Religion, Violence, Tolerance & Progress: Nothing to do with Theology

1) Religions map to highly differentiated belief clusters and mentalities that have little to do with their theologies, 2) Heresies are separatist movements, often ethnic, and have little to do with religious doctrine.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Oct 21 · 10 min read

“This city,” [Constantinople] says he [Gregory of Nyssa], “is full of mechanics and slaves, who are all of them profound theologians; and preach in the shops, and in the streets. If you desire a man to change a piece of silver, he informs you, wherein the Son differs from the Father; if you ask the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you inquire, whether the bath is ready, the answer is, that the Son was made out of nothing.”, via Gibbon, Hist. of The Decl. & Fall, Chapter XXVII.¹

Cathars taken for slaughter

The collective historical attitudes of Catholics aren’t necessarily from the theologies of Catholicism, those of Sunni Muslims not from the theology of Sunni Islam — it just happens that:

  1. Religion either creates a distinct polarized group and people start imitating one another within that group, or
  2. Groups find some tiny theological wrinkles (almost always of no real substance) to separate from others (say, Northern Europe from Southern Europe via the reformation, or the Egyptian Copts from the Greek-speaking Byzantines via monophysism), while historical analysts get it backwards, attributing the differentiation of the groups to theological wrinkles.

So my point here is that the Weberian narrative built on the notion that religious transformations (say, as with the reformation) determine attitude and culture fails historical logic. And trying to change the theologies and doctrines makes absolutely no sense. You need to change the mentalities, and cultural norms — if you can.

Saint Bartholomew’s day’s massacre — Francois Dubois
Max Weber who promoted the idea of the West driven by the “Protestant work ethics”.

The robust alternative, that people imitate the (contagious) mores of those of their group, tradditionally defined by religion, makes vastly more sense. People like to dress, act, even think in broad terms within the style of others members of their group, people they identify with — what we tend to loosely call “identity”. We will see further down that schisms and heresies look theological but, typically, in an inverse manner: group invent theological differences in order to separate — heresies have the attributes of ethnic or cultural separatist movements.

Weber introduced, or promoted the idea that Protestants have a certain work ethics thanks to the values imparted by their religion. The idea — like almost all of sociology — is marshmallow-soft. Consider the reverse: that Protestants at the time happened to have a certain culture, and other protestants were likely to embrace the culture of their peers because religion acted as an attractor for identities. For one can always find (thanks to the narrative fallacy) some stuff in a religion that confirms a given theory. Weber and the Weberians missed that the Industrial Revolution hit very early on northern France and Belgium (both extremely Catholic), while the Catholic South remained agricultural and socially conservative, so one can see with the naked eye that it cannot be about something proper to the theologies or the associated doctrines and practices. It is just that cultural norms are contagious within identities, and too mush so. Incidentally such cultural norms haven’t yet hit the Mediterranean since it skipped the industrial revolution. To any statistician, the “Protestant ethics” is a North-South marker, not a Protestant-Catholic one.

Unlike other networks and pagan creeds, the three Abrahamic religions are mutually exclusive — owing to the minority rule — even if somewhat backward compatible (Islam accepts, theologically, Christianity and Judaism but not the reverse; Christianity unrequitedly integrates the Old Testament). You could worship both Jupiter and Baal, just as you can have Franco-Japanese cuisine, but must be either Christian or Muslim. And the differentiation — and the loss of synchretism — which started in Judaism during the rabbinical era, has accelerated in modern times: Jews and Muslims in Morocco shared shrines; at some point it was the same for Shiites and Maronites in Lebanon. It is that absence of media and television allowed local customs to override remote religious edicts. In Doura Europos, c. the 6th C., the same room acted as synagogue, pagan temple, and church. And in Lebanon for a long time the difference was between Qaysi and Yamani (Northern and Southerner), a wedge perhaps inherited from the Byzantine Green and Blue, and that cut across religions (the Druze Qaysis viciously battled the Yamanis in their largest battle, Ayn Dara, leading to the resettlement of the Yamani Druze in the Golan heights).

Amin Maalouf

Amin Maalouf, another Christian Lebanese, understood the problem rather instinctively and saw the contradictions in the current historical accounts². How come Islam is the one currently associated with intolerance, when it was the Catholic Church that’s traditionally held that role. Just consider the obvious evidence: you find many more Christian minorities in the traditional lands of Islam than the reverse. It was Catholic groups that did the (viciously murderous) Albigensian crusade, the Great Inquisition, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and others. Catholicism has not changed; people and their culture did. Last time I checked, the scriptures have not been modified; they were the same during the Inquisition, before the inquisition, and now.

And, of course, Sunni Islam’s attitude towards Christianity has changed over time: a rise in intolerance since the late 18th C. Consider the continuous drop of Christians in the Levant.

Nor does comparing theologies make sense, unless of course one has been brainwashed by sociology texts and becomes unable to think with minimal clarity. The (Protestant) Puritans who inhabited New England and the Salafis of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf have nearly identical theologies, based on shared communitarianism (refusal of a centralized authority), iconoclasm (absence of representation, of saints, and of any elaborate aesthetics), absence of an organized “church”, and very stern practice of the religion. And never forget that it is the exact same God that they are worshiping.

This identity-mentality business is responsible for many other things. Suicide bombers in the East Mediterranean and the Middle East weren’t initially Salafi Muslims; it was in the late 20th Century that the practice (reintroduced almost two millennia after the sicarii) started spreading, with Greek Orthodox Pan Levantine followers of Antun Saadeh. Nothing to do with the virgins one meets in heaven, the kind of ex post attribution one hears today.

So, it matters, for economic development, who you identify with. You embrace their appetite for boring, repetitive tasks, a focus on industrial growth and working in a hierarchy, the extraction of an individual from her or his family, the appetite to wait in line for hours without beating anyone, virtues (or defects) that allowed for the West’s industrial revolution.

In the early 1900s, urban Sunnis in the Levant identified with the Ottoman upper class, hence were readily “Westernized” as the Ottomans Westernized, but in the Eastern Mediterranean/Eastern European way: the Ottoman bourgeois class looked more, for identity, to resemble Greeks and Bulgarian Christians than Germans or other Northern Europeans. The Lebanese Sunnis later on, after Turkey became Turkey, identified with the Middle East, owing to the movement called “Arabism” and changed their mentality and habits. Today Lebanon’s Shiites identify increasingly with Iranians (the people, not the regime), and are embracing social behavior similar to the Iranians, with a focus on study, industry, etc. — ironically much more Western in spite of the theocratic regime. Amine Maalouf detected (as explained to me by the geneticist Pierre Zalloua) that Christians in Lebanon identified with the West, and the differentiation between them and the Muslims started increasing. The religions, meanwhile, stayed the same.

Your way of thinking changes along with the identity, which includes approaches to problem solving. Even such things as “IQ” testing (which measures mostly the ability to test well on that specific test) has yielded an alteration of the hierarchy of results as populations started identifying with a different group than the original one they belonged to: the European Union made the test results of the Irish and the Southern Slavs converge to that of the mainstream.

I explained in Skin in the Game that dietary laws act as social barriers: those who eat together bind together. The onerous Jewish dietary laws helped create separate diasporas which allowed for survival, and prevented social dilution. Now consider the following: there is nothing particularly strong in Islam’s holy text against drinking alcohol, just a rather vague recommendation of avoidance of intoxication while facing the creator. But it made sense for social habits to interpret such a law as a firm interdict to avoid socialization with Christians and Zoroastrians in Bagdad when it was the capital of the Califate and Arabs were in the minority. It was the mentality that found theological backing, rather than the reverse.

Finally, we tend to attribute religious conflicts to religion, rather than cultures that want to cluster away from each other. “Scholars” keep discussing the theological wrinkes that differentiate the Maronites, Nestorians, and Copts from the Greek-Byzantine Orthodox Calcedonians. Few get that these heresies had to do with hatred of the Greco-Romans by people in the countryside who did not share the Hellenisms of city dwellers — again, to a statistician’s eye, here the marker is linguistic: Aramaic/Syriac or Coptic on one hand, Greek on the other (or Mediterranean urban Rum vs. inland or mountain Semitic-speaking peasantry). You find some theological disagreement that few non-initiated understand and the crowds will finally find a way to split along highly polarized lines (consider the absurdity of the filioque controversy or that great wedge between ὁμοιούσιος and ὁμοούσιος separating Eastern and Western identities). The same with the Irish-English divide. And the Shiite vs. Sunni wedge has little to do with the Calife’s succession and a lot more to do with groups that did not want to be part of the larger Sunna — recall that Shiites had, until fifty years ago, taqiyya, a form of Gnostic dissimulation, just like the Alevis, the Allawites, and the Druze, and that the exoteric must necessarily be different from the esoteric, so nobody alive may have a real clue about the true nature of the conflict.


¹ The original: Πάντα γὰρ τὰ κατὰ τὴν πόλιν τῶν τοιούτων πεπλήρωται, οἱ στενωποὶ, αἱ ἀγοραὶ, αἱ πλατεῖαι, τὰ ἄμφοδα· οἱ τῶν ἱματίων κάπηλοι, οἱ ταῖς τραπέζαις ἐφεστηκότες, οἱ τὰ ἐδώδιμα ἡμῖν ἀπεμπολοῦντες. Ἐὰν περὶ τῶν ὀβολῶν ἐρωτήσῃς, ὁ δέ σοι περὶ γεννητοῦ καὶ ἀγεννήτου ἐφιλοσόφησε· κἂν περὶ τιμήματος ἄρτου πύθοιο, Μείζων ὁ Πατὴρ, ἀποκρίνεται, καὶ ὁ καὶ ὁ Υἱὸς ὑποχείριος. Εἰ δὲ, Τὸ λουτρὸν ἐπιτήδειόν ἐστιν, εἴποις, ὁ δὲ ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων τὸν Υἱὸν εἶναι διωρίσατο. Οὐκ οἶδα τί χρὴ τὸ κακὸν τοῦτο ὀνομάσαι, φρενῖτιν ἢ μανίαν, ἤ τι τοιοῦτον κακὸν ἐπιδήμιον, ὃ τῶν λογισμῶν τὴν παραφορὰν ἐξεργάζεται.

² Amin Maalouf wrote back to me in response to this piece to convey the following, with an extract from his book Le dérèglement du monde:

Ma conviction profonde, c’est que l’on accorde trop de poids à l’influence des religions sur les peuples, et pas assez à l’influence des peuples sur les religions. A partir du moment où, au IVe siècle, l’Empire romain s’est christianisé, le christianisme s’est romanisé — abondamment. C’est d’abord cette circonstance historique qui explique l’émergence d’une papauté souveraine. Dans une perspective plus ample, si le christianisme a contribué à faire de l’Europe ce qu’elle est devenue, l’Europe a également contribué à faire du christianisme ce qu’il est devenu. Les deux piliers de la civilisation occidentale que sont le droit romain et la démocratie athénienne sont tous deux antérieurs au christianisme.

On pourrait faire des observations similaires concernant l’islam, et aussi à propos des doctrines non religieuses. Si le communisme a influencé l’histoire de la Russie ou de la Chine, ces deux pays ont également déterminé l’histoire du communisme, dont le destin aurait été fort différent s’il avait triomphé plutôt en Allemagne ou en Angleterre. Les textes fondateurs, qu’ils soient sacrés ou profanes, se prêtent aux lectures les plus contradictoires. On a pu sourire en entendant Deng Xiaoping affirmer que les privatisations étaient dans la droite ligne de la pensée de Marx, et que les succès de sa réforme économique démontraient la supériorité du socialisme sur le capitalisme. Cette interprétation n’est pas plus risible qu’une autre ; elle est même certainement plus conforme aux rêves de l’auteur du Capital que les délires d’un Staline, d’un Kim Il Sung, d’un Pol Pot, ou d’un Mao Zedong.

Nul ne peut nier, en tout cas, au vu de l’expérience chinoise qui se déroule devant nos yeux, que l’un des succès les plus étonnants dans l’histoire mondiale du capitalisme se sera produit sous l’égide d’un parti communiste. N’est-ce pas là une puissante illustration de la malléabilité des doctrines, et de l’infinie capacité des hommes à les interpréter comme bon leur semble ?

Pour en revenir au monde musulman, si l’on cherche à comprendre le comportement politique de ceux qui s’y réclament de la religion, et si l’on souhaite le modifier, ce n’est pas en fouillant dans les textes sacrés qu’on pourra identifier le problème, et ce n’est pas non plus dans ces textes qu’on pourra trouver la solution.


Chapters in Progress from The Incerto Collection (The Black…

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