The hardening of belief

Randall Parker has an excellent post up titled “Infanticide And The Affordabilitty Of Religious Taboos,” where he follows up a post where I wonder about the various levels of truth when examining the human past. Randall opines that “Coexisting believers in rival religions will have lives more similar to each other than their religious texts would lead you to expect if they are very poor. But as their living standards rise they will be able to afford to more accurately live according to their doctrinal beliefs and hence forgotten practices for each religion will be dusted off and increasingly obeyed.” On the face of it there is a lot of truth in this assessment.

I have kept an eye on Indonesia for many years and read a fair amount of anthropology and social history, and my reading suggests to me that it is more often the urban and literate Javanese who are likely to be santri, that is, religiously orthodox in the traditional Islamic fashion. But there is another layer to the puzzle as well: non-orthodox Islam is far stronger in Java than in outer islands like Sulwasi or Sumatra. Why? There are two reasons: some areas, like Aceh, were Islamicized very early on, while other regions, like Sulwasi had no robust native literate culture. In Java the indigenous cultural tradition has spawned a system of mysticism and historical memory that has been able to hold off the exclusive dominion of Islam in the lives of the Javanese. The pre-Islamic Buddhist-Hindu-Javanese traditions were powerful enough that many rural folk abandoned Islam for Balinese Hinduism after the tumult of the 1960s. The Indonesian government has only a few recognized religions, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) and Buddhism, and so many individuals who might not feel wholly comfortable in any of these traditions nevertheless must choose. Those Javanese who remain attached to their Islamic heritage (the vast majority) have slowly been transitioning to santri practice (there is a positive correlation between being santri and a high socioeconomic status). This process of “orthodoxization” seems to be rather inevitable. It is similar to what happened in the Indian subcontinent, as the indigenous Muslims reformed their religion to be more in keeping with pan-Islamic forms in the 19th century and purged their rituals and celebrations of any Hindu “taint.” Westerners who bemoan the decline of tolerant Javanese Islam in the face of santri piety, or harken back to an age when Hindu and Muslim peasants celebrated festivals together, must reflect that the changes they see in peasant societies that are industrializing and entering modernity are simply an echo of the progress of the West.

One thing though that I think is also true about the hardening of orthodoxies that come with literacy and modernity: there is also a breaking of the orthodoxy and thousands of charismatic individuals because foci of sects and catalysts for schisms between various groups of True Believers. Only the fiat of the state can keep a lid on this process in places like Saudi Arabia.

Posted by razib at 02:59 PM

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Man didn't kill off mega-marsupials (perhaps)

New research suggests that Australian mega-fauna were not killed off by the arrival of human beings ~50 K B.P., rather, climate change was the culprit. I think the problem with the way these sort of studies are presented is that there is the assumption that there needs to be a silver bullet which “explains” a given phenomenon. Clearly, after tens of thousands of years of “coexistence” humans were to some extent part of the environment of these marsupials, so their extinction might simply have been the outcome of the intersection of climate and H. sapiens facility at expanding into new niches and blocking the “bounce back” of mega-fauna. Evolution is as much (if not more), as highlighted by the “Red Queen Hypothesis,” a matter of coevolution between life forms as response to environmental stimuli. Additionally, man can reshape the environment, adding another confounding variable into the model. In other words, climate change might have been a necessary condition for mega-faunal extinction, but it was not sufficient.

Posted by razib at 08:21 PM

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In The Eclipse of Darwinism historian of science Peter J. Bowler chronicles the period in the first few decades of the 20th century when the Darwinian theory of evolution (that is, rooted in natural selection acting upon heritable variation) was out of favor with most biologists. To some extent this falsifies the contention that “Darwinians”1 are an all-powerful orthodoxy who can stifle dissent, but one tidbit that I found interesting that I thought I’d pass along: on page 18 Bowler asserts that Herbert Spencer’s conception of the process of evolution was Neo-Lamarckian, not Darwinian.

1 – I personally think that biology is complex and advanced enough to move beyond “schools” of thought. Molecular evolution in particular has changed things so much that pre-1950 terminology does not capture the complexity of the field(s).

Posted by razib at 02:09 PM

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Note on comments

Experimenting with phpBB and I managed a small hack which integrates each post with a comment entry on the board. I am thinking of switching over from Haloscan in the next day or two. This would mean people would have to register to post comments. I haven’t tested the hack so I don’t know if messes up phpBB too much, we’ll see.

Posted by razib at 02:46 PM

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