When religion goes berserk!

I guess it is unlikely you have not already heard about the big brouhaha that erupted when Bill Donohue targeted PZ Myers for showing disrespect towards a belief that made some religious nuts go crazy and violent against a child (yes, Eucharist is just a cracker, sorry, but that is just a factual statement about the world). If not, the entire story, and it is still evolving, can be found on PZ's blog so check out the numerous comments here, here,
here, here, here, here and here.

Also see what Greg Laden and Tristero say. [Update: see also John Wilkins and Mike Dunford for some good clear thinking on the issue.]

Of course, since it is Bill Donohue, everyone's favorite douche-bag, I went to see what is said on the blogs of my other two friends who, quite recently, had to survive the army of ogres that Donohue can send to make good people's lives miserable - Melissa and Amanda.

On Shakesville, Jeff Fecke wrote about it.

On Pandagon, it is Jesse Taylor (yes, he is back there on his old blog) who wrote about this today (as Amanda is in a middle of a move and offline).

Both posts also triggered an interesting round of comments.

So, go and check out all those links, spend several hours immersed in this topic, and you'll both learn a lot and get really, really angry (at whom? That's your choice).

But while I was at Pandagon I also saw that Amanda started reading (and blogging about) Dawkins' "The God Delusion" (I never wrote a real book review of it, but most of what I intended to say found its way into some posts of mine, e.g., here, here, here and here). The initial post triggered an interesting discussion in the comments, so Amanda added some clarifications which triggered another round of interesting comments.

The main question in both of those Pandagon thread is how to define religion. The focus is on what people believe, thus there is a lot of parsing the words going on, trying to define "God". "personal god", "supernatural", etc. This is important as the second recurring question in those threads is if Stalinism/Maoism is a religion or not.

If you have been reading my blog for a very looooong time, back at the time when I used to write about religion (and politics) much more often, you may recall that I think of religion in somewhat different terms. I think that the main reason religions evolved is to ensure group cohesion. In other words, I think that the social aspect of religion is the most important one and that other aspects - beliefs, canonical works, behavioral rules, priestly hierarchy, ceremonies, etc. - are additions that in some way help ensure the group cohesion. This is why I was really mad at both Dawkins and Dennet for their outright dismissal and refusal to even consider the group-selectionist ideas of David Sloan Wilson whose book, Darwin's Cathedral, although thin on data, is in my mind the best-laid-out hypothesis and the most promising avenue for future research on the evolution of religion. For the same reason, I think that Dawkins' and Dennett's infatuation with memes is misplaced and that the memetics will be pretty useless in this endeavor (or in any endeavor for that matter - it is an immature photocopy of sociology and linguistics with new terminology).

What does it really mean "group cohesion"? In the olden days, this was a feeling of belonging and loyalty to one's own tribe - obviously maladapted to the modern world of multicultural societies, global economy, fast travel, instant communication and overpopulation. The inevitable result of group cohesion is the division of the world into an in-group and out-group. Members of the in-group are friends to be defended, while the members of the out-group, barely human, are to be detested and, when possible, killed.

For the group cohesion to work, one HAS to, by definition, feel that one's group is superior to all other groups. This sense of superiority is enhanced by the additional "attachments" that may differ between different religious traditions, e.g., the belief in an inerrancy of the leader who gets orders directly from the group's omnipotent god(s), various trance-inducing chants and dances, behavioral rules, sacred books, etc. All of these also promote internal policing by the group - those of "weak faith" are detected and punished mainly by other members, not necessarily by any kind of official armed forces, though some groups may use the latter as well.

In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is further enhanced by the sense of insecurity as "the other" is portrayed as much more dangerous than reality warrants - this persecution complex is a great way to ensure that all group-members "stick together" and severely punish the members who question the wisdom of the leaders, beliefs and behaviors.

In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is also enhanced by adding another layer of personal sense of insecurity - the strict sexual norms render both men and women insecure: the men do the macho man-bonding stuff in order to keep each other courageous (those who survive wars will get to breed in the end, after all), while women try to find security by exchanging sex for protection with powerful men.

To go back to the question of Stalinism/Maoism as a religion, if one looks at the religion as group coherence mechanism detached from what people believe, then the answer is Yes - those were religions (and so is being a Republican, for what that matters). But I will try to support this statement with the example I know best - that of Yugoslavia:

Yugoslavia is a good case study because, unlike in any other ex-communist country, religion was never banned: churches were open, had regular services, the Seminary had students, etc. Thus, the argument that people in communist countries did not go to church because it was a crime goes out of the window. In Yugoslavia, they did not go to church anyway although they could, it was not a crime, and nobody could say anything about it to them. Sure, you could go to services and see a handful of very old people there, but most of the population just had no need to do so.

Laughing at religion (by the state and in schools) quickly led to the new generations (after WWII) to grow as atheists. People visited each other for Christmas or their family's Saint's Day mainly to meet and eat: there was not much in terms of religion at those events at people's homes. My father, an atheist, went to church on Sundays to sing in the choir because he loved the music and loved to sing (I went with him a couple of time and sang myself).

So, if people were generally not believing in sky-fairies, what happened to the evolved human need for group cohesion? Oh, it was there all right! We had a huge sense of national superiority - we really believed that Yugoslavia was the best country in the world evah! And that Tito was the bestest, nicest, smartest President of any country in history evah! We had our ceremonies (especially Tito's birthday: a multi-week relay-race similar to the carrying of the Olympic torch culminating with a gymnastics event at which the baton was given to Tito himself). There was Tito's picture in every classroom. In school we had competitions who knows more about Tito's (official) biography, similar to science and math competitions.

All the trappings of religion were there: insecurity (squeezed between the Big Bad USSR in the east and the Big Bad USA in the west), leader-worship, sacraments, holy places (Tito's birth-home in Kumrovac), holy books (his biography, as well as Das Kapitaal), the superiority complex - the works. While Tito-worship was absent from my home (my Dad was a loud and angry Tito-basher and cusser), it took leaving the country and reading up on stuff before I shed some of the Yugoslavia-is-the-best ideas myself.

How did that all happen, and so fast? During the first decade or so after the WWII, Tito was a typical dictator, ruling with Iron Fist, destroying the political opposition, etc. But later, he switched to a different tactic: he did everything in his power to get people to love him, not fear him. Unlike people like Causescu or Stalin (or his successor Milosevic, universally reviled at home), he did not need a powerful security force any more, or spies infiltrating the populace. He gave us an illusion of freedom - while one could not start a new political party or write anti-Tito screeds in the newspapers, it was perfectly safe to cuss him out in a bar - see, you are free to criticize the Leader!

He was good at manipulating the international community as well - by refusing to align himself with either the East or the West, he got both to fawn over him. By founding the Non-aligned movement, he got friendship of the other 150 or so world leaders of smaller nations. Loans and business deals were coming in truck-loads. The economy grew at the 2nd fastest rate (after Japan) for a while. Almost everyone had a decent place to live, a decent job, a decent car, decent modern clothes and other stuff. Dinar was exchanged in all banks around the world (just try exchanging zlota or roubles at the time!). Everyone could easily get a passport and travel anywhere in the world (it was a highly valued passport as it could take you from Moscow to Washington and back without the customs officials on either side giving you a second degree). Everyone went to Greece or Italy or Cyprus for summer vacations. To England to study the language. To Austria, Germany or Sweden to work and send money home. One could build a factory and employ up to 50 people and participate in a market economy of sorts.

Why bother politically organizing against him when the life is so good? Why bother politically organizing against him when you cannot get enough supporters for your cause anyway as everyone loves the guy?

The feeling of Yugoslav supremacy also kept nationalism in check. While in 1948 one could expect to end up in jail for singing a nationalist song, later on, it was just un-PC: you would get jumped on by the people around you for being such a backwards schmuck. This worked especially well in the bigger cities as you could not know what the nationalities of people around you were.

Also, the education that combined promotion of Yugoslav supremacy, "brotherhood and unity", "imagine there's no countries", multiculturalism, europeanism, internationalism, atheism and yes, science, resulted in new generations of people (including myself) completely identifying with Yugoslavia. The words "Serbia", "Croatia", "Bosnia", etc. had no emotional meaning to us - those were just place-names for some administrative sub-divisions of the country. We were born into the Yugoslav religion. No need for God or church when we had Tito and the Party.

In rural places, where it is likely that all people were of the same ethnicity, nationalism could survive under the surface. Due to weaker education, some level of religiosity (as in "God belief", not just group cohesion) could survive as well.

Then Tito died in 1980. The inerrant leader was gone. What he left behind was a governing system designed to prevent a rise of another dictator - an eight-member collective Presidency that had to rule by consensus. The eight idiots on the Presidency could not agree on anything, so nothing ever got done.

Gdansk happened in 1980 as well. Reagan got elected in 1980 as well, with his Red Scare rhetoric. Europe was in the incipient and very painful stages of unification. Brezhnev, Tchernenko and Andropov died one after another and then this new guy, Gorbachov, came in with some weird new ideas. Everyone was nervous - the world was starting to lose stability it had for decades.

And there was no Tito with his charisma to go around the world making friends for us. The World Bank started asking for some repayment of the old debts. As a result, the economy started sinking. With the economy sinking, with no Tito, with no obvious love coming from other countries (and some critical words as well), the feeling of Yugoslav superiority crumbled. Insecurity breeds a need for belonging to a group, yet the main group everyone belonged to was getting weaker by the day. What to do, where to go? To church, of course. Suddenly, the churches were over-flowing with young people!

Yet, those young people were atheists in the sense they did not believe in God or Bible or miracles or any of that supernatural stuff. They did not go to church to find God, they went for the sense of community and security. The churches knew that and, instead of pushing God too strongly (thus alienating all those new kids), they emphasized community. But, here's a catch - that community was also the ethnic community.

The churches of different kinds were not evenly distributed geographically. Suddenly, it was not Catholic Church, but Croatian Catholic Church, not Orthodox, but Serbian Orthodox, not a mosque, but a Bosnian Church. What the churches did was teach young kids nationalism: local group superiority defines others as dangerous and sub-human. Brotherhood and unity were gone. The nationalist political parties led by would-be dictators (e.g., Milosevic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic) caught on quickly and started supporting the churches. This unholy alliance first took root in the most fertile soil - in the rural areas.

The things remained relatively stable for a little while for several reasons. First, the USA promised not to recognize independence of the parts, fearing that this would lead to a violent break-down of the USSR - James Baker III personally came to Belgrade to say so. Second, the sense of Yugoslavism was still strong in the cities, especially in 1989 and 1990 with great economic reforms by then Prime Minister Ante Markovic. In the year of 1990, after a decade of economic woes, everyone was rich and optimistic, people were starting thousands of new businesses every week.

Then, several things happened. USSR broke down - the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania broke out and - nothing happened. Other Eastern European countries kicked out their communist leaders (most violently in Romania) and - nothing happened.

The nationalist leaders in different Republics were not happy with the resurgent Yugoslavism. They managed to get elected a year or two before, but now felt they were losing ground. What they did was make Federal money hostage in some way. The money that the Federal government had to send to, for instance, to farmers in exchange for corn, had to go through the Republics, not directly to farmers. The Republics were supposed to manage that money and to give farmers the Federally determined price for their corn. But Milosevic and Co. lied to farmers, saying that the Federal Government did not send money, or did not send it in time, or not enough so the price is lower, etc., thus doing two things at the same time: giving the Federal Government a bad name AND hoarding all that money that could be made useful for other things, e.g., fixing elections, building the military and security, propaganda, etc.

Then the two Germanies unified. Suddenly, the German government was facing a hugely expensive project of building the East Germany from the ground up, modernizing it, re-educating and employing people, etc. They needed a fresh source of income for such a huge project. This was promised by the nationalist parties of Slovenia and Croatia. The Yugoslav law did not allow a foreign company to own 50% of a Yugoslav company. The new nationalists promised Germany that they would change that. Once that agreement was made, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence and, sure enough, immediately changed those laws. Germany officially recognized their independence immediately. German firms came in and bought 51% of every valuable corporation there, using the local cheap labor to make profits they could take home and use to start businesses in East Germany. As the EU was being built at the time, Germany got several other countries to also formalize the recognition of independence in exchange for some other secessions by Germany towards unifying Europe. The USA (Bush Sr.) had no choice, really, but to also officially recognize Slovenia and Croatia some months later.

The rest is history - a series of wars which can best be described as wars between City and Country, with peasants of one ethnicity attacking the cities of the other (or each other). The politics within the Republics was divided along the same lines as well: nationalist parties were strong in villages, modern democratic parties in the cities.

As the administrative borders between Republics were not ethnically clean, and the West insisted on the 'principle of non-violation of the borders' (except in the case of Yugoslavia itself, and later Kosovo, when the opposing 'principle of national self-determination' was used), people of one ethnic group that suddenly found themselves within the borders of a country dominated by the other ethnic group felt insecure and wanted to change borders in a way that would unify them all. But the geographic mix of ethnicities made that impossible. Some people moved on their own, some went abroad, others were "ethnically cleansed", some were killed, and others had to suffer the indignity of being legally second-rate citizens in wildly nationalistic new countries. In all of these cases, the churches were important players, helping strengthen the national/ethnic identity of the warriors. The horrors of war made many of those warriors (and their victims) truly religious - really, truly believing in God: for emotional solace, I guess.

So, the religion of Yugoslavism was replaced by the religion of local nationalism enhanced by formal insignia of the local churches. As Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Montenegrans and Macedonians cannot distinguish each other by looks, and in many cases even by language/accent, they needed visible signs of identity and churches provided those: a Catholic cross, an Orthodox cross and a halfmoon. Nationalism became the group coherence mechanism, i.e., it became a religion.

The only exception to this was the case of Kosovo. Albanians LOOK different. Wear different clothes. Speak a very different language. Many Serbs were straightforwardly racist towards Kosovo Albanians. The Orthodox church helped foster those feelings as well. Albanians there, on the other hand, being the poorest nationality in the region, had their own personal insecurity problems. Yet, they could not use a church to form a group in which they could start feeling superiority - some Kosovo Albanians are Moslem, some are Catholic and some are Orthodox. So, they jumped on the first ship that promised grandiose future in which Albanians will be superior to everyone else - the KLA: a terrorist organization that funded itself through drug and arms smuggling, was trained by Al Qaida, and had the support of Bob Dole (who is Albanian and who could always count on the Albanian diaspora to be his most fervent supporters and voters in all his elections). Thus, Serbs were duped by Milosevic and the church to develop their racism, while Albanians were duped by KLA to support nasty terrorist acts against the local Serbs (until most of the Kosovo Serbs left in fear - the process which a Serbian Orthodox priest called "ethnic cleansing" - the first use of the term, later much loved by Western reporters in Bosnia).

The presence of churches, monasteries and other "sacred places" in Kosovo (Kosovo was originally the only territory of Serbia when it was young and there were just a few Albanians living in the mountains out of sight - it expanded northward to include Belgrade and more over the centuries) became a religion to nationalist Serbs, complete with complex mythology surrounding it - a cause that unified them in their feeling of superiority.

The persecution complex helped unify Albanians under the banner of Greater Albania. In the PR war between the two nasties, the KLA won and got Clinton to bomb the Serbs (thus frustrating the democratic opposition as the bombing solidified Milosevic's support and delayed his ouster by at least a year). It could have gone the other way round just as easily, as Clinton's foreign policy team and military leaders were almost as big a bunch of ignorant incompetents as his successor's, ending as war criminals in my eyes.

So yes, nationalism in Yugoslavia had all the essential forms and goals of a religion. Both the Yugoslavism of the much of the 20th century, and later the more local nationalisms. It had all the trappings of a religion except the belief in God (some did, others did not - did not matter). In fact, when an over-zealous Minister in Serbia wanted to kick evolution out of classrooms, there was such a national outcry that she had to get fired by the Prime Minister within days. Strong science education and predominance of atheism in a country do not immunize a population from religious fervor, including murder in the name of it.

While old religions often used belief in deities and the supernatural as one of the tools that ensures fervent group loyalty, the modern religions, including Stalinism/Nazism/Maoism, cannot reliably use such beliefs - too many people are too modern for this to be an effective mechanism. Thus, 20th century religions often keep God at bay, or at least on the periphery - it is not needed, or it may even clash with the ideological belief system in place. It is not what you believe, but how you believe: with what level of fervor and what level of loyalty.


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Bravo. That was a great and educational post. Although it could've used the term granfalloon in there somewhere!

"The only exception to this was the case of Kosovo. Albanians LOOK different. Wear different clothes. Speak a very different language. Many Serbs were straightforwardly racist towards Kosovo Albanians. The Orthodox church helped foster those feelings as well. Albanians there, on the other hand, being the poorest nationality in the region, had their own personal insecurity problems. Yet, they could not use a church to form a group in which they could start feeling superiority - some Kosovo Albanians are Moslem, some are Catholic and some are Orthodox. So, they jumped on the first ship that promised grandiose future in which Albanians will be superior to everyone else - the KLA: a terrorist organization that funded itself through drug and arms smuggling, was trained by Al Qaida, and had the support of Bob Dole (who is Albanian and who could always count on the Albanian diaspora to be his most fervent supporters and voters in all his elections). Thus, Serbs were duped by Milosevic and the church to develop their racism, while Albanians were duped by KLA to support nasty terrorist acts against the local Serbs (until most of the Kosovo Serbs left in fear - the process which a Serbian Orthodox priest called "ethnic cleansing" - the first use of the term, later much loved by Western reporters in Bosnia).

The presence of churches, monasteries and other "sacred places" in Kosovo (Kosovo was originally the only territory of Serbia when it was young and there were just a few Albanians living in the mountains out of sight - it expanded northward to include Belgrade and more over the centuries) became a religion to nationalist Serbs, complete with complex mythology surrounding it - a cause that unified them in their feeling of superiority."

With such ill-informed puke I dont even know which point you make to single out and inform you. Why sh it through your mouth when you are so uninformed. Needless to say, use wikipedia once in a while.
Albanians where in Kosova since time immmorial. Serbs came there in the 6th century. A lot larger number of Albanians than serbs fought the Trks in what the serbs now call Kosovo Polje as if they were the only ones fighting!

KLA trained by al qaida...stob drinking the serb kool-aid. There has never been nor will there ever be any proof of this. Of course this is serb prooaganda which you either purposefully or due to ignorance spit out. Either way, shame on you!

Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce a real live Albanian nationalist troll, whose presence here will enlighten us to no end, with examples of worldly wisdom, generosity and niceness, fine examples of open-mindedness, high levels of scholarly discourse and, of course, great grammar.

This also shows that both Serbs and Albanians deeply believe in their own mythologies and twisted histories. "joe" was unimpressed by my debunking of some Serbian myths (or even pointing out they are myth - and I am Serbian, or so I was told in the 1990s when it suddenly started to matter). But touch on some of the facts that he finds unpalatable, and that is all that takes to come to a blog he's never visited before (remember: my blog is my living room - you are my guest here as long as I think you are behaving properly) and cuss me out. This demonstrates that nationalistic belief is just as fervent and unchangeable in face of facts as religious "God"-belief. Which proves the point of my post, if you think about it.

This is also similar to the Middle East debate - no matter how balanced a media outlet reports on it, it will get slammed by pro-Palestinian audience for pro-Israel bias, and by pro-Israel audience for pro-Palestinian bias - in the SAME PIECE!

Now I am waiting for a Serbian nationalist troll to show up soon....

"Faith is believing in something you know isn't true." -Mark Twain

You are the serb nationalist troll you been waiting for you just haven't taken an inward objective look and realized this fact yet. I bet you even take pride in believing that you are so enlightened and fair and above nationalistic motives. Get real!

Why don't you debate any of the points of yours that I shot down? Insted you resort to your ancestral nasty propaganda and cloudy the fact that you intentionally gave an untrue rendition of the Albanians in the Balkans. Get used to it, Kosova is free of your filthy nation!
As for grammar, Fu ck you! Debate the untruths you told and not the fact of weather someone's comand of grammar is up to snuff!
Prick hiding under thin veneer of "science"

Interesting post. I like it when you write about Yugoslavia. I don't know a lot about that region, or at least not its modern history.

I think there is something to the argument that religion evolved from the need from social cohesion. I'm not sure it's the whole story. There does seem to be a subset of believers who are more interested in theological or philosophical aspects. There is also a subset of eremitic types who try to isolate themselves as much as possible. (Even in the latter case, though, there are often followers who bring them food, etc.) Aside from those special cases, religions do tend to perpetuate themselves through social networks (such as families) rather than intellectual ones - e.g., someone brought up Catholic is likely to stay Catholic, even if only nominally. In my experience, it's also the social aspect that tends to keep people involved in a particular church or parish.

David Sloan Wilson's book sounds interesting; I'll have to look into that.

joe's problem seems to be less grammar than orthography.

Blake: yes, inclusive fitness and kin selection are subsets of group selection. The problem with much of Population Genetics models is that they are great at tracking the changes in gene frequencies in populations, but they cannot account for population structure, i.e., cannot determine at which level did selection work in order to produce change in gene frequencies. Many people, Dawkins and Dennett included, make the mistake of assuming that if gene frequencies change, this must be due to the selection at the level of the gene. Sober and Wilson in "Unto Othres" (and some others in subsequent papers) developed some math models that specifically measure at which level of the hierarchy the selection operates (the result is always going to be a change in gene frequencies, no matter if it is selection at genes, organisms, groups, species, etc.).

About "joe".

He can be useful as a test-case to test the hypothesis of the post, i.e., that nationalism is religion. No need to address him directly. And, if he becomes repetitive or nasty, he will be banned.

On the "who came to the Balkans first" game of one-up-manship? Both sides play with this. There are good historians and pseudo-historians on boths sides (Serbian and Albanian) and it is hard sometimes to tell who is who. The joke about Serbian pseudoscholars who twist the facts to argue that Serbs were there first is to just yell "Serboamoebas" - this shows the ridiculousness of their claims.

Unbiased outside sources agree that Slavs (from which Serbs descended) showed up in the 6th century. The date of the appearance of Illirians (from which Albanians descend) is questionable as there is not enough material or written evidence. So, it is possible they arrived either before or after the Slavs.

But the point is that this is all irrelevant historical trivia. Today, Kosovo is an independent nation. Most Serbs are outraged about this (I am not - sincere congratulations to Joe and his buddies), but will have to learn and adapt. There is no going back in the near future. And in the farther future, all the little Balkans fragments will reunify inside the EU. So, in a sense, all these wars of self-determination were waged for nothing - for emotions. Which is one of the points of this post: that nationalism is a religion because of the emotions it produces.

As irrelevant those are for the current discussion, let me address some of the remaining claims by "joe":

On the relative numbers of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo through history: it is a fact that Albanians were outnumbered by Serbs through most of history. In the censuses done at the very beginning of the 20th century, Albanians constituted about 10% of the population. Considering their cultural norms of large families with many children, their population growth over time was faster than that of Serbs, thus their proportion of the population must have been even smaller during the Battle of Kosovo. At the end of the 20th century, the proportion was reversed - about 90% of the population was Albanian. The differential in natality cannot account for this rapid change (and the immigration of both ethnicities into Kosovo was negligible). It is just that more Serbs than Albanians left Kosovo during the 20th century, for a simple reason that Serbs had a place to go to: Belgrade. A Serb moving from Kosovo to Belgrade is just relocating within Serbia; an Albanian moving from Kosovo to Belgrade is doing something tougher and braver: joining a culture that is foreign to him, and often acting negatively towards him (i.e., being racist). Thus, Albanians were reluctant to go (and for the longest time they just could not go to Albania proper). And in the 1980s, the KLA started to wage the war of fear against the Serbs that resulted in much larger numbers of Serbs picking up and leaving (and yes KLA was funded and trained by Al Qaida, just Google the two terms together and ignore secondary sources from extreme right like Free Republic and the extreme left like Antiwar.com).

But all of this is really murky, as the notions of "ethnicity", "nationality" and "nation-state" are modern concepts. They did not exist at the time of the Battle of Kosovo where all the locals faught against the intruders (Turks) defending their homeland together, under the leadership of their Prince, who was Serbian as that was the state of Serbia at the time. They did not know and did not care who was of which ethnic origin (unlike today, as "joe" demonstrates). Yes, there was racism, and there was religious discrimination (from a modern perspective, of course), and the religious wars were waged. But in many ways, people in the past were much more ethnically tolerant and the nationality was a much more fluid concept. People felt loyalty to their narrow group defined by the Prince they served and the religion they observed. It is only in the last three centuries or so that nationality became something people started caring about and these new concepts coagulated. It is only relatively recently that people started waging wars "for the country" instead of religious wars. In other words, ethnicity replaced religion as the main source of group loyalty, group coherence, group superiority and the emotional attachment to the leaders of the group. Which is another point I wanted to make in this post.

Boro, I wish you have made the integral post consisting just of the comments you have posted here.

I printed out the post last night and read it carefully. I have to admit your post was pretty much correct abstract of what have happened, considering that we both were too young to feel the full scale at the time of Tito's death. Those poor things (OK, young people) who were merely toddlers or not yet born when "Great Pappa Tito" died, and are declaring as nationalist in Serbia now, are trapped into myths of nationalism, and will have to walk long ways to wake up. Hopefully not in as much blood as our generation went trough.

I haven't think of our home country from the point of view you did, though it is intriguing and we are discussing it in the family (boys have to put thought in it as well, it is time), but I find it very interesting. However, in "Escape from Freedom" by Erich Fromm (it was published in 1941) he gave a portrait of dictators, such as Tito and Miloshevic (who was born that year by the way) and people under them in fantastic details. That was for me the most influential book to shed the light on confusing and so often inexplainable behavior many people around me showed, just as an alien came into their body.

I am sure both (OK, each of the sides involved in Yugoslavia falling apart) first have to face painful waking up and looking at the mirror, and only after to see how to live (cohabit) together. I am utterly sad of the amount of "eyes widely closed" in my homeland, of politicians playing their little pathetic games to save their precious armchairs, and people who were supposed to be leaders to lead people into even greater darkness. Kostunica democrat? Please!!!!

I am sure that if people would express their thoughts, like you did in post and comments, there is a chance to some day find ourselves in the process of cooperation and understanding, for atrocities do belong to past, I am hoping. Somehow I have a feeling if Joe had a chance to read your later comments, he might not react so sharp. I can understand him, for obviously someone in your and my name did something horrible, just like some other sad people did in WWII to your family. It is hard if there is a pain involved, to make it trough the pain, and accept that not all the people on the other side are the same or that people on "your" side are all so fine and pure. The same is the issue Serb nationalist have: denial of Serb involvement (or at least the whole scale of it), or accepting the fact there was NO excuse to do anything in revenge.

And at the end: please take a look at this

I wish people everywhere have more open heart and mind to other people. I guess it remains just a wish for some time...


The problem with much of Population Genetics models is that they are great at tracking the changes in gene frequencies in populations, but they cannot account for population structure, i.e., cannot determine at which level did selection work in order to produce change in gene frequencies.

One reason I like theoretical ecologists is that they realized this early on; starting in about 1985, they were like, "Hey, our populations don't have to be all mixed together," and then they were like, "We don't even have to divide them into arbitrary patches with limited inter-patch mixing, because patches can emerge from spatial dynamics." And everybody was like, "That's so cool!"

Unfortunately, the analytical work is not yet quite up to modeling what happens in some of the more interesting computer simulations. (Finding eigenvectors and eigenvalues near a fixed point of the dynamics yields Hamilton's Rule as an emergent property, but that understanding is perforce limited to the region of phase space near that fixed point. Effects at longer time-scales are beyond this method's horizon, which is a bad thing, because interesting stuff happens when the mapping from genotype to fitness is not constant.)

Well, putting the obscure technicalities aside for the moment, I should add that the thing which pisses me off the most about the levels-of-selection issue is that people always bring it out in the context of religion. Sure, it's probably relevant to the phenomenon, but approaching the science always in this context is not helpful. Consider: we're talking about human beings, here, some of the most screwed-up creatures on the evolutionary tree. We've got a stupefying amount of development going on to turn a genome into a body plan (when you've got orders of magnitude more brain cells than genes, what else could you expect?), and we've got history and culture piling on top of biology, and we've got only the tiniest amount of actual data with which to address our problems — data which is spread out across disciplines so that any one person is damn lucky if they can be conversant with it all.

So, yeah, figuring out where religion comes from is not going to happen any time soon.

Nobody wants to talk about altruistic and selfish bacteria. Perish the thought that we could actually do experiments on a system, refine our theoretical understanding, hash out our terminological issues, compare behaviors across species, etc., etc. No, we always have to run to the situation which is hardest to understand first.

Actually, I have argued before that it is unfortunate that group selection is always mentioned in the context of human altruism. It is understandable as individual and group selection work at 180 degrees in this case, so if it works in this case it should work in "weaker" cases as well.

But I find it much more interesting to look at cases in nature in which the two vectors are at some other angles, and try to build a model that can measure that angle and the sum vector of the two (multiple) forces (perhaps mapped on the fitness landscape).

Last comment, I promise! (I'm just trying to avoid the spam filter's hyperlink threshold.) For the "knowledge is spread out across disciplines" problem, see, e.g., Hector Avalos's critique of Michael Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil (2004) in Fighting Words (2005), quoted and discussed at the old ERV.

Why last comment? You are making this discussion interesting so keep posting! ;-)

Great post!! I think I need to read "Darwin's Cathedral" now. I just finished "The God Delusion" and I was surprised that the idea of group cohesion got such short shrift, especially when I did not find the memes concept as compelling. Interestingly, having just finished it gave me excellent insight on where PZ Myers is coming from, as Dawkins spent that entire chapter on religion and the kid-gloves handling it gets.

Also, I am learning many interesting things I never knew about Yugoslavia. Thanks!

Ditto on the "theory" - few kinks in the text. Slovenian law never allowed a foreign company to own more than 49% of their companies, and honestly the whole "run through" the reasons behind CRO and SLO secession is too shallow for my tastes, but otherwise, great direction of thought. And I disagree that Albanians LOOK different. That depends. If you compare a Serb from the city with a Bosnian from the village, or Macedonian (language too) they too will LOOK different - and while on that point - the differences in looks, customs, clothing were not as dramatic (ethnically) prior to 1990 as they are today. Therefore I like your village/city parallel much better.


Fellow exYugoslav in Macedonia!

By Ðна (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

Thank you for the clarification - I was sure about Croatia but not so sure about Slovenia on this point (I made an assumption that, I guess may be wrong).

Yes, there are exceptions, but in general, the rule of recognition worked even before 1990. Of course, I lived in Belgrade, so I have my perspective which may be different from someone who grew up elsewhere in the region.

Susan Woodward's book "Balkan Tragedy" is an excellent and well documented primer on the reasons for the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Thanks for the suggestions! Agreed on the Woodwards book! Amazing how it never got on the "bestseller" lists of policy-makers, as did subjective pieces of work such as Balkan Ghost. Needless to say, what makes me sad and sends chills down my spine after reading your text is that given the current developments in the Balkans (in particular my own Macedonia) I cannot help but think that nothing was learned from the experience in the 90s.


p.s. on the looks - I just find that while two decades ago religious clothing (especially among women) was a rare sight in the cities and among youngsters, as well as traditional hats among men, all of a sudden after the wars they became a norm (my perspective is Skopje).

Yes, Balkan Tragedy was the best, and Balkan Ghosts the worst book about the topic published at that time.

Interesting what you say about dress changes in Macedonia. I did not see that in Belgrade (I visited this April after 15 years away).

Coturnix: Although I doubt that you are a Serb nationalist, your "facts," and the opinions derived from them, are lightly researched. When researching the history and ethnic makeup of Balkan nations, you should consider and take into account the bias of your sources. The census you refer to is unclear, as any Turkish census would undeniably gravitate towards an Albanian bias (as Albanian land was their sole remaining province in the Balkans) and a Serb/Yugoslav census would suggest a larger Serb population. However, Serbia did not inhabit Kosovo until 1912 (it was awarded to them in 1913 by the Great Powers), and in 1914, World War I would have prevented any such census taking. Let's assume, however, that you are referring to post WWI censuses, taken by Serb authorities, who, it should be noted, enacted a colonization program to relocate Serbs to Kosovo while evicting Albanians. According to Noel Malcolm, a British foreign representative noted that Serbs spent more money on their colonization program than on education annually. As for your suggestion of out-breeding by Albanians due to "cultural norms of large families with many children," the Serbian population in Kosovo had the same high birthrate as the Albanian population in Kosovo until the late 1980's (you will find that, surprisingly, in Yugoslav census reports). A popular Serb nationalist myth is that the Albanians outbred the Serbs, attributing the high birth rate among Albanians and comparing it to the low birth rate among Serbs. The birthrates among Serbs in Kosovo however, is remarkably higher than that of the Serbs of Serbia, thereby removing that possibility.
In the 1960's, there were two mass expulsions of Albanians from Kosovo into Turkey. According to Robert Elsie, nearly half a million Albanians were forcefully expelled, or compelled financially, to leave Kosovo for Turkey. This Serb/Turk partnership was mutually beneficial in that both sides showed their charitability to the world (Turkey was accepting "Turks," and Serbia was providing them with an opportunity to return). As Albanian media outlets were silenced by Enver Hoxha in Albania proper, the actual story was never told. The Albanian population of Kosovo was encouraged, throughout the 1980's, to leave for the West. There are tremendous Kosovar Albanian populations in Western Europe, the United States and Canada. As for the ridiculous notion that the KLA was trained by Al Qaeda, this ridiculous theory was created by Serbian nationalists, and is spread by knitwits that group all insurgents of Muslim belief into one group. In the ten years since the Kosovar war, there has been only one piece of evidence linking the KLA to Al Qaeda, and that was a USA Today article written by a disgraced reporter Jack Kelley, who wrote an article claiming that during a visit to Afghanistan, he found an application to Al Qaeda written by a former-KLA fighter. He later admitted that this story was a lie, and he had never found the application, nor visited Afghanistan.
As for the suggestion that Serbs outnumbered Albanians during the Battle of Kosovo, it is unlikely. Kosovo was the capital of Stefan Dushan's empire (which disintegrated nine years after his death, leaving only petty noblemen in Kosovo with small groups of Serb settlers), however it is not the birthplace of the Serbs. That would be further northwest of Kosovo, in a place called Rascia, closer to the Sandzak region between Montenegro and Bosnia. There was without question a profound Serb presence in the province, although to denote the Albanian presence and their majority in the region would be foolish and without support from history. Another popular Serb myth is that the battle was fought in defense of Christianity, which could not be further from the truth. The battle of Kosovo was fought by Balkan inhabitants, Serbs, Albanians, Croats and Hungarians, and was led by Serbian noblemen (who still controlled Kosovar territory after the disintegration of Dushan's empire, he died in 1355, if I'm not mistaken). Lazar, who led the battle and lost his life during it, was succeeded by his son, Stefan, who allied himself and his soldiers with the Ottoman Sultan, Beyazit. Lazar's daughter, Olivera, married the Sultan (who was so infatuated with her he allowed her to retain her Christian faith), and the Ottoman-Serb allied joined forces for a second battle of Kosovo in 1395 (only six years after the first battle of Kosovo in 1389). The second battle was fought against King Sigmonsond of Hungary, at the behest of Pope Bonafice, who declared a Holy War against the Ottomans in defense of Christian Europe. The Serb-Ottoman allies were victorious, and this Serb-Ottoman union would continue to be mutually beneficial for another four centuries, as Serbs retained control over all Christians north of the Shkumbim river (in modern day Albania), and the Greeks were afforded control over all Christians south of there. What resulted was a massive de-Albanianization of the populations, in an effort to Hellenize and Slavicize the Albanians, who were forced to turn to Islam to retain their ethnicity and secure their rights within the Ottoman empire.
I do not intend to argue these facts, they are researched and accurate. The rest of your post was extremely interesting and thorough, however, you must consider your sources when writing about Balkan history and ethnic makeup. Propaganda and misinformation are rampant (as you have lived in Belgrade, I'm sure you heard stories of Albanians with tails), and it is important to realize that much of the Albanian story has been silenced through the tragic tale of endless occupation. Additionally, your suggestion that the Albanians turned to the KLA to "feel superior," is inaccurate. The Albanians of Kosovo pursued a non-violent movement from 1981 to 1998, until Adem Jashari was killed with 50-some odd members of his family in the Drenica region. They advocated autonomy, peace and equality for themselves, and were met with violence, injustice and oppression. Albanians have long shunned the propaganda offered to them through their religious institutions, and since the Rilindja movement in the late 19th century, have embraced their ethnicity and history.

By Chris Blaku (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

While all of this is off-topic, I appreciate you adding all this information. I cannot verify it, as I am not a scholar and my interest in the topic is quite superficial. But according to the maps, Rascia is Kosovo: exact overlap. Serbia, at its beginning was just Kosovo. Predecessors of Dusan and especially Dusan himself expanded it greatly. All of those Balkan countries repeatedly expanded and shrunk through various wars, so each can "claim" possession of each little square inch of the Balkans, pretty much. Heavy reliance on history and mythology is part of the problem. Who owned what at which time in history is irrelevant. Making current decisions based on such history is dangerous.

Now let's get back on topic - is nationalism religion?

I apologize for taking everyone off topic, but I must add that I've seen no map (predating ones published in the 20th century) that show Rascia and modern Kosovo overlapping. Additionally, all Balkan nations did shrink and expand through various wars, the Albanians did not win any wars, and were constantly pressured into a smaller and smaller state by foreign oppressors, from the Roman/Byzantines, Turks and later, the Serbs and Greeks. I agree however, that modern day borders cannot be drawn or given claim to based upon ancient inhabitants.

As for your topic, I believe nationalism is not nearly as dangerous as religion. Nationalism is necessary in a nation to maintain its identity, extend its cultural significance, and prolong its presence in a hostile world. However, nationalism as a tool of war, tends to lead a nation down the wrong path. In the case of the Balkan wars, nationalism was coupled with religious fanaticism, a combination that is bound to result in tragedy. Without intervention from the West and to a lesser extent, within, the Balkans would have imploded into a no-man's land of corpses and decay.

This is a great topic, as it drives at the heart of the conflicts in our region specifically. Unfortunately, I believe that the bright Balkan future that the West has painted for us is unlikely, as disfigured populations in the Balkans are almost certain to cause further uproar and, inevitably, war. Unfortunately, much of this will involve the Albanians in former Yugoslav provinces, and likely, the Serbs in Republika Srpska. It is sad, but necessary, as the Balkans have a very bloody way of reconfiguring their borders.

By Chris Blaku (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

Yes, there is a spiral of increased animosity - as nationalism leads to murder, that murder leads to revenge, nationalistic fervor rises, and off we go on a wild ride!

One thing that encourages me is behavior of young ex-Yugoslavs on Facebook who friend each other irrespective of each other's ethnicity, join the same group (lovers of Chocolate Bananas or Djordje Balasevic, for example), etc. At least the kids seem to want piece and tolerance. It will take some time for them to get to the positions of power, though, and a lot of nastiness can happen in the meantime.

Came here via a quote to one part of your post by Andrew Sullivan (of The Atlantic). As someone born and growing up in Belgrade during Tito's time and leaving in my early twenties to live abroad, I have watched with an ever increasing incredulity the developments in what used to be Yugoslavia.

I am not qualified to comment on either geo-political issues involved nor on the local drives that pushed the region into the current state. However, I can relate from the person experience of just two years ago in FRY Macedonia that when it came to working to rebuild inter-ethnic harmony in specific municipalities (and remember there was no war or mass killings there) situation was far from simple.

First, to my surprise everyone was happy to speak to me in Serbian (irrespective of their professed nationality - and my, have they proliferated like for example Egyptians, who are a subgroup of Roma - or age) because, they did not consider me Serbian! In fact, I was told I do not even look Serbian.

Second, the division were much more pronounced among younger generation - those in their 20's - than among their parents. I was told it is because the parents at the very least went to same schools, could understand each others language even if they did not speak it and mixed with each other. Younger generation make a point of going to schools where they are taught in their own language - exercising minority rights - so neither mix nor understand one another. Even more striking is the fact that when it comes to specific syllabus like History - these are quite different! So, even their self-image and world-view are different.

Third, you should also consider that foreign travel is very difficult for young people in FRY Macedonia or Serbia - I was told that 80% of them do not have a passport. Simply, getting a visa to go anywhere is extremely difficult. So, their wider views are formed by TV and popular media - most do not buy newspapers.

Finally, the history of Balkans has become since late 1990's a quest funded by several large US right-wing institutions and the growth in publications has been amazing. It is particularly incredible that a very large group of scholars has gathered to produce what they wish to be taken as a definitive impartial history of Balkans and yet very few have access to original documents of the periods under investigation or understand local languages. We are talking here about medieval as well as more recent histories. The fact that such approach is an imperialism of ideas does not seem to have occurred to any of the 150 or so individuals involved - or if it has, they are keeping quiet about it. The worry is that US and some of the EU governments may use adoption of such documents as educational materials at school a precondition for economic or political treaties.

Wuld that not be an ultimate interference in internal state affairs? And how would that actually happen when these countries already have different histories of the region in different languages (as above)?

By lilashana (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

Blake: yes, inclusive fitness and kin selection are subsets of group selection.

Not really: one isn't "subset" of the other, they are basically the same thing.

"the KLA: a terrorist organization that funded itself through drug and arms smuggling, was trained by Al Qaida, and had the support of Bob Dole (who is Albanian and who could always count on the Albanian diaspora to be his most fervent supporters and voters in all his elections)"

Nah, that's the usual crap coming from Belgrade. Neurosis is like a national sport there. Here's the full story on KLA:

KLA, The Kosovo Liberation Army

By penn&teller (not verified) on 16 Apr 2009 #permalink

penn&teller is Nika Skerdi, linking to KLA propaganda website. Just so everyone is clear...