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A Theory About Religion

Related to Monday’s post but spun off for length reasons: my crazy theory about where religion comes from.

(this is not the day we start heeding warnings to beware amateur sociology)

The near-universal existence of religion across cultures is surprising. Many people have speculated on what makes tribes around the world so fixated on believing in gods and propitiating them and so on. More recently people like Dawkins and Dennett have added their own contributions about parasitic memes and hyperactive agent-detection.

But I think a lot of these explanations are too focused on a modern idea of religion. I find ancient religion much more enlightening. I’m no historian, but from the little I know ancient religion seems to bleed seamlessly into every other aspect of the ancient way of life. For example, the Roman religion was a combination of mythology, larger-than-life history, patriotism, holidays, customs, superstitions, rules about the government, beliefs about virtue, and attempts to read the future off the livers of pigs. And aside from the pig livers, this seems entirely typical.

American culture (“American civil religion“) has a lot of these features too. It has mythology and larger-than-life history: George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, the wise and glorious Founding Fathers, Honest Abe single-handedly freeing the slaves with his trusty hatchet. It has patriotic symbols and art: the flag, the anthem, Uncle Sam. It has holidays: the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Day, Washington’s birthday. It has customs: eat turkey on Thanksgiving, have a barbecue on Memorial Day, watch the Super Bowl. It has superstitions – the number 13, black cats – and ritual taboos – even “obvious” things like don’t go outside naked needs to be thought of as taboo considering some cultures do so without thinking. It has rules about the government – both the official laws you’ll find in the federal law code, but also deep-seated beliefs about the goodness of democracy or about how all men are created equal, and even customs that affect day-to-day governance like the President giving a State of the Union in January before both houses of Congress. There are beliefs about virtue: everyone should be free, we should try to be independent, we should work hard and pursue the American Dream.

People call the Jewish dietary code unusually strict, but it’s important to realize the strictness of modern American kashrut. Absolutely no eating insects – remember, even Jewish kashrut allows locusts! Precious few birds outside of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese – remember, even Jewish kashrut allows pigeons! No dogs, cats, rodents, or horses. No reptiles or amphibians, no matter how much the French try to convince us that frog legs are great. No eating clearly obvious animal heads with eyes and stuff (even though dozens of advanced cultures do so happily). No blood products (eg black pudding). Mixing milk and soda in the same glass would be absurd and disgusting. Any tuna made with a process that cannot 100% exclude dolphins is impure. And this isn’t even including all of the more modern health-oriented taboos like gluten, MSG, trans-fats, GM foods, et cetera.

If we were to ask the same New Guinea tribe to follow Jewish food taboos one week and American food taboos the next, I’m not sure they’d be able to identify one code as any stricter or weirder than the other. They might have some questions about the meat/milk thing, but maybe they’d also wonder why cheeseburgers are great for dinner but ridiculous for breakfast.

People get worked up over all of the weird purity laws and dress codes in Leviticus, but it’s important to realize how strict our own purity laws are. The ancient Jews would have found it ridiculous that men have to shave and bathe every day if they want to be considered for the best jobs. One must not piss anywhere other than a toilet; this is an abomination (but you would be shocked how many of the supposedly strait-laced Japanese will go in an alley if there’s no restroom nearby). I have been yelled at for going to work without a tie and for tying my tie in the wrong pattern; wearing sweatpants to work is right out. And once again, this gets even longer if you you let the more modern/rational rules onto the list – Leviticus has a lot to say about dwellings with fungus in them, but I recently learned to my distress that landlord/tenant law has a lot more.

Once again, if we made our poor New Guinea tribe follow Jewish purity laws one week and American purity laws the next, they would probably end up equally confused and angry both times.

So when we think of America as a perfectly natural secular culture, and Jews as following some kind of superstitious draconian law code, we’re just saying that our laws feel natural and obvious, but their laws feel like an outside imposition. And I think if a time-traveling King Solomon showed up at our doorstep, he would recognize American civil religion as a religion much quicker than he would recognize Christianity as one. Christianity would look like a barbaric mystery cult that had gotten too big for its britches; American civil religion would look like home.

Insofar as this isn’t obvious to schoolchildren learning about ancient religion, it’s because the only thing one ever hears about ancient religion is the crazy mythologies. But I think American culture shows lots of signs of trying to form a crazy mythology, only to be stymied by modernity-specific factors. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many scientists around to tell us where the rain and the lightning really come from. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we’re only two hundred-odd years old and these things take time. And most of all, we can’t have crazy mythologies because Christianity is already sitting around occupying that spot.

But if America was a thousand years old and had no science, no religion, and no writing, we would have crazy mythologies up the wazoo. George Washington would take on the stature of an Agamemnon; Benjamin Franklin would take on the status of a Daedalus. Instead of centaurs and satyrs and lamia we would have jackalopes and chupacabras and grey aliens. All those people who say with a nod and a wink that Paul Bunyan dug the Great Lakes as a drinking trough for his giant ox would say the same thing nodless and winkless. Superman would take on the stature of a Zeus, dwelling beside Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bigfoot atop Mt. Whitney, helping the virtuous and punishing the wicked. Some American Hesiod would put succumb to the systematizing impulse, put it all together and explain how George Washington was the son of Superman and ordered Paul Bunyan to dig Chesapeake Bay to entrap the British fleet, and nobody would be able to say they were wrong. I mean, we already have Superman vs. Batman as canon, why not go the extra distance?

So in one sense our best analogy for ancient religion is American civil religion coupled to the sort of national mythology we might have gotten if we’d been a little bit more historically confused. But in another sense ancient religion was actually much stronger than this. America has its own individual culture, but it also partakes of the entire Western liberal industrial secular worldview. An American might not feel culture shock if she moved to Britain; she probably would if she moved to New Guinea.

The ancient world had far less trade and transportation than our own and was far less homogenized. If you want to get into the shoes of an ancient contemplating his religion, imagine you’re an American in a world where even your closest neighboring countries are as different from you as New Guinea hill tribes, or Afghan chiefdoms, or Chinese party cadres. In a world like this, your identity as an American would be very salient – and the essence of being an American is impossible to separate from this whole set of national beliefs about celebrating the Fourth of July, not eating insects, wanting freedom and democracy, and believing that Superman lives atop Mt. Whitney. Outside the community of people who 100% believe all these things, there’s just unreachable foreigners whose language you do not speak and whose customs seem somewhere between inscrutable and barbaric.

That was ancient religion – culture in a world where culture meant something. It was nothing like modern religion – which is why you never hear the Greeks complaining that the Egyptians were evil heretics who denied the light of Zeus and needed to be converted by the sword. But ancients nevertheless felt a connection to their culture and community that combined modern patriotism, religious piety, and belief in science – and they expressed it by continuing to perform their rites and even dying for them.

The question of the origin of religion comes down to how these cultures evolved into the clearly-defined religions of the modern day.

I think a big part of this is ossification and separation from context. The Jewish law perfectly preserves what any right-thinking Israelite in 1000 BC would have considered obvious, natural, and not-even-needing-justification (much as any right-thinking American today considers not eating insects obvious). By the time the Bible was being written this was no longer true – foreign customs and inevitable social change were making the old law seem less and less relevant, and I think modern scholarship thinks the Bible was written by a conservative faction of priests making their case for adherence to the old ways. The act of writing it down in a book, declaring this book the sort of thing that people might doubt but shouldn’t, and then passing that book to their children – that made it a modern religion, in the sense of something potentially separable from culture that required justification. I think that emphasizing the role of God and the gods provided that justification.

The Hebrew Bible never says other gods don’t exist; indeed, it often says the opposite. It constantly praises God as stronger and better than other gods. God proves his superiority over the gods of the Egyptians when the serpent he sends Moses eats the serpents the Egyptian gods send Pharaoh’s sorcerers. The Israelites are constantly warned against worshipping other gods, not because those gods don’t exist but because God is better and also jealous. This is not the worldview of somebody who has very strong ideas about the nature of reality and how supernatural beings fit into that nature. It’s the worldview of people who want to say “Our culture is better than your culture”. The Bible uses “worshipping foreign gods” as synonymous with “turning to foreign ways”. But God has a covenant with Israel, therefore both are forbidden.

This seems to match religion in the classical world – I’m especially thinking of Augustus’ conception here, but he wasn’t drawing it out of a vacuum. Performing the proper rites to the Roman gods was how you showed you were on board with Roman culture was how you showed you were loyal to Rome. The Roman view of religion seems pretty ridiculous to us – constant influx of new gods and mystery cults that were believed kind of indiscriminately, plus occasional deification of leading political figures followed by their undeification once they fell from power. But throughout it all, this idea that following the rites as Romulus prescribed them showed loyalty, but doing otherwise would result in decadence and defeat, stuck around.

More modern religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are a bit different. Obviously their respective founders play a huge role, but I still think part of what makes them religions rather than just philosophies or spiritual teachings is that they underwent this ossification process. Just as modern Judaism preserves many features of 10th-century-BC Israel that got encoded into holy writ, so modern Christianity preserves many features of 1st century Judeo-Hellenist syncretism. In fact, it preserves a lot of features of 13th-century scholasticism, since that was when they really became serious about formalizing and officializing their theology. At the time scholasticism wasn’t particularly religious; it was just the best understanding the 13th century academic community had about the world around them. Since the Church officialized it, everyone else drifted away and they didn’t.

I think it’s also possible that the first few followers of these religions ended up as a subculture, with as much arbitrary subcultural development as any other tribe. My personal experience with subcultures tells me they can get very different customs from the surrounding society very fast, with or without any connection to real feature of their rallying flag. Those unusual subcultural values then became the values of the religion that developed later.

Hopefully the connection to Monday’s post is pretty clear. The important thing about a religion is that it has a rallying flag that encourages it to preserve a certain culture, plus walls against the outside world. Crucially, despite everything I’m saying about ossification the culture changes a lot: King Solomon would probably recognize modern rabbinic Judaism, but only barely. But it changes in a way different from the way the outside secular society changes, and in ways bound by the ossified text, so there’s still an element of having this ancient culture preserved in amber and maintained up to the modern day.

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495 Responses to A Theory About Religion

  1. Joline says:

    I think you’re omitting one critical facet here.

    People have to think this process happened without their involvement. While some hard core fans can get so into Star Wars or LotR or My Little Pony that they get spiritual experiences from this art, the vast majority of people cannot.

    Even as a purely human process.

    It’s like trying to tickle yourself. Most people just can’t.

    Suppose you want to be part of the next cultural paradigm. How do you _create_ this paradigm without some ambiguities that can be attributed to non human agency? I mean, such as you expect you can get people to make immensely powerful in groups with strong out group boundaries and pretty much a willingness to die (or at least devote their lives) for the cause?

    You’ve said you appreciate religion substitutes are hard. In light of what you’ve said here, how do you see your tribe able to grow up to become a society?

    And in the case of Rationalists, if you succeed in passing off these ambiguities as incontestable fact, how do you avoid undermining the whole philosophical basis for the Rationalist project?

    • Samuel Skinner says:

      Transhumanism. Alternatively really powerful designer drugs.

    • Alsadius says:

      Oh, that’s easy. Look at how often anyone before modern science(including some today) threw around the word “miracle” to describe anything whose chain of causality they could not see.

    • Aegeus says:

      There’s a really easy way for things to happen without your involvement – have them happen before you were born. So probably, you’ll have to wait for everyone who remembers the original to die. But then again, you may not – Superman is only about 80 years old, but he’s already been rebooted and reinterpreted so many times that his origins in Action Comics are irrelevant. I would bet baselessly speculate that, just as most Christians aren’t interested in the history of the Bible (did Luke copy from Matthew and Mark, etc), most comic book fans aren’t interested in the history of Superman (did Siegel and Shuster get inspired by John Carter of Mars, etc).

      You might be right that ambiguity needs to exist for a religion to last – it makes your religion able to adapt to the times – but I don’t see why it can’t be attributed to a human, so long as it’s sufficiently far enough away that you don’t care about them.

      I think the problems that Scott mentions in the essay – that we already have historical religions that occupies the same place, and that modernization has removed most of the features that let a religion take hold – are bigger issues than the actual content of the religion.

      • TD says:

        Also, isn’t L.Ron Hubbard and his Scientology an example of turning fiction into (part of) a religion?

        I don’t know about Superman, but we already have people adopting “Jedi” as their religion because they agree with the teachings espoused by a fictional sect. Most of that is probably tongue in cheek and because lightsabers are cool, but that is just today.

        If at any point in the future there’s a massive apocalypse that destroys at least 75% of the world’s population and sends first world countries tumbling down into lower levels of development, then the people who make it out to the other side of that bottleneck will have mythology of modern culture, the before time, and part of that would be fiction. This could eventually develop into religions.

        On the other hand, if we go full singularity and out into space, it’s hard to imagine whatever the heck replaces us revering modern culture enough to give it religious overtones. It would’ve been long supplanted by new cultural modes generated by accelerating development.

      • Joline says:

        yes, certainly it can happen that way. And the values of the tribe that ends up with this mythology based on the process he details…those are basically random.

        Not totally random, mind you. But this is a Rationalist blog about a Rationalist vision for the future. If you’re happy just being a random root that a future society draws on, that’s fine.

        But I just thought the whole point of your tribe was to strive for more. To decide the Optimum Path and to have a group of people following it in perpetuity. (or at least for as long as peoples tendency to lie to themselves and lack integrity can be contained and tamed by shrewd heuristics and norms).

        Scott’s pointed out something that a lot of Rationalists won’t even admit: myth has a _function_. If you get rid of one set of myths because they’re tied up in dysfunctional behaviour…you have to replace them with another supporting myth. Reason solely by itself is not going to motivate any tribe to get through the process of outliving the current society.

        (which could happen sort of peacefully…the birth of modern Germany overthrew the dog’s breakfast of hodge podge jurisdictions and competing authorities which was the Holy Roman Empire (and its supporting culture) after Napoleon helpfully evangelized modernism throughout it.)

        (And hence the “sorta” peaceful since he did have to conquer and occupy the territories and install new authorities at gunpoint. Guns he had because the mythology of the Revolutionaries was giving him enough people willing to fight and die to impose a new order on Europe.)

        But considering the degree of change, the swiftness with which the status quo changed was startling. There’d been complaining and agitation about the status quo in the Holy Roman Empire pretty much from its inception. Until a new myth to base a new culture on arose, it was just grumbling punctuated by outbursts of bloody violence.

        And Napeleon’s indispensible ideas were still basically drawing on Christian mythology. Just given some cut and paste replacement on key names and nominal values.

        I thought the main point of the essay was to remind people that cultural values are the tail that wags the dog of ideology/theology. Which is something that needs saying.

        My point is that I question if you can establish a _deliberate_ new culture striving for _specific_ values without some sort of “big ambiguous exciting experience” at the core of the lives of the tribe that starts this.

        While America has ended up very secular, it’s “civil religion” would be inconceivable without Christian roots. The reason people invest so heavily in these mythologies isn’t some arbitrary process. It’s because mysterious events convince large numbers of people to risk change to pursue a vision of what they world should be rather than what it is right now. (And people normally HATE change, especially as the group size gets larger and larger.)

        I’m not saying it’s impossible for such a start to happen without the big, exciting mystery. But so far in history it’s never gone that way.

        What killed Stalinism wasn’t the poverty. What killed it was the banality of Soviet life and the relentless progression of specific promises about specific improvements failing to come about. After living through that, no one could believe some “historical dialectic” (their Deus ex Machina) was on their side after all, and that the original revolutionaries were a pack of fools.

        It’s worth nothing that what screwed them was the lack of ambiguity. The Communists said there was no metaphysics, no superstition, just material forces. Which they understood perfectly, so everything could be fixed now.

        Contrast with religious cults whose leaders can make false prophecy after false propehcy and still flourish. (Arguably the entirety of monotheism is such a thing 😛 ) They get away with it because the leaders and their notables can always argue “well, we never said we totally understood what was going on. But what we do understand makes us believe we can go forward despite having been wrong”.

        And if their culture does its job well, indeed it does.

        (As an interesting example of this point, look at North Korea, which is tapping old school living god divine monarchy as its basis. It’s a very simple, bare bones mythology. Yet because it taps ancient regional ideas on authority and power, it’s quite stable (if nasty).

        If that system falls apart it’ll be because the ruling class gets greedy for more riches and experiences than being the big fish in their tiny pond can give them.)

        So my point is if you don’t have a plan how to plausibly misrepresent events as having had this ambiguous mystery spark (or a way to fabricate a narrative that everyone is in on and no one talks about the fabrication process, like Scientology), I hope this article leads to a lot of study. Because I would love to see Rationalists succeed.

        I just have my doubts its possible given it’s culture that determines longevity of a tribe more than its ideas. And so far, most Rationalist discussion of culture is dismissive of this consideration.

  2. Richard says: has (or had when they were The Teaching Company at least) a course on the history of religion that says basically this over some 40 half hour lectures.

  3. We had chicken for dinner. An hour or two back I offered my younger son the wishbone so he could compete with his sister at who got his or her wish. And he declined.


    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      You must surely put him to death.

    • Totient says:

      That’s not what heresy looks like.

      This is what heresy looks like:

      • Tom Scharf says:

        I’ve spent approx. one hour of my life looking at twitter conversations. This link convinced me that was one hour too many.

      • keranih says:

        On the one hand, NDGT should have known – as a scientist – that using statements that include absolutes like “always” and “never” will generally end very badly. Especially in life sciences.

        On a second hand, Clark was being deliberately mean and OTT.

        On a third hand, nobody actually engaged Clark on the merits of his statement, being too busy calling him an asshat. So by some rules he’d win the debate by default.

        And on the final hand, the snark about “lowering the average intellect to the point of being constitutionally protected from execution” was a) exactly an ad hominem attack b) not true and c) funny as hell.

        • Outis says:

          I’d really like to read a good argument against the notion that blacks are less intelligent. Preferably one that does not resort to denying the concept of intelligence or that of blacks.

          • rockroy mountdefort says:

            that argument doesn’t exist 🙁

            instead what we have is

            1. the fact that blacks have lower iqs

            2. the political fact that blacks can’t be less smart than white people

            so we’re stuck filling the gap with a. deny all terms and definitions, b. personal attacks, and c. social media block buttons

          • suntzuanime says:

            Surely it’s either “blacks” and “whites” or “black people” and “white people”.

          • Ricardo Cruz says:

            Another argument that does not deny group differences or the concept of IQ comes from the Jim Flynn camp. There is a youtube guy called Stefan Molyneux who did a series on IQ. I haven’t watched it fully, but he has people from different camps. If I’m not mistaken, one of his guests argued differences have been decreasing which could be explained by economic disparity and better nutrition.

            Can anyone confirm IQ racial differences have been decreasing? That would be pretty damning to the biological hypothesis.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Showing IQ racial differences are decreasing only refutes genetic explanations if you control for racial mixing.

          • Anonymous says:

            >Preferably one that does not resort to denying the concept of intelligence or that of blacks.

            What’s wrong with denying the existence of blacks? The strongest counteargument to that statement does exactly that.

    • pf says:

      Heresy is saying Superman lives on Mt. Whitney, when everyone knows he maintains a Fortress of Solitude in the arctic (not far from Doc Savage’s largely forgotten Other Fortress of Solitude, but no where near Santa Claus and the red and white barber pole that marks geographic north).

      • LHN says:

        That one’s easy– Superman has never lived in the Fortress of Solitude. His earthly avatar maintains a residence at 344 Clinton Street, Apartment 3-D in the great city of Metropolis, but that leaves plenty of room for Superman to dwell with his fellow divinities in Mt. Whitney.

        (Albeit an older tradition places him in a house above the world where the overpeople gather, which appears to mortals as a star that never moves in the heavens.)

        • pf says:

          I think the American-mythological “things everyone knows” criterion would tend to favor either Fortress of Solitude or Metropolis over the Justice League satellite. After that, what constitutes home? Is it simply where you sleep, or is it where you keep your advanced alien technology, and maybe giant statues of your parents?

          • LHN says:

            The Fortress is more Superman’s treehouse-equivalent than his home. But I’ll grant that the JLA satellite is more superhero-geek trivia than a part of his popular myth. (The parenthetical was mostly a chance to gratuitously quote Alan Moore.)

  4. Thursday says:

    “I think a big part of this is ossification and separation from context.”

    The Babylonian Exile is thought to have really accelerated the development of Judaism as we know it now.

    “The Hebrew Bible never says other gods don’t exist.”

    It does after the Exile.


    Judaism is about Israelites adapting their religion to contexts outside Israel. Religions like Christianity and Islam take that even farther in that they are partially about uniting disparate ethnic groups.

    This need for portability is what probably creates the need for ossification.

    • Thursday says:

      If anyone wants to get up to speed on the social setting of Ancient Israel this is the place to start.

    • Timothy Johnson says:

      “It does after the Exile” – can you show me where?

    • Julie K says:

      Also, the book of Psalms says that other gods are lifeless, man-made statues.

    • SJ says:

      You’ll flnd Psalms and Prophets occasionally criticizing people for cutting down a tree, cutting it into an idol, and bowing before the works of their hands.

      I can’t remember, off-hand, whether these are typically post-Exile or late-Kingdom.

      However, the Torah and early-Kingdom writings did assume that other powerful spirits/gods existed.

      Off-hand, how various sections of the Jewish Bible treat foreigners and religion:
      –Certain parts of the Torah show that other people Abram meets are capable of honest worship of God. However, these outsiders are rare. (I can think of two, Melchizedek and Baalam.)

      –The entire story of the Exodus is a showdown between Moses as prophet of the God of Abraham, and Pharoah. Pharoah wasn’t just a ruler, he was a god/king. And the culture of Egypt worshipped the Nile, the Sun, the Pharoah, as well as the various spirit beings which were in their pantheon.

      –In later stories, there is a distinct sense that “others” or “outsiders” don’t have a proper understanding of God. But some still want to join The Tribe.
      Thus, the story of Ruth.
      And the Assyrian officer Naaman whose servant girl convinces him that Elijah can speak some mumbo-jumbo to heal Naaman’s leprosy.

      –A significant part of the story of the Divided Kingdom was the story of syncretism-vs-purism in the culture. A smaller part is tension between worship centered on the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, and worship that happened at Samaria-sponsored locations in Bethel and Dan. (Bethel was the chief location, but both had golden calves as images of “God, who brought you out of Egypt.” I notice that this is not described as false-god, but is described as a false-or-sinful form of worship.)

      –Several kings are criticized for bringing in foreign princesses, and building temples to foreign deities. Most notable are Solomon and Ahab. The foreign deities are usually referenced as some subset of “Asherah/Moloch/Chemosh/Baal”.

      –Elijah has a show-down with the prophets of Baal. But I notice he doesn’t go on a tirade against carven/engraved images. (Which he could have, given that he was dealing with the golden calves mentioned above.)

      –At least one foreign king gets spooked about Elishah’s spy network…er, prophetic ability to hear things whispered in secret in a foreign capital. That foreign king believed Elishah’s God was powerful, but thought he could intervene by killing Elishah.

      –When the powerful Assyrian king Sennacherib and his army show up outside Jerusalem in the late-Kingdom period, the emissary Sennacherib king taunts the Judean king Hezekiah for depending on his God. “The kings of your neighbors didn’t save them from our army…”
      There’s also some confusion: Hezekiah had noticed that there were many “high places” where people worshipped God, and closed them down. To bring worshippers to the Temple in Jerusalem. But Sennacherib taunts Hezekiah for tearing down the worship-centers of his God.

      –During the Exile, a handful of young Judean boys have another show-down or two with the local gods. They are well-versed in the culture and wisdom of Babylon, but still worship the God of their fathers. To the point of being willing to be thrown into a furnace rather than bow down towards the monumental golden image set up by the King of Babylon.

      –Later, one of those men has another show-down with a Persian king, again over who would be worshipped and prayed-to. This man reputedly survives a night in den with a pack of hungry lions.

      So, even post-Exile authors could play at the “my God is bigger than your god” game.

      • If Pharaoh is a God-King, that puts a different spin on “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, though it isn’t any more attractive.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Out of curiosity, does the theory that Judaism derives from the monotheistic sun-god cult of the pharaoh Akhenaten hold any water?

        After his death, his successors who tried to maintain his cult as the official state religion fell to coups and mysterious deaths, eventually the traditional polytheistic religion was restored, Akhenaten and his successors were written off official records, and presumably the last followers of the monotheistic cult were expelled or voluntary left Egypt.

        According to the theory, the Exodus is an editorialized record of these events, with the historical Moses possibly being a disgraced Egyptian crown prince of the 18th dynasty, perhaps Nakhtmin. Eventually these exiles merged with the Semites in Phoenicia, becoming the ancient Israelites.

        Is this historically plausible?

        • Protagoras says:

          Several hundred years separated the Amarna revolution from the Israelites writing down any of their tradition. Absolutely anything can happen in that much time, which means one couldn’t really say this theory is *impossible,* but that’s more than enough time for a story to mutate to the point of total unrecognizability, so the fact that this theory would connect the Exodus story to recognizable events is almost a strike against it. It certainly doesn’t have any particular advantage over the rival theories that the story was based on events we don’t know about, or events we know about but with so many changes that we can’t recognize them at all, or that the story is entirely fabricated.

    • Mary says:

      Much depends on what is the exact meaning of “god.” Among possible ones, there are “Supreme Being,” “being that is worshiped,” and “finite and contingent being nevertheless worthy of worship.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    Mixing milk and soda in the same glass would be absurd and disgusting.

    I do this about as often, if not more, than I drink soda straight. It is delicious, like a subtler ice cream float, and more people ought to try it.

    • Macbi says:

      Does the milk not curdle?

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        With coke or root beer, the milk ‘curdles’, ie visually separates till you stir it, but so what? Citrus juice, being acid, might have more effect.

      • Anonymous says:

        No, not in my experience.

        You nerdsniped me and I made a graph. Milk has a pH of 6.6, and casein coagulates around 4.6; sodas are between 2 and 5. (Ginger ale is between 2 and 4, orange juice 3 and 4; lemonade is around 2.5.)

        The naïve calculation I did suggests that my usual (a moderate spike of ginger ale or Sprite in milk) should have curdled. However, time required for coagulation varies with temperature (instructions for home cheesemaking always include some heating). I wasn’t able to find good data on this, but my guess is that fresh from the fridge this mixture takes significantly longer to curdle than to drink.

        I suppose if you’re still leery, you’d certainly be safe with root beer.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Milk also curdles in your stomach, anyway.

    • Burn her! She’s a witch!

    • Anonymous says:

      Isn’t there something called an Italian soda that’s basically this?

    • Nero tol Scaeva says:

      When I was young, I used to mix ginger ale and kool-aid. I called it “soad-aid”.

      It was delicious.

    • Vox Imperatoris says:

      A Ramos gin fizz mixes milk and soda.

    • bean says:

      I tried this once with lemonade, and the milk curdled. I’ve never tried it again for obvious reasons.

      • Jaskologist says:

        For a while when I was young, the cool thing to do was fill up your cup with a little bit of everything in the soda fountain. Usually, this tasted fine, and provided evidence of one’s bravery. Orange juice and milk was the one exception, due to the curdling.

        • bean says:

          I still habitually mix my sodas today. Actually, what lead to the milk and lemonade experiment was that we were on vacation and my mom said that I had to have milk at breakfast. I’d already mixed lemonade with everything else available, so I tried milk, too. It was not a success.

        • Urstoff says:

          We called it a “suicide”. It never tasted very good.

          • Jaskologist says:

            We called it the same thing. Interesting how consistent child culture can be across the country.

          • Randy M says:

            Agreed, but amusingly enough DIY drink mixing is the next fad at fast food.

          • Sidetrack: I think lemon juice in Coke is an excellent combination. I don’t know why Coca Cola went with Cherry Coke instead of Lemon Coke.

            Theories: Cherry Coke *sounds* better even to coke-with-lemon-loving me. When I talk about coke with lemon, I mean fresh lemon juice from an actual lemon. Maybe cherry coke survives mass production in better shape. Maybe they never thought of lemon coke. The boring and almost intolerable theory is that there’s a much larger market for cherry coke because not everyone shares my taste.

          • suntzuanime says:

            They did sell Coke with lime flavor at some point. I haven’t seen it recently so presumably it wasn’t performing as well as they would have liked.

          • Jiro says:

            If you go to a store which has one of those fancy Coke machines that lets you mix and match flavors, one of the Coke possibilities is Coke with lime flavor (I don’t think they have lemon though).

          • Berna says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz Here in the Netherlands they sell Diet Coke with lemon (flavor, IDK how much actual lemon is in it), and it’s yummy! A pity my supermarket only sells it in little cans now instead of the 1 liter bottles they used to have.

          • bluto says:

            They have a variety of flavors for coke at those machines: lemon, lime, orange, cherry, raspberry and vanilla (there are usually a few extra flavors for the other sodas/water but those are the ones they’ll mix with Coke).

            A blend of orange and vanilla seems to be the best to me.

          • Anonymous says:

            This exists:

            I’m not sure how heretic it is to bring up Pepsi in a Coke discussion.

        • Pablo says:

          ‘Orange juice and milk was the one exeption’

          You know what else isn’t that great, is every type of cereal in the cupboard mixed together with orange juice poured onto it instead of milk. I tried it one time when I was around 8 or 9 years old, because I wanted something to do after having evaded doing chores, and for some reason this seemed like a good idea.

          • keranih says:

            Oh, good, it wasn’t just me.

            OJ and raisin bran was *nasty*.

          • A friend of mine habitually puts orange juice on his cereal instead of milk. I still find that very unappealing.

            However, when I gave up dairy products, I figured out that applesauce on cereal is delicious.

      • Imuli says:

        Huh, I occasionally *very much enjoy* milk with straight lemon or lime juice. Lots of curdles, a little like badly set yogurt.

    • Anonymous says:

      I had assumed this was a reference to the traditional eggcream.

    • samedi says:

      I thought this was a reference to CALPIS.

  6. J Tyson says:

    There is no god but Eliezer and Scott is his messenger.

    • Rob says:

      Two days from now, an article will be made on the internet, using this as a key quote to illustrate how much of a cult we are. Good job, heretic. The first rule of the Rationalist cult is not to talk about the Rationalist cult!

      • vV_Vv says:

        Don’t worry, for the kuffar of RationalWiki may have mocked and oppressed the True Bayesians, but the AGI has already acausally taken the last imam Roko al-Mahdi out of this world, where he will return in due time to to fulfill their mission of bringing peace and justice. 🙂

  7. You mention religious purity laws, but actual laws are great examples of ossification occurring in modern society too, once they become divorced from their cultural context and nobody cares about changing them. Although these kinds of laws have almost no cultural force since, well, nobody cares, imagine a survivor in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of a thousand years in the future who founds a religion around something like that…

    • Anonymous says:

      Actually, people do care. Just, not loudly enough, maybe?

    • nil says:

      These “dumb laws” are usually either false or misleadingly worded. The link you provided is actually a lot better on that than the chain-letter versions you usually see, but that comes at the cost of including a lot of laws that are facially reasonable. What’s absurd about barring prison-inmate sex or requiring a doctor’s permission before employing infants in child labor?

  8. MawBTS says:

    Have you guys heard of green beard genes? Putative genes that give some clearly visible sign of their presence (canonically, a green beard), and confer altruistic traits towards other carriers of the gene?

    I think most outwardly focused religious behavior could be viewed as green beard memes. “Hi, fellow meme carrier. Please be altruistic to me.” Wearing a cross. Making salaat in the direction to Mecca. Phylacteries. Most believers probably feel that these are inner gestures, made by themselves to God, but they seem pretty showy and outward-focused to me. Like advertisement for their memes.

    I can’t think offhand of any religions that don’t have plumage and advertising. Are there any faiths without such green beard memes, or have they all been outcompeted?

    • Gadren says:

      >I can’t think offhand of any religions that don’t have plumage and advertising.

      If there were such religions, would we even be able to know about them?

      • Brad (the other one) says:

        Do secret societies like skull-and-bones or freemasonry count?

        • Glen Raphael says:

          Freemasons have the Masonic Ring, which certainly counts as relevant plumage.

          Even “secret” groups need some way to recognize fellow members. (The Rotary lapel pin would be another example.)

    • Winter Shaker says:

      I understand that the Mormons are very reluctant to let other people see their sacred underwear.

      • Blake Riley says:

        Which indirectly enforces a certain type of appearance. You’ll never see active Mormons casually wearing sleeveless shirts or shorts/skirts of a certain length since it would expose their temple garments.

        • smocc says:

          Right, it is still possible to have a pretty effective Mormon-dar. Of course, the original point was about plumage and advertising, which this isn’t. For one, it requires some practice to pick out the signals. And two, even well-practiced Mormon-dar gives lots of false positives and negatives.

      • Gjgdhj says:

        Yes, that’s true. But when I was an active member, CTR rings were all the rage (despite having no doctrinal significance whatsoever)

    • Deiseach says:

      I think most outwardly focused religious behavior could be viewed as green beard memes.

      And secular instances of these are T-shirts with the logo of your favourite band on the front, what brand of athletic shoes you wear, fashion styles associated with your particular sub-group/sub-culture?

      Makes sense to me 🙂

      • MawBTS says:

        And secular instances of these are T-shirts with the logo of your favourite band on the front, what brand of athletic shoes you wear, fashion styles associated with your particular sub-group/sub-culture?

        And perhaps that’s why there’s such a dislike for “poseurs” – people who adopt the trappings of a subculture while not really being a part of it.

        A rich white kid from Beverly Hills saying “nigga” and throwing gang signs. A girl wearing a Radiohead T-shirt who doesn’t know who Thom Yorke is. These people are mocked – perhaps because they are “fake green beards”.

        For green beardery to be effective, you’ve got to punish freeloaders – otherwise the value of the green beard is destroyed. That’s theorized to be the reason that he haven’t seen any genetic examples in real life – all it would take is a mutation that gives you a green beard without giving you any altruistic properties, and you’d outcompete the actual green beards six ways from Sunday.

    • xerxespraelor says:

      But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

      • MawBTS says:

        Nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

        • keranih says:

          Speaking as a devout believer – pulling opposing verses from the Bible is shooting over a planted field. No sport in it at all.

  9. Superman would take on the stature of a Zeus, dwelling beside Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bigfoot atop Mt. Whitney,

    Somebody please make fan art of this.

  10. Thursday says:

    1. Any religion has to be about non-human agency or agency-like things in the world.
    1a. This means religious ethics will tend to be teleological ethics, i.e. about the purposes of things rather than about subjective happiness, suffering, and the distribution of those. There are local interpretations, but all will have this feature.
    1b. This basic feature is mandatory for all religions, but can take many forms and change over time without ceasing to be religious.
    2. Most ancient religions are tribal religions and the boundaries of the religion are the boundaries of the tribe.
    2a. This meant no real need for creeds and such.
    2b. This meant the religion could change, adding or dropping gods and such, without ceasing to be the religion of that particular tribe.
    3. Any religion that isn’t tied to some pre-existing tribal group is going to need some sort of authoritative belief system to function as a boundary. It’s not just the religion of a particular people in a particular place anymore, so tribal lines won’t function as the necessary barriers anymore. So, you get creeds, scriptures etc. that now define the community.
    3a. This is where things can be ossified.


    “At the time scholasticism wasn’t particularly religious; it was just the best understanding the 13th century academic community had about the world around them.”

    Scholasticism is actually highly religious, what with it positing all sorts of teleological (purpose based) explanations. It may be an ossification, but its an ossification of something deeply religious. Same with old Jewish customs. Like all social customs in the premodern world, they were deeply imbued with religious thought. It’s just the religious thought of a particular time and place.

    • SJ says:

      Where does Taoism fit into this framework?

    • onyomi says:

      This is a very interesting point: only once the religion becomes unmoored from a particular cultural/tribal group with existence independent of the religion does it need to get all doctrinal.

      • Thursday says:

        What is also interesting is the codification of sexual mores in a certain way.

        1. In most tribal cultures and religions, male chastity is not typically something that is valued in itself, though there are periods analogous to fasts where men will abstain from sex before religious ceremonies and such. Only in these unmoored religions does chastity get extended to males.

        2. In tribal cultures and religions, the rules about homosexual activity are much less rigid. The only hard and fast rule is that an adult male must not allow himself to be penetrated. You could penetrate adolescents (those still classified as boys not men), slaves and prostitutes, with frequent taboos about what can and can’t be done to high born adolescents.

        Temple prostitutes/priests in some cultures had a certain ambivalently honoured place, probably because of their status as uncanny boundary crossers. But they were still often referred to as dogs and such. In other cultures, such as among many Native Americans, men who were inclined this way, were also given credited with immense spiritual power and given a somewhat ambivalent place of honour. They often became shamans and such. Again, this was likely because they were viewed as successfully crossing spiritual boundaries. Some try to spin this as unalloyed celebration, but we do have voices which condemn this and these cultures are pretty ambivalent about their shamans generally. And (this is important) in all such cases, temple prositute and two-spirit person, these individuals were always moved out of the category of “man” and placed somewhere else.

        This was not the modern tolerance of all kinds of sexual couplings, but neither was it the same as the later prohibitions of Post-Exilic Judaism, Christianity, Islam etc. It is only with the ride of unmoored, highly codified religions that you get general, egalitarian prohibitions against all homosexual practices. In male male couplings, both the penetrator and penetratee are condemned. Female homosexual activity is sometimes prohibited now as well.

  11. MicaiahC says:

    If only the American mythology were Barkley’s Shut up and Jam Gaiden

  12. Daniel Speyer says:

    While I mostly agree, I think this is overstating things a bit.

    Kashrut and American food taboos don’t function quite the same way. Kashrut is more endorsed; Americanish is more about liking. And an American learning one of his fellows eats insects might feel disgusted, but not betrayed, and would not think less of them as a person.

    There’s also the concept of holiness. You can see traces of that in American civil religion (some people use the phrase “desecrating the flag” completely unironically), but it’s nowhere near the level the Torah or Tetragrammaton is treated at.

    • mss says:

      I worked at a Jewish summer camp in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, with primarily local staff. And the American Civil Religiousity was toned/watered down for the sake of compromise.

      So having seen both at once —
      Yes. It is not that far from the level the Tetragrammaton is treated at.
      What I saw was more than halfway between a Chumash and a Torah, at times.

      (Maybe it’s not as universal, but nevertheless.)

    • Deiseach says:

      Kashrut is more endorsed; Americanish is more about liking.

      You don’t think American civil culture (and let’s be fair, Western Europe as well) is fast developing kashrut laws?

      See the Obesity Epidemic and Sugar Taxes – Thou shalt not eat sugar, it is an abomination!

      These are the colours thou shalt eat; every day, thou shalt eat five portions of the five sacred healthful colours!

      Try telling a very evangelical vegetarian/vegan your dietary choice agreements are about liking rather than morality, and see if you come out of that with your eyebrows intact 🙂

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        And these things are exactly equivalent religion, even though there are scientific justications for them?

        • sweeneyrod says:

          Many dietary choices are only very tenuously supported by science.

        • smocc says:

          Yes, because scientific justification is only important once you’ve decided what is important!

          Knowing which foods are healthier is only important if you are obsessed with health. Not every culture is, at least compared to American culture.

      • Brian M says:

        Veganism is definitely religious in tone!

      • anonymous says:

        Ive probably eaten a non-vegan meal across the table from a vegan eating a vegan meal 300-500 times in my life and never once can i recall having ever been pressed about it.

        “You don’t think American civil culture (and let’s be fair, Western Europe as well) is fast developing kashrut laws?”

        Not enough soda choices? Not enough restaurant chains in your mind? Choice rapidly narrowing?
        “thou shalt eat five portions of the five sacred healthful colours!”

        This particular move is incredibly common among those committed to internet conservatism. Since conservatives are commited to such an unrealistic strategy – never compromise, always always always be working the refs for your team, all blame is one-sided, no enemies to the right-
        they can never be funny. They cant make others laugh at others. Instead they do this move:

        1. State a belief (“we are seeing a fewer and fewer soda choices out there and i know who’s to blame
        2. Say “oh i forgot”…and then pretend to say something
        your imaginary liberal would say (say the opposite of what you believe. where you voice your “straw liberal”. First your bring it back to liberals no matter the subject. Then you do what looks like satire but is really a simulation of a stereotype (the exclamation point makes you seem breezy, devil-may-care, when the problem is that you care too much, there is no subject that you cannot bring back round to the hateful left.

        [Oh, I forgot] “thou shalt eat five portions of the five sacred healthful colours!”

        Get a mirror.

        “…see if you come out of that with your eyebrows intact.”

        it’s cheaper than projecting from home.

        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          I don’t know if you’ve expressed this in exactly the best way, but yes, this brand of internet conservatism irritates me, too.

          Mainly it’s this fortress mentality that the entire world is controlled by leftists and that it’s only a matter of time before they come for you in your sleep because you had wrongthoughts.

          It’s annoying when certain kinds of feminists talk about the patriarchy that way. It’s annoying when leftists talk about corporate power that way. And it’s annoying when conservatives talk about “SJWs” that way.

          First your bring it back to liberals no matter the subject. Then you do what looks like satire but is really a simulation of a stereotype (the exclamation point makes you seem breezy, devil-may-care, when the problem is that you care too much, there is no subject that you cannot bring back round to the hateful left.

          This is crux of it. It’s “liberals”, no matter the actual topic. And of course it’s all interchangeable as a method of explaining every bad thing in your life.

          [Insert enemy] are the biggest problem in the world.

          I guarantee you this is the problem. I guarantee. Kids are missing school, losing their jobs, all because of the [enemy]. They beat us economically, they beat us in trade, they lay more eggs, they beat us all the time.

          You know how many people died of [enemy’s nefarious actions] last year? 15 trillion. Wonder why things just don’t feel right sometimes? [Enemy]. You think 9/11 was done by [not enemy]? Yeah right.

        • Deiseach says:

          You have proven my point for me.

          I said “Try criticising veganism and see what happens” and you come along and apparently I am the Face Of Internet Right-Wing Conservatism 🙂

          • anonymous says:

            You are the voice of an extremely intelligent person. I get the impression you do social work of some kind. You’re also very convivial. The problem is your reflections on life in these United States are beholden to a panopoly of narratives prepared by WorldNetDaily for the gullible and the homebound.

        • Cellebrarium says:

          I honestly hope your whole post was a joke. Even innocent ignorance would incriminate you.

          • anonymous says:

            Incriminate? Innnocence? You appear to be threatening to have me kidnapped and arraigned by star chamber, a private underground judicial system run out of your own ass.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Those are fads, or in some cases cults. American civil culture as a whole doesn’t accept them for long. Or at least I’ve not had trouble finding and eating my typical white and brown (red on the inside though) foods, or procuring sugar-sweetened items. The only soda tax in the country is in Berkeley, CA.

        As for evangelical vegetarians/vegans, they are pests, but no more mainstream American civil culture than the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

        • Having fads and fashions is part of the civil religion.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Has there been a society advanced enough to have writing that did not have fads and fashions? I think it may be a universal trait among human groups above a certain size, rather than part of a “civil religion”.

  13. Jiro says:

    Scott’s claim here is so broad that I wonder exactly what could falsify it short of Americans not having culture at all.

    Moreover, the fact that a theory accurately predicts X doesn’t mean that the theory is likely to be true unless you created the theory without reference to X. It is unlikely that Scott created this theory independently of American culture before applying it to American culture.

    • Aapje says:

      Indeed, or morality. Take this:

      “Any tuna made with a process that cannot 100% exclude dolphins is impure.”

      This is based on a basic moral system where some animals are considered fit to eat based on perceived intelligence and/or closeness to humans and/or threat of extinction and/or cruelty and/or disgust. Hence most Westerners refuse to eat apes, elephants, tigers, dogs, whales, etc.

      I don’t think this is on par with religions that have arbitrary rules. In Western society, food guidelines are based on reasoning and custom, but they are also dynamic and can change (foie gras become far less acceptable, for instance).

      • I hear that pigs and dogs are about equally intelligent, but Americans find the idea of eating dogs downright horrifying and pigs delicious.

        • Aapje says:

          I don’t think the reason is intelligence, but rather that we don’t like eating pets (the ‘closeness to humans’ argument I made). Very few people keep pigs as pets.

          If you look at China, they traditionally don’t regard dogs as pets and do eat them. However, this is rapidly changing, as they are adopting Western habits. I expect that the rapid increase in the number of Chinese who keep dogs as pets will result in greatly reduced acceptance of eating dog meat.

          I also think that psychological factors plays a role. Dogs have been bred to be extremely dependent on humans and I think that a lot of people categorize them mentally as similar to children/helpless birds/etc.


          • Richard says:

            One thing about eating dogs, or carnivores in general that nobody ever mentions is that mammalian carnivore meat is a taste that requires a lot of training or overwhelming hunger to appreciate. (Except whale)

            It’s stringy, extremely strong in taste and with a whiff of stale fat. I suspect that the chinese eating less dog is simply because they are richer and have access to better meats. Rat is significantly better than dog while still no great delicacy

          • Tibor says:

            When I was in Hong Kong, there was a small protest about the MRT train killing a stray dog who had wandered into the track (the protesters expected the MRT to stop the traffic, rescue the dog and then resume it). HK is much more western in culture than PRC-proper and this struck me as quite an illustrative example at the time.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            When did the English become dog lovers? Judging from all the anti-dog rhetoric in “King Lear,” it may not have been all that long ago.

          • Tibor says:

            @Richard: I’ve had crocodile meat, it’s quite good. But I suppose you meant mammalian carnivores. I don’t think I’ve had any.

            Most domestic animals, including those we eat depend heavily on humans. Diary cows would die pretty quickly in the wild for instance. Pigs might do a bit better. On the other hand, cats are usually fine (even though they have a shorter lifespan) when they decide to leave their humans and for me.

            I don’t think it is the fact that we keep dogs (or cats) as pets, or not that alone. We don’t keep foxes at home, still we do not eat them. Maybe that’s because they look like dogs (although they are used for their pelts in places – and the meat is still not eaten). Also, we do not eat bears (who are neither very cute, at least not the adults, nor very friendly or close to humans). Some kinds are protected by law in some places but I think they are generally not eaten. It seems to be a combination of “is close to humans”, “is fluffy” and “is carnivorous” (I don’t know what the reason behind the third one is, though, maybe the meat really does not taste well).

          • keranih says:

            I think there’s a great deal of regional/tribal variation in what is “acceptable” to eat – I expect wild-shot venison is not well tolerated in the Bay Area, and even less so in NYC, while it is practically a staple in other areas.

            Dogs vs pigs falls into the ‘carnivore vs non-carnivore’ divide discussed earlier. Meat-eater meat tastes different, and Americans prefer blander meat. (See: very low market for meat from intact male swine and goats, or for adult sheep.) OTOH – bear was historically regarded as very good eating.

            (Not quite the same thing, but in days of old, one sold whole dressed rabbit with the head on in the market, so that one could be sure one wasn’t buying cat.)

            The American taboo on horsemeat is one of the strongest in the world, and is one of the many ways that our Puritan streak comes to play, in that we’d really like to keep others from eating horses, too.

          • God Damn John Jay says:

            Carnivores would probably be:

            A) Leaner than most other meat (Westerners like animals bred to be fatty)

            B) Higher parasite load (Not 100% sure of this). Higher up on the food chain means more opportunities to pick up parasites. We let horses do their business on the side of the road but not dogs in part because dog shit is disgusting even by the standards of shit.

          • God Damn John Jay says:

            Feral pigs are fascinating because of how they become essentially a boar within a few months of freedom. They grow hair and tusks and become vicious.

            There are stories of this happening to even adorable little pot-bellied pigs.

          • Richard says:

            I think I said mammalian.

            Also, I’ve eaten all of those, and the bear is not bad at all, but it’s an omnivore much like the pig and gets only a small part of its food from other animals. You can get it in restaurants in Idaho and Montana, but it’s expensive. I suspect this is because there are only a few bears and quite a lot of people to eat them.

            The fox is absolutely the worst, with an ammonia-like taste that is impossible to get rid of by any means known to chefs.

            (in case you’re curious, I spent most of the 1990s on a personal quest to taste everything that wasn’t on an endangered list or poisonous enough to cause serious harm. I can report on the taste of most things from Aardvark to Zebra)

          • Aapje says:

            I went looking for some info and a some people mentioned that many carnivores tend to have a smell of dead meat around them.

            I also think that in Western hunting tradition, there is a separation in hunting for food and hunting the competition (non-human predators). You eat the first group and you collect trophies/prove your manhood by killing the second group.

            I also agree that in the West we are less and less interested in flavorful meat. This is also evident by how many people seek out fairly flavorless ‘lean’ meat, for health reasons.

            PS. Horse meat used to be very common in my country, but is on the way out. I think that’s primarily because they are no longer used for work, but have become leisure animals. Especially for young women who seek them out for their masculine features, while being safer than actual men. The emotional connection to these animals that this brings makes it difficult for them to contemplate eating horse meat. There is also a safety aspect, horse meat tends to come from horses that are not kept for their meat, so they are often given medicine which is not necessarily safe for consumption.

          • keranih says:

            Among the ‘common’ domestic animals, sheep are about the only ones that would disappear without human supervision. (There are less-fragile breeds of sheep, but there are not feral populations.) As pointed out, swine, cats and cattle will go feral very quickly, and even horses are pretty good at making it on their own.

            [carnivores are] leaner than most other meat (Westerners like animals bred to be fatty)

            Not just ‘fatty’ but specifically with fat marbled into the muscle fibers. This is not a universal trait and is lower in, say, milk and fiber breeds of cattle and sheep, than in the meat breeds of the same species.

            Bears were best taken at the height of the fall feeding, before hibernation kicked in, when they would have the highest level of fat deposits.

            Higher parasite load (Not 100% sure of this). Higher up on the food chain means more opportunities to pick up parasites.

            Eh. Not really supported. Zoonotic parasites are not more common in ominvores/carnivores than in herbivores. (See: hydatid disease, and tularemia, etc) And most parasites of concern to humans are transmitted by…other humans.

            We let horses do their business on the side of the road but not dogs in part because dog shit is disgusting even by the standards of shit.

            Well, the manure of herbivores is largely composed of decomposing plants. The manure of carnivores/omnivores…decomposing meat. Being meat-based critters, we are more subject to disease from decomposing meat than plants, although there are certainly pathogens (Salmonella, E. coli, etc) which affect both.

            More to the point, I think, is that we get a taste for things that we eat commonly. Herbivores are much more common than their meat eating predators. So across the human species as a whole, we are more likely to eat plant-eating animals (or: insect eating animals like chickens) than meat eaters. The environment is obviously going to impact this – see whale and seal hunting northern tribes.

          • bluto says:

            Bear is rare in restaurants because it’s illegal to sell hunted products (for good reason). So any bear you eat in a restaurant needs to come from farms, and very few people want to farm bears.

          • Tibor says:

            @Richard: Oh yeah, now I see it, sorry.

            @keranih: Are you sure about cattle? A diary cow is extremely unfit for living in the wild given the amount of nutrition she needs for her heavy milk production. If I am not mistaken (quite possible), then she will dip into her own fat resources and convert those to milk (and they produce way more milk than the calves need, which brings about other problems – infections and diseases if they’re not milked properly and enough). I would imagine these are pretty terrible traits for survival in the wild. Bulls would probably be fine, though. Come to think of it, I think I’ve read about escaped cattle and bisons producing a cross breed somewhere in the US. So perhaps the original cross-breed is an offspring of a cattle-bull and a bison-cow with the heavy milk production genes tuned down by the bison genes. But I don’t actually know much about this topic, so please correct me if this is all nonsense.

          • Richard, have you ever had snake that was worth eating? I’ve had deep-fried rattlesnake a couple of times, but it was mostly breading.


            I can believe dairy cows can’t go feral. but there are feral cattle, presumably descended from meat cows.




          • Richard Gadsden says:

            There are feral sheep in New Zealand, presumably derived from less-woolly varieties introduced a long time ago. There’s also the small population on the island of St Kilda near Scotland, again from an ancient population

          • keranih says:

            @ Tibor –

            Yes, I’m sure about cattle. *g* But you’re not entirely wrong about dairy cows.

            A couple points of clarification:

            Modern dairy cows (including all the dairy breeds, but you can imagine black & white Holstiens for this, I’ll be more specific later on) all have the genetic potential to produce larger amounts of milk than their beef sisters. In the same way, there are gals from Kenya who have a better genetic potential to run like the dickens than I do.

            In order to reach those genetic potentials, the animals have to be managed (feed quantity/quality, temperature control, disease prevention, etc, etc) properly. A common mistake in developing nations is to import “improved” genetics when the local systems haven’t developed the ability to feed/house/manage the less capable native herds to the maximum of those animals. If they can’t feed a scrub cow to her genetic potential, they surely can’t do the same with a Holstein.

            So, if one were to take a young dairy cow, turn her loose on the steppe, let her breed with whatever bull critter found her, and then watched as she dropped her calf and fed it while eating the steppe grass with never a bit of winter rye or ground corn/bakery discards/orange peels to supplement the grass, she’d never produce as much milk as her sister who was kept in a pasture or free stall barn and properly cared for. The feral dairy cow will not produce as much milk because she will not be as healthy nor as well fed.

            In the same way, if you took the gal from Kenya and stuck her in an office job around donuts and cokes every day, and made me run seriously with a good coach, there’s a good chance I might be able to outrun the gal from Kenya. But keep us in the same conditions, and I’d not have a chance.

            (And yes, part of this health is making sure that she has enough extra body fat prior to dropping her calf, so that as she “milks off her back” she can support her production until the “peak milk” passes and she can balance outgoing milk demands with food intake. BTW – all mammals do this to some degree, it’s why women have higher basal body fat than men. Kids are energy-expensive.)

            Additionally – the amount of milk a female mammal produces is directly related to how much milk is drawn from her mammary glands. As you say, a dairy cow produces more than a single calf can consume. (The rule of thumb for orphan beef calves is to put 4 to 5 on a single low quality Holstein.) But if she only has the one calf nursing off her, her excess milk production will quickly decline. (Milk excreting cells shut off if milk remaining in the breast tissue puts pressure on the excreting cells.)

            I would imagine these are pretty terrible traits for survival in the wild.

            An adult dairy cow who is accustomed to the easy life in a freestall barn – fresh water all the time, constant food, shade and misters, same herdmates for a year or more – will not do well at all when the Second Coming lifts all good God-fearing farmers up to heaven.

            Her 19-month old daughter – raised on a pasture, halfway through her first pregnancy – will do a good bit better. That heifer’s calf will do even better, and her half-Pineywoods/longhorn daughter will move through the woods like a deer, outrun a man on a horse and make a pack of wolves reconsider the vegan lifestyle.

            Come to think of it, I think I’ve read about escaped cattle and bisons producing a cross breed somewhere in the US.

            Eh. Beefalo are a thing, and yes, bison will attempt to mate with domestic range cattle. (This article also covers the issues with ‘wild’ buffalo herds containing cattle/bison hybrids…which is actually news to me. Will have to investigate further.)

            But most ‘feral’ cattle are just that – cattle, abet mostly beef/dual purpose rather than dairy. They also tend to be scrubby skinny tough mofos, and regionally distinct as longhorns and pineywoods in the USA. In Mexico and further south, they are criollo (or other names that mean basically ‘the animals kept by ordinary rural people’).

            The uses and preservation of landrace livestock is a fascinating subject for me – these animals aren’t going to feed the world, or even the middle class, but they represent a valuable resource we should, imo, spend some time and effort preserving. The Livestock Conservancy is a good resource for more info.

          • keranih says:

            @Richard Gadsden –

            I stand corrected re: feral sheep.

          • Thursday says:

            Bears were eaten by both Native Americans and frontier white people in America. Country white people would eat squirrels and possums and such too.

          • Tibor says:

            @keranih: Thanks, you really seem to know a lot about this subject!

          • Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

            > Very few people keep pigs as pets.

            I think you might be surprised. Killing and eating a livestock animal you raised as a pet tends to be a sort of a rite of passage in rural communities.

          • keranih says:

            @ Tibor –

            Everyone’s obsessive an obnoxious blowhard passionate about something.

          • Richard says:

            I’ve tried several different kinds of snake and I think this is a case where size does matter. Python and Anaconda are not bad. On the other hand, not that much different from crocodile which is easier to find in shops, at least around here.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Americans still eat squirrel and possum. Not much meat on a squirrel, but I’m told it works in spaghetti sauce.

            Pigeon, too, though urbanites eat only the young ones and and call it squab. (Considering their diet, I can’t imagine a wild urban pigeon would be good to eat in any case)

            Snake was available in some suburban grocery stores a few years back (may still be); I think mostly as a novelty but not taboo. I don’t think there’s a taboo on amphibians, either; given the chance to eat alligator, most Americans won’t recoil in disgust or horror. There’s a difference between what’s not customary (e.g. snake) and what’s taboo (e.g. horse). Insects fall into an intermediate category, I think.

          • nimim. k.m. says:


            >Also, we do not eat bears

            Eeerm. It’s rare because bear hunting is restricted to maintain the population, but it’s certainly “thing that can be done, no qualms” and considered a great delicacy? “Kill a bear, eat it later” sort of hunting experience.

            Okay, I don’t know about Americans, but we are Western, too. (Nordics). I thought that was common everywhere there were bears…

          • Steven says:


            We do not commonly eat bears, but that’s largely because of availability. Check the Joy of Cooking or Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking for instructions.

          • dndnrsn says:

            For reference: the 1975 “Joy of Cooking” covers, under “Game”, the cleaning and cooking of: rabbit/hare, squirrel, opossum, porcupine, raccoon, muskrat, woodchuck, beaver, armadillo, deer/moose/elk, bear, peccary, wild boar.

            I especially noticed this: “Among treasured Christmas traditions, like the gilded peacock, the boar’s head ranks high, see illustration on 513. While this fierce creature may not be available, his domestic counterpart still subsists in Appalachia and can even be ordered in supermarkets throughout the U.S. during the holiday season.”

          • Tibor says:

            @nimim. k.m.:

            Maybe it’s more common than I thought. I think I made a mistake basing it on Germany and the Czech republic (the only countries I’ve ever lived for more than a few weeks) which are almost bear-free and bears are protected by law in both countries, I think. I should have checked the fact better before making a claim. Sorry for that.

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh come on: the House Un-American Activites Committee? Set up during wartime, sure, but not for anti- American acts, un-American acts.

        What is “un” American? What can be deemed Not To Be American, Do This and You Are Not A Real American? That necessitates some idea of Americaness, something that We Do and others do not? And that really then does come down to arbitary rules – must you like baseball to be an American? What about not flying the flag outside your house on the Fourth of July – insufficiently patriotic, unAmerican, or are both the same thing?

        • Jiro says:

          I’m pretty sure that if it had been called anti-American you would have been able to say the same thing with a couple of differences in wording. You’re latching onto a fine distinction in wording that doesn’t actually show anything at all.

          Beware just-so stories. (This also applies to Scott’s original blogpost.)

          • Deiseach says:

            I do think words have meaning, and fine shades of meaning can convey very important differences.

            Why was HUAC so careful to call itself the investigator of UN-American rather than ANTI-American? Well, it was established during wartime and was initially trying to root out Nazi sympathisers or those felt to be such. A claim to patriotism was very important, as was the implication there that such activities (Nazism and then later Communism) were not alone a danger to America, they were fundamentally alien, foreign importations and corruptions, something that could never naturally occur in the USA because real Americans were all democrats, egalitarians, believers in the free market, hard-working decent folk who believed you got places on your own effort and not by taking things from other people, etc.

            When you are conducting things that can be characterised as “witch-hunts” and are trying to root out heresy and corruption, you need to very clearly demarcate your territory as being on the side of the Right and Good, and that your enemies are not merely “simply happen to be on the other side of the fight”, they are Wrong and Evil and if you let them get away with it, they will warp, corrupt and twist your nation away from its proper nature.

            I don’t think I’m necessarily ANTI-American even if I sometimes criticise American activities, but I am certainly UN-American 🙂

          • Jiro says:

            That’s a just-so story. If it had been called anti-American after all, you could have written an equally plausible-sounding story to explain away that instead.

            “Why was HAAC so careful to call itself the investigator of ANTI-American rather than UN-American activities? It was originally established during wartime to root out Nazi sympathizers and then switched over to Communists. It was very important that the targets be painted as, not just not real Americans, but actively opposed to those of us who are real Americans. “Anti-American” has connotations of being diametrically opposed to our way of life which plain “un-American” doesn’t. Americans acted for democracy, egalitarianism, the free market, etc. while ANTI-Americans did what they could to stop those things.”

        • Loquat says:

          HUAC mostly focused on communism, though. Nobody was getting investigated just for not liking baseball.

      • Deiseach says:

        This is based on a basic moral system where some animals are considered fit to eat based on perceived intelligence and/or closeness to humans and/or threat of extinction and/or cruelty and/or disgust.

        No, this is the rationalisation developed to explain why certain countries don’t eat certain animals, and used by vegetarians/vegans to push why voluntary meat-eating is not alone not a matter of personal choice, it is immoral: you are torturing and killing sentient fellow-creatures!

        We have now got to the point where eating eggs is not to be condemned as unhealthy, it is to be condemned as deliberate cruelty and malice and evil in the old-fashioned “that is sinful” sense. It is also based on emotional appeals rather than appeal to reason: “look at the mother cow/sheep crying! she is sad that you are taking her baby away from her! don’t be cruel and mean to mother love!”

        • The American civil religion has been making food much more important in recent decades– since the 90s for the gourmet thing, and the emphasis on nutrition has ramped up so slowly that I can’t place a date on it.

          Also, one part of the civil religion is terror of being fat.

          • Matt M says:


            And we can even construct a collectivized medical system such that fat people are not only sinning against themselves, but their sinful nature harms the entire collective as well.

            You know, like Christians who refused to sacrifice to the Roman Gods, thus ensuring the legion’s defeat in a coming battle.

        • Nornagest says:

          I don’t think veganism is in any sense part of American civic religion.

        • anonymous says:

          A terrible new poetic figure: the deiseach.

          “it is immoral: you are torturing and killing sentient fellow-creatures!”

          “look at the mother cow/sheep crying! she is sad that you are taking her baby away from her! don’t be cruel and mean to mother love!”

          “See the Obesity Epidemic and Sugar Taxes – Thou shalt not eat sugar, it is an abomination!”

          “These are the colours thou shalt eat; every day, thou shalt eat five portions of the five sacred healthful colours!”

          • Deiseach says:

            With my grotesque mask of frenzied unreason affixed, I stalk the comment boxes and terrify the unwary with screeds of word salad 🙂

        • Jeff says:

          You’ve misrepresented ethical arguments against consuming eggs. Most vegans don’t consume eggs due to the inhumane conditions of some farm hens, and the fact that their male siblings are killed in almost all dairy farms.

          Vegans I know will consume eggs if they raise the chickens themselves or have friends with a humane farm that treats them and their male counterparts kindly.

      • Jaskologist says:

        The worst part about American religion is how it ossifies its own preferences as “based on reason.”

        • Hlynkacg says:

          Agreed, see naath’s post below.

        • The Frannest says:

          Indeed so. One of the classic mythos is how wine is somehow basically a heart medicine if drunk in moderation, albeit there is little evidence for this, especially in comparison wiht just grape guice.

      • naath says:

        And eating pork in Ancient Israel was probably they fast track to some nasty parasitic disease or other, whilst have mould in your house is very bad for your health…

        We (WEIRD people) are not the only people who (think we) have logical explanations for our food taboos.

        • Thursday says:

          But in Greece the pigs were free from parasites?

          I’d suggest that Mary Douglas had it right. Summary:

          The most famous and interesting chapter is on the prohibitions in the book of Leviticus, such as that against eating pork. Douglas examines and rejects several proposed explanations of these Mosaic rules: that they’re intended to prevent disease, that they symbolize moral lessons, that they’re just there to distinguish Jews from pagans, or that they’re totally arbitrary. What reason does the Bible give for these rules? Here’s an example: “Whatever pars the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals you may eat….you shall not eat these: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you…” What the devil does that mean? Douglas speculates that the Hebrews had definite ideas about what constitutes a proper land animal, fish, or bird. An animal that had some but not all of the qualities of its type was ambiguous, and therefore unclean. This is because their idea of the Holy consisted not only in being set apart from the profane, but also the idea of unity and completeness. Thus, the exemplars of each of the classes of being were symbols of God, each in its own way. The Jewish dietary rules expressed their vision of the order of the universe and of God’s perfection.

        • MawBTS says:

          Plausible, but I don’t think they would have reasoned it out like that.

          Most likely some powerful guy got sick after eating pork, and took that into consideration when drafting the tribe’s rules.

          • dndnrsn says:

            But that doesn’t explain why other groups would keep on eating pork.

            One possible explanation I saw is that some of the Jewish laws forbid weird combinations. Pigs have hooves, but don’t chew cud. Rabbits were thought to chew cud, but don’t have hooves.

          • keranih says:

            Other people were still eating pig because bacon.

    • urpriest says:

      I think you’re misunderstanding. Scott is saying that ancient religions were, in fact, things that in the modern world we would call cultures. It’s not a claim about America, but about the origins of religion. Falsifying it would involve finding something that we think of as an ancient religion that was not also a culture, or more generally a religion that doesn’t seem to have developed via ossification of a culture.

      • Jiro says:

        Scott is pointing to things that we agree are part of American culture but do not necessarily agree are religious, and saying “these look religious”.

        That’s an argument that American culture is a type of religion, not the other way around.

        • urpriest says:

          Yes, and in the context of the post “these look religious” means “these look like things people did in ancient religions”.

        • rockroy mountdefort says:

          “He’s saying a is like b”

          “No! he’s saying b is like a!”

          • Jiro says:

            “A is like B” and “B is like A” are not synonymous when A and B are classes of things. Shirts are a type of clothes, but clothes are not a type of shirts.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Agreed. Obviously, many people do not respect sociology and I get that. But it also means people feel like they can tell a good sounding story and it’s just as plausible as the next one. Of course, if Scott didn’t post amateur sociology, what would be left of SSC? Some criticism of existing studies, book reviews and open threads. So the foundation of this rationalist blog is basically dependent on unfalsifiable ideas.

      • Jiro says:

        Scott even links to Ozy’s post about bewaring amateur sociology–but doesn’t explain how that doesn’t apply. You know, merely showing that you’re aware of the existence of a criticism is not the same as addressing it.

        • suntzuanime says:

          To be fair, the linked post says it’s totally OK for Scott to do what he does, and any moral responsibility or blame falls on us.

        • rockroy mountdefort says:

          I’ve read enough complaints by professionals over the years to the effect of ‘broader society should change itself to suit the particular beliefs and standards of people in my profession’, without engaging with why that doesn’t happen*, that I don’t think people are necessarily obligated to stop and argue with every example of the genre.

          Ozy kind-of acknowledges in the article that there are fairly massive practical limits on the ability to do Professional Scientific Sociology. So when Professional Scientific Sociology does definitively prove or disprove something, i’ll take that as truth (until it fails replication, lol) but until then I’m okay with adopting some ideas that aren’t 100% proven or provable, until those ideas are convincingly refuted or a better idea comes along, because the alternative is simply not trying to understand how the society around me functions

          It’s normal for people of a given profession to want a monopoly over its problem space, for many reasons which are even quite justifiable and don’t relate strictly to the desire for job security, it’s just that sociology isn’t useful enough to command that monopoly the way that physical science or medicine mostly can.

          *which, coming from a sociologist, is kind of funny

      • onyomi says:

        I don’t think it’s so much “amateur” sociology Ozy enjoins us to beware of, but rather speculative sociology–that is, the spinning of plausible-sounding theories without a lot of empirical evidence to back them up–and, most importantly, the confusing of speculative sociology with something more objective or empirical.

        Not everyone who is a published author or professor or “major” thinker in sociology adequately backs up his theories with data, nor is everyone who uses a lot of data right–it is very possible to marshal a lot of seemingly convincing data to support an incorrect theory (Piketty comes to mind…).

        The point is, rather, that essays like Eliezer’s “Evaporative Cooling” and Scott’s “Toxoplasma” are not academic papers and would never be accepted as such. And not because they’re bad–they’re more insightful than most academic papers–nor because academic journals are stodgy and boring and don’t know genius when they see it; no, because academic journals and publishers are interested in what you can prove (or at least seem to prove)–even if it’s just a minor point about snail mating habits–not in what you can suggest.

        Suggesting an interesting new mechanism and “proving” it are two very different things. In some ways, the former is harder–it takes more creativity, at least. But the latter requires a lot more boring, unglamorous, potentially expensive grunt work of the sort someone writing a blog in his spare time probably doesn’t feel like doing and shouldn’t be expected to do and which his readers, in any case, are not interested in hearing about.

        We’re here for Scott’s latest brainstorm on how society might work, not a pile of data. I mean, sure it would be even more impressive if Scott gathered heaps of data and citations for every post he wrote, but this would also surely decrease the total amount of posting he did–both because each post would be more work for him and because it would mean his threshold for what he considered defensible would be higher. I don’t think this is something many, if any, SSC readers desire, considering that Scott is already more rigorous than the vast majority of actual news outlets. We’d rather see him throw out all his wild ideas and judge for ourselves.

        The only problem is that you shouldn’t take clever, plausible-sounding brainstorms as established fact which, I guess, some people may tend to, if they are citing things like “Evaporative Cooling” as decisive proofs of anything.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Lets say that I start a blog where I start speculating about chemistry. I’ve never studied it before but I start advocating my own theory that doesn’t seem to be based off any data. If you confronted me over this and I said something like “Sure, this isn’t academic. But I never claimed to be one. Anyways, here’s what I think about alchemy…”. You probably wouldn’t take my ideas seriously, even if I wrote them very eloquently. Now chemistry is probably more rigorous than sociology but I don’t think that means that anything goes.

          • onyomi says:

            I think understanding sociology as if it were just like, chemistry, but for people and slightly softer/more speculative is fundamentally wrongheaded. Sociology, like economics, is really completely different from chemistry.

            And this is sort of the rejoinder to Ozy: yes, we shouldn’t confuse sociological theorizing with sociological theorizing+lots of data to back it up. At the same time, we should not confuse social sciences (same goes for economics) with hard sciences.

            Of course, how prominent a role data should play in social sciences is itself a matter of debate, with, for example, Austrian economists treating economics more like philosophy, and Chicago and Keynesian economists trying to treat it like philosophy+math. Either way, the philosophy part is much more important than in chemistry, and the same goes for sociology.

          • Frog Do says:

            So, to go full circle, this is kind of like an isolated demand for rigor.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Sociology is fundamentally like chemistry. It’s all science. The only difference is that it’s more difficult because the variables are so hard to isolate and because people are more complicated than elements. But just giving up and saying that one person’s speculation is just as good as another is lazy. Lets say we want to look at the causes of crime in the world. That is a scientific question that can be measured. One guy could say it’s poverty and another that it’s culture but both are useless until we can look at some statistics.

            If anything, speculation can be more dangerous than illuminating. Look at how popular the Blank Slate idea was(and to some extent still is.) Rousseau had no evidence that he was right. He was just doing “insight porn.” Communists would use this idea to declare that they could remake people in the image of socialism. Even if Rousseau had put a paragraph in explaining that he was just exploring a theory and that we shouldn’t really take his idea as a fact do you think that would have made a difference? I doubt it. People tend to skip over that part.

            @Frog do

            How is this an isolated demand rigor? I’m just saying that sociological theories should have evidence in the same way other sciences are expected.

          • Frog Do says:

            Sure, abstractly, sociology is like chemistry, from a Laplace’s Demon point of view. Practically, if you try to treat sociology like chemistry, you will be able to say nothing in sociology, or in any social science, or in any life science. You’d never actually update away from anything, the evidence is always going to be too weak.

      • Deiseach says:

        But you certainly can raise ideas for debate as long as both you and the commenters are careful to keep in mind that what you are doing is discussion, proffering opinions, and theorising, not actual hard science.

        We’re all talking about our various views of religion, culture, etc. and I think that’s perfectly fine. If we all agreed “yep, religion pops up throughout human history solely because of X” then we’d be mistaken.

        Scott is offering a provocative idea for discussion, based on what he feels is a reasonable hypothesis for “why do human societies keep coming up with religion or religion-substitutes?” I don’t think he means to say, or is trying to say, “I have solved the riddle! Here is the reason!”

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      This is a tad pedantic. It’s like the “Theories of Gravity vs Laws of Gravity” distinction. That “things fall down” we call a law or an observation. Then Newton, Einstein, et al came up with various theories to explain it.

      You could similarly argue that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was so vague as to be unfalsifiable. “Things change over time” … okay, but doesn’t everything change eventually? At the most general, Darwin’s “theory” was more of an observation. Scott is doing something similar by pointing out that if we trace the history of the Major World Religions, it appears they were once fully-fledged cultures. The theory part will come into play when we make more specific claims about the actual history of various religions’ evolutions and the mechanisms by which cultural drift occurs.

      E.g. I read Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism once. He had this theory that Moses was actually a sympathetic Egyptian Noble and that his Jewish Birth was a convenient fiction. He also had this theory that Judaism came into contact with (and was strongly influenced by) Zoroastrianism sometime between the Egyptian Exodus and the Fall of Jericho, and that this is from where Judaism’s “Light vs Darkness” meme originates. I dunno how accurate this is (Freud himself said both hypotheses were tentative), but they’re most certainly falsifiable.

      • Jiro says:

        What makes those things unfalsifiable is when the criteria for what counts as evidence are so loose that pretty much anything is evidence for and nothing is evidence against.

        If Scott had found an example where Americans do mix foods instead of don’t mix foods, would that have counted as evidence that American culture is not religion-like? If Scott had found a way in which American food restrictions are not like kosher food restrictions, would that have counted? (Bearing in mind that some posters have already pointed out that we consider people weird for not following dietary restrictions, but not morally weak.)

        If Scott had found examples of important historical events that were not mythologized like Washington and the cherry tree, would that be such evidence? Does he even have a precise enough definition of mythologized that it would be possible to conclude “this historical event is mythologized and this one isn’t” in the first place? Even if he does, has he made an attempt to count them and see that we have as many as religions do, or is it just “if you have them at all you’re like a religion, regardless of how many you have”?

        Exactly how does he determine that our dress code is as restrictive as the one in Leviticus; is there some way to score or compare dress codes so we could theoretically say “ties are only 0.3 on the scale while mixing linen and wool is at 0.7, so Leviticus’s code is more restrictive?”

  14. j r says:

    One of the things that separates ancient religions from American civil religions is that the ancient religions didn’t have the same competition from the scientific method. Our civic religion contains a lot more specialization and compartmentalization.

    • smocc says:

      This is true, but it’s also important to remember that believing that the scientific method is the best arbiter of truth is becoming a crucial part of the American civil religion. (some American civil religions)

  15. Outis says:

    I think you’re way out of your depth here, to be honest.

  16. Steve Sailer says:

    Unlike American food rules, Jewish food rules make it hard for observant Jews and gentiles to sit down for a pleasant meal together, which is kind of the point.

    • Thursday says:

      IIRC, the Jewish food rules were not that different from those of their near neighbours, like the Edomites, Moabites, Canaanites etc. though they were quite different from the Greek descended Philistines. The food rules only started to be a boundary line between groups once the Jews started to move (or be moved) farther afield.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        The Middle East is full of groups with rules for staying a separate people: Jews are the most famous, but there are also Yezidis, Gnostics, Alevis, Druze, Samaritans, Alawites, Donmeh, etc etc. Many of them claim to be Muslims as well, but they have their rules and rituals that keep them from wholly dissolving into the masses.

        Westerners, with our territorialism, don’t really understand how patchwork peoples can go on for many centuries without blending in with their neighbors through intermarriage. But it’s possible for Westerners to pull off the same thing, even in America: for example, there are a lot more Amish these days than there used to be when I was a kid. With their population doubling every quarter of a century or so, there might be about four times as many Amish in 2016 as in 1966.

        • Thursday says:

          That’s right but those are all post-Jewish-montheism, post-Christianity, post-Islam groups. The Near East prior to the Babylonian Exile of the Jews was a whole nother thing.

        • Deiseach says:

          Westerners, with our territorialism, don’t really understand how patchwork peoples can go on for many centuries without blending in with their neighbors through intermarriage.

          But you see this tension all through the Old Testament, with constant chiding by the prophets about how Israel has fallen away by running after strange gods of other nations, and the historical chronicles about “in the reign of King so-and-so he did/didn’t banish the idolatrous practices the people had copied from the pagans”.

          Ezekiel doesn’t put a tooth in it when talking about Samaria and Jerusalem, who are explicitly stated to be what is meant by talking of the two sisters: “Samaria is Aholah, and Jerusalem Aholibah”

          11 And when her sister Aholibah saw this, she was more corrupt in her inordinate love than she, and in her whoredoms more than her sister in her whoredoms.

          12 She doted upon the Assyrians her neighbours, captains and rulers clothed most gorgeously, horsemen riding upon horses, all of them desirable young men.

          13 Then I saw that she was defiled, that they took both one way,

          14 And that she increased her whoredoms: for when she saw men pourtrayed upon the wall, the images of the Chaldeans pourtrayed with vermilion,

          15 Girded with girdles upon their loins, exceeding in dyed attire upon their heads, all of them princes to look to, after the manner of the Babylonians of Chaldea, the land of their nativity:

          16 And as soon as she saw them with her eyes, she doted upon them, and sent messengers unto them into Chaldea.

          17 And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their whoredom, and she was polluted with them, and her mind was alienated from them.

          18 So she discovered her whoredoms, and discovered her nakedness: then my mind was alienated from her, like as my mind was alienated from her sister.

          19 Yet she multiplied her whoredoms, in calling to remembrance the days of her youth, wherein she had played the harlot in the land of Egypt.

          20 For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.

          • JDG1980 says:

            But you see this tension all through the Old Testament, with constant chiding by the prophets about how Israel has fallen away by running after strange gods of other nations, and the historical chronicles about “in the reign of King so-and-so he did/didn’t banish the idolatrous practices the people had copied from the pagans”.

            I’m reminded of this article by Joel Spolsky, where he notes that a prohibitory rule is generally an indication that something had in fact been done before. If no one ever thought about doing it in the first place, there wouldn’t be any need for a specific rule.

          • CatCube says:


            I guess that’s one of the canons of interpreting religious texts. I was reading a blog post by a pastor a while ago, and he pointed out that if a prophet talked about gored oxen, the gored oxen were a major problem at the time.

            The context was talking about prohibitions on homosexuality, and whether the Gospels were overriding the original law. He pointed out that since Jesus didn’t address homosexual behavior one way or the other, He probably wasn’t too bothered by the law in force at the time.

      • Deiseach says:

        the Jewish food rules were not that different from those of their near neighbours

        But there certainly was the desire to “fit in” and assimilate when in contact with cultures such as the Roman; there are reports of young Jewish men undergoing all kinds of “un-doing circumcision” practices (epispasm) to hide the fact that they were circumcised, because when going to the public baths or gymnasium with Gentiles, it was very noticeable when everyone was naked.

        This wasn’t anti-Semitic prejudice as such, though doubtless that too was involved; on Greek vases you can see examples of men and youths with strings tying down their penises precisely because exposure of the glans was considered indecent. Yes, this is the kind of thing that an amateur interest in history and Classical Art will teach you 🙂

        I have read this then led to much more invasive/extreme methods of circumcision being adopted in order to forestall this kind of practice and make it impossible for Jewish men to pretend or pass as non-circumcised, but I don’t know enough about Jewish history to comment on that (I’ve seen this claim on “intactivist” websites but how accurate they are is anyone’s guess, and I’ve only gone there because of interaction on a long-departed blog with a guy who was very much exercised on the matter of male genital mutilation).

    • It’s not so difficult if you jut get the Jews to cook.

      • youzicha says:

        According to Wikipedia, it used to be recognized in the middle east that Jewish dietary law was stricter than Muslim law, so Muslims could buy food in Jewish shops but not the other way around. I wonder if this is connected to Islam being the majority religion, so assimilation is a threat to the Jewish but not the Muslim community.

        • NN says:

          I’ve read that today it is somewhat common for Muslims in the West to buy food at Kosher shops, especially if they don’t happen to live near a Halal shop.

          Though one minor point: Islam didn’t start out as the majority religion in most of the places where it is now. In fact, I’ve read that large parts of the Middle East were majority Christian as late as the Crusades. So it’s quite possible, even likely that at least some Muslim practices were meant to protect against assimilation. Though granted, Jews were so dispersed by the rise of Islam that it is unlikely that Muslims faced any threat of assimilation by Jews specifically.

    • naath says:

      “Unlike” American rules? Lots of people wouldn’t want to sit down to a standard American meal! Lots of Americans are disgusted by other people’s food! OK there isn’t that GOD SAYS level of “oh, I’d love to, but I can’t” going on, but there’s a lot of instinctive disgust going on.

      How many Americans would be delighted to join me for a haggis supper? Personally the very though of some American foods makes me gag, I doubt I could make myself eat them even though I have no moral or religious belief that they are “wrong” foods that I should never eat (some of them I think are unhealthy, but I certainly eat unhealthy food sometimes).

    • Matt M says:

      Have you tried to host a meal for a decently large group (say 10+) of people who aren’t from the same general cultural background lately? It’s damn near impossible.

      • anonymous says:

        And life goes on.

      • Cellebrarium says:

        I have, pretty recently. There were 61 of them from 17 different countries from South Korea to Italy. It was a cakewalk: it simply didn’t cross my mind to “accommodate” them according to their culture, so I didn’t. I noticed and received no reproach.

        • Tom says:

          I second this. Nothing so large as you, but I’ve cooked for people from at least 10 different countries with no trouble. I’ve also eaten insects and none of Scott’s other prohibitions seemed all that convincing either.

  17. Lemminkainen says:

    The average American’s conception of what religions are tends to treat Protestant Christianity as the normative example of religion. Luther prioritized specific, codified belief and close adherence to a religious text (ie: salvation by faith alone, scripture as the sole authority for guiding believers’ practices). It was a radical departure at the time, but later Protestants basically normalized it. America’s Catholics and Jews basically won acceptance for their religions by articulating them in a similar way. (And this has only happened incompletely, and relatively recently. See something like say, Robert Orsi’s “Between Heaven and Earth” for an explanation of Catholicism centered around devotion to saints, lighting candles, saying particular prayers, looking at pictures, and other specific practices rather than texts or creeds.)

    • Neanderthal From Mordor says:

      American intellectual elites view all religions as interchangeable charities topped by a vaguely spiritual mumbo jumbo. Those who don’t fit this image are seen as rubes, heretics and evil.

    • Yes. I see an awful lot of writing about religion which basically assumes that all religions are variations on evangelical Protestantism, or which reacts in surprise to the realization that other religions are not evangelical Protestantism. Specialists make this error less often, but often still fall into it. And never mind the efforts that others make, explicitly and implicitly, to make other religions into Evangelical Protestantism.

    • Deiseach says:

      an explanation of Catholicism centered around devotion to saints, lighting candles, saying particular prayers, looking at pictures, and other specific practices rather than texts or creeds

      Well, the texts and creeds are the foundations (the doxos) and the culti of the saints, particular prayers, etc. are the everyday practice (the praxis), and this applies to every belief system: most people, in their day-to-day lives when practicing their religion, don’t sit down and contemplate the theology, they do things, pray, operate out of a common shared if unspoken assumption about ‘this is what we believe’.

      Scott is correct that other cultures, such as Classical Rome, were more concerned with orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy; just offer the pinch of incense to the Emperor’s genius as a symbol that you are a law-abiding citizen and willing to engage in the public rites, nobody cares if you believe in the deification of the Emperor or not. It would be like standing up for the National Anthem; anyone remaining defiantly seated would be seen as “what’s wrong with you, don’t you know the right and expected thing to do, hey are you an enemy of the state?” even though standing for the anthem is a mark of respect only and says nothing about your actual patriotism or whether you want to blow up the houses of parliament or not.

      Just as American Civil Religion may be based on a secular, science*-based foundation, but the majority of Americans are not “scientists” and don’t go around quoting Boyle’s Law at one another, rather they invoke “Science! Progress! Reason! Liberty! Tolerance!” as the expression of their beliefs and the greatness of the great nation built upon these principles 🙂

      *Where “science” can be an understanding ranging from “we know how things work in a mechanical, physical sense” to “I Fucking Love SCIENCE!” and all points between.

  18. Lemminkainen says:

    Oh, also, one of the things I research involves the history of Protestant American missionaries in the 19th century. Their efforts to convert people to Christianity were usually entwined with efforts to convert them to something like what you call the American civil religion. The missionaries argued endlessly about whether or not this was appropriate, and about what the function of the mission should be. Eventually, teaching the civil religion plus Western science and its attendant package of ideas (as well as caring for orphans and medical humanitarian work) wound up displacing conversion efforts for missionaries from the mainline churches. In a bunch of cases, the missionary organizations turned into secular charitable organizations.

    • JDG1980 says:

      Oh, also, one of the things I research involves the history of Protestant American missionaries in the 19th century. Their efforts to convert people to Christianity were usually entwined with efforts to convert them to something like what you call the American civil religion. The missionaries argued endlessly about whether or not this was appropriate, and about what the function of the mission should be.

      This was by no means unique to American Protestants. Similar arguments had happened centuries before regarding Catholic missions to Asia and the New World. (Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity describes some of these.)

      Here’s a set of instructions from the Church in 1659 regarding Asian missionary work:

      Do not act with zeal, do not put forward any arguments to convince these peoples to change their rites, their customs or their usages, except if they are evidently contrary to the religion [i.e., Catholic Christianity] and morality. What would be more absurd than to bring France, Spain, Italy or any other European country to the Chinese? Do not bring to them our countries, but instead bring to them the Faith, a Faith that does not reject or hurt the rites, nor the usages of any people, provided that these are not distasteful, but that instead keeps and protects them.

      There was later some backtracking on this subject, leading to what is known as the Chinese Rites controversy.

      • Lemminkainen says:

        Oh, I’m aware of the Chinese Rites controversy too. What’s interesting about the case of the American Protestants is that almost none of them would actually say that anything beyond their faith in God and the Gospels is an official part of their religion, but they still wound up having arguments about how much other knowledge to bring in.

  19. Sparky Z says:

    “Mixing milk and soda in the same glass would be absurd and disgusting.”

    You’ve just described an “egg cream”, a classic New York beverage. 🙂

    • I think it matters that the soda in an egg cream is unflavored. Putting milk into a coke would be weird.

      • JBeshir says:

        I did this once as a kid and forced myself to drink half the result out of a desire to not look stupid before I gave up. It’s not just weird, it’s foul. Eurgh.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Vanilla ice cream in a root beer, on the other hand, is just fine.

  20. Steve Sailer says:

    Awhile ago I wrote about why 20th Century gentile Americans traditionally preferred white foods — white bread, vanilla ice cream, mayonnaise, etc. — and why this freaked out Jewish comedians:

    • Thursday says:

      It’s kind of weird too, as many kinds of white bread are really good: baguettes and such. The crappy sliced bread and not very good vanilla ice cream aren’t really representative.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        But if you aren’t going to make your family’s sandwiches from bread you baked yourself and from sausages you ground yourself, how do you know your baker and butcher aren’t just, say, tossing in dead cockroaches they swept up off the floor? What if the factory is adding strong flavors to cover up filler? How can you tell that your delicious store-bought dark rye bread isn’t infected with the brownish-purple ergot of rye mold, which can cause the neurological disorder St. Vitus’s Dance?

        One solution favored by some immigrant groups was to rely upon a trusted neighborhood delicatessen with famously high standards. The ethnic deli method was especially popular with cultures that traditionally endorsed complicated food taboos that made it difficult to share a convivial meal with outsiders. Of course, it also tended to exacerbate immigrant ethnocentrism, making them nervous when they dined away from their home turf, as when Alvy Singer tries to eat an Easter ham with Annie Hall’s family.

        In contrast, the Pure Foods Movement that WASP ladies (many of whom were also in the temperance struggle) started after the Civil War sought to find remedies for their more open and mobile culture. One was federal regulation: The coalition finally succeeded in passing the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking “The Jungle.”

        Another tactic was favoring lighter-colored and lighter-flavored foodstuffs that were harder to pollute.

        And it worked. A scientist wrote in 1926 of trends in bread, “To all appearances…the general public is continuing in its belief (justified both by the bacteriological count and the microscopic examination) that whiteness or creamy whiteness is a sign of cleanness.”

        Whiteness was next to cleanliness. A non-food example was Procter & Gamble introducing in 1881 a famous slogan to sell their Ivory Soap bars: “99 and 44/100ths pure.” By today’s standards, a packaged good that is advertised as 0.56 percent random crud sounds like trouble, but in 1881 that marked a new benchmark in quality control.

        • Deiseach says:

          I don’t know about America but I imagine there was something the same at work in immigrants’ minds; white bread had for a long time been a luxury good, as the extra work to refine the flour made it more expensive. White bread and goods prepared from white flour were dainties and delicacies for the better-off; the poorer baked their own bread at home from coarser flour.

          In rural Ireland the idea of “shop-bought” cakes and treats was seen as really pushing the boat out for a visitor; rather than the everyday kind of buns and tarts baked by your mother, to be able to afford to buy something from a shop, that was not everyday fare, was for special occasions only (of course that attitude has now changed).

          So for immigrants, eating “white” food would have been a sign that you’d made it, you were really on the pig’s back now! Being able to afford fancy goods from the shop instead of having to cook them yourself!

          Ironically, this notion of “whiteness” denoting a higher class of goods led to a lot of adulteration within the food industry; millers and bakers using all kinds of things to emulate white flour, dairies selling “milk” that was chalk-and-water. From Chesterton’s poem “The Song Against Grocers” for the popular (even in 1914) notion of shop-keepers adulterating their goods:

          He sells us sands of Araby
          As sugar for cash down;
          He sweeps his shop and sells the dust
          The purest salt in town,
          He crams with cans of poisoned meat
          Poor subjects of the King,
          And when they die by thousands
          Why, he laughs like anything.

          Again, how can sand be confused with sugar? Well, unrefined sugar was brown so you see once again: white sugar was harder to adulterate, and so whiteness was a guarantee of purity and safety 🙂

          • keranih says:

            you’d made it, you were really on the pig’s back now!

            ‘Mongst my grandmother’s kin, they’d say “living high on the hog.”

            As for the safety/unadulterated/non-toxic nature of the food purchased from someone else…the move towards ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ arose (according to one source) in the cottage industries of cheese-making in the Low Countries, where bacterial contamination could ruin weeks or months of investment in a product. Those housewife/businesswomen competed with each other in strict hygiene in order to promote their products.

            Given that they were doing so in a highly urban area on the cusp of the industrial revolution, this took some doing. And it was cross-Channel/long distance trade that drove the need for cheese of long shelflife.

            The rise of cotton as a clothing fiber also played a major role – while white wool (and linen) was available, and prized, grey or splotched fabric could easily be that way because that was the color of the wool (dyed or bleached or not.) Wide use of pale tan/white cotton made it easier to see the grime on unwashed clothing.

        • CatCube says:

          There’s plenty of places where store-bought bread is a luxury to living generations; my dad’s mom made their bread growing up, and that was a one-day-a-week task. (He remembers coming home in the 4th grade and they had an electric light in the house! When they got indoor plumbing when he was in early high school, he got in trouble with his dad for burning down the old shithouse. “Son, what if the pump fails!?”) IIRC, my mom’s mom did it too.

        • Thursday says:

          This explains why people developed a taste for white food, but it doesn’t really explain the revulsion against it later. I mean, as I say, baguettes are both delicious and white, so why haven’t the bad associations of white foods gone away.

          • Mary says:

            Some people just gotta be different.

            Besides, once it could be mass-produced, it wasn’t a sign of being special. Flamboyantly colored clothes and pale skin are other things that lost status with their becoming cheap.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            Why is white bread out of fashion?

            1. Diminishing returns: almost all foods sold in America have pretty high standards of cleanliness, so these days we trust that our store bought rye bread won’t give us St. Vitus’ Dance.

            2. Jewish comedians (e.g., Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen) seized on “white bread” as a metaphor for what they didn’t like (and/or lusted for) in gentile America. Alvy Singer, for example, is annoyed / aroused that Annie Hall orders pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise. We don’t have conceptual categories like “self-hating gentile,” so gentiles don’t understand much about the ethnic origins of many fashionable views they now hold.

            Thus, “white bread” is now an ethnic slur, like “watermelon.” You don’t see blacks going on about how much they love watermelon.

            Similarly, most white gentiles are vaguely aware that there is something ethnically shameful about white bread, but exactly among whom the slur originated and why is not the kind of thing that most white gentiles dwell upon or are even consciously aware of. Noticing anti-gentilism is not a good career move.

          • Deiseach says:

            What Mary said. When shop-bought bread was an expensive luxury (you buy bread instead of making it yourself???) then it was a signifier of upward social mobility.

            When mass production means anyone can buy a loaf of doughy white bread product that costs 49 pence/cents, the cachet is gone. Then it becomes a signifier of upward social mobility to blog about the hand-crafted artisanal rustic whole grain bread produced to a centuries-old family recipe you ate in that little village amongst the hills on your Italian/French/Czech holiday (but of course not on the beaten tourist track, no, you’re culturally sophisticated) 🙂

            I am still bamboozled by the trendiness of black pudding which happened a few years back, when expensive restaurants and foodie blogs were all over new recipes and combinations of ingredients involving black pudding. This is an example of “common foodstuff” becomes “we don’t eat that, it’s a throwback to our poor rural past” becomes “taken up by urban chic” gets given fancy new twist so it’s not the same as the ordinary plain dish and so manages to avoid the mass consumption by the plain people angle and yet signifies some kind of level of “authenticity” that the foodstuffs consumed by the plain people of the day lack.

          • Mark says:

            @Steve Sailer

            I think you’re projecting a hostility towards gentile culture onto Jews where none exists. For example, in the Annie Hall scene you mention, Allen’s character is shocked that Keaton orders a pastrami on white bread not because white bread is awful and inferior, but because there’s a “correct,” traditional way to have a pastrami from a Jewish deli (namely, on rye). If the character were played by an Indian actress who ordered a pastrami on naan, presumably the reaction would be identical – though I don’t think you’d be quite so tempted to spin this into a think piece on Jewish resentment towards the subcontinent.

          • God Damn John Jay says:

            We don’t have conceptual categories like “self-hating gentile,”

            We have lots of them, all of them including variants upon”cuck”.

          • Thursday says:

            But the point is that actual white bread isn’t out of fashion. Just calling it white bread is.

          • Steve Sailer says:


            “Annie Hall” is a whole lot funnier if you don’t try to force it into a politically correct framework where no hostility toward gentile culture exists.

          • Mark says:

            @Steve Sailer

            I actually went back and re-watched that clip before submitting my comment. Again, I think it’s projection. The resentment in the clip is not toward gentile culture, but toward gentile antisemitism (the grandmother); and insofar as gentile and Jewish culture are directly juxtaposed at the end by putting both of them on the screen at once, the wholesome and mannered former is presented rather favorably in comparison with the boisterous and messy latter. Underscoring humorous cultural differences is not the same thing as cultural chauvinism!

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Thursday:

            When people critique “white bread”, they mean a particular kind of white bread. The very kind of very sweet, very soft, square sandwich bread made by Sunbeam, Wonder, etc.

            Not baguettes or Italian bread or whatever.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            Nah, “white bread” has pretty much left behind any real world relationship with food preferences, and now it is entangled with “white suburban gentile.” You can tell by how “white bread” is now used to mean Not Black, even though blacks now eat a lot more white bread than do whites.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            “The resentment in the clip is not toward gentile culture, but toward gentile antisemitism (the grandmother);”

            Nah, “Annie Hall” is Woody Allen’s peak movie (it beat “Star Wars” for the Best Picture Oscar of 1977) because Woody made only perfunctory efforts to justify his ethnic resentments and shiksa lust. Instead, those emotions really energize his autobiographical Alvy Singer character because he gives them free rein without much effort to rationalize them. Alvy doesn’t need to be justified by how, while he may seem hostile and vindictive, he’s really, when you stop and think about it, the victim of society’s prejudices … The truth is he’s just a plain hilarious character. Animosity is funny.

            In general, Jewish-American comedy had gotten even funnier after the Six Days War of June 1967 when Jews finally got the confidence — We won a war! — to come out of the closet about how they felt about everybody else. Before the Six Days War, Jews in show biz tended to worry about what kind of impression they were making on gentiles. After June 1967, however, they suddenly noticed that audiences loved Jewish self-assertion.

            Thus from late 1967 onward, there were a series of classic comedies like Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” Philip Roth’s novel “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and Mel Brooks’ best movies. “Annie Hall” was the capstone of this 1967-1977 golden age of comic Jewish hostility.


        • Rock Lobster says:

          “And it worked. A scientist wrote in 1926 of trends in bread, “To all appearances…the general public is continuing in its belief (justified both by the bacteriological count and the microscopic examination) that whiteness or creamy whiteness is a sign of cleanness.””

          I think you just gave some postmodernist Critical Whiteness Studies Ph.D candidate an idea for her dissertation.

  21. Neanderthal From Mordor says:

    A big part of the conflicts within islam are about the blurred line between religious customs and tribal customs. Now we see wahhabis (Saudi Arabia, ISIS) forcing strict arabic customs over local heterodox ones that often take some form of sufi mysticism.

  22. Emile says:

    In addition to Ancient Religions, Eastern “Religions” like Taoism and Confucianism are also illustrative examples, in that there’s some debate as how much they qualify as religions – they seem to be much more clearly in the same category as Roman or American civil religions, but are further away from Islam or Catholicism.

    • Nornagest says:

      Confucianism, at least, strikes me as close to the classical philosophies of living, like Stoicism or Epicurianism. There’s a lot of religious content in both, but it’s more inherited from the surrounding culture than indigenous to the school of thought. Early Buddhism was similar, but most of its various branches grew into full-fledged religions over time.

      I’m less sure about Taoism — the word seems to cover an awful lot of ground.

      • onyomi says:

        I think there is a sense in which “Taoism” is just a catch-all term for “native-Chinese mysticism.”

  23. Jack V says:

    I’ve got into the habit of usually saying “culture” when I used to say “religion”. Like religions are just a special case of cultures which are usually high in “people caring a lot about” and “talking about the moral/supernatural”. And things like “freedom of religion” are better expressed as “freedom of culture” or “freedom of things people care sufficiently deeply about”.

    And in some places, the culture is fairly homogenous, like ancient judiasm was “what people in that culture did”, and someone was jewish if they lived in that culture, even if they didn’t do all the things jewish people were supposed to do.

    And in other places, there was a background culture of multiculturalism, but it was expected everyone to have their own particular culture (as long as it fell within broad limits of what was “allowed” to vary).

    And I think in some cultures, the culture has changed smoothly, with the supernatural elements emerging or falling away without a specific tipping point. But it seems common that religions cling on when other aspects of culture change, possibly because there’s a hook, a reason for thinking you *should* perpetuate it.

  24. I think governments/countries are a lot like gods– creatures of the imagination that which people believe in very strongly. My impression is that people realize governments are human inventions, but mostly don’t want to believe that.

  25. Carinthum says:

    I’d be curious what Scott Alexander thinks of the post about bewaring Amateur Sociology. Obviously not too much if he’s written this post, but it would be interesting to have an idea of what he thinks.

  26. Nita says:

    Wait, is kashrut about the kinds of things most Jewish people like to eat? I thought it was about the kinds of things a Jewish person is allowed to eat.

    Or perhaps they should make a special episode of “Fear Factor” for observant Jews, where daring participants consume slices of bacon and bob for meatballs in a vat of milk.

  27. Muga Sofer says:

    There’s a lot of truth here, but I’m too busy screaming about the amateur comparative theology and biblical scholarship to comment on it right this second.


    • eponymous says:

      Somehow, amateur rationalist discussions always seem erudite and well-informed until they approach my area of actual expertise, when they magically become rather shallow, and heavily skewed towards disputes commonly made on the internet, rather than the actual points of contention among experts.

      I assume that my area of expertise is quite unique in this 😉

      • Jiro says:

        I’m not a sociologist and yet Scott’s argument here to me seems obviously flawed and based on a just-so story.

      • Daniel Kokotajlo says:

        I’ve had the same experience (AoS: Philosophy) and it bothers me. One thing I tell myself to make myself less bothered: This is probably true of everything. If you are an expert in something, then you should expect to perceive non-expert discussions about it as shallow. Rationalists are no exception. The question is, are rationalist discussions of your AoS less shallow than non-rationalist discussions of your AoS, controlling for level of expertise?

      • Tom Scharf says:

        There is nothing more disheartening than having a trusted source discuss your particular area of expertise and find them wanting. The dissemination of knowledge seems to be rather chaotic.

      • rockroy mountdefort says:

        complaints by professionals about the broader public discourse, after seeing enough instances of the genre, starts to look a less like “these people are meaningfully wrong” and more like “these people aren’t respecting the shibboleths of my tribe!!”

      • Julie K says:

        Gell-Mann effect.

  28. chaosmage says:

    You’re right on all the facts as far as I can tell (and I have an MA in comparative religion), but your main theoretical claim

    > The important thing about a religion is that it has a rallying flag that encourages it to preserve a certain culture, plus walls against the outside world.

    is only a necessary condition for religions that last. There are a lot of those. Which of them a theorist focuses on tends to say more about the theorist than about religion. Yours sounds like one that’d appeal to a micronations guy. As an artsy guy, I like to view religions as groups of behaviors that attempt to monopolize attentional resources. Neither of us will find our pet focus very helpful in explaining syncretism, predicting the behavior of religious specialists or drawing a satisfactory distinction between religion and magic. A proper “theory of religion” should do all that I think.

  29. TheAncientGeek says:

    If you are going to explain religion as ossified culture, then you need to account in some way for supernaturalism, often seen as necessary, defining feature of religion. You could do by making supernaturalism contingent, arguing that an ossified belief system will contain supernatural elements because that was the way the world was understood in ancient times. But that would mean that if someone invented a new, proselytizing movement with a supernatural belief system, it wouldn’t be a religion….’new religion’ wold be a contradiction in terms.

    • Frog Do says:

      How about defining it like an organism? Supernaturalism as a vestige organ in a mature religion, probably a remnent of when it was a baby mystery cult? So “new religion” is a contradiction because babies aren’t adults.

    • TheAncientGeek says:

      My point was that New Religion is established as a Thing .. it has specialists and journals devoted to it… so we should not be defining it out of existence.

    • rockroy mountdefort says:

      >then you need to account in some way for supernaturalism

      which scott does?

      did you not read OP?

  30. Not in Kansas Anymore— American magic.

    Also, part of American civil religion is that that things should be changed rather than put up with.

  31. Rob says:

    Insightful commentary. I find the essays on group behavior and religion to be more interesting than the statistics, but that’s probably because I have a math test today.

    It’s interesting that you tied in the idea of fictional narrative and religion, and I think you do have a good point, but the kind of cultural evolution you’re talking about might not actually exist on a small scale. I think it’s rarer that the original stories are ever a part of gospel – that is, the fictional elements are added over time like little weights, until the burden of proof is immense and ridiculous. The analogy to Superman kind of falls short in a way.

    Think of the people that, not knowing much about actual U.S. literature (or simply not knowing otherwise) happen to think that Tom Sawyer is an author and not a story. Or the people that think *Supernatural* has a roughly accurate depiction of the New Testament. Misconceptions and rituals don’t need to be caused by deliberate intervention, and in fact are most often caused by the exact opposite.

    I think what this tells me is that the atheists that laud some of the New Testament as a deliberate (and therefore despicable) fabrication are a bit fallacious, because it seems more to me like a compendium of stories that naturally evolved than an attempt at becoming a religion.

    EDIT: Also, yay, a post to read on my birthday. That brightened the day a little bit.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I find the essays on group behavior and religion to be more interesting than the statistics, but that’s probably because I have a math test today.

      Why not both?

      (This constitutes my bimonthly request for Scott to review the literature on the health/mental benefits of religion.)

  32. Jaskologist says:

    This is an interesting proposal, and I’ll have to process it a bit, but I think it is missing a key component. You describe a process that can make religion look a certain way. But you open with the observation that religion is universal, and what you need to explain that is not a theory of how religion can morph into X, but a theory of why religion is inevitable, which I don’t think you provided here.

  33. Mary says:

    “which is why you never hear the Greeks complaining that the Egyptians were evil heretics who denied the light of Zeus and needed to be converted by the sword.”

    Tell that to the Maccabees.

    The Greeks in the Hellenistic period were in fact very intent on unifying religion, using the interpretatio graeca to lump gods together: Odin, Mercury, and Thoth are all the same god; Krshna is Pan; Zeus is Set (and they had fun with the rehabilitation there); and the Roman gods, of course, were so identified that to this day we lump ’em together.

    If the Egyptians put up with it, it’s nevertheless a trait of the Greeks.

  34. keranih says:

    No dogs, cats, rodents, or horses. No reptiles or amphibians, no matter how much the French try to convince us that frog legs are great. No eating clearly obvious animal heads with eyes and stuff (even though dozens of advanced cultures do so happily). No blood products (eg black pudding). Mixing milk and soda in the same glass would be absurd and disgusting. Any tuna made with a process that cannot 100% exclude dolphins is impure. And this isn’t even including all of the more modern health-oriented taboos like gluten, MSG, trans-fats, GM foods, et cetera.

    What I find interesting about the American dietary rules are how regional/tribal they are (dolphin-safe tuna was never a thing, lobster was a rich man dish but we would eat mudpuppies if we could get them, yes-breakfast-came-with-grits-always, iced-tea-comes-with-sugar-in-it, there is a kind of oyster from the rocky mountains, GM? what, is the other food from Ford?) and how they’ve changed (or not) over our history.

    (And I’m not even getting into what has been discussed last thread, regarding BBQ.)

    I think the ‘mainstream’ American Religious Observances are a thin layer at best, and growing thinner as various factions attempt to promote their own touchstones, and downplay/ostracize the touchstones of others which are found to be offensive.

    Crucially, despite everything I’m saying about ossification the culture changes a lot: King Solomon would probably recognize modern rabbinic Judaism, but only barely. But it changes in a way different from the way the outside secular society changes, and in ways bound by the ossified text, so there’s still an element of having this ancient culture preserved in amber and maintained up to the modern day.

    A couple thoughts…

    Firstly, as has been pointed out upstream, secular society isn’t just changing in one direction, it’s changing in multiple directions. We lump ‘secular society’ into one pile as if it were a singular culture, but it is not, I think. At least, not in the USA (see my comment above re: food laws.) And it’s not as though portions of that secular society aren’t maintaining bits of the old ways as well.

    However, religious observance, in the ‘modern’ world, however, appears to do a better job of preserving, recording, and transmitting the patterns and lessons of the past society than does secular activity. Whether or not one sees this as useful likely depends on ones opinion of the old ways and of ones desire for rapid (rather than slow) change.

    Secondly…one of the larger portions of culture as I understand it are not things like dress and what day the fall festival falls on and what food is eaten – this is the superficial. Deeper down, and more crucial, is the relationships between different people that are governed by culture. What food we eat is less important than who we eat it with. Mixing wool and linen less important than mixing men and women in the same space. Religious observances, by ‘ossifying’ an older culture, are also retaining older modes of social interaction – such as institutions of marriage, social standing, legal recourse, and so forth. These give long term stability to families and to the preservation of that society – a society that is less likely to last without this framework.

    The way we shake hands and what color dress the bride wears are outward expressions of common agreement on commercial integrity and the importance of marriage. When we’ve lost that common agreement, it doesn’t matter the color of the dress, because what it represents is long gone.

    • Civilis says:

      I think the deepest down part is shared values. If you know someone’s values, you can predict or even manipulate how they will behave. For example, If I know the other guy values his marriage, I can (or could, at one point) assume he values remaining faithful to his assumed obligations, in this case, to his wife and children, and likewise, if he violates the marriage, I can wager he’ll be more likely to violate a mere business contract with me, who’s not in as close a relationship.

      At one point, a person could reasonably assume they’d have the same values as their family/clan, very similar values to their neighbors/people of similar ethnicity, with the closer the relationship, the more the values would coincide and the more their behavior could be predicted.

      With America being as diverse as it is, and with social mobility being such as it is, shared ethnicity and even family are no longer as good a predictor of values as they once were, whereas religion, which retains its connection to values, is still good as a predictor of shared values. Religion and politics both seem to directly connect to fundamental values, which is one of the reasons that differences seem so acrimonious.

      My parents are of different religions. I (mostly) adopted my father’s Catholicism, while my siblings fell into a general superficially Christian-tinted agnosticism. The parish I attend occasionally gets visiting priests from abroad, mainly Africa or South Asia. I can assume, for at least the values covered by Catholicism, that I will be closer to the visiting priest of a completely different nationality and ethnicity than to my non-Catholic family.

      • LHN says:

        If I know the other guy values his marriage, I can (or could, at one point) assume he values remaining faithful to his assumed obligations, in this case, to his wife and children, and likewise, if he violates the marriage, I can wager he’ll be more likely to violate a mere business contract with me, who’s not in as close a relationship.

        It’s a compelling hypothesis, and one that makes a lot of sense to my intuition. But people often seem to be more compartmentalized than that, and in surprising ways. E.g., Alexander Hamilton, who was famously adulterous– famously, because when it came out he publicly explicated the affair, in detail, to defend himself against peculation charges. And he certainly had had vast opportunities to exploit his political positions for financial gain. (Talleyrand, who knew something about taking advantage of an opportunity, was reportedly mystified that someone who’d held Hamilton’s opportunities had to try to make a living as a lawyer afterwards.) But repeated investigations by his bitter enemies only went to prove that he was as meticulous in his honor where the public purse was concerned as he was lax with respect to his marriage vows.

        Historically, keeping a mistress– even where it’s socially disapproved rather than generally accepted– doesn’t seem to be incompatible with sacrificial devotion to oaths of office or military service or fiduciary responsibility or bonds of friendship. I find that strange and hard to reconcile, but presumably that says as much about my own culture and ethics as it does theirs.

        • Deiseach says:

          Some of it may be the differing attitudes to marriage. We moderns have put all our eggs in one basket: a spouse is not just a spouse anymore, they are a lover, a best friend, someone who is your main emotional support, etc.

          Having a mistress on the side (but again, this was for men and not so much for women, with exceptions) in the past had nothing to do with your marital obligations. If you fulfilled the contract in treating your wife with respect and providing the maintenance for the household, you could have affaires as long as you were discreet; these were for love, which was capricious and emotional and a matter of physical attraction and could be temporary or long-term, whereas marriage was not primarily about love, was expected to be long-term, and was something that cemented you in a social role as citizen and adult.

          Men also were expected to have mistresses as proof of their virility and because sexual attraction was capricious; I can’t remember the details off-hand but there’s an anecdote of a Spanish king being rebuked by a priest or monk for cheating on his wife, and the king then orders the priest to be given partridge for his meal every day. At first the priest is delighted because partridge is a luxury dish, but after a week or so he starts to long for something else and asks the king can he change. The king then rubs the point in about being sexually faithful to only one woman by saying “Partridge is a fine dish, but if you could only eat partridge every day you’d soon get tired of it” 🙂

          • There is an Italian Renaissance story about a woman who was accused of adultery, which was a capital offense. Instead of denying the charge, she asked her husband whether she had ever refused him sex. He said she had not. She argued that since she was fully fulfilling her obligations to him, there was no reason to object to her providing the surplus to someone else (I don’t think the issue of children comes up in the story, but I’m going by memory).

            She is let free and the law is changed.

            Not, I think, a historical account, but a story reflecting the views of at least some people at the time.

          • Gerry Quinn says:

            I was never convinced by Paul Newman’s quip: “Why fool around with hamburger when you have steak at home?”. It was always my feeling that if one had steak every day, it would only instill a greater and greater desire for hamburger, the sleazier and greasier the better.

            It’s amusing to see that Newman’s argument was anticipated and demolished centuries ago!

          • Jiro says:

            By this reasoning the king ought to get really tired of being a king and let someone else rule in his stead.

          • LHN says:

            Kings and queens frequently had retreats or recreations where they could play at being something other than royalty, or otherwise get away from the ceremony and responsibility, without actually giving up the power and protection. E.g., Marie Antoinette pretending to be a shepherdess, or Louis XVI fiddling around with locks. Or holidays in which a child or a fool is made “king for a day” while the monarch goes along with the reversal– to a point.

            Some monarchs even do abdicate, though King Lear is an object lesson in why retirement may not be a practical option.

  35. Ninmesara says:

    Your point seems to be: humans naturally create exaggerated versions of reality (myths) unless held in check by reliable historical records. You take this as an unexplained axiom. Examples of myths are Superman, God, George Washington, etc. They attach those myths to their culture, and they become indistinguishable from the culture itself. Then, the myths gain autonomy from the culture through “ossification”, and survive even if the culture dies. Now you have a (modern) religion. These steps are more or less plausible, I guess, but the interesting part for a theory of religion is the unexplained axiom… The rest is just describing how culture changes with time (remember, to you, culture is the same as religion).

    I don’t think you can call your post a Theory of Religion when the world “supernatural” appears exactly once, and the word “God” (capitalized) and “god” is used as a metaphor for culture. To me, a theory of religion has to explain how the belief in unverifiable supernatural entities appears so frequently in humans. It’s all fine and dandy that your culture “says” that you must not eat the flesh of the pig. Something completely different is saying that an extremely powerful supreme being (or a team of such) tells you that eating the flesh of the pig is wrong because they exist and they say so. For example, I’d consider legitimate explanations variations of the following:
    – Some(all, most, whatever) humans have a brain architecture that tells them to believe in God(s) [genetic argument]
    – societies that don’t believe in God(s) have been conquered by those who do [darwinist argument]. This would require an explanation on why religion is so effective for this purpose that it can be found in most human societies.
    – God(s) exist(s) and the most rational humans naturally believe in His(their, her, zir, whatever) existence based on the overwhelming evidence in favor [the Truth argument]
    – religion is a form of coping with the reality of death [clearly not universal, but might work for some religions]

    You dismiss the supernatural parts as mythologies that humans make naturally given the absence of historical record. If you don’t try to give reasons for this mythologising instinct in humans, you’re not really explaining much at all… Maybe we are using different definitions of religion, or you’re trying to explain religion at a different level.
    But to me, a theory of religion that sidesteps the supernatural elements so casually doesn’t deserve that name.

    • Deiseach says:

      You can go overboard with the “reasons for the mythologising instinct in humans”, though. Apparently there was a popular “mythology is a disease of language” explanation, derived from a philologist, examples of which I’ve seen in old comparative religion popular works.

      You’re probably familiar with James Branch Cabell poking fun at “every religion is based on a solar myth” in Jurgen ( It is unnecessary to observe that in this exhaustive digest Professor de Ruiz has given (VII, p. 415 et sequentia) a summary of the greater part of these legends as contained in the collections of Verville and Bülg; and has discussed at length and with much learning the esoteric meaning of these folk-stories and their bearing upon questions to which the “solar theory” of myth explanation has given rise. To his volumes, and to the pages of Mr. Lewistam’s Key to the Popular Tales of Poictesme, must be referred all those who may elect to think of Jurgen as the resplendent, journeying and procreative sun.)

      That school which really went overboard in the enthusiasm for euhumerisation and language-explanations, for example: the myth of Hercules and Iole, which was explained as poetic metaphors for simple natural phenomena; “Iole” is derived from a word meaning “violet” and so refers to the purple clouds of sunset, which Heracles (in his role as solar hero) carries off with him, etc. etc. etc.

      This is rather like saying that a modern day story about a girl called “Violet” is really referring to the sunset clouds, and that no person such as “Violet” ever existed because why would people call their children by colour or flower names?

      In sum, the theory is that myths are a long-winded way of people conveying to one another the information that when the winds blow, clouds are carried along across the sky, and that the sun rises, is at its strongest and brightest, and then sets every day, and that summer tends to be warmer and brighter than winter 🙂

    • Thursday says:

      To me, a theory of religion has to explain how the belief in unverifiable supernatural entities appears so frequently in humans.

      Right, this post doesn’t explain how mythology gets started. In fact, gods typically start out as personifications of natural forces. That would seem to require a tendency to posit non-human agents out in the world. Then you start to tell stories about how these personifications have acted, often as a way of explaining important features of their societies or of the natural world.

    • Alliteration says:

      “– God(s) exist(s) and the most rational humans naturally believe in His(their, her, zir, whatever) existence based on the overwhelming evidence in favor [the Truth argument]”
      There is a variant that would claim that given the evidence of a per-scienctific age, that God exists is the most plausible theory in spite of the non-existence of God. Similar to how a earth-centric solar system was more plausible than a sun-centric solar system until physics advanced to the point to be able to explain how people wouldn’t be flung off the surface of the earth.

      • Ninmesara says:

        > There is a variant that would claim that given the evidence of a per-scienctific age, that God exists is the most plausible theory in spite of the non-existence of God

        Fair enough, the existence of God(s) seems like one of the most plausible ways to explain the world. It seems like the result of an overactive pattern matching module of the human mind that tries to discern “motivations” for natural phenomena: “Why does it rain? Because the powerful guy above is angry at his wife. When they reconcile, the rainbow appears and the sun shines again”.

    • rockroy mountdefort says:

      You seem to need for there to be a specific mythologizing instinct, but you don’t really explain why that’s necessarily so, while rejecting scott’s hypothesis of mythologization / the supernatural as an emergent behavior (“humans naturally create exaggerated versions of reality (myths) unless held in check by reliable historical records”) without any explanation of why it’s necessarily wrong.

      There’s no particular reason why the supernatural has to be special, interesting, or anything at all more than a tendency of cultures to turn their supermen into gods in the absence of better explanations.

      • Ninmesara says:

        I do not reject Scott’s hypothesis of mythologization. I’m just saying that the post fails to explain the mythologization part; I agree it is probably an emergent phenomenon, but the phenomenon itself doesn’t seem to be addressed at all. Instead, it is taken as a given, and the rest of the essay is spent discussing culture and not the supernatural part. To me, the supernatural IS special and interesting, and an explanation that explains it away as “just culture” seems to neglect what most people call “religion”.

  36. Viliam says:

    Scott, I hope you will read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” and write a post about it. You would be the perfect person for this job.

    The reason why I mention it here is because it also contains an explanation of the origin of religions as we know them now. (Spoiler: They are attempts to bring back the good old times where everyone was actually seeing hallucinated gods all day long, just like in Illiad. When people evolved further and lost most of the ability to hallucinate, they logically concluded that gods left them because they got angry at them. Then religions became attempts to appease the angry gods.)

    • Ilya Shpitser says:

      I second this, I love that book, and I think Scott would have an interesting take on it.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Jaynes must be an incredibly convincing author, because I’ve never seen a synopsis of his thesis that doesn’t look completely insane, yet people who are otherwise sane seem to consider it at least worthy of consideration.

      • youzicha says:

        Are there very many people who believe it though? I think most comments on the book that I have seen has been along the lines of “this is a really cool theory, although I don’t really think it’s true”.

        • latetotheparty says:

          I would be willing to go out on a limb and argue that at least 90% of that book’s claims seem to be the most plausible explanation for the evidence offered.

          When you look at some of these ancient writings in a certain light, it becomes impossible to dismiss the idea that they were actually hearing voices routinely, and that this was a normal thing. Temple priests in Ancient Sumeria routinely wrote as if gods were alive and communicating with them, demanding mundane things like being fed and being able to have sex with other gods (which the priests were supposed to facilitate somehow). Truly bizarre stuff.

          As people stopped hearing voices routinely, they complained about it widely. There are many writing about how “Why have the voices of the gods forsaken me???” Without the voices of the gods to tell them what to do, people resorted to all sorts of bizarre superstitions for making weighty decisions.

          Jaynes presents evidence that even reading was “heard” auditorially, not just “in the mind’s ear,” but in a way as real as the hallucinations of schizophrenics. Sumerian tablets actually routinely began with the author addressing THE TABLET ITSELF. The author would write on the tablet something along the lines of, “Hey you tablet, listen up! You need to say unto Mr. so-and-so this following message…” Bizarre, huh?

          Even in the late classical era, a colleague of St. Augustine’s was famously known to be able to read a written text IN HIS HEAD without speaking the words out loud, and it freaked St. Augustine out struck him as something miraculous. Everyone else had to speak the words out loud and actually hear them to get them to register, such was the lingering importance of actually hearing words, and not just in a “mind’s ear” type of way.

          Of course, other scholars have found differing explanations for this not having to do with the Bicameral mind thesis. But this is just one tidbit of evidence. There is SO MUCH EVIDENCE in Jaynes’s book, that if you find yourself discounting 80% of it, you are still left with a mountain of evidence suggesting that his theory is true.

          • Nita says:

            Temple priests in Ancient Sumeria routinely wrote as if gods were alive and communicating with them

            That is the kind of thing one tends to hear from priests, yes.

            Sumerian tablets actually routinely began with the author addressing THE TABLET ITSELF.

            — Jeeves! Get me a messenger. I need to send some news to my nephew.
            — Of course, madam. And perhaps you’d care to try the latest marvel of technology — the ‘tablet’?
            — What on Earth is that? And what does it do?
            — It is just like a messenger, madam, only more reliable. And quite easy to use — just say what you would say to a messenger, and Mr Scribe here will write it down for you.
            — I see. Well, then. Listen, tablet. You need to deliver this message to Mr Pennington-Duckworth…

            He also apparently considers writings like this to be evidence for his theory:

            My god has forsaken me and disappeared.
            The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

            But don’t many modern people report feeling this way as well?

          • latetotheparty says:

            Re: Nita – I’m not talking about the temple’s propaganda for public consumption. By all indications, even when the priests were writing to each other, they talked casually as if they believed this absurd stuff.

            Then there’s another case Jaynes cites were a non-priest Sumerian scribe was writing about a private matter to his deceased uncle to get him to adjudicate a dispute the man was having with his deceased mother. It was written in casual language for private consumption, so there would have been no reason for the man to be pretending for the sake of complying with official doctrine. The man was evidently having an ongoing dispute with his deceased mother. How on earth could that be?

            “Well, that guy was just crazy.” But there are TONS of examples of this in Jaynes’s evidence, and practically no examples pre-~1200 B.C. of what we would consider to be “normal” ways of thinking about these things.

            Re: people nowadays who report hearing voices, interacting with god, etc. Well, why on Earth would this be a typical failure mode of the human brain in the first place? It’s oddly specific, when you think about it. Jaynes, of course, links it to his Bicameral Mind thesis.
            and Jaynes would argue that those people are expressing vestiges of the Bicameral mind if they report hearing voices, being guided by divine providence, etc.

            Like I said, though, this all just scratches the surface of the evidence Jaynes presents. I’m just reporting some of the first stuff that jumps to my mind after having read the book several years ago. If I went back over my copy of “Bicameral Mind” (can’t right now, at work), I could find tons of stuff that would be even more persuasive. You really have to read it for yourself. I am shocked, SHOCKED, that Scott Alexander has apparently never read it.

          • Deiseach says:

            Jaynes presents evidence that even reading was “heard” auditorially, not just “in the mind’s ear,” but in a way as real as the hallucinations of schizophrenics.

            Well, duh. We have evidence that people who read did not read “silently” to themselves but aloud, possibly as a consequence of the way they learned to read (when you’re learning in school, you prove you can read by reading aloud along with the rest of the class or reading a piece of text aloud to the teacher. Even when I was doing the Leaving Cert, in English class we would routinely read the text of the novel aloud in class rather than all silently reading along while the teacher explained it to us).

            This was something that apparently amazed people who visited St Ambrose in the 3rd century, and is the one you are referring to:

            Some have disputed this, but it is claimed that Ambrose invented silent reading. The Romans were in the habit of declaiming a text, even in private, reading aloud to audiences, even an audience consisting only of oneself. But Augustine says of Ambrose, in Book 6, chapter 3 of his Confessions:

            When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

            Jaynes is weaving gold out of straw there, I fear, pushing too much into “hey people used to read aloud” as meaning “they thought the voices in their heads were other people talking to them not their own thoughts”; if you’re reading aloud, you know it’s your own voice, even if you accept that the words of the text are the thoughts of someone else. That’s like a future Jaynes from the 40th century saying “20th century people who overheard the sound of music from someone’s headphones as they sat on the bus or walked by in the street must have thought that the music was being directly transmitted to their heads by the fairies, because they had no conception of the difference between ‘hearing aloud something not produced by them’ and ‘non-supernatural explanations’ ” 🙂

            I suppose Jaynes would explain Chaucer’s envoi at the conclusion of “Troilus and Criseyde” in the same manner as Chaucer really believed he was talking to a book that could hear and answer him?

            Go, litel book, go litel myn tregedie,
            Ther god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
            So sende might to make in som comedie!
            But litel book, no making thou n’envye,
            But subgit be to alle poesye;
            And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
            Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

            Or that when we all start a letter with “Dear Sir”, we are expressing our personal admiration of and loving devotion to the person so addressed, not using a standard opening hallowed by tradition?

          • Jaskologist says:

            I hesitate to comment because I have not read the book, but I did at least read the meltingasphalt synopsis, and the bits that overlap with areas I’m knowledgeable about don’t look so good. The excerpt from Psalm 22 needs to be taken wildly out of context to make it about not hearing voices anymore; the more obvious interpretation of “God, why are you letting bad things happen to me?” fits much better.

            Nor did Augustine freak out at the fact that Ambrose read silently. He certainly considered it an oddity worthy of mention, but that’s it (you can read the actual original passage here). And Augustine is nearly a thousand years after this changeover supposedly occurred.

            And then the more I think about it, the more I can come up with plenty of (relatively) recent writings which could be fit into the same theory if I were inclined. It all feels like overactive pattern matching, when there are much simpler explanations on hand.

    • youzicha says:

      For some other rationalistsphere takes, Kevin Simler (Melting Asphalt) wrote a series of popularizing blogposts, starting here I think. And Muflax had a post about it too, which seemed like he got a lot more out of the book than I did, but that one seems to be buried in the sands of time.

    • Deiseach says:

      It’s a great theory, in the same way that Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess” is a great theory, but equally unbelievable.

      It really rests on “Sure, we hear voices in our heads but we know that those are our own thoughts because we know there are no such things as gods or demons” and “old-timey people couldn’t help being dumb, they didn’t recognise their own thoughts as being theirs, they thought that was ‘the voice of conscience’ or a direct message from a god rather than knowing it was their subconscious”. It requires that we accept that people were genuinely unable to tell the difference between “stream of consciousness” thinking about that fight I had with Auntie Mabel, maybe I should apologise and make up with her, and something that seemed so much different to their ordinary thoughts and knowledge it was like an outsider speaking to them “Forgive your enemies”.

      If you accept that, then you have to consider that Marcus Tiddlypus going around his everyday routine and thinking to himself “Hm, I feel a bit peckish, I could really go for some olives and goat’s cheese right now” would immediately fall on his face and declaim THE GODS HAVE VOUCHSAVED UNTO ME THE MYSTIC REVELATION THAT THE SACRED MEAL OF OLIVES – IN HONOUR OF ATHENA – AND THE CHEESE OF GOATS – TO SYMBOLISE GREAT PAN – MUST BE CONSUMED NOW, THIS INSTANCE!!!

      Because, you know, he couldn’t distinguish between his own interior thought process and exterior causes he might attribute any seeming revelations to; everyone assumed that if they wrote a poem or created a law or discovered something new it was an inspiration of the gods by direct putting the words into their head.

      I don’t think so. Certainly it’s arguable that some people who were what we would nowadays say suffering from mental illness or intellectual impairment were seen as oracles; there’s evidence that the sick and the insane were seen as closer to the world of the gods or the divine or the other world, that they were somehow marked or chosen, and so to be regarded as objects of charity and blessing. The Irish expression “duine le Dia” means, literally, “person with God/person belonging to God” and is used to refer to people who are intellectually disabled or otherwise considered “simple” or “lacking”, and does not have pejorative overtones.

      Hearing voices would certainly be part of that. But it’s a real stretch to say “all humans once possessed this kind of split consciousness and now we don’t and that’s why people used to believe in the supernatural and now we don’t”. It’s the flip side of “Yeah, the explanation for the Road to Damascus bit was Paul having an epileptic fit” – sure, if you don’t believe in gods and you take the text as recording some kind of actual happening, you need an explanation that suits your world view and epilepsy is a handy one, but it’s not necessarily what really happened (even if you still don’t accept gods, Paul could have been lying, it could all be an invention years later, Paul was a neurotic who worried himself into a nervous breakdown and hysterical blindness, etc.)

      • Mary says:

        In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (about writing and mental illness, fascinating book, I recommend it), Alice W. Flaherty, although an atheist, points out that the road to Damascus bit exactly fits an epileptic fit except that other people saw and heard something — and if you’re not going to believe that part, you’ve got no grounds for accepting the rest.

        • Deiseach says:

          I rather like the “reasonable explanation for Bible and Gospel stories” attempts, because some of them are even more entertainingly implausible than the supernaturalism they’re trying to explain away.

          My favourite will probably always be ice-floe surfing Jesus 🙂

          • Mary says:

            I remember that one. Produces a sort of “you’d believe anything, wouldn’t you?” reaction.

          • Deiseach says:

            I can sympathise with outright scepticism or even hostility: “I don’t believe that because it’s arrant nonsense”. But this kind of trying to save the appearances, whatever it does for the supernatural, ends up confounding what commonsense experience we have of the everyday and so sounds even worse than a flat-out miracle. It rests on an entire chain of coincidences happening just in the right sequence at the right time:

            (1) Localised ice floes have to happen enough that they are reliably A Thing That Happens, or else your theory is dead from the start

            (2) However, they have to be infrequent enough so that the apostles freak out and go “it’s a ghost, it’s a spirit” when they see Jesus apparently walking on the water instead of “oh yeah, must be more of that temporary ice” as a phenomenon that they’ve all seen since childhood (you’re telling me that ‘walking on water that is really walking on ice’ is not a joke that older guys pull on younger guys all the time as the kind of hazing/initiation ritual into a fishing crew that happens in pretty much all blue-collar trades/jobs, or at least used to do? If people know about localised ice and fog and how to make it look like they’re walking on water?)

            A good proportion of the apostles were professional fishermen; that’s why they were out in boats in the first place. They spent all their working lives, if not all their actual lives, on and around the sea of Galilee. They needed to be familiar with local weather conditions in order to successfully fish; you won’t do much if you’re not able to read the signs that a storm is coming up, or that the fish won’t be biting today.

            Yet they seemingly know nothing about localised ice, which very conveniently just happens at the exact moment Jesus appears.

            (3) Jesus, who is not a local fisherman but a carpenter’s son, puts enough faith in this unfamiliar phenomenon not to have any worries about walking out on the ice to the boat. Because He can tell it’s safe to do so, even though He’s not a local and has no knowledge of local conditions.

            (4) Also, He manages to go out just far enough that He can get back to dry land safely when the ice starts melting, unlike Peter who jumps out of the boat and then sinks when the ice starts melting.

            (5) He does not clear up “Whoa, whoa guys: walking on water? What are you talking about, that’s impossible, I was walking on the ice” afterwards and lets them believe He’s a miracle worker. And none of the guys ever learn about localised ice floes when they recount this story and someone goes “He was pulling your leg, guys; anyone can ‘walk on water’ round here if they know the trick about the ice”.

            Frankly “It’s all a story they made up when they were drunk/high” is more convincing 🙂

            It’s what Chesterton is talking about here re: Gladstone and Parnell’s ghost:

            It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

      • Someone I know told me about hearing voices. He said they absolutely sounded like real voices, not anything imagined. And yet he is convinced that they were not real because there was no one around etc., they had no future consequences, and so on.

        I have not had any experiences like that, and it is hard for me to imagine having any. But apparently they are not all that rare even in the modern world. I don’t see why it is absurd to suppose that they may have been more common in other times or places, for reasons unknown to me, especially since I don’t know how they happen at all.

        That said, I certainly do not agree with that book.

        • Gerry Quinn says:

          If there is white noise, as in a train, I can hear anything I choose to hear – and once I have imagined it up, I cannot easily distinguish it from real sound.

      • Alejandro says:

        I think Graves’ White Goddess theory was on a different level. Jaynes’ book gave me the (seemingly common) feeling “this is a tantalizing and fascinating theory, but the evidence presented seems like it could be cherry-picked or capable of more mundane explanations, I wonder what does more modern scholarship say?” Graves’ book, even not knowing anything about ancient mythology and poetry, gave me the feeling “this is just a crackpot seeing evidence where there is none and sometimes outright making up stuff”.

        (I loved how Graves used the White Goddess theory as mythological background in the novels King Jesus and The Golden Fleece, but reading the actual full theory after those was a disappointment.)

        By the way, is the use of “Marcus Tiddlypus” as a placeholder Roman name inspired by Colleen McCulloughs Masters of Rome series of novels? IIRC she says in the Appendix of one of the books that she coined “Lucius Tiddlypuss” as a placeholder name for her characters to use because is sounds at the same time pseudo-Roman, and also ridiculous.

        • Deiseach says:

          Marcus Tiddlypus is indeed that reference 🙂

          Graves’ book is an overwhelming experience to read in one gulp and, like all good conspiracy theorists, he weaves a tightly-knotted web of rather feverish explanation where if he gets you to accept step one, this leads on to step two and so forth.

          If you are unfamiliar with the material, it’s extremely convincing. If you step back and cool down a bit, you then go “yes, but the alternate explanation for that is …” and it helps you disentangle yourself.

          I think Jaynes is the same class of thing: if you accept his first premise, he then leads you along the path of seemingly inevitable “And then this, this and finally you get there”. But you have to step back and say “yeah, but there is an alternate explanation for that” or “you have not considered, or have deliberately ignored, this point”.

    • latetotheparty says:

      Thank you! I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels like there has been a distinct lack of engagement with Julian Jaynes’s work in this comment thread so far. I second the petition to have Scott read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”!

  37. dndnrsn says:

    It wasn’t just ancient religion that didn’t draw a line between “religion” and “everything else”. That’s a pretty modern (and pretty Western, and pretty Protestant, if I’m remembering what I learned way back when) thing to do. As is often the case, WEIRD people are the unusual ones. It’s not crazy (or particularly new) to think that a time-travelling Roman would look at the Lincoln memorial and think “these people aren’t so weird, see, they deify their dead rulers”. “American civic religion” is totally a thing – Americans don’t understand it as something “outside of reality”, but neither do most societies.

    This is not reinventing 100-level stuff, but it is reinventing 200-level stuff. The 200-level stuff is way cooler: I remember my mind being blown in university when I learned about Apollonius of Tyana.

    • Mary says:

      There are two types of religion.

      The first is tightly woven in society and daily life. It tends to be highly syncretistic and not have much if any theology, or any name, until . . .

      The second is formed by breaking off from the first. It rejects things from the first type or other second type religions and imports others. Syncretistism is much less and tends only to happen later. It has theology to reject or accept things. It has a name. And the first type of religion acquires a name (if at all) now and starts to develop a theology to defend itself with.

      The first type includes Hinduism, Shinto, and Greco-Roman paganism (which technically still doesn’t have a name; calling it paganism is like calling people in a specific country Gentiles).

      The second type includes Buddhism and Christianity. Because they are broken off, they are much more conscious of themselves as something, namely religion.

      • onyomi says:

        “starts to develop a theology to defend itself with.”

        “Because they are broken off, they are much more conscious of themselves as something, namely religion.”

        This is the best description I’ve seen of a phenomenon I’ve noticed for some time.

      • dndnrsn says:

        This gets complicated, though: to what extent is Christianity syncretistic, and to what extent did it happen early on? This is an open question that academics argue over – an argument can be made that as soon as Christianity was enough of a movement to have its own name, it had become a mashup of Jewish religion and all sorts of Hellenistic stuff.

        Throughout most of Christianity’s history, what % of believers actually knew or cared much about the deeper theology? Again, open question.

        • God Damn John Jay says:

          How much Hellenistic stuff is there in Christianity?

          Every time this comes up it turns into something along the lines of Jesus is obviously Sol Invictus / Mithras — the problem with that is that mystery cults were largely that, mysteries and there are few if any contemporary accounts of those religions.

          • Jaskologist says:

            I think it’s questionable how much there was in the New Testament and the community from around that time, but as theology develops they definitely draw on a lot of Hellenic philosophy. Augustine was explicitly a Platonist, and Aquinas an Aristotler, and they weren’t unique in that.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Going back about as early as we can without dipping into the Epistles themselves, Justin Martyr considered Plato’s philosophy about as close as men can get to God absent revelation, and a lot of the church fathers spoke highly of the stoics as well.

            On the other hand, Tertullian was famously opposed to melding in Athenian ideas. I think he was in the minority viewpoint there, but the fact that he did have a leg to stand on tells us something.

          • Deiseach says:

            The Hellenism is more the “contamination” by philosophy rather than by religious thought or deeds or by deities; the famous “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” of Tertullian and the idea expressed in the Akathist to the Holy Virgin in Greek Orthodoxy:

            Rejoice, Thou Who showest philosophers to be fools:
            Rejoice, Thou Who exposest the learned as irrational!
            Rejoice, for the clever critics have become foolish:
            Rejoice, for the writers of myths have faded away!
            Rejoice, Thou Who didst rend the webs of the Athenians

            where “the webs” (or nets) “of the Athenians” are the clever philosophical speculations about the nature of the world and reality.

        • Deiseach says:

          Throughout most of Christianity’s history, what % of believers actually knew or cared much about the deeper theology?

          In the fourth century, if St Gregory of Nyssa is to be believed, the man in the street was very exercised over the divinity of the Son and the structure of the Trinity:

          The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.

          • Brad (the other one) says:

            @ Desiseach

            Man, sounds like fun, no joke.

          • LHN says:

            Though to be fair, that was the man in the street of Constantinople in particular, at the time of a major ecumenical council, and was evidently striking enough compared to his usual experience to be noteworthy.

        • dndnrsn says:

          @God Damn John Jay:

          Not the usual “JESUS IS JUST BUDDHA IN DISGUISE LOL” type stuff. But Christianity would not have become what it was without various influences from Greco-Roman/Hellenistic culture and philosophy. I know that some scholars think of it as Hebrew religion + Hellensitic metaphysics.

          @Deiseach: My money would be on that being a rhetorical device of a certain sort.

          • Mary says:

            Yes, but the point was the picking and choosing, not the indiscriminate mixing that got us “Odin is Mercury, and so is Hermes, and so is Thoth” of Roman paganism.

          • Deiseach says:

            For it to be a rhetorical device, it had to have some basis in what people would believe to be truthful.

            Like that Scott Aronson post mentioned further down in the comments, where he simply mentions “George Bush” as the kind of thing his (liberal?) friends thought was Wrong With Texas and Why Would You Move There Of All Places?

            If it’s not generally accepted amongst his audience that “yeah, Bush, exemplar of incompetent greedy war-mongering right-wing homophobic Christianist Republicanism”, then it is of no use as a rhetorical device.

        • Mary says:

          ” it had become a mashup of Jewish religion and all sorts of Hellenistic stuff. ”

          That is the picking and choosing aspect. It included all sorts of stuff, but more importantly, it did so selectively.

          It’s not the equivalent of Shinto declaring that Buddhist priests are the appropriate people to perform funeral rites.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I don’t know if you could really call it “picking and choosing”, like it was a salad bar. Rather, to some extent at least, it was people interpreting this new thing in light of what they knew.

            I also don’t know to what extent the Greco-Roman habit of identifying gods with other gods was “indiscriminate mixing”, so much as it was one of the logical ways to deal with Group A and Group B both having a pantheon of gods they held to be supreme: oh, just different names for the same thing. Kind of similar to those posters that have a bunch of quotes from different religions about being nice and some caption about how all religions are really about the golden rule.

          • Mary says:

            It was picking and choosing according to a principle.

          • Deiseach says:

            The Romans were very pragmatic and they had more of a conception of the gods as numinous forces rather than as concrete personalities (they got a lot of their religion/mythology from the Etruscans and Greeks); they were more concerned with performing the correct rituals to cement the bonds between the people/state and the gods (where it was seen more as a contract where we provide these services and you perform this act of ensuring we are victorious in battle, etc.) than in attributing specific roles and identities to them.

            They were also cautious when going into new territories (either to conquer or govern them) not to piss off the local deities or genii loci; whatever your opinion about Jupiter Optimus Maximus being the kick-ass ruler of all, it was quite possible that a local river nymph could drown you for not performing the correct appeasement rites or breaking local taboos.

            So identifying “Odin is Mercury and so is Hermes and so is Thoth” was a way of letting them assimilate local deities and put them in a familiar frame of reference. If you knew the kind of thing that pleased and displeased Mercury, you could cope with Odin. And it was also a way of analogy – “oh, your god here is like our god there for this thing!”

            Lucian, speaking about Ogmios (who probably is the Celtic/Gaulish god Ogma, as in “ogham writing”), expected him to be identified with Mercury and was very disconcerted by him being identified with Hercules, until a local Gaul explained to him why this was so:

            Our Heracles is known among the Gauls under the local name of Ogmius; and the appearance he presents in their pictures is truly grotesque. They make him out as old as old can be: the few hairs he has left (he is quite bald in front) are dead white, and his skin is wrinkled and tanned as black as any old salt’s. You would take him for some infernal deity, for Charon or Iapetus,–any one rather than Heracles. Such as he is, however, he has all the proper attributes of that God: the lion’s-skin hangs over his shoulders, his right hand grasps the club, his left the strung bow, and a quiver is slung at his side; nothing is wanting to the Heraclean equipment.
            …For a long time I stood staring at this in amazement: I knew not what to make of it, and was beginning to feel somewhat nettled, when I was addressed in admirable Greek by a Gaul who stood at my side, and who besides possessing a scholarly acquaintance with the Gallic mythology, proved to be not unfamiliar with our own. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I see this picture puzzles you: let me solve the riddle. We Gauls connect eloquence not with Hermes, as you do, but with the mightier Heracles. Nor need it surprise you to see him represented as an old man. It is the prerogative of eloquence, that it reaches perfection in old age …Indeed, we refer the achievements of the original Heracles, from first to last, to his wisdom and persuasive eloquence. His shafts, as I take it, are no other than his words; swift, keen-pointed, true-aimed to do deadly execution on the soul.’ And in conclusion he reminded me of our own phrase, ‘winged words.’

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            Cohen the Barbarian!

  38. Sniffnoy says:

    Huh, this seems to be substantially going back on “Is Everything A Religion?”. Or am I mistaken?

    Meanwhile I’m just going to link to my comment on the matter of defining “religion” from the last time this came up…

    • Nita says:

      Maybe instead of accusing every culture of becoming a religion, we should just admit that our current concept of “religion” actually owes a lot to “culture”.

      — Scott, almost exactly a year ago

      Maybe the new theory is that cultures do become religions (via “ossification”), but the process takes centuries rather than years?

      I’m still skeptical that black pudding would be forbidden in the 30th century extrapolation of the modern USA.

      • Anonymous says:

        I had assumed black pudding was already illegal in the US, like haggis, but apparently it’s just transportation of blood across state boundaries that’s against the law, which is part of the reason you won’t find it at a major chain grocery store. I’d fully expect an America with faulty long-term cultural memory to firm up this legal grey area, along with horse meat.

        • Nita says:

          I’m guessing the main reason is the lack of demand. If there’s not enough demand to attract major producers, no one bothers to lobby against laws that happen to interfere with this line of business.

          Horse meat (taboo against eating working animals) is a reasonable example of what Scott is trying to show. But I think the majority of things most Americans don’t eat are not like that.

          E.g., how about licorice, deep fried Mars bars or marmite? Meat aspics, salt-cured fatback, yogurt mixed with mineral water? Are they widely available, or are there some laws against them?

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            I agree with your larger point, but licorice is widely available in the US.

            I doubt you can find a grocery store that doesn’t sell licorice. Salmiak, no. You won’t find that. But the “regular” sweet kind of licorice, yes. (And I don’t mean red “licorice”; I mean the genuine black kind.)

          • Nita says:

            I doubt you can find a grocery store that doesn’t sell licorice. Salmiak, no. You won’t find that.

            Oh no, it’s even worse than I feared! You have licorice everywhere, but it’s the wrong sort of licorice 🙁

            (More seriously, it was salmiakki in my first draft, but then I decided that was unfairly specific.)

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Nita:

            I literally have a bag of salmiak on the desk in front me, but I bought it in Finland (though there is a good website that sells Dutch candy to Americans, including salmiak / salty licorice and the anise-flavored sugar cubes you put in milk which are pretty good).

            As for what I think about it…it’s okay. It’s interesting. I don’t hate it (like most Americans definitely do). But I can’t just eat whole bags of it quickly like I can with “normal” candy.

            As far as “traditional” candy goes, I like Jujyfruits and spice-flavored gum drops. The former has a licorice flavor and the latter usually an anise flavor. Oh, and Swedish fish, which are apparently lingonberry-flavored.

          • Nita says:

            Attending lectures in Russia, shopping for sweets in Finland — you’re quite the jet setter, Voxxy.

            I like ultra-salty licorice more than normal sweets. There’s just something irresistible about it. But I tend to enjoy “weird” foods in general, including marmite (too bad it goes only with white bread), peanut butter (not weird in the USA, but pretty weird here), and lamprey (creepy but delicious).

            And I don’t expect any of them to be banned on future religious grounds.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            Attending lectures in Russia, shopping for sweets in Finland — you’re quite the jet setter, Voxxy.

            Haha, not as much as that might make it seem. I’ve only been outside the US three times: a week in France, a month in China, and a semester studying abroad in Russia.

            While in Russia, I went on a weekend trip with a Russian tour group to Helsinki and Stockholm. We drove on a tour bus from St. Petersburg to Helsinki then got on a “cruise ferry” overnight to Stockholm, spent the day there, then got on another cruise ferry back to Finland and drove back. It was amazingly cheap: only around 80 euros for the whole thing, including everything except meals. It meant sharing the cabin with three strangers, though.

            Before that, I’d never heard of a cruise ferry. Basically, it’s like a small cruise ship (still pretty big though). And I’d never been on one, so that was interesting.

            I had tried salmiak before, but I bought a variety of Finnish candies to take back. As well as that Salmiakkikoskenkorva, which is…something. Since that trip was over a year ago and I still have the candy, that tells you how quickly I eat it.

            As for the other foods you mentioned, I think I tried Vegemite one time (can’t remember if it was that or marmite). It tasted like salt. I would try it again, I guess. I’ve of course had peanut butter. Never had lamprey.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m still skeptical that black pudding would be forbidden in the 30th century extrapolation of the modern USA.

        Not if the Ethical Altruists are in control by then 🙂

        Remember the hair-pulling over the non-vegan menu at that one conference when they’d been promised a completely vegan menu? And how people were prepared to walk away from Ethical Altruism completely on this cause because they were sure EA was about making animal rights a priority and this conference showed that was all lies? Claims of the organisers having taken their money by fraud and deception as they’d never have bought tickets if they’d known the money was going to providing a non-vegan menu?

        That’s only one sub-section of the movement, of course, but for them veganism was the whole point of the thing, and if over the next thousand years it becomes mainstream, things like black pudding will indeed be banned and not alone banned, held up as examples of the barbarity of the past when people tortured innocent sentient non-humans for their blood.

  39. youzicha says:

    A couple of months ago we were reading Xunzi in the (now defunct) Rationalist Book Club, and I think Confucianism also fits nicely into this story.

    The earliest Confucian writings came in a period when rituals where recognized to be changing. According to John Knoblock, the original impetus for the doctrine of Rectifying Names came “from covenrmental offices concerned with ritual matters. Scholas of ritual enjoyed great prestige for their exhaustive knowledge of the arcana of ceremonies. … Such men regarded it as their duty to safeguard ritual practices and ritual language. .. Confucius laments that the ritual vessel called the gu 觚 ‘horn-gourd’ was not a real gu, the name having continued in use while the nature of the object had changed.”

    Then, the act of writing this down in a book requires justification. But in Confucianism, the subtext becomes text: rather than emphasizing the role of God or gods, the texts stress conservativism itself. The legitimizing narrative is that the Way and Rituals of the Ancient Emperors made the kingdom great, and that we need to to adhere to them for that reason. Xunzi in particular explicitly rejects any supernatural interpretation, and instead compares statecraft to crossing a difficult river: you need to remember the Way that previous generations took, and rituals act as “stones” to mark it.

  40. John says:

    It occurs to me that attacks on Hamilton from the left are basically against syncretism.

    • Ilya Shpitser says:

      Yes, certain types of syncretism were declared official sin under a new name (appropriation).

  41. Ben Kennedy says:

    Given that both conservative Christians and avowed atheists both avoid cheeseburgers for breakfast and take showers before work, I hesitate to give religion too much credit for setting up a cultural rally flag. Also, people with the exact same religion can have radically different cultural practices, e.g. Christians in Africa vs the US. So I think the defining essence of religion is not an aspect culture.

    It is interesting that if you take a group of humans and provide a list of rules, you tend to see similar attitudes and institutions. There is belief in the universality (sacredness) of the rules as they apply to any activity. There are the concepts of transgression and shame which keep people honest. There is the notion of legitimate authority, and the concepts of fairness, punishment and penitence. You see these patterns in parenting, a child’s kindergarten class, in a sporting event, in a civil courtroom, etc. In these cases, the list of rules is defined by people, and while there is a lot of jostling within the system, most of the time we don’t spend that much time debating what the rules are, or we set up institutions that do that sort of defining, like a Supreme Court or a NFL rules committee.

    I think the best explanation for religion is that religion is what happens when this natural rules-response mechanism of the human brain is applied to a universe where there is no set of rules – so we try to infer what the rules are and declare them Universal Truths. It also explains why we think in terms of Universal Truth (the whole mechanism is evolutionarily useless if the rules don’t feel Universal), yet in practice we have wildly different ideas of what this Truth actually is (because we are all just making it up). It is definitely the case that what we believe to be True is a culturally transmitted trait, so culture is a good medium for religion in the same way culture is a good medium for transmitting the rules of football

  42. onyomi says:

    I really like this post, but I think there’s a simpler, more fundamental reason for the universality of spiritual beliefs (as opposed to just cultural practices which become inseparable from spiritual beliefs), and it isn’t fear of death, since most ancient religions don’t actually offer a lot of relief from that (it is the characteristic of the new, explicitly religious and not just cultural religions like Buddhism and Christianity to promise that).

    Namely, the pathetic fallacy. The fact that the human brain is as big as it is in no small part as a means of dealing with the complexities of human social interaction. Our brains are wired to model other brains to the point that we see brains even where there are none. I think it is actively difficult even for us scientific moderns who know about evolution to not see, or at least, feel agency in the workings of fate, for example. Even if one doesn’t believe in a God who has “blessed you” or “forsaken” you, one feels that “the world” has wronged you or been good to you.

    The tendency is most obvious in children, who haven’t worked as hard to suppress it: their cartoons are full not only of anthropomorphic animals, but even anthropomorphic objects and appliances: Cars, the Brave Little Toaster… Yes, Zeus and the Brave Little Toaster derive from the same fundamental impulse.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Early on the article mentions Dennett and “hyperactive agent-detection”. But it’s hardly like the New Atheists were the first ones to figure this out: the observation that “primitives” do this dates back to at least the first half of the 20th century.

      The idea that “everything happens for a reason” is fairly basic to humans. It’s accepting that your cow getting sick isn’t the fault of angry gods or spirits, that weird old woman down the river, etc that’s unusual.

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, I think “hyperactive agent detection” is exactly what I’m talking about, now that you mention it (didn’t notice the mention at head of original post, probably because I hadn’t heard the term).

        • dndnrsn says:

          A lot of New Atheist stuff would have been vastly improved by having greater familiarity with religion and the study of religion.

          A lot of it was “HA! I’ve figured out why people believe such crazy things!” and then it’s just a bunch of stuff that scholars had figured out by the 1960s.

          • Nornagest says:

            1960s, hell. I’ve got a Mencken book somewhere that covers a lot of this territory.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I remember reading The God Delusion and thinking “man it would be nice if this guy had taken a handful of undergrad-level religious studies courses”.

      • Jaskologist says:

        I still think this stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of religion as an attempt to explain natural phenomena. It isn’t.

        My preference is to classify “religion” as anything answering the question “What is wrong with the world, and what are we to do about it?” Many scholars like to tack on “Where do we come from?” to that, but I think that the origin story is usually either superfluous or concerned with reiterating the answer to that theodicy question.

        • dndnrsn says:

          But natural phenomena are frequently considered in a manner that’s a sort of low-level theodicy. The most “primitive” religions are preoccupied with why natural things happen and how they can be affected, in a manner that sees agency behind things very easily.

          Example: Bunch of hunter-gatherers lose a hunter to a tiger. He was a great hunter – he’d fought tigers many times before. Possible explanations and ways to keep the same thing from happening next time:

          1. He must have done something morally wrong, and this is the deities taking revenge. Solution: behave.

          2. He must have done something practically wrong, like failing to please the hunting spirits with ritual. Solution: make sure you get the rituals right.

          3. Somebody must have cursed him, and that’s why the tiger got him. Solution: find the person who cursed him and kill them.

          This sort of thing is just as common as the abstract question “what is wrong with the world”, and lives on in the form of conspiracy theories that would rather posit shadowy string-pullers over incompetence and failure as reasons for bad things happening, the way that the party in power gets blamed for a bad economy come election time, etc.

          Even some of the big developed religion have a more “practical” theodicy. Judaism over its history has found many different answers to the question “we are the chosen people, so why do all these awful things keep happening to us?”, and many different solutions to “can we stop these awful things, and if so, how?”

          • Jaskologist says:

            But that’s not an example, in the sense of something we’ve actually witnessed. It’s a just-so story, illustrating how we imagine something came about. We don’t know what primitive tribes were up to back in the day, and tribes which have managed to stay primitive into the present day are probably not equivalent.

            When we look at what we actually do have in the form of writings and practices, there’s relatively little natural philosophy mixed in.

          • dndnrsn says:

            There are a lot of accounts by missionaries, traders, sailors, soldiers, etc. of religious/magical/spiritual belief in the various peoples they were making contact with over several centuries of colonialism.

            It’s not just hunter-gatherer tribes or whatever: witness some of the responses of Europeans to the black plague, beliefs about witches in New England, vampire lore in Eastern Europe, we’ve found all sorts of Greco-Roman love charms and curse scrolls and so forth, etc.

        • onyomi says:

          The “why do bad things happen” question seems like a subset of the “why do things happen at all” question, i. e. an attempt to explain natural phenomena. Which may not be all of what early religion does, but is a lot of it.

          The question, though, is why every culture seems to come up with spiritual answers to the question, when “he just made a mistake or encountered a really tough tiger” seems like an equally, if not more plausible explanation, to use dndnrsn’s example. Sure, bad things may seem in need of a more pressing explanation, but that didn’t stop people coming up with spiritual explanations for good and neutral things as well.

          I think the hyperactive agency detection is the primary reason people explain why (good, bad, and neutral) things happen by appeal to deities and personalized conceptions of “fate,” “Lady Luck,” etc.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I wish I could remember what this particular book had for its explanation.

            The obvious reason is “better to see something that isn’t there than miss something that is”.

            Slightly less obvious but still obvious is that being able to do something, anything, is psychologically protective. If that guy was the best hunter in the tribe, so you can’t be better at fighting tigers and thus less likely to screw up. You can’t really control the quality of the tigers you might come across. It probably makes people feel better to follow the rules, perform some ritual, or go witch hunting, than to just say “ultimately whether or not you are killed by a tiger can never be fully controlled”.

          • Thursday says:

            Religions do explain stuff, but explanations using supernatural agents wouldn’t be plausible unless you already believe in supernatural agents. The question is why you would use supernatural agents as an explanation in the first place.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Presumably, if you’re looking for an agent, and an agent can’t be seen, there must be an unseen agent. If everything involves agency, then whenever there isn’t a natural agent there must be a supernatural agent.

          • onyomi says:

            “The question is why you would use supernatural agents as an explanation in the first place.”

            Exactly. And I think the biggest reasons is “hyperactive agency detection.”

  43. TheAltar says:

    I feel a strong aversion to the idea of drinking milk and soda together. However, I bet it’s absolutely delicious.

    Does anyone have a good recipe or description of a milk + soda combination?

  44. eponymous says:

    Is this really a theory of “religion”? I take the word “religion” to refer specifically to beliefs about the fundamental nature and origins of reality, and particularly beliefs about supernatural beings and ritual behaviors intended to gain their favor.

    You seem to be talking about something much more general, and more similar to what I mean by the term “culture”. Sure, you can call common beliefs about how to organize society, and mythology about society’s origins, “religion” if you want. But there seems to be something big here that you’re not getting at, which is the whole set of beliefs about the supernatural, which is what most people mean by “religion”.

    Now I guess that’s partly your point, that when you look at old-fashioned “classical” religion in its original context, it looks a lot more like a tribal culture than a coherent set of theological beliefs about the supernatural. But I think you may be falling into a sort of behaviorist trap by equating things people do because their culture tells them they’re good, with things people do because their culture tells them that they are pleasing to a supernatural being. Yeah, you can call both of these “ritual” and say they’re observationally the same, but I think they derive from a very different basis, and that’s pretty important to understanding them.

  45. While I think there is a lot of truth here, I disagree with calling the modern-style-religion-producing process “ossification.”

    I think the basic process is one where people look at their culture and think, “What would have to be actually true about the world in order to ensure that our culture is good and right, and better than all others? We know our culture is better; we just have to figure out why.”

    This means that this process will always happen, as long as people continue to believe that their culture is good and right and better than all others. And I don’t see people abandoning that belief any time soon.

    So it will happen, and is happening, with American culture as well. It is true that there are many impediments to Americans adopting a mythology in the standard sense. But that will not prevent them from asserting things which are false, in order to justify the false belief that American culture is superior to all others. It is easy enough to offer examples, like the claim that women are just as good at mathematics on average as men are. That is a claim about the world, it is false, and it is made by many people to justify a certain culture. This is a real example of the process by which culture becomes religion: people can’t avoid thinking, and they apparently can’t avoid thinking that their culture is superior, and consequently they cannot avoid making false statements and arguments in order to justify that.

    This process is even faster with smaller subgroups. So for example in the Berkeley rationalist community, the norm is that polyamory is acceptable and probably better than monogamy. In order to justify the superiority of their culture, they tend to make the false claim that jealousy is simply cultural, rather than biological (it is actually the latter, even if some people can overcome it.) This is also an example of culture transitioning to religion, or “ossifying”, as Scott calls it.

  46. suntzuanime says:

    The difference between American food codes and religious food codes is that if you violate American food codes, people will think you have done something weird, not something blameworthy. As a child I experimented with pouring cola into my soup; my mother rolled her eyes, rather than scolding me. If I want a cheeseburger for breakfast, my local McDonalds is open 24 hours a day and will serve me with the same bland detachment as always (and they’ve even expanded to violating the taboo on Egg McMuffins for dinner). It’s true that Obama took a little heat from right-wingers for eating a dog, but those are the same right-wingers that would try to get on his case for being a Kenyan or a Muslim, and in any case it’s not like he had to repent before being made God-Emperor.

    To the extent that we have religious-style food codes, it’s because of the tyranny of the FDA, which makes things like flour that has not been impregnated with iron shavings haram.

    • Frog Do says:

      My mother would have scolded me for wasting food, that’s for sure.

    • Nornagest says:

      Obama ate a dog? Huh, I think my opinion of him just improved a little bit.

      Not because I hate dogs, but because that’s the sort of thing I’d expect a politician to avoid because of PR. Of course, I suppose Obama’s career aspirations as a politician are effectively over now anyway.

    • onyomi says:

      It actually seriously bugs me the way all flour products are “enriched.” I mean, if I wanted a bunch of extra vitamins and minerals in everything couldn’t I just take a vitamin? Presumably there are people who don’t need so much iron yet who get too much, weirdly, from baked goods, cereal, etc.

      But, then, it’s clear the American diet promotes wonderful health, so why should we consider doing anything differently?

      • keranih says:

        hemochromatosis is almost never from excessive iron in the diet. Grain supplementation is due to longstanding observations of deficiencies – esp in kids – due to eating non-whole (ie, de-germed) wheat.

        To be clear, it’s not so much that vitamins/minerals are added to the wheat as it is that they have to be *returned* to the wheat flour after milling removes the wheat germ.

        (And we take out the wheat germ because 1) people like white bread better and will pay more for it and 2) whole wheat products spoil faster.)

        I do agree that the purist libertarian stance would be to not make enrichment mandatory, but to offer people the option to buy whole, enriched, or non-whole products as they best prefer.

        It would not be the first law I’d take down, though.

      • Deiseach says:

        Arguments for enrichment of flour in bread etc. are for the benefits of reducing such things as spina bifida (which we apparently have a high incidence of in Ireland).

        Not everyone who gets pregnant planned to do so, or is taking extra vitamins before and after conception, so having enriched flour means the general population is sure to get the necessary dietary dosages and thus reduce the incidence of such things.

        Folic acid is a B vitamin that can be found in some foods. It can be difficult to get your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of folic acid from food alone. Foods in which folate naturally occurs include baked beans, chick peas, green leafy vegetables, lentils, orange juice, oranges, peas, rice, soya beans, split peas, and sprouts. Vegetables should be lightly cooked or steamed as over-boiling destroys their vitamin content.

        The most practical way to ensure you are getting enough folic acid in your diet is to take a folic acid supplement. If you take a multivitamin, check that it has the RDA of folic acid – 400 micrograms. To help prevent neural tube defects a daily vitamin supplement (tablet) of folic acid, before pregnancy (at least three months) and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

        A lot of people may (for instance) hate sprouts and lentils and not consume such foods, and may not be taking supplements. So enriching common foods like bread (which you can estimate most people will be eating) is beneficial for the public health in general, even if some people may be at risk of getting too much of a micronutrient because they already have a sufficient diet, are taking supplements, or have a condition like haemochromatosis (again, apparently another Irish high incidence trait).

    • Deiseach says:

      The difference between American food codes and religious food codes is that if you violate American food codes, people will think you have done something weird, not something blameworthy.

      Eating cheeseburgers for breakfast puts you in danger of violating The Obesity Epidemic guidelines and is blameworthy, and if you think eating dogs won’t be seen as not simply weird but actively wrong, let me share with you the Facebook post from my vegan sibling about banning a Chinese festival where dogs are eaten.

      You get a lot of arguments along the lines of “You wouldn’t eat a dog, why would you eat a pig?” I suggest if you try saying to someone, not even a vegetarian but an ordinary pet owner, that “Actually, yeah, I would eat a dog if offered to me” or that you see nothing wrong with eating dog-meat, that you would be perceived as being more than simply eccentric or quirky (I can never get over people in all seriousness referring to their pets as their babies or as family).

      • suntzuanime says:

        Vegan opinions on food have a better claim to be religious dietary codes than American ones.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Veganism is fringe anyway. “Organic” food seems a cleaner fit to me.

          • switchnode says:

            I have seen a sign in a college cafeteria inviting students to ask the chef to use separate utensils for vegetarian or organic food.

          • keranih says:

            To be fair, even at fancy uni cafeterias, the staff isn’t been paid enough to put up with sophomores whining that there was greasy bacon on their (*) arugula, and if putting up a sign stops some people from complaining, I think it’s worth the effort.

            (*) There are very valid health reasons for not using the hot meat handling tongs to pick up the cold salad, but that’s not the point.

      • Nornagest says:

        Cheeseburgers are reasonably well balanced in terms of macros. Combo number whatever at your average fast food restaurant isn’t going to be doing you any favors, but most of the blame falls on the French fries and (especially) the soda rather than the entree — unless you’re a saturated fat Nazi, and that’s pretty well discredited by now.

        Compared to a perfectly normal (if heavy) American breakfast like a stack of pancakes with maple syrup and butter, it’s not even worth mentioning.

  47. SUT says:

    Scott Aaronson’s announcement of moving from Boston to Texas, is a treasure trove of American Civic Religion post Red/Blue schism.

    Some people will ask about things they’d consider obvious dealbreakers for moving to Texas. In particular, what about the infamous new law…

    …the maps insist that Austin is in Texas, which means that while there one will probably encounter Texans…

    …the actual Texans who I’ve met so far have been frighteningly warm and hospitable. But the question stands: what will I do if, while living there, I meet (let’s suppose) some sun-calloused cattle ranchers who consider me an arrogant, effete coastal liberal who patronizes them

    • Nornagest says:

      If he’s moving to Austin, I don’t see what he has to worry about, other than people who cringe away from the word “Texas” like a Buddhist vampire in a wheelwright’s shop.

      • Loquat says:

        Indeed – a strongly liberal friend of my husband’s was quite happy living in Austin, and would probably still be there if not for the siren song of legal weed in Colorado.

    • Deiseach says:

      That post did seem more good-natured tongue-in-cheek than rehashing stereotypes; I can see why he would feel the need to explain why he’s leaving MIT and no, it’s not because he got the elbow.

      What is slightly depressing, I suppose, is that someone who’d probably think of themselves as educated, pretty cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and not holding any particularly strong negative views about anyone, would have the same conventional, unthinking, notions about another part of the country they are living in: hot, desert, rich ignorant right-wingers run everything, cowboy culture, etc.

      Though I was amused by the concealed carry thing – for a moment, I thought he was saying UT was being forced to make students bring guns with them, when it was only that UT had to permit students who want to tote licenced guns about with them their legal right to do so. I don’t think everyone going around carrying guns is a great idea, but I can think of several such “I demand my rights” situations from the left side that would not evoke such an “is outrage!” reaction.

      Well, good luck to the man and his family!

  48. Graeme Sutton says:

    I feel like this is still leading up to something. A post about how we deal with religious extremism in modern societies maybe?

  49. What’s the thesis? Superstitious shared ways of behaving break out spontaneously even in a small tribe? Okay. “Viral” meme logic is needed only in explaining religions that were spread forcibly or by dedicated missionaries? Okay.

  50. michael w says:

    I think you start proving too much when you try to apply this paradigm to Christianity/Islam/certain strains of Buddhism.
    It seems to me that this theory helps us understand them better not because they conform to it, but by showing us how they break from the previous norm.
    The way i see it, Christianity was a mimetic evolutionary leap that happened when people took the fact claims of their cultural traditions at face value. When you follow your religio-cultural beliefs to their logical conclusion, suddenly you have a moral obligation to spread the Good Word to people outside your culture. This approach turned out to be a very successful mimetic mutation.

    While religion 2.0 occupies a lot of the same thematic real estate, it’s a whole different species of meme in behaviour/function.

    • Ruprect says:

      What do you mean by ‘took the fact claims of their cultural traditions at face value’?
      I have always (not always…) thought that the impetus for universalising religion was philosophical (I’m almost entirely ignorant of Christianity, but wasn’t Paul heavily influenced by stoic cosmopolitanism ?)

      The realisation that the world is not governed by personal emotional forces (which in the extreme leads to deism) also tells us that an accident of birth does not make us special? I always kind of assumed it was something like that that encouraged proselytising – the specific culture we live (or are born) in doesn’t have any real significance in nature, but there are universal truths which hold for all of us…

  51. latetotheparty says:

    Two books I would love to see Scott Alexander review:

    Julian Jaynes – “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” – for reasons that I and others have posted above.

    Michael Rinella – “Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens” – This book has a lot to do with Ancient Athenian civil religion, morality, and yes, drug-taking. According to this book, Ancient Athens was both weirder and more familiar than you can imagine.

  52. Nero tol Scaeva says:

    I think that thinking of the Roman religion, or even the Jewish religion, as “ancient” is still a bit too modern. Ancient religions are more like the religions of hunter-gatherer tribes. In that sense, the old Jewish religion has much, much more overlap with modern religions than with ancient religions; all of these modern religions are influenced by societies that developed agriculture or farming as the primary means of organizing their lives.

    A theory of religion should start from true ancient religions, not from Romulus, Moses, or the Buddha.

    • Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

      My impression is that “ancient” is a term of art which more or less means really, really old but still within the historic epoch. Which is to say, after the introduction of writing.

      What you are looking for significantly overlaps with prehistoric.

      • Mary says:

        OTOH, that it’s very hard to study the origin of religion when humanity arrives on the stage with religion in full-flower is true.

  53. Massimo Heitor says:

    None of these ideas are new to me, but Scott Alexander expresses them very well, and my confirmation bias loves it!

  54. Dan King says:

    Hmm. I think you’re confusing purity rules with sanitation rules. The former are all about group identity. The latter are more like the rules of the road, e.g., driving on the right. I don’t think they’re the same thing at all.

    Or put another way (per J. Haidt): purity rules are moral commandments. Peeing in a toilet is simply good manners. There’s nothing especially immoral about pissing under a tree.

    • Ticviking says:

      “There’s nothing especially immoral about pissing under a tree.”

      Tell that to the friendly officer down the way, or fainting grandma who called him.

      Public urination sure has a lot of traits I’d associate with violation of a purity rule.

      • BBA says:

        I’m vaguely recalling someone writing about how Americans don’t really get the distinction between malum in se and malum prohibitum and thus tend to think that all violations of the law are somehow immoral.

        • Matt M says:

          I wouldn’t go as far as to say that all Americans universally fail at making this distinction, but it’s certainly a popular position taken by many.

        • Berna says:

          Many people here in the Netherlands are the same. I used to believe that’s a silly way to think, but after reading Siderea’s post about the two moral modes (which many people apparently read very differently than I, judging from the reactions I got in the other thread), I think it’s probably a good thing. With so many people feeling it’s perfectly OK to behave like a psychopath to the outgroup, it’s good to know that they have an additional reason to not act on their impulses rather than just a fear of getting caught.

        • keranih says:

          Americans don’t really get the distinction between malum in se and malum prohibitum and thus tend to think that all violations of the law are somehow immoral.

          A theory –

          In other places, like the old countries, and in patron controlled countryside of Latin America, “the law” is determined by The Other – by the elites, the generationally powerful, and the gentry/nobles. The Law created by these people was to suit their whims and to support their interests, and did not reflect what would best suit “the people.”

          In America, and esp at the local level, we are the law. It is not something passed down from on high, it is determined and codified – at the expense of much effort, time, and compromise – by us, by we-the-people who have agreed to abide by the laws which we have collectively decided upon. And because our commitment is to personal liberty as much as possible, we will *only* agree to limits on liberty when there is a clear harm to the population when the law is not followed.

          To break such a law, then, is to reject that social compromise, to set oneself as outside of the community, and to selfishly take at the expense of the rest of the group. And – this may be the most significant – one is satisfying ones own whims/wants for the harm of the group.

          This of course requires a rather Yankee yeoman farmer pov, and a rather idealistic one at that. But our common mythos owes a great deal to those stiff necked independents.

      • Deiseach says:

        It probably also has a lot to do with moving from a rural to an urban environment; in the countryside, if you urinate (or defecate) under a tree, behind a ditch, etc. that’s not too bad.

        In the town, you’re doing it in the public streets, alleyways, or doorways. People are likely to be stepping in (or trying to avoid stepping in) puddles of piss and vomit and the rest of it. This makes things very unpleasant.

        As hygiene and sanitation standards improve, as it becomes possible to have areas set-aside for such bodily functions, it becomes offensive to perform these in public as well as unsanitary and inconvenient for others. Then it becomes a matter of public decency as well; it is now possible to avoid seeing private parts of others involuntarily, so someone “taken short” in public incurs the stigma of exhibitionism as well. Public urination and defecation become no longer a common shared bodily function, a necessity that may overcome anyone at any time and they have no other option but to perform it in the public space, but a private function that you insist on performing in public and so aggressively thrust this spectacle upon others that do not wish to, and do not consent to, view.

        It becomes a violation of social codes about how to get along together as urban dwellers.

      • Matt M says:

        I haven’t researched this, but I’ve heard rumors that in some states, public urination is considered a sex crime and gets you on the sex offender registry.

        • Deiseach says:

          Probably because public urination gets conflated with public indecency and things like flashing.

          Going off my own hazy memories as a younger person of seeing men pissing up against walls in the daytime, it does involve exposure of the genitals (unavoidably) and that will get you into trouble even more nowadays with the child sex abuse panic. Plus there have doubtless been men who were indecently exposing themselves to women/children who used the defence “I was caught short with no nearby public convenience and was urinating due to necessity, not exposing myself”. Since there is no mind-reading to prove intention, treating public urination as a sex crime is possibly seen as the best way to nip this kind of behaviour in the bud.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Deiseach
            Going off my own hazy memories as a younger person of seeing men pissing up against walls in the daytime, it does involve exposure of the genitals (unavoidably)

            Not necessarily. They could drape a blanket over.

  55. NN says:

    That was ancient religion – culture in a world where culture meant something. It was nothing like modern religion – which is why you never hear the Greeks complaining that the Egyptians were evil heretics who denied the light of Zeus and needed to be converted by the sword.

    One of the most memorable parts of a book that I read about the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs is during Cortez’s first meeting with Moctezuma. Cortez demanded that Moctezuma and his people convert to Christianity, stop worshipping their heathen idols, and above all stop the barbaric practice of human sacrifice. Moctezuma responded by proposing a compromise: the Aztecs would add the Spanish’s “Dios” to their pantheon and worship Him along with their hundreds of other gods. Obviously, Cortez did not respond well to this suggestion.

    It’s a vivid illustration of the difference between how “modern” and “ancient” religions view the world, even when both types are the state religions of conquering empires.

  56. daronson says:

    @Scott, wait, I would totally read your American Gods religious fanfic! (The middle component of Cloud Atlas has something a little like this, as, probably, do many dystopian stories, but I’ve never seen one that fully unpacks the entire mythos in an interesting way)

  57. Philipp says:

    An interesting and stimulating post, as always, and not a bad account of a certain imaginary stage of pristine archaic religion (I mean that in the most positive sense–ideal types are useful to think with, as long as one remembers that the reality is always messier, and that, in particular, the ancient Mediterranean was an extensively interconnected world from very early on), but the account of Jewish religion is not satisfactory.

    The problem becomes most sharply visible here:

    “The Hebrew Bible never says other gods don’t exist; indeed, it often says the opposite. It constantly praises God as stronger and better than other gods. God proves his superiority over the gods of the Egyptians when the serpent he sends Moses eats the serpents the Egyptian gods send Pharaoh’s sorcerers. The Israelites are constantly warned against worshipping other gods, not because those gods don’t exist but because God is better and also jealous. This is not the worldview of somebody who has very strong ideas about the nature of reality and how supernatural beings fit into that nature. It’s the worldview of people who want to say “Our culture is better than your culture”. The Bible uses “worshipping foreign gods” as synonymous with “turning to foreign ways”. But God has a covenant with Israel, therefore both are forbidden.”

    Your description is neat, but drastically oversimplified. The Hebrew Bible does, in fact, express the worldview of someone who has exceptionally strong ideas about the nature of reality, and a very definite idea about how supernatural beings (or a supernatural Being, at any rate) fit into it. It repeatedly and expressly dismisses the gods of other nations as human inventions. Not even invented ideas, but man-made objects. Psalm 96:5 is typical and to the point: ‘For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens’. The Psalm is quoted in 1 Chronicles 16, and the same sentiment is expressed at greater length in Jeremiah 10 and dramatized in the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al in 1 Kings 18. So, yes, the Hebrew Bible does frequently speak of other gods, but it consistently shows either that they are completely lacking in power next to the Living God, the maker of heaven and earth (and so aren’t really worth treating as gods), or else don’t have any power and are artificial or imaginary (and so are most definitely not worth treating as gods).

    That is, in fact, the entire point of that other great showdown, which you mention: the contest between Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh, which is really the beginning of God’s judgment on ‘all the gods of Egypt’ (Exodus 12:12). The gods of an ancient superpower are revealed to be utterly powerless before the Lord, who can strike down man and beast, crops and children, with hail, frogs, locusts, gnats, utter darkness, and a destroying angel–and can spare his own people from the same judgment upon the Egyptians and their gods. All the magicians of Egypt cannot match the greater miracles that Moses performs with only a staff and the word of the Lord (and it is only the word that is needed in the end–Numbers 20:8-11); with only a prayer, Elijah receives fire from heaven, but all four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba’al cannot call down the least spark from their powerless, imaginary god, though they dance and wail and slash their own skin with spears and swords for hours. This is not just cultural one-upmanship; it is an expression of a profound conviction about the way the world works: God has all power; the ‘gods’ (if they exist at all) have none.

    Now, to a certain kind of modern scholar (by whose arguments you are, I suspect, influenced at a distance), most or all of these stories were written (or at least redacted) in or after the exile of the Jews to Babylon. In that setting, so the argument goes, this historical reflection or myth-making served to set the Jews apart, to reinforce their distinctness from the rest of the world around them. That’s not implausible, if one grants the premise; certainly Ezra and Nehemiah are quite concerned about separating their people from those with whom they had become intermingled. But it isn’t everything the stories are doing (whenever they were redacted), and it certainly isn’t what they are about. Whatever social function they might serve, these great set-pieces like the Plagues of Egypt and the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al (and a great deal else in the Bible besides) are about the power of God and the powerlessness (and sometimes the literal non-existence) of the gods. They are about theology, not about sociology. Their theology is not systematic theology, of course, and I suspect that may be contributing to the confusion–there is no clear system for how everything fits together, of the kind that might satisfy a scholastic logician or a physicist. It is theology expressed in narrative, in the record of divine actions and of divine prophecies, from the God whose act of creation is told at the very beginning of the first book of Moses. The creation story of Genesis 1 is not just about setting the Israelites apart, though it does do that–it is about the One Who sets them apart, who called them to be a nation distinct from all others, and how he (and not the gods) made and still rules the world and everything in it.

    To reduce the Hebrew Bible (or the New Testament, but that is another topic for another post) to mere sociological boundary-making is not simply to impoverish your interpretation, it is to mistake a central aspect of its meaning. Even more than that, it is to misunderstand the entire experience of having this kind of religion. Theology is not an epiphenomenon of group-formation; it is the blazing heart of a particular way, a new way, of viewing and living in the world. The existence of Christianity (and maybe of Judaism, or Islam, but I know less of them outside texts) is not the result of some dismal accident of ‘ossification’; it is the product of a dynamic, vigorous, all-encompassing theological conviction. That conviction may be wrong (theological convictions cannot all be right), but you cannot get around it this way.

    • lliamander says:


      Regarding Genesis in particular, I thought it was very interesting that while in form it (supposedly) matches many other creation stories from that period, it differs in that God is marked as distinct from (rather than identified with) natural forces. It is quite hard to derive a purely henotheistic interpretation out of Judaism in light of that.

      > Theology is not an epiphenomenon of group-formation.

      Indeed, I think Scott’s thesis proves too much. Consider Rationalism. Are the beliefs held in common among rationalists merely “an epiphenomenon of group-formation”? In these circles we talk a lot about people do things to signal group membership – and indeed people do. However, it is important to remember that people (both modern and ancient) do things for reasons other than group signaling.

      It’s like when people try to signal their intelligence (see what I did there 😉 ?) by engaging in amateur evo. psych. to explain human behavior. Yes, we do things to ensure successful sexual reproduction, but that’s not the only reason.

  58. dsotm says:

    I think you overlook a key aspect of organized religion here – it’s use of explicitly supernatural phenomena as epistemic grounding to justify claims for authority by the priestly class over the adherents and the society at large – add this and you should get a pretty good distinguishing criteria between the American civil religion and the traditional ones.

    Another point of comparison would be the attitude towards open heresy or resistance to having the rallying flags called out as such into common knowledge – no public leader would condemn someone proclaiming that Paul Bunyan did not in fact dig the great lakes, a lot of them would condemn public statements about democracy not being such a good idea or about America not being the democratiest democracy in the world. But the epistemic justification distinction exists here as well – the Paul Bunyan myth is grounded in contradiction with physical reality whereas the merits of democracy and the degree of it’s practice in the US are ‘merely’ dogmatic.

    • Deiseach says:

      to justify claims for authority by the priestly class over the adherents

      Congratulations, you’ve just re-hashed the Reformation arguments against the Catholic Church (there is no intercessor between God and man but Jesus Christ, you can go directly to God with your prayers as you don’t need a priest to perform sacraments for you, the priesthood of all believers, etc.)

      Now tell me that Protestants aren’t really organised religion 🙂

      Though I suppose your argument would be the Religious Right or Moral Majority in America trying to impose their will by making their religious doctrines the law of the land are using “explicitly supernatural phenomena as epistemic grounding to justify claims for authority over society at large”. And yes, there’s an element of that there, but I think the main problem with the “Aha! It’s all priestcraft!” argument is that it assumes the claimed belief in the supernatural or the doctrines of the religion are all hypocrisy since the smart guys, who become the priestly class, must know it’s all bunkum, therefore they’re liars and hypocrites pretending to believe in the gods/God in order to get and hold on to power by manipulating the credulous and stupider lay people.

      Some at least of them really do believe that stuff and really do think it’s the better way to live.

    • dsotm says:

      I don’t think there is a principal difference between protestantism and catholicism in this respect.
      The protestants disagree with the catholics over the exact things that God requires his believers to do in order to lead what they consider to be pious and moral life, the means that can be used by clergy to enforce those things, the nature of the metaphysical rewards and punishments, but the justification of the above by virtue of (same) God’s existence is still there.

      Anglicanism is protestant and was(is?) used to provide divine validation to the British monarchy, American evangelism is protestant and is used to provide divine validation to faith healing, private jets and tax exemption.

      As for the priestly class being completely cynical vs. believing their own teachings on the same level of literacy that they are teaching them well it’s probably somewhere in between and has all Chapman’s creators/posers/sociopaths dynamics in place.

  59. onyomi says:

    How much of this could be explained by some sort of law of conservation of religious sentiment (as we speculated in the last thread about conservation of tribalism)?

    It’s a common libertarian critique of statism that it’s like a religion and/or fills the same mental slot as religion especially because the most all-encompassing states tend, unsurprisingly, to be atheistic ones: I mean, there is no sense in which veneration of Kim Il-Sung is fundamentally different from veneration of Jesus (I’d compare him to Lincoln, but the cult of personality aspect is way beyond anything in the US).

    But I think it’s deeper than that. Take, for example, the polytheistic impulse. You tell a bunch of pagans: “sorry, only one God; please stop worshiping all these many statues with one for foot pain, one for finding lost things, and one for fertility.” And then they promptly start making little statues of saints and the virgin Mary and parading those around the street and designating one of those as the guy to pray to for foot pain instead. You tell the Catholics “hey, you guys are kind of doing this monotheism thing wrong and it’s looking way too fancy in here.” Well, before long you get absolutism, nation states and, eventually, pictures of George Washington and Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King presiding over school children’s heads.

    Now, it’s not like we have the same relationship to MLK as people once did to Horus, but MLK may be fitting into the same brain space Horus once did to a much greater degree than our logical minds would tell us he is.

    • I’m not sure whether this is a sidetrack, but I’ve seen people claim that Piss Christ is not only legitimate art, but that it’s not blasphemous. I don’t think anyone could have gotten away with a comparable Piss Martin Luther King– people would have rightly said it was racist.

      • onyomi says:

        Maybe it shows you what we really hold sacred in this country!

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Reminds me of Paul Graham’s “What You Can’t Say” and Mencius Moldbug’s “Technology, communism and the Brown Scare”.

          • Thanks for the Moldbug link. That was comprehensible and interesting.

            Also, since I’ve read very little Plato, I hadn’t read the bit about democracy ending because of excessive demands for freedom. It reminds me of something from Gregory Bateson to the effect that no ecology, for example rainforests, maximizes any one thing. Then he points out that maximizing money is not a good idea.

            However, while I applaud Moldbug’s respect for his daughter’s preferences, it’s rather opposite to Plato’s ideas about appropriate authority. As I understand it, when parents are assumed to have authority over their children, part of that authority is permission to remake their children towards what their parents prefer, though the parents’ preferences are supposed to be shaped by their culture. Feedback from the children about whether they want their personalities reshaped is not an acceptable part of the process.

            As for America being communist, I think he’s right that there’s a lot more communist influence than most Americans want to admit. All that emotional slack cut to Cuba! It’s a very normal misery-inducing dictatorship, and the sooner this is commonly realized on the left, the better.

            His analysis of non-empathic altruism as a serous problem because of lack of feedback may be of interest to utilitarians. I’m inclined to think that all helping has the risk of being too much fun because of dominance, but I’m not sure that there’s anything which increases the risk except for coercion.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            Is a decades long blockade slack? Was the blockade unrelated to the misery?

          • LHN says:

            Trade embargo, not blockade, except for briefly during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (It prevented direct trade with the US, but not with anyone else.)

            As far as I can tell Nancy Lebovitz is right that of the many countries the US has had trade restrictions on over the decades (e.g., Iran), Cuba is the only one that regularly got sentimental treatment in the mainstream press.

          • keranih says:

            While I am a proud native-born flag-waving Merikan, the idea that “Cuba is a miserable little low-tech run down dictatorship only because they can’t sell things to America” gives us far far too much credit.

            The rest of the world could have – and did – jump in to make all sorts of money by trading with Cuba…excepting that Cuba couldn’t manage to turn a profit at anything. Because their central economy planners were rather crap.

            As regrettably is the standard with communist dictatorships.

      • Deiseach says:

        Try doing a “Piss Obama” with the rationale that you’re only looking to develop a conversation on racism and see how far that gets you.

        I don’t think such things are art, but I think they’re best ignored. The reason for such creations is the shock impact, to Épater la bourgeoisie and if there are no bourgeois who react with shock and outrage, you’ve failed. The guy is not really being transgressive or challenging, he’s producing a work within the context and tradition of “traditional power structures – such as religion – are oppressive, spirituality has been debased and corrupted and exploited by being fitted into the existing social structure, challenging such views by taking a daring sideways look makes us re-examine our unconscious attitudes” and so on and so forth. You could recite it all backwards yourselves. The audience for whom he is creating such pieces don’t hold the items or icons he uses as sacred (and indeed, he knows better than to use ones they would consider sacred as that would get him ostracised and condemned, not praised and protected against the knuckle-draggers) and don’t feel any deep attachment to their presentation one way or the other; the effect depends on having unsophisticated, literalist-minded believers who will be shocked and who will protest, but can be decried for this reaction since they are not the intended audience and are not sophisticated, cultured, educated or informed enough to comment on the piece or similar artworks.

        The guy seems to be a bit of a hustler, who is using his notoriety and his status as “POC” for a cushy number as a favoured son of the alternative art world – can anyone think of any other of his works they’ve ever heard of? Well, good luck to him in getting money from rich donors to foundations and galleries that like to think they’re an “alternative” when they’re just as plugged into modern Western capitalism and dependent on it – where do $15,000 grants come from, if not from notions of patrons of the arts that stretch back centuries? – as any other existing social structure. It may as well be him who soaks the bien-pensant as anyone else.

        Though I note with some amusement that he is not without flaws of his own when it comes to his own unacknowledged privilege:

        Serrano’s sexual “instincts” just happen to represent themselves in a conventionally exploitative image of a woman as the object of violence. Serrano fails to consider his own sexual or cultural privilege in manipulating existing representations of women or, in the case of a more recent body of work, the homeless.

    • suntzuanime says:

      What I want to know is, which president do I pray to to find a lost object?

      • Nornagest says:

        George W. Bush, but only if the object is a weapon.

        Alternately, you could try Christopher Columbus, who’s easily the most impressively lost major figure in North American history.

      • hlynkacg says:

        I’m still kind of pissed off at the media about that shit.

  60. PJ says:

    Taking the Lords name in vain = Cultural Appropriation

  61. Jaskologist says:

    Also, kind of surprised nobody has jumped on “We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened.” yet.

    I learned about the Niihau incident this year, and it’s not like that wouldn’t have been pretty relevant context for something my public school curriculum covered multiple times. Ever delve into the Scopes Trial and see how much it differs from the mythologized version? I think I would actually have a harder time listing historical events I looked into that did match the tales told.

    Isn’t half of Moldbug and nydwracu harping on this kind of stuff?

    • Matt M says:

      Agreed. “Popular history” gets a ton of things wrong, and the “lies of omission” are probably even greater.

      I won’t link to it because I don’t want to come off as advertising (and the subject matter is somewhat politically controversial and I don’t want to start a fight about it), but I did a blog post a few years back on what I refer to as “the smallpox blankets myth.”

      The average person believes that evil Americans intentionally went around the country handing out infected blankets to kill off the natives in an act of intentional genocide so that they could steal all the land.

      Historians have found exactly ONE reported incidence of this occurring. It happened before the revolution, during a military siege upon a British fort. As a last-ditch act of desperation, the commander ordered infected blankets to be sent out to the attacking native warriors. The tribe in question had already been exposed to smallpox generally and there is no evidence that it actually worked. Also of note is that this incident pre-dates Louis Pasteur and the formalization of germ theory.

      • I’ve also heard that modern scientists have attempted and failed to infect blankets with the smallpox virus.

        • The version I heard involved a British officer in Canada, based on his account. I don’t think it was during a siege.

          A little googling turned up a web page which includes images of bits from letters of British officers, one of which certainly appears to be approving of the idea of infecting the Indians via blankets:

          I don’t know if someone has successfully debunked this part of the story, but it looks real.

          • Matt M says:

            This is the incident I was referring to. It’s been awhile since I read up on it and I may have forgotten some of the details.

        • keranih says:

          @ David Friedman

          The fort was one of a string of Brit military installations along the so-called frontier. The Indians – having (finally) cottoned on the fact that no, the fragile white eyes weren’t going to leave of their own accord were engaged in more persuasive action. This included sending in “charity cases” of mixed groups (women, old men, a couple younger men) to the fort to “ask for food and blankets.” And if the women and old men took careful notice of where the soldiers were bunking and where the firearms were stored, well, there’s no law against having *eyes*, is there?

          And the next day – or the day after – when the young men actually attacked, and seemed to be suspiciously direct in moving towards the armory and the barracks…well, surely *everyone* gets lucky, right?

          Alas, Brit commanders of forts on the border with Indian country didn’t become commanders of forts on border by being idiots, and they didn’t become *old* commanders by failing to learn from their mistakes.

          The horrified pearl clutching over the (extremely) highly isolated incidence of the use of “smallpox soaked blankets” depends almost entirely on the supposition that the natives were the sorts of idealized helpless and harmless Disney bunnies as appeared in Bambi.

          To me, this is repulsive and dehumanizing. Far better to – at least – assume the native tribes as the rabbits of Watership Down – out numbered and out gunned, to be sure, but not helpless, and not going down without their enemies taking notice.

          • 1. I don’t see how we can know that it was an “extremely isolated incident.” There seems to be one case where the proposal, at least, survived in the written record. That doesn’t tell you whether or not there were ten others where it didn’t.

            2. I don’t see how your claim about Indian tactics to get information, even if it’s true–you don’t cite a source–is relevant. The Indians don’t have to be innocent and helpless bunnies to die from smallpox.

          • Nornagest says:

            The Brits were generally pretty good about writing stuff down, otherwise we wouldn’t know about the Fort Pitt incident. The current version of the Wikipedia article takes great pains to point out that other events could have escaped documentation, but it also cites two separate sources for this one — it is of course impossible to rule out other incidents, but if it was a common practice, I’m pretty sure we’d know more about it.

            That being said, I don’t see the tactics that keranih mentions as being especially relevant. Spies and civilian informants were a commonplace of European warfare at the time — they were very important to the American Revolution, for example, thirteen years later.

          • keranih says:

            @ David Friedman –

            We have multiple examples of other “dehumanizing” war crimes (or what read to us, now, as war crimes) that were committed by all sides against each other. They were in a war and they (all) thought that their descendants would care a great deal more about who won than about how they won. There is no reason to think that other incidents occurred that were unrecorded – and without recorded support, accusations are nothing more than slander.

            2)a. Correct, I don’t cite my source. I can’t find it at the moment, but when I do find it I’ll post it in an open thread. Until then, please feel free to ignore this information.

            b. the relevance was the role of combatants and non-combatants, and the use of underhanded techniques on all sides. A commander who is attempting to safeguard both the region under his protection and the men under his command can be justified in striking at spies and saboteurs.

            The Indians don’t have to be innocent and helpless bunnies to die from smallpox.

            Nor do they have to be helpless buns in order to die from gunshots and knives. The charge that “deliberately infecting unsuspecting natives with a known pathogen is a criminal action” rests on the idea that the “unsuspecting natives” were non-combatant bystanders. According to my source (again, sorry, no, no link) they were active spies who had already been responsible for the destruction of multiple forts.


            Spies and civilian informants were a commonplace of European warfare at the time — they were very important to the American Revolution, for example, thirteen years later.

            And when caught, shot out of hand.

      • BBA says:

        “The average person believes that evil Americans intentionally went around the country handing out infected blankets to kill off the natives in an act of intentional genocide so that they could steal all the land.”

        The average person believes nothing of the sort. Maybe the average college graduate has heard something along those lines, but most people aren’t college graduates. And high school history textbooks tend to gloss over those kinds of details, even when they’re true.

        (Unless Howard Zinn’s People’s History has become a standard textbook since I graduated. I actually was assigned it in high school, but as a supplement to the main textbook with its standard issue America Fuck Yeah narrative, and I was under the impression that even this level of endorsement was highly unusual even in crunchy liberal towns like mine.)

        • dndnrsn says:

          I certainly had heard it in some form or another before I’d graduated from high school, and I’ve never read Zinn. I can’t remember where I heard it.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          This may be a culture bubble. This is “common knowledge” among my Yuppie Blue Tribe friends.

          Presumably students in Texas receive a different history curriculum.

        • I can’t speak to the Zinn book, but there is a Buffy St Marie song that refers to such an incident.

        • dndnrsn says:

          It looks like the historical evidence is for intentional smallpox infection being discussed, ordered, and probably tried, at Fort Pitt. The popular version is that it was a common practice by the British.

        • BBA says:

          General reply: my overall point is most of us in this comment section are college-educated and most of America isn’t. And “what you learn in college”, which includes all these lefty America-is-the-Great-Satan memes, isn’t necessarily something that the non-college majority has encountered. This is changing with the internet connecting people across these social barriers, but I still don’t think the revisionist left-wing view of history has made it into American civic religion like George Washington and the cherry tree.

          Then again, I’m a Jew in Manhattan so if anyone is out of touch with mainstream America, it’s me. 😛

        • dndnrsn says:

          Not an American. I had heard the smallpox blankets story, in the form “this was something the British did” rather than the (accurate) form “this is something that was definitely discussed and probably done in one place”. I didn’t learn about it in university, and I don’t think it was taught in high school.

          I’m suspecting it’s a cultural-osmosis thing.

    • Nornagest says:

      Niihau incident

      Huh, I learned something today.

      • Jugemu Chousuke says:

        Me too.

      • bean says:

        I only learned of that a couple months ago, which is slightly disturbing because I’m a big WWII buff. But I’m really glad I did, because it provides an instant check on the credibility of any writing on Japanese Internment. Didn’t mention the Niihau incident? Doesn’t have standing to discuss the issue.

    • Deiseach says:

      You don’t think Americans have crazy mythologies? Or at least some of them? Let me introduce you to the “Europeans had no idea what soap was until Africans/South Asians taught them”.

      It was a pippin of a Tumblr rant and I wish I’d saved it, and there was plainly a lot of genuine pain underlying it, but it was complete fantasy reconstruction of historical reality, something in thought along the lines of Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”, only they probably never heard of Frazer and would have accused him of being yet another example of Whitey ripping off Genuine Native Spirituality.

      There was also another one about how Africans/African-Americans had really invented everything that Whites claimed to have invented, from combs onward (I did a bit of tracking down the name of the person quoted, and it probably was the hot comb they meant, but they simply put down “combs” – as in no, not even the Vikings had proper combs).

      • Nornagest says:

        I’ve heard that one too, and it’s pretty dumb, but it’s not American civic religion — it might be stuff that “everyone knows” in a certain narrow ideological cluster, but if you ask Joe Sixpack in Hayseed, Nebraska about it, he won’t know what you’re talking about and may suspect you of e.g. being an actor for a hidden-camera comedy series. (I think the African version came out of the Nation of Islam originally; other variations I’ve seen mainly on Tumblr, and I suspect they’re more recent.)

        What group to blame for it, though, is almost beside the point. Every group tries to mythologize like that if you let it fester long enough, like Scott says, but these days it tends to self-limit unless it can defend itself against mainstream history. That’s easy in the Tumblr world — you just accuse the history of being whitecishet propaganda. But most groups don’t have that kind of… I’ll politely call it “skepticism”, and so any serious mythologizing gets pushed out into places where history is sparse or inaccessible.

    • Deiseach says:

      I did look up the Scopes Trial and discovered, as you say, how the mythology differs from the reality: that the people involved were looking for some kind of test case and deliberately ginned up “persecution” so they could go to court, and that the heroic lawyer involved (Clarence Darrow) was the one pushing for the narrow, literal definition of religion where he insisted that if Bryan (the prosecution witness) did not take the literal reading he didn’t really believe what he claimed (goodness, where have I seen that attitude before?)

      Looking at the Wikipedia article, you get lovely quotes like the following:

      Time related Bryan’s arrival in town with the disparaging comment, “The populace, Bryan’s to a moron, yowled a welcome.”

      Well now, why ever would those probably Republican-voting rednecks think good liberals sneer at and belittle them? Why ever do they vote Republican not Democrat, against their economic interest? ‘Tis a puzzle! 🙂

      • hlynkacg says:

        Tis Indeed 😉

      • BBA says:

        Bryan was a major political figure well before the trial, having run for president three times on a platform that’s so alien to modern issues it can’t be called left or right. He was extremely religious and opposed to teaching evolution in schools, as well as being a radical rural supremacist who railed against the immorality of the cities – but he also was staunchly opposed to banks, plutocracy, and the gold standard, and a pacifist who resigned from Wilson’s cabinet when the US entered World War I.

        He was a Democrat at the time, which has nothing to do with which party he’d be in now, no matter what morons on Tumblr say. (And I mean it, if they say that all Democrats are and have always been secular and anti-racist and on the side of the angels, they are morons and you shouldn’t listen to a damn thing they have to say about anything else. And I say that as a secular anti-racist Democrat.)

    • We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened.

      I read that and thought, “oh yeah, then why are there so many myths about the Great Depression?” Taking a step back, I realized that a lot of people would probably read that and think “oh yeah, then why are there so many myths about [area I am relatively more informed about]?”

      Still, Scott’s point stands. The myths that exist in the public imagination are at least tethered to reality by historians, even if that tether is looser than we’d like it to be. In ancient times, there was no tether, and myth could drift away from reality without limit until Roosevelt was a hundred-foot giant who single-handedly ended the Depression by inventing the Manhattan Project.

  62. Aleksander says:

    “That was ancient religion – culture in a world where culture meant something.”

    You lost me here. When I talk about “religion”, I talk about one specific part of culture. The lines of separation may be fuzzy, and religion may be infused in almost all daily life in many cultures – but “culture” is still broader than “religion”. So when people ask “why do religions develop in all cultures?” they want to know why all cultures always seem to take on some non-obvious patterns that we call religion. Part-way through the essay, I feel you just dropped that question and say “they just do”.

  63. Bram Cohen says:

    Organized religion used to claim credit for a number of things: Understanding of the world, the structure of society, personal spirituality, and morality. In the past these things weren’t all well separated and organized religion had a reasonable claim to parts of it, particularly the structure of society. Nowadays religion’s claim to our understanding of the world is a joke, its being involved in the fabric of society is banned in the USA, and spirituality you can reach just by doing some psilocybin (I’m not being flippant here, this is true.)

    That leaves morality, which is the last bastion of organized religion’s claims to being necessary. It isn’t true: nonreligious people are no less moral than religious people, and if anything more prone to self-doubt because they can’t just pray guilt away. But organized religions still make the claim that without them there would be no morality, and large portions of the population in some places believe it, so they continue to be influential.

    • Deiseach says:

      spirituality you can reach just by doing some psilocybin

      Yeah, great man, really right-on, let’s all tune in and turn on, oh I’m really feeling the cosmic vibes now…

      Nothing is more boring than druggie “spirituality”.

      • Bram Cohen says:

        As opposed to all those people who have deeply profound spiritual experiences via meditation? Or did you learn to be spiritual by taking classes on it where tests were given, thus conferring on it an air of seriousness?

        You’re engaging in exactly the pretension of organized religion I’m talking about. Spirituality is a deeply personal and inherently somewhat silly concept. Anyone claiming someone else’s spirituality doesn’t count is being a jerk.

        • Deiseach says:

          Yes, I’ll be a jerk about the “penny in the slot” spirituality: you don’t have to cultivate it by mental practice (such as meditation); just smoke this or swallow that and pow, instant enlightenment!

          Like the trendy Westerners taking trips to South America for the shamanism; how many of them actually have made any study or attempt to cultivate spirituality in their own tradition or another, how many are doing it as a legal(ish) way to get high, and how many are doing the next “everyone in these circles is trying it” Eat Pray Love kind of jaunt?

          • Bram Cohen says:

            Yep, you’re a pretentious jerk. You’re making some moral claim of knowing The Way To Enlightenment, with no justification whatsoever beyond arrogance and a handwave towards tradition, with some allusions to cultural appropriation being unethical just for good measure.

          • Nornagest says:

            I can’t believe I’m defending hippie spirituality, but if you just want to get high, it’s ten times easier and a hundred times cheaper to ask whichever of your friends has the longest dreadlocks or the ugliest sweater than to fly to South America for an ayahuasca ceremony. Illegal, sure, but do you think the modal ayahuasca celebrant actually cares about that?

            That doesn’t rule out ingroup signaling, of course, but distinguishing that from genuine spirituality is going to be hard at the best of times.

    • NN says:

      That leaves morality, which is the last bastion of organized religion’s claims to being necessary. It isn’t true: nonreligious people are no less moral than religious people, and if anything more prone to self-doubt because they can’t just pray guilt away. But organized religions still make the claim that without them there would be no morality, and large portions of the population in some places believe it, so they continue to be influential.

      Actually, multiple studies have found religiosity to be negatively correlated with criminality and positively correlated with things like marital stability and charitable giving. So while the statement “without religion there would be no morality” is obviously false, the statement “religious people are more moral on average than less religious people” is supported by a decent amount of evidence.

      Of course, this evidence doesn’t necessarily support a religion -> morality causal relationship, but it doesn’t rule that out either.

      • Nornagest says:

        I’d be astonished if we didn’t see conscientiousness -> religion causality in any social environment that’s less than totally secular; going to church on Sunday was for a long time the accepted social marker of conscientiousness, and it’s still a strong one in a lot of places. That’s not quite the same thing as morality, of course, but it does (to paraphrase Randall Munroe) gesture furtively in its direction while mouthing “look over there”.

  64. Michael Watts says:

    Any tuna made with a process that cannot 100% exclude dolphins is impure.

    I wouldn’t care to dispute this as a characterization of what people believe about our food, but in reality there is no such process. Dolphin-safe tuna still kills dolphins; it just kills them at a much lower rate than ecologically-sane tuna.

  65. Ptoliporthos says:

    ” which is why you never hear the Greeks complaining that the Egyptians were evil heretics who denied the light of Zeus and needed to be converted by the sword”

    Well, no, because they were syncretists and did their best to match up the Egyptian pantheon with their own. It didn’t hurt that early in history, the Egyptians were so much more technologically advanced than their neighbors that everything they did seemed magically wise.

    On the other hand, Socrates was arrested, tried, and executed for ‘corrupting the youth’ — undermining their piety by claiming he had a personal spirit telling him right from wrong and encouraging them to talk back to their elders. It may not have been the *reason* he was executed, but heresy was at least the excuse. Furthermore, all Athenian citizens (not just office holders) faced a religious test before they became eligible to vote — they had to demonstrate that they regularly participated in the festivals and sacrifices demanded by civic religion.

    • Mary says:

      And because the Egyptians were also willing to put up with it. Witness Maccabees for where they met actual resistance.

  66. Philipp says:

    Actually, Numa, not Romulus, was credited with inventing Roman religion (though the auspices are said to have been Romulus’ establishment). Roman religion has built-in, as it were, the idea of cautious development and expansion, as well as of doing what the ancestors did–it is supremely conservative, like much of Roman politics, but also capable of real and radical (and sudden) change, especially if it is cast as a return to past custom.

  67. Deiseach says:

    Speaking about American civic religion – the resemblances between human sacrifice and the death penalty as means to enforce authority and consolidate social order.

  68. jack griffith says:

    this is a bit of a tangent, but i wonder if different types of theism correlate with different types of government (i.e., monotheism with strong, centralized government, polytheism with weak or fragmented government, animism with non-government/anarchy).

    many european countries we would think of as having high social capital (benelux countries, norway, sweden, denmark) are still constitutional monarchies, even if they’ve stopped operating that way in practice. you don’t hear about the divine right of kings anymore, but that could just be because there are no more pagans to conquer or neighbors to fight; so, no need for a unifying force. (you *do* hear about all the difficulties posed by immigration.)

    on the other hand, japan has a strong central government but no history of monotheism. (they took a dovish approach to their pagans.) that might undermine the idea that government and theism develop in tandem. or it might be something specific to the history of japan.

    china’s another toughie. they have a strong central government, but at the same time, 700 million chinese are ancestor worshipers. does that rule out the theory? or does it mean that government is a weak force in the daily life of many chinese? or something else?

    these are anecdotes and i’m not confident about them. someone with a good knowledge of history could support or refute the idea better.

    if there *is* a connection, i wonder where people’s notion of god comes into play. does god mirror government or vice versa?

    in the u.s., a recurring goal of the religious right has been to break the wall between church and state, specifically the barriers that keep god out of the state. (there are people who argue that god doesn’t stop school shootings because he’s not allowed in schools anymore; they argue this with a straight face!)

    we don’t spill much ink about god as secularists, but the concept matters a lot to believers. what does it do?

    part of it seems to satisfy intuitive notions of cause and effect. my grandma isn’t religious, but she’ll emphatically tell you she believes “there’s something”. but what does she mean by something? what’s something!? of course, she’s being succinct: things happen, and *something* causes them to happen (as in, “the creator has a master plan” and “don’t you worry child / heaven has a plan for you”). it’s an explanation about why events unfold a certain way (like how people in non-state societies attribute life’s ups and downs to helpful and harmful spirits). it’s also an explanation about what causes other people’s behavior. i live in the south, where it’s common to hear older people say a person is behaving badly because they don’t “know god” (i remember a former boss telling me that the middle east was such a wreck because “muslims worship allah, which is satan.”). jon haidt writes of how uneducated people in the u.s., india, and brazil fail to distinguish between violations of morality and convention, i.e., an educated person will say punching someone in the face is immoral but refusing to wear a school uniform isn’t, whereas an uneducated person will say both are immoral. but why would a person punch someone in the face or refuse to wear a uniform in the first place? when christians say atheists have a god-shaped hole in their hearts, are they saying that atheists lack the essence or *oomph* that generates good behavior? i’ve read elsewhere that the greeks had no concept of internal emotional states (anger, love, etc.). so when someone did something, it was attributed to possession by the gods (e.g., when that guy punched the other guy in the face for not wearing his school uniform, it wasn’t because he was “angry” [whatever that means]; it was because he was gripped by ares). this is a strong, unverifiable claim, so i wouldn’t put too much stock in it, but it is useful as another way to think about the function of god(s): namely, as providing a mushy notion of cause and effect. (and how far we’ve come! nowadays we know that violence and cruelty aren’t caused by ares and apollo, but by racism and sexism. that’s why we need strong taboos to control them!)

    of course, the idea of god might be too mushy or context-specific to explain with any elegance.

  69. Fascinating. You go in the right direction – religion as just one set of human beliefs and practices. But you’re still hampered by subtle prejudices about the subject – in common with so many rationalists.

    First, do not assume that you know anything about religion just because you see it all around you. In the same way, you should not assume you know anything about English just because you speak it. It needs to be studied in the same way as other subjects – extensively and honestly. And questioning the notion of religion should be the first step in this.

    Second, you fundamentally ignore the heterogeneity of all that is hidden under the labels conferred by what we call religion. There is no such thing as ‘Judaism’ or ‘Christianity’ that can be seen as one thing – today or ever.

    Third, you are too ready to reduce religion to the psychological and socio-psychological. And those can be useful models for some aspects of it. But they do not capture enough of what makes it work – in a way that makes them do more harm than good. What actually happens and happened matters.


  70. There seems to be a pretty big difference between the Jewish and American food taboos that is worth stating explicitly: in general, very few people are in favor punishing or stopping Americans who violate most of those food taboos. If one opened a restaurant that had insects on the menu people aren’t going to call for closing the restaurant down.

    Also, it is worth noting that the unclear line between how one lives in general exists in many forms of Islam and also in Orthodox Judaism.

    • onyomi says:

      People keep pointing out the difference between current American eating habits and Jewish Kosher laws, but missing one of Scott’s main points: you only need to write it down and start enforcing it with shame, guilt, and religious condemnation if and when the habits start breaking down. When they are just “the way things are done and nobody thought to do any different” there is no need for the strict rules. That comes in later when, for whatever reason, the culture starts changing due to new environment, new technology, simple social evolution, or, most likely, contact with new tribes. Eating insects has no particular socio-political-moral-tribal connotations precisely because not enough people do it for it to be noteworthy.

      I think you see this subtly happening in the politicization of newer habits like veganism. Veganism and related practices are starting to take on a distinctly “Blue Tribe” tinge, while hunting and eating lots of meat (including stuff like venison) has a more “Red Tribe” tinge. In the past if you didn’t eat animal products people would have just been like “what’s wrong with you? Are you sick? Why can’t you eat like a normal person?” Now, it’s like “OH, you’re one of THOSE people.” If we were still in an age when people did such things, we can imagine the high priests of the Blue Tribe creating a code which banned venison and the high priests of the Red Tribe banning tofu.

      Just as Hinduism doesn’t need a name until it starts defining itself against Buddhism, Kosher doesn’t need a name until it starts defining itself against how non-Jewish people eat, and eating venison isn’t a socio-political statement until it starts contrasting to the tofu eaters.

      • dndnrsn says:

        A point of support: an especially observant Israeli Jew will spend less time having to avoid breaking food rules than their counterpart outside of Israel. It will define them less.

      • Filthy Liar says:

        Or maybe redtribe bluetribe nonsense so you can feel superior at belonging to neither isn’t actually helpful to understanding why people do or don’t do things. Hunting for instance isn’t a thing that redtribe people do, it’s a thing that country people do, because we’ve got space and animals to hunt. Country people != redtribe, no matter how much you personally believe otherwise.

        • Jiro says:

          If hunting was not correlated with other things, you might describe it that way, but I believe it is in fact correlated with other things.

          • Filthy Liar says:

            Sure, but your belief doesn’t make it so. The tribal divide is an incredibly facile way to look at American politics by a man who claims not to want to understand politics but rather the meta behind them. It’s useless as a map, as a model, and certainly as a territory and you blind yourself if you subscribe to it. As an example, let’s take this current theory where eating of insects is mentioned off-hand as some sort of American taboo. It isn’t, demonstratably so. Look at for a brief listing. None of these restaurants have met with any opposition, never mind any significant cultural opposition.

          • onyomi says:

            Eating insects is not common in the United States.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            I can recall an incident when a restaurant serving squirrel was attacked.

      • Nornagest says:

        There is a bit in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (good book, by the way, and I imagine this crowd would like it) where one of the characters points out that you can use the prohibitions of a group to draw a picture of the kinds of trouble its members are likely to get into. If a rule exists, it tells you, before anything else, that it happened enough that the group’s leaders felt the need to expend resources — much scarcer in the past — to prevent it.

        A long list of rules, especially petty-looking ones, tells you that the group felt the need to hold itself apart.

  71. JayMan says:

    People call the Jewish dietary code unusually strict, but it’s important to realize the strictness of modern American kashrut. Absolutely no eating insects – remember, even Jewish kashrut allows locusts! Precious few birds outside of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese – remember, even Jewish kashrut allows pigeons! No dogs, cats, rodents, or horses. No reptiles or amphibians, no matter how much the French try to convince us that frog legs are great. No eating clearly obvious animal heads with eyes and stuff (even though dozens of advanced cultures do so happily). No blood products (eg black pudding). Mixing milk and soda in the same glass would be absurd and disgusting.

    Is that “religion” or a Western/Anglo dietary preference?

    Dietary choices are heritable, both within and between groups.

    But if America was a thousand years old and had no science, no religion, and no writing, we would have crazy mythologies up the wazoo. George Washington would take on the stature of an Agamemnon; Benjamin Franklin would take on the status of a Daedalus.

    Could America, or any Western society, exist that long without those things?

    Of course, 1,000 years is a long time. People will be quite different then, just as they were quite different 1,000 years ago.

    The ancient world had far less trade and transportation than our own and was far less homogenized. If you want to get into the shoes of an ancient contemplating his religion, imagine you’re an American in a world where even your closest neighboring countries are as different from you as New Guinea hill tribes, or Afghan chiefdoms, or Chinese party cadres.

    Ancient people weren’t that isolated. The people within travelling range could be quite different, but not as different as the above examples.

    More modern religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are a bit different. Obviously their respective founders play a huge role, but I still think part of what makes them religions rather than just philosophies or spiritual teachings is that they underwent this ossification process. Just as modern Judaism preserves many features of 10th-century-BC Israel that got encoded into holy writ, so modern Christianity preserves many features of 1st century Judeo-Hellenist syncretism.

    You should spend some time talking to Razib Khan. You’re thinking of religion the wrong way. Religion doesn’t come from on high nor is it really passed down from generation to generation as you think. Ask the average religious person about the details of what his or her religion actually teaches. Most won’t know much – indeed, they often hold beliefs contradictory to what their religion espouses. Religion comes from within. It is heritable like all things, and like the things you mentioned (culture, diet, politics). The beliefs people embrace from their religion are the things they have a personal inclination to embrace – and religious doctrine provides a great post-hoc rationalization.

    Anyway, of course see also:

    The Atheist Narrative – The Unz Review


    The Donald Trump Phenomenon: Part 2: Binary Thinking – The Unz Review

    The real question is why did religious tendencies evolve?

    • TheAncientGeek says:

      There seems to be a big gap in this argument. You say that *religiosity* is inherited,
      but then continue as though you had shown that
      specific *belief systems* are inherited. The argument from observed correlations between
      racial group and religion don’t add up to much: since religions tned to spread along
      geographically contiguous areas by, by such mechanisms as word of mouth and conquest, they
      are bound to be correlated with racial groups, because of the pre-exisitng correlation between
      racial group and geographical area.

  72. Logan says:

    I can’t believe you don’t think American Civil Religion has crazy mythology. I think the difference is only that our mythology is “true,” and theirs is not. In the 80s many americans were convinced that satanists were kidnapping children out of american suburbs on a regular basis. But they don’t believe in dragons, which is ridiculous. I’ve met so many people (this probably won’t go over well in this particular forum) who honestly think that immortality may well become possible before they die. The scientists, they will save me, but only if we fund the sciences so don’t cut the NSF!

    And even the facts that I don’t think are false still have the character of mythos. No one thinks Paul Bunyan made the great lakes, but I think they were probably carved by glaciers. And that’s not because I looked it up in a library, that’s something someone told me once. It sounds reasonable, it meshes with facts I know about glaciers and north america, and if someone called me on it at a party I’d defend my belief.

    Really, mythology is just the things that turned out to be wrong. We’re probably right about atoms, but cutting edge science also makes it into the popular consciousness. The many worlds hypothesis might seem like a myth someday, a just pat story told by academics to make the world make sense to laymen. And certainly in the softer sciences, there are theories about how children will never be successful if their mothers don’t praise them enough, stories which affect child rearing in a big way for generations before being seen as nonsense. Just because people tried to test it doesn’t make it not a made up story at its core.

    We just treat our mythos in a different way than other cultures, with a strong tradition of dissent and questioning. Note that we build massive monuments to this tradition (called universities), it has saints and prophets (Gallileo, Newton, Darwin), and a class of professional questioners, whose edicts should never be questioned. I mean we give a lot of lip service to science being all about questioning everything, but in practice it’s immoral to question what science says about climate change.

    • I think the difference is only that our mythology is “true,” and theirs is not. In the 80s many americans were convinced that satanists were kidnapping children out of american suburbs on a regular basis. But they don’t believe in dragons, which is ridiculous. I’ve met so many people (this probably won’t go over well in this particular forum) who honestly think that immortality may well become possible before they die. The scientists, they will save me, but only if we fund the sciences so don’t cut the NSF! “”

      This doesn’t really work. There’s a difference between a scare that goes on for a while and a part of the mythology. The American mythology has both true and false parts, but Scott’s point is that it doesn’t have extreme aspects. Hamilton and Burr dueling is a true aspect. George Washington and the cherry tree is a false aspect, but both are part of the mythology.

      • Logan says:

        How are you defining extreme though? Washington could have been king but he insisted on not being given too much power, and walked away after two terms. That sounds extremely unlikely to me (and it’s probably more complicated than that). Would you prefer that while bequeathing us democracy out of pure generosity he had also breathed fire? Because remember, we don’t think it’s possible to breath fire. Extreme just means “something we now recognize as impossible.”

    • Matt M says:

      “And even the facts that I don’t think are false still have the character of mythos. No one thinks Paul Bunyan made the great lakes, but I think they were probably carved by glaciers. And that’s not because I looked it up in a library, that’s something someone told me once. It sounds reasonable, it meshes with facts I know about glaciers and north america, and if someone called me on it at a party I’d defend my belief.”

      Yep. This is the truth about most of our beliefs about most things.

      But you ask “****ing magnets, how do they work?” one time….

  73. Art says:

    “The Hebrew Bible never says other gods don’t exist; indeed, it often says the opposite. It constantly praises God as stronger and better than other gods.”

    I did not get the impression from the Hebrew Bible that it presents God as similar to “other gods” but better. Instead it is an entirely different concept. And the question of “other gods” existence does not come up because it is just irrelevant.

    • Mitchell Powell says:

      The question of “other gods” isn’t necessarily a preoccupation of the Hebrew Bible, but it does come up — and it gets several answers. In Psalm 82, for instance, the Israelite God is pretty explicitly described of many deities who are all sons of the head deity El Elyon. In Isaiah 45:5, however, a more classically monotheistic answer is given: aside from Yahweh, there are no other gods.

  74. Mitchell Powell says:

    “I think a big part of this is ossification and separation from context. The Jewish law perfectly preserves what any right-thinking Israelite in 1000 BC would have considered obvious, natural, and not-even-needing-justification (much as any right-thinking American today considers not eating insects obvious). By the time the Bible was being written this was no longer true – foreign customs and inevitable social change were making the old law seem less and less relevant, and I think modern scholarship thinks the Bible was written by a conservative faction of priests making their case for adherence to the old ways.”

    As someone who spent three years studying this stuff (the Hebrew Bible and early Judaism) at a secular university, let me just offer a couple tiny quibbles. None of this detracts from my enjoyment of the article or my agreement with most of it. I’m an atheist who in many ways gets recognized by strangers as a member of the “evangelical/fundamentalist tribe,” and thinking of religion as mostly cultural makes 100% perfect sense to me.

    Quibble 1: More like 500 BC than 1000 BC. And if your use of “BC” was just to piss off the politically correct crowd, more power to you.

    Quibble 2: As to “the Bible” being written by a conservative faction, that’s tricky. The Bible was written over a couple of hundred years. If you’re talking about, say, Ezra-Nehemiah (like, 400-300 BC), then there’s probably a lot to be said for the Bible being a conservative project. Ezra and Nehemiah basically want to restore the Old Temple and go back to the Old Ways as they understand them. If you’re talking about the “Primary History” (Genesis-Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy-Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings), it’s rather more likely that you’re looking at the work of a small, fairly radical monotheistic elite writing somewhere about 600-500 BC for the bulk of the material. They presented themselves as restoring the “Old Ways” but they weren’t, any more than Martin Luther was restoring pre-Catholic Christianity. So even if it has a very conservative flavor, it’s probably not quite right to think of the bulk of the Hebrew Bible as “conservative” in every sense of the word. Those “foreign gods” that the text rails about so much are basically the indigenous gods of the region. The reason the Israelites are constantly getting yelled at for reverting to Canaanite worship is that the Israelites are basically a Canaanite people doing what they’ve always done, and the biblical Yahweh-only crowd are the innovators. The rhetoric of the Genesis-Kings is conservative; the content is not.

    Another way to look at it would be to ask whether the Baptists are conservative or liberal. If we’re talking about Baptists in the 1600’s, then Baptists are a radical sort of new group breaking with the establishment, though of course they consider themselves to be simply restoring Christianity as it originally was. Conservative rhetoric; radical content. If we’re talking about Southern Baptists today, then they’re absolutely conservative, both in rhetoric, and in their actual attempt to keep Baptist practice and belief from changing. So Baptists have gone from being reformers at the cutting edge of religious innovation to being seen as a crusty ‘old guard.’ Since the Bible was likely written over several hundred years, the same kind of process can be found there.

  75. Photon says:

    I’m not a regular reader here, but this is a topic that interests me quite a bit and I agree that if we want to understand religion, ancient religions can tell us more than modern ones. However, I think your interpretation doesn’t really account for the role of gods in these societies. Gods were not only mythological figures, but beings the community interacted with on regular basis. And a loyal Roman had to follow the rites the ancestors prescribed not only because he had to respect his ancestors and the Roman state, but also because his failure to do so could (in the Roman view) place the state in real danger.

    My theory (which might be shared by some actual experts, iirc) about where the rituals surrounding the gods (a central part of religion) come from is roughly this:
    An ancient community is affected by a lot of things that are out of their control, like weather, disease, luck during war, crops failure, etc. Naturally, this community will try its best to negotiate good conditions with these forces and since we humans do probably have a tendency to personify the things we interact with, we end up with gods that we imagine being similar to us. These communities come to the conclusion that some of these rituals actually work, possibly through confirmation bias. If, at later points, these rituals fail, then the explanation is that a mistake was made during the ritual or another city did a better ritual for that god or some of the citizens didn’t participate (the reason for the first Empire-wide persecution of Christians). With Judaism and later Christianity and Islam, monotheism itself becomes necessary for a society to gain God’s favor. And while the monotheistic God is separate from the forces the community can’t control, he is still thought to be able to control these forces. (I’ve wondered for some time now if the prerequisite for the spread of atheism has been the widespread use of medicine, which offers a more effective way to control disease and the fear of disease.)

    To bring this back to the tribalism discussion: When in present day America some Christians try what they can to ban same-sex marriage, it is because they consider the people who would marry someone of the same sex as part of their tribe. If people of your tribe act in ways that God dislikes, they are threatening the entire tribe. And I suspect some of the violence we see with the Sunni-Shia split is based on the fact that they see themselves as part of a larger tribe, the Ummah, which the other one threatens with their actions.

    • Matt M says:

      Right, but of course, this works both ways, too.

      Those who argue in favor of using government force to compel Christian bakers to make a cake for a gay wedding are very much also concerned about a perceived blasphemy against the American Civil Religion, which holds non-discrimination as a key tenet. The concern is not specifically “unless you do this these people will go without a much needed cake” but rather “allowing this to happen negatively affects our entire nation.”

      • Photon says:

        True. I probably wouldn’t count that under the category of “practices to negotiate with gods”*, and religion does have a fuzzy boundary there. The harm that allowing discrimination is generally thought to come from within the society, not from an outside source. It is definitely a case of enforcement of certain values for an intended benefit of the tribe. Something humans have done at least as long as they have bowed to gods.

        I think the closest comparison to a god for contemporary states is the global economy. It is an outside force that can bless and punish a country and needs to be appeased by certain politics.

        *I’ll note that Émile Durkheim, who is still one of the big names in religious studies, would disagree with me here. In his opinion God/gods aren’t outside forces that society needs to negotiate with, but abstractions of society itself. So in his view non-discrimination would clearly be a religious behavior.

        • Matt M says:

          Yeah, my first thought was “the market” can count for that.

          I was living in Indiana last year when they went through the same controversy that North Carolina is going through right now, and I met a fair number of people whose legitimate opinion seemed to be “My only objection to this law is that all these companies are threatening to leave and boycott us, which would be bad for the local economy, therefore I want this law overturned.” Essentially, a powerful outside force would wreck things up if not properly appeased, so we should get with the appeasing already.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I agree that if we want to understand religion, ancient religions can tell us more than modern ones.

      The trouble with looking under ancient religions is that the lighting is really bad there. We don’t have records to tell us what actually took place to form these religions. So what we end up with instead is a made-up story derived from and echoing back the theory we already decided we liked. There’s no data to check against.

      In contract, we do have pretty decent data on the early days of merely old religions like Christianity and Islam. And what we see there are not ossifications of the existing culture, but self-conscious religious systems creating a new culture which ultimately overthrows the old.

      And since those are the two largest religions which our theory is failing to explain, I feel like it’s pretty lacking.

  76. Max Goedl says:

    “The near-universal existence of religion across cultures is surprising.”

    Surprising from the point of view of atheists, yes. Not so much for theists. As the Catechism explains: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself…In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behaviour: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being.”

  77. Eric Schiedler says:

    Julian Jaynes wrote “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” to describe the only theory of consciousness that fits the historical record: early man experienced auditory hallucinations as commands from the gods. This changed around 500 BCE or so but the legacy is still with us. Without addressing this theory, you, Dawkins, Dennett et. al. only have incomplete musings on the pervasiveness of religious beliefs. Dawkins and Dennett are both well aware of the book and have referenced it but seem to not know what to do with it. Dawkins called it mad or original, I paraphrase, in his books. Please check out the theory and consider the implications.

    • Deiseach says:

      the only theory of consciousness that fits the historical record: early man experienced auditory hallucinations as commands from the gods

      Since neither Jaynes nor any of us were around during this so-called breakdown in the 5th century B.C. to know for a fact from direct experience what early humans were doing or thinking or hearing in their heads, it’s a nice theory but I doubt it’s the only one, much less the real explanation.

      “People said they were hearing messages from the gods, then they weren’t hearing them, what happened?”

      There’s a lot of people nowadays who still hear messages from God; I was very surprised to read a lot of evangelical Christians talking about the answers to prayers they got as “God spoke to me” and meaning “a voice in my head that was the voice of God” and made decisions and followed plans as direct results of those locutions (within Catholicism, this is more reserved to mystics and is considered very rare to have direct communication from God).

      Now, you can say they’re hallucinating. But Jaynes is wrong and his theory falls apart if he relies on “people used to hallucinate gods and now they no longer can’t and that’s where consciousness comes from”, since people in this present day still are “experiencing auditory hallucinations as commands from [God]” and are going around leading functional lives and are not all in the mental hospital or on pills to treat delusions.

      Please do not recommend to everybody “This book has the One True Truth and you all need to read it and incorporate it into your understanding or else all your work is in vain!” I never thought I’d be in agreement with Dawkins and Dennett, but many people have read this book and remain unconvinced.

    • onyomi says:

      Isn’t a much more parsimonious explanation of ancient people hearing voices just that they tended to think of their schizophrenics as oracles and/or possession victims and when you didn’t have a “natural” oracle you could always chew or smoke something to get in touch with the spirits?

      I don’t know of any ancient histories in which *everyone* is supposedly hearing the voices of the gods all the time. Many ancient peoples even express doubt about the existence of spirits (see e. g. Xunzi). But even among communities where no doubt exists, it seems like it’s only special people and/or at special times (vision quests, etc.) when the gods talk to you.

      I haven’t read the “bicameral mind” book, but it seems not only to be a strange theory on the face of it, but also one which is completely unnecessary for explaining existing historical records and primitive societies.

  78. Nik says:

    Some truth in this article, but also some oversight, Scott.

    For one, you have the Sabbath. This was NEVER something that would have been “obvious” to a Jew in 1000 BC. Part of the reason it was such a huge deal was that it was something that made no sense to anyone outside of Judaism. And the idea that the importance of the Sabbath was simply created later to “codify” Jewish religion can only be half true, at best, as I’ve seen several estimates that place the origins of the Genesis creation account between 2000-1000 BC. So, from the start you have something “different” about Judaism that makes it other than the natural law.

    Secondly, you leave out the object of worship. The Arc of the Covenant for the Jews, the Eucharist for the Christians, the Qur’an for the Muslims. While tied to the mythos of each faith, there is still the fundamental idea that the religion goes beyond just a set or practical laws that we tie to a national identity, but that there is a real need to bow down and worship something. And, while I think that your general lumping of Greco-Roman paganism and Abrahamic religions isn’t quite accurate (the evolution of Greek philosophy presents a key difference in how religion is viewed by each culture), you still had objects of worship in paganism as well. And not just objects that were worshiped in a nice, quaint, American sense, but that involved sacrifice, fasting, etc. Serious stuff.

    The European Enlightenment more or less did away with that in Western culture. We have instead (I think much to our detriment) adopted a gentler notion of sacrifice. Whereas the ancients and medievals believed that beliefs should change the way you love, and that you should actually suffer in accepting your principles, we instead subject them to common sense, reducing the Greek notion of Agape love to mere gentlemanliness. But, I digress. If you want to actually draw parallels between American Civil Religion and the ancient notion of religion, you must find our object of worship — that to which we make sacrifices. Pope Francis would argue that our object of worship has become technology, but there are other possibilities.

    I realize that I’m kind of jumping around, so let me make my point concisely: I think you’ve hit on a lot of stuff, but I think you’ve made too many generalizations. There are fundamental differences between Greco-Roman religion and Abrahamic faiths. And I think that, while King Solomon would certainly recognize much of American Civil Religion as, well, religion, I think he would almost certainly recognize Orthodox or Conservative Judaism, Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, and most forms of Islam as closer to the ideal of a religion than ACR.

    (Also, as an aside, you might find Peter Abelard’s “Dialogue between a Christian, a Jew, and a Philosopher” somewhat interesting. The philosopher claims that the only thing necessary for salvation — i.e. religion — is the natural law, found in philosophy. In a sense, you are making a similar claim, and you might find the Jew and Christian’s arguments against this perspective interesting).

  79. Filthy Liar says:

    Plenty of Americans eat insects, and nobody I know of views eating insects as fundamentally unAmerican/taboo. Where’d you get that example?

  80. Curle says:

    We have a very active and demanding state religion, egalitarianism, making preposterous claims of authority based on incoherent and contradictory ideas (just like the old religions). This article does a pretty good job of summing things up (trigger warning uses the ‘n’ word).

    My employer expects us to attend religious education flying under the banner of diversity training and exercises with some regularity. The claims made at these sessions are always anecdotal yet proclaimed as illustrative of larger realities that nevertheless can’t be falsified or even coherently or reliably described. Any line of thinking resting upon the belief that thousands of years of tribal not to mention geographic separation MIGHT have selected for a smaller or larger presence of non-trivial physical or behavioral traits in separated populations is anathema (even as the vast bulk of evidence suggests an equal outcome from such distant separation to be near impossible if not absolutely impossible thus introducing the full blown superstitious angle) and the religion makes sure everyone knows it by regular denunciations of anyone entertaining such views (see D. Trump or James Watson). Challenging the priests of this religion/cult is a near certain mechanism for limiting one’s career and diminishing one’s standing in society (as with many religions of yore). And, as an extra benefit, it rationalizes the development of a parasitic class of the minimally educated (showing the incredible scope of that word educated) persons who fill positions as diversity counselors, positions akin to those held by monks and inquisitors in days of yore.

    But, I expect you know all this already.

    • I offer recycling as a religious ritual in our society, sometimes made compulsory. Almost nobody who does it, in my experience, has made any serious effort to figure out whether it is worth doing. But doing it is seen as obviously virtuous.

  81. Martin says:

    A big and important difference between ancient religion (esp. Judaism) and modern American traditions: not obeying the ancient laws could get you killed (Leviticus and Deuteronomy call for death as the punishment of many/most transgressions). But no one punishes you if you eat insects in the USA, or don’t watch the Super Bowl, or doubt the veracity of our myths.

    So while there may be some superficial similarities between ancient religion and modern cultural practices, I wouldn’t be too quick to make a connection.

  82. Mike says:

    The bit about neighboring tribes reminds me of my absolute favorite bit of Classical Studies trivia.

    Our English word ‘barbarian’ comes from an old Greek word, barbaros (βάρβαρος).

    A barbarian was anybody speaking a language other than Greek. Because if you’re not speaking Greek, you’re just going, “bar bar bar bar.”

    And so although we’ve taken the word and used it to mean uncivilized and brutish, to a 1 B.C. Athenian, a civilized barbarian would be rare but not at all self-contradictory.

  83. Little Yid says:

    Crucially, despite everything I’m saying about ossification the culture changes a lot: King Solomon would probably recognize modern rabbinic Judaism, but only barely. But it changes in a way different from the way the outside secular society changes, and in ways bound by the ossified text, so there’s still an element of having this ancient culture preserved in amber and maintained up to the modern day.

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the way this mechanism for change works in religion in general, and in Judaism in particular. If you think about religions as “software that runs on human brains”, then the one crucial rule for programmers who want to mess with the operating system of religion is:

    The source code can never be altered.

    This rule is really good for putting some values out of reach of Moloch’s claws {a genuinely pious person would never hit “defect” in prisoner’s dilemma}. The same rule becomes a problem when barbarism and primitivity end up becoming entrenched in a system forever; despite being manifestly immoral, and therefore in violation of the most important of all religious principles, religious homophobia is proving surprisingly difficult to uproot.

    Judaism deals with this problem by adding the “Not in the Heavens” amendment:

    It is really easy for Rabbis to add to the Law, even if that completely negates its original intent.

    The principle is taught in the Talmud through the case of the Oven of Akhnai, whose moral is “obey the ruling of the academy majority even if a voice from Heaven tells you otherwise.”

    It’s used to formulate things like Heter Iska, which allows Jews to charge interests on laws; and the modern eruv, which allows Jews to carry on Shabbos by wrapping a string around a suburb and designating it a courtyard.

    This could in principle be used to undermine the really important stuff, like “love thy neighbour” and “don’t kill”, but if you look at how the Sages actually use it throughout the Talmud, they’re huge progressives. The Sages pass all sorts of liberal laws, commuting the justice of “an eye for an eye” into monetary penalties for damages, and making the death penalty more and more difficult to legally administer.

    It seems like after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., Judaism went into survival mode, and the Overton Window stopped moving left.

    I feel quite convinced that Judaism has way too much in it that is not worth losing {the humility hacks, the ethics hacks, Shabbos}. So the question that compels me these days is: how can we re-establish the Sanhedrin and get the halachic Overton Window to resume its westward progress?

    • The way I usually put this is that, by the standards of the Rabbis, every Supreme Court Justice in history was a strict constructionist.

    • I think the lesson of the Oven of Akhnai is in several ways unclear:

      1. If the rule is “obey the majority,” why doesn’t the majority change its views when God tells them they are wrong–as he explicitly does.

      2. If what they are doing is correct, why does banning Eliezar have catastrophic results–ultimately including the death, presumably by divine action, of one of the chief people responsible for it.

      3. “In all matters of Halakha, Eliezar is correct” doesn’t convince the sages, but “The law is with the school of Hillel,” from the same source a little less directly, does.

      I don’t know how to make sense of it all. But it is striking that the Rabbis were less tolerant than the Mujtahids. Two schools of law got along peaceably for a few generations, then the stronger suppressed the weaker. Four schools of Sunni law get along for somewhat over a thousand years, and continue to do so.

  84. DCWolf says:

    @Scott – quick question: Based on your generational analysis of separation from religion – you seem to advocate a system that looks like entropy (where, within X generations, everyone *should* be an atheist). Is this being seen in reality, or does the data show a different trend?

  85. Protest Manager says:

    We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened.

    Um, read Zinn’s “People’s Guide” crapola, and wonder why people pretend to believe it. Hell, read “Liberal Fascism” by Jonah Goldberg, then ask why almost none of those truths make it in to high school or college history classes.

    Anthropogenic Global Warming (despite near total failure of predictions, and an ongoing need to rewrite temperature history to make the present seem “hotter”), anti-GMO hysteria, claims that perceived “gender” is more important than mere “biological sex.” We are full of crazy mythologies. If you dont’ see them, it’s because you need to take your blinders off.

  86. MIRACLES! YOU FORGOT RELIGION WORKS… The reason religions keep sprouting ups is simple science. Thought affects reality. I WILL PROVE ALL RELIGIONS ARE MAGIKAL/MIRACULOUS IN THE NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS…

    Science has proven we live in a simulation and that our past can be altered (Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser experiment).

    The Buddhist and Hindus and ancient Egyptians all say we live in a perfect and high definition imagination in which we are all a portion of a common dream..

    This is easy to prove.

    Simply walk outside and pick two fluffy white clouds.. Then paint one of them blue with your mind..

    The cloud will vanish completely and the control cloud will remain completely intact.

    This works because nobody has any notions about the solidity of a cloud… try to dissolve a brick using the same method and you will be up against the minds of everyone who has ever seen, heard of, or touched a brick.

    If you invite a friend to watch your new magik then they could pollute and/or cancel your magik.

    You may think this is too silly to even try… no skin off my nose… but it will work every single time … just make sure you do it alone to avoid skeptic pollution..

    If you do this 20 times in a row then you have performed 20 miracles/magik… How many miracles do you need to perform to convince you my words are true? Do that many…

    NOTE: I JUST SHOWED A WAY FOR YOU TO PERFORM AUTHENTIC MIRACLES, AND YET SOME OF YOU WILL READ THE ABOVE SNICKER AND MOVE ON… 10 MINUTES TO PROVE YOU ARE IMMORTAL IS NOT THE END-ALL. I see people regularly argue against this without trying… That is not logical or helpful to yourself…

    We do live in a giant imagination…

    If we can control our environment with imagination… then MAGIK is real… However Magik also involves another important concept… Effect can precede cause… This may sound silly but we can surpass time and it is another way that magik works…

    FOR THE SCIENCE OF EFFECT PRECEDING CAUSE WATCH “THE DELAYED CHOICE QUANTUM ERASER” – a few of the on YouTube.. then try “The simulation Hypothesis – Documentary 2015” (its 50 minutes).

    Even our time is not constant… If you are drowning in the ocean and are skeptic … you will drown… If you are drowning and believe in your own magik or a deity then your FAITH,EXPECTATION,BELIEF can cause a rescue…

    Suddenly three days ago (IN THE PAST)(IN THE PAST) a cruise ship and 3000 passengers get a “newer” weather report and alter course to rescue you… You could still be at home packing for your sailing trip the following day… and yet a cruise ship has already altered course to save you..

    Effect can and often does precede cause…. This is the basis for Hermetic magik (Which I teach).

    My book “The Savvy Sorcerer” has many lessons like these… try to do them and still doubt religion…

    Feel free to diss Judeo-Christianity because that is hard hosewallop for anyone to swallow, but when the Buddhists and Hindus (you know the blokes who brought us meditation, Yoga, Acupuncture, Ayurveda, etc.) tell us we live inside a giant imagination for the past 9000 years… they were right..

    OCCAMS RAZOR: The easiest explanation of reality is we are in a dream… This is in fact a truth.

    If you do the cloud busting experiment alone… then you will a) perform an authentic miracle/magik… and b) you prove that you are living inside an imagination where your imagination has influence.

    I was raised by freemasons (magik kind) and taught magik my entire life. I have seen more authentic miracles than most anyone.

    I have offered you proof… It is up to you to do or do not.

    It is so easy to melt a cloud, and even the worst novice should be able.

    I teach REAL magik… and you have just learned enough to alter your religion forever (unless you are Buddhist, Hindu, Hermetic, Wiccan already…)


    Niels Bohr designed our current atomic model, but he also believed that if you shut your fridge the food inside literally ceases to exist… Matter does not exist unless it is observed (Copenhagen Interpretation). The Schrodingers box meant to ridicule bohr is in fact a good parable of reality where we are constantly collapsing into previous states similar to “WIGNERS FRIEND” (research that)…

    If you watch THE DOUBLE-SLIT EXPERIMENT… (DR QUANTUM VERSION BEST)… then you will learn that Niels Bohr suggested that collapse is based upon probabilitie… THIS WAS HIS ERROR… Collapse is based upon EXPECTATION/INTENT/FAITH/KNOWING…. and that is directly how thought influences our reality…

    So religions created because people noticed when they began to believe the same thing… they created it… The illusion has formed and shaped religions… and the oldest religions Buddhism, Hinduism, Wiccan, and Hermeticism are all pretty correct… They all state we are imaginary… mental constructs…

    I hope that helps you… The proof is above… try it…

    Wayne Hilborn (author “The Savvy Sorcerer” a true book on magik)

  87. Andy Gough says:

    Pigeon used to be in the American diet.
    Passenger pigeons! If you know the Three
    Stooges films, as I’m sure you do, you will
    find some references to eating pigeon.

    Trains (to bring pigeons to market), and
    telegraph lines (to communicate where the
    pigeons were roosting), are what did in the
    Passenger Pigeon.