[SL: On September 18, I published a piece on the religious transformation currently going on in Europe, pointing out in passing that monotheism — if one examines its geographic origins — is almost as foreign to Europe as it is to India or China. In the post below, regular commenter Lorenzo has attempted to explain why: not why monotheism is foreign to Europe (that much is known), but why it arose in the Middle East in the first place.
I have not, in the past, had a great deal of time for ‘geography is destiny’ arguments, although I always find them impressive while I’m in the process of reading them (I’m thinking here of Jared Diamond, I’m afraid). It’s only later that I begin to have my doubts.
In this piece, Lorenzo goes beyond the ‘geography is destiny’ arguments that often seem so simplistic, looking instead at the way people interact with the terrain where they live, and what that interaction produces in terms of belief. It is an intriguing argument, one that I’m inclined to accept (subject, of course, to all the usual reservations about new evidence, etc etc).
One thing that does interest me is how Europe’s growing paganism will interact with Islam. Often, European (secular) elites — as Lorenzo points out — do not understand religious motivations of any sort (pagan, monotheist, animist, whatever). However, paganism — in at least some of its forms — has sharp teeth, especially when its growth is both organic and rapid. This sharpness does not manifest as religious intolerance (that’s not a pagan habit), but rather as a willingness to categorize groups quite bluntly based on the behaviour of individuals from that group. It’s an argument that goes something like this: ‘I can’t tell the difference between you and a tube-bombing nutter, so therefore I’m going to treat you and your confreres as tube-bombing nutters by default. This means I am relieved of any duties of hospitality or kindness towards you. If you get run over by a bus, I’ll cross the street before I help you.’
Lorenzo’s piece is over the fold.]
A variation on the Whig interpretation of history that still has surprising sway is that human religious history has a “natural” progression from animism through polytheism to monotheism. It has led to such nonsense as the psychotic tyrant Akhenaton being written up positively solely because he was monotheist (or, at least practised monolatry: Kerry Greenwood’s Out of the Black Land provides a revealing fictional treatment). This animism-polytheism-monotheism “progression” is an interpretation that has nothing to recommend it, apart from monotheist self-satisfaction.
If one doubts that polytheism is perfectly compatible with highly sophisticated societies, I refer you to classical Rome and Greece; to India, China and Japan. If you doubt it is perfectly compatible with thoroughly modern societies, I refer you to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. If you think monotheism is necessary for a highly compassionate morality, I refer you to Jainism and Buddhism.
Not only does the animism-to-polytheism-to-monotheism progression fail as a moral and intellectual claim, it fails as history in the quite basic sense that monotheism is purely a product of the Middle East. It spread from there around the globe (indeed, it is still doing so), but it evolved nowhere else.
The Middle East itself produced not one but several forms of monotheism: the proto-monotheism of Zoroastrianism; the monolatry-turned-monotheism of Judaism; the universalising monotheism of Christianity; the universal dominion monotheism of Islam; plus various offshoots of the above. Monotheism in its various forms now thoroughly dominates the religious landscape of the Middle East. So, what is it about the Middle East that it has repeatedly selected for monotheism?
When looking to a recurring pattern in a particular region, it is a good idea to start with social geography; the patterns of interactions of people with the terrain.
By the time monotheism first arose, the enduring patterns of Middle Eastern social geography were already in place. River-valley civilisations dominated by major urban centres interacted with herding pastoralists living in the surrounding deserts, mountains, plateaus and plains. Their interactions were those of trade, raid and conquest: interspersed with retaliation and protection payoffs. The fear of the settled (and thus vulnerable) farmers had for the mobile (and thus dangerous) pastoralists is well expressed in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.
The great conquering peoples of the Middle East after the demise of the last Mesopotamia-originating empire (also subject of a famous Biblical story)—the Iranians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols—were all pastoralist peoples. Pastoralist conquest became so much a pattern of the region that Abd-ar-Rahman Abu Zayd ibn Muhammed ibn Muhammed ibn Khaldun, statesman, jurist, historian and scholar, in his The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, written in 779 AH (1377 AD), famously developed his cycles of history based on it.
His analysis is that rule is based on the rise of group feeling (asabiyyah) that leads to rulership over others (pp 107-8). Having conquered urban lands, the ruling group becomes distracted by the luxuries available that weakens group-feeling and courage. This proceeds until it is swallowed up by other nations or dynasties (p.109).
Ibn Khaldun’s theory is based on internal dynamics and external response. Expenses grow (p.134), the ruling group become complacent and lose their edge (p.135), rulers become more isolated seeking people directly beholden to them (p.137) leading finally to dynastic senility and wastefulness, making them ripe for eventual replacement (p.142). Decay in authority usually starts at the edges of the dynasty’s territory (p.250). He repeats the theory in different words at various places (e.g. p.246ff), usually providing historical examples of the various processes. Russian demographer Peter Turchin has developed the theory further.
… outlying tribes tied together by traditional kinship solidarities conquer, settle, and rule a state. In time kinship loyalties loosen, the rulers urbanize and grow effete, their state loses control over distant tribes, and the cycle begins again.
Precisely because herding life is mobile, kinship and lineage provide protective and support services. This provides a strong, but constrained, source of social solidarity. As the Arab proverb goes “me against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, my brother and cousin against the stranger”.
What began as a response to the demands of pastoralism can also deal with other sources of social insecurity. In the words of an enlightening review essay on Pakistan:
At the heart of Lieven’s account of Pakistan is kinship, pervasive networks of clans and biradiris (groups of extended kin) that he identifies as “the most important force in society,” usually far stronger than any competing religious, ethnic, or political cause. Several millennia of invasions, occupations, colonizations, and rule by self-interested states resulted in a “collective solidarity for interest and defense” based on kinship becoming paramount in the area that is Pakistan.
The aforementioned great conquering pastoralist peoples—Iranians, Arab, Turks and Mongols—were all, with the exception of the Mongols (who came from furthest away and were profoundly affected by the long history of interaction with China), in their conquering phase, monotheist. Monotheism offers a motivating identity and framework of expectations able to operate across lineages. The common identity of believer is, in the right circumstances, able to unite people across otherwise competing lineages—Muhammad’s success in being the first person to unify most of Arabia is a striking example of this.
The common identity of believer can also unite across the pastoralist-farmer divide and do so in a way which gives an identity to cling to in adversity: both clearly important in early Hebrew history. Given that the pastoralist-farmer barrier in the Middle East can be particularly porous, depending on circumstances, an identity that can be persisted with across it has clear selection advantages.
As for the Mongols, they tapped into the longstanding notion of a central “manager” of the silk trade with China: a “Great Khan” who extracted the best return of horses-for-silk and was then able to hand out the goodies; that was their alternative overarching authority.
The other great advantage of monotheism is that it entrenches and extends masculine authority and control of fertility.
Pastoralism tends to be strongly patrilineal and patrilocal (so brothers stay together to protect their herds). It is a society where the key assets are bred—sons as well as horses and other herd animals. It is preferable for daughters to marry cousins, so they do not breed sons for other lineages: the stronger the threatening pressures, the stronger that impulse will be. A particularly ugly manifestation of this is “dishonour” killings, which are all about controlling female fertility, policing its subordination to the family and lineage by killing daughters and sisters who are seen as failing to so conform.
But monotheism also strips women of control over fertility: this is particularly obvious in traditional Christian sex-and-gender morality—no abortion, no contraception, no divorce, no recognition of rape in marriage—but is hardly less so in Sharia (pdf). In all the monotheisms, control over fertility is taken from the gender who runs all the risks of pregnancy and child-birth and given to the gender to whom more sons are more assets. This increases fertility (selecting in favour of believers in straight Darwinian terms) and provides divine sanction for the masculine authority that pastoralism already selects for. So monotheism both strengthens the effectiveness of pastoralist society and resonates with its inherent tendencies.
In particular, in a society where assets are bred, monotheism’s concept of sex as only justified by procreation—as creation is sex’s only connection to the divine; in stark contrast with animism and polytheism, where sex is not only part of the divine, it can connect us to the divine—is both resonant and encourages selection for breeding.
One thing all the monotheisms agree on—whether Zoroastrian purity laws, Hebrew scriptures, Patristic preaching or Islamic law (pdf: section, o.12)—is kill the queers!. Kill the men who fail to conform to masculine status and breeding role, to sex-and-gender as procreation. In Sharia, homosexual acts are twinned with adultery, to make the enforcement of procreative conformity clear. (And the Sharia death penalty still operates.)
Strict conception of sex-and-gender is a key way that monotheism differentiates itself from animism and polytheism. Thus the Hebrew scriptures are very clear in their absolute rejection of all shamanistic practices and sacred prostitution. With the rise of monotheism, the shamanistic role (often performed by queer folk, as those “between” male and female) of managing of interaction with a complex and diverse Otherworld is replaced by text-based revelation from a single source of divine wisdom and authority.
As religions of people who choose God, rather than of the people God chose, Christianity and Islam both offered a more accessible identity than Judaism or Zorastrianism. Arising in the very law-bound and ordered Roman Empire, Christianity, alone among the major monotheisms, failed to adopt any notion of divinely ordained law.
Not quite as the others
But Christianity has always been “the odd monotheism out”. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Gospels is how little they are concerned with the sex-and-gender patterns of monotheism. St Paul and the early Fathers, however, pushed the Christian message more towards conventional sex-and-gender patterns of monotheism, notably through their common adoption of Philo of Alexandria’s natural law take on the Judaic tradition of scriptural revelation.
Also alone among the monotheisms, the notion of sex as separating us from the divine was taken to the extent of endorsing celibacy, at times undermining the fertility advantage of monotheism. Though other features of monotheism—severe intolerance of other religious perspectives, the capacity to provide binding belief—were very much in play in using the power of the Roman state to become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.
The triumph of Islam
Christianity then comprehensively lost out to Islam within the Middle East when, like Zoroastrianism, its shielding state was overthrown (though the full process took a lot longer in the case of the Eastern Roman than the Sassanid Empire). Indeed, with the exception of the Reconquista, Christianity was in long term retreat before the advance of Islam until the Battle of Vienna in 1683.
Given these selection pressures for monotheism in the social geography of the Middle East, Islam—with laws that operate across (or even without) rulerships–includes management of retaliation, an explicit structure of males dominating women and believers dominating unbelievers, endorsement of holy war against unbelievers and regulation of the spoils thereof, death penalty for apostasy (i.e. those who leave the common identity and framework of expectations and which also still operates)—becomes the “ideal” Middle Eastern monotheism. A region of perennial pastoralist conquest selected for a religion of conquest for pastoralists.
A fading resonance
As Skepticlawyer’s recent post intimated, a very reasonable question is: in the absence of strong institutional support, what resonances does monotheism, this Middle Eastern import, have to modern European life? Less and less, it appears. (Even in the notoriously religious US, there is some weakening.)
Europe contains strong formal institutions: kinship as a competing mechanism “gets in the way”. The empowering of women has profoundly undermined the traditional monotheist sex-and-gender morality. Indeed, that is clearly what most offends the jihadis about the modern West and its “seductive” example. Science has taken over much of the explanatory role of religion while therapy and its dealing-with-the-psyche cognates provide reborn versions of shamanistic roles.
Tension between European modernity and Islam is not a made-up conflict. The monotheism that won out in the Middle East, for reasons that make sense given its social geography, has all sorts of features that sit very uneasily in modern, urbanised, industrialised, strong-state Europe.
A belief that commitment, time and demography (both fertility and migration) are on the ummah’s side encourages insisting the more strongly on Islam’s universal truth and taking refuge in Islamic identity. The fading of Christian belief does not make Islam an easier import but a more starkly different one as the presumptions of monotheism have less and less hold over European public belief and public policy.
If that fading also encourages the delusion that religion does not matter, if it increases the lack of understanding of a monotheism that is far from identical with a receding Christianity, then public policy is going to continue to fail to deal with the challenge of profoundly different worldviews. (Though one way it can do so is treating all Muslim migrants as if a particular conception of Islam is their primary identity: which is a betrayal of those who genuinely appreciate the freedoms of the West.)
The fading of European Christianity does not make religious tension and conflict less likely, it makes the distance between the growing Islamic minority and wider European presumptions more salient and more likely to be badly managed by political elites who “don’t get” religious perspectives. Especially given—unlike the settler societies of North America and the Antipodes—European states are not set up to manage large-scale migration and, unlike the United States, religious faith is no longer a normal part of politics and political rhetoric. The uncomfortable fact is that large-scale Muslim migration into increasingly “pagan” Europe is far from unproblematic because the monotheism the Middle East ended up selecting for—particularly with the “purifying” and politicising revivalism of Islamism (al-ʾislāmiyyah or Islām siyāsī)—is an uncomfortable import to an increasingly post-Christian Europe.