17 September 2016

Some Politically Incorrect Thoughts on Religiously Incorrect Topics

Literally me as I write this post
For my follow up to books I've read in 2016 part 1, I'm going to focus on RELIGION of both the ancient and modern variety. As a citizen of the modern-West, I'm not alone if I were to confess that religion is boring. Sure, on surveys and polls, % of atheists is beaten by that of Christians, but there's a hell of lot of Christians who don't attend church regularly and even more who don't understand the principal theological beliefs that would set one sect apart from the other. My parents, too, were one of these "nominally" religious folks, and despite making me go to church and Buddhist temples in my childhood, they didn't care enough to prevent their son from becoming a dirty infidel in his teens. And because of the godless environment I grew up in, I'd gotten a foolish idea that religion doesn't really matter. "Who cares what papal primacy is? Who cares about the difference between Pure Land and Zen Buddhism? No, please not another school field trip to the Sikh temple with bad food!" While I'm exaggerating my ignorance here, there really does seem to be a tendency for a lot of us infidels to not understand how important religion is. When a religious person does something bad, we blame the individual, not the religion. We recognize that individuals get out of religion what they bring to it, but rarely vice versa, that religions have distinct perspectives to impart change upon the believer. In short, religion is a mere jacket, an external identity one can adopt with ease without fundamentally changing one's internal identity. Fundamental to my abandoning of such ideas was learning to read history as less the tales of great men and epoch-making moments, but more as the evolution of human society. All of a sudden, war matters, not because "ooh, shiny swords and armour" but because how it shaped human society. Economy matters, not because of some vague idea that more money = power, but how wealth is generated, accumulated, and distributed fundamentally alters human society. And last but not least, religion also matters because duh, it also shapes human society. Call it my "road to Damascus" moment, if you'd be so kind to let this dirty infidel culturally appropriate a religious term.

Full T R I G G E R   W A R N I N G S ahead to the religious and politically correct for the remainder of this post.

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts
YHWH is King: The Development of Divine Kingship in Ancient Israel

The appeal to tradition is one of my pet peeves, not because I'm some radical progressive seeking to tear down the tradition order, but because it upholds "tradition" as some monolithic and ever-constant cultural aspect. A quick look into history shows that very few "traditions" have stood the test of time, while far more "traditional" is the change of traditions accompanying cultural change. You see this in just about every aspect of human culture. Marriage pattern is a fun example. The neolocal marriage pattern now common in the West was something that only started to gain traction in the North Sea region from the dawn of the Early Modern age, while on the other side of Eurasia in Korea and Japan, the "traditional" patrilocal marriage was actually a new pattern that gradually replaced the older matrilocal marriage. In fact, it may be quite surprising to note that matrilocal marriages remained not uncommon among Korean peasants even up to the 18th century! And the same seems to hold for religious beliefs, even the ones backed by an "unchanging word of God." As I mentioned before, my blasphemous take on the Trinity is basically a bunch of Greek philosophy nerds getting a hold of a Middle Eastern religion and fanwanking so hard that they come up with a fan-canon which then irreversibly splits the entire fandom apart. But enough ragging on Christians. As the good ol' Nazis used to say, "Let's pick on the Jews for a change."
Jewish history is incredibly inspiring and depressing. If there is a God, I'm tempted to guess the Jews are some sort of sadistic lesson on why LCK and CHR shouldn't be ignored if you're into min-maxing. But bad jokes aside, the Jews really do seem like an aberration in world history. Has there ever been another single human group that has been at the mercy of so many foreign aggressors for millennia while still maintaining their religio-cultural identity and being vastly over-represented in significant human achievements with respect to their population % share in the world? If I were Jewish, I would imagine that would give me reason to have faith in the Holy Scriptures. But what happens to faith when one accepts the premise that "All religions are syncretic"? What happens to faith when one realizes that religion, like any other tradition, is subject to change in spite of scriptures' claim to unchanging truth? Is religion bust? These questions are at the heart of the heated controversy behind historical criticism when applied to religion. If any of this peaks your interest, I highly recommend The Bible Unearthed, in which archaeologists Finkelstein and Silberman give a highly readable historical interpretation of Jewish history from its beginnings to around the end of the Babylonian exile. Honestly, I'd recommend it especially if you're not interested in Jews. Basically, this book details the traditional account of Jewish history as told in the Hebrew Bible, and how the steady accumulation of archaeological findings in the 20th century have completely overturned it. I'd previously known about the whole "pyramids built by Jewish slave labour" being an unfounded lie, but I was surprised to see that was only the tip of the iceberg. The myth of the conquest of Canaan, the United Monarchy, the "sinful" Kingdom of Israel, extent of monotheistic practices, and other inconvenient truths make for really fascinating reading. But even more interesting is the human element in why. "Why did the Jews come up with such an elaborate mythos?" The authors lay out a very convincing explanation of how human hands culturally empowered what would otherwise be a marginal, weak people through the Hebrew Bible. 

The same idea is the center of YHWH is King: The Development of Divine Kingship in Ancient Israel. Shawn Flynn, similarly to archaeologists Finkelstein and Silberman, argues how and why human hands deliberately changed the depiction of Yahweh (don't burn me at the stake, it ain't blasphemy if I only write out Yahweh's name on the computer!). To summarize the book, Flynn argues against the prevailing view that Yahweh, being influenced by other Near Eastern deities like Baal and Marduk, was initially constructed as both a warrior and creator deity. Instead, he proposes that Yahweh started out as a warrior deity and only transformed later into a creator deity most likely due to the threat of Neo-Assyrian imperialism. If that sounds boring to you, I would strongly disagree. Just think about it. How the hell do you try to convince people that your god is superior to another god, whose worshipers are about to come to your front door and tear you a new asshole? By making your god the creator god who controls even your enemies, of course! I suppose for the PC-crowd today, that might seem a little like victim blaming if your own god brings bad luck to his own followers, who have no choice but to reason that their misfortune can only be attributed to their lack of piety... Still, the simple fact that 99% of people today would go, "literally who?" when you mention Ashur proves that the Jews came up with a lasting solution. Overall, both The Bible Unearthed and YHWH is King will shed a good light into how humans shape religion, and how that religion will, in turn, shape their futures as well. Sure, I might lack a reverent view for the Bible, but I sure as hell give mad respect to it as a great example of co-evolution.

*One extra note. YHWH is King is a PhD dissertation that got expanded into a book. It definitely shows in a negative way... As in I think it could have been a lot more concise. It's not that bad though, since it's less than 200 pages.
Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins
Oh boy... This book is something. Let me first point out that I am aware Robert Spencer, the author of Did Muhammad Exist?, is a vehement anti-Islamist and he doesn't exactly have any substantial scholarly credentials on Islam compared to actual specialists on Islam. Moreover, I don't buy (so far) that Muhammad was a fictitious figure. That being said, I think it is still worth reading so allow me to justify this belief.
Just fuck my shit up, fam
Every history fan has their own favourite quote on what history is. I'm not fond of the quotes that history is "something written by the victors," or "a set of lies agreed upon." I much prefer the idea of history as a "creative reconstruction of the past" and what matters is how one reconstructs it. It doesn't imply that historical truth doesn't exist, nor some sort of silly post-modern concept that all reconstructions are equally valid. But at the same time, it stresses the plurality of reconstructions with all their inherent biases. To put my views in less pretentious terms, when you see a shitty building, don't just uncritically dismiss it. Ask why. Is it just the aesthetic style that's fucked up? Are the building materials impractical to the form or function? Is it inharmonious to the location?

Now I'd previously known that Islam too, like Christianity and Judaism, had its own strain of historical-critical scholarship, with the gist of the skeptics' argument being that the Islam as we know it today was more the product of the early Abbasid period rather than the traditional view that Islam came into being fully formed since the Prophet directly received the word of God. But I never bothered to follow up on it, since everything I'd read in school never even hinted at an alternate interpretation to the birth of Islam, and one can only pay attention to so many conspiracy theories. However, since I've come to see how much bullshit gets by in the world of adults, I thought it was finally time to give it a go and I'm glad I did. Despite the sensationalist title of Did Muhammad Exist?, I found it enlightening to realize that neither side of the "Muhammad as a historical vs. fictitious figure" debate has what I'd consider conclusive evidence. There's quite a bit of shaky, or lack of evidence in general on the believers side, while for the skeptics, the absence of evidence is simply not enough. Like I said already though, if I had to pick a side, I'd choose the side of the historical figure for now. Even more praiseworthy on Spencer's part is the fact that if you're interested in the subject at all, Did Muhammad Exist? will make you want to go do more research. I mean, that's pretty much the best compliment you can give to a pop-history book, whether written by some Rhodes-scholar academic or amateur journalist. Immediately after reading  Did Muhammad Exist?, I went out and read highly critical reviews by both laymen and specialists. I looked at where Spencer was drawing his arguments for, since historical-criticism of Islam, while not as avidly explored as for Christianity or Judaism, has roots dating back to the 19th century. And that's how I was led to this next book...
The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History
This is a collection of essays by various scholars (though some critics would argue that a few are rank amateurs) all pushing a revisionist view of early Islam. And these essays are a hell of a lot more fun than Spencer's book, assuming you do have some basic background knowledge of late antiquity. Jesus, I can't remember the last time I was so shocked by an essay as the one by Volker Popp that starts off this collection. There's the kind of moderate revisionist views on early Islam you see in Robert Holyland's In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (also recommended), which advocates a non-monolithic view of Islam's rise, which seems like common sense if you're not a Muslim. But then you have guys like Volker Popp who's just so out there it makes you feel like up is down, right is left, Kyoani is SHAFT. I really don't want to spoil the surprise, but here's one of his "milder" claims. Popp, citing the revisionist work Crossroads to Islam (which I haven't read, but its central thesis seems to be the same as Popp's), pushes the view that the Byzantine Empire abandoned attempts to assume direct control of Syria and Palestine from the late-6th century while the Byzantine-Sassanid wars were going on strong. He supports this with the fact that papyri show names of scribes had switched from Greek to Arabic forms, that Byzantine armies had largely withdrawn from the area, and that Heraclius' reorganization of the empire excluded Syria. He doesn't exactly go into any detail about these reforms, but I'm tempted to guess he's alluding to the themata reforms? If so, then that would hurt his argument since the prevailing view of who started the themata system has switched from Heraclius to one of the post-Heraclius emperors like Constans II, meaning that Syria had already been lost to the Arabs by that point. 

But I'm way in over my head here, since I'm nowhere near qualified to critique his claims. Still, I gotta say, it's fun having your assumptions challenged. The second essay is also equally thought-provoking. This is the infamous Luxenberg essay that argues for a re-interpretation of the Quran as a Syro-Aramaic Christian liturgical text (!!!), leading to radical interpretations like the whole promise of virgins in paradise actually being a mistranslation of promise of raisins. Even though you'd have to know all the ancient languages he mentions to really judge his claims, it's written such that a layman can understand his basic methodology and his findings. I'd recommend reading the review on Livius after reading the essay though for a more sober response. The rest of the essays aren't quite as bold as the first two, and some are downright dense as fuck, but like with Spencer's book, I think more people ought to read it just so they realize that there are alternative views out there on how Islam came into being. Overall, after reading these two books, as well as various other papers, I am quite convinced that the character of Islam changed between the time of Muhammad and Abbasid era, if the early coinage, inscriptions, and historical mentions prove anything. And if it did indeed change, I think that like with the transformation of both Christianity and Judaism, there's definitely a political reason underlying it. While I think it would be super fucking cool if Islam had actually originated simply as a non-Trinitarian Christian sect or a Jewish messianic sect, I can't say I quite buy it yet. Probably just heavily influenced would be my guess but who knows? The Yemeni dimension seems particularly fascinating though, which would lend credence to the influence of Judaism and Himyarite ideology. I had no idea Yemen was so influential in early Islam, considering they're the backwater of the modern Islamic world today. 
But enough fanboyish ramblings on the deconstructions of ancient religions. While I could end the post here having only annoyed religious fundamentalists, I can't help imagining some smug fedora-wearing atheist wagging his finger at the religious for being so blind as to the fabricated dimension of their faiths. So I want to try to humble them by pointing out a lot of so-called "atheists" in the modern-West are equally blind to their own religion as well. The central tenet of this new "modern religion" is that humans, regardless of their culture, religion, gender, sex, or race are the same. As such, any observed differences must come from the environment rather than their fundamental natures, meaning that if we could simply will our governments to alter our social environs enough, we can achieve true equality. Our new clergy are the academics (mostly in humanities) and social activists who pronounce biological differences as heretical. Instead of the Trinitarian formula or the Basmala, we have the phrase, "all humans are equal but some are more equal than others."

If you're an adherent of this new religion, I'm not sure if there's even anything I can say to convince you otherwise, anymore than I can convince a Christian that the Buddha had the right idea about the cosmos all along. I only ask that your faith be subject to critical examination, just as scholars have done to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. If you don't know what you should be critically examining, here's a few topics. Is there a genetic component to intelligence and is it subject to evolutionary pressure? Is there a genetic component to human behavior? If one group of humans live in a market-integrated society with a strong state that holds a monopoly on violence and another group lives in a subsistent, tribal society where the individual has full claim to exercise violence, would you expect natural selection to churn out the same product? Can race have separate meanings as a social construct as well as a biological reality? Why is it that if poverty explains crime, not all poor peoples show the same tendency for violence? Why is it that if discrimination explains underachievement, not all discriminated people show the same level of achievement? Why is it that some countries can lift themselves out of poverty in just a few decades while others remain mired in endemic violence and corruption for centuries? If colonialism explains terrorism, why is it that France is continually threatened by Middle Eastern terrorists and not Southeast Asian ones? Why is it that there's a strong correlation to IQ and a nation's wealth, and that notable outliers are either oil-states or are/were communist states? Do people shape culture/institutions or vice-versa? And lastly, if you can accept that culture does matter, is advocating a government that promotes cultural values of protecting bad decision-makers and a subversion of meritocracy really going to promote a society's well-being in the long run?

Who knows, maybe I am a bigot that needs to be taken away by the new Spanish Inquisition...


  1. Thanks for the post, Hox. The first couple piqued my interest, I'm gonna give them a go.

  2. Hey Hox, your book reviews are quite enjoyable, as usual. I take some issue with your comments about genetics, though:

    For a long lived species such as is ours, a couple of centuries or even a couple of millennia are nowhere near enough for natural selection to make a dent in our genetic makeup, more so when human life expectancy throughout history has always been consistently past our reproductive age. I'd argue that, genes-wise, we are pretty much the same people as classical-era romans.

    Regarding the IQ-wealth correlation, there are several additional factors to consider besides race, from the possible bias in the IQ tests due to them being made by the same wealthy nations that score well in them, to the more straightforward issues of education availability and quality or even food availability and quality correlating with wealth as well.

    And lastly I'd say that there's very much a "National Character" for every country, such as the well known japanese and german industriousness which allowed them to "lift themselves out of poverty in just a few decades", as you put it, but I'm quite surprised to hear that you ascribe that character to genetics (for something that is so far detached from what genes describe), rather than simply cultural zeitgeist. So let me ask you, do you think there's a genetic behavior-dictating core that is common to a nikkei whiny millenial gender-studies majoring japanese american, and to a straight-laced likely to die from karōshi japanese salaryman?

    Sorry for the wall of text :P.


    1. I don't subscribe to the view that malthusian pressures has meant that all human societies have been subject to largely the same pressures, nor the concept of evolution as such a glacial process that nothing meaningful could possibly happen over a few centuries or millenia. Moreover, I believe human utilization of culture (I'm referring to gene-culture coevolution) has given us a powerful tool to evolve much faster than what we might ordinarily expect for other animals.

      The IQ-wealth correlation view you hold is the view I used to hold when I was younger. I've since come to change my mind as I've read more critiques against the common arguments that argue against it.

      As for your last point, when I say "behaviour," I'm not talking about very specific behaviour that would lead to a very specific outcome such as "whiny millenial gender-studies major" but a more general trait like "cooperation" or "aggression."

      You'll notice that I only posed questions at the end of my post. That's because I want people to go out and do the research and subject their beliefs to critical examination before coming to a conclusion. All 3 beliefs I stated just now, have their supporters and detractors in academic literature. If your views are something that you formed because of what you heard from your professors, who happened to all be on one side of the issue, it would be good if you gave the other side an ear. If your views, like mine, were formed after giving both sides equal attention, then I have no problem.

    2. We'll have to agree to disagree on the speed of human evolution, then. It's quite clear we're on the verge of a culture-backed acceleration of evolution due to advances on embryo screening and gene therapy, though.

      I don't discard the influence of race as a factor in IQ scores, but, as stated, I consider it's but one of many factors, and, with it being such a politicized issue, it's hard to determine the weight of each of these factors in the final result.

      The whole nikkei japanese vs. native japanese thing was just a (clumsy, in retrospect) tongue in cheek way of postulating that if you take an individual from racially homogeneous society A and transplant him into society B fully integrated (say, by adoption at an early age), you'll get a typical society B member as a result. That is, that the influence of genetics on behavior, if there's one, is small compared to the influence of culture.

      As for the source of my views, I like to think they are mostly self formed (as much as such a thing can be while still a member of society :P). I'm a STEMlord, so I didn't get any particular indoctrination while at university.

  3. Your thoughts on the genetic components to human behaviour and abilities made me think of the rationalist community as that's where I've been reading about these kinds of opinions too. Hox, are you also a reader of slatestarcodex or some other blogs in those circles?

    1. I do read slatestarcodex occasionally, but not too often as I prefer reading articles and blogs about global politics. I am aware of the ideas of floating around in those circles though.

  4. Yes, environment and history shape humans. If you have your basic needs covered there are higher chances you end up being someone able and not a beggar or criminal. If you live in a country ravaged by war and famine chances are you won't have much time for poetry. If society rewards you for producing children and shuns you if you have a career instead, chances are you will keep making children. If you live in a country of zealots, you'll probably end up as one too.

    Feels strange to have to say these obvious things. This new wave of internet genetic reductionism is as annoying as the people who feel offended bt everything.

    I don't think anyone sane thinks we are all the same. A lot of people think it's cool to have the most basic things covered so people can exploit their full potential and reduce the relevance of RNG spawnpoint and class in your destiny.

    Keep the up good work with translations, even though I can't help to feel dissapointed at your political thoughts.

    1. It sounds "obvious," and very few would deny at least some role of environment upon humans. But it's unsatisfying because if you give environment more role than human agency, outcome differences and similarities among individuals and human societies become difficult to explain. I'm not a hardline genetic reductionist, as I prefer theories that incorporate the impact of genes and environment (ex. gene-culture coevolution), but the genetic side of the argument is appealing to many people because it gives a more concrete frame in which theories can be tested and critiqued compared to previous models on explaining divergent outcomes. If it comes to light that there are other models that give better supporting data, I'll throw it out, but as for now, I don't see any.

    2. Personality is affected by many things, and genetics are the smallest modifier. It gives a certain framework, but things such as how a person is raised, their economy, political climate when they were raised, the family they were born in, are much more relevant to a person's potential.

      The main problem I have against geneticism is that it gives waaay too much relevance to genes and tries to make people seem as if their fate and potential is sealed from birth by them. This deterministic approach is not surprisingly used to justify right wing views of "my group is superior by nature, so it's natural for us to prevail and your inferior group is that way and nothing can change that, so why give you tools to overcome something that is in your nature?".

      So I don't shun this kind of thinking just because it is extremely simplistic as no matter your genes your chances of success will be slim if social RNG fucked you up, but because it supports a pernicious ideology that wants to prevent people from progress. Why have things like quality public education for everyone if it will be wasted on inferior people?

      Just to support this using history, a subject you enjoy, did Japan output the same quality of people when it was a backwards secluded country or when its general populace achieved a better quality of living?

      Could the preeminence of central Asia and Europe have something to do with the heavy trade and exchange of culture that was built upon, compared to secluded places like Subsaharian Africa and America, which missed on many developments due to geographical reasons and when they contacted the other hubs of civilizations they were enslaved, further delaying their progress? Ever got an isolated start in Civilization IV? Funny how true to reality that game is sometimes.

      Would Kaoru Mori, Ryoko Kui, Hikaru Nakamura, Kuji Mitsuhisa, Nakajima Michitsune and other interesting female mangaka be able to do their thing if Japan was culturally the same now as it was one century and a half ago?

      Would the amount of women doing cool stuff like them raise if they weren't trained from birth that their main goal in life is to have a baby and take care of home? I certainly think that cultural output fron women has raised from the times of Mary Shelley and I don't think genetic changes in women is the reason.

      Granted, I'm really annoyed at the so called SJWs that feel offended by everything and stand for things they don't really understand since the vast majority never had to suffer any real hardship, but the response it generated is at best simplistic and short sighted, at worst full of ill-will and disdain for people not on their social group and a tool to justify leaving the weaker as they are or worse by the people in charge of a country.

      That's all I'll say on the subject, these arguments never end.

    3. Genes are not constant things, subject to no outside pressure. The very premise of a genetic basis in explaining human variation necessitates how environments can impact our genes. But genes in turn, require time to change, and there's always a limit on how much they can influence human action.

      If the role of genes is marginal to the role of the immediate environment, things like male-female behavioral differences for infants become difficult, if not downright impossible, to explain.

      While I share your annoyance that genetic reductionist ideas can be harnessed by racial supremacists to justify ill treatment of minorities, I think you're constructing a straw man argument in which you assume that genes are divorced from environment. Moreover, recognizing that differences do exist is never a justification of depriving humans of their basic rights as a free citizen.

  5. There were a lot of diasporic Jews and banished Nestorian monks who ended up living in towns along the arabian trade routes. The caravans carried goods from China and India that arrived in the ports in Jemen/Oman and were send to cities like Babylon and Petra.

    It is likely that (if he existed) Mohammed adopted the ideas of these exiles to give him support in his attempt to conquer himself an Empire.

    And since his family was in charge of the souvenir trade for the pilgrims that came to worship the gods and spirits at the kaaba, he was exiled. They believed that his monotheistic views would destroy the livelihood of the clan.

    He then moved to Medina, raised an army of followers and began his conquests.

    Most of the Islam was likely written by his successors to give them the authority to continue conquering and ruling in the name of God.

    1. Your last point doesnt makes sense tho , the quran have a consistent verses with the way they are written...people will notice if someone else wrote it

  6. Great reading as always hox just a few comments if you dont mind , why dont you read books from people who believe in islam etc , thank u

    1. It's just a matter of time, really. Even if I am an atheist, I think it's pretty cool hearing religious people justify their theology like the varying Christian interpretations on what's necessary for salvation.