Religion & race - the nominal and the real

In my post below I mooted the issue of conflating race & religion. There were many interesting comments, and Ruchira Paul has offered her own response. I would like to elucidate a few points here and frame the issues in their proper context (or at least the context in which I meant to explore them). I have spoken of the various faces of gods before. My own personal interest is the cognitive level since that is the one which I believe is fundamental, the layer of religious experience with makes it nearly inevitable that supernaturalism will be the 'default' human modality, the necessary precondition for higher orders of religious organization and structure. But in this post I will set that aside, and focus on the exoteric and outward aspects of religiosity, and primarily that of institutionalized and formal religion. In other words, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. In the normal course of events I am careful to specificy that I believe that religious believers generally exhibit the same mental states and that the exoteric packaging of the various faiths are nothing more than ingroup-outgroup notional markers.

But "nothing more" is a very banal way to refer to something that is of deadly import. Like many unbelievers I find theology vacuous and creeds mind-numbing. I can appreciate the "cultural" manifestations of religion, whether it be architecture, liturgy and can even relate to ecstatic mass ritual and its performative power. But in any case, it is important to address religion in the minute details of practice and belief because lives hang in the balance due to these very issues. It is one thing to assert that Hindu and Muslim peasants fundamentally comprehend the same supernatural actor in their mind's eye because the human mental apparatus is characterized by particular constraints, but that does not negate the reality that those same peasants can be motivated to kill on behalf of half-remembered creeds and "superficial" differences of dress, ritual and profession. The problem of defining, discussing, religion is this very multi-layered and multi-valent reality, the gap between perception and conception, reflective profession and inward representation. Feminists, anti-feminists, racists, anti-racists, pacificists, soldiers, etc. can all view the same religious text and sincerely extract from it justification for their own viewpoints. What is the pior and the posterior? In all this complexity I want you to bear with me on two things:

  1. To speak I must make generalizations.
  2. But, that generalization does not capture in perfect totality the full range of the concept or phenomenon of which I will refer to, that is, there is always error or variance around a concept's central tendency.

Initially I will generalize, but later on I will shift to showing how the variance, the deviation around the concept, is going to be crucial to us.

First, let me state plainly that my own view is that religion is many times simply a nominal concept, a name. That is, being a Hindu or a Muslim really doesn't amount to much besides the label. Yes, there are ritual differences, but these are average differences. There are Hindus who reject the use of images (Arya Samaj), and some Muslim groups (e.g., some forms of Shiism) which are not so iconoclastic as dominant Sunni schools of shariat in terms of devotional depiction. It is less important how religion is different than that religionists perceive that they are different. I am very skeptical that vast majority of the participants in the Arian vs. Athanasian controversies of the 4th century, or the Chalcedonian vs. non-Chalcedonian controversies of the 5th and 6th centuries, understood on any deep level the esoteric Greek philosophy which lay the notional root of the conflicts, rather, a particular nature of Christ, a theology, was a banner around which factions could rally. Factions always exist in humanity, psychological studies (see Judith Harris' work or Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson's recent work) show that our species is powerfully biased toward group conformity. This should be intuitively obvious. But, on top of the perception of difference with rivals, religionists are often grossly ignorant of the overall topography of culture space. This was brought home to me when I was reading Beliefnet and noted two columnists, one Jewish, the other Hindu, both asserted that their own religion was special because unlike all other great religions it did not go to the unbeliever and attempt to win them over to their own faith. This, on a page where the link to the other author was clearly visible, and on a website which makes a definite attempt toward ecumenicalism. Nevertheless, Jews compare themselves to Muslims and Christians, while Hindus compare themselves to Muslims (and a lesser extent Christians). The assertions were intelligible as contrasts to the near rivals, but were totally ignorant in the context of the reality that both of these great traditions have generally been averse to prosyletization. In fact, Confucianism, Shintoism and Zoroastrianism are arguably "great religions" which do not prosyletize, but again, they are marginal to the mindspace of most Hindus and Jews, whose own specialness exists in contrast with near rivals.

I bring this up to highlight the gap between ignorant perception and the reality. Hinduism and Judaism are not special in any sense when it comes to their attitude toward prosyletization, rather, it is Christianity and Islam, the contrasts which Hindus and Jews no doubt usually conceive of as the Other that are peculiar in the zealousness of their mission to the world (Buddhism is a milder faith in regards to its missionary spirit, though it has clearly been successful in the past and was the first of the transcivilizational religions). If you expand the canvas across time as well as space it becomes even more complicated. In Ruchira's post she pointed to Hindus as being an example of group where racial/ethnic and religious sentiments are closely correlated. But there is variance around this today which must be acknowledged. First, there is a great deal of variation within India in regards to phenotype and genotype. I have met Hindu Bengalis who could pass as Burmese. I have met Kashmiri Hindus who could pass as white. I have met black skinned South Indians. There are Siddis, descendents of African slaves, who are Hindu (though this community is mostly Muslim, with small Christian minorities in the case of those brought by Europeans). The Ahoms, a Burmese tribe, were defenders of Hinduism against the Mughals. The Balinese are Hindu, while millions of Javanese have aligned themselves with Hinduism after the 1960s when pancasila forced them to choose one of the recognized monotheisms (yes, you read that right, the Indonesian state demands a monotheistic interpretation of Hinduism and Buddhism). There are also Chams in Vietnam who are Saivite Hindus. The founder of Hinduism Today is a Saivite Hindu who is white (see the Hindu Renaissance team for what I mean). I bring this all up to point out that though most Hindus would probably agree that one is born a Hindu, and that one must be of the "Indian race," there is enough variation and ambiguity that one can argue with this formula. When Individuals say that "my religion implies x" one must always remind them that it is their interpretation of their religion, for another sincere believer may totally contradict them. Religionists often perceive their own faith as outside of time and space, a Platonic ideal which is derived from On High in a neat and crystal clear package, but to the unbeliever the historical and social context is often clear.

Consider the cases of Hinduism and Judaism. Hinduism was a active and powerful religion in Southeast Asia before the 17th century, when Islam swept all. The great maratime empires of Majapahit in Java (whose hegemony extended across most of the modern Indonesian archipelago at its height) and Champa were both Hindu, and, authentically Southeast Asian. Prior to its conversion to Buddhism the great Khmer Kingdom was Hindu. Though Hinduism as we understand it today is a overwhelmingly South Asian religion, between 500-1500 there was a period when a Hindu international was a reality and the religion's identification with the Indian subcontinent might have been in doubt (especially in light of the prominence of Buddhism in particular religions like Bengal and the Punjab). After the Muslim invasions around 1000 India quickly became part of the Dar-al-Islam, and so the largest Hindu nations were in fact in Southeast Asia, not the Indian subcontinent! Islam imposes strong penalties on dhimmis who induce defection from the religion of the ruling caste (e.g., one of the early devotees of the Krishna movement in Bengal was a Muslim who was drowned for his apostacy). It makes sense that over the generations Hinduism would become a somewhat inward looking faith. Southeast Asian Hinduism also withdrew in the face of Islam, with only a modern day expansion under the aegis of the Balinese culture as it took under its wing "pagan" groups who found a congenial home. The conception of Hinduism as a religion of birth is simply contradicted by the reality that its ethos spread throughout Southeast Asia. Hinduism even birthed the first of the missionary religions, Buddhism. One can understand the nature of modern Judaism in a similar manner. Hindus and Jews are proud of their religon's lack of interest in conversion today as evidence of its liberalism, but such tolerance is often born of experience in an inferior position where dominion was not a possibility. The early Jews, whether it be the possible Philistine origins of the tribe of Dan (the Danaans?), the forced conversion of non-Jews during the Maccabee period (see The Woman Who Laughed at God by Jonathan Kirsch), the entrance of the Khazars to Judaism, the clear genetic evidence of Jewish intermarriage with other peoples, or the historical reality of the God-Fearers and the Hellenistic Jews, all point to a historical reality which is at variance with the model of minimal conversion put forward by Rabbinical Jews as "authentic" in the modern day. Consider matrilineal descent, the idea that you are a Jew if your mother is Jewish. Not only does this imply widespread conversion during the ancient and medieval period (Jewish forefathers tend to be far more similar than Jewish foremothers, who often resemble surrounding populations), but, it seems a custom which crystallized only during the Roman Empire. When I pointed out to an Orthodox Jewish acquaintance that the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manesseh, were the offspring of an Egyptian woman and so non-Jewish according to the customs which she espoused, she immediately responded that her rabbis explained that the Oral Law held that their mother was in fact Jewish and adopted by the Egyptian priest who was her nominal father. To my friend this was convincing because she trusted her rabbi, but I found this to be the sort of dodge common when religious people are confronted by the reality that their religion has evolved just like any human cultural invention.

At this point, I would like to reiterate two points:

  1. The central tendency of a religion is real. Hinduism is less of a missionary faith than Islam.
  2. But around that central tendency are exceptions and variations, and, in the past those variations might have been the norm (e.g., it seems likely that Judaism was a missionary faith during the pre-Christian Roman period to some extent). The central tendency of the present need not be the central tendency of the past.

But there is a crucial third point: from the perspective of the believer the central tendency, or their own tendency, are imbued with ontological significance. In other words, many believers disavow that their interpretation is an interpretation, rather, it is Truth. As an example, modern Parsis have been influenced by the Islamic dominion and later Hindu hegemony to become a ethnic religion, the faith of the Aryan Iranian people. Parsis argue against intermarriage and conversion on racial-ethnic grounds. But, the historical record shows that the Sassanids did promote Zoroastrianism and built fire temples in the Caucasus and in Armenia among non-Iranian peoples. There are records of Turks who seem to have espoused Zoroastrianism in Turan (Transoxiana). This is all problematic for "traditionalists" who want to idealize the ethnic nature of modern Zoroastrianism as the True religion, the uncreated and eternal aspect of the faith since their prophet. One strategy is to ignore, but another strategy is to reinterpret. For example, some Zoroastrians claim that attempts to convert Armenians (a non-Aryan people) to the religion was acceptable because the royal house of that nation was a cadet branch of the Parthian royal dynasty, the Arascids. Of course, the vast majority of Armenians were not Arascids, so I do not personally see how this is a great rebuttal of the contention that Zoroastrianism is not intrinsically ethnic, but I suppose it allows some people to sleep at night.

And so here is another major point: self-deception or change in "interpretation" is not particularly difficult and is inevitable in the course of history. Where once Christianity was a religion of Crusades today there is emphasis on the Prince of Peace. Where once Judaism was characterized by two rebellions against pagan rule, today is a rather pacific faith which accepts non-Jewish rule as the norm....except until the rise of Israel. Today the Bahai are a transnational faith which is generally rather liberal in its ecumenical sentiments, but in its origins actually lay in reformist Shiism of a rather zealous and narrow bent. Though believers will never disavow their God, they seem rather apt and at ease with placing in the mouths of their gods whichever words and values satisfy the present. Radical Salafis object to the representation of all human and animal images, except which it is in the cause of recording videos to spread the violence of their faith. Mormons prevented blacks form joining the Aaronic priesthood because of a curse upon the race (blacks were souls who sided with Satan in heaven after all!) until 1978, when a revelation altered Mormon doctrine on this issue. And so on. To unbelievers the psychological contortions of religionists might be mystifying, but they are, and will be, and I see no possibility that they will cease to be. If the river rushes, there is no point in bemoaning its uncontrolled torrent, rather, the key is to build a dam and harness the energy to your benefit. The world is not flat, we need to take into account the mountains which exist as aspects of our reality.

Which brings me back to my point in the previous post where I compare Muslims to blacks, and object to the ethnicization of Muslims. The fact is that Muslims accept as reality that one is a Muslim if one is born a Muslim does not mean that the rest of the world need accept that fact. The fact that Muslims do not accept conversion away from Islam does not mean that the rest of the world need accept that fact. Carlos Menem was born a Muslim in Argentina (the scions of a Syrian trading family), but converted to Catholicism. He was not killed as an apostate despite his prominence. Many Muslims who emigrated to the New World in the early 20th century with the Syrian migrations as a minority amongst their Christian co-ethnics disappeared within the bossom of the populace as their children melted into the Christian confession. Though the Moriscos of Spain were finally expelled, they are only half (or less than half) of the story, and like the Jews the majority of Muslims in Spain remained within the peninsula and became Christian. Some of the most vociferous critics of the crypto-Muslims were in fact sincere converts who resented the association. The Muslims who arrived with the Mongols in China in the 13th century are likely the original ancestors of the Hui, the Chinese Muslims who speak dialects of Mandarin, but the ethnographic literature is witness to the reality that many convential Han are aware that they have ancestors who "do not eat pork" (i.e., the do not offer pork on their ancestral graves!). Just because Muslims have a conception of their community does not mean that non-Muslims need to accept that as legitimate, and that rejection does not entail that Muslims will magically cease being Muslim.

The case of Jews and Catholics in the American republic is instructive. In much of the world there are two forms of Jews, the "Orthodox" (frum, those who adhere to halakha) and the secular, those who are ethnically Jewish, but religiously unobservant. This is not so in the United States, rather, American Jews exhibit a range of religious expression, from a minority Orthodox perspective, to a minority secular perspective, and a majority of those "in the middle," the Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. All of these movements "make pace" with the modern world, and the Reform in particular have been known to reject much of rabbincal Judaism. In the 19th century the Reform even rejected the idea that Jews were a people, as opposed to a denomination like any other (they have reaffirmed Jewish peoplehood in the 20th century). The Reform attempt to establish their religious bonafides, and rejection of Jewish customs (e.g., matrilineal descent) by pointing out the practices of Hellenistic Jews and the Sadduccees. That is, the Reform make explicit attempts to deny Pharisaeic (Rabbnical) Judaism its status as Judaism qua Judaism. Similarly, the American Catholic Church has had wildly varying relationships with the polity. The Church before 1850 was a quiescent institution with a low profile and quasi-Protestant organization. With the arrival of a large wave of Irish immigrants and eclessiastical reforms spearheaded by Irish clerics the Church underwent a "de-Americanization," and for two generations was at tension with the republic due to the rejection of the Pope of liberal democracy. In the early 20th century "Americanist" movements which attempted to establish a modus vivendi with the pluralist liberal democratic states failed as the Pope in Rome rejected them in favor of more confrontational and separatist bishops. But in the end men like John Courtney Murray had the last laugh as Vatican II confirmed their reconciliation of Catholicism and the liberal democratic order. Simultaneously with the philosophical revolution in Catholic American Roman Catholics have been operationally Protestantized, de-emphasizing clerical guidance, making their own choices in regards to doctrine and practice, as well as becoming involved in transdenominational movements (e.g., Charismatics). And yet they remain notionally Catholics, just as Reformed Jews remain Jews.

The example of Roman Catholicism in particular is interesting because the relationship of the Church and the society has gone through a transformation in many nations over the past few centuries. During the High Medieval period the Church held a monopoly on spirituality, and personal piety and practice was less important than societal purity. Through the monastic orders the Church sanctified society and redeemed all. The quasi-pagan reality of the European peasantry was secondary to the fact that they were baptised, went through the nominal motions and professed the barest creeds, for the Church interceded on their behalf with heaven, and their support for the Church was evidence of their good will and piety. The Reformation smashed that, no longer was the Church universal. In nations like the Netherlands there were multiple confessions. Religion became a individual choice, and a monopolistic church could not sanctify and save a passive society. During the medieval period a corporate or cartel mentality reigned, as guilds, the Church, the kings, and the nobility ruled over their own domains and operated within their own spheres. But the Reformation brought atomization and relative chaos. In some nations churches began to compete for individual souls, the radical Reformation spawned anti-state movements such as that of the Baptists and other "Free" Protestants. Though some Protestant groups like Episcopalians and Luthernans remained relatively wedded to the state, and even preserved many of the forms and conceits of universal Catholicism, the variance introduced by the fracturing of Christendom brought to the fore alternative models.

The United States is the extreme case of the anti-cartel model. Of George H.W. Bush's four sons at least two have left the "family religion." George W. Bush is a Methodist, and Jeb Bush is a Roman Catholic. This is not unusual, as religion is often considered a private affair by many Americans. Evangelical Christians, though often zealous, nominally assert that one must become a Christian only during sentience, so that a "Born Again" experience is critical in demarcating the boundary in one's life from non-Christian to Christian. This a notional rejection of the idea of parent-child transmission, though operationally there is a strong fidelity from parent to child. This extreme Protestant emphasis on personal belief has clashed in the past with the more cartel oriented beliefs of Jews or Catholics. Some Jewish leaders have accused Protestants of attempting to destroy and exterminate the Jewish people, but, this is a confusion that emerges because radical Protestants conceive of religion as simply a profession of faith, while Jews today hold a simultaneity of religion and ethnicity. This is problematic. I believe that the Jewish leadership's attitudes and paradigm was formed in an earlier era, where separation was the norm, and leaders of various corporations, cartels and guilds would negotiate on behalf of their folk. The reality is that today the United States is a nation of 300 million individuals who are technically unconstrained by community regulations (though the reality may differ). I have spoken to Hindus who are "offended" by the idea of conversion, and assert that humans should remain in the faith of their forefathers. But of course this is historically myopic, H. erectus was not characterized I suspect by divisions between Hindus and Muslims various other groups, at some point in history these religious memes spread through populations which had other beliefs which were superseded. "Forefathers" is always a relative term. My own ancestors were Hindu before they Muslim, but they were likely Buddhist before they were Hindu, and Hindu before they Buddhist, and animists before they were Hindu, and so on. Similarly, the genes strong point to the reality that the Jewish ethnos is a construction of the past 2,000 years as the Diaspora has been scattered across the world and amalgamated with local peoples, though predominantly cemented together by a common understanding of rabbnical Judaism (groups like the Beta and Bene Israel excepted). In other words, the Jewish people are tired more closely by their adherence to a common set of beliefs and practices than blood.

Yes, it is true that on average at any given time within human history there is generation-to-generation continuity of religious tradition. But, it is also true that over time that continuity is inevitably broke. Additionally, in the United States there is a veritable free market of religion as as many as 1/3 of Americans may change their denomination within their lifetime. In 2004 John Kerry was a man of Catholic faith whose paternal grandparents had converted from Judaism. Wes Clark was a man whose father was Jewish, who was raised a Baptist, but converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult! A fundamental objection I have to ethnicization in the American context of any religion, whether it be Hindu, Muslim or Jewish, is that it is at variance with the customs and traditions of this country, which are marked by robust religiosity fluidity and choice.

i-301c8d5f508948d02d601d5cb9c27837-dave_chapelle.gifLook at the picture to your left. This is Dave Chapelle. Do you see a black man or a Muslim? This, to me, is a clear illustration of why I found Akbar Ahmed's analogy ludicrous: a religious profession in the United States is fundamentally a different beast than a racial identity. Dave Chapelle maybe a Muslim, but most Americans will perceive him as a black man. Dave Chapelle may leave Islam, but he may not leave his blackness. By analogizing Islam with blackness Ahmed was imposing his own Islamic norms tacitly on the rest of society, which hold that one is a Muslim if one is born to a Muslim father. More literally there is a consensus by many Muslims that all children are born Muslims, and they are converted to another religion when they become sentient (so that Muslim converts often label themselves "reverts" in a rather pretentious manner). From the historical examples above one thing should be clear: there is no inevitability that Muslims necessarily remain Muslims when in lands where Muslims are not a majority. Even in some lands where Muslims are a majority, such as Indonesia, conversion away from Islam is acceptable. Akbar Ahmed is from Pakistan (though I believe he was born in what is now India). In Pakistan one is a Muslim if one is born a Muslim, and the Christian community is generally believed to have been derived from Hindus because of the danger of targeting Muslims for conversion. I believe that Ahmed is bringing this tacit assumptions to the current situation. I know from personal experience that in the case of interreligious marriages many Muslims are outraged when the child is raised a Christian, accepting as the norm that a child of such a marriage should by definition be raised a Muslim. This is the norm in Muslim lands, Indonesia's first premier had a Hindu Balinese mother. The Mughal emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan both had mothers who were born Hindu. Many of the Ottoman Sultans had mothers who were born Christian. It is the assumption by Muslims that their faith shall accept, but none shall defect. This is the norm in Muslim lands, and these attitudes can sometimes die hard. This is understandable, both Jews and Hindus have internalized domination at the hand of Abrahamic faiths and enshrined narrow exclusivism as normative. During the Mopilla rebellion in Kerala in the 1920s some Muslims forced Hindus to convert to Islam, and "orthodox" Hindus refused to accept these forced converts back into the fold (Arya Samaj stepped in oversaw "purification" ceremonies). Similarly, Parsi strictures against intermarriage have doomed the faith to future extinction as those who outmarry as seen as defectors as opposed to assets in bringing more into the community (these outsiders would of course sully the "Aryan purity" of the Parsis, forged in dhimmitude under Islam and later the agreemant made with the Hindu rajahs not to destabilize the local religious balance). But norms can change, American Roman Catholicism lost millions during the 19th and early 20th century, but balanced this out with outreach to those who married in or converted into the faith. Religion must adapt to the American way, or die.

i-de6fb0bdc90379481ce20e3e6546e1cd-Jennifer_Beals.jpgNow, look at the woman to your left. This is Jennifer Beals. Her father is a black American and her mother is white. She is biracial. By the canons of American racial classification she is black due to hypodescent. But it seems clear that she could "pass," and simply assert she was white. Many of Sally Hemmings' descendents did just that. So clearly race is not inevitable. But, remember my earlier point: there is variance around a generalization. About 20% of black American ancestry is European. One rule of thumb contends that perhaps 10% of the black American population is more than half white genetically. It seems clear that a minority of these individuals could "pass." In other words, being "black" is not a Platonic ideal. There are Dave Chapelle's who are black, and there are Jennifer Beals' who are black. For some black Americans being black or white is a choice, just like for Muslims being Muslim or not is a choice.1 But there is a quantitative difference in the extent of choice within the community, all Muslims could choose to be perceived as non-Muslim if they wished to. Ahmed Khan could become Ajit Kumar, shave his beard, etc. Since Filipinos are ethnic Malays, Malaysians and Indonesians could simply assimilate to Filipino identity (a minority of Filipinos who are Muslim could become Catholic). Middle Eastern Muslims could assimilate to a Christian Arab or Southern European identity (the Lebanese actor Tony Shalhoub often plays Italians in film). And so on. But could David Chapelle become non-black? Could 80-90% of American blacks claim to simply not be "black" as we understand "black" in the United States? I hold not. In other words, for most American blacks their perception from the outside is not changeable, it simply is what it is.

I've talked enough about race on this weblog to not want to go over this territory. Correlation structure of characters and alleles is real, it isn't a coincidence that we can pick out Swedes and Nigerians from a crowd of admixed Swedes and Nigerians. A commenter at Ruchira Paul's weblog offered that race is an "arbitrary" social construct. It is a social construct, but it is not arbitrary, rather, the constructs map onto in a rough fashion real population substructure and clusters of traits in phenotype space. One objection to the idea of race is that since races do not have clear and distinct borders one can not use them in discourse, but that is like denying the validity of the terms "near" and "far" because there isn't a precise definition for the terms. "Near" and "far" convey a information in a specific context, even if they are not quantitatively precise aside from a trivially relative sense. Given a small number of genes it is not difficult to separate population clusters rather cleanly so they map onto self identification. Genetic distance is a precise concept, how one interprets it is subjective and fraught with particular biases and contextual considerations.

I hope that this post makes clear why I think religion and race should not be analogized.

  1. Definitions of religion vary across time, space and individuals.
  2. Religion can be shaped from the outside and the inside.
  3. There can be a chasm between perception and reality.
  4. Individuals care passionately about their religion, but it is not impossible or even difficult for them to re-interpret their religion to be civilized.
  5. Religion is a fact of life, but how it plays out is due to a host of parameters, some of them susceptible to social inputs.
  6. While religion is purely a matter of will and profession on a fundamental (as opposed to operational) level, race is preconditioned on unchangeable biological priors. If one is born with tightly curled hair, dark skin and African features there is a high likelihood that one will be characterized as "black." Conversely, male infants are not born circumcized, with beards and an aversion to pork and physical aversion to contact with women.
  7. The conflation of the two in terms of colloquial perception does not mean that in reality the two are truly analogous.

1 - The reality is that a change of dress or name can term any American Muslim to a non-Muslim of some sort. Middle Eastern or South Asian Muslims are just as likely to be assumed Latino or Hindu as Muslim.


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"the exoteric packaging of the various faiths are nothing more than ingroup-outgroup notional markers"

I think this nails it, and also hints at what's askew with Dawkins' anti-religious utopianism (though I enjoyed his God Delusion book). If belief in 'God' were somehow dispensed with, people would just find other notational markers. Dawkins' own left-wing ideology would be an example of this.

A very detailed article telling us what anyone who knows anything about the politics of race and religion should already know - that conflating the two results in nonsense, and is a deliberate act of right-wing obscurantism.

This is a summery from my brief take on your article.

Your body (bone structure, skin tone, hair type etc) is something you're born with and can't change. Your culture (customs, religion, dress, language etc ) is something given to you, which you can change.

The range of human body types is a continuum, albeit a lumpy one. "Race" is a convenient fiction that simplifies the lumps into discrete groups. Such fictions are scientifically useful, provided we remember they are fictions.

Religion is one way a culture justifies it's form to itself, so when the culture changes the justification does too.

It says something about contemporary politics that what was obvious 15 years ago now has to be carefully explained and rediscovered all over again. Namely, that there's no race called "muslim" for the same reason there's no nation called "short people".

There's a lot to respond to and I haven't read it all yet.

Regarding Hinduism, I've read (Geertz) that Balinese Hinduism has no Brahman caste, because the Brahmans passively resisted the Dutch and were slaughtered. IIRC, the Hindus of Fiji (39% of pop.) also have no upper caste, because of who migrated.

Unitarianism (Socinianism) originated in E. Europe, and old Unitarians still survive in Hungary/Romania. They survive especially among the Szeklers, who are country Hungarians in Romania who claim Hunnish descent -- quite a rough crowd. Their theological difference is probably a marker of their stubbornness. (I.E., They're not much like the Unitarians you and I know.)

Last, Subbotniks are Jews of Russian Christian origin. They have a 300 year tradition and are accepted in Israel, with some reservations. The initiative for conversion came from the Christians themselves, though, not from mission work by the Jews.

If belief in 'God' were somehow dispensed with, people would just find other notational markers. Dawkins' own left-wing ideology would be an example of this.

i think this is generally correct, but, belief in god coupled with an ideology can often be more potent or robust than ideology alone. e.g., communism collapsed pretty quickly once the rational incentives disappeared for adherence on the part of the nomenklatura. on the other hand religion tends to be 'go underground' and persist. also, the character of buddhism and islam, for example, differs in how they relate to the surrounding culture.

Regarding Hinduism, I've read (Geertz) that Balinese Hinduism has no Brahman caste, because the Brahmans passively resisted the Dutch and were slaughtered. IIRC, the Hindus of Fiji (39% of pop.) also have no upper caste, because of who migrated.

this seems darwin's cathedral wilson notes the importance of brahmins for the water temples, and wiki confirms. but geertz might be using a diff. definition, i don't know. balinese hinduism doesn't have jati, so caste is truncated.

Unitarianism (Socinianism) originated in E. Europe, and old Unitarians still survive in Hungary/Romania.

the 'unitarian' impulse seems pretty deeply rooted in many religions and emerges periodically. 'socinianism' actually descends from an italian thinker though it took root in eastern europe as you note. one can perceive unitarian tendencies in hinduism, and even in buddhism (whether artificially in indonesia by fiat or some of the single-minded mahayana devotionalisms). the importance is the quantitative difference of emphasis. i.e., islam is 'more unitarian' than hinduism, though both religions exhibit a range (saint veneration in many forms of islam, including those not influenced by south asian motifs, does resemble polytheism).

I don't have it any more and can't remember the author, but I read something long ago about the evolution of New England religion from 1620 to 1776 or so. What I carried away from it was the idea that you can have an enormous change in a religion by flipping a single switch from on to off or vice versa, or by moving one dial from 10 to 5.

The other doctrines of the religion are adapted to the change, but remain recognizably descendant for the earlier belief. So you could have a development from original Puritanism to Congregationalism to Unitarianism to Deism, with each transition consisting of a very small number of specific changes. And in the end, American Deism still bore marks of Puritanism, for someone who knew what to look for. (George Santayana, a Catholic of Spanish descent, wrote about this).

This is of course analogous to evolutionary change, and can be interpreted through memes. A large visible effect can be the result of small change in code.

There's something like convergent evolution, too, -- Catholic and Protestant Deists have telltale signs of their different origins (e.g. Comte).

Sometimes major changes are in areas which have not been marked as definitive of the religion compared to other religions, so orthodoxy is preserved. There also exist major changes, e.g. the Subbotniks.

From a purely evolutionary standpoint, your quote:

"the exoteric packaging of the various faiths are nothing more than ingroup-outgroup notional markers"

gets at the core of what is, to me at least, a central issue in evolutionary psychology. What characterizes virtually all of the "proselytizing" religions discussed in this post is that they have arisen very late in the evolution of humans. For many tens of thousands of generations, humans lived in small groups (essentially extended families) of hunter-gatherers that were both culturally and genetically quite homogeneous, especially by comparison with how we live today. Under such conditions, inter-group competition (via raiding, rustling, etc.) would have been a critical factor in both individual reproductive success and group selection (a la Price, as pointed out by E. Sober and especially D. S. Wilson). This, in turn, implies that "markers" for in-group and out-group membership would have been critical. Given the close quarters in which such groups lived, and the relatively low gene flow that appears to have been the case, such markers would have been quite subtle: very slight differences in facial characteristics, behavior, etc. Hence, selection would have enhanced our ancestors' ability to focus on the most obvious markers of in-group versus out-group status.

In other words, our "stone-age minds" are pre-set to find signficant differences in insignificant variations, and to apply those differences (however spurious) to the business of inter-group competition, up to and including genocide. That religious belief can play a role of one of the "notable" variations is a possibility that has been mentioned only in passing (see D. S. Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral), but I believe it may be one of the core reasons for the persistence of the capacity for religious experience in humans: it enhances our ability to participate in inter-group competition (i.e. up to and including genocidal warfare) and can have profound fitness consequences. In a nutshell:

"religion facilitates warfare, which facilitates religion"

For more on this idea, see…

"There also exist major changes, e.g. the Subbotniks, which do involve trjrtion of the core boundary-marking doctrines."

I was unclear. A religion can change massively while still remaining orthodox on the core beliefs and practices. It's much rarer to actually "become the Other" by changing one or several of the defining core beliefs.

The fire religion in C. Asia was pre-Zoroastrian, I'm pretty sure; Zoroaster was a reformer on the Turan/Iran line, and like all named prophets, started from an existing base.

Confucianism and Hinduism strike me as closest to "original religion", especially Confucianism because it retains blood sacrifice and ancestor worship at tombs.

Given the close quarters in which such groups lived, and the relatively low gene flow that appears to have been the case, such markers would have been quite subtle: very slight differences in facial characteristics, behavior, etc. Hence, selection would have enhanced our ancestors' ability to focus on the most obvious markers of in-group versus out-group status.

why do you say gene flow would have been low? you only need 1 migrant per generation to quickly equilibrate allelic differences between demes sans selection. the evidence seems to me that you killed the males of the enemy and turned their women into concubines (this is the standard pattern of violent men in groups, they don't waste potential 'breeders'. as moses said, 'keep the women who have not known men as concubines, kill the little ones and women who have known men'). i think the differences are likely to have purely behavioral because the genetic differences are liekly to have been trivial, that is, intragroup variance would far outweight intergroup variance. on the other hand, tatoos, linguistic dialects or religions can quickly exhibit little intragroup variance and a lot of intergroup variance.

At this point I think that sociobiology-type explanations are pretty good for acculturated groups up to a few hundred people. That takes us up to about 10,000 years ago. Since then we've been seeing the development of larger, more complex groups: cities, nations, states, religions, culture-complexes (e.g. Greece ca. 500 BC). These create loyalties which resemble kin loyalties but which are quite different, so there's a lot left to explain.

Often religion makes cooperation possible in the absence of an extensive political order, 500 BC Greece being an example again.

If one is born with tightly curled hair, dark skin and African features there is a high likelihood that one will be characterized as "black." You think?

Perhaps I did misinterpret your previous thread on this topic- "Are Muslims like Blacks". I took it that you rejected the idea that the group [professing] Muslims could be assumed to be an ethnic monolith. And in fact, that any connection of Islam to an atheist was oxymoronic. I think we are both on the same page there. My objection was that [identifiable] Blacks as well can not be taken as a monolith. In saying like Blacks you continue the false comparison. Why would the physical trait of tightly curled hair berelevant to this particular dialogue? But maybe that was quote from the orginal NPR piece.

Nope we can't step outside of our race. Immigration from Africa and the Caribbean and wider opportunities etc have enabled/driven 'black' people to want to show the diversity within the Black population- I'm thinking specifically of the US but that could apply to the West in general. IMHO current affairs have moved the conversation in the opposite direction in the Muslim community. How else is it that a British born (Pakistani/ Bangladeshi) boy so closely identifies himself with the suffering of his co-religionist in Palestine? Taken to the extent he becomes a suicide bomber in order to show where his allegiances lie. Conversely you don't see any protestors, from this group, in London marching to complain about illegitimate governments, murder of Muslims etc when it comes to (Black) Sudan. Or maybe it's because the Janjaweed are Arabs - at least to themselves.

On the outside looking in the 'British Asian' (brown) community - or the Muslim portion of it seems to have a very strong desire to adopt a singular Muslim read Arabic identity,as a means of political& cultural expression. We should be aware that politicians, slippery commentators etc. are creating an ethnicity for Islam. On the other hand it makes writing political Ads easy. I suggest that many Muslims themselves are complicit in this,--provided it's the right (non Sudanese) kind of ethnicity you are tying them to.

Great article by the by,Iwould have never known that Dave Chapelle is a Muslim.

By Dilettante (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

My objection was that [identifiable] Blacks as well can not be taken as a monolith. In saying like Blacks you continue the false comparison.

obviously 'blacks' are not a monolith. and i accept that blacks of various stripes should object when people characterize them as a monolith, but:

1) that's how ahmed framed it
2) many black american activists do attempt to elide differences within the black community to increase numbers and solidarity
3) in some contexts the differences within the black community are academic, insofar as segregations did not make distinctions between west indians and native blacks. the issue with 'brownz' is similar insofar as disparate groups are clumped together from the outside. in my personal life i make great effort to individualize myself and assert that i can not be understood simply as 'brown' (e.g., 'hindu vegetarian' or whatever stereotype). but, in relation to racists or verbal abuse as a 'sand nigger' i accept that i am brown, just like all other brownz. so, in some contexts one must accept sameness, but in others one must reject it. i think the same probably applies to blacks, whites, asians, etc. depending on the context.

Conversely you don't see any protestors, from this group, in London marching to complain about illegitimate governments, murder of Muslims etc when it comes to (Black) Sudan.

arabs are the herrenvolk of islam, god speaks their language, so there is an inferiority complex which many non-arabs bear. south asians are generally racist against blacks for a variety of reasons, so it makes sense that there is no reflexive solidarity (though there will be rhetorical solidarity if pressed). the pecking order is discernable insofar as arabs tend to not be particularly interested in what happened in gujarat in 2002 or what is happening in kashmir, though gujarati and kashmiri muslims will be aware of palestine.