core atheists will be annoyed with Ehrman’s careful respect of these beliefs.  But if you’re interested in what historians and scholars have to say on the formation and early developments of Christianity, then I highly recommend this book.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post linked to a blog post by Richard Carrier that I mistakenly thought applied to the book discussed here.  But it actually applied to one of Ehrman’s earlier works.  I’ve removed the sentence and link.  Sorry for any confusion.  Totally my bad!


Was Jesus a conspiracy?

Christ in the House of his Parents by John Eve...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bart Ehrman posted a video on his blog (embedded below) where he discusses the case for the existence of the historical Jesus.  Most of his excellent blog’s content is pay-walled, so I’m happy to have an opportunity to link to something that isn’t.  (Incidentally, if you have the means and interest, I highly recommend subscribing.  All of the proceeds go to charity.)

I was taken aback when I first discovered the ferocious certitude that many militant atheists have that the historical Jesus is a complete myth, a conspiratorial creation of early Christianity.  Note that we’re not talking here about the Christ of faith, the miracle working son of God, but the historical Jesus that historians have been able to partially reconstruct.

All but a smattering of historians and scholars, many of whom are secular, have weighed the evidence and found that it mostly points to an early first century itinerant preacher, who ran afoul of the authorities and was executed in a manner all too common for the time.  All of this fits with the time period and region when there were many such figures.

Much about this historical figure is common for the time, including his name.  (Note, his name was actually Yeshua; ‘Jesus’ is a modern pronunciation of an English translation of a Latin translation of a Koine Greek transliteration of the original Aramaic.)  In other words, a commonly named figure, preaching a common theme for the time (apocalyptic), with perhaps some new innovations, executed by the Romans in a manner (crucifixion) commonly used against conquered peoples.  

Saying this figure didn’t exist is a bit like the old scholarly joke that the Iliad wasn’t written by Homer, but by another poet with the same name.  If Jesus didn’t exist, then somebody started the movement that eventually became Christianity, and it was likely someone similar to his historical reconstruction.

Mythicists often compare the historicity of Jesus to that of Abraham or Moses, two figures that most secular historians have now concluded probably never existed, or if they did, the biblical versions are probably as different from the actual figures as Santa Claus is from Nicolas of Myra.

However, the earliest written history of Abraham and Moses are dated 500-1000 years after they were supposed to have lived.  The earliest written references to Jesus are dated to within 20 years of his life, and the biographical sources are generally dated within 60 years.  A few decades is certainly long enough for the stories to have become embellished, and as a skeptic I certainly think they were, but claiming they evolved to anywhere near the same degree as the Abraham and Moses ones isn’t rational.

Did Jesus’ story get embellished with common mythical tropes in the tradition of Horus and others?  Probably, although the parallels tend to be overstated once you actually look into the compared myths.  The thing is, many historical figures also got those embellishments.  Sargon of Akkad is a good example.  It’s a large leap from common embellishments to complete mythicism.

Is it possible that Jesus the man never existed?  Sure.  It’s also possible that many other ancient historical figures never existed.  This includes people like the Buddha, which many atheists might be happy to dismiss, but also others such as Socrates, Thales, Pythagoras, and many other thinkers that they might be less willing to delete from history.

I’m not a religious believer.  I have no emotional commitment to Jesus having ever existed.  I’m skeptical of the son of God, miracle working, resurrected version.  But I’m also skeptical of conspiracy theories, and that’s what most of Jesus mythicism boils down to.

Many militant atheists are so vested in the conflict with religion, so delighted by what they see as another nail in the coffin, that they let it cloud their evaluation of this matter.  They use arguments against mainstream history and scholarship that sound perilously similar to arguments creationists make against mainstream science, that the entire field of experts is deluded, incompetent, or in conspiracy to suppress their views.

Ironically, the difficulty for many conservative believers isn’t that Jesus is a fabrication, but that the historical version is so different from the one they believe in, whose message of an imminent apocalypse was rooted in his historical period and aimed more at the people of Israel than the world.

Anyway, Ehrman has written a book covering this subject in detail, which I highly recommend, and which he reads from in this video.