Against the seriousness of theology

By Razib Khan | April 24, 2013 9:08 pm

Over at The American Conservative Noah Millman and Rod Dreher are having a discussion over the basic premise that founding texts (e.g., Bible, Koran) and individuals (e.g., Jesus, Muhammad) have a deep influence upon the nature of a religion. Long time readers will be aware that I side much more with Millman on this. In fact I recall that years ago in the comments of Ross Douthat’s old blog at The Atlantic (alas, comments are gone from their archives) I took the more maximalist position that theology and logical coherency are not particularly relevant toward understanding religious phenomena in an exchange with Noah (he made an analogy with law, and I responded that that proved my point about the pliability of religious ideas).

The basic axis of the debate is simple enough. Observers, such as Andrew Sullivan, point out that Muhammad’s life was characterized by a level of directed violence due to this actions which has no analog in the life of Jesus. As Muslims view Muhammad as the perfect man, worthy of emulation, the logic would be that a violent man would result in a violent religion. As Islam is probably the most violent religion today (though yes, Christians commit the most violence because of the simple fact that the United States is a superpower; but Christianity is not particularly relevant to the rationale), the logic is eminently plausible. Conversely, Jesus’ life was one of passivity in the face of violence. Therefore, any violence in the history of Christianity is in contravention to the basic spirit of the religion.

There are two primary issues, one relatively concrete, and another more abstract but fundamental. The concrete one is that it is trite but true to state that Muhammad was his own Constantine. That is, he was not simply a spiritual teacher, but also a temporal ruler. More broadly, while Christianity became an imperial religion, Islam was born an imperial religion. This makes comparisons between the early years of the faiths difficult, because one could argue that Islam recapitulated in 40 years (going from an persecuted sect to the imperial ideology) what took Christianity 400 years! Since founding texts and canons tend to crystallize in the early phase of a religion’s life cycle it stands to reason that their character would be shaped by their local historical-social context. The project of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the late 4th and early 5th centuries was in large part to refashion Christianity from a counter-cultural cult whose base consisted of the urban lower middle class to a universal imperial religion suitable for aristocratic patronage and adherence (see: Through the Eye of the Needle). During the Protestant Reformation, and down to the Second Great Awakening, this turn toward the elites has been asserted by radical Christians of a “primitive” bent to have been an error, at variance from the fundamental core of the faith (see: Restorationism)). That may be true, but until the Enlightenment the general outline of the Christian relationship to the political order was exactly the one promoted by St. Augustine and his heirs in the 5th century. That was Christianity. For non-believers what Christianity should have been is irrelevant. What Christianity was and is is the primary concern.

In other words, what Dreher, Sullivan, and many others see as the cause of social and cultural phenomena may actually be the product of that phenomena in the first place (e.g., the oppressive and Machiavellian aspects of Muhammad and the early Muslim community being a function of the fact that early Islam had to deal with almost immediate profane temporal power). Jesus may have been born in a violent Roman Empire, and ultimately the subject of violent acts from the Roman authorities and his enemies among other Jews, but he was heir to a relatively non-violent tradition among the Pharisees (what became Talmudic Judaism and later Orthodox Judaism) which eventually achieved near total acceptance among Jews* after the defeat of Simon bar Kokhba. It is famously pointed out by many that many of the more conciliatory Surahs promulgated by Muhammad date to the period when the Muslim community was weak, while the more hegemonic ones were when the community was hegemonic. This goes to the point that specific context influences the weight of values which are expressed at the founding of a religion. The early Christians and Jews lived under a Roman dominion which was far more powerful than the tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia, and there was no realistic possibility that they could overturn the pagan order (as evidenced by the outcomes of the quixotic Jewish revolts of the 1st and 2nd century, which totally obliterated Jewish militancy).

But this brings me to the more fundamental issue. Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit. This is a difficult issue to approach, because even believers who are vague on peculiarities of the details of theology (i.e., nearly all of them!) nevertheless espouse that theology as true. Very few Christians that I have spoken to actually understand the substance of the elements of the Athanasian Creed, though they accept it on faith. Similarly, very few Sunni Muslims could explain with any level of coherency why al-Ghazali‘s refutation of the Hellenistic tendency within early Islam shaped their own theology (if they are Sunni it by definition does!). Conversely, very few Shia could explain why their own tradition retains within its intellectual toolkit the esoteric Hellenistic philosophy which the Sunni have rejected. That’s because almost no believers actually make recourse to their own religion’s intellectual toolkit.

This is the hard part for many intellectuals, religious or irreligious, to understand. For intellectuals ideas have consequences, and they shape their lives. Their religious world view is naturally inflected by this. And most importantly they confuse their own comprehension of religious life, the profession of creeds rationally understand and mystical reflection viscerally experienced, with modal religiosity. This has important consequences, because intellectuals write, and writing is permanent. It echoes down through the ages. Therefore our understanding of the broad scope of religious history is naturally shaped by how intellectuals view religion. In a superficial sense the history of religion is the history of theology, because theology is so amenable to preservation.

To give a concrete example of the confusions that false theoretical commitments can entail, one can model the Reformation as being caused in a necessary and sufficient fashion by Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses. And yet what of radicals such as John Wycliffe and Jan Huss? Arguably Catharism was theologically and institutionally more radical than any Christian mass movement before the 19th century (the Munster Rebellion failed, abortive attempts before Mormonism to reshape Christianity’s Nicene root never took). An excessively materialist reduction of the Reformation is that the arrival of the printing press meant that the Roman Catholic church’s ideological monopoly was no longer enforceable. This seems entirely too pat. Not only that, but though the Reformation resulted in greater ideological diversity at the institutional level, the pre-Tridentine Renaissance Church was quite theologically diverse (this was one of the major criticisms of the “reformers”!). A more thorough understanding of the forces, inevitable and contingent, which led to the outbreak of Europe’s religious fracture in the 16th century surely has to include the diverse social and culture forces shaping people at the time, as well the specific personality of Martin Luther and his confederates.

And yet though Luther’s personality may have had some effect on the initial shape of the Reformation, it seems that to some extent a reordering of the Renaissance Church was inevitable, and if not Luther, then someone else. In other words personalities and ideas are necessary, but the Reformation was frankly not rate limited in terms of theology. There are always many ideas floating around suitable for selection. Theological innovation can not operate on the historical scale without much broader social forces which enable it to flourish (e.g., Hungarian Unitarianism, which has Italian intellectual roots, owes it existence to the patronage of a prince). And importantly the institutional Protestant movements themselves imposed severe checks as excessive theological innovation once intellectuals began to turn against the historic traditions of ancient Christian church (e.g., the Trinity, which is not derivable sola scriptura in any obvious sense).

Ultimately my own personal revelation on these issues occurred in the mid-aughts. Though I have always been skeptical of God, and an explicit and self-conscious atheist from childhood on, I found religious beliefs peculiar and difficult to comprehend in any intuitive sense. This led me early on to reading the source texts and scriptures, as well as theological commentaries (e.g., Summa Theologica, and I’ve read the whole of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament multiple times, and Genesis dozens). In this way I felt I understood on some deep level why people were religious. But I was wrong. When I read Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust it opened up a whole landscape of cognitive anthropology which explained with much greater accuracy the paradoxes of religious belief and behavior with which I was confronted. The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology. A deductive theory of religion derived from axioms of creed fails in large part because there is no evidence that the vast majority of religious believers have internalized the sophisticated aspects of their theologies and scriptures in any deep and substantive sense. To give a concrete example, Sri Lankan Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims can give explicit explanations to at least a rudimentary level as to the differences of their respective religious beliefs. But when prompted to explain their understanding of the supernatural in a manner which was unscripted, and which was not amenable to a fall back upon indoctrinated verbal formulas, their conceptions of god(s) were fundamentally the same! (see: Theological Incorrectness). The superficiality of theological system building is also evident in the fact that when confronted with radicalism derived from the logic of shared axioms during the Reformation prominent Protestant thinkers fell back upon tradition and revelation to defend the common creeds inherited from the early Roman church.

And that is why one should always been cautious of taking theology, textual analysis, and intellectualism too seriously when it comes to religion. Mathematicians can derive proofs from logical analysis. Those proofs are invariant across individuals and subcultures. They are true in a fundamental sense. Though natural science attempts to validate and refine theories and formal models which are robust, it fails when there is no empirical check upon the model building. Outside of pure math our powers of ratiocination are overwhelmed by subjective decisions along the chain of propositions. Separate theologians and have them derive from first principles, and there will be no similarity in their final inferences about the nature of God and the universe. Elite theological conformity is a function of social conformity, not the power of intellectual rigor. When isolation is imposed upon a community of religious believers for any given period of time they are almost always defined by a rapid shift toward heterodoxy, as they lose contact with the broader elite consensus (see: Dao of Muhammad as an example of how strongly an alien milieu can totally transform a familiar religious group unless that subculture remains in contact with the broader community).

Theology is not a cause of any great robustness on the macro scale. Nor does it explain much of micro scale behavior. Where does that leave us to be “serious” about religion? As Noah Millman stated it requires a deep program of empirical analysis and research of massive multi-disciplinary scope. Almost no one is interested in such a program from what I have seen. In my post below several readers ask why I think Islam is inherently violent. After reading this I think you now understand I don’t think this at all, I don’t think Islam is inherently anything. When it comes to religious phenomena I am very much a nominalist. One could say that I’m a nominalist when it comes to the species concept, and I am, but species have much more clear and distinct bounded phenomenological structure than religion does. Rather, when I say that Islamic extremists are qualitatively not like Christian extremists, I am making a descriptive and empirical observation, without much theoretical baggage. My interlocutors have a difficult time comprehending this because to be frank I don’t expect many of them to have thought about religious phenomena in more than a superficial fashion in ideologically motivated arguments. Or, more often, ideologically motivated quorums of consensus.

On many specific issues I agree with Rod Dreher a great deal when it comes to Islam. I do think too many Muslims and their liberal fellow travelers attempt to squelch justified critique of the religion by making accusations of bigotry (I’m on the receiving end regularly). Obviously I disagree with that. But, where I part with Rod is his “theory of religion.” As a religious believer with a deep intellectual predisposition I doubt Rod Dreher and I will be able to agree on the primal point at issue. Not only do I believe that the theologies of all religion are false, but I believe that they’re predominantly just intellectual foam generated from the churning of broader social and historical forces. Some segments of the priestly class will always find institutional politics exhausting, mystical experience out of their character, and legal commentaries excessively mundane. These will be drawn to philosophical dimension of religious phenomena. Which is fine as far as it goes, but too often there is an unfortunate tendency toward reducing religion to just this narrow dimension. But I have minimal confidence that most people will accept that the Christianity church has little to do with Jesus and that Islam has little to do with Muhammad. And yet I think that’s the truth of it….

Addendum: I don’t write these posts often to clarify my viewpoints because I’ve written them before. Here’s one from 2006. Between then and now I have no sense that people have bothered to actually read and understand the phenomena which they have such passionate and confident views of.

* Naturally Hellenistic Jews went even further in reconciling themselves with Roman power, by assimilating into Greco-Roman culture more thoroughly.

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Comments (55)

  1. TheBrett

    I’m reading former FBI agent Ali Soufan’s book The Black Banners about his interactions and interrogations with Islamic terrorists, and it matches that general description of believers as being ignorant of much of their religion except as it pertains to social identification. He describes several times about how the fanatics he caught were often quite ignorant of Islamic theology or the Quran – their religion was just a pastiche of arguments and rationales that served to identify “them” as defenders against “the crusaders/infidels”, and give them the ideological ground to do whatever they felt was necessary (such as terrorist attacks against non-combatants).

    I think Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all such so that people who want to do violence to other people can find reasons to do it in the respective religions, even if it explicitly says otherwise. It’s just that the roughly speaking “Islamic region” (North Africa, Central Asia, Middle East, South Asia) has enough conflicts going around with combatants searching for justifications that said combatants chose to interpret whatever elements from it that they found useful for their battles. Soufan mentions how the “Takfir” concept of justification for murdering insufficiently Islamic people came out of North Africa, whose combatants needed a justification for the terrorism and war they were waging against fellow Muslims in places like Algeria and chose to use a medieval interpretation that had little credence elsewhere until then.

    • razibkhan

      no need to limit to abrahamic religions. the identification with therevada with nationalism in sri lanka and myanmar has similar features. one thing one can defend that islam has some specially brutal characteristics in the modern age. but it is not sui generis.

    • razibkhan

      He describes several times about how the fanatics he caught were often quite ignorant of Islamic theology or the Quran

      also, this is a general issue. the vast majority of believers are VERY fuzzy on what they believe in the details to the level of precision than any intellectual would find satisfying. and yet despite this fuzziness they will go to war over what they “believe.” the question is: are they going to war over beliefs that they don’t even comprehend with any clarity? i don’t think so. rather, there are other factors, and religious identity is a very useful channel for various motivations.

  2. Re: religions aren’t inherently anything….Playing devil’s advocate, don’t the *average* “traits” of religions (I.e. violence) vary? The average rate of violence (over a long term) for Quakers is very low. For Islam it is high. Couldn’t this qualify as being inherently violent? Everyone thinks their position is reasonable, especially when averaged out. It’s the margins that matter. That is where the concrete difference lies, no? Otherwise there’d be no reason to compare them. I wouldn’t have a problem with someone saying Nationalism is inherently violent because, for all intents, it *is* even though the vast majority of Nationalists don’t do what Anders Breivik did. See what I am getting at?
    Also, to be clear, there’s no actual evidence jesus or mohammed existed, right?

    • razibkhan

      – the point about averages is good. i’ve brought it up years ago. never gains traction with people. people aren’t good with distributions

      – comparing quakers to muslims isn’t appropriate. quakers are a radical sect of protestants. muslims includes all muslims. you have to compare christians to muslims.

      Also, to be clear, there’s no actual evidence jesus or mohammed existed, right?

      the evidence isn’t rock solid. but i think it is likely that they did. or that these individuals are representations of real people who resembled them in their broad outlines.

  3. Razib, what do you make of Rodney Stark’s work on the historical consequences of monotheism?

    • razibkhan

      it’s an OK book. that series got progressively more shoddy. and that book got really weird at the end too. stark became an evangelical xtian at some point in the past 10 years, and he writes in there that the trinity is actually the ideal number to further human relationship to the divine (one is too few, more than three is too many).

  4. Justin Giancola-Bailey

    It’s been a while since one of these…(mega posts) must wait till after finals… good form though, religion seems to bring it out; I tend to learn a lot from your expertise here.

  5. While I tend to agree with most of what you said in general, my understanding is at least some groups which embraced Buddhism, like Tibetans and Mongols, had a fairly rapid transformation from expansionist peoples with a warlike reputation among their neighbors to rather “polite” local actors. Doesn’t this suggest that religious conversion can reshape a society just as much as a society reshapes the religion upon adoption?

    • razibkhan

      not true of mongols. see for example:

      more importantly, both the yuan and manchu dynasties patronized tibetan buddhism, almost as if it was the personal religion of the royal family (also, the manchus had close relationships with the genghiside lineages of eastern mongolia, and may have been descended from genghis’ brother khasr, so that might be pacification through co-option.

      the tibetan case might seem better, but i’m not sure that it shows causality. the tibetan empire’s decline seems to pre-date the rise of its exclusively buddhist identity. i suppose could argue that being a people at prayer dampened militancy, but keep in mind that they partnered with powerful outside actors after 1000 AD, mongols, and later the manchus.

    • razibkhan

      some, “some groups” here are exceptions to the rule, right? in japan and southeast asian (and central asia) buddhism played a role analogous christianity in northern europe, it facilitated centralized state formation. in china buddhism did not make the chinese any more or less warlike (though buddhism was originally patronized by northern barbarian dynasts).

  6. razibkhan

    Certain aspects of Hindu theology made a deep impression on me as a teenager – notably

    on you. for most of indian history most hindus were illiterate, and the vedanta was the purview of some brahmins. hinduism as such was devotionalism, not mysticism and philosophical reflection.

    • JS

      Not so fast…if Hindus, as a majority, were illiterate it wouldn’t stop them from accepting universal modes of “Hindu-ness”, as understood & propagated by the Brahmins & rulers. You don’t need to be an everyday reader of the Bhagvad Gita to understand, through your normal temple-going & listening to effective guru-teachers, that doing the right thing & not obsessing over the rewards of your actions is the essence of one’s religion.

      I came here from Sullivan’s blog, & read carefully what he extracted from your above passage which I didn’t read completely, but I think you’re missing it by a mile when you say that the theological foundations, going back millenia even, don’t inform one’s practice of one’s religion. If a religion was founded, or at least used immediately on its founding, as a pretext for imperial & material ambitions & it’s founder gloried in conquest & coercion, you will always have the fringe, which is there in every religion but which becomes a problem only in cases like this, using that as justification & even as a requirement to take just that aspect as the essence of religion, & doing horrific acts/damage. Throw the supposed inerrancy of the founder, & the holy book ascribed to him, & you’ve got a formula for a regressive, violent fringe defining your religion in ways that are completely at odds with the modernity & liberal, secular values widely considered as a pre-requisite for any civilized society today.

      There has to be a mass movement in Islam where clerics & academics en masse, along with the masses, stand up for peace for peace’s sake, just as there is that core in all other world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

      • razibkhan

        , & you’ve got a formula for a regressive, violent fringe defining your religion in ways that are completely at odds with the modernity & liberal, secular values widely considered as a pre-requisite for any civilized society today.

        this is not an incredible innovation. the atheist savarkar helped give a push to a hindu particularism which resembles the islamic ones in many of these details. my point is that you can define your religion however you want.

        and finally i don’t grant that priestly classes have as much influence as you seem to assume. there’s plenty of social science how irrelevant theology, so we don’t need your intuition.

  7. razibkhan

    i’ve read that the ummayad abbasid transition in 750 produced a great winnowing. there may have been multiple authorized korans floating about, but it was during the abbasids that people converged upon one version.

  8. Bob Gifford

    I think you are missing an important area in which theology has a definite impact on religious belief. This is the middle ground between the micro- and macro- realms. In Christianity, individual denominations or church affiliations have very clear theologies that impact what is said every Sunday from the pulpit. Individual members may have no appreciation for the underlying theology, but through the educational, ordination and policing process, denominations enforce a theological understanding among their clergy, and hence what is taught to a congregation. However, the impact on an individual may be minor, since individuals will self-select so that they are hearing what they want to hear from their church. And when summed over the entire body of Christians, the result is more a reflection of sociological trends than theological purity. But drill down into the actions of a particular denomination and you’ll find their theology largely determines behavior, I believe.

    • razibkhan

      In Christianity, individual denominations or church affiliations have very clear theologies that impact what is said every Sunday from the pulpit.

      this is not true aside from a few very conservative reformed denominations in the USA. some really nerdy christians have an interest in something like five points calvinism, but really there’s not that much difference between presbyterians and methodists from what i can tell. though i’d be curious if some empirical information could refute that.

      • Jonathan Gress

        Well there’s the old Weber argument that modern capitalism owes itself to Calvinist doctrine. In Catholic teaching, you always have the opportunity to repent, so the temptation is to put off good works until later. Hence, the dysfunctional economies of Catholic societies. Under Calvinism, your salvation or damnation is already decided, but can be ascertained by good works. The incentive then is to prove to yourself that you are saved by not putting off tomorrow what you can do today. Now you have all these people striving to be as righteous as possible, hence the high degree of honesty and conscientiousness that is the basis of a functioning capitalist economy.

        • razibkhan

          Well there’s the old Weber argument that modern capitalism owes itself to Calvinist doctrine. In Catholic teaching, you always have the opportunity to repent, so the temptation is to put off good works until later. Hence, the dysfunctional economies of Catholic societies

          if you are going to bring up weber you should at least allude to the fact that the majority of economic historians now believe he was wrong on the empirical matter (i am aware that a minority of revisionists support weber). that is, reformed theological beliefs did not in fact correlate at all with the economic well being. additionally, when lacking in empirical data weber’s system building was glaringly falsified (e.g., he asserted than confucianism would prevent economic development and modernization in east asia).

          in any case, there’s clear evidence of the weakness of a weberian model in europe today:

          (the wealhiest extensive state in germany in staunchly catholic bavaria, fwiw)

  9. wygrif

    Thanks for this. It crystallized an inchoate intuition that I’d been turning over for awhile

  10. Jonathan Gress

    Here’s a thought concerning the role of theology, by which we mean an intellectually systematic presentation and argument for a religion. In the history of Christianity, heresies arose at various times. What’s interesting is that the systematic argument for orthodox theology was generally developed as a response to the heretical teaching. For example, we don’t see clear articulations of the doctrine of the Trinity until after various other doctrines that challenge orthodox Trinitiarianism, such as Arianism or Macedonianism, had arisen. Furthermore, what we don’t generally see is the orthodox position articulated first, followed by a heretical response. In fact, I can’t think of any examples right now. Protestantism may be thought of as a response to the clearer articulation of papal supremacy in the later Middle Ages, but Protestantism also rejected many much older doctrines that were not so well articulated, such as veneration of the saints.

    I suppose what this might mean is that despite the lack of a clear expository argument, what ultimately became codified as orthodox teaching did exist in some unexpounded form at an earlier stage. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain why the heresy provoked a reaction at all. Heresies were typically well-argued and at least superficially based on traditional sources of authority. Without a coherent orthodox position already articulated, it’s hard to see why heresy didn’t win the day unless people already in some sense believed what later became established as the orthodox teaching.

    Generally I agree that the experiential aspect of religion matters far more to most than the intellectual aspect. Some Christian traditions, such as the Eastern Orthodox, indeed emphasize the superiority of the experiential over the intellectual approach. But the intellectually systematic aspect of theology does seem to have its roots in something that is experienced. Perhaps that is what you meant by “intellectual foam”, but I’m not sure whether they can so easily be accounted for merely by “social and historical forces”. Maybe that’s better discussed in another post.

    • razibkhan

      But the intellectually systematic aspect of theology does seem to have its roots in something that is experienced.

      it’s experienced. but by very few (i don’t rate its substantive intellectual content highly, but that’s a different matter). even today theology in the west is abstruse and of limited impact and we live in a nearly universal literacy society.

      • Jonathan Gress

        Well how you rate the content probably depends on whether you accept all the givens, which as an atheist ex-Muslim I imagine you don’t. But the point I was making is that there is reason to believe that, at least historically, points of doctrine were in fact important to many “ordinary” believers. We have direct accounts of the doctrinal controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries in Christianity that suggest a great deal of popular concern with apparently fine-grained theological details. There is also what I said above, that people seemed to care very much about theological orthodoxy even before they had articulated orthodox doctrine in a systematic fashion.

        I wonder how much the widespread apathetic attitude towards theology you correctly report for today is a more recent phenomenon.

        • razibkhan

          1) i’m not an ex-muslim. i never believed in that religion.

          2) i’m familiar with that purported deep interest (i take a deep interest in byzantine history, see my interview with a byzantine historian). again, let me repeat, do not confuse elite intellectual fixations with the passions of the masses. i absolutely do not believe that the citizens of constantinople were disputing finer points of arian and athanasian theology, or chalcedonian and miasphsyte positions. certainly the passions of the populace was motivated toward action by sectarian divisions, but this does not mean that they actually understood the theology with any great depth. the conflict between the blues and the reds nearly brought justinian down, but obviously it was nothing more than mob tribalism (there have been attempts to map it onto theological or class divisions, but they seem relatively implausible, seeing as they did unite against the imperial authority during the aforementioned riots). additionally, oriental orthodox churches have been known to shift between radically opposite theologies rather quickly, all in opposition to chalcedonian orthodoxy.

          so again, tell me something i don’t know.

          • Patrick Wyman

            It’s far more likely that the elite authors of the texts describing the Constantinopolitan disturbances projected their own theological concerns onto the masses, or that those purported beliefs had an ethnic or other function in group identity. The sources are so opaque and focused on the minute conflicts in a context whose details (which are what make the texts’ arguments meaningful) are completely lost to us.

          • razibkhan

            yeah, that’s my assumption too.

  11. razibkhan

    no serious historian posits that today. you might want to refer to scholarship less than a century old.

  12. Patrick Wyman

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve been commenting on the Dreher/Millman pieces at The American Conservative, and I took apart Dreher’s use of the Peaces/Truces of God as evidence of the peaceful bent of Christianity in the past, but he didn’t seem interested in engaging with explicit criticism of the limited basis for his argument. That wasn’t the point of Dreher’s piece, but it badly irked me (as a medieval historian) that he ignored the minimal impact of ecclesiastical efforts to corral the violent urges of the warrior nobility to exalt the ineffectual impulse to peace. At any rate, my criticism was very much in line with what you’ve written here: whatever the theological precepts of the dominant religion, aristocrats – be they Saudi princes today or 11th-century aristocrats like Fulk Nerra or William the Bastard – are going to do violent things with the complicity of their tribal adherents. If anything, medieval Christianity was worse than modern Islam, since it offered so many opportunities to exchange material goods and influence for salvation (donations to monasteries, pilgrimage, entering monasteries at the end of one’s life, etc.), thereby upending any incentive structure that might mitigate violent behavior.

    Dreher’s argument also misses the fact that violence meant differently to Christians in the past than it does today. It’s pretty generally accepted now that violence is inherently bad, but that hasn’t always been the case. Most authorities, from Augustine to Gratian and beyond, argued that the intentions behind that violence were what defined it as good or bad. There’s my jeremiad.

    • razibkhan

      rod would benefit from reading more about other religions not xtianity. many xtians who make arguments for the peculiar specialness of their religion would (actually, this is a general point to all religionists).

  13. Patrick Wyman

    The polemic was “Carnage and Culture”. Pretty terrible shoehorning of the evidence to fit the thesis, even by Hanson’s standards; his chapter on the 8th-century Franks as the standard-bearers of Western freedom was laughable.

  14. stargene

    No religious scholar here, but from points raised here by
    Dr. Khan, most commenters, and much of my reading
    and experience, it seems self-evident that the overwhelming force and impact of religions over the millennia has been more as a tool for interests and forces whose own centers-of-gravity operated usually outside of traditionally stated religious dogma. Though for many centuries, the loci of highest religious and secular powers were often one and the same, in for example Medieval Christianity and Islam, ancient
    states of the Fertile Crescent, Egypt.

    The power of highest level classes and castes to
    co-opt and even suborn other elements, forces and groupings in societies, to reflect the longer range interests of the true economic/social elites is a fair constant in the life of nations. Religion is not only
    no exception, it is of its very vague and nebulous
    nature, the most natural target, especially because
    it claims to address so many of the largest issues
    and questions of human existence, and promises a righteous, validating path in an otherwise apparently insanely dangerous world. Anything in any language, any culture that can seem to embody that kind of promise, has a powerful effect on mostly under-
    educated people, striving in pain and doubt and
    fear for meaning and decency, suffering long the Condition Humaine. Actually, Marx’s original
    lines about religion and the masses, usually mis-
    quoted, carries the highest pathos and sympathy
    for people straining under the awful weight of
    history and finding in religion a balm. Most theological efforts, abstractions and apologias have the cachet of adaptations, mutations, struggles to harmonize
    all too common and glaring gaps and contradiction.

    I should emphasize that the connection between
    all major religions and the larger engines of secular
    power are often very non-linear with feed-back
    loops, most of whose nexus yet lie still outside
    of the religious institution proper. The true
    reigns are held higher up than religion itself.

  15. strophariad

    “Theological innovation can not operate on the historical scale without much broader social forces which enable it to flourish.”

    Such forces limit many intellectual innovations, not just theological ones, though, especially when making this case in debates with linguistic-turn social theorists and those who construe religions as viruses of the mind, I present it as a Maslovian extension of the parable of the sower, aiming to peeve any, even my fellow atheists, who treat religion with contemptuous aversion and incurious dismissal.

  16. Fangorn

    While I quite like your observation that ‘theology’ arises out of broader social currents, I would be hesitant to conclude from that that intellectual traditions do not matter (especially for followers of that religion).

    As you point out, it is through translation that laws are codified, and it is because of the fact that writing is enduring that religious traditions ossify. In this way, a law that is progressive at time/within the context of where it was introduced can become a drag (from an emancipation perspective) later on, because church leaders treat the written word as eternal/revealed truth. Now, in times of religious stability this probably matters less (leaders can become more flexible because they’re not threatened), while in times of stress, the opposite occurs. Similarly, it was only because the specific message Jesus and his disciples sold caught on, and endured, that that specific trend caught on. In this light, while it is certainly true that jesus was not the only reformer, it is quite obvious that is message would likely have gotten lost had it not been for the fact that it was written down.

    What follows is that you/we need a better conception of what the difference between important/unimportant theology consists in, which focuses on conceptions of salvation/the afterlife/social progress (as in, related to those psychological intuitions you mention).

    • razibkhan

      enduring that religious traditions ossify.

      there’s no ossification. only the most crazy muslims today accept slavery, even though it’s obviously acceptable across most of islamic law. what seems to have ossified is religious labels. after a large amount of religion production 600 BC to 600 AD there seems to have been stasis.

  17. Joe Q.

    Great post, Razib — it’s going to take me a while to digest it. As I read it, though, I was thinking about how much your argument applies (or doesn’t apply) to Judaism in its most common form.

    On one hand, in Judaism there is a strong alignment between “belief” and study of traditional texts, and the most important stage in a man’s religious development is spending a few years (or more) in the yeshiva learning Talmud all day (learning and using the “intellectual toolkit”). This is far more widespread today than it was in the past, but even then, basic literacy was relatively high (among males) and most would have been well acquainted with “Chumash (Bible) with Rashi”. It’s difficult to see a Christian parallel to this — maybe in Byzantine times but certainly not in the Western sphere.

    On the other hand, the scope of this “intellectual toolkit” is almost entirely focused on decisions of civil law and ritual practice (kashrut, Sabbath laws, ritual purity, etc.) Theological speculation was traditionally discouraged for all but the elites and still is today (in Orthodoxy, only adult men of a certain age are permitted to study Kabbalah).

    Your thoughts?

    • razibkhan

      As I read it, though, I was thinking about how much your argument applies (or doesn’t apply) to Judaism in its most common form.

      judaism as we understand is a creature of its social milieu, which was/is late antiquity and christianity and islam. ‘orthodox judaism’ is a particular stream of jewish through which made it to modernity and was strongly shaped by christianity and islam. i think rabbinical judaism, like xtianity and islam, can be thought of as derived from ancient judaism.

  18. and then Kahn does to Niccolo what he claims Sullivan does to the Prophet 😉

  19. Marcus135

    I find it hard to discount that the contents of scripture determine the distribution of possible dogmas likely to emerge by a large degree. In my humble opinion, the interpretations of religous texts and the theological process that shapes dogma, must be a function of additional parameters than social conformity that also play substantial roles, such as the scripture’s relative ambiguousness and instructivness and the degree to which it tries to enforce its own integrity, all of which can surely differ depending on the writers’ understanding of sociology, religion and phenomenon such as social conformity! Another point, which might be to trivial to make, is if there are no explicit instructions on how to conduct a certain aspect of your life, then the different religious dogmas will have wider possible distribution, compared to scripture where this aspect is explicitly and clearly regulated. Additionally, the extent to which the formative era of a religion is recorded and held in respect and to some extent absorbed into scripture, ought to further limit the nature of any dogmas that can likely emerge.

    “That’s because almost no believers actually make recourse to their own religion’s intellectual toolkit.”
    The lack of theological expertise for the vast majority of believers does not feel like an obstacle to the extent of which scripture becomes a lived experience, as long as they are provided easily chewed normative values and instructions from religious authorities and the powers that be.

    “When isolation is imposed upon a community of religious believers for any given period of time they are almost always defined by a rapid shift toward heterodoxy”
    True, but in discussing theological development in todays landscape, it becomes a hypothetical. The isolated islands are now connected, and stronger dogmas, if so inclined, can reach and expand over local traditions, and prevent new ones from emerging.

    In Christanity, turning the other cheek and loving your enemy might be a good example of how little religious scripture matters for society – there’s an absurd amount of counter-examples throughout Christian history, and the strength of its call seemingly decreases exponentially with increasing distance to a church altar. But that might be more of a function of how utopian and unnatural it must have seemed to most people throughout history. Still, it might have acted as a tiny tug of gravity over time towards non-violence, although often made irrelevant by the fact that we humans, even in good circumstances, tend to be tribal and war-like.

    Either way, it is interesting as a contrast to Islam. Its outlook on many things seem more practical, rather than setting up utopian ideal. It seems styled as to be more compatible with human nature, increasing chances of specific instructions being adopted. Its outlook on violence, permissable in some circumstances, and its sanctioning of defensive wars and the killing of your (religion’s) enemies, follows in that vein, and probably would resonate well with most human morals through history.

    And so while I observe the same differences as you in the nature of some religions’ “fundamentalists” today, I find it hard not to draw some conclusions as to why this difference seem pervasive – that it is to some extent rooted in scripture and the way fundamentalists in general tend to interprent it. Also it seem possible to draw some pessimistic conclusions about the probability of these dogmatic circumstances disappearing over time.

    • razibkhan

      I find it hard to discount that the contents of scripture determine the distribution of possible dogmas likely to emerge by a large degree

      scripture is too broad to constrain. additionally, secondary stuff (e.g., ‘oral law’, ‘sunnah’) get added on.

      Its outlook on many things seem more practical, rather than setting up utopian ideal

      fair observation. but the hard core ‘textualists’ (e.g., salafists) rapidly become crazy and utopian.

  20. razibkhan

    The only oriental christian community I know of that shifted from Nestorian to Monophysite was the St Thomas Christians in India. Which others were there?

    if i recall my peter brown correctly the same occurred with multiple ‘oriental’ (non-chalcedonian) groups on the border between persia and byzantium, in part due to political considerations (e.g., is affiliation with the persian church useful?). additionally, something similar has happened in the past few centuries with factional rivalry in iraq christendom to mix & match between nestorian (church of the east), oriental orthodox, and roman catholic uniatism.

    I’m talking about the mere fact that common, uneducated Christians seemed to care enough about correct doctrine to get into fights over it. Where would these sectarian divisions come from otherwise?

    tribalism. though some of the greatest monophysite theologians were greek speakers, over time that identification became associated with non-greek populations skeptical of a ‘melkite’ (imperial affiliation). the theology is synatic sugar, and ontological justification.

  21. St. David

    “The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology.”

    While I agree with most of your essay, the supposed nature of this shift in perspective baffles me.

    Surely, it is not an achievement of cognitive sciene (!) to view religiousness in terms of its existential, mental, and social functions. That is and always has been the purview of the philosophy of religion, psychology, as well as the sociology of religion. Religion and religiousness have been studied regarding these functions for as long as the respective disciplines exist. Some, David Hume for example, have made inquiries and theories along all three lines, albeit during an early stage of empirical science, to be sure.
    I readily acknowledge that cognitive science can add to this – that is, enlighten some psychological theories and explanations. But the goals and methodologies are neither new nor dependent on cognitive science at all.

    • razibkhan

      But the goals and methodologies are neither new nor dependent on cognitive science at all.

      psychology is more fundamental than sociology or history. also, i don’t see that philosophy of religion really is relevant to understand religion as a broad-based phenomenon. you should be able to infer the last from my post.

  22. razibkhan

    Does theology simply create a coherent framework for useful worship within the group exposed to it

    intellectuals create theology.

    Do we really know, as many atheists vociferously claim, that elimination of religion will improve human society?

    depending on how you define religion, all things equal i think probably not.

  23. razibkhan

    I may be wrong here but the History of the Jews is much longer than that of the Romans.

    right, but besides the point

    1) jews were overshadowed by powers such as babylon, persian, the diadochi, well before rome

    2) the period of dominion is very formative for jews. one could argue that the true root of judaism is in the babylonian exile community, which returned over cyrus and ‘reformed’ palestinian practices

  24. razibkhan

    I don’t really agree with this. The Babylonian Talmud is a product of Sassanid Persia and was substantially complete before the rise of Islam. Its discussions of non-Jews deal far more with pagans, Zoroastrians, occasionally other groups (perhaps early Christians, but not the Church itself). To the extent that later law codes deal with interactions with Muslims and Christians, it is in the context of how to fit them into the Talmudic categories (“pagan” or “sectarian” vs. “Jew”). Hence the debates about whether Christianity is a polytheistic religion, etc.

    this is a good point. one thing that you need to take into account: mesopatamia under the sassanids in the 6th century was predominantly christian. in particular, the church of persia. so their milieu was already xtian, though under the sassanids christianity was not a privileged religion.

    but, i think the the subsequent period under islam and xtianity was important in shaping what judaism became. from what i recall about the talmud there are many references in this early period to farming, but obviously that is not relevant to later periods, when jews became insulated into a specific set of occupational niches which were considered unclean or unacceptable for muslims and xtians.

    The Near Eastern and Spanish philosophers (Maimonides, etc.) drew a lot on Aristotle by way of the Muslim world, but I don’t know how integral this was to Islam at the time.

    this was the period when sunni islam turned against philosophy. but it was an integral part of the islamic intellectual scene, with some of the greatest thinkers of the period taking sides (e.g., ibn sin and al-ghalazi). the philosophical content is preserved in shia groups.

  25. I have been thinking about this essay over the last day. A few thoughts.

    1. A lot of the examples in the body of this post and in the comments in the
    thread are either very ancient (Christianity in Roman and Byzantine times,
    Hinduism in Med. India, Islam in Tang China) or very recent (terrorists in the ME today, Evangelicals in 21st century America). It seems obvious to me that Razib’s point will hold true with the majority of premodern examples – literacy was restricted to the elite. Much of what we call premodern “culture” was restricted to the elite. Thus theology and scriptures could only have a shallow effect on the masses below.

    One of Razib’s most convincing points is that most believers do not know their own theology, thus it can’t do much to them. This was obviously true in the old days, when education among most believers was nil. It is also true in societies with low amounts of education (say, Warizistan). In modern America the masses get plenty of education, but theology is rarely part of it.

    But that has not always been so. Antebellum America might be a good counter exmple here. (And since Razib has What God Hath Wrought onthe list of his books over there, I am pretty sure we can have an intelligent conversation on this one). c. 1825 America was the most literate nation in the world. Almost everybody gained this literacy through reading the Bible; the common stereotype (promoted by Tocqueville, Chevalier, and other European visitors) was that every log cabin had its Bible. (The other common reading material was newspapers – here again Americans led the world, fully claimingthe most informed citizenry of any nation. “Every hamlet had its paper.”) Religion permeated society in a way that most modern Americans fail to understand – speeches, books, and newspapers were littered with allusions and
    references to Biblical passages (many pretty obscure to modern readers –
    anybody here know what “gathering of Israel” means?”), camp meetings were common and religious debates one of the most common types of
    public entertainment, nd the majority of folks went to Church and read their family Bibles – even through doing so was a much larger burden on a people far poorer than us and possessing far less free time. These people were religiously literate in a way Americans are not today and Romans were not 2,000 years ago.

    So can a case be made that religion changed the daily actions of the people of this time? I think a fair case can be made. The young republic was full of millennial groups and utopian religious communities who literally left their lives behind in pursuit of a religious ideal. The most successful of these groups, the Mormons, convinced some 50,000 people to get up and move across the country – and most of them were not rich intellectuals, but middle class Americans farmers or poor English workers whose readings did not stray to much from the Bible. More broadly, the explosion of civic activism of the time mirrored the Second Great Awakening – the same
    people involved in camp meetings were the same people involved in temperance movement, colonization societies, prison reform, abolitionism, etc. Part of this may simply be attributed to the institutional support structure offered by religious groups and the national network of ‘concerned individuals’ it leveraged. But these men and women claimed religious motivations for what they were doing, and I’d wager the average man among them new his religion far better than the average terrorist today knows his Quran.
    The temperance movement is a good example – it followed the routes of iterant methodist preachers, exhorted listeners with religious language and Biblical argument, and was massively successful, dropping alcohol consumption in America by a factor of eight before the Civil War.

    So whatdya think? Does antebellum America count as a society where theology was serious?

    • Another example from a slightly earlier time but along a similar theme:

      “A farmer who had fought at Concord Bridge on the first day of battle in the American Revolutionary War “declared that he had never heard of Locke or Sidney, his reading having been limited to the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac.”

      Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America (1999), 95

  26. Mike Choi

    Is even higher education supposed to make people more tolerant? Or is it rather so it concentrate people, who are more tolerant?

  27. That “Right v Left” generalization is a very broad brush, and I understand why people use it. As someone who is more “left” than “right,” I don’t have any illusions that Islam is any more of a religion of peace than Christianity or Judaism, or even Buddhism, for that matter.

    I believe this dichotomy of right and left is too simple a way of describing peoples’ social identification. I am left on economic policy, but anti-authoritarian on social issues and so I would be curious as to where people in my particular quadrant of that grid perceive Islam in regard to the violence of its adherence.

  28. John Fuerst

    This is like arguing: “Because liberals today are unlike liberals of yesterday, political ideologies don’t influence behavior.” And: “Because Joe-liberal can’t articulate Rawl’s theory of justice, political philosophy is epiphenomenal.” I don’t buy it.

  29. Justin Giancola-Bailey

    Duuude…If you read all of Summa Theologica you are the man!…that is incredible.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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