Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Kicking away the Godly ladder

If there's one topic that gets humanists excited it's religion. Odd, really, as we're supposed to have left it behind. But religion is more than a collection of superstitions, rules and peculiar habits. Religions have been integral parts of most past and current societies. Religion matters both for its influence on individuals and the way it shapes societies.

So here is a book that deals with the social dimension:
     Big Gods: How religion transformed co-operation and conflict.
     Ara Norenzayan
     Princeton University Press, 2013.

Norenzayan's thesis is that the great monotheisms became dominant because they enabled societies to become bigger and thus able to dominate their competitors. The imperial and expansionist histories of Christianity and Islam, though not of Judaism, certainly support this view though earlier large empires didn't seem to need it.

But, for me, Norenzayan's most interesting points relate to the step after monotheism. He says that strong state institutions, such as police, can substitute for the all-seeing Jehovah God. A few societies, mostly in Scandinavia, have outgrown God and their people behave well without his presence. They have, he says, "climbed the ladder of religion and then kicked it away".

In the UK religious belief is in free-fall but we have not achieved the Scandinavian Utopia. Perhaps the truth is a bit more complex than Norenzayan thinks.

Scientific cycles?

I've argued before that scientific method is applicable to much more than the subjects of the traditional hard and soft sciences. At least some aspects of history, human geography, social policy and morality are susceptible to empirical research. If you doubt this I suggest you look at the way that Steven Pinker uses data to test Kant's theories in Better Angels of our Nature.

One of the approaches used by would-be theorists is to look for cycles in history. Hegel, Marx and Toynbee all did so with decidedly mixed results. Now Peter Turchin, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, has joined their ranks. Turchin claims that societies show 2-300 year cycles and that just three factors - economic output per head, the balance of labour supply and demand and attitudes to wealth redistribution - are enough to explain social evolution. Indeed, he says that his equations exactly match real wage rates since 1930.

I don't know if Turchin is right but his predictions are quantitative and can be tested. That's science.