Religion, Violence, Tolerance & Progress: Nothing to do with Theology
Religions create highly differentiated belief clusters and mentalities that have little to do with their theologies.
If you think you will change the behavior of religious people by modifying the theologies, you are committing the standard Weberian fallacy. It is not about the religion; it is about clusters of people who happen to have that religion and their culture.
The collective historical attitudes of Catholics aren’t necessarily from the theologies of Catholicism, those of Sunni Muslims not from the theology of Sunni Islam — it just happens that religion either creates a distinct polarized group and people start imitating one another within that group. My point here is that the Weberian narrative built on the notion that religion determines attitude and culture fails historical logic. And trying to change the theologies makes absolutely no sense. You need to change the mentalities, and cultural norms — if you can.
The robust alternative, that people imitate the (contagious) mores of those of their group, tradditionally defined by religion, makes vastly more sense. People like to dress, act, even think in broad terms within the style of others members of their group, people they identify with — what we tend to loosely call “identity”.
Weber introduced, or promoted the idea that Protestants have a certain work ethics thanks to the values imparted by their religion. The idea — like almost all of sociology — is marshmallow-soft. Consider the reverse: that Protestants at the time happened to have a certain culture, and other protestants were likely to embrace the culture of their peers because religion acted as an attractor for identities. For one can always find (thanks to the narrative fallacy) some stuff in a religion that confirms a given theory. Weber and the Weberians missed that the Industrial Revolution hit very early on northern France and Belgium (both extremely Catholic), while the Catholic South remained agricultural and socially conservative, so one can see with the naked eye that it cannot be about something proper to the theologies. It is just that cultural norms are contagious within identities, and too mush so. Incidentally such cultural norms haven’t yet hit the Mediterranean since it skipped the industrial revolution. To any statistician, the “Protestant ethics” is a North-South marker, not a Protestant-Catholic one.
Unlike other networks and pagan creeds, the three Abrahamic religions are mutually exclusive — owing to the minority rule — even if somewhat backward compatible (Islam accepts, theologically, Christianity and Judaism but not the reverse; Christianity unrequitedly integrates the Old Testament). You could worship both Jupiter and Baal, just as you can have Franco-Japanese cuisine, but must be either Christian or Muslim. And the differentiation — and the loss of synchretism — which started in Judaism during the rabbinical era, has accelerated in modern times: Jews and Muslims in Morocco shared shrines; at some point it was the same for Shiites and Maronites in Lebanon. It is that absence of media and television allowed local customs to override remote religious edicts. In Doura Europos, c. the 6th C., the same room acted as synagogue, pagan temple, and church. And in Lebanon for a long time the difference was between Qaysi and Yamani (Northern and Southerner), a wedge perhaps inherited from the Byzantine Green and Blue, and that cut across religions (the Druze Qaysis viciously battled the Yamanis in their largest battle, Ayn Dara, leading to the resettlement of the Yamani Druze in the Golan heights).
Amine Maalouf, another Christian Lebanese, understood the problem rather instinctively and saw the contradictions in the current historical accounts. How come Islam is the one currently associated with intolerance, when it was the Catholic Church that’s traditionally held that role. Just consider the obvious evidence: you find many more Christian minorities in the traditional lands of Islam than the reverse. It was Catholic groups that did the (viciously murderous) Albigensian crusade, the Great Inquisition, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and others. Catholicism has not changed; people and their culture did. Last time I checked, the scriptures have not been modified; they were the same during the Inquisition, before the inquisition, and now.
And, of course, Sunni Islam’s attitude towards Christianity has changed over time: a rise in intolerance since the late 18th C. Consider the continuous drop of Christians in the Levant.
Nor does comparing theologies make sense, unless of course one has been brainwashed by sociology texts and becomes unable to think with minimal clarity. The (Protestant) Puritans who inhabited New England and the Salafis of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf have nearly identical theologies, based on shared communitarianism (refusal of a centralized authority), iconoclasm (absence of representation, of saints, and of any elaborate aesthetics), absence of an organized “church”, and very stern practice of the religion. And never forget that it is the exact same God that they are worshiping.
This identity-mentality business is responsible for many other things. Suicide bombers in the East Mediterranean and the Middle East weren’t initially Salafi Muslims; it was in the late 20th Century that the practice (reintroduced almost two millennia after the sicarii) started spreading, with Greek Orthodox Pan Levantine followers of Antun Saadeh. Nothing to do with the virgins one meets in heaven, the kind of ex post attribution one hears today.
So, it matters, for economic development, who you identify with. You embrace their appetite for boring, repetitive tasks, a focus on industrial growth and working in a hierarchy, the extraction of an individual from her or his family, the appetite to wait in line for hours without beating anyone, virtues (or defects) that allowed for the West’s industrial revolution.
In the early 1900s, urban Sunnis in the Levant identified with the Ottoman upper class, hence were readily “Westernized” as the Ottomans Westernized, but in the Eastern Mediterranean/Eastern European way: the Ottoman bourgeois class looked more, for identity, to resemble Greeks and Bulgarian Christians than Germans or other Northern Europeans. The Lebanese Sunnis later on, after Turkey became Turkey, identified with the Middle East, owing to the movement called “Arabism” and changed their mentality and habits. Today Lebanon’s Shiites identify increasingly with Iranians (the people, not the regime), and are embracing social behavior similar to the Iranians, with a focus on study, industry, etc. — ironically much more Western in spite of the theocratic regime. Amine Maalouf detected (as explained to me by the geneticist Pierre Zalloua) that Christians in Lebanon identified with the West, and the differentiation between them and the Muslims started increasing. The religions, meanwhile, stayed the same.
Your way of thinking changes along with the identity, which includes approaches to problem solving. Even such things as “IQ” testing (which measures mostly the ability to test well on that specific test) has yielded an alteration of the hierarchy of results as populations started identifying with a different group than the original one they belonged to: the European Union made the test results of the Irish and the Southern Slavs converge to that of the mainstream.
I explained in Skin in the Game that dietary laws act as social barriers: those who eat together bind together. The onerous Jewish dietary laws helped create separate diasporas which allowed for survival, and prevented social dilution. Now consider the following: there is nothing particularly strong in Islam’s holy text against drinking alcohol, just a rather vague recommendation of avoidance of intoxication while facing the creator. But it made sense for social habits to interpret such a law as a firm interdict to avoid socialization with Christians and Zoroastrians in Bagdad when it was the capital of the Califate and Arabs were in the minority. It was the mentality that found theological backing, rather than the reverse.
Finally we tend to attribute religious conflicts to religion, rather than cultures. People look at theological wrinkes that differentiate the Maronites, Nestorians, and Copts from the Greek-Byzantine Orthodox Calcedonians. Few get that these heresies had to do with hatred of the Greco-Romans by people in the countryside who did not share the Hellenisms of city dwellers. The same with the Irish-English divide. And Shiite vs. Sunni has little to do with the Calife’s succession and more to do with groups that did not want to be part of the larger Sunna.