Religion and the Birth of Liberalism

I want to talk about this article that I found a while back on Cato Unbound called The Trouble in Getting to Denmark. Denmark is the example given by Francis Fukuyama as the ideal modern, peaceful Western Liberal democratic state. Inconveniently for the Cato Institute, it also has one of the most generous social safety nets in the world.

[Tangentially: Cato is all about promoting economic “freedom,” and Denmark is one of the freest and most entrepreneurial societies in the world. But it’s that way precisely because of its strong safety net and social democratic policies—policies that are being promoted by people like Bernie Sanders in the U.S. Also, see this: Never Trust the Cato Institute (Current Affairs)]

This post content centers around a new history book by Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson called Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom. The authors are both professors at George Mason University and are affiliated with the Mercatus Center, which on first blush might make them a little suspect. But there are some very good historical insights here, which are well worth a look. I’ll also quote extensively from this interview with Koyama by Patrick Wyman on the Tides of History podcast which covers the subject matter well. I’ve lightly altered some of the dialogue for clarity, quotes are from Koyama unless noted otherwise..

The book’s insights dovetail with what we’ve been talking about recently: the rise of the modern, liberal absolutist state. The thesis is that religious freedoms were basically the foundation for the rise of capital-L Liberalism—Liberalism being the idea of society as an assorted collection of solitary, self-directed individuals who must be free from any sort of predetermined social identity. Because this notion of has become the hegemonic assumption of the modern world, we fail to recognize just how novel it really is. So let’s dive in…

The main thesis is succinctly stated by Patrick Wyman near the beginning of the podcast:

“The rise of modern states, which were capable of enforcing general rules throughout their territory–down to the local level–were the precondition for religious peace and the eventual rise of religious and other freedoms, which we can term more broadly Liberal freedoms.”

Medieval European society gets the closest look, because it is out of these societies that the modern Liberal state develops, but many of the concepts and insights are applicable to other societies as well.

Religious Freedom versus religious tolerance

The book makes a very important point: religious freedom and religious tolerance are not the same thing; they are actually quite different. Most modern nation-states have true religious freedom, and most are founded on a secular basis (to the consternation of religious fundamentalists). Ancient states, however, practiced a form of religious tolerance, which was the toleration of minority religious beliefs, the same way you might tolerate your neighbor’s loud music instead of going over and starting a fight, or tolerate a screaming baby on a flight:

[3:18] Mark Koyama: “We attempt to project backwards our modern notions of what religious freedom is. In our modern language, we often use toleration interchangeably with religious freedom, where we describe toleration as an attitudinal thing–like ‘I’m a tolerant person; I don’t care what religion you have,’ as opposed to its original meaning, which was ‘to bear.’ This was a sufferance. We’re going to allow these Muslims, say, to practice their religion, but it’s not because we’re okay with it. It’s because it’s the best expedient or pragmatic response to religious diversity.”

[10:51] Patrick Wyman (host): “There’s a fundamental difference between religious sufferance and freedom. Between suffering something to happen because it’s necessary for you to run your state the way you want to, and actively embracing this thing as a legally-based ideal.”

I think that’s an important point. Ancient multi-ethnic states did not have true religious freedom. You will often find this asserted in various history books, but this is a misunderstanding. They had religious tolerance; that is, they permitted subcommunities to openly practice their religion. It was a sufferance, but they allowed it because it was better than the alternative.

This was a categorically different concept from religious freedom as we think about it today.

One example is the Roman Empire. All the Romans really wanted was to gain the spoils of their vast empire via tax collection and tribute. They often co-opted local rulers and other notables, who subsequently became “Romanized,” but they weren’t out to transform society. To that end, subjugated ethnic groups were allowed to maintain their cultural and religious practices, with a few stipulations. For most religions, this wasn’t a problem—they were flexible enough that they could accommodate some Roman gods in their practices and be more-or-less okay with it. The Jews, on the other hand, with their strident and uncompromising monotheism, were different. They regarded their God as the real one, and all others as idols, and worshiping idols was strictly forbidden. This is why there was so much tension in Judea, tension that ultimately led to several revolts and wars.

This was a time where religious identity was not separate from cultural or ethnic identity. The rise of doctrinal evangelical religions changed all that. You can be an Arab, a Turk, a Persian, or Balinese and also be a Muslim. You can be Irish, Polish, French, Italian, or Nigerian and be a Catholic. That’s a much more modern-day conception of religion—as a creed freely chosen. But in ancient societies, religion was an essential and inseparable part of shared cultural identity.

In our reading of the historical evidence, neither ancient Rome nor the Islamic or Mongol Empires had religious freedom. They often refrained from actively persecuting religious minorities, but they were also ruthless in suppressing dissent when it suited their political goals. Religious freedom is a uniquely liberal achievement, and liberalism is an achievement of post-1700 modernity. What explains it?

Which raises the second major point of the book.

Identity Rules versus General Rules

For me, the biggest takeaway was the difference between identity rules and general rules.

[6:25] “An identity rule is where the content or enforcement of the law depends on the social identity of the individual involved. In contrast, a general rule is a rule where the content or enforcement of the law is independent of that individual’s relevant social identity…The identity rules could privilege a minority, or it could disadvantage them. They key here is that your social identity is determinative.

They actually distinguish three different types of rules: personal rules, identity rules and general rules. Personal rules are targeted to the specific person who commuted the infraction, and are largely ad-hoc. This works well on the local level, where everybody knows everybody else such as a small self-governing village, but it doesn’t scale up.

When large empires came on the scene, they imposed identity rules, where law enforcement was based largely on one’s group identity. The reason they did this is because ancient states had limited capacity to govern at a local level i.e. low state capacity. The sophisticated legal systems we have today—with their courts, police, bailiffs, jails, attorneys and professional judges—simply didn’t exist. The capacity simply wasn’t there. Plus, the very notion of an individual as having an identity wholly separate and unmoored from the larger group to which he or she belonged was much less common in the ancient world than in our modern one. That is, ancient societies were collectivist by default. And so, rules were based on one’s ascribed group identity: one’s clan affiliation, social status, guild, corporate group, religion, etc.

With the shift to settled agriculture after 8,000 BC, political organizations became larger and states oversaw the introduction of more sophisticated legal systems to prevent theft, fraud, and uncontrolled violence. For most of history, and in much of the developing world today, these laws have taken the form of identity rules.

Identity rules depend on the social identity of the parties involved. This could refer to an individual’s clan, caste, class, religious affiliation, or ethnicity. Examples from historical legal systems abound. Aristocrats faced different rules from commoners. Slaves faced different rules from freemen. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, prescribed punishment based on the relative status of the perpetrator and the victim. Identity rules were common historically because governing individuals on the basis of their legible social characteristics was cheap. As religious identity was particularly salient, many identity rules treated individuals differently on the basis of their religion.

The Trouble in Getting to Denmark (Cato Unbound)

This is something I’ve repeatedly tried to emphasize in my writing: when we talk about “states,” or things like “the rise of the state” in ancient history, we’re talking about something qualitatively different than when we use term “state” today. That’s important to keep in mind.

[9:24] “The nature of pre-modern states is that, because of they way they govern, they have to rely on identity rules. They don’t have the ability or the capacity to govern at a very local level. They can’t extend their reach deep into society. So they’re more likely to say to this community: ‘we’re going to delegate to you a lot of authority; a lot of power.’ Even if they wanted to enforce a general rule, they wouldn’t be able to.”

“To take another pre-modern example, if you look at the Ottoman state throughout its history, it’s seen as an absolutist state where the Sultan has all the power. But it’s such a vast empire that, given how primitive communication technologies are, its inevitably decentralized, and power is delegated to local nobles. And that means that religious minorities like Christians and Jews get quite a lot of autonomy; a lot of independence, because the state just can’t govern them directly.”

“So the local religious leaders will get quite a lot of autonomy, and a lot of ‘freedom’ precisely because the state governs through identity rules, not through general rules. This results in a lot of self governance for religious minorities. But the key point is that that religious self-governance should not be mistaken for religious freedom. Nor should a state like the Ottoman state, which delegated power and gives autonomy to religious communities, be mistaken for a liberal state. That shouldn’t be mistaken for an example of religious freedom or liberalism.”

Religious Legitimization

The rulers of ancient states relied primarily on religion to legitimize their rule. This seems to stem back very far, indeed. A careful reading of, for example, The Creation of Inequality by Flannery and Marcus, leads to the conclusion that all of the earliest ruling classes everywhere claimed some sort of special connection to the divine entities that were the object of collective reverence. Sometimes this was the “King as a god” model of ancient Egypt. Sometimes this was the “Ruler as steward” model, as in ancient Mesopotamia. Sometimes it was “sacral kingship,” with the ruler as high priest. Sometimes it was tribal elders or scribes who “interpreted God’s will”. Much later, it was the “Divine Right of Kings.” But religion seems to have played a role in virtually all cases that we know of.

If identity rules were a “cheap” form of enumerating and enforcing laws in low-tech, multi-ethnic societies, then appealing to religion was a “cheap” way for rulers to claim legitimacy in these types of societies. It was also crucial to the creation of coherent group identities, which were necessary for identity rules to function. Often it involved special treatment for clergymen, or some sort of power-sharing accommodation with religious officials. But that also led to fairly weak states, with little power to expand the rulers’ prerogatives.

Religion was so central to premodern societies that it is difficult to fully understand the transformations associated with modernity without attending to it. Religion was used to justify the categories in which government and society more broadly used to structure everyday life. Women versus men, nobles versus commoners, guild members versus non-guild members, Muslims versus Christians, Christians versus Jews. All of these categories—as well as the different statuses associated with them in law and in culture—relied to a varying degree on religion to legitimize their use.

Religion was an especially important component of identity in the large agrarian civilizations of Europe and the Near East in a time before nationalism and nation states. Shared religious beliefs and religious identities were seen as crucial to maintaining social order. Religious differences were extremely destabilizing because they were associated with a host of deep societal cleavages.

In an environment where a common religious identity undergirded not only the institutions of the church, but also those of the state and civil society, both religious freedom specifically, and liberalism more generally, were unthinkable.

For instance, in medieval and early modern Europe oaths sworn before God played an important role in upholding the social order. These were thought so important that atheists were seen as outside the political community, since as John Locke put it, “promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.”

A shared religious identity was also crucial for guild membership. Guilds in Christian Spain excluded Muslims. Guilds in 14th century Tallinn excluded Orthodox Christians. Jews were excluded almost everywhere. In parts of Europe converts from Judaism and even their descendants or remote relations could not be guild members. In a world governed by identity rules, an individual’s religious identity determined what economic activities were open to them.

The Trouble in Getting to Denmark (Cato Unbound)

Identity rules were even relied upon by rulers to raise revenue. For example, in many ancient empires, taxes were collected at the village level, with the collection delegated to local elders. Taxes might be assessed differently depending on the group in question. Merchants might be taxed differently than farmers, for example, and often times nobles weren’t taxed at all! Different ethnic groups might face different levels of responsibility and taxation. For example, Jews were the only group allowed to lend money at interest in Catholic Europe, so they were frequently used as cash cows by Christian rulers:

As an illustration, consider how early modern governments often used Jewish communities as a source of tax revenue. Usury restrictions made lending by Christians very costly. However, rulers could grant monopoly rights to Jews to lend without violating their religious principles. In turn, the rates of interest charged by Jewish lenders were high, and the profits were taxed away by the very rulers who granted these rights. Finally, the specialization of Jews as moneylenders exacerbated preexisting antisemitism among the Christian population. This in turn made it relatively easy for rulers to threaten Jews in case they didn’t intend to pay up.

So long as rulers relied on Jewish moneylending as a source of revenue, Jews were trapped in this vulnerable situation. Their position could improve only when states developed more sophisticated systems of taxation and credit.

As suggested by the above example, low state capacity and a reliance on identity rules are self-reinforcing. States that rely on identity rules face less incentive to invest in the fiscal and legal institutions that would increase state capacity. This, in turn, makes them more reliant on identity rules and less able to enforce general rules.

Social Equilibrium

Low state capacity, identity rules and religious legitimization all combined and interacted with each other to form a self-reinforcing social equilibrium, argue Koyama and Johnson.

What is a self-reinforcing equilibrium? This is a tricky one. It’s a concept developed by a Stanford political scientist named Avner Greif. He distinguishes between “institutions as rules” and “institutions as equilibria”. The following is my interpretation, such as I can make out:

Rules as institutions is just what it says—it looks at what the rules of the game are, and how they developed over time. Rules are prescriptive, and are set and enforced from above. They change very slowly.

Rules as equilibria is a concept developed from game theory. In this conception, rules are an emergent phenomena from consistent, repeated interactions between groups of people. There is no overall enforcer, rather the rules develop through “playing the game” over and over again. Consequently, rules as equilibria are more likely to develop out of repeated voluntary interactions between groups rather than individuals, and are enforced by intra-group norms rather than an all-powerful “referee” overseeing everything. The rules of the game are not static; they develop as time goes on. This approach emphasizes the incentives and motivations of the groups which are interacting.

In the institutions-as-rules approach, rules are institutions and institutions are rules. Rules prescribe behavior. In the institutions-as-equilibria approach, the role of “rules”, like that of other social constructs, is to coordinate behavior. The core idea in the institutions-as-equilibria approach is that it is ultimately the behavior and the expected behavior of others rather than prescriptive rules of behavior that induce people to behave (or not to behave) in a particular way. The aggregated expected behavior of all the individuals in society, which is beyond any one individual’s control, constitutes and creates a structure that influences each individual’s behavior. A social situation is ‘institutionalized’ when this structure motivates each individual to follow a regularity of behavior in that social situation and to act in a manner contributing to the perpetuation of that structure.

Institutions: Rules or Equilibria? (PDF)

An example he gives is the merchant guilds of the Middle Ages:

For example, at the medieval Champagne Fairs, large numbers of merchants from all over Europe congregated to trade. Merchants from different localities entered into contracts, including contracts for future delivery, that required enforcement over time. There was no state to enforce these contracts, and the large number of merchants as well as their geographic dispersion made an informal reputation mechanism infeasible…impersonal exchange was supported by a “community responsibility system”. Traders were not atomized individuals, but belonged to pre-existing communities with distinct identities and strong internal governance mechanisms.

Although particular traders from each community may have dealt with merchants from another community only infrequently, each community contained many merchants, so there was an ongoing trading relationship between the communities, taken as a whole. Merchants from different communities were able to trust each other, even in one-shot transactions, by leveraging the inter-community “trust” which sustained these interactions. If a member of one community cheated someone from another community, the community as a whole was punished for the transgression, and the community could then use its own internal enforcement institutions to punish the individual who had cheated.

This system was self-enforcing. Traders had an incentive to learn about the community identities of their trading partners, and to establish their own identities so that they could be trusted. The communities had an incentive to protect the rights of foreign traders, and to punish their members for cheating outsiders, so as to safeguard the valuable inter-community trade. Communities also developed formal institutions to supplement the informal reputation mechanism and coordinate expectations. For example, each community established organizations that enabled members of other communities to verify the identity of its members.

Ultimately, the growth of trade that this institution enabled created the impetus for its eventual replacement by more formal public-order (state-based) institutions which could directly punish traders by, for example, jailing them or seizing their property.

Thus, we see the importance of group identity and solidarity in establishing and enforcing social norms in a world where centralized institutions (e.g. states) are very weak. Without a powerful state, there is simply no way to enforce norms out of a group of isolated, atomized individuals whose identity is completely self-chosen. But membership in various sodalities makes it possible. If you were a bad merchant who cheated or welshed on your debts, you wouldn’t be a merchant very long, even without an all-powerful state enforcing contracts from above. Your reputation, and your relationship with the group, was paramount.

The authors also make a distinction made between equilibria which are stable, and equibria which are self-undermining.

[11:06] PW: “You talk a lot about political legitimacy, about what allows rulers to rule without the constant threat of political violence, of coercive violence. And so you get at the concept of self-reinforcing equilibrium—that this is how medieval society functioned. In your conception, you have religious legitimacy—legitimacy given to a ruler by religious authorities—and identity rules, working together to generate a kind of political equilibrium.

MK: “In the Middle Ages we see widespread reliance on identity rules. Why? Well, for one reason is that even if a ruler was ambitious and had read Roman law and envisioned ruling on the basis of laws which were more general, less parochial, and less local, they wouldn’t have the ability to really enforce them. Ambitious medieval rulers lacked bureaucracies and standing armies, so they would be unable to overturn these rules and replace them with more general rules. So that’s one self-reinforcing relationship—the relationship between low state capacity and reliance on identity rules.

“The other aspect is the reliance on religion as a source of legitimacy. One reason why religion is valuable is because medieval rulers didn’t provide much in the way of public goods, beyond maybe defense; but even defense is questionable because often defense is actually offense. So they’re not providing education, they’re not providing welfare—that’s done by the Church. They’re not really regulating markets. They’re not doing much to alleviate famine or harvest failures. Where does their legitimacy come from, then?

“It’s because they’re the ‘Most Christian King,’ or the’ Catholic Monarch,’ or the ‘Defender of the Faith.’ Religion is a cheap way for rulers to get legitimacy. But if you’re using religion to get legitimacy, you’re making a deal with the religious authorities.

“So in the case of medieval Europe, you’re making a deal with the Church. What the deal entails might be things like: making Churchmen exempt from certain laws, or exempt from paying taxes, which was common in the medieval period. It might involve allowing the papacy to choose popes, or giving them political offices.”

“If you have low state capacity, religious legitimization is going to be an appealing strategy. But at the same time, the more you rely on religion or religious authorities to legitimate your rule, that’s going to curtail your power, your discretionary authority to build state capacity. So its’ a self-reinforcing relationship.

And so low state capacity, religious legitimization, and the application of identity rules, were all linked together in maintaining a stable equilibrium. Eventually, though, that equilibrium was disrupted.

Disrupting the equilibrium: The Reformation and the printing press

The Gutenberg printing press, expanding literacy, and the Protestant Reformation were all intimately connected, and provide a potent example of how technological change often drives social change, for better or for worse (a point worth attending to today).

Suddenly you have many more religious minorities, disrupting the old stable equilibrium. Perhaps even more significantly, you have religious minorities that are allied across national boundaries. This is something that did not really exist before.

[23:00] “John Calvin and Martin Luther didn’t want to secularize society or the state—anything but. They wanted to revitalize religion on different foundations. But the net result was something very different than what they intended…”

Large chunks of society that were once the concern of the Church are no longer the concern of the Church, at least in the Protestant territories. For example, in England the monasteries are sold off, and a lot of Church land is privatized, so a lot of functions that the Church was doing—like providing welfare to the poor–are no longer being provided in sixteenth-century England. That generates a crisis of beggars and paupers in Elizabethan England which the state eventually has to solve with the introduction of the Poor Law in the early seventeenth century.”

“In the German territories, it’s been shown by research that Protestantism leads to the selling off of Church buildings. Even in Catholic Europe, the Counter-Reformation is tightly controlled by powerful monarchies in Spain and France. And so the independent ability of the Church is weakened as a result. Similarly, the ability of identity rules and religious identity to effectively govern society is weakened where you have multiple religions in one society.

“So all of these societies which experience the Reformation wholeheartedly—France, the German territories, England—they generate religious minorities that they didn’t have before.”

“This is an ongoing problem. In England, the wars of religion destabilize the political economy for the entire period between Henry the Eighth and the Glorious Revolution. You’re always worrying whether the Catholics will somehow take control, or will turn England toward Rome. That generates the persecution of Catholics, and it generates conflict between Parliament and the King.”

“Germany is the most extreme example, because the Holy Roman Empire descends into a terrible war—the Thirty Years’ War—which is one of the worst wars in European history.”

Throughout this period of crisis, which lasts more than a century, European rulers want to return their societies to how they had been in the medieval period. They want to regain religious homogeneity, so they think they can reconcile the Protestants and the Catholics. It’s a common view in sixteenth-century France that if the king can bring everyone together, there will be a way to bring the Protestants back into the fold. We also have the policy of expulsion which is used not only in Spain and Portugal, but also in France at the end of the seventeenth century. You feel you can’t govern effectively so long as you have a group of people who belong to another religion, so you expel them.”

Because rulers are conditioned on this prior equilibrium, they don’t know how to deal with religious differences. And it takes basically a century-and-a-half of conflict, violence, and then accommodation before there’s a movement to reorient these societies along different rules. There’s what we recognize as a shift in political arrangements which de-emphasizes religion as a source of political legitimacy and shifts away from this reliance on identity rules towards more general rules. And, of course, this transition takes several centuries.”

They then discuss a concept called multivocal signaling. In an era of low information flow and primitive communication technologies, rulers could target alternative messages to different groups of subjects. Each message was tailored to that particular social group, and was designed to appease them and keep them in the fold. The rulers’ identity became a Rorschach ink blot designed to be interpreted many different ways by many different groups of people.

But once information became easier to disseminate and access, different groups could compare notes. Now it was no longer possible to be all things to all people; sort of like when a cheating man’s wife discovers that he has one or more secret other families. This concept is based on a book called The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe by political scientist Daniel H. Nexon:

[27:15] PW: “In the early modern period, especially with the rise of print and then the Reformation that follows, it gets a lot harder for rulers to be everything to all of their different groups of subjects–what Nexon terms multivocal signalling. Premodern rulers had done a lot of being one thing to one group of people in their kingdom, another thing to another group of people. So you could simultaneously be ‘Protector of the Jews’ and ‘Most Christian King,’ and this to the artisans, and this to the nobles. A ruler could be a lot of different things simultaneously because it was easy to target messages to those groups in the absence of mass media of communication.”

But when you get the rise of print and simultaneously the splintering of society along religious lines, it gets a lot harder to be everything to everybody, because everybody knows what you’re saying to everybody else, too. So it becomes much harder for rulers to maintain these split identities that allow them to govern heterogeneous societies effectively by means of these identity rules.”

“Maybe that’s a thing that helps explain the shift to general rules. When you can’t be everything to everybody, you need to find different bases of legitimacy and power on which to rule.

[28:33] MK: “…When we think about why religious persecution was so acute during that period—why do you have these wars of religion—the kind of trite, high school history view is how intolerant people were back then. Then we can look down on them from our modern liberal societies and say that people in the sixteenth century really believed in burning heretics alive, or killing people for religious differences.

But Daniel Nexon’s book really points out that because of the spread of print media, this religious crisis was really a geopolitical crisis, because Catholics in France and Spain were now interested in the fate of Catholics in England. So the Catholics in England then become a potential fifth column in the geopolitical struggle taking place for non-religious political reasons between England, France, and Spain. They’re aligned with the political interests of a foreign power. Ditto Protestants in France. Protestants in France are going to be aligned with the Dutch Republic, or with the German States or with England. So, again, a potential fifth column that the state no longer can trust.

Prior to the Reformation, there were religious differences across these European states. People would have their own local version of Catholicism. They would worship local saints and have local practices. But those local religious differences were not correlated in any way with political differences at the geopolitical level. The fact that you might have your own religious practices in Norfolk was not going to align you with the French. But by the seventeenth century, that is true for Catholics and Protestant minorities in their respective countries. So that’s another layer of this crisis that early modern rulers faced.

Nexon himself describes multivocal signaling this way:

Multivocal signaling enables central authorities to engage in divide-and-rule tactics without permanently alienating other political sites and thus eroding the continued viability or such strategies. To the “extent that local social relations and the demands of standardizing authorities contradict each other, polyvalent [or multivocal] performance becomes a valuable means of mediating between them” since actions can be “coded differently within the audiences.” Multivocal signaling, therefore, can allow central rulers to derive the divide-and-rule benefits of star-shaped political systems while avoiding the costs stemming from endemic cross pressures… The spread of reformation, in particular, made it difficult for dynasts to engage in polyvalent signaling across religiously differentiated audiences…

The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change; by Daniel H. Nexon, pp. 114-115

This also helps explain the emergence of nationalism and national identities in nineteenth-century Europe, and the demise of multi-ethnic states like the Austro-Hungarian empire. As the hand of the state reached ever deeper down into the underlying fabric of society during this period, people wanted to be directly ruled by people “like them” and not by “outsiders.” Ancient states, by contrast, did fairly little besides collecting taxes, guaranteeing safe travel, and keeping basic order, with underlying ethnic identities remaining mostly intact.

The Roman Empire, again, provides an example. You can’t look at a map of the Roman Empire at its height without pondering, “how could they govern such a vast territory without any modern technology?” The answer is: they didn’t! The empire was sort of a “stratum” above local communities whose day-to-day lives probably differed very little from those of their remote ancestors. The empire just provided an organizational framework, and little else. Even a standing army could only move as fast as a soldier could march, and communicate as fast as a horseman could ride. Rulers moved the army about strategically, like pieces on chessboard, in order to maintain order and quell revolt. Actual interaction with government officials, however, was limited to a small coterie of aristocratic local leaders. For most ordinary people in the ancient world, the “empire” they were nominally ruled by was just a remote abstraction. With the rise of strong, centralized states, that was no longer the case. Even today separatist conflicts abound, such as in Catalonia or Kurdistan.

The Emergence of general rules and modern Liberalism

And so we finally come to the introduction of general rules—rules that are written to treat everybody equally, regardless of their group identity, doctrinal creed, or any other ascribed social status. Whether you were Protestant, Catholic or Jew (or even atheist!), the law was the same. Of course, this was an ideal often not lived up to, but it started to become the common expectation. This eventually came about after every other approach was tried by Early Modern rulers and failed. It’s hard to win a win a war against a belief system. But what this approach also did was free up Early Modern rulers to expand state capacity in other ways that they could not have done before, and appeasing religious officials was no longer paramount. For example, Napoleon considered his law code to be his finest and most durable achievement, surpassing even his military victories. All sort of archaic and feudal rules were swept away.

Yet there were often many attempts from below to push back against this kind of governance, and hence there were significant roadblocks on the way to more modern systems of professional, bureaucratic governance, democracy, and the expansion of state capacity:

[31:15] We see endless attempts by Early Modern rulers to build state capacity, and they’re always being undermined at the local level…Every attempt by these Early Modern rulers to build state capacity is one step forwards, two steps backwards. There are these forces pushing back against any attempt to build a society based on general rules—what Francis Fukuyama calls the repatrimonilization of the state—and often it’s only in war that these modern states are forged. War is driving this increase in state capacity, but war is also destroying the economy and using up the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals. That’s why its such an arduous process.

Some of these Early Modern rulers are heading towards more general rules and increased state capacity, others think the way forwards is actually backwards. The term historians use is confessionalization, and in some sense these confessional states that are built in the Early Modern period are trying to rebuild the medieval equilibrium. I think Louis the Fourteenth, what he’s doing when he expels the Huguenots—the French Protestants—is looking back to the golden age of how France was before the Reformation. He thinks if only he could get back and reunify the country religiously, that would actually strengthen his power and make the state stronger.

We know after the event that that’s a failure. It doesn’t strengthen the French economy or society, because they lose a very productive minority, but it also doesn’t work even on its own terms, because by the eighteenth century there are still many, many Protestants in France. It doesn’t get rid of the problem of a religious minority.

European rulers eventually had no other choice but to acquiesce to the freedom of religion as we now know it. Edicts of Toleration were signed all over Europe. The Founding Fathers of the United States—for whom the wars of religion were still recent history—recognized this and enshrined it in the Constitution. Its birth was much more painful in Europe, beginning with the often radical atheism of the leaders of the French Revolution. This kicked off the Long nineteenth century—the period of conflict where modern Liberalism was born.

With religious affiliation now being something “freely chosen” according to one’s own individual conscience, other forms of ascribed identity soon fell by the wayside. Free cities and communes had always been places for nonconformists in Medieval Europe to flee to in order to escape the stultifying conformity of the countryside and shed their traditional social obligations. These sophisticated, cosmopolitan urbanites—the bourgeoisie—became the nucleus of the new social order based around “freely chosen” social affiliations, flexible and ever-shifting personal identities, and explicit (as opposed to implicit) contractual obligations:

In our argument it was not that the Wars of Religion simply exhausted confessional and doctrinal disputes. Rather there was a transformation at the institutional level. The leading European states shifted away from identity rules towards more general rules. This shift was related to 19th-century historian Henry Sumner Maine’s discussion of the passage from status to contract: Status was imposed and ascriptive. Contracts, in contrast, are the outcome of voluntary choices. Status-based rules are invariably identity rules. Contracts provide the foundation for a system of general rules.

Moving from a fixed status to a contractual society helped set in motion a range of developments, including the growth of markets and a more extensive division of labor. But it had the unintended consequence of diminishing the political importance of religion, and this made liberalism feasible for the first time in history.

The Trouble in Getting to Denmark (Cato Unbound)

Wars played a major role in the emergence of modern states, particularly the need to raise ever-larger amounts of money to fund them. In our history of money, we saw how international merchants’ use of paper instruments of credit, such as bills of exchange, existed alongside the ruler’s legal authority to raise taxes and coin money. Bills of exchange and trade credit allowed these merchants to coordinate their activities across international boundaries. This was enforced not by the state, but by private networks of merchant-bankers (i.e. via rules of equilibrium). When the bankers’ ability to issue paper credit became conjoined with the state’s ability to levy taxes with establishment of the Bank of England, you had a major step forward toward the creation of the modern welfare-warfare state. The end of the Thirty Year’s War in the Peace of Westphalia led to the concept of what political historians refer to as Westphalian sovereignty—the basis of the soveriegn, absolutist nation-state. These developments, in turn, led to the establishment of a professional Weberian civil service, supplanting the patrimonial states governed by hereditary aristocrats, i.e “depatrimonialization”. Per Wikipedia:

[Max] Weber listed several preconditions for the emergence of bureaucracy, including an increase in the amount of space and population being administered, an increase in the complexity of the administrative tasks being carried out, and the existence of a monetary economy requiring a more efficient administrative system. Development of communication and transportation technologies make more efficient administration possible, and democratization and rationalization of culture results in demands for equal treatment.

As Karl Polanyi extensively documented, strong states, capable of enforcing general rules and contracts, and haute finance, were the key requirements in creation of Market Society. Market Society—where everything including land and labor was for sale and theoretically allocated according to impersonal forces of supply and demand—was not merely an expansion of the kind of activities that had gone on generations prior. Rather, it was something altogether new and radically different, and done with the full blessing of the elite ruling classes. Patrick Deneen notes the connection in his book, Why Liberalism Failed:

Individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state. In distinct but related ways, the right and left cooperate in the expansion of both statism and individualism, although from different perspectives, using different means, and claiming different agendas. This deeper cooperation helps to explain how it has happened that contemporary liberal states–whether in Europe or America–have become simultaneously more statist, with ever more powers and authority vested in central authority, and more individualistic, with people becoming less associated and involved with such mediating institutions as voluntary associations, political parties, churches, communities, and even family. For both “liberals” and “conservatives,” the state becomes the main driver of individualism, while individualism becomes the main source of expanding power and authority of the state. p. 46

Our main political choices come down to which depersonalized mechanism will purportedly advance our freedom and security–the space of the market, which collects our billions upon billions of choices to provide for our wants and needs without demanding from us any specific thought or intention about the wants and needs of others, or the liberal state, which establishes depersonalized procedures and mechanisms for the wants and needs of others that remain insufficiently addressed by the market.

Thus the insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of state activity masks the true relation between the state and market: that they grow constantly and necessarily together. Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism. For all the claims about electoral transformations–for “Hope and Change,” or “Making America Great Again”–two facts are naggingly apparent: modern liberalism proceeds by making us both more individualist and more statist. This is not because one party advances individualism without cutting back on statism while the other does the opposite; rather, both move simultaneously in tune with our deepest philosophic premises. p. 17

The authors display their Libertarian biases toward the end of the article with this line: “While the far left has never accepted liberal values such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion, antipathy towards liberal values is now evident in mainstream progressive publications as well. Liberalism is indicted because it is perceived as legitimating inequality and failing to endorse social justice.” Notice the lack of citations here.

A nice strawman, but liberalism is not indicted, capitalism is. Capitalism is inherently undemocratic, since it invests disproportionate power in an unelected minority capitalist class, whose power stems from paper ownership claims (in deeds, stocks bonds, and accounts) which can be passed down in perpetuity. As Deneen notes, in practice this simply replaces one aristocracy with another. And we all know that the rich can buy special treatment under the law due to their disproportionate wealth and influence in comparison with the rest of us, something which makes a mockery of so-called “liberal values.”

Also, under Neoliberalism repatrimonialization and rent-seeking have exploded. Monopolies and oligopolies control practically every major industry. The feckless rich are bailed out while ordinary citizens are left to their own devices. Prices have less to do with actual production costs than sheer market power, and rules are written and re-written by the industries themselves in order to privilege existing actors and keep out competitors (including governments themselves). Parasitic financial gambling has become the highest-return activity rather than providing useful goods and services. Incompetent cronies and family members take over key positions in the public and private sector. The upper class uses elite universities as a moat to maintain their elevated status, despite their demonstrated lack of judgement or competence.

Capitalism as it currently stands also commonly makes rules that favor certain groups over others. Professional classes like doctors, lawyers, engineers, and so forth, are shielded from international competition by government restrictions. Patent and copyright laws enforced by strong states prevent the copying of innovations by others, and preserve existing wealth distribution. Wealth is taxed more lightly than wages. Meanwhile, most average workers are left to “sink or swim” in a harsh, competitive globalized job market with no protections whatsoever. This is all rationalized as an “inevitable” force of nature. Dean Baker has written a whole book about it called Rigged:

Rigged: How globalization and the rules of the modern economy were structured to make the rich richer (Real World Economics Review)

In the end, the authors conclude, “[W]e think the core characteristics of a liberal society are the rule of law and reliance on general rules,” and, “Liberalism is valuable because it is the only form of social order we know of that is consistent with a high degree of autonomy and human dignity.”

Well, under that definition, socialism would fit the bill just as well, if not better. It’s hard to see a lot of “dignity” and “autonomy” with the amount of people struggling in modern-day America. It’s hard to equate the millions of prisoners in jail toiling away for pennies an hour with “dignity.” And it hard to have “autonomy” when the base condition of existence for most of us is having to constantly sell our labor or face utter ruin. Liberalism is—or should be—more than simply allowing the rich the “freedom” to make whatever rules they wish for their own benefit, to the detriment of society as a whole. If that doesn’t happen soon, then don’t expect Liberalism to last much longer.

Inequality in Old Europe

I’ve not had much time to write – I’m sprucing up Hipcrime Vocab international headquarters in case I want to sell it and relocate. I’ll say more about that another time.

This article is particularly interesting given what we talked about last time concerning the Iroquois culture. It’s about a study of a Bronze Age farming settlement in Europe (modern-day Augsburg) and concludes, “Social Stratification Dates Back to Bronze Age Societies.” The societies studied by the researchers were:

. . .members of Central European farming communities that spanned from the late Neolithic period through the Bronze Age—or from around 2800 B.C. through 1300 B.C.

So I”m guessing this is the Corded Ware, Bell Beaker and Funnelbeaker cultures in particular (or similar cultures). Most likely they spoke an Indo-European language and may have been proto-Celtic.

. . . it has long been assumed that prior to the Athenian and Roman empires,—which arose nearly 2,500 and more than 2,000 years ago, respectively—human social structure was relatively straightforward: you had those who were in power and those who were not.

A study published Thursday in Science suggests it was not that simple. As far back as 4,000 years ago, at the beginning of the Bronze Age. . .human families of varying status levels had quite intimate relationships. Elites lived together with those of lower social classes and women who migrated in from outside communities. It appears early human societies operated in a complex, class-based system that propagated through generations.

Ancient Teeth Reveal Social Stratification Dates Back to Bronze Age Societies (Scientific American)

I’m not sure it was ever assumed to be that simple, but whatever. The interesting thing here is what it says about the creation of inequality. What we see here is a household structure, with various individuals ranked within it. People of different status lived cheek-to-jowl, and this is revealed by the burials:

Related individuals, the study’s authors found, were laid to rest with goods and belongings that appeared to be passed down through generations. The unrelated people in the household were buried with nothing, suggesting they were a lower class of “family members,” who were not given the ceremonial treatment.

“We don’t know if the low-status individuals in Augsburg were slaves, menial staff or something else,” comments Philipp Stockhammer of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, who was a co-author of the new study. “But we can see that in every household, individuals of very different status were living together.

So, then, it’s quite likely that inequality first appeared within households, before it became institutionalized more broadly. Second, my guess is that certain lineages became ranked lineages, with some having a claim to a more ancient or revered ancestor, for instance. When you combine these two factors, you get a two-pronged stratification giving rise to inequality: one interfamilial—between different Houses, and one intrafamilial—between different individuals within the House. The highest-up individuals of the highest-up Houses were probably the most important decision-makers (chiefs or kings). However, without a permanent standing army or police, like the Iroquois, there was no way for potential leaders to impose their will on the rest of the tribe.

It’s quite possible that this was a sort of feudal-style order based around cattle ownership. In his Lectures on the History of Early Institutions, Henry Maine considered whether the feudal system as it developed in post-Roman Europe grew out of the land-tenure laws of the Celtic and Germanic tribal cultures that occupied the continent.

Under this system, the lands of a tribe (fine) were not owned outright by any single individual, although the chiefs (flaiths) may have possessed small portions of their own land. The chiefs did manage the land, however, giving them a considerable degree of control over the grazing herds. They loaned out portions of the herd to other tribe members, a practice called giving stock. The receivers of stock became vassals (céiles) of the chief, with certain obligations, including military duties. The amount of stock received from the chief determined one’s social status. Those who owed a little stock were Saer (free) tenants; those with more loans were Daer (base) tenants. The Daer tenants had the more onerous obligations. There were also freemen with no property, and an unfree servile class, with differing degrees of legal protection (Bothachs, Sen-Cleithes, and fuidhirs), with fuidhirs also subdivided into Saer and Daer. These folks had no clan affiliation, and were tantamount to slaves:

Every considerable tribe, and almost every smaller body of men contained in it, is under a Chief, whether he be one of the many tribal rulers whom the Irish records call Kings, or whether he be one of those heads of joint-families whom the Anglo-Irish lawyers at a later date called the Capita Cognationum. But he is not owner of the tribal land. His own land he may have…and over the general tribal land he has a general administrative authority…and, probably in that capacity, he has acquired great wealth in cattle…

It has somehow become of great importance to him to place out portions of his herds among the tribesmen…Thus the Chiefs appear in the Brehon law as perpetually ‘giving stock,’ and the tribesmen as receiving it…It is by taking stock that the free Irish tribesman becomes the Ceile or Kyle, the vassal or man of his Chief, owing him not only rent but service and homage…

The new position which the tribesman assumed through accepting stock from a Chief varied according to the quantity of stock he received. If he took much stock he sank to a much lower status than if he had taken little. On this difference in the quantity accepted there turns the difference between the two great classes of Irish tenantry, the Saer and Daer tenants…

The Saer-stock tenant, distinguished by the limited amount of stock which he received from the Chief, remained a freeman and retained his tribal rights in their integrity. The normal period of his tenancy was seven years, and at the end of it he became entitled to the cattle which had been in his possession. Meantime he had the advantage of employing them in tillage, and the Chief on his part received the ‘growth and increase and milk,’…besides this it entitled the Chief to receive homage and manual labour; manual labour is explained to mean the service of the vassal in reaping the Chief’s harvest and in assisting to build his castle or fort, and it is stated that, in lieu of manual labour, the vassal might be required to follow his Chief to the wars.

Any large addition to the stock deposited with the Saer-stock tenant, or an unusual quantity accepted in the first instance by the tribesman, created the relation between vassal and chief called Daer-stock tenancy. The Daer-stock tenant had unquestionably parted with some portion of his freedom, and his duties are invariably referred to as very onerous. The stock given to him by the Chief consisted of two portions, of which one was proportionate to the rank of the recipient, the other to the rent in kind to which the tenant became liable…Beside the rent in kind and the feudal services, the Chief who had given stock was entitled to come, with a company of a certain number, and feast at the Dear-stock tenant’s house, at particular periods, for a fixed number of days…

…the relation out of which Daer-stock tenancy and its peculiar obligations arose was not perpetual. After food-rent and service had been rendered for seven years, if the Chief died, the tenant became entitled to the stock; while, on the other hand, if the tenant died, his heirs were partly, though not wholly, relieved from their obligation. At the same time it is very probable that Daer-stock tenancy, which must have begun in the necessities of the tenant, was often from the same cause rendered practically permanent…

…the effect of the ancient Irish relation was to produce, not merely a contractual liability, but a status. The tenant had his social and tribal position distinctly altered by accepting stock. Further, the acceptance of stock was not always voluntary. A tribesman, in one stage of Irish custom at all events, was bound to receive stock from his own ‘King,’ or, in other words, from the Chief of his tribe in its largest extension; and everywhere the Brehon laws seem to me to speak of the acceptance of stock as a hard necessity.

https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2040#Maine_1413_94

Once again we see that status is dependent upon credit/debt relationships. Over time, these relationships become solidified. The chief who distributes cattle to the tribe is also the chief who distributes booty in raids, and cattle rustling is a frequent theme in early Irish literature. We don’t know if the social structure of these ancient central European farming communities was close to that of tribal Ireland, but it may have been.

Another clue to the social structure comes from another finding:

By radio dating the teeth samples and comparing them with regional geographical radioactivity profiles, Stockhammer and his collaborators also determined where each person grew up. Traces of radioactive elements called isotopes are all around us, including in our food and water. From childhood, these elements are incorporated into our bones and can be used to determine where someone was raised. The results show that in nearly all of the households studied, there were females who hailed from elsewhere.

Whereas the remains suggest that farmsteads were passed through many generations of males—up to five in some cases—females only persisted in a community for one generation. This observation means a system of patrilocality was followed: men stayed in their place of upbringing, while women moved in with their husband’s family. Patrilocal cultures had previously existed, including far back in the Paleolithic, but the findings support the idea that the practice became more common as the organization of societies developed.

Stockhammer points out that social structure has long been a major topic in archeology and that countless studies have explored the communal interactions of ancient societies. Yet he feels the new study illuminates the transition of societal organization as we moved, from the late Stone Age to the Bronze Age, toward individual families living with those of a subservient class and women from other communities. “We added a new aspect to the current state of the art: the integration of genetic, isotopic and archaeological data, which helped us understand the complexity of past social structures,” Stockhammer says. Though he is resolute that his findings cannot directly be correlated with other ancient societies, he does draw a comparison with classical Greece’s oikos family structure and Rome’s familia, in which slaves and those of lower status were part of the family.

Indeed, Greece and Roman cultures initially developed out of such farming communities. The oikos and the familia were extended households that formed the smallest constituent part of these societies. They were united by kinship under the authority of the patriarch, as Maine argued in Ancient Law:

It would be a very simple explanation of the origin of society if we could … suppose that communities began to exist wherever a family held together instead of separating at the death of its patriarchal chieftain.

In most of the Greek states and in Rome there long remained the vestiges of an ascending series of groups out of which the State was at first constituted. The Family, House, and Tribe of the Romans may be taken as the type of them, and they are so described to us that we can scarcely help conceiving them as a system of concentric circles which have gradually expanded from the same point.

The elementary group is the Family, connected by common subjection to the highest male ascendant. The aggregation of Families forms the Gens or House. The aggregation of Houses makes the Tribe. The aggregation of Tribes constitutes the Commonwealth. Are we at liberty to follow these indications, and to lay down that the commonwealth is a collection of persons united by common descent from the progenitor of an original family?

Of this we may at least be certain, that all ancient societies regarded themselves as having proceeded from one original stock, and even laboured under an incapacity for comprehending any reason except this for their holding together in political union. The history of political ideas begins, in fact, with the assumption that kinship in blood is the sole possible ground of community in political functions; nor is there any of those subversions of feeling, which we term emphatically revolutions, so startling and so complete as the change which is accomplished when some other principle—such as that, for instance, of local contiguity—establishes itself for the first time as the basis of common political action.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22910/22910-h/22910-h.htm#CHAPTER_V

What’s most interesting to me is the patrilocal method of residence. The Iroquois, as you recall, were matrilocal—tracing descent from the mother’s side and living with her clan. This latest study gives a boost to Engels’s theory that when matrilineal and matrilocal cultures were “overthrown” in favor of patriarchy, private property became inherited, giving rise to private property and inequality. Go back and read what he said about this in the previous post.

It’s worth noting that pastoral (cattle) cultures are—without any exception that I’m aware of—male dominated and patriarchal. Is the introduction of cattle the path to inequality? Contrast this with the matrilocal and (semi-) matriarchal culture of the Iroquois with their clan mothers. They had no large domesticated animals (which didn’t exist in North America), and practiced hoe-based farming, which was done mainly by women. It seems that this meant that women had higher status in that culture, with a subsequently flatter social hierarchy and less inequality of property.

As for when it was overthrown, Marija Gimbutas famously argued for years that “Old Europe” was matrilineal and matriarchal, and practiced “goddess worship” based on the large quantity of female figurines that she found. She then claimed that the Kurgan peoples swept in from the east and replaced the Old European culture with one that was much more warlike, patriarchal, and worshiped masculine gods. The farming peoples in this study would have been their descendants. They were also likely the ancestors of the various Indo-European cultures. While she may have overstated the importance of goddess-worship (on very little evidence), in many other respects Gimbutas may have been largely correct about the transition (she is backed up by recent DNA evidence). To what extent were these “low-status” individuals the earliest farmers and hunter-gatherers of Old Europe?

. . .Stockhammer believes marrying outside one’s community encouraged the cultural exchange of information, which ultimately led to the formation of new civilizations. Increasing social interactions with other communities allowed for a more efficient transfer of skills and goods to a wider population. “I am sure the fact that a large number of adult women from outside the society entered the society had an important effect—that new knowledge and technologies came with them,” he says.

Anthropologists and scientists from other fields refer to a concept called ratcheting, in which cultural information is not just shared and learned but also modified and improved. If ancient humans mingled with outside communities, countless kernels of know-how would have been borrowed and altered for both good and bad (more effective tools; more lethal weapons and warfare).

Individuals marrying outside of their community may have also made sense from the standpoint of genetic fitness and allowed local societies to thrive. Doing so would have prevented the genetic abnormalities that come from inbreeding and perhaps, in the long term, improved collective community survival.

Interestingly, our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, are also female exogamous. That is, the females leave the community in which they were born, whereas the males stick around. Could this be a clue to human social relations? As a side note, even today, it feels like more women leave the places of their birth to seek out mates, while those who stay put are more often men. If I may be so bold, I suspect this is why women are so much more into travel than men are on average (there are exceptions; I’m one of them), and do so much more of it. In my failing Rust Belt city, for example, every woman not pregnant by twenty-one moves away to somewhere better, and only comes back to raise her kids (aside from the occasional boomerang).

Only humans can from these types of affinal relationships, and it does allow for much larger social agglomerations and transfer of information. Robin Dunbar talks about this in his book Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior. Chimps may be female exogamous, but there is no ongoing relationship between families, and hence no uniting of disparate chimp bands. Subsequently, there is no cultural or knowledge transfer between chimp bands; they are largely hermetically sealed. H. sapiens’ ability to overcome this limitation may have played a role in us coming to dominate the planet, and may have very deep roots, indeed.

The foundation of all of this may have been religion, specifically, the tutelary religion of the hearth, as Fustel de Coulanges eloquently describes in The Ancient City:

A family was composed of a father, a mother, children, and slaves. This group, small as it was, required discipline. To whom, then, belonged the chief authority? To the father? No. There is in every house something that is above the father himself. It is the domestic religion; it is that god whom the Greeks called the hearth master—εστια δεστοινα —whom the Romans called Lar familiaris. This divinity of the interior, or what amounts to the same thing, the belief that is in the human soul, is the least doubtful authority. This is what fixed rank in the family.

The father ranks first in presence of the sacred fire. He lights it, and supports it; he is its priest. In all religious acts his functions are the highest; he slays the victim, his mouth pronounces the formula of prayer which is to draw upon him and his the protection of the gods. The family and the worship are perpetuated through him; he represents, himself alone, the whole series of ancestors, and from hm are to proceed the entire series of descendants. Upon hm rests the domestic worship–he can almost say, like the Hindu, “I am the god.” When death shall come, he will be a divine being whom his descendants will invoke.

Consistent with the findings of the researchers about unrelated females moving in to male-centric houses, Fustel de Coulanges also found that Roman hearth religion had women leaving the house of their birth and becoming a part of their husband’s family:

This religion did not place woman in so high a rank. The wife takes part in the religious acts, indeed, but she is not the mistress of the hearth. She does not derive her religion from her birth. She is initiated into it at her marriage. She has learned from her husband the prayer that she pronounces. She does not represent the ancestors, since she is not descended from them. She herself will not become an ancestor, placed in the tomb, she will not receive special worship. In death, as in life, she counts only as a part of her husband.

Greek law, Roman law, and Hindu Law, all derived from this old religion, agree on considering the wife as always a minor. She could never have a hearth of her own; she was never the chief of a worship. At Rome she received the title of mater familial; but she lost this if her husband died. Never having a sacred fire which belonged to her, she had nothing of what gave authority in the house. She never commanded; she was never even free, or mistress of herself. She was always near the hearth of another, repeating the prayer of another, for all the acts of religious life she needed a superior, and for all the acts of civil life a guardian. pp. 68-69

And getting back to the initial theme of passing property down via inheritance seen in the burials of these communities, that too seems to have been intimately connected to the religious worship of the hearth according to Coulanges:

There are three things which, from the most ancient times, we find founded and solidly established in Greek and Italian societies: the domestic religion; the family; and the right of property — three things which had in the beginning a manifest relation, and which appear to have been inseparable. The idea of private property existed in the religion itself. Every family had its hearth and its ancestors. These gods could be adored only by this family and protected it alone. They were its property.

Now, between these gods and the soil, men of the early ages saw a mysterious relation. Let us first take the hearth. This altar is the symbol of a sedentary life; its name indicates this. It must be placed upon the ground; once established, it cannot be moved…The god is installed there not for a day, not for the life of one man merely, but for as long a time as this family shall endure, and there remains any one to support its fire by sacrifices, This the sacred fire takes possession of the soil, and marked it its own. It is the god’s property.

And the family, which through duty and religion remains grouped around its altar, is as much fixed to the soil as the altar itself. The idea of domicile follows naturally. The family is attached to the altar, the later is attached to the soil; an intimate relation, therefore, is established between the soil and the family. There must be his permanent home, which he will not dream of quitting, unless an unforeseen necessity constrains him to it. Like the hearth, it will always occupy this spot. This spot belongs to it, is its property, the property not simply of a man, but of a family, whose different members must, one after another, be born and die here. p. 48

Is this the origin of private property? In ancient Rome, when land (and slaves) were transferred between owners, such a transfer was accompanied by a “solemn ceremony” called mancipatio (the origin of the word emancipation). Over time, these became replaced by cash transfers and real estate markets, and inequality ran amok, eventually leading to Rome’s downfall.

How closely did these ancient European farming cultures resemble that of the ancient Greeks and Romans? After all, they were both based around farming and cattle-rustling. We can only speculate, as culture does not calcify unlike the elements in bones and teeth. The researchers’ invoking of Greek and Roman culture is telling, however. It certainly seems like they may have been quite similar. Hopefully, new methods like those used in the article will give us even more data to work with, as they hope:

University of Michigan archeologist Alicia Ventresca Miller, who was not involved in the paper, shares Stockhammer’s enthusiasm and feels this new work reveals a lot about early human inheritance of goods and property. “As far as I can tell, there are no other studies that have such large sample sizes and multiple analyses to come to these conclusions, especially for prehistoric groups,” she says. “Their finding that wealth was inherited, rather than achieved, has real impacts for research on inequality and will likely change our understanding of ancient Europe. The results give us insight into the complexity of ancient lifeways.”

Krishna Veeramah, a population geneticist in the department of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, who was also not involved in the study, thinks the new multidisciplinary research approach may serve as a model for future work, especially as characterizing ancient DNA becomes more affordable and widespread.

On a related note, it seems that these pre-state cultures were hardly static. Over at Peter Turchin’s blog, he writes:

As the readers of this blog know, a big chunk of my research focuses on why complex societies go through cycles of alternating internally peaceful, or integrative, phases and turbulent, or disintegrative periods. In all past state-level societies, for which we have decent data, we find such “secular cycles” (see more in our book Secular Cycles).

What was a surprise for me was to find that pre-state societies also go through similar cycles. Non-state centralized societies (chiefdoms) cycle back and forth between simple (one level of hierarchy below the chief) and complex (two or more hierarchical levels) chiefdoms. But now evidence accumulates that even non-centralized, non-hierarchical societies cycle. The work by archaeologists, such as Stephen Shennan, showed that various regions within Europe went through three or four population cycles before the rise of centralized societies (see, for example, his recent book The First Farmers of Europe).

These cycles were quite drastic in amplitude. For example, last month at a workshop in Cologne, I learned from archaeologists working in North Rhine that population declines there could result in regional abandonment. Several hypotheses have been advanced, including the effects of climate fluctuations, or soil exhaustion. But there is no scientific consensus—this is a big puzzle.

The Puzzle of Neolithic Cycles: the Strange Rise and Collapse of Tripolye Mega-Settlements (Cliodynamica)

The authors of the paper hypothesize that as power became too centralized, the various families and social groups comprising the culture simply dispersed rather than become subservient to permanent despotic power. Turchin thinks it was warfare, specifically protection of surpluses from nomadic outsiders:

First, why did the different groups move together in the first place? From almost any point of view, except one [defense], this was a really poor decision. Such crowding together resulted in serious problems with sanitation and disease. Additionally, farmers had to waste a lot of time traveling to their fields, because such huge settlement required a lot of land to support it. The only reason for such population concentration that makes sense to me is collective defense…

The second question is that at the end of the mega-settlement period, the population didn’t simply disperse out; there was a very substantial population collapse. Again, what was the reason for this? In historical periods the usual answer is pervasive endemic warfare. Not only war kills people, its effect on demography is even more due to the creation of a “landscape of fear,” which doesn’t permit farmers to cultivate fields, so that the local population gradually starves, has fewer babies, and is further diminished by out-migration…

However, the former hypothesis is consistent with James C. Scott’s ideas that people in early farming cultures were often looking for a way to get out from the bitter toil and backbreaking work of farming by abandoning it and becoming “barbarians.” This, he says, happened whenever authority became too coercive for too long. Those stockade walls were to keep the farmers in, not the barbarians out. Slate Star Codex recently reviewed Scott’s book:

Scott thinks of these collapses not as disasters or mysteries but as the expected order of things. It is a minor miracle that some guy in a palace can get everyone to stay on his fields and work for him and pay him taxes, and no surprise when this situation stops holding. These collapses rarely involved great loss of life. They could just be a simple transition from “a bunch of farming towns pay taxes to the state center” to “a bunch of farming towns are no longer paying taxes to the state center”. The great world cultures of the time – Egypt, Sumeria, China, whereever – kept chugging along whether or not there was a king in the middle collecting taxes from them. Scott warns against the bias of archaeologists who – deprived of the great monuments and libraries of cuneiform tablets that only a powerful king could produce – curse the resulting interregnum as a dark age or disaster. Probably most people were better off during these times.

The book ends with a chapter on “barbarians”. Scott reminds us that until about 1600, the majority of human population lived outside state control; histories that focus on states and forget barbarians are forgetting about most humans alive. In keeping with his thesis, Scott reviews some ancient sources that talk about barbarians in the context of people who did not farm or eat grain. Also in keeping with his thesis, he warns against thinking of barbarians as somehow worse or more primitive. Many barbarians were former state citizens who had escaped state control to a freer and happier lifestyle. Barbarian tribes could control vast trading empires, form complex confederations, and enter in various symbiotic relationships with the states around them. Scott wants us to think of these not as primitive people vs. advanced people, but as two different interacting lifestyles, of which the barbarian one was superior for most people up until a few centuries ago.

Book Review: Against The Grain (Slate Star Codex)

Speaking of reviews, I’ve finished reading Civilized to Death, and I suppose I should write a review. It’s no secret that I’m very partial to it’s thesis, but highlighting some especially relevant parts might be enlightening.

The Origin of Religion – Part 1

The BBC published its second of two posts on the origin of religion, and it’s a doozy. The first article explored the deep roots of religion in the behavior of various non-human species: How and why did religion evolve? (BBC)

This second part takes on why religious thought exists in humans specifically, drawing on a variety of theories and disciplines, from evolutionary psychology, to anthropology, to sociology, to neuroscience. The thinkers the author reference in the article include Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Newberg, Justin Barrett, Robin Dunbar, and Robert Bellah.

I’m going to pair this with an older article from The Atlantic, Is God and Accident?, which posits that religion was, in essence, an “accident” due to the unique way our brains have evolved to process information, and covers some of the same ground. I’ll supplement these with other sources.

Two Theories

Two common theories of why religion developed are: 1.) religion evolved to calm our existential fear of death, and 2.) religion evolved to create intragroup cohesion via shared concepts and rituals (i.e. to bind people together). Or, religious beliefs are shibboleths: they evolved to divide the social world into “us” and “them.”

But there are a few problems with these narratives. When you take a look at most primitive religions, there is no “big picture” philosophical explanation for the mystery of human existence. There is no “country club” afterlife that people are looking forward to as in Western (particularly American Protestant) Christianity. There is no “better place” after death—just a different one. In many ancestor-veneration cultures (which I have proposed as the original form of religion), the ancestors simply dwell “under the earth”. It’s hardly a pleasant afterlife.

This chthonic idea—that spirits dwell somewhere below the earth—is so universal that I think there must be something fundamental to it. It was present in all the Near Eastern religions, and is implicit in the Hebrew term for the grave, sheol (Heaven and Hell are conspicuously absent from the Old Testament). It was present in Greek culture too. Even the remote Pirahã of the Amazon believe the spirits of their departed ancestors dwell somewhere beneath the earth.

My guess is that this comes from our tradition of disposing with dead bodies by ritually burying them, which goes all the way back to the dawn of cognitively modern humans. Burials—especially with grave goods—are used by archaeologists as a proxy for when something like religion first emerged.

Here’s a good description of death rituals and beliefs in the Ancient Near East (ANE):

In death a person gave up his or her breath and became a ghost (etemmu). The bodies of the deceased were sometimes buried under a special section of their own house rather than in a separate tomb. As in other ANE cultures, the oldest son was responsible for maintaining such duties as providing the dead with food and drink and other supplies; he was also expected to regularly pronounce their names to ensure that the dead were not forgotten by the living.

Particularly important in this regard was the kipsu banquet, to which dead ancestors would be invited and from whom blessing on the living would be sought. As in other ANE thought, the living could contact the dead (through a medium or necromancer) and the ghosts of the dead could affect the circumstances of the living. Restless ghosts were considered particularly malevolent and were thus especially feared. Accordingly, imitative magic and numerous spells were designed to ward off such malevolent ghosts or demons, such as those thought to attack people sexually at night, or those who were considered responsible for what we refer to as cot death or sudden infant death syndrome. p. 12

The underworld itself was commonly referred to as ‘the Great City’, ‘the Great Below’, or ‘the Land of No Return.’ It was believed to have three tiers: the lowest level was the court of the gods of the underworld; the middle level was the watery realm of the deity Apsu; and the upper level immediately under the earth’s surface was the ‘residence of the spirits of men’. The entrance was supposedly in the west, where Shamash (the sun god) was believed to go down at night and travel under the earth before resurfacing in the east the following morning. To access the underworld, the dead had to cross a river with the aid of a boatman called Remove-hastily. Presumably the sooner he carried out his task the better! [1]

Meanwhile, in ancient Greek tribal culture:

At death the psyche or soul, which entered the body at birth, leaves again like a puff of wind and – so long as the deceased has been properly buried – goes to the underworld. Here the dead exist as insubstantial ‘shades’ or ‘shadows’ of their former selves, without strength or pleasure. While normally confined to the realm of the dead, the deceased may occasionally reappear as ghosts who can haunt or communicate with the living. As in the ANE, proper care of the dead was therefore paramount; indeed, improper care could bring their ghosts back to haunt the negligent, because in Greek mythology the unburied dead were not allowed to enter Hades.

[Hades] is portrayed as a remote place, far below the earth, dark and dismal, and utterly devoid of hope. For the most part, all the dead, regardless of social rank or status, share the same experience; this was clearly not a happy one – even for the heroic dead. Achilles, for example, famously remarks that he would rather be the hired servant of a poor farmer on earth than lord of all the withered dead in the underworld’ (Od. 11.489-491). Yet this was not perceived as a place of punishment or retributive justice; rather, it was simply the grim and gloomy destiny that all men would inevitably share. There was no hope of any physical return from death; the only hope of immortality lay in making a name for oneself, one that would be perpetually remembered by those on earth. So all in all, Homer’s view of death and the afterlife is almost entirely negative. ibid.

And China, with its long (and enduring) tradition of ancestor worship, was quite similar:

According to ancient beliefs, each person had a spirit which required the offering of sacrifices, not just royal figures. It was thought that an individual had two souls. After death, one of these souls, the po, rose to heaven while the other one, the hun, remained in the body of the deceased. It was this second soul that required regular offerings of nourishment. Eventually, the hun soul would migrate to the fabled Yellow Springs of the afterlife, but until that time, if the family did not want the spirit of their dead relation to trouble them as a wandering hungry ghost, they had to take certain precautions. The first was to bury the dead with all the essential daily objects (or models of them) they would need in the next life from food to tools. Next, to ensure the corpse remained at peace, it was necessary to offer appropriate and regular offerings.

Ancestor Worship in Ancient China (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

In The Ancient City, Fustel de Coulanges, who also argued for ancestor worship as primordial form of religion and the key to understanding ancient cultural institutions, notes the similarities between Greek, Roman and Hindu ancestor worship:

The Hindu, like the Greek, regarded the dead as divine beings, who enjoyed a happy existence; but their happiness depended on the condition that the offerings made by the living should be carried to them regularly. If the Śrāddha for a dead person was not offered regularly, his soul left its peaceful dwelling, and became a wandering spirit, who tormented the living; so that, if the dead were really gods, this was only whilst the living honored them with their worship.

The Greeks and Romans had exactly the same belief. If the funeral repast ceased to be offered to the dead, they immediately left their tombs, and became wandering shades, that were heard in the silence of the night. They reproached the living with their negligence; or they sought to punish them by afflicting them with diseases, or cursing their soil with sterility. In a word, they left the living no rest till the funeral feasts were re-established. The sacrifice, the offering of nourishment, and the libation restored them to the tomb, and gave them back their rest and their divine attributes. Man was then at peace with them…

These human souls deified by death were what the Greeks called demons, or heroes. The Latins gave them the name of Lares, Manes, Genii. “Our ancestors believed,” says Apuleius “that the Manes, when they were malignant, were to be called larvae; they called them Lares when they were benevolent and propitious.” Elsewhere we read, “Genius and Lar is the same being; so our ancestors believed.” And in Cicero, “Those that the Greeks called demons we call Lares.” The  Ancient City, p. 17

So, it turns out that most ancient religions weren’t all that reassuring when it came to life after death after all! Nor was any kind of supernatural reward or punishment involved. Mostly, it seems, the dead were just ephemeral ghosts who had to be buried with the proper rituals and appeased through regular feasts and commemorations so that they wouldn’t come back to haunt the living. As Bruce Carpenter remarked of Balinese ancestor worship, “It’s like having a representative in Congress,” describing the ongoing reciprocal relationship between families and their departed ancestors.

This seems to be almost universal in the large cultures we are familiar with. We see it all over the world. The concepts of Heaven or Paradise (along with Hell) came much, much later in history, and mostly in Western monotheistic cultures (the word Paradise comes from Persia and signifies a walled garden). You will find little of this cushy afterlife in say, for example, traditional Chinese or Japanese religions, much less in other more remote cultures.

[As an aside, I had this thought: Is it possible that cultures that buried their dead saw them as dwelling underneath the earth, whereas cultures who cremated their dead saw them as ascending up to heaven, which is what smoke does when bodies are cremated in the open air? The symbolism of smoke representing a release of the soul floating upwards has been used in some belief systems. This is worthy of exploration.]

Similarly, while it’s true that religious beliefs do often serve as a kind of cultural glue which binds societies together, it does not explain the proliferation of supernatural entities, from ancestral spirits to hungry ghosts to malevolent demons to guardian angels to tutelary deities, to capricious gods. Nor does it explain these diverse approaches to the afterlife, or why there should even be an afterlife at all! In fact, many religious beliefs and practices actually seem counterproductive. Often relatives go deeply into debt to perform funeral rites that look silly to outsiders, just so their dead relatives are sated and don’t curse them with bad luck. As the anthropologist Lionel Tiger remarked, “As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.”

Also recall that primitive religions pretty much never feature either Moralizing High Gods (MHG), not Broad Supernatural Punishment (BSP); two key features of doctrinal monotheistic religions. As we saw above, most invisible entities are potentially mischievous, petty, and cruel, and require constant appeasement. There is no greater existential “reason for existence” articulated by any of these religions. You live, and then you die, and that’s pretty much it; and the afterlife isn’t much better than this one—maybe even worse!

(Of course, some have proposed that the very wastefulness of religion is a form of honest signaling—”skin in the game,” as it were. If we have to contribute something costly to participate, and have something significant to lose, the thinking goes, we are less like to be a cheater or a free rider. Of course, this doesn’t explain the reasons for supernatural entities or an afterlife.)

Thus, neither the “religion as anodyne/opiate” nor the “religion as social glue/fraternity/shibboleth” ideas satisfy all the questions surrounding the origin of religious belief, especially the ones we are most interested in. Something else must be at work. But what?

[T]he religion-as-opiate theory fits best with the monotheistic religions most familiar to us. But what about those people (many of the religious people in the world) who do not believe in an all-wise and just God? Every society believes in spiritual beings, but they are often stupid or malevolent.

Many religions simply don’t deal with metaphysical or teleological questions; gods and ancestor spirits are called upon only to help cope with such mundane problems as how to prepare food and what to do with a corpse—not to elucidate the Meaning of It All.

As for the reassurance of heaven, justice, or salvation, again, it exists in some religions but by no means all. (In fact, even those religions we are most familiar with are not always reassuring. I know some older Christians who were made miserable as children by worries about eternal damnation; the prospect of oblivion would have been far preferable.)

So the opiate theory is ultimately an unsatisfying explanation for the existence of religion.

The major alternative theory is social: religion brings people together, giving them an edge over those who lack this social glue. Sometimes this argument is presented in cultural terms, and sometimes it is seen from an evolutionary perspective: survival of the fittest working at the level not of the gene or the individual but of the social group. In either case the claim is that religion thrives because groups that have it outgrow and outlast those that do not.

In this conception religion is a fraternity, and the analogy runs deep. Just as fraternities used to paddle freshmen on the rear end to instill loyalty and commitment, religions have painful initiation rites—for example, snipping off part of the penis.

Also, certain puzzling features of many religions, such as dietary restrictions and distinctive dress, make perfect sense once they are viewed as tools to ensure group solidarity. The fraternity theory also explains why religions are so harsh toward those who do not share the faith, reserving particular ire for apostates…

This theory explains almost everything about religion—except the religious part. It is clear that rituals and sacrifices can bring people together, and it may well be that a group that does such things has an advantage over one that does not. But it is not clear why a religion has to be involved. Why are gods, souls, an afterlife, miracles, divine creation of the universe, and so on brought in? The theory doesn’t explain what we are most interested in, which is belief in the supernatural.

Is God an Accident? (The Atlantic)

Hence the “accidental” (or side effect) theory of religion. As the Atlantic article states, “Enthusiasm is building among scientists for a quite different view—that religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by accident…” : In the terminology of evolutionary biology, “religion is either a spandrel or an exaption.”

.. the term “spandrels” [is] a structure that merely follows from the existence of some other (evolved) structures, without itself being an adaptation. “Exaptation” refers to new roles played by evolutionarily old features that are adaptations in the strict sense of the term. Adaptations in this sense are features that are selected to perform their current function. [2]…Standard examples are the reptilian bones of the jaw that get adopted for the middle ear by mammals. Our ability to do mathematics is an exaption of various syntax-modules and modules that do trivial combinatories (“Are any of my babies missing?”). The ability to get embroiled in fictional worlds is an exaption of our ability to conduct thought-experiments as a part of forward planning. [3]

These “spandrels” and “exaptions” became co-opted by our brains to create religion. And, once that happened, religion, in turn, encouraged reciprocal altruism to evolve. In other words, we used religion—a by-product of our own cognitive evolutionary legacy—to bootstrap our way into becoming the unusually cooperative species we are today.

When one thinks of the many pages that have been written about religion uniting people into a moral community, it is not particularly surprising to learn that some anthropologists, biologists, and philosophers now claim that it is precisely religion that has helped reciprocal altruism to evolve. Ferren MacIntyre, for example, argues that religious affiliations have acted as a kind of “kinship surrogate” that helped our ancestors to develop cooperation among large groups of nonkin.

In the “standard model” of the cognitive science of religion, however, religion is instead a by-product based on “runaway” evolutionary processes extended beyond their initial domain. Evolution has built certain structures and mechanisms of mind that are adaptations to certain Pleistocene conditions; religion is made possible by these structures and mechanisms, although they did not originally develop for this purpose. [2]

Basically, according to this theory, the core characteristics of all religions boil down to two primary things:

First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain the ubiquitousness of belief in disembodied souls, or “spirits”, in whatever cultural form they happen to take. Even nineteenth-century rationalists made serious attempts to contact the dead (e.g. William James and Arthur Conan Doyle)

Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires. They move unexpectedly, according to volition and whim; they can chase or run away. There is a moral difference as well: a rock cannot be evil or kind; a person can…

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in [the] brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human…

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity—a mind or soul—are genuinely distinct. We don’t feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them.

This duality is immediately apparent in our imaginative life. Because we see people as separate from their bodies, we easily understand situations in which people’s bodies are radically changed while their personhood stays intact. Kafka envisioned a man transformed into a gigantic insect; Homer described the plight of men transformed into pigs; in Shrek 2 an ogre is transformed into a human being, and a donkey into a steed; in Star Trek a scheming villain forcibly occupies Captain Kirk’s body so as to take command of the Enterprise; in The Tale of the Body Thief, Anne Rice tells of a vampire and a human being who agree to trade bodies for a day; and in 13 Going on 30 a teenager wakes up as thirty-year-old Jennifer Garner. We don’t think of these events as real, of course, but they are fully understandable; it makes intuitive sense to us that people can be separated from their bodies, and similar transformations show up in religions around the world. [4]

Second, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us intuitive animists and creationists.

In 1944 the social psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel made a simple movie in which geometric figures—circles, squares, triangles—moved in certain systematic ways, designed to tell a tale. When shown this movie, people instinctively describe the figures as if they were specific types of people (bullies, victims, heroes) with goals and desires, and repeat pretty much the same story that the psychologists intended to tell. Further research has found that bounded figures aren’t even necessary—one can get much the same effect in movies where the “characters” are not single objects but moving groups, such as swarms of tiny squares.

Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist at Fordham University, was the first modern scholar to notice the importance of this tendency as an explanation for religious thought. In his book Faces in the Clouds, Guthrie presents anecdotes and experiments showing that people attribute human characteristics to a striking range of real-world entities, including bicycles, bottles, clouds, fire, leaves, rain, volcanoes, and wind. We are hypersensitive to signs of agency—so much so that we see intention where only artifice or accident exists. As Guthrie puts it, the clothes have no emperor. [4]

As a direct consequence of the evolution of the human social brain, and owing to the importance of our theory-of-mind skills in that process, we sometimes can’t help but see intentions, desires, and beliefs in things that haven’t even a smidgeon of a neural system. In particular, when inanimate objects do unexpected things, we sometimes reason about them just as we do for oddly behaving—or misbehaving—people. More than a few of us have kicked our broken-down vehicles in the sides and verbally abused our incompetent computers. Most of us stop short of actually believing these objects possess mental states—indeed, we would likely be hauled away to an asylum if we genuinely believed that they held malicious intent—but our emotions and behaviors toward such objects seem to betray our primitive, unconscious thinking: we act as though they’re morally culpable for their actions.

So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?…[5]

As we became smarter and our brains larger, we dragged along this “cognitive baggage” of our evolutionary past. It remains with us to this day, and forms the basis of many of the idiosyncratic beliefs we associate with religious belief, and superstition more broadly.

But there’s still a bit more to it than that. With the help of that BBC article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the “cognitive modules” that helped religious belief evolve. My understanding is that while each of these modules is important in the construction of religious thought, none of them by themselves is sufficient to account for religion. Rather, it is the intersection of all of them that gives rise to the uniquely human phenomenon we call “religion” (although ancient societies would have not made any such distinction between religion and other aspects of their social and cultural lives).

[1] “Death and the Afterlife – Biblical perspectives on ultimate questions,” by Paul R Williamson, p. 13

[2] Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas, by Iikka Pyysiainen, p. 31

[3] Thomas Forster Tries to Understand Julian Jaynes, p. 5 (PDF)

[4] Is God an Accident? The Atlantic, December 2005

[5] Are You There God? It’s Me, Brain. Slate Magazine, February 2011