pew poll graph

A story on the BBC, US Christians numbers ‘decline sharply’, poll finds, made me aware of a new poll by the Pew Research Center, reported in America’s Changing Religious Landscape. It is unusual for such a poll result to be reported so bluntly. Some time ago in Appearance and Reality in Demographics I noted that the WIN/GIP “Religiosity and Atheism Index” poll that I discussed in American Religious Individualism, had been reported under the headline WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century, which seems to have been purposefully contrived to give the reader the wrong impression of what the poll revealed. This newest headline is another matter entirely. It is becoming more difficult to conceal the fact the traditional religious belief is on the decline.

While religious observance appears to be one of the most pervasive features of civilization from its inception, the example of Europe demonstrates that religious belief can pretty much vanish once conditions change. The US remains an anomaly as an industrialized nation-state with unusually high popular identification with religious faith, but the US may yet experience the kind of catastrophic collapse of religious observance that occurred in Europe from the middle of the twentieth century onward. In other worlds, secularization may yet come to America. Of course, if widespread secularism comes to the US, it will not play out as it played out in Europe, because these societies are so profoundly different.

The secularization thesis was widely believed in the middle of the twentieth century (when secularization was transforming European society), and then was widely abandoned at the end of the twentieth century as surging religious fundamentalism and religiously-inspired terrorism grabbed headlines and appeared to some (as strange as this may sound) as a sign of religious vitality. I discussed the secularization thesis in Secularization (which I characterized in terms of confirmation and disconfirmation in history) and more recently in The Existential Precarity of Civilization.

It is important to understand the religious backlash against modernity that became apparent in the later twentieth century in the context of traditionalism, as the role of a narrowly conceived religious belief is often made central in the debates over secularization, but this can be deceptive. In this context, “traditionalism” means any ideology or belief system dating from before the industrial revolution (which marked the advent of a new form of civilization), and so is a much wider concept than religion simpliciter, which is the most common exemplar of traditionalism.

Beliefs and practices associated with the pre-industrial form of our culture of origin persisted for ten thousand years (from the origins of civilization to the industrial revolution) and so they have left an enormous cultural legacy, and they are still very powerful elements of the human imagination. Almost every famous work of art which is a cultural point of reference for westerners (think of the Nike of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s David, or the Mona Lisa), dates to this pre-industrialized period. The industrial revolution meant the dissolution of these ancient institutions and practices, sometimes within the life span of a single individual. The entire economic basis of civilization changed.

Even though civilization was forced to change, the cultural legacy of the past remains, and its hold upon the human mind remains. Although we live in modern industrialized societies, we don’t grow our own food, and we live alone in cities and not in multi-generational households, we continue to honor traditions that have become disconnected from our daily lives. Eventually the disconnect leads to cognitive dissonance as traditional attitudes come face-to-face with modern realities. There are two ways to attempt to address the cognitive dissonance: 1) a return to traditionalism, or 2) the abandonment of traditionalism.

It is impossible to return to a traditional (pre-industrial) way of life in an industrialized nation-state because you can’t just start farming in the middle of a city or create a multi-generational household out of thin air. So the return to traditionalism simply means the aggressive assertion of traditionalist claims, however empty these claims are. The most familiar form that the aggressive assertion of traditional claims can take is that of religious fundamentalism. This is not the only form of traditionalism, but it has become symbolic of traditionalism, and, as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart have noted in their paper Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization? A response to our critics, “…residual and symbolic elements often remain, such as formal adherence to religious identities and beliefs, even when their substantive meaning has faded away.”

If industrial-technological civilization endures (i.e., if it does not succumb to existential risk), all traditionalism is doomed to extinction. However, that does not mean that religion is doomed to extinction. Although I have defended the secularization hypothesis, secularization is only a stage in the transition from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization. The idea that the extinction of tradition (given the gradual lapse of a now-defunct form of civilization) is the same as the extinction of religion is only possible through a conflation of traditionalism and religion. This conflation is as invidious to the understanding of history as is the misinterpretation (at times a willful misinterpretation) of the secularization hypothesis.

Religion can and often does take non-traditional forms, but the (historically recent) experience of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, in which all social organization was subordinate to theological principles, has distorted our perception of the role of religion and civilization, and led to the conflation of religion and tradition.

In Europe Returns to its Roots I discussed the tentative return to pre-Christian forms of religion in Europe in the wake of secularization. Such cultural movements will, of course, be influenced by subsequent developments of civilization. No more than we can return to traditionalism now that traditional agrarian ways of life have disappeared can we return to Neolithic religious practices, but whatever religious practices there are must be consonant with the life of the people.

On my other blog I produced a series of posts concerned with the relation of religion to civilization, extending from the Paleolithic past to into the future. These posts include:

Settled and Nomadic Religious Experience

Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization

Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Responding to the World we Find

These were a mere sketch, of course, and one might well invest an entire lifetime in attempting to describe the relation between civilization and religion. The take-away lesson is that religion is a perennial aspect of human experience, and so it will be a perennial part of civilization, but it is a mistake to conflate religion and traditionalism. After the extinction of traditionalism, once terrestrial industrialization achieves totality (not only eliminating traditional ways of life, but also greatly reducing existential precarity), religion will remain, but it will not be the religions of the Axial Age that defined agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

When secularization comes to America, then, we should be surprised neither by the rear-guard action of traditionalism to defend the claims of a now-vanished civilization, nor by the inevitable emergence and rise of religious beliefs and practices independent of traditionalism. Expect popular accounts to conflate the two, but a developmental understanding of the relationship of civilization and religion reveals how starkly different they are.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Science has a problematic relationship to mythology, so that to speak in terms of the mythological function of science is to court misunderstanding, but this idea is so important that I am going to take the risk of being profoundly misunderstood in order to try to explicate the mythological function of science, both in its descriptive and normative aspects. One of the problems that science has with mythology is that a great many if not most prominent institutional representatives of science explicitly reject mythology, or, if they do not explicitly reject mythology, they invoke a quasi-NOMA doctrine in order to demonstrate their respect for and tolerance of traditional mythologies as long as these mythologies do not interfere in the practice of science.

Science today, however, cannot be neatly contained within any category or limited to any one aspect of life. Science is the driving force behind our industrial-technological civilization, and as such it penetrates into every aspect of life whether or not we recognize this penetration, and whether or not science is even wanted in every aspect of life. Science has become as comprehensive as the global civilization with which it is integral, and so we find ourselves, both as individuals and as part of a society, facing a comprehensive institution that shapes almost every aspect of life. We have a relationship to this institution whether we like it or not, and in some cases this relationship approximates a mythological relationship, although (as I argued in The Next Axial Age) we have not yet seen the axialization of industrial-technological civilization.

On my other blog I have recently written a series of posts on religious experience, across the broad expanse of civilization from the transition from our hunter-gatherer origins to the forms that religious experience may take in the future. These posts are as follows:

Settled and Nomadic Religious Experiences

Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization

Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Responding to the World we Find

These posts were narrowly focused on religious experience, and not on other aspects of religious ideas and practices. However, I took as my guide Joseph Campbell’s delineation of the functions of mythology.

Campbell makes a fourfold distinction in the functions of mythology, including the mystical function, the cosmological function, the social function, and the psychological function, as follows:

● The Mystical Function is concerned with reconciling consciousness with the pre-conditions of its existence.

● The Cosmological Function is a unified and comprehensive conception of the cosmos consistent with the mystical function of mythology (above) and the social function of mythology (below).

● The Social Function is a conception of the social order that establishes a model and a form for social institutions, as well as a conception the relation of the individual to the social order, and, through the social order, to the cosmos at large.

● The Psychological Function, which I would prefer to call this the “personal function,” is the function of a myth to guide an individual through the stages of life and to act as a support and as comfort in the individual’s hour of need.

This is a somewhat schematic approach to how an mythological world-view functions in a social context, and not the only possible way to analyze religion. Recently I was skimming some of the work of Ninian Smart, who distinguished seven “dimensions” of religion: 1. Doctrinal, 2. Mythological, 3. Ethical, 4. Ritual, 5. Experiential, 6. Institutional, and 7. Material. Smart further decomposed these seven dimensions into the para-historical (1-3), which must be studied by “dialogue and participation,” and the historical (4-7), which can be studied empirically, like any branch of science. It would be an interesting intellectual undertaking to do a detailed comparison among taxonomies of religious study. Campbell’s master category of mythology is, in Smart, reduced to one among seven dimensions of religion, so some care would be required to sort through respective definitions.

For the moment, however, acknowledging that there are other theoretical frameworks for studying religion, I am going to remain within Joseph Campbell’s structure of the functions of mythology in taking up the central role of science in our civilization. Campbell’s four functions of mythology provide an agenda to approach how science functions in the society of industrial-technological civilization, which can in turn be compared to past instances of mythologies that have served the central role in earlier civilizations equivalent to the role of science in contemporary civilization.

Science, as we all know, has been a source of the dissolution of the cosmological function of traditional mythology. Wherever traditional mythology supplied a myth of origins explaining the structure of the world, this myth has been rudely confronted with the scientific account of the structure of the world. Where the mythological account could gracefully be accepted as a metaphor, this was not a problem, but when great value has been attached to literal interpretations, then it is a problem. Eventually, and slowly, science has supplanted any and all mythological accounts of the nature of the world. Science, then, is uniquely suited to serving the cosmological function of mythology, and does so today even if it is not understood to be a mythological account of the origins and the structure of the world.

In regard to the social function of mythology, I find the position of contemporary science to be very hopeful at the same time that it is very distressing. On the hopeful side, we have sciences of society that are becoming more sophisticated all the time. From an adequate social science human beings are in the position for the first time in the whole of human history to say what kind of cities function well, and which kind of cities function poorly; what kinds of intervention work well, and which kinds fail; what kind of societies are likely to provide health, wealth, and happiness, and which kinds of societies consistently fail to do so. On the distressing side, every utopian program derived from the most advanced social thought of every era of human history has been a disastrous failure that not only fails to provide for health, wealth, and happiness, but which more often than not is transformed in practice into a dystopian nightmare. Thus the ability of a social science to design and maintain even a mediocre society is in question, and we cannot yet count science as ready to fulfill the social function of mythology, even if we are optimistic about the hopeful progress of social science.

The psychological or personal function of mythology is, in some senses, the whole of the problem in miniature. If science can provide an adequate account of the individual, many of the other functions of mythology will fall into place; if science cannot provide an adequate account of the individual, nothing else will work. The best science of the human individual is to be found today in evolutionary psychology. While evolutionary psychology remains controversial, the growing body of work on evolutionary psychology is giving us insights into human nature as derived from our biology and our evolutionary history. We should distinguish criticisms of evolutionary psychology between the political rejections of evolutionary psychology (which is hated by both left and right, in the same what the both the political left and the political right ultimately cannot countenance natural history) and the criticisms of evolutionary psychology that rest on a is/ought conflation. The politicized rejection of evolutionary psychology is uninteresting, so I will ignore it, and only discussed is/ought conflation in the criticism of evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a descriptive science with no normative content, but, sadly and inevitably, no matter how carefully one points out that evolutionary psychology only studies human history, and how we got to be the way that we are, and has nothing whatsoever to say about what we ought to do, nor does it contain any prescriptions, many are unconvinced and are profoundly disturbed by the unflattering evolutionary origins of behaviors that we think of as being typically human. The confusion over the word “natural” in contemporary popular culture embodies a similar problem, except that “natural” is not a scientific term. People use “natural” in ordinary language to describe the world apart from the intervention of human civilization, but they also use the world to express certain values, especially connecting nature with conservation values and environmental concerns. It is extremely difficult to talk about nature without others jumping to the conclusion that one is also going to advocate for a range of issues related to environmentalism. While advocacy may grow out of the growth of scientific knowledge (as was explicitly the case with Lori Marino), and scientists often grow to love their object of study no less their their personal contributions in terms of a theory of their object of study, there is no necessary connection between scientific knowledge and advocacy. It has been considered highly counter-intuitive that, for example, Michel Foucault has been called an “anti-humanist human scientist,” as it is simply assumed that if you study humanity by way of the human sciences, you will also be an advocate of humanity. Similarly with evolutionary psychology, it is often assumed that one is being an advocate for behaviors conditioned by evolutionary, rather than merely explaining the evolutionary mechanism that brought them about.

If we can get past these simple-minded conflations, evolutionary psychology can teach us a great deal about ourselves and our relations with others while in no sense arguing that we are obligated to blindly follow those instincts engendered in us by our evolutionary development. It is a familiar theme that human instinctual life must be repressed in the context of civilized life; this was, of course, the theme of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Another way to formulate this would be to observe that civilized life is incompatible with the instinctual life, so that evolutionary psychology would seem to provide no guide whatsoever to life in our industrial-technological civilization. But this is a deceptive claim to make. To understand the discontent of man in civilization, and especially the widespread anomie of alienated individuals, it is necessary to understand exactly the conflict between instinctual behavior and the behavior demanded by civilized society. Individuals who have studied evolutionary psychology have gained a unique measure of insight into these instinctual conflicts, and I think it is entirely reasonable to assert that such knowledge would likely be a help in guiding the individual through the stages of life experienced in civilized society — especially if evolutionary psychology were supplemented by an evolutionary account of the development of civilization — so that science could be said to be within reach of a robust ability to serve the psychological function of mythology.

This leaves us with the mystical or metaphysical function of mythology, and this will be the toughest task for science, because the science that has propelled industrial-technological civilization relentlessly forward has been a positivistically-conceived science that distances itself both from the mystical and the metaphysical, almost to the point of a cultivated ignorance of the tradition — what I have elsewhere called Fashionable Anti-Philosophy.

I see two possible sources for a mystical function that science could serve: 1. the eventual reconciliation of science with philosophy that allows science to draw from the resources of philosophy of produce a metaphysical conception consistent with modern science, or 2. a scientific theory of consciousness that is neither eliminativist or reductionist, but which gives a definitive account of consciousness that individuals without scientific training will feel is adequate to the explanation of their experience of the world. While many scientists are working on consciousness, and several scientifically-minded philosophers have claimed to “explain” consciousness, we cannot regard any of these efforts or explanations as yet being adequate to the task that would be required of a scientific approach to the mystical function of mythology.

A definitive scientific account of consciousness coupled with an account of evolutionary psychology, including evolutionary social psychology, would give a thorough descriptive account that could serve the mystical, social, and psychological functions as mythology as well as science now serves the cosmological function of mythology. The same is/ought distinction, however, the prevents us from being forced to regard a descriptive account of evolutionary psychology as a prescriptive account of how individuals and societies ought to conduct themselves, constitutes a limitation on the ability of science to function as a mythology, though even here science is not powerless. Sam Harris has recently written a book and given many lectures on the possibility of a scientific approach to morality, and while I disagree with his account, it demonstrates that scientific thought still has many resources that it can bring to the table. Here is where philosophy becomes indispensable. The kind of rapprochement between science and philosophy mentioned above as a possible source for a scientific metaphysics that could serve the mystical function of mythology is perhaps more crucial in overcoming the limitations of science to be prescriptive without violating the is/ought dichotomy.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Psychodynamic Account of Contemporary

muslim rage

Islam and its Place in Civilizational Seriation

Some time ago in From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness I discussed a famous Freud quote. The quote runs as follows:

…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.

After this, in Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, I suggested that Freud’s distinction between neurotic misery and ordinary human unhappiness can be applied not only to individuals but also to social wholes. Thus it makes sense to speak of neurotically miserable civilizations as compared to civilizations possessing merely ordinary levels of human unhappiness.

Then I went yet further afield in Agriculture and the Macabre, in which I tried to make the case the agricultural civilization is particularly vulnerable to neurotic misery. While industrial-technological civilization certainly has its problems and its limitations, whatever may be said of it, it is not macabre and retrospective in the way that agricultural civilization is.

I have been even more specific in identifying the religious wars of Early Modern Europe (also corresponding with the witch craze) as the nadir of Western civilization and as a paradigm case of a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery. Eventually Western civilization grew out of its neurotic misery, although not without an unprecedented level of carnage, and today Western civilization is a fine representative of ordinary human unhappiness as the basis for civilization. Not very exciting, but it’s better than the alternative.

Islam, as an historical phenomenon, is several hundred years behind Christianity in its development. I do not intend this statement to in any way imply that there is anything intrinsic to Islam that keeps its development behind that of Christendom, but there is the historical fact that, of these two religious traditions of the masses, Islam was promulgated six hundred years later than Christianity. Christianity had already been at its internecine squabbles for hundreds of years when Mohammad performed the Hijra to Medina to found the first Muslim community.

The strife we see today in Islam is the sign of a civilization — Islamic civilization — in the grip of neurotic misery. This situation did not come about suddenly, and it is not going to go away suddenly. It is a narrative that must unfold over a period of hundreds of years, and, as I recently wrote in Why tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail, Homo non facit saltumMan makes no leaps. All development is evolutionary.

The trend toward the neurotic misery of Islamic civilization has been developing for quite some time. Charles Doughty, who traveled through Arab lands in the nineteenth century, frequently comments on the fanaticism of his hosts, as, for example, in this passage:

“The high sententious fantasy of ignorant Arabs, the same that will not trust the heart of man, is full of infantile credulity in all religious matter; and already the young religionist was rolling the sentiment of divine mission in his unquiet spirit.”

Charles Montagu Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, Volume 1, Cambridge, 1888, p. 95

And this…

“I wondered with a secret horror at the fiend-like malice of these fanatical beduins, with whom no keeping touch nor truth of honourable life, no performance of good offices, might win the least favor from the dreary, inhuman, and for our sins, inveterate dotage of their bloodguilty religion. But I had eaten of their cheer, and might sleep among wolves.”

Op. cit., p. 502

Such passages are most unwelcome today, and many would regard them as an embarrassment better forgotten, but I suspect that Charles Doughty knew a great deal more about Arabia than many an Arabist today. Rather than taking such remarks as a sign of Doughty’s racism, we might take them in historical context as intimations of what was to come. And historical context is crucial here, since precisely the same thing would no doubt have been in found in Christendom in a parallel historical context. I have no doubt that if a worldly and learned Muslim visited Europe one or two hundred years before Europe’s religious wars, he would have found much the same thing. In fact, Montesquieu depicted exactly this after Europe’s neurotic misery in his epistolary novel The Persian Letters.

A recent feature in Foreign Policy magazine, It’s Not About Us by Christian Caryl (20 February 2013) about intra-Islamic relations, and especially the split between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, is an exposition of the extent to which Islam is as much at war with itself as with the infidel — exactly like Christendom during its period of neurotic misery. It is well known that militant Jihadis sympathetic to Al Qaeda tend to be Sunni, while the Persians and minority communities throughout the Arab world are Shia, and that there are radical elements on both sides of this divide who are vying to be recognized as the vanguard to militant Islam in the contemporary world. These sectarian divides within Islam frequently correspond to divisions in political power and economic influence, making the religious quarrel indistinguishable from broader social conflicts (again, like early modern Europe). And why should social groups contest with each other to be recognized as the vanguard of Islamic radicalism? Because there is a social consensus that radical Islamism is the telos of civilization.

Just as there were many sane and rational men who lived through Christendom’s neurotic misery (Michel de Montaigne comes to mind, for example), so too there are many sane and rational Muslims in our age of Islam’s neurotic misery — but it would be dishonest to pretend that the exceptions to the rule are anything other than exceptions. When almost everyone agreed that “spectral evidence’ could be admitted in the trials of individuals accused of witchcraft, we must acknowledge that there existed at that time a social consensus that this is what constituted “justice.” And so, too, today, when polls reveal that a majority of Muslims will not condemn atrocities and acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam and Jihad, we must acknowledge that there is a social consensus that such acts are widely considered to be permissible, if not encouraged — no matter the reasonable few who are rightly horrified.

I have learned that when talking about the scales of history that apply to civilization and big history that one must go out of one’s way to emphasize that these are not events or movements that can be observed in a single human lifetime. Christianity’s buildup to its own neurotic misery required hundreds and hundreds of years of development; the actual period of neurotic misery lasted as much as two centuries, and the whole episode is still, hundreds of years later, being put behind us. It doesn’t matter how much you might want things to be tied up neatly in your lifetime — if you’re going to discuss these great forces that shape civilizations, you have to get used to the idea that it’s not like observing the life cycles of fruit flies.

Astronomers, who similarly work on very long time scales, have the same difficulty in explaining themselves and getting others to understand in a visceral sense the elapse of eons. The astronomer reconstructs the dynamic history of a universe that seems, to us, to be standing still, by looking in all different directions in the sky and observing different kinds of celestial bodies at different stages of development. The astronomer must then put all these fragments of cosmological history together on one large canvas that he will never himself see in a lifetime, but which he sees in his mind’s eye.

When archaeologists similarly survey different sites and find pottery in different stages of development in different places, they try to put it all together with the movements of ancient peoples. This assembly of a structure in time is called seriation. The astronomer engages in cosmological seriation. (The Hertzsprung–Russell diagram is the seriation of stellar evolution.) The student of civilization and of big history, engages in civilizational seriation.

We observe but a single slice of time — the present — and from this single slice of time we attempt to reconstruct the whole of the continuum of time. Ultimately, this is a project of temporal seriation.

The limited temporal horizon of most contemporary commentators on political strife makes it impossible to seem the larger patterns revealed by civilizational and temporal seriation, and so they make elementary errors of historiography. And not only in politics, but in every aspect of civilization. I have repeatedly tried to point out the misunderstandings in the media of China’s “peaceful rise,” which is really China’s industrial revolution.

Have I repeated myself a sufficient number of time to make my point? I doubt it. But i will keep at it, reminding the reader at every turn that the perspective of Big History cannot be assimilated to the personal experience of time, and that one must pursue a strategy of temporal seriation to see larger patterns that do not reveal themselves to the eye.

One of these larger patterns is the pattern of the development of religion as a mass social phenomenon, and among mass religions one pattern is that of passing through a stage of neurotic misery on the way to the mature expression of religion within a civilization that does not cripple that civilization.

Religion begins with something as small and as personal as a superstition or a ritual observance. Eventually it becomes a system of mythology, and once the system of mythology is systematically integrated with the state structures of agricultural civilization religion becomes a principle of social order and a locus of conflict. This conflict must play itself out until civilization gropes its way toward a social principle consistent with the change and diversity that makes a state successful in an age of industrialized economies. All of this takes time — much more time than any one individual can observe in a lifetime. (There, I’ve repeated myself again.)

The neurotic misery of Islam will persist for hundreds of years, as the neurotic misery of Christendom persisted for hundreds of years. There are perhaps ways to ease the transition and lessen the suffering, but we cannot simply leap over this unpleasantness. It must be worked on in real time, just as a patient on the psychiatrist’s couch must work his way through painful early memories before he can simply be unhappy instead of being neurotically or hysterically miserable.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Peculiar Institutions

9 February 2013


Torii gate of the Meiji Jingū.

Torii gate of the Meiji Jingu.

In the antebellum American south, slavery was called the south’s “peculiar institution,” so it is perhaps unfair to use this particular phrase to describe anything other than antebellum slavery. Also, the word “peculiar” has taken on insulting connotations, so that its use is generally avoided. However, it would probably be worse to try to speak in terms of, for example, “autochthnous institutions” or “indigenous institutions” while “parochial institutions” or “provincial institutions” both definitely carry the wrong connotations. So I visited two peculiarly Japanese institutions, and they are definitely peculiar institutions — or indigenous, or autochthnous, or whatever other phrase you’d like to employ: the Japanese Sword Museum and the Meiji Jingū (the shrine to the Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken). Both are as narrowly conceived as the Tokyo National Museum is grandly and comprehensively conceived. Their great value lies precisely in this narrowness.

Color lables on sake donated to the Meiji Jingū.

Color lables on sake donated to the Meiji Jingū.

The ethical code of the Samurai has been given an explicit formulation in the form of Bushidō (武士道), a confluence of Shinto, Confucianism, and Zen Buddhism, although (as is the case with most explicitly formulated doctrines) Bushidō is only the late culmination of an ancient tradition that goes deep into the history of a people, intertwined and integral with a way of life. And the way of life is ultimately more fundamental that any particular expression of that way of life. Thus the meaning of Bushidō must ultimately be sought in the lifeways of the Japanese people and the traditions of Japanese civilization, rather than being understood as an exclusive expression of the elite class of a rigid feudal system (which it unquestionably was as well). The austerity of Bushidō, its aestheticized asceticism, must then be attributed to the wider culture in the same way that the Christian ideal of a medieval European knight is to be sought in the culture of medieval Christendom. And indeed a trip to the Japanese Sword Museum is an experience in keeping with the austere Zen ethic of the Samurai who wielded the swords, and one would be perhaps equally justified to speak of a Zen aesthetic as of a Zen ethic.

Meiji shrine 4

The Japanese Sword Museum consists of a single room constructed as a museum vault (like the Gold Museum in Peru) with a glass case running around the walls of the single room. Behind the glass are a series of blades. Only the blades. There are a few swords with grips and scabbards, but most of the swords are displayed as blades only. There is nothing here to distract from the austere purity of the sword blade presented in splendid isolation. The oldest blades on display from the 12th century looked nearly as new as the 19th century blades on display. Most of the blades were signed including many of the earliest blades. Even in the 12th century the sword makers were signing their work, like some of the most famous Greek potters in ancient Athens.

Meiji shrine 5

If you visit a European museum of armaments (and I have been to several, though I should mention that housed with the Gold Museum in Peru, mentioned above, there is also an armaments museum, so it isn’t just in Europe) you will be confronted with a bewildering display of every imaginable weapons design. There are swords (and guns) of every possible design and description. This is not what you will see in the Japanese sword museum. Here the swords are displayed as the blade only, and all these blades are to essentially the same design. This is not to say that there are no differences among the blades. Some are longer or shorter, more or less curved, and there are slight slight differences in tempering visible by the particular coloration of the blade. It is as though each individual blade were striving to approximate the ideal Platonic Form of a sword, and the individual, contingent details of each were mere mundane deviations from the ideal and perfect sword.

Meiji shrine 6

After the Japanese Sword Museum a walk through Yoyogi Park will bring you to the Torii Gate that marks the entrance to Meiji Jingū, an extensive shrine to the Meiji Emperor and Empress Shoken. Set in a large forested park, the Meiji Shrine is a wooden structure of noble proportions, by which I mean that it was large and elegant, but not overly large or excessively elegant. I read that the whole shrine had been destroyed in the Second World War and was subsequently rebuilt. It is structurally similar to many of the monumental wooden shrines in Kyoto (which was not bombed and burned in the Second World War). The whole architectural ensemble has a wonderful serenity that belies its relatively recent rebuilding; it would be easy to imagine that this shrine has stood here undisturbed for centuries.

Meiji shrine 7

If I understand what I saw and what I read, people come here to worship the spirit (kami) of the Meiji emperor. After washing at stations outside the shrine itself — first the left hand, then the right, the left again and finally one’s mouth — one approaches through a large gateway, passes through a spacious quadrangle and approaches another quadrangle that one does not enter. There is a box to collect coins that acts as a (closed) gate to this second quadrangle. The ritual appeared to involve tossing a 50 Yen coin into the collection box, clapping twice, bowing twice, and closing one’s eyes and bowing one’s head forward in prayer. These prayers lasted anywhere from a part of a second to several minutes in length. One suspects that the duration of prayer corresponds to detail and care with which the wish or desire has been formulated, like an exercise in creative visualization. Usually those who approached the shrine and made an offering and a prayer would give another small bow before walking away, a step or two backward first before turning around.

Shinto wedding 1

I have tried to describe the visitors to Meiji Jingū and their rituals as plainly as possible, since Western monotheistic distortions usually seriously misunderstand non-Western religious traditions, and especially those traditions of the far east of Asia — Buddhism and Confucianism — which are in no sense supernaturalistic, though both incorporate vaguely animist elements. To the Westerner unable to transcend his own traditions, praying to the spirit of a deceased emperor represents the worst kind of idolatry and superstition, but if you actually visit Meiji Jingū it doesn’t feel or appear the slightest idolatrous or superstitious. It is, on the contrary, supremely dignified.

Shinto wedding 2

At the Meiji Shrine I happened to be present for a procession of a traditional Shinto wedding, which was an impressive sight that got the attention of all the cameras in the immediate vicinity (mine included). Later I saw a second traditional Shinto wedding, and later still I saw an office that arranges weddings at the shrine, so it appears that traditional Shinto weddings are an industry for the Meiji Shrine.

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Shinto wedding 3

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The idea of the individual has been central to Western Civilization; we can discern its earliest manifestations in ancient Greece, when potters signed their work and bragged that they were better than other potters; we can see its further development in the Italy of the renaissance, when men of virtú like Machiavelli and Lorenzo the Magnificent forcefully asserted themselves as rightful masters of their time; we can see the new forms that it has taken after the Industrial Revolution, where the office towers of New York, like the medieval towers of San Gimignano, assert the ascendancy and priority of the individual.

Whether you love it or hate it, you have to acknowledge that the US is where individualism has reached its most unconditional realization. Some people glory in American individualism, and some despise it. If a member of the commentariat or the punditocracy wants to put a positive spin on individualism, they will call it “rugged individualism,” whereas if they want to put a negative spin on individualism, they will call it “rampant individualism.” There are plenty of examples of both of these attitudes, and I invite the reader to stay alert for these linguistic clues in future reading.

Jean-Paul Sartre said of the skyscrapers of New York City, “Seen flat on the ground from the point of view of length and width, New York is the most conformist city in the world… But if you look up, everything changes. Seen in its height, New York is the triumph of individualism… There are individuals in America, just as there are skyscrapers. There are Ford and Rockefeller, Hemingway and Roosevelt. They are models and examples.”

When earlier today I posted a longish piece on Tumblr about Appearance and Reality in Demographics, I continued to think about the recent poll results that I mentioned there, WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century, as well as an earlier poll from the Pew Forum, U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, that I mentioned some years ago (in 2008) in More on Republican Disarray. In particular, I thought about how wrong prognosticators, forecasters, and social commentators have been about the development of religion in the US. There is an obvious reason for this. The US is not only a disproportionately religious nation-state (as revealed in numerous polls), it is also, as I noted above, a disproportionately individualistic nation-state, and the confluence of these ideological trends, the religious and the individualistic, means that US culture is marked by religious individualism and individual religion.

I touched on this peculiar character of religion in America — i.e., religious individualism — in my post American Civilization, in which I cited the song Highwayman, jointed performed by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings (and written by Jimmy Webb). This is an obvious pop culture example of what I am getting at, but the careful reader of classic American fiction will also reveal a religious individualism that frequently issues in pluralism, diversity, and the frankly eclectic. To put it bluntly, people believe whatever they want to believe.

Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, left to right, recorded the Jimmy Webb song The Highwayman and made a commercial success of it.

The attempt to pigeonhole American religious belief and practice always founders on the rock of religious individualism, which cannot be reliably classified in ideological terms. It is not consistently left or right, radical or traditional, liberal or conservative, activist or quietist — or, rather, it is all of these things at different times for different individuals.

Norman Rockwell’s iconic image of freedom of worship is for many a paradigmatic representation of American religiosity, which synthesizes in the single image the conformity and individualism that Sartre saw in American skyscrapers. Each worships according to his own conscience, but it just happens (I guess as a matter of pure chance) that everyone shows up at the white steepled church in the center of a picturesque American small town.

Individual religion takes the form of individual choice, and different individuals choose differently for themselves, and choose differently at different times in their life. This was one of the interesting results of the Pew Forum poll I mentioned above, which found a high level of religious observance in the US (everyone expected that), but when prying deeper found that, “More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion.”

This Rockwell image of American religiosity, no less iconic but perhaps a tad more realistic than the image above, shows an inter-generational solidarity of faith that defies the cool disinterest of the hip crowd. This is, again, like the other Rockwell image above, what many people want to believe about American religious life.

While this may not sound too shocking prima facie, it would be difficult to overemphasize how historically unusual this is. One of the conflicts that marked the shift from the medieval world to the modern world in European history was that between the personal principle in law and the territorial principle in law (which latter emerges with the advent of the nation-state). Given the personal principle in law, an individual is judged according to his community. If you were a Christian on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and were accused of a crime in a Muslim country, you would be dealt with according to Christian law, not Muslim law. That how it was supposed to work, and sometimes it did work that way, and for the decentralized societies of medieval Europe the personal principle in law fit the loosely coupled structures of a nearly non-existent state.

A much less flattering portrayal of American religiosity is to be found in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry. To reconcile the diverse imagines of Rockwell and Lewis you can imagine Elmer gantry preaching to the assembled small town congregation whose sincere faces, bowed in prayer, are depicted by Rockwell.

The personal principle in law persists today in the institution of diplomatic immunity, but apart from diplomats, those accused of a crime will be tried according to the law of the geographically defined nation-state where the crime occurred, and this legal process will have little or nothing to do with the ethnicity or traditional community of the accused individual. Again, that’s the way it’s supposed to work, though it is not difficult to cite violations of this principle.

College campuses and prisons are common sites for religious proselytizing, since young people going to college and away from home for the first time, and incarcerated persons having passed through the justice system, are particularly apt to convert to a faith not directly involved in their earlier life experience.

The personal principle in law is all about ethnicity and tradition and individual identity being defined by a traditional community, which in turn defined the individual in terms of his or her role in that community. The idea that an individual might change their religion was like suggesting that an individual could put on or take off an identity like a suit of clothes. This would have been utterly incomprehensible to our ancestors; for the US it is now a fait accompli, and the basis for the organization of our society. Just as serial monogamy has come to characterize American courtship and marriage patterns, so too serial faith choices, adopted sequentially throughout the life of the individual as that individual experiences personal crises that precipitate temporary religious identification, characterize American religious patterns.

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

Indeed, one of the perennial themes of American life is that of personal re-invention (i.e., the putting on and taking off of identity). In the US, failure is not final. If things aren’t working out for you in Boston, you can move to Philadelphia, as Benjamin Franklin did. In a social context of personal re-invention and geographical fungibility, what counts is not one’s abject subordination to the community into which one happens to be born, but one’s cleverness and persistence in finding a place where one can feel at home. Part of this personal quest is also finding a faith in which one can feel at home, and this is not necessarily the faith of one’s parents or of one’s community.

In the context of religious individualism, orthodoxy counts for nothing. Or it counts for everything, but only because each man has his own orthodoxy, and there is no social mechanism in place in industrial-technological civilization to force the acquiescence of any individual to any other individual’s orthodoxy.

Even those who celebrate orthodoxy and who would welcome mechanisms of social control to force acquiescence to orthodoxy, cannot escape, at least while in America, the necessity of defining their own orthodoxy on their own terms. They are, in Rousseau’s terms, forced to be free, which in this context means they are forced to be religious individualists.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In the painfully slow process of the formulation of a secular world view having started from civilizations that, throughout the world, have been permeated by religious significance — so much so that each of the world’s major religions roughly correspond to each of the world’s major civilizations — one of the walls against which we repeatedly crack our heads is that of the traditional sense of grandeur that is so perfectly embodied in the religious rituals of ecclesiastical civilization.

For many if not most human beings, this grandeur of ritual translates into intellectual grandeur, and, again, for many if not most, this equation of religious grandeur with human honor and dignity has meant that any deviation from the traditions of ecclesiastical civilization have been treated as deviations from the intrinsic respect due to human beings as human beings. That is to say, many Westerners (and possibly also many elsewhere in the world) express indignation, outrage, and anger over a naturalistic account of human origins. The whole legacy of Copernicus is seen as invidious to human dignity.

Among those in the sciences and philosophy, it has become commonplace to attribute the strongly negative reaction to naturalism (especially as is touches upon human origins) as a reaction to the re-contextualization of humanity’s place in nature in view of a naturalistic cosmology. Anthropocentric cosmology is here treated as an expression of overweening human pride, and the need to re-conceptualize the cosmos in terms that make human beings and human concerns no longer central is not only a necessary adjustment to scientific understanding but also serves as a stern lesson to human hubris.

In other words, the scientific demonstration of the peripheral position of humanity in a naturalistic cosmos is understood to be a moral good because it, “brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes” (to quote Thucydides). Science is a rough master, and by formulating scientific cosmology in these unforgiving terms I have made it sound harsh and unsympathetic. This was intentional, because this formulation comes closer to doing justice to the visceral intuitions of the indignant anthropocentric than the usual formulation in terms of a necessary correction to human pride.

Seen in this way, both anthropocentric-ecclesiastical civilization and Copernican-scientific civilization are both related in an essential way to a conception of human pride. Both conceptions of humanity and of civilization have a fundamentally conflicted conception of pride. In ecclesiastical civilization, human pride in species-being (to employ a Marxist term) is magnified while individualistic pride is the sin of Satan and central to the fallen nature of the world. In Copernican civilization, human pride in human knowledge is magnified — and I note that human knowledge is often an individualistic undertaking, but see below for more on this — but pride in species-being is called into question.

In ecclesiastical civilization, pride in species-being is raised to the status of metaphysical pride and is postulated as the organizational principle of the world. But, of course, pride in species-being is identified with humility, and the whole of humanity is dismissed as sinners. In Copernican civilization, pride in knowledge — epistemic pride — is raised to the status of metaphysical pride and is postulated as the organizational principle of the world. But, of course, the epistemic pride of science is often identified with epistemic humility. As Socrates once said to Antisthenes, “I can see your pride through the holes in your cloak.”

Individualistic pride is closely connected to the heroic conception of civilization, and as civilization continues its relentless consolidation of social institutions integrated within a larger whole of human endeavor, the role (even the possibility) of individual heroic action is abridged. Individualistic pride in this context is even more closely connected with the heroic conception of science, which is (as I have pointed out elsewhere) already an antiquated notion.

When civilization was young and scientific research was the province of individuals, not institutions and their communities of researchers, almost all scientific discoveries were the result of heroic individual efforts. Science, like civilization, is now a collective enterprise, and just as the story of civilization was once told as the deeds of kings, so the story of science was once told as the deeds of discoverers. Such authentic efforts could still be found in the nineteenth century (in the person of Darwin) and even in the early twentieth century (in the person of Einstein). But it is rarely the case today, and will become rarer and possibly extinct in the future.

Pride in species-being (in contradistinction to individualistic pride) is something that I have not spent much time thinking about, but when I think about it now in the present context it seems to me that this represents a heroic conception of the career of humanity — a kind of collective heroism of a biological community striving to overcome adverse selection. Thus, if the world is magnified, how much greater is the glory of the species that triumphs over the deselective obstacles thrown up by the world? Religion magnifies the anthropocentrically-organized world in order to magnify the species-being that has been made the principle of the world; science magnifies the Copernican decentralized world in order to magnify the knower whose knowledge has been made the principle of the world.

As ecclesiastical civilization slowly, gradually, and incrementally gives way before Copernican civilization, novel ways will need to be found to supply the apparent human need for a heroic conception of the career of humanity as a whole. It will not be enough to insist upon the grandeur of the scientifically understood universe. We have seen that religion, science, and philosophy can all appeal to the grandeur of the world in making the case for a unification of the world around a particular principle. The Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” Nietzsche wrote even as he was losing his mind, “Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are filled with joy.”

Scientific knowledge is now a production of species-being, but I don’t think that science as an institution can bear the heavy burden of human hopes and dreams and expectations. Perhaps civilization, which is also collective and a production of species-being, could be channeled into a heroic conception of species-being that could serve an eschatological function. This seems like a real possibility to me, but it is not something that is yet a palpable reality.

If those who will someday formulate a future science of civilizations also see themselves as engineers of the human soul, i.e., that they conceive of the science of civilization not only descriptively but also prescriptively, they will want to not only formulate a doctrine of what civilization is, but also what civilization will be, can be, and ought to be. If civilization is to be a home for human hopes, then it must become something that is capable of sustaining and nurturing such hopes.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Recently in The Limitations of Human Consciousness I reviewed a typology of “philosophical zombies,” which latter are employed as thought experiments to investigate the possibility of human (or quasi-human) existence without consciousness. One species of philosophical zombie is referred to as a “soulless zombie,” and I want to take a few minutes to think about what exactly a soulless zombie would be.

What is a soulless zombie? The Neuronarrative blog defines a soulless zombie in passing as that which, “which looks like a human, has a brain, but lacks, wait for it, a soul (as defined by said inquirer).” The Wikipedia article on philosophical zombies is similarly terse, simply saying that the soulless zombie, “lacks a ‘soul’.” Well, we knew that much from the etymology of the term. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Zombies doesn’t even mention “soulless zombies.” Given that the “soul” is a concept that many philosophers have likely consigned to the category of folk psychology, the idea of a soulless zombie may well be more discussed outside philosophy than in, but it represents a kind of moral intuition, and for that reason alone commands our attention.

Theories of soulless zombies will bifurcate based on the distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic explications of the soul. One can follow the lead of Aristotle’s On the Soul and give an essentially naturalistic account of the soul, or one can insist upon the irreducibly non-naturalistic character of the soul, which Plato sometimes called the “divine spark.”

The non-naturalistic interpretation is a dead end for science and philosophy and therefore uninteresting. Theologians may have something more to say on this head, but a non-naturalistic soul means that by definition no naturalistic investigation can shed light on the soul (or that part of the soul that is irreducibly non-naturalistic, if any internal complexity or structure of the soul is recognized; often the advocates of a non-naturalistic soul insist upon the simplicity of the soul, in which case the simply non-naturalistic soul is closed to naturalistic investigation). There remains the possibility that, if the surrounding naturalistic context of the non-naturalistic soul can be better elucidated, this may in turn improve the terms of the discussion surrounding the non-naturalistic soul, but I will leave that possibility aside for now.

If, on the other hand, we acknowledge the legitimacy of the naturalistic account of the soul (as in Aristotle), there is no reason to suppose that the methodological naturalism of science cannot converge upon an adequate (by which I mean non-reductive and non-eliminative) account of the soul and the ensouled person. It is only in the case of the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul and personhood (in at least one of the aspects of personhood) that the methods of science and naturalistic philosophy must fail to capture the essential nature of human persons. If it is categorically denied that naturalistic methods as such can fully account for the human person or the human soul, then it is likely that such a denier will also hold the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul (although I can think of an exception to this which I will not attempt to explicate here).

In discussing philosophical zombies, soulless zombies, and scientific philosophy, the reader may well have Daniel Dennett in mind, so I am going to quote Dennett here in order to point out the way in which the inquiry I have suggested differs in essentials from Dennett’s approach, despite the similarly of the terminology I have employed. Here’s the passage from Dennett:

There is a powerful and ubiquitous intuition that computational, mechanistic models of consciousness, of the sort we naturalists favor, must leave something out — something important. Just what must they leave out? The critics have found that it’s hard to say, exactly: qualia, feelings, emotions, the what-it’s-likeness (Nagel) or the ontological subjectivity (Searle) of consciousness. Each of these attempts to characterize the phantom residue has met with serious objections and been abandoned by many who nevertheless want to cling to the intuition, so there has been a gradual process of distillation, leaving just about all the reactionaries, for all their disagreements among themselves, united in the conviction that there is a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie — let’s call that intuition the Zombic Hunch — leading them to the thesis of Zombism: that the fundamental flaw in any mechanistic theory of consciousness is that it cannot account for this important difference. A hundred years from now, I expect this claim will be scarcely credible, but let the record show that in 1999, John Searle, David Chalmers, Colin McGinn, Joseph Levine and many other philosophers of mind don’t just feel the tug of the Zombic Hunch (I can feel the tug as well as anybody), they credit it. They are, however reluctantly, Zombists, who maintain that the zombie challenge is a serious criticism.

Daniel Dennett, The Zombic Hunch: Extinction of an Intuition?

Dennett here invokes “we naturalists,” but although I definitely count myself among the naturalists, I do not share Dennett’s point of view on this matter. What Dennett calls a “phantom residue” might be compared to what I called the “irreducible non-naturalistic” nature of the soul, but what Dennett is suggesting is far more radical. Dennett not only rejects the soul (much less the theological, non-naturalistic soul), he rejects the very existence of consciousness and subjectivity. Dennett’s is a eliminativist account, which he pursues despite admitting that he feels the tug of the intuition. Thus for Dennett, a naturalistic account is a mechanistic account, and this is a far more circumscribed conception of naturalism than I would accept or advocate.

However, when Dennett makes the distinction between, “a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie,” he does inadvertently hit upon the essential idea of a soulless zombie: it would be distinct from a conscious person. Thus Dennett’s “perfect zombie” would seem to be what I am here calling a “soulless zombie,” though I could go on to add that Dennett denies even the possibility of a perfect zombie without a naturalistic form of consciousness. In this context it would be very easy to conflate naturalistic and non-naturalistic conceptions of consciousness, but the distinction is most vital where it is most likely to be conflated.

I think that once we make the distinction we can up the ante of the soulless zombie problem, or, in Dennett’s terms, the zombie hunch. To do this we can draw upon a naturalistic account of the soul formulated for the explicit purpose of a sociological explication of religion. I am thinking here of Emile Durkheim’s conception of the soul in his seminal work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

Durkheim in famous for treating religion as an essentially social phenomenon, even in its apparently most private forms. Here is a typical passage from Durkheim:

“…it may be said that nearly all the great social institutions have been born in religion. Now in order that these principal aspects of the collective life may have commenced by being only varied aspects of the religious life, it is obviously necessary that the religious life be the eminent form and, as it were, the concentrated expression of the whole collective life. If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”

This differs radically from, for example, Alfred North Whitehead’s conception of religion as being, “what the individual does with his solitude.”

Here is a passage from Durkheim specific to the soul, and incorporating his sociological conception of religious ideas:

“Thus the notion of the soul is a particular application of the beliefs relative to sacred beings. This is the explanation of the religious character which this idea has had from the moment when it first appeared in history, and which it still retains to-day. In fact, the soul has always been considered a sacred thing; on this ground, it is opposed to the body which is, in itself, profane. It is not merely distinguished from its material envelope as the inside from the outside; it is not merely represented as made out of a more subtle and fluid matter; but more than this, it inspires those sentiments which are everywhere reserved for that which is divine. If it is not made into a god, it is at least regarded as a spark of the divinity. This essential characteristic would be inexplicable if the idea of the soul were only a pre-scientific solution given to the problem of dreams; for there is nothing in the dream to awaken religious emotions, so the cause by which these are explained could not have such a character. But if the soul is a part of the divine substance, it represents something not ourselves that is within us; if it is made of the same mental matter as the sacred beings, it is natural that it should become the object of the same sentiments.”

EMILE DURKHEIM, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH WARD SWAIN, Chapter VIII, “The Idea of the Soul,” section IV

Durkheim’s naturalistic-socialogical conception of the soul has been formulated in a particularly compelling manner by professor Charles B. Jones:

“The soul is nothing but the image of society introjected into the individual and appropriated by the individual as his or her most essential identity. When a person has been successfully integrated into the religious life of a social group they then take that image of the group and of all the virtues and goals, the mission of the group, the ideals that it adheres to, and brings it on board as part of their own being.”

Charles B. Jones, Ph.D., University of Virginia, The Catholic University of America, Introduction to the Study of Religion, published by The Teaching Company

I think that this nicely captures the sense of necessity that people typically invoke in relation to the soul by contextualizing it as implicated in the individual’s identity and being.

Now, a perfect zombie would presumably be able to be successfully integrated into the religious life of a group (if a zombie failed to do so its behavioral emulation of human beings would be imperfect) and so would able to appropriate the group identity as its own.

Would there be a difference between a religiously socialized zombie, perhaps even a zombie that believed itself to have a soul, and if asked, “Do you have a soul?” would respond in the affirmative, and a human being who was also religiously socialized, also self-identified as having a soul, and also affirmed the possession of a soul when asked?

I think that this sharpens the dilemma a bit, because it is possible for me to imagine a soulless zombie undergoing initiation rites in the religion and mimicking all those aspects of behavior that Durkheim associated with the social manifestation of the concept of the soul, and yet still that soulless or perfect zombie would be without any feeling (i.e., qualia) of what it is like to be a member of that community and to feel the fellowship of the share ritualism of a liturgy that affirms the soul.

As far as a naturalistic conception of the soul can go, then — and I admit that it very well may not go far enough — there still seems to be room for an explanatory gap between a soulless zombie and a human being.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A revaluation of agricultural civilization

In several posts I have made a tripartite distinction in human history between hunter-gatherer nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism. There is a sense, then, from the perspective of la longue duree, that the macro-historical division of agriculturalism constitutes the “middle ages” of human social development. Prior to agriculturalism, nothing like this settled way of life even existed; now, later, from the perspective of industrialized civilization, agriculture is an enormous industry that can feed seven billion people, but it is a demographically marginal activity that occupies only a small fragment of our species. During those “middle ages” of agriculturalism (comprising maybe fifteen thousand years of human society) the vast bulk of our species was engaged in agricultural production. The very small class of elites oversaw agricultural production and its distribution, and the small class of the career military class or the career priestly class facilitated the work of elites in overseeing agricultural production. This civilizational focus is perhaps unparalleled by any other macro-historical epoch of human social development (and I have elsewhere implicitly referred to this focus in Pure Agriculturalism).

The advent of agricultural civilization was simultaneously the advent of settled civilization, and the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism left the institution of settled civilization in place. Other continuities are also still in place, and many of these continuities from agriculturalism to industrialism are simply the result of the youth of industrial civilization. When industrial civilization is ten thousand years old — should it survive so long, which is not at all certain — I suspect that it will preserve far fewer traces of its agricultural past. For the present, however, we live in a milieu of agricultural institutions held over from the long macro-historical division of agriculturalism and emergent institutions of a still-inchoate industrialism.

The institutions of agricultural civilization are uniquely macabre, and it is worthwhile to inquiry as to how an entire class of civilizations (all the civilizations that belong within the macro-historical division of settled agriculturalism) could come to embody a particular (and, indeed, a peculiar) moral-aesthetic tenor. What do I mean by “macabre”? The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “macabre” as follows:

1: having death as a subject: comprising or including a personalized representation of death

2: dwelling on the gruesome

3: tending to produce horror in a beholder

All of the above characterize settled agricultural civilization, which has death as its subject, dwells upon the gruesome, and as a consequence tends to produce horror in the beholder.

The thousand years of medieval European society, which approximated pure agriculturalism perhaps more closely than many other agricultural civilizations (and which we might call a little bit of civilization in its pure form), stands as a monument to the macabre, especially after the experience of the Black Death (bubonic plague), which gave the culture of Europe a decidedly death-obsessed aspect still to be seen in graphically explicit painting and sculpture. But medieval Europe is not unique in this respect; all settled agricultural civilization, to a greater or a lesser extent, has a macabre element at its core. The Agricultural Apocalypse that I wrote about in my previous post constitutes a concrete expression of the horrors that agricultural civilization has inflicted upon itself. What makes agricultural civilization so horrific? What is the source of the macabre Weltanschauung of agriculturalism?

Both the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers and the lives of settled agriculturalists are bound up with a daily experience of death: human beings must kill in order to live, and other living beings must die so that human beings can live. Occasionally a human being dies so that another species may live, and while this still happens in our own time when someone is eaten by a bear or a mountain lion, it happens much less often that the alternative, which explains why there are seven billion human beings on the planet while no other vertebrate predator comes close to these numbers. The only vertebrate species that flourish are those that we allow to flourish (there are, for example, about sixteen billion chickens in the world), with the exception of a few successful parasitic species such as rats and seagulls. (Even then, there are about five billion rats on the planet, and each rat weighs only a faction of the mass of a human being, so that total human biomass is disproportionately great.)

Although nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agriculturalists both confront pervasive experiences of death, the experience of death is different in each case, and this difference in the experience and indeed in the practice of death informs everything about human life that is bound up in this relationship to death. John Stuart Mill wrote in his The Utility of Religion:

“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be; is it not a matter of far deeper interest to us to learn, or even to conjecture, from whence came this nearer world which we inhabit; what cause or agency made it what it is, and on what powers depend its future fate?”

While Mill wrote that human existence is girt round with mystery, he might well have said that human existence is girt round with death, and in many religious traditions death and mystery or synonymous. The response to the death that surrounds human existence, and the kind of death that surrounds human existence, shapes the mythological traditions of the people so girt round.

Joseph Campbell explicitly recognized the striking difference in mythologies between nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agricultural peoples. This is a theme to which Campbell returns time and again in his books and lectures. The mythologies of hunting peoples, Campbell maintained, revolved around placating the spirits of killed prey, while the mythologies of agricultural peoples resolved around sacrifice, according to the formula that, since life grows out of death, in order to create more life, one must create more death. Hence sacrifice. Campbell clearly explains a link between the mythologies peculiar to macro-historically distinct peoples, but why should peoples respond so strongly (and so differently) to distinct experiences of death? And, perhaps as importantly, why should peoples respond mythologically to death? To answer this question demands a more fundamental perspective upon human life in its embeddedness in socio-cultural milieux, and we can find such a perspective in a psychoanalytic interpretation of history derived from Freud.

It is abundantly obvious, in observing the struggle for life, that organisms are possessed of a powerful instinct to preserve the life of the individual at all costs and to reproduce that life (sometimes called eros or libido), but Freud theorized that, in addition to the survival instinct that there is also a “death drive” (sometimes called thanatos). Here is Freud’s account of the death drive:

“At one time or another, by some operation of force which still completely baffles conjecture, the properties of life were awakened in lifeless matter. Perhaps the process was a prototype resembling that other one which later in a certain stratum of living matter gave rise to consciousness. The tension then aroused in the previously inanimate matter strove to attain an equilibrium; the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness. The living substance at that time had death within easy reach; there was probably only a short course of life to run, the direction of which was determined by the chemical structure of the young organism. So through a long period of time the living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we now know it. If the exclusively conservative nature of the instincts is accepted as true, it is impossible to arrive at any other suppositions with regard to the origin and goal of life.”

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, authorized translation from the second German edition by C. J. M. Hubback, London and Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1922, pp. 47-48

The death drive, or thanatos, does not appear to be as urgent as the drive to live and to reproduce, but according to Freud it is equally implicated in society and culture. Moreover, given the emergence of war from the same settled agricultural societies that practiced a mythology of sacrifice (according to Campbell), there has been a further “production” of death by the social organization made possible by settled societies. It is to be expected that the production of death by sacrifice in order to ensure a good harvest would become entangled with the production of death in order to ensure the continuity of the community, and indeed in societies in which war became highly ritualized (e.g., Aztec civilization and Japanese civilization) there is a strong element of sacrifice in combat.

Freud’s explanation of the death drive may strike the reader as a bit odd and perhaps unlikely, but the mechanism that Freud is proposing is not all that different from Sartre’s contention that being-for-itself seeks to become being-in-itself (to put it simply, everyone wants to be God): life — finite life, human life — is problematic, unstable, uncertain, subject to calamity, and pregnant with every kind of danger. Why would such a contingent, finite being not desire to possess the quiescence and security of being-in-itself, to be free of all contingencies, which Shakespeare called all the ills that flesh is heir to? The mythologies that Campbell describes as being intrinsic to nomadic and settled peoples are mechanisms that attempt to restore the equilibrium to the world that has been disturbed by human activity.

Agricultural civilization is the institutionalization of the death drive. The mythology of sacrifice institutionalizes death as the norm and even the ideal of agricultural civilizations. As such, settled agricultural civilization is (has been) a pathological permutation of human society that has resulted in the social equivalent of neurotic misery. That is to say, agricultural civilization is a civilization of neurotic misery, but all civilization need not be neurotically miserable. The Industrial Revolution has accomplished part of the world of overcoming the institutions of settled agriculturalism, but we still retain much of its legacy. To make the complete transition from the neurotic misery of settled agricultural civilization to ordinary civilizational unhappiness will require an additional effort above and beyond industrialization.

Despite the explicit recognition of a Paleolithic Golden Age prior to settled agriculturalism, there is a strong bias in contemporary civilization against nomadism and in favor of settled civilization. Both Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (both of which I have cited with approval in many posts) make broad evaluative judgments to the detriment of nomadic societies — an entirely superfluous judgment, as though the representatives of settled civilization felt that they needed to defend an existential orientation of their civilization by condemning the way of life of uncivilized peoples, who are called savages and barbarians. The contempt that has been shown for the world’s surviving nomadic peoples — the Sami, the Gypsies, and others — as well as programs of forced sedentarization — e.g., among the Kyrgyz — show the high level of emotional feeling that still attaches to the difference between fundamentally distinct forms of life, even when one pattern of life has become disproporationately successful and no longer needs to defend itself against the depredations of the other.

Given this low esteem in which existential alternatives are held, it is important to see settled agricultural civilization, as well as its direct descendent, settled industrial civilization, in their true colors and true dimensions, and to explicitly recognize the pathological and explicitly macabre elements of the civilization that we have called our own in order to see it for what it is and therefore to see its overcoming as an historical achievement for the good the species.

We are not yet free of the institutions of settled agricultural civilization, which means that we are not yet free of a Weltanschauung constructed around macabre rituals focused on death. And despite the far-reaching changes to life that have come with the Industrial Revolution, there is no certainly that the developments that separate us from the settled agricultural macabre will continue. I wrote above that, given the consolidation of industrial civilization, we will probably have institutions far less agricultural in character, but it remains possible that the industrialism may falter, may collapse, or may even, after consolidating itself as a macro-historical division, give way to a future macro-historical division in which the old ways of agriculturalism will be reasserted.

I count among the alternatives of future macro-historical developments the possibility of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism. In any civilization largely constituted by either the historical processes of pastoralization of neo-agriculturalism, agriculture would once again play a central and perhaps a dominant role in the life of the people. In a future macro-historical division in which agriculture was once again the dominant feature of human experience, I would expect that the macabre character of agricultural civilization would once against reassert itself in a new mythology eventually consolidated in the axialization of a future historical paradigm centered on agriculture.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark:

Bifurcating Naturalisms

Recently in Civilizations of Predication and Identity I wrote about listening to a series of Joseph Campbell lectures, The Myths and Masks of God. Campbell distinguishes four functions of mythology — the religious or mystical function (more specifically, he calls it “the mystical, properly religious function”), the cosmological function, the sociological function, and the individual psychological function. (I will not now take the time to define all of these; the interested reader is referred to Campbell’s many works.) In the course of this exposition Campbell formulates a wonderful and compelling definition of what he calls, “the primary religious attitude,” which he says is the:

“…arousing and maintaining, in the spirit of the individual, a recognition and sense of wonder and awe before the absolute mystery of being itself, with affirmation and with gratitude… affirmation of life in being, as it is…”

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 3, track 7

What we notice immediately about this is that it is a formulation that any naturalist can enthusiastically endorse. There is nothing otherworldly here, nothing supernatural or superstitious. Anyone, without any shred of belief in another world or without assenting to any theological proposition, can feel a sense of wonder and awe before the absolute mystery of being. Plato said that philosophy begins in wonder. I feel this myself, and I think that contemporary science encourages people to feel this wonder even as it seeks to understand the mystery. Indeed, Campbell in these lectures mentions in passing (mentions so quickly that I am sure many do not hear it, and many probably don’t hear it because they don’t want to hear it) that he prefers naturalistic formulations.

There is a different, but similarly compelling naturalistic formulation of religious experience in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View:

“…although the Lutheran reform prohibited many of the arts that civilize our impulses, it encouraged church music. In small Dutch and German towns the choir and the organ became the only means through which men could enter the world of spiritualized emotion…”

Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 9, The Pursuit of Happiness

For Clark, spiritualized emotion is the center of human religious experience. Clark had earlier visited this theme in his discussion of iconoclasm during the Reformation, which reflection further deepens Clark’s implicit naturalistic conception of religion:

“…the motive [for iconoclasm] wasn’t so much religious as an instinct to destroy anything comely, anything that reflected a state of mind that an unevolved man couldn’t share. The existence of these incomprehensible values enraged them.”

Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 6, Protest and Communication

For Clark, religion at its best can serve a civilizing function that refines and elevates the emotional and communal life of man; religion here is a source of edification. Man is improved as man by cultivating what is best within the religious instincts. Clark’s naturalistic conception of religion in terms of spiritualized emotion is a more implicit formulation while Campbell’s formulation is a more-or-less explicit definition, but the similar intention to place religion within the life of man, and especially of man within society, is clear.

So far, so good. But there is more. The naturalistic conceptions of religion formulated by Campbell and Clark diverge when we look into them further. One of the themes that Campbell develops in many of his lectures is that the Western religious tradition has preserved specific features from antiquity that no longer allow the mythology of the West to serve the proper functions of mythology. The particular way in which Western man has elaborated his mythology had led it into a dead end. Western mythology must be freed from specific dogmas if it is to again be a living tradition. Campbell says:

“A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. You are in one way or another putting your consciousness, even the action of your body, into play in relation to a mythological theme, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, mythological themes are projections of the order of the psyche… by participating in a ritual occasion you are in a magical field, a field that is putting you in touch with your own great depth. And then to have someone come along with an interpretation of that ritual that does not correspond to your experience of it, you are being cut off from the symbolic experience… The function of the church is best served when it gives people occasions and opportunities to participate in these great eternal mythic experiences without telling them telling them how to experience it, without telling what the meaning must be. What I’m saying is that the rites work but the dogmas don’t. When the rite comes along with a dogma attached to it that was formulated in the third century AD in the near east, and the ritual is presented here and you are having an experience of it, forget the dogma and experience the form. No artist sends along with the forms that he presents to you a statement of what they mean.”

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 5, track 9

Earlier in these lectures Campbell elaborated on this theme in an especially intriguing way:

“Popular religions all over the world, for the most part, are misunderstandings of… poetic images. The chief way to misunderstand an image is to imagine that it is a fact. One says to one’s beloved, ‘You are a rose,’ ‘You are a swan,’ and she says, ‘Make up your mind.’ She’s what I would call a theologian.” (laughter from the audience follows)

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 4, track 1

There is an entire philosophy of theology implicit in this humorous passage from Campbell, and it would be worthwhile at some time to draw out the implications of this, but for now let us move on.

A very different perspective on rite, ritual, and ceremony in assumed by Clark in his exposition of the antecedents to the Protestant Reformation. Clark visited the museum in the castle on the hill in Wurzberg where there is a significant collection of carvings by Tilman Riemenschneider. Clark said:

“The Riemenschneider figures show very clearly the character of northern man at the end of the fifteenth century. First of all, a serious personal piety — a quality quite different from the bland conventional piety that one finds, say, in Perugino. And the a serious approach to life itself. These men (although of course they were unswerving Catholics) were not to be fobbed off by forms and ceremonies — what at the time were, rather misleadingly, called ‘works.’ They believed that there was such a thing as truth, and they wanted to get at it.”

Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 6, Protest and Communication

Here Clark clearly interprets northern man around 1500, primed for the Protestant Reformation, as an idealist. (I have been to the same museum and seen the Riemenschneider sculptures there, and I find Clark’s description of them better than anything I could have come up with on my own.) It would not be too much to say that Clark’s interpretation is itself idealist. The very idea that “forms and ceremonies” were something with which unserious men might be “fobbed off” but which serious men would never accept is diametrically opposed to the point of view presented by Joseph Campbell.

Previously, in Civilizations of the Image and of the Word, I mentioned Clark’s tendency to see the world from a Protestant point of view. This is another example of that. But it is also an example of the conception of social consensus based upon ideal aspirations. A few days ago in The Two Sources of Social Consensus I quoted my Variations on the Theme of Life to emphasize the difference between those who view the ideological superstructure of society as a necessary façade, a falsehood that must be propagated for the good of society — a distinguished group amongst which Plato must be counted, for he formulated near the beginning of Western history the idea of a “noble lie” with which the common people would be controlled by elite Guardians — and those who are committed to the idea that the ideological superstructure of society authentically reflect the ideals and aspirations of the people, and who are intolerant of human failings, foibles, and lapses.

While this is a schematic simplification, we could call these two perspectives, here represented by Campbell and Clark, the pragmatic conception and the idealistic conception of society. Both formulations are naturalistic in a thorough-going sense, but the shared naturalism of Campbell and Clark does not lead them to the same interpretation of religious experience. Even two naturalistic formulations of religions can profoundly differ. From this one might conclude that the difference is not necessarily in the religion or its ideas or its practice, but in something that transcends religion, something founded much more fundamentally in the world and in the human psyche.

The different temperaments of Campbell and Clark express themselves in different naturalistic interpretations of the role of religion within human society. These temperamental distinctions are deeper than the social expressions of temperament, and that is why these diverse temperaments manifest themselves in different forms, although repeatedly, throughout history. Campbell is an iconodule; Clark is an iconoclast — respectively, a naturalistic iconodule and a naturalistic iconoclast. Campbell is Catholic; Clark is Protestant — again, respectively, a naturalistic Catholic and a naturalistic Protestant. It is to be expected that these differences, and the dialectic between the two that emerges, will continue to be iterated throughout the future history of our civilization. The pattern is older and deeper than that which exhibits the pattern in its development.

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archimedes bath eureka

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Grand Strategy Annex

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With special reference to design theories

Few people read this blog; fewer still comment on it. Thus it is an event of some moment when I receive a comment. A few days back I received a comment on Seeking Symmetry.

If I had regular readers, they would know that I frequently express my debt to evolutionary theory. Seeking Symmetry was an elaboration of some of the ideas in Selective Communities, both of which sought to apply a selective paradigm to the understanding of matters commonly conceived teleologically. It is precisely the adoption of an unorthodox perspective that makes this an interesting exercise.

The nameless commentator on Seeking Symmetry gave me the title of a book (The Design Matrix) and the address of a blog ( with the suggestion that I might find some insights from the approach they represented.

Human intuition naturally favors teleological explanations. There are, not surprisingly, both teleological and non-teleological explanations for this. Whatever the explanation (and however rare serious thinking may be in human experience), non-teleological thinking remains the more difficult exercise, hence unusual and unfamiliar. And it is the unusual and unfamiliar exercise of thought that yields insights otherwise unobtainable.

Thus there was little of interest to me in the recommended book and blog, though the admittedly pseudonymous author did give me an idea. Those familiar with the drama of explicitly teleological thinking in our time will know the evolutionary progression from creationist to cdesign proponentsists to intelligent design. It occurs to me that this evolutionary succession could well have further unintended consequences (hence non-teleological consequences).

Suppose, under political pressure to present teleological thinking in a non-theological form, the creationists come up with a theory (however daft) sufficiently purged of theology that, even it if isn’t a science, it does qualify as a non-theological theory. This theory might then be chanced upon by someone innocent of the controversy that generated it, and, finding in it the teleological thought that answers to their intuitive needs, uses the theory to formulate a religion. Needless to say, this religion would not be identical to that which inspired the original formulation of the theory. One can easily imagine sincere worship of intelligent designers, as one finds sincere worship of John Frum among cargo cults.

All this may sound a bit odd, but the history of heresy is filled with fascinating oddities. And this is what we are now witnessing: the evolution of a new heresy. Intelligent design is not only not science, it is also not orthodox, and as orthodoxy is under considerable pressure at present, it seems irresponsible in the extreme to be generating novel heresies, however well intended.

So the preceding reflections bring me to the following insight, which I will not attempt to explain in detail at present: two components are necessary to transcending the theological (hence the teleological) conception of history — a naturalistic conception of history and a formalistic conception of history. To that end, naturalization of the supernatural and formalization of the informal both point toward a rigorous conception of history free of teleology.

Given that religion has historically been understood as the vehicle of transcendence par excellence, it is ironic that we now stand in need of conceptions that allow us to transcend religion. Although I have conceived an extreme dislike for the term “spiritual,” given its present use for the facilitation of mauvaise foi, we might nevertheless observe that, if that which serves as a vehicle of transcendence is spiritual, then those scientific and philosophical concepts that allow us to transcend religion and teleological thinking constitute a “higher” form of spirituality than that which they supersede.


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