INCERTO
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INCERTO

On Christianity

An essay as a foreword for Tom Holland’s Dominion

Tom Holland holds an edge over other current authors and intellectuals: the rare coupling of wide erudition and remarkable clarity of mind, two attributes that appear to be negatively correlated, as if the presence of one caused the other one to flee. This confers the ability to spot things other professionals don’t catch immediately, or don’t dare to voice in public. Academic historians concerned about their reputation and standing in their community, fear to stray from the current accounts by more than an inch, even if they know that they are correct, which gives some people an unfair advantage. And these insights, in spite of being hard to detect and communicate, appear obvious, even trivial after the fact. So Holland can be effortlessly ahead of his time: ten years ago, he was savagely attacked by the high priest of late Antiquity, the extremely decorated Glenn Bowersock, for his book on the conditions surrounding the birth of Islam. Then, only half a decade later, Bowersock quietly published a book making similar claims.

So this entire book revolves around one simple, but far-reaching thesis. By a mechanism dubbed the retrospective distortion, we look at history using the rear view mirror and flow values retroactively. So one would be naturally inclined to believe that the ancients, particularly the Greco-Romans, would seem like us, share the same wisdom, preferences, values, concerns, fears, hopes, and outlook, except, of course, without the iPhone, Twitter, and the Japanese automated toilet seat. But, no, no, not at all, Holland is saying. These ancients did not have the same values. In fact, Christianity did stand the entire ancient value system on its head.

The Greco-Romans despised the feeble, the poor, the sick, and the disabled; Christianity glorified the weak, the downtrodden, and the untouchable; and does that all the way to the top of the pecking order. While ancient gods could have their share of travails and difficulties, they remained in that special class of gods. But Jesus was the first ancient deity who suffered the punishment of the slave, the lowest ranking member of the human race. And the sect that succeeded him generalized such glorification of suffering: dying as an inferior is more magnificent than living as the mighty. The Romans were befuddled to see members of that sect use for symbol the cross –the punishment for slaves. It had to be some type of joke in their eyes.

Clearly pagans were not totally heartless –there are records of pagan cities in Asia Minor assisting other communities after a disaster but these are rare enough to confirm the rule[2].

There is also the presence of skin in the game in the new religion. Christianity, by insisting on the Trinity, managed to allow God to suffer like a human, and suffer the worst fate any human can suffer. Thanks to the complicated consubstantial relation between father and son, suffering was not a computer simulation to the Lord but the real, real thing. The argument “I am superior to you because I suffer the consequences of my actions and you don’t” applies within humans and here in the relationship between humans and God. This extends, in Orthodox theology, to the idea that God, by suffering as a human, allowed humans to be closer to Him, and to potentially merge with Him via Theosis.

Irreversibility

Once in, Christianity proved impossible to remove, and the Nazarean mindset and its structure directed its opponents, its heresies, and its replacement –starting with Julian and ending with the most recent accretions of secular humanism.

For Christianity had a sweet vindication when Julian The Apostate, falling for the retrospective distortion, decided to replace of the Church of Christianity by the Church of Paganism along similar organizational lines, with bishops and all the rest (what Chateaubriand called the “Levites”). Julian did not realize that paganism was a soup of decentralized and overlapping individual or collective club-like affiliations to gods.

What has been less obvious is that while we are inclined to believe that Christianity descends from Judaism, some of the reverse might be true. For even the mother-daughter relationship between Judaism and Christianity has been, as of late, convincingly challenged. “ If there had been no Paul, there would have been no Rabbi Akiva” claims the theologian Israel Yuval[3] as we can see in Rabbinical Judaism the unmistakable footprints of Christianity.

Further East, Shiite Islam shares many features with Christianity, e.g. the same dodecadic approach, with twelve apostles, the last of whom will be associated with Jesus Christ, plus self-flagellation rituals around the memory of all-familiar martyrdom. These can be possibly attributed to a shared Levantine origin, but the Christian influence wholly accepted by Islamic scholars since Islam is backward compatible[4]. But it is clear that the latest position of Supreme Leader has been largely inspired by the Catholic hierarchy.

How Orthodoxy Will Make it

Progression

The corollary of Holland’s thesis is that many ideas that we attribute today to social progress –including secularism, etc. are direct descendants of Christianity, mostly in its Western branch. This includes, of course, as we will see, atheism. But Christianity has been slow to spread its values from text to execution, and that may be the point of this book. Yes, Christianity glorifies the poor: but it took seventeen centuries from “the eye of the needle” in Matthew 19:24 to the conception of organized communism and various theories of social equality. Likewise, sadly it took more than a millennia for the “neither slave nor free” in Galatians 3:28 to move from epistle to execution.

As to the “neither Greek nor Jew”, alas, we are still waiting for full implementation as we have witnessed with the birth of nationalism in the late 18th C., a moral degradation and a step away from universalism with the modern contraption of the nation state –the murderous nation state. I recall vividly the TV ads in the early 2000s, promoted by Democrats to attack George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq; they kept showing the tragedy that 3,800 people died in the invasion. They omitted to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis –lest the Republicans question their patriotism. These foreign casualties do not seem to count because nationalism establishes clean balance sheets: countries are only responsible for their own citizens.

The Debates

In the debates between Holland and the representatives of the second wave of self-branded enlightenmentistas such as A.C. Grayling, arguments are of the following type have been supplied: well, the ancients had some type of recommendation to care for their slaves. This is like saying: some of your neighbors treat their dogs in humane manner. This totally misses the point: the ancient’s worldview would have never accepted to put slaves as equal, let alone superior. The ancients may have been charitable; but it was not systematic.

A standard argument is that Christians destroyed the intellectual production of the classical periods while the Arabs preserved some of it, which can fool those who read too much Gibbon but not enough of other sources. Holland correctly busted that myth probably based on some true but not representative anecdote: these “Arab” preservationists were almost all Syriac speaking Syro-Mesopotamian Christians who operated mostly in Bagdad’s Beit al Hikma, The House of Wisdom (such as Ishac ben Honein and Honein ben Ishac) who translated from Greek but also from Aramaic sources. Those who were not Christian had been recently converted. Whatever he got wrong about race and ethnicity, Ernest Renan was correct in claiming that much of the Arab golden age was Greco-Sassanian. The “Greco” in it was Christian.[5]

Let us note that whatever the source of the myth of Christian obscurantism, that the story doesn’t fudge, no matter how we look at it[6]. It might be true that at the beginning, great minds tended to be pagan, such as the formidable Libanius. But later generations were integrated into Christianity. The most erudite people in history were 17th and 18th religious Christians such as the Catholic Bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet, Huguenot figures such as Pierre Bayle, or the great Scaliger (who, among his otherwise rare skills, was ironically able to translate Arabic wisdom into Latin). These put to shame their successors. My personal childhood experience is that Jesuit clergymen were your first stop for anything related to Ancient history and archeological matters, and before the spread of literacy in the Arab world, Levantine Christian priests (whose theological languages were either Aramean or Greek) were the ones to consult for the subtleties of Arabic grammar and the language of the Quran.

Let us expand the discussion to some of the points of Christianity beyond Tom Holland’s book.

The Secular

“Religion” doesn’t mean the same thing across various creeds. Christianity is the vehicle by which a separation of church and state was accomplished –another miscalculation by Julian and many others. Consider that in Semitic languages, din means law, which in Arabic translates into religion: the older and youngest Abrahamic religions were just law (one, local; the other, universal). But in Christian Aramaic, it is the word nomous from the Greek nomos that refers to law, separate from religion. For Jesus separated both domains with the “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar”; some additional work came later by Augustine to formalize how one deals with the temporal, the other with the spiritual, the afterlife, etc. This brought a natural boundary between State and Church.[7]

European “Identity”

Europe is neither a continent, nor a language group, nor a race since more than 100 million of citizens of E.U. members are olive skinned hardly distinguishable from other Mediterraneans.

European identity means Western Christianity and its values that have been spreading Eastward, which includes the “liberal order”, with a hard stop at Islamic lands.

Europa was the daughter of a Phoenician king, which gave its name to some vague area West of the Hellespont. Then moderns started referring to “Europe” as a separate continent in the large Eurasian landmass, with the fake newly created separation “white” and “nonwhite”, replacing older natural distinctions of Mediterranean vs non-Mediterranean. But anyone looking at the map would see no continent except by gerrymandering. Unlike the Pacific Ocean, the Hellespont is like a large river. The Urals used as a sort of border might be mountains, but so are the Alps.

What we had, until the notion of nationalism that sprung two hundred years ago was three separate cultures 1) Western Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) up until the Ottoman-Habsburg borders covering roughly the former so-called Holy Roman Empire, 2) The Ottoman mixed Eastern Orthodox and Sunni Muslim area covering roughly the Eastern Roman Empire, 3) Areas that are entirely Muslim further East and South, and 4) The Russian sphere, Orthodox. The Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians and other new members of the European identity were in the second zone, and, up to today older Greek people still say “going to Europe” when they refer to travel to the first zone. In maps, the Near East started in Athens; it now starts in Syria (or Turkey, depending on Islamic orientation of its government).

So Europe became an extension of Western Christianity, with its values spreading into Orthodox areas. As Western Christianity expanded its values, so did the areas in the second zone become “European”, with in addition the progressive replacement of religion by nationality –an unfortunate Christian mutation. Until the twentieth Century, a Greek was self identifying as a rhomoi and had it not been for the creation of the nation state of Greece by Western European powers, Greek owned coffee shops would bear names like St Nicholas, St Demetrius, rather than Hercules or Acropolis.

That Western Christianity may not be entirely Christian, but a cultural mixture dominated by Northern European values is a valid hypothesis. We tend to think that religions shape people. But religions are also shaped by people. In the Levant, we can find heresies and separations along ethnic-linguistic lines: Coptic, Maronite, Nestorian, Armenian have in common the refusal to be “Greek”(rhomoi) and the East-West theological disagreements over filoque (or, worse, homoousios vs homoiousios) was more of an “us” versus “them”[8]. The Christian Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf views that as a result of social contagion: if Lebanese Christians are eager to resemble Westerners in habits and values, it is not from theology but imitation[9]. This in fact nullifies some attacks on religions based on their texts: some attribute Islamic violence to the texts, but the Old Testament is no less violent and nobody treats Lutherans as potential ISIS members. In that light, Holland’s thesis should be seen more as a cultural phenomenon integrated by Christianity.

I am writing these lines from the vantage point of my specialty of decision making under uncertainty, not that of theology, so what follows concerns the supposed conflict between religion and modern science as far as decisions under uncertainty and risk management.

Belief

In his book, Did the Greeks believe in their myths?[10] the classicist Paul Veyne explains that while reading Madame Bovary, he believes in the story and the character. This may explain how Plutarch could make fun of pagan “superstitions” and later end up his life a pious priest at Delphi.

For the notion of epistemic belief is entirely modern –and the gold standard Justified True Belief is not free of problems[11]. The term pisteuo in Greek means trust, translated into credere in Latin (linked to credit, as in a commercial transaction) and even in English, belief did not originally really mean belief, but something more related to beloved.[12] Amen (Haymen) means fidelity and trust in all Semitic languages.

The post enlightenment discourse about whether one believes in God is meant to be scientific. It’s not. It’s more like a science writer thing, such as R. Dawkins, S. Pinker and their group. The great mathematician Robert (now Israel) Aumann, who work at the Center of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, when asked how he could be both a rational scientist and a devout Orthodox Jew, answered “It is orthogonal”. N.T. Wright, the theologian and historian, usually tries to explain that “it’s the wrong question”, but I will go beyond that. It’s an ill-posed question.

The notion of scientific belief outside science is not even scientific[13]. By a mechanism called “revelation of preferences”, rational decision making is interested in what you do, not what you “believe”. What goes in your head in the formulation of such beliefs is not the business of science. We are guided in life thanks to visual distortions –and it would be technically irrational to modify them.[14]

Empiricism in the Wrong Places

Ironically, modernists fall for what I have called the opiate of the middle classes[15], that is social science and stock market speculation. They refuse religion on rational grounds, then fall for economic forecasters, stock market analysts, and psychologists. We know that economic forecasts work no better than astrology; stock market analysts are more pompous but much less elegant than the bishop, and psychology papers do not replicate meaning their results do not hold.

My co-author Rupert Read and I have argued (using evolutionary arguments) that religion, via interdicts, allows the intergenerational transmission of survival heuristics and is effective in nudging people into some classes of behavior[16]. By some irony, “nudging” theory developed by social scientists (which earned Richard Thaler a Nobel in economic sciences) has been recently shown to be nonreplicable, owing to a statistical artifact[17]. Nonreplicable is the polite scientific term to mean that it is no different from astrology. Listen to the bishop — the recipient of generations of survival wisdom — not the psychologist.

The Sinister “Scientific” Project

For a Christian, a person is someone who breathes, from the Semitic neshama; it is the indivisible unit –all of course equal in the eyes of God. But the enlightenment, coupled with the invasive growth of “science” started finding statistical differences in the abilities of people of different races. Replacing the metaphor of Adam and Eve by Darwinian ideas lead to “evolutionary” differences not just between species, but within species.

This naturally leads to notions of eugenics: we humans can improve the human race by speeding evolution. This can also justify slavery. I went against the theories of IQ on statistical grounds, showing that it was a fake construct.[18] [19] One can easily show that people like one I’ve called the “mountebank”, the writer Charles Murray, innocent of any form of statistical knowledge, decided that African Americans were inferior, then decided to find statistical methods to justify that point of view. In general most of these studies fail to show the interpersonal variance and environmental effects.

Almost as worrisome, upon Covid, some were openly calling for geronticide and letting “fat people” die. [expand]

Desacralization and Vatican II

In the apology of Christianity, Genie du christianisme, Chateaubriand asserts repeatedly that religion is essentially mystery and sacrifice (that is, skin in the game).[20] “Which religion in antiquity did not lose its moral influence by losing its priests and its sacrifices?” he wrote.

Effectively, Catholicism lost its moral authority the minute it mixed epistemic and pisteic belief –breaking the link between holy and the profane. The aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council, in the early 1960s, meant to “update” Catholicism. One of the measures was to translate prayers into the vernaculars, in place of Latin. By doing so they largely removed the element of mystery from the religion –it reminds me that, one evening in Chicago I walked out of a Verdi opera upon discovering that it was sung in English.

For once religion exits the sacred, it becomes subjected to epistemic beliefs. Atheism is the child of Protestantism, and Vatican II turned out to be a second reformation.

The fastest growing religion today is Sunni Islam, with one and a half billion followers, all praying in Arabic, a foreign language to nine tenth of them, and in an ancient version (fusha) never, never spoken in conversation by Arabs –when an Moroccan wants to converse with a Lebanese, they do so in French or English, not classical Arabic. Judaism survived with its prayers only in Hebrew (and some Aramaic as in the book of Daniel).

I conclude with something personal. I am Greek-Orthodox, a rhomoi, but having parents with an indifference to religion, was brought up via Sunday school and summer camps and boy scouts equally in Roman Catholic, Maronite, and Greek-Orthodox settings. I agree with Tom (private conversation) that much of the ideas of this book don’t apply to Orthodoxy as it had a different evolution and has not been affected by Protestantism. Literal “belief” is not something that concerns us too much. Furthermore, in addition to its theology, Orthodoxy distinguishes itself from Western Christianity in its stiff dietary laws, with veganism more than 200 days per annum. This is not a minor detail, as it shapes a certain type of commitment to the religion.

[1] Nassim Nicholas Taleb focuses on decision making under uncertainty. He is the author of the five volume Incerto.

[2] Lane Fox, Robin, 1986 Pagans and Christians, Knopf.

[3] Yuval, Israel J., 2016. The Orality of Jewish Oral Law: from Pedagogy to Ideology. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the Course of History: Exchange and Conflicts (pp. 237–260). De Gruyter Oldenbourg. See also Yuval, I.J., 2015. “ Deux peuples en ton sein”: Juifs et Chrétiens au Moyen Age. Albin Michel.

[4] For a general view, see Corbin, Henri, En islam iranien, 4 vol, Nrf Gallimard 1973.

[5] Renan, Ernest, 1883, Islam et la science, Conference at the Sorbonne, 28 March.

[6] It was not not just in Gibbon. Consider popular culture then, as represented in the treatment of Julien Sorel’s familiarity with pagan classics by members of the clergy in Stendhal’s Le rouge et the noir.

[7] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas, 2018. Skin in the game: Hidden asymmetries in daily life. Penguin and Random House.

[8] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas, Religion, Violence, Tolerance & Progress: Nothing to do with Theology, Medium, October 2020.

[9] Maalouf, A., 2009. Le dérèglement du monde. Grasset.

[10] Veyne, Paul. Did the Greeks believe in their myths?: An essay on the constitutive imagination. University of Chicago Press, 1988.

[11] Gettier, Edmund L., 1963, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, Analysis, 23(6): 121–123.

[12] Armstrong, Karen, 2009. The case for God. Random House.

[13] Ken Binmore, 2011, Rational Decisions (The Gorman Lectures in Economics, 3rd Edition

[14] In my field of probabilistic decision-making, to be irrational is to violate some rules of intransivity, even then –and an irrational market is one in which transactions guarantee a loss.

[15] See N N Taleb, “The Opiate of the Middle Classes”, Edge, 2010.

[16] Read, R. and Taleb, N.N., 2014. Religion, heuristics and intergenerational risk-management. Econ Journal Watch, 11(2), pp.219–226.

[17] Maier, M., Bartoš, F., Stanley, T.D., Shanks, D.R., Harris, A.J. and Wagenmakers, E.J., 2022. No evidence for nudging after adjusting for publication bias. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(31).

[18] Taleb, N.N., 2019. Fooled by Correlation: Common Misinterpretations in Social ‘Science’. Preprint.

[19] Taleb, N.N., 2019, IQ is a pseudoscientific swindle.

[20] “Nous avons seulement voulu faire remarquer qu’il n’y a point de religion sans mystères; ce sont eux qui, avec le sacrifice, constituent essentiellement le culte” Later : “Quelle religion dans l’antiquité n’a pas perdu son influence morale en perdant ses prêtres et ses sacrifices ?”

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