Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The only way to stop a bad guy with a religion

Al Jolson and May McAvoy in Alan Crosland's and Gordon Hollingshead's The Jazz Singer (1927),. Image via Alchetron.

1. Theodemography

So the good news is, according to David Brooks, "Finding Peace Within the Holy Texts", that secularization is over, and a process of desecularization is under way, because this always happens. In part, it's just simple arithmetic, because the unsecular have more babies.

Research by the German theodemographer Michael Blume shows that every nonreligious population in human history, going back to ancient India and Greece, has fallen into decline, while the world population on the whole continues to expand, indicating that the Old Order Amish and the followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe are swiftly taking over the planet, which will not surprise you if you've ever been in the Williamsburg Greenmarket, or maybe it will (I go to Manhattan greenmarkets myself, actually, where you sometimes see a lot of Amish pretzel salespersons, which is what made me think of it, so I don't really know, but the online pictures suggest that there's nobody there from either group.)

The sociobiological theory behind this, by the way, apparently taken up from the thinking of the economist Friedrich von Hayek, is possibly not known to David Brooks, and it's that religiosity is an adaptive evolutionary trait; females of the species tend to gravitate toward males who go to church, or whatever, as a sign that they are more likely to be solid family guys who will take an affectionate interest in their offspring's survival, thus boosting the replication chances of their girls' genes as well as their own. Thus when Faust is seducing Gretchen she asks him "Sag, wie hast du's mit der Religion?" (Tell me, how do you feel about religion?), showing what kind of mate she's particularly seeking (pay no attention to the facts that Faust evades the question and she sleeps with him anyway, and that she ends up going mad and drowning her baby and thus fails entirely to transmit his and her genes to the next generation).

I've been trying to find Blume's source for the assertion about every nonreligious population in human history going back to ancient India and Greece, without much success. I thought I had it with a reference to Ara Norenzayan:
As Ara Norenzayan recently put it in his groundbreaking book “Big Gods” (2013): “Secular societies climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away.” But in the same book, the social psychologist acknowledged “the secularists’ Achilles’ heel”: religious demography. It’s no longer only about the religious having some more kids, it’s about future generations in general. While numerous religious groups such as the Old Order Amish, Hutterites, Mormons or Haredim have been able to retain high fertility rates throughout the centuries, historical research reaching back to Roman, Greek, and Indian classic antiquity has not turned out a single example of a non-praying population featuring at least two children per woman (that is, demographic replacement level) for just a century.
But then when I check out the Norenzayan book I find his source is Michael Blume, so it's a little circular:

So the whole thing may conceivably have been pulled out of Blume's ass, as we say in scientific circles. I'm stuck at that footnote 33, which is not included in the material GoogleBooks is willing to share with me.

Smorgasburg in Brooklyn. Photo by Richard B. Levine.

2. David Brooks plagiarism watch?

Even if it's not true, religion is probably on the upswing because of the growing scarcity in meaning reserves, and the bad news is that this desecularization will lead to conflict:
Humans also are meaning-seeking animals. We live, as [Rabbi Jonathan] Sacks writes, in a century that “has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” The secular substitutes for religion — nationalism, racism and political ideology — have all led to disaster. So many flock to religion, sometimes — especially within Islam — to extremist forms.
Because not being religious is such a desperate failure, Muslims in particular are homing in on really destructive forms of being religious. If irreligion had been more satisfying, they'd all be taking up nicer faiths. That's just logical.

In November 2014, just to take one month, there were 664 jihadist attacks in 14 countries, killing a total of 5,042 people. Since 1984, an estimated 1.5 million Christians have been killed by Islamist militias in Sudan.
Just to take the one month that happens to have been mentioned by Rabbi Sacks—Baron Sacks of Aldgate, the emeritus Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, or in Brooks's terminology "the brilliant Rabbi Jonathan Sacks", as if he were a coloratura soprano aiming particularly to dazzle the crowd—in his new book Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence.

Sacks is also Brooks's source for the Michael Blume assertions,

and more or less everything else in the first 11 paragraphs or so of the column.
it is not religion itself that causes violence. In their book Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,800 conflicts and found that less than 10 percent had any religious component at all.

(Note how Brooks only uses the source that gives the most exaggerated evidence for the point.)

So religion doesn't cause violence, but then on the other hand religion causes violence:
religion fosters groupishness, and the downside of groupishness is conflict with people outside the group. Religion can lead to thick moral communities, but in extreme forms it can also lead to what Sacks calls pathological dualism, a mentality that divides the world between those who are unimpeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad.
"Groupishness" is Brooks's own. "Thick morality" is from Sacks.

Please Keep Hands out of Barrels, Williamsburg. Photo via 8ate@eight.

3. Switcheroo

According to Sacks, paraphrasing an aphorism from the end of his book,
wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas.
And as inflated by David Brooks,
Sacks correctly argues that we need military weapons to win the war against fanatics like ISIS, but we need ideas to establish a lasting peace. 
I guess you know where he's going with that.  The only way to stop a bad guy with a religion is a good guy with a religion. And if the bad man with the religion is interested in Jihadist attacks, Islamist militias, and restoring the Caliphate—
The pathological dualist can’t reconcile his humiliated place in the world with his own moral superiority. He embraces a politicized religion — restoring the caliphate — and seeks to destroy those outside his group by apocalyptic force. 
What's the good man going to do? Whip out that Bible!
Secular thought or moral relativism are unlikely to offer any effective rebuttal. Among religious people, mental shifts will be found by reinterpreting the holy texts themselves. There has to be a Theology of the Other: a complex biblical understanding of how to see God’s face in strangers. That’s what Sacks sets out to do.
Rabbi Sacks, if I'm not mistaken (I've only got excerpts of chapters 1 and 3 from the GoogleBooks preview, and all I know of him really is from that one radio program, where I didn't think he sounded "brilliant" but more kind of transcendently wise, even if he does think Friedrich von Hayek is a philosopher and that fool Michael Blume is worth quoting), believes it's a precondition of the work that Jews and Christians have to learn to recognize the humanity of the Muslim stranger. But as Brooks reworks it, it turns out that the bad guy with a religion is always a Muslim and the good guy who will straighten things out is always a Bible-thumper, that is Jewish or Christian, So he turns the formula upside down: the Jew or Christian doesn't have to learn anything but rather teach something, that complex theology, in other words throw the Bible at the Muslim so that he will recognize us.

He's going to see your Islam and raise you a Judeo-Christian. We're going to develop the theology over here, "mental shifts" and all, and you're going to appreciate it and realize what nice, non-killable people we are, you filthy terrorist! You're going to see God's face by looking into the eyes of David F. Brooks!

Update: Driftglass, pretty wonderful. Thanks for the shoutout, Tengrain at MBRU!

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