Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Materialist Take on Religious Doctrine

Eugene makes the excellent point that passages from religious texts don’t tell us much about current religious practice. While the Koran includes many passages that appear to justify violence and war, the same is true of the Bible. And while modern-day interpretations of the Bible tend toward the peaceful, that was not always so, as the Crusades and the Inquisition demonstrate. As Eugene says, “Modern Christianity and 1600s Christianity use pretty much the same holy works; the difference in militance between the two stems not from the words as such, but from the way Christians understand those words.”

What Eugene doesn’t address is why, when faced with religious texts that can justify both violent and peaceful behavior, people favor one interpretation over the other. Why is modern Christianity relatively peaceful, while modern Islam is less so? My take on this is admittedly materialist: I think religious interpretation is largely determined by economic conditions. Christianity happens to have arisen in parts of the world characterized by capitalism. A capitalist system encourages positive-sum games, in which one person’s gain need not be another’s loss. Members of other groups can be seen as potential trade partners rather than rivals. The resulting attitude naturally tends to be more peaceful (though by no means entirely peaceful), and Christian texts have been interpreted in a manner consistent with that attitude.

Islam, on the other hand, happens to coincide with areas of the world that lack capitalist economies. Such economies are characterized by zero-sum games, in which one person can gain only if others lose. Members of other groups will tend to be seen as competitors for wealth and resources; their successes will be viewed as the cause of one’s own misfortune. The resulting attitude naturally tends to be more violent and militant (though again, not entirely so), with a corresponding interpretation of Islamic texts.

An alternative to my explanation, in which causality runs from economic system to religious interpretation, is that religion has shaped economic institutions. And this is undoubtedly true to some extent. In Europe, for example, the competition between state authority and church authority during the Middle Ages fostered the growth of freedoms that laid the foundation for capitalism. But notice that this explanation has little to do with actual religious doctrine; it was the existence of a strong Christian church, not Christian thought per se, that shaped economic institutions. At the time, Christian doctrine was not notably peaceful. To the extent that Christianity is a peaceful religion now, I suspect that’s more the effect of capitalism than the cause.


Anonymous said...

Eugene makes the excellent point that passages from religious texts don’t tell us much about current religious practice.

While they are distinct, they are not unrelated, and moreover that is the sort of thing that is rather easy to say if you don't really know much about it. Anyone can imagine, without knowing any specifics, that in all likelihood there are some significant gaps between the religious texts and the practices.

However, once you start examining the specifics, then the easy generalization is replaced by an appreciation for the very real differences between Islam and other religions. Two key differences between Islam an Christianity are:

1) The person of the Messiah/Prophet, whose words are treated as God's word. The example of Jesus and the example of Mohammed are quite different Mohammed committed and/or encouraged his followers to commit acts which we would today consider to be mass murder, enslavement, rape, and pedophilia. Jesus's acts are those of a miracle worker and healer, not those of a war leader.

2) The question of what supersedes what. In the Bible and in the Koran, you will find both peaceful and violent passages. But in the Koran the violent passages tend to supersede the peaceful ones (because Mohammed started out as an inspired preacher not unlike Jesus but Mohammed ended up a war leader). Whereas in the Bible, the teaching of Jesus supersede much of the violence of the Old Testament. In particular, Jesus literally mentions the eye for an eye and say, no, instead, turn the other cheek.

Trent said...

I could be wrong about this, but wasn't the middle east at one time (and a long time ago at that) more capitalistic and welcoming to trade than Europe? If so, what changed?

Caliban said...

Trent has a good point. The Islamic world used be a lot better in relation to the Christian one. What changed was the motivations of the people who profited from the religion.

At the time he refers to, the caliphs basically ruled the civilized world as they knew it. When you're the top dog, peace is a very good thing (you can portray rebellions as anti-religion), and so is commerce. So all the silly restrictions in Islam were ignored.

Christianity at the time existed amidst a bunch of feuding city states. So, they used religion to justify beating up the guys next door. Later on, they used it to help unify regions to go beat up the even less similarly religious people -- the Muslims.

When you are the leader of a large group of people, you try to interpret the holy texts that those people believe to meet your goals. Or perhaps the people twist those beliefs to meet their own goals, and then spawn leaders who act on them.

Eventually, it came to be that the self-interest of the people who defined Christianity to choose peace and prosperity over the wars of the past. So modern "christian" societies ignore all the warlike and restrictive stuff. So it will happen with Islam, some day.

Obviously, the people who created these religions wanted their holy texts to be restrictions and rules on the actions of the believers, but instead they simply became easily re-interpreted justifications for anything those believers wanted to justify... just like nearly every other belief system ever invented.

I could see how you might try to create an ideology that explicitly and in all cases demanded peace and rationality without any possible reinterpretation, but the founders of Islam and Christianity either failed, or made no attempt to ensure those goals. And I don't think people WANT that.

Who wants a belief system that restricts and forces you to abide by a certain set of moral behaviors? Then we couldn't run around killing the infidels, and that's way too much fun.

Glen Whitman said...

Trend and Caliban -- I'm not much of a historian, so I can't confirm or deny what you're saying. But it does sound consistent with my claim in the original post. Essentially, you're saying the interpretation of holy texts results from the politico-economic situation, not the other way around. That was essentially my point. The difference, if any, is that you're focusing on deliberate spinning of holy text by political leaders, whereas I was focusing on the more spontaneous process by which doctrine is interpreted to fit the socioeconomic context.