Jesus is not Mithras

This is the time of year when posts and article start popping up claiming that Jesus is just a rehash of the old Persion god Mithras (or Mithra, Mitras or some other spelling), lining up all sorts of improbable coincidences like “Mithras was born from a rock, and rocks can’t have sex, so clearly that’s the same as a virgin birth.”

There’s a much simpler and more sensible origin for Jesus: Judaism.

I know this is a bold thesis, but I think Judaism has several things going for it as the ultimate origin of Christianity, so hear me out.

Judaism: Has a tradition that a messiah will come.

Judaism: Has a holiday at the end of December. (It’s called Hanukkah.)

Judaism: Also has a spring holiday that coincides with Easter.

Judaism: is literally the religion that Christianity sprang from.

The early Christian writer Hippolytus of Rome provides the first justification for situating Jesus’s birth on December 25th: because it is nine months after his conception, believed to coincide with the date of his death. This belief probably comes from an actual Jewish belief about prophets, albeit slightly mangled. For example, Moses is believed to have died on his own birthday (at 120 years old).

Furthermore, Hanukkah–also known as the “Feast of Dedication”–is celebrated on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev. It seems likely that when early Christians started using the Roman calendar, they translated the holiday directly to the 25th of December.

But wait, I hear you saying, doesn’t Christmas coincide with the Roman festival of Saturnalia?

It turns out that Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17th, not December 25th. The holiday was later extended to last until December 23rd, which still falls two days short of December 25th.

Since people often denigrate Hanukkah as just “the Jewish Christmas,” let’s go back and review what the holiday is actually about.

In Hebrew, Hanukkah (also spelled “Chanukah”–it’s a transliteration of a non-Indo European word written in a non-Latin alphabet, so there’s no one proper spelling) means “dedication.” The Feast of Dedication officially marks when the Maccabees reconquered Jerusalem (from the Seleucids, Syrian Greeks) and re-instated traditional Jewish temple services in the Temple, which the invaders had been using for sacrifices to Zeus.

The Feast of Dedication is actually mentioned in the New Testament, in John 10:

22 Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. 23 And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. 24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in [d]doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

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Recreation of the Temple Menorah by the Temple Institute; By ariely 

One of the sacred objects in the Temple was the 7-armed menorah, famously depicted on the Arch of Titus. (The Hanukkah menorahs lit in people’s homes have 9 arms.) According to the Bible (Exodus 25), the plan for the menorah was revealed to Moses as part of the overall plan for the tabernacle in which the Ark of the Covenant resided:

31Make a lampstand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. 32Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. 33Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. …

 39talent of pure gold is to be used for the lampstand and all these accessories. 40See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.[1]

Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the menorah was placed inside, and it was this same menorah that the Maccabees were scrambling to find enough oil to light during their (re)dedication celebration. (Candles had yet to be invented.)

The menorah was looted by the Romans in 70 AD, after Titus conquered Jerusalem, and then probably carried off by the Vandals when they sacked Rome in 455. At this point, it disappears from history–and yet the sacred temple light lives on. You’ve probably seen it in a modern church, as altar lamps still hang in Catholic, Episcopal, and Anglican churches.

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Catholic Sanctuary Lamp

According to the Roman Missal of the Catholic Church:

“In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ.”

The “presence of Christ” is in the physical form of the Eucharist.

Orthodox Christian churches also have a “menorah,” (though it is shaped rather differently from the Jewish ones):

In Orthodoxy, what other traditions in Christianity call the altar we call the Holy Table, and the space beyond the ikon screen is called the altar. Among items upon an Orthodox Holy Table will be a cloth ikon of Christ containing a relic, the gospels, a special ‘box’ we call a tabernacle which will contain the reserved sacrament for the sick, and candles. In the Russian tradition the number of candles we use reflect the Jewish Menorah, a seven branched candlestick as expressed in Exodus.

The sanctuary lamp is also found in many Protestant denominations:

It is also found in the chancel of Lutheran and Methodist churches to indicate the presence of Christ in the sanctuary, as well as a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.[3][4] … Other Christian denominations burn the lamp to show that the light of Christ always burns in a sin-darkened world.

And of course it is still found in synagogues:

Looking around the synagogue you will see the eastern wall, where the aron ha-kodesh (the holy ark) is located. The ark is the repository for the Torah scrolls when they are not in use. It also serves as the focus for one’s prayers. Above the ark is located the ner tamid–the eternal light — recalling the eternal light in the Temple (Exodus 27:20–21).

In each case, the sacred fire symbolizes the presence of God.

Looking back, deeper into the Bible, we find other instances where fire symbolized God’s presence:

The menorah itself, with multiple “branches” covered in buds and blossoms, is reminiscent of a flowering tree or bush, like the burning bush encountered by Moses.

When the Israelites walked through the desert, they were led by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.

When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments, God was again likened to fire (Exodus 24):

12 And the Lord said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them. …

15 And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. …

17 And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.

And in the story of Abram who became Abraham (Genesis 15):

He said, “Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t split the birds. 11 When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. 12 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him. …

17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: 

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El Greco, Pentecost

And in the New Testament, Acts, Ch 2:

1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

“Pentecost” is actually a Jewish holiday. It is partly a harvest festival and partly a celebration of when God gave Moses the books of the Torah (aka the Bible).

I regard the Jewish holiday calendar as cyclical, with many layers of meaning built into each holiday. Pentecost, (aka Shavuot), is both an early harvest festival and a Torah festival. Sukkot is a fall harvest festival similar to Thanksgiving, but it also celebrates the time the Israelites spent wandering in the desert during the Exodus (with overtones of a Jewish wedding). Judaism is an old religion, and meaning has built up over time as people have lived their lives in different ways.

The fact that two different religions celebrate similar holidays on similar dates is not, a priori, sign that they copied each other. I think it very likely that people of all sorts, from all over the world, have placed important holidays on dates like “the solstice” and “the harvest” because these are easy dates to keep track of. You know when the harvest is in; you know when the days are short or long. Other days, well, those are a little trickier to keep track of. Festivals that take place at the same time of year took on similar elements because those elements were common to the times–Sukkot and Thanksgiving both involve lots of food because they are harvest festivals, not because they are copying each other. Winter solstice celebrations involve fire because people light fires to keep themselves warm during cold winter months.

Christmas/Chanukah similarly show many layers of meaning. At the most basic, we have a solstice celebration: the temples and hearths need cleaning and the sacred fires are kindled at the start of winter. We have the historical observance of an actual, historical event–the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, as related in 1 Maccabees:

52 Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year,[b] 53 they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. 54 At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. 56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. 

Interestingly, the Seleucid Empire’s control of the Temple symbolically dies here on the same day it was born.

Hanukkah is also, according to the account given in 2 Maccabees, a delayed Sukkot festival (Sukkot is normally 8 days long in the diaspora). Sukkot, the festival of tabernacles, was probably delayed either due to the Seleucids banning traditional Jewish holidays, as the Maccabees complained, or due to the war raging in the country at the time. A further fourth reason for Hanukkha is given in 2 Maccabees, the celebration of a similar miracle performed by Nehemiah during the rebuilding of the Temple a few hundred years before.

What does it mean for early Christian authors to assert that Jesus was born on Chanukah, died on Passover, and the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on Shavuot (Pentecost)? Not only does this situate Jesus firmly within the Jewish liturgical year, it is a specific claim about who Jesus is.

For Jews, God’s presence in the world is the Torah, hence why the eternal light burns near the Torah scrolls in synagogues. In churches, this is of course the Eucharist.

The transition from Word to Eucharist is eloquently expressed by John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  …

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

For Christians, Jesus is the presence of God in the world symbolized by the menorah’s flame. 

What does it mean for modern authors to assert that Jesus was Mithras? It is a claim that  the New Testament is a bunch of malarkey and Jesus was, rather than an historical personage, a plagiarised pagan deity.

But let’s take a closer look at Mithras and the claimed parallels. According to Wikipedia:

Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, was a Roman mystery religion centered on the god Mithras. The religion was inspired by Iranian worship of the Zoroastrian god Mithra, though the Greek Mithras was linked to a new and distinctive imagery, and the level of continuity between Persian and Greco-Roman practice is debated.[1] The mysteries were popular among the Roman military from about the 1st to the 4th century CE.[2]

Certainly Mithraism was popular in the area and some of its iconography is similar to later Christian paintings and statues. Christians may have borrowed stylistic motifs from Greek and Roman art, since there were no iconographic representations of God in traditional Judaism.

But let’s look at the more substantive claims.

The pro-Mithra camp usually makes a list of attributes Mithra and Jesus supposedly have in common, eg:

Mithra has the following in common with the Jesus character:

  • Mithra was born on December 25th of the virgin Anahita.
  • The babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger and attended by shepherds.
  • He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
  • He had 12 companions or “disciples.”
  • He performed miracles.
  • As the “great bull of the Sun,” Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
  • He ascended to heaven.
  • Mithra was viewed as the Good Shepherd, the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.
  • Mithra is omniscient, as he “hears all, sees all, knows all: none can deceive him.”
  • He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb.
  • His sacred day was Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
  • His religion had a eucharist or “Lord’s Supper.”
  • Mithra “sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers.”
  • Mithraism emphasized baptism.

There are two problems with such lists. First, reducing any religion to a bullet points tends to render it almost unrecognizable, and second, many of these points are just plain wrong.

Here’s a comparison of Judaism and Sikhism, for example:

  • Both religions stress the importance of wearing hats
  • Sikh and Jewish prayers both assert the existence of one God.
  • Both started in Asia.
  • Sikhs have gurus, who are teachers. Judaism has rabbis, who are also teachers.
  • Sikhs and Jews both worship in dedicated religious buildings.
  • Both forbid religious iconography.
  • Both teach that God is formless and omnipotent.
  • Judaism has “10 commandments”. Sikhism has “10 Gurus”.
  • Sikhs have a ritual bathing ceremony called “Amrit Sanchar.” Jews have a ritual bathing ceremony that takes place in a ritual bathing pool, the mikvah.
  • Both have sacred texts

There you have it. Judaism and Sikhism have so much in common, they must be copying each other. I’m sure if you met a Jew and a Sikh in person, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.

1. The first claim, that Mithras was born on December 25th, is basically wrong. Zoroastrians celebrate Mithras’s birth on the solstice, or December 21st. In the 4th century AD, in some parts of the Roman Empire, the festival’s date was shifted to December 25th, probably due to issues with the calendar (leap years).

The claims that everyone was celebrating Mithras’s birthday on December 25th are extrapolated from Roman celebrations of the solstice (Sol Invictus). Since some people equated Mithras and the sun, the logic goes, therefore everyone who celebrated the solstice was actually celebrating Mithras.

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Mithras born from a rock, marble, 186 AD: just the spitting image of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, isn’t he?

2. Second, Mithras is most commonly depicted as born not from a virgin, but from a rock. The statues are very clear on this point. Only in a few isolated traditions is Mithras given a human mother; these were not the dominant traditions in the area. Even if we are generously metaphorical and allow the claim that Mithras was born in a cave, rather than directly from a rock, Jesus was not born in a cave. Jesus was born in a stable, where animals are kept, or possibly even the lower floor of a home where animals were kept during the winter.

3. Pretty much all babies were wrapped in swaddling clothes. I’ve swaddled my own babies. Oh no, I’ve produced gods.

4. I’ve found nothing confirming that Mithras was laid in a manger. He looks too big in most of his “birth from a rock” statues to be laid in anything, anyway, because he emerged fairly grown up.

5. Mithras is generally depicted attended by two torch bearers, Cautes and Cautophates. They symbolize sunrise and sunset, as Mithras is a solar deity. Occasionally, they are depicted holding shepherds’ crooks instead of torches.

The presence of shepherds at the nativity isn’t really an important theological point in Christianity. Neither is Cautes and Cautophates occasionally holding shepherds’ crooks in statues. These symbols are not meaningfully similar.

6. Empty claim: Anyone can walk around and teach things.

7. The claim that Mithras had 12 companions or disciples is taken from depictions of Mithras alongside the Zodiac. I don’t think anyone was claiming that Mithras was literally accompanied by Pisces and Cancer.

8. Empty: Pretty much ever religious leader/saint/prophet has performed “miracles.”

9. Mithras did not sacrifice himself as a bull. He killed a bull. The bull-killing scene is the most common depiction of Mithras, so it’s hard to figure out how someone could get this wrong. Let’s let Wikipedia describe the scene:

In every mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull, an act called the tauroctony.[a][33] … The centre-piece is Mithras clothed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap; who is kneeling on the exhausted[34] bull, holding it by the nostrils[34] with his left hand, and stabbing it with his right. … A scorpion seizes the bull’s genitals. A raven is flying around or is sitting on the bull. … The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.[36][37] Sometimes Cautes and Cautopates carry shepherds’ crooks instead of torches.[38]

A Roman tauroctony relief from Aquileia (c. 175 CE; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

The event takes place in a cavern, into which Mithras has carried the bull, after having hunted it, ridden it and overwhelmed its strength.[39] Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear. Outside the cavern, top left, is Sol the sun, with his flaming crown, often driving a quadriga. A ray of light often reaches down to touch Mithras. At the top right is Luna, with her crescent moon, who may be depicted driving a biga.[40]

In some depictions, the central tauroctony is framed by a series of subsidiary scenes to the left, top and right, illustrating events in the Mithras narrative; Mithras being born from the rock, the water miracle, the hunting and riding of the bull, meeting Sol who kneels to him, shaking hands with Sol and sharing a meal of bull-parts with him, and ascending to the heavens in a chariot.[40]On the back side was another, more elaborate feasting scene.

If you read that and conclude, “Yup, sounds just like Jesus, shepherds, and apostles,” I’m not sure what to say.

Since Mithras worship was part of a mystery cult, we have very few records of what actually went on in there.. We have archaeological remains, of course, which show mostly feasting. This is the claimed “eucharist.” These were big feasts which left a fair amount of trash behind. Calling any ritual feast a “eucharist” or “last supper” is certainly a stretch–we might as well note that I have a supper every evening. (And besides, there is a much closer parallel to the ceremony with the bread and wine found in Judaism.)

The presence of many cherry pits in the Mithraic garbage indicates that much of that feasting took place in summer, when cherries are ripe–around the time of the summer solstice. If Mithras inspired so much Christian ritual, then why doesn’t Jesus have a summer celebration?

As for what Mithras was called, we have very few actual written texts on the religion–unlike Christians, Mithras’s worshipers did not go around telling people what they believed. There is one inscription on a wall that reads “et nos servasti . . . sanguine fuso” which translates to “And you have saved us… in the shed blood.” This is probably a reference to the killing of the bull, which was celebrated with feasting, rather than a Christ-like sacrifice. 

There is one reasonably complete surviving text that might have been part of a “Mithraic liturgy,” and it bears no relation to anything that goes on in a Christian church service:

At this level (lines 537–585), the revelation-seeker is supposed to breathe deeply and feel himself lifted up, as if in midair, hearing and seeing nothing of mortal beings on earth. He is promised to see instead the divine order of the “visible gods” rising and setting. Ritual silence is prescribed, followed by another sequence of hissing, popping, and thirteen magic words: “Then you will see the gods looking graciously upon you and no longer rushing at you, but rather going about in their own order of affairs.” After a shocking crash of thunder, another admonition of silence, and a magic incantation, the disk of the sun is to open and issue five-pointed stars. The eyes are to be closed for the following prayer. …

Next to come forth are the seven Pole-Lords, wearing linen loincloths and with faces of bulls. They have seven gold diadems, and are also to be hailed individually by name. These have powers of thunder, lightning, and earthquakes, as well as the capacity to grant physical health, good eyesight and hearing, and calmness (lines 673–692).The two groups of seven, female and male, are both depicted in an Egyptian manner and represent the “region of the fixed stars.”[16]

This might of course be some other mystery cult, there just aren’t any other texts that survived with enough complete sentences to actually read them. We do have a lot of statues similar to these pole-lords, but with the faces of lions instead of bulls.

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Lion-Headed figure from the Sidon Mithraeum, circa 500 AD

These statues are wild and we have no idea what they were for or what they meant. They might be related to a particular demon in Zoroastrianism, or they might represent the “lion degree” of initiation into the cult’s rites, or something else entirely. At any rate, we don’t find these statues in modern churches, and their importance within the Mithraic mysteries has not been transferred to anything in Christianity.

Any claim that Mithras was “called this” or “compared to that” or given particular attributes is on shaky ground given the lack of written records. Nothing in the normal Mithraic iconography looks like the peaceful good shepherd of Christianity. His association with Lions and Lambs is part of his general association with the zodiac, which contains both Leo the Lion and Aries the Ram–as well as Cancer the Crab and Scorpio the Scorpion. Why is Jesus not associated with scorpions, if Mithras was?

Mithras did ascend into Heaven, because he is a solar deity associated with the sun, moon, and stars, and heaven is where the stars are. Zeus lives in a kind of “heaven,” too, as do Odin and Thor.

I hope I do not need to keep refuting individual points. I’ve found nothing about baptism or Sundays associated with Mithras, and as for the marks on the foreheads of Mithraic initiates, Christians do not normally go around with marks on their heads, except on Ash Wednesday as a sign of mourning.

And the son/sun pun doesn’t even work in Latin. (Or Greek.)

My personal opinion is that the Mithras Cult operated rather like a modern Masonic Lodge or even a Rotary Club: a men’s club that periodically feasted together. (Mithraic cults didn’t accept female members.)

There are plenty of obvious pagan practice that survives in Christianity–the Christmas tress, for example. And the influence of pagan Greek philosophers like Plato on early Christianity is a subject worth whole volumes. We could even ask how much of Judaism owes its origins to Zoroastrianism, especially parts developed during the Babylonian exile. But at this point, I think it’s safe to say that people promoting the “Jesus was Mithras” story are either completely ignorant of Mithraism or purposefully trying to denigrate Christianity.

Have a merry Christmas, Chanukah, Mithras Day, or whatever you celebrate.

Woketianity

Scott’s recent post, Gay Rites are Civil Rites, helped a lot of different threads I’ve had bouncing around cohere into a manageable whole:

  1. Civil religion is religion, it just doesn’t have the god part
  2. Our civil religion is Woketianity
  3. Civil religion exists to justify the rule of the upper class
  4. It does so by claiming to care about the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, etc
  5. But of course never in a way that would challenge the rule of the upper class

This explains a few things, like

  1. why SJW pile-ons and their approach to social relations look like cult behavior (because they literally are),
  2. why the entire society has suddenly come out in support of Pride Month (because this is the new chief rite of the civil religion),
  3. why companies like Goldman Sachs are making an effort to be publicly associated with Pride Month (to justify their egregious money piles via Woketianity),
  4. Why so many Woke pile-ons actually target poor and powerless people, like shop keepers and janitors (because they did not serve the Elite Wokeist with sufficient defference)
  5. and why so little of this Woketianity involves things that actually improve the lives of poor people (because that’s not the point).

If some poor people do better because of Woke policies, Wokeists won’t be disturbed, but the primary purpose of their beliefs is to justify their position in the ruling class.

Woketianity can be seen as a heretical co-option of whatever ideas people originally had about helping the poor and downtrodden.

Memes can be roughly divided into two forms–those that spread horizontally, (ie, across society) like viruses, and those that are transmitted vertically (ie, from your ancestors), like mitochondria. Mitochondrial memes tend to promote your health and well-being, because if they didn’t, your ancestors’ children would have died and never made you. Brushing your teeth is a mitochondrial meme, most likely taught by you to your parents in order to improve your chances of not dying of tooth decay. Viral memes do not need to improve your health to spread; in the short term, at least, they only need to spread faster than people die from them.

Woketianity is a viral meme, and in the minds of anyone not in the elite, it is functionally a parasite, convincing them to accept elite rule on the grounds that it is “good for the oppressed.”

There are three responses to the Woke argument for supporting the elites to help the oppressed:

  1. “I don’t care about the oppressed.”
  2. “Your proposal doesn’t actually help the oppressed.”
  3. “Fuck you, you hypocritical grifter.”

Option two has the most potential for turning into quicksand, since even if you happen to be correct on some particular issue, you are arguing against people who are trying to raise their social status by holding the Right Sort of Views, not actually deal with icky poor people.

If you actually want to help the poor and/or oppressed, the Woke are good targets for funds, but don’t expect them to come up with good ideas. They have no idea what it’s like to be a teenage runaway, homeless, ugly, crippled, or hopeless, so if anything, you will have to prevent them from instituting bad ideas that actually harm the people they want to think they are helping.

You’d like an example? Okay, here’s one:

IQ tests are actually the only reliable way we have right now of identifying bright kids who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Anyone trying to do away with IQ tests is not interested in helping poor students.

If you want to actually do good:

  1. Be sincere.
  2. Be realistic.

Some interesting things

Here’s a post a friend linked me to detailing the writer’s experience of discovering that the true background of two famous photos of the Vietnam War was very different from the background they had been taught:

As I read the article about the photos, I felt a sense of disbelief. I wasn’t quite sure what I was reading was correct. Surely, if this information about both photos were true, I’d have heard about it before this. After all, thirty years had passed.

I spent the next few hours searching the subject online and found quite a bit more information, but no serious or credible refutation of the stories I’d just learned. …

Then the strangest feeling came over me. I don’t even have a word for it, although I usually can come up with words for emotions.

This was a new feeling. The best description I can come up with is that it was a regret so intense it morphed seamlessly into guilt, as though I were responsible for something terrible, though I didn’t know exactly what. Regret and guilt, and also a rage that I’d been so stupid, that I’d let myself be duped or misled or kept ignorant about something so important, and that I’d remained ignorant all these years.

I sat in front of my computer and put my face down on the keyboard. I stayed in that position for a few minutes, energyless and drained. When I lifted my head I was surprised to find a few tears on my cheeks.

This is the emotion more blasely referred to as “red pilling;” the moment you realize that many of the things you had been taught to believe are, in fact, a lie.

It’s a very interesting article and I encourage you to read it.

Denisovan Jawbone in Tibet?

But now, an international team of scientists has announced the identification of another Denisovan fossil, from a site 1,500 miles away. It’s the right half of a jawbone, found some 10,700 feet above sea level in a cave in China’s Xiahe County, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. The Xiahe mandible, as it is now known, is not only the first Denisovan fossil to be found outside Denisova Cave, but also the very first Denisovan fossil to be found at all. It just took four decades for anyone to realize that.

So there may be a lot of old bits of bone or pieces of skulls lying unidentified in various old collections, especially in Asia, that we’ll be able to identify and piece together into various homo species as we fill in more of the information about our human family tree

To be honest, I am a little annoyed about how every article about the Denisovans expresses a form of supposed confusion at how a group whose only fossils (until now) were found in a cave in Siberia could have DNA in Tibetans and Melanesians. Obviously we just haven’t figured out the full ancestral ranges of these groups, and they used to overlap. If Tibetans have high-altitude adaptations that look like they came from Denisovans, then obviously Denisovans lived in Tibet, and old Tibetan bones are a great place to look for Denisovans.

Indeed, the Xiahe mandible, which is 160,000 years old, is by far the earliest hominin fossil from the Tibetan plateau. Researchers used to think that Homo sapiens was unique in adapting to the Himalayas, but the Denisovans were successfully living on the roof of the world at least 120,000 years earlier. They must also have adapted to extremely thin air—after all, the mandible was found in a cave that’s some 8,000 feet higher above sea level than Denisova itself. “Their presence that high up is truly astonishing,” Douka says.

Fascinating article about the genetics of circadian rhythms and their relationship to health matters:

Perhaps the most ubiquitous and persistent environmental factor present throughout the evolution of modern species is the revolution of the earth about its own axis, creating a 24 h solar day. The consequent recurrent pattern of light and darkness endows a sense of time to organisms that live on this planet. The importance of this sense of time is accentuated by an internal clock that functions on a 24 h scale, inherent in the genetic framework of living organisms ranging from cyanobacteria (Johnson et al., 1996) to human mammals (Herzog and Tosini, 2001). An internal, molecular program drives circadian oscillations within the organism that manifest at the molecular, biochemical, physiological and behavioral levels (Mazzoccoli et al., 2012). Importantly, these oscillations allow anticipatory responses to changes in the environment and promote survival.

The term “circadian” comes from the Latin “circa,” meaning “around” and “diem,” meaning “day.” Circadian events recur during the subjective day or the lighted portion of the 24 h period and the subjective night or the dark part of the 24 h period allowing physiological synchrony with the light/dark environment (Reddy and O’Neill, 2010). The circadian clock has been demonstrated in almost all living organisms (Johnson et al., 1996Herzog and Tosini, 2001Mazzoccoli et al., 2012). The two defining characteristics of the circadian timing system are perseverance of oscillation under constant environmental conditions, which define these rhythms as self-sustained and endogenously generated, and the ability to adapt to environmental change, particularly to changes in the environmental light/dark cycle (Tischkau and Gillette, 2005).

The fascinating thing about sleep is that it exists; you would think that, given how vulnerable we are during sleep, animals that sleep would have long ago been eaten by animals that don’t, and the entire kingdom would have evolved to be constantly awake. And yet it hasn’t, suggesting that whatever sleep does, it is vitally important.

Modern Shamans: Financial Managers, Political Pundits, and others who help tame life’s uncertainties:

Like all magical specialists, [shamans] rely on spells and occult gizmos, but what makes shamans special is that they use trance. …

But these advantages are offset by the ordeals involved. In many societies, a wannabe initiate lacks credibility until he (and it’s usually a he) undergoes a near-death experience or a long bout of asceticism.

One aboriginal Australian shaman told ethnographers that, as a novice, he was killed by an older shaman who then replaced his organs with a new, magical set. …

Manifesting as mediums, channelers, witch doctors and the prophets of religious movements, shamans have appeared in most human societies, including nearly all documented hunter-gatherers. They characterized the religious lives of ancestral humans and are often said to be the “first profession.” …

… Like people everywhere, contemporary Westerners look to experts to achieve the impossible – to heal incurable illnesses, to forecast unknowable futures – and the experts, in turn, compete among themselves, performing to convince people of their special abilities.

So who are these modern shamans?

According to the cognitive scientist Samuel Johnson, financial money managers are likely candidates. Money managers fail to outperform the market – in fact, they even fail to systematically outperform each other – yet customers continue to pay them to divine future stock prices. …

Very interesting insight. It might explain why we stuck with doctors for so many centuries even when they were totally useless (or even negatively useful,) and why we trusted psychiatry throughout most of the 20th century, despite it being obvious bullshit.

There are a lot of unknowns out there, and we feel more comfortable trusting someone than just leaving it unknown–which introduces a lot of room for people to take advantage of us.

Finally, on a similar note, Is Dogma Eugenic? 

As he explains, belief in the supernatural can be attributed to the above heuristics. If belief in the supernatural became a problem, we would have to evolve to loose those heuristics.

Heuristics can be good. But, insofar as heuristics have us create harmful dogmas that can perpetuate themselves socially, we will have to replace them with pure logic, or at least lessen their impact. 

So, insofar as humans have the capacity to believe harmful dogmas, we will lose heuristics and become more logical. Heuristics can be “gamed;” logic cannot. In this manner, humans evolve to act less on instinct. The logical part of our brain becomes more pronounced.

You might have to RTWT to really get the argument, but it’s fun.

Cyborg Dreams: Alita Review with Spoilers

220px-battle_angel_alita_28issue_1_-_cover29This is a review for Alita: Battle Angel, now out in theaters. If you want the review without spoilers, scroll down quickly to the previous post.

It is difficult for any movie to be truly deep. Is Memento deep, or does it just use a backwards-narrative gimmick? Often meaning is something we bring to movies–we interpret them based on our own experiences.

What is the point of cyborgs? They are the ultimate fusion of man and machine. Our technology doesn’t just serve us; it has become us.  What are we, then? Are cyborgs human, or more than human? And what of the un-enhanced meatsacks left behind?

Throughout the movie, we see humans with various levels of robotic enhancement, from otherwise normal people with an artificial limb to monstrous brawlers that are almost unrecognizable as human. Alita is a complete cyborg whose only “human” remain left is her biological brain (perhaps she has a skull, too.) The rest of her, from heart to toes, is machine, and can be disassembled and replaced as necessary.

The graphic novels go further than Alita–in one case, a whole community breaks down after it discovers that the adults have had their brains replaced with computer chips. Can a “human” have a metal body but a meat brain? Can a “human” have a meat body but a computer brain? Alita says yes, that humanity is more than just the raw material we are built of.

(It also goes much less–is Ido’s jet-powered hammer that he uses in battle any different from a jet-powered hammer built into your arm? Does it matter whether you can put the technology down and pack it into a suitcase at the end of the day, or if it is built into your core?)

Yet cyborgs in Alita’s world, despite their obvious advantage over mere humans in terms of speed, reflexes, strength, and ability to switch your arms out for power saws, are mostly true to their origin as disabled people whose bodies were replaced with artificial limbs. Alita’s first body, given to her at the beginning of the movie after she is found without one, was originally built for a little girl in a wheelchair. She reflects to a friend that she is now fast because the little girl’s father built her a fast pair of legs so she could finally run.

The upper class–to the extent that we see them–has no obvious enhancements. Indeed, the most upper class family we meet in the movie, which originally lived in the floating city of Tiphares (Zalem in the movie) was expelled from the city and sent down to the scrap yard with the rest of the trash because of their disabled daughter–the one whose robotic body Alita inherits.

Hugo is an ordinary meat boy with what we may interpret as a serious prejudice against cyborgs–though he comes across as a nice lad, he moonlights as a thief who who kidnaps cyborgs and chops off their body parts for sale on the black market. Hugo justifies himself by claiming he “never killed anyone,” which is probably true, but the process certainly hurts the cyborgs (who cry out in pain as their limbs are sawed off,) and leaves them lying disabled in the street.

Hugo isn’t doing it because he hates cyborgs, though. They’re just his ticket to money–the money he needs to get to Tiphares/Zalem. For even though it is said that no one in the Scrap Yard (Iron City in the movie) is ever allowed into Tiphares, people still dream of Heaven. Hugo believes a notorious fixer named Vector can get him into Tiphares if he just pays him enough money.

Some reviewers have identified Vector as the Devil himself, based on his line, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” which the Devil speaks in Milton’s Paradise Lost–though Milton is himself reprising Achilles in the Odyssey, who claims, “By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man / some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive / than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” 

Yet the Scrap Yard is not Hell. Hell is another layer down; it is the sewers below the Scrap Yard, where Alita’s first real battle occurs. The Scrap Yard is Purgatory; the Scrap Yard is Earth, suspended between both Heaven and Hell, from which people can chose to arise (to Tiphares) or descend (to the sewers.) But whether Tiphares is really Heaven or just a dream they’ve been sold remains to be seen–for everyone in the Scrap Yard is fallen and none may enter Heaven.

Alita, you probably noticed, descended into Hell to fight an evil monster–in the manga, because he kidnapped a baby; in the movie because he was trying to kill her. In the ensuing battle, she is crushed and torn to pieces, sacrificing her final limb to drill out the monster’s eye. Her unconscious corpse is rescued by her friends, dragged back to the surface, and then rebuilt with a new body.

“I do not stand by in the presence of evil”–Alita

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.” 1 Corinthians, 15 

Alita has died and been resurrected. Whether she will ascend into Heaven remains a matter for the sequel. (She does. Obviously.)

Through his relationship with Alita (they smooch), Hugo realizes that cyborgs are people, too, and maybe he shouldn’t chop them up for money.  “You are more human than anyone I know,” he tells her.

Alita, in a scene straight from The Last Temptation of Christ, offers Hugo her heart–literally–to sell to raise the remaining money he needs to make it to Tiphares.

Hugo, thankfully, declines the offer, attempting to make it to Tiphares on his own two feet (newly resurrected after Alita saves his life by literally hooking him up to her own life support system)–but no mere mortal can ascend to Tiphares; even giants may not assault the gates of Heaven.

The people of the Scrap Yard are fallen–literally–from Tiphares, their belongings and buildings either relics from the time before the fall or from trash dumped from above. There is hope in the Scrap Yard, yet the Scrap Yard generates very little of its own, explaining its entirely degraded state.

This is a point where the movie fails–the set builders made the set too nice. The Scrap Yard is a decaying, post-apocalyptic waste filled with strung-out junkies and hyper-violent-TV addicts. In one scene in the manga, Doc Ido, injured, collapses in the middle of a crowd while trying to drag the remains of Alita’s crushed body back home so he can fix her. Bleeding, he cries out for help–but the crowd, entranced by the story playing out on the screens around them, ignores them both.

In the movie, the Scrap Yard has things like oranges and chocolate–suggesting long-distance trade and large-scale production–things they really shouldn’t be able to do. In the manga, the lack of police makes sense, as this is a society with no ability to cooperate for the common good. Since the powers that be would like to at least prevent their own deaths at the hands of murderers, the Scrap Yard instead puts bounties on the heads of criminals, and licensed “Hunter Warriors” decapitate them for money.

(A hunter license is not difficult to obtain. They hand them out to teenage girls.)

Here the movie enters its discussion of Free Will.

Alita awakes with no memory of her life before she became a decapitated head sitting in a landfill. She has the body of a young teen and, thankfully, adults willing to look out for her as she learns about life in Iron City from the ground up–first, that oranges have to be peeled; second, that cars can run you over.

The movie adds the backstory about Doc Ido’s deceased, disabled daughter for whom he built the original body that he gives to Alita. This is a good move, as it makes explicit a relationship that takes much longer to develop in the manga (movies just don’t have the same time to develop plots as a manga series spanning decades.) Since Alita has no memory, she doesn’t remember her own name (Yoko). Doc therefore names her “Alita,” after the daughter whose body she now wears.

As an adopted child myself, I feel a certain kinship with narratives about adoption. Doc wants his daughter back. Alita wants to discover her true identity. Like any child, she is growing up, discovering love, and wants different things for her life than her father does.

Despite her amnesia, Alita has certain instincts. When faced with danger, she responds–without knowing how or why–with a sudden explosion of violence, decapitating a cyborg that has been murdering young women in her neighborhood. Alita can fight; she is extremely skilled in an advanced martial art developed for cyborgs. In short, she is a Martian battle droid that has temporarily mistaken itself for a teenage girl.

She begs Ido to hook her up to a stronger body (the one intended for his daughter was not built with combat in mind,) but he refuses, declaring that she has a chance to start over, to become something totally new. She has free will. She can become anything–so why become a battle robot all over again?

But Alita cannot just remain Doc’s little girl. Like all children, she grows–and like most adopted children, she wants to know who she is and where she comes from. She is good at fighting. This is her only connection to her past, and as she asserts, she has a right to that. Doc Ido has no right to dictate her future.

What is Alita? As far as she knows, she is trash, broken refuse literally thrown out through the Tipharean rubbish chute. The worry that you were adopted because you were unwanted by your biological parents–thrown away–plagues many adopted children. But as Alita discovers, this isn’t true. She’s not trash–she’s an alien warrior who once attacked Earth and ended up unconscious in the scrap yard after losing most of her body in the battle. Like the Nephilim, she is a heavenly battle angel who literally fell to Earth.

By day, Ido is a doctor, healing people and fixing cyborgs. By night, he is a Hunter Warrior, killing people. For Ido, killing is expression of rage after his daughter’s death, a way of channeling a psychotic impulse into something that benefits society by aiming it at people even worse than himself. But for Alita, violence serves a greater purpose–she uses her talent to eliminate evil and serve justice. Alita’s will is to protect the people she loves.

After Alita runs away, gets in a fight, descends into Hell, and is nearly completely destroyed, Doc relents and attaches her to a more powerful, warrior body. He recognizes that time doesn’t freeze and he cannot keep Alita forever as his daughter (a theme revisited later in the manga when Nova tries to trap Alita in an alternative-universe simulation where she never becomes a Hunter Warrior.

In an impassioned speech, Nova declares, “I spit upon the second law of thermodynamics!” He wants to freeze time; prevent decay. But even Nova, as we have seen, cannot contain Alita’s will. She knows it is a simulation. She plays along for a bit, enjoying the story, then breaks out.

Alita’s new body uses “nanotechnology,” which is to say, magic, to keep her going. Indeed, the technology in the movie is no more explained than magic in Harry Potter, other than some technobabble about how Alita’s heart contains a miniature nuclear reactor that could power the whole city, which is how she was able to stay alive for 300 years in a trash heap.

With her more powerful body, Alita is finally able to realize herself.

Alita’s maturation from infant (a living head completely unable to move,) to young adult is less explicit in the movie than in the manga, but it is still there–with the reconfiguration of her new body based on Alita’s internal self-image, Doc discovers that “She is a bit older than you thought she was.” In a dream sequence in the original, the metaphors are made explicit–limbless Alita in one scene becomes an infant strapped to Doc’s back as he roots through the dump for parts. Then she receives a pair of arms, and finally legs, turning into a toddler and a girl. Finally, with her berserker body, she achieves adulthood.

But with all of this religious imagery, is Tiphares really heaven? Of course not–if it were, why would Nova–who is the true villain trying to kill her–live there? There was a war in the Heavens–but the Heavens are far beyond Tiphares. Alita will escape Purgatory and ascend to Tiphares–and unlike the others, she will not do it by being chopped into body parts for Nova’s experiments.

For the mind is its own place, and can make a Heaven of Hell, and a Hell of Heaven.

Tiphares is only the beginning, just as the Scrap Yard is not the Hell we take it for.

Race: A Clarification

 

race3
(The distance between Native Americans and East Asians on this rough chart is too long.)

It has come to my attention that some of you (I am looking at you) don’t know what I mean by the word “race.” I try to be consistent, but unfortunately, the word is used pretty inconsistently out in society–“Human race,” “Asian race,” “English race,” “Female race,” etc. There is even a term, “landrace” used over in biology to denote a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant. “Race” was originally used similar to “breed” or “lineage;” today, people usually use it to denote a level of genetic relatedness one step up from ethnic group.

genetic_map_of_europe
source: Big Think: Genetic map of Europe

When I use it, I am (usually) referring to one of the three macro-races of humanity: Sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians, and Asians.

People often treat “Caucasian” and “white” as synonyms, but they’re not. “Caucasians” includes North Africans, Middle Easterners, Europeans, and many Indians (from India.) Three of these groups are not generally thought of as being included in “white,” but from a genetic perspective they definitely cluster together in the Caucasian clade (depicted above.) People may tell you that “race is a social construct,” but human population clades are not.

Since people don’t use “race” in any consistent way, it would be valid to refer to a “white race” that is a subset of the greater Caucasian race–but this is confusing because two different levels of genetic similarity are being described with the same word.

I have personally come to regard “white” as an America-centric ethnonym, (but I can’t promise I have always used it consistently.)

What do I mean?

“Whites” and “Blacks” in America are not drawn equally from all pale and dark skinned groups back in Europe and Africa. Indeed, just having some kind of European identity (eg, Irish,) is often enough to incur an at least joking insistence that one is not white.

Remember that homo Sapiens is about 300,000 years old, give or take a decade, and the era of swift, long-range travel is only about 500 years old. The “races” and “ethnic groups” that existed in 1491 were largely a result of travel being difficult, with barriers like the Sahara desert and the Himalayas massively interfering with human movement. These barriers effectively separated most human groups, preventing them from interbreeding and thus sending them off in their own genetic directions–until 1492.

casta_painting_all
People over-thought ancestry long before 23 and Me

Post 1492, the Americas became a mixing zone where Native Americans (Asian clade), Europeans (Caucasians) and West Africans (Sub Saharan Africans) met and interacted–the many degrees of mixed race ancestry found in Latin America are one result of this interaction.

American whites hailed, indeed, from a different race than American blacks and they, in turn, from American Indians. So within the American context, calling them different races made sense–and was accurate. But they were never drawn equally from all parts of their greater racial clades. They were drawn from particular ethnic groups back home–US “whites” initially from Northwest European countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands.

When these different ethnic groups got here and started marrying each other, they became their own, new ethnic group.

So when people ask, “Is so-and-so white?” or “Is this group white?” it depends on what exactly you mean by white. Do you mean “light skinned”? Treated as white in the US? European? Hailing from one of the ethnic groups that contributed to “whites” in the US? Not possessing any competing European ethnic identity besides white?

800px-Girls_in_Ghazni
Light-skinned Hazara (red), Tajik and Pashtun girls, Afghanistan.

Usually meaning can be inferred from conversation, but things can get confusing when people are using two different definitions or when discussing groups that didn’t contribute much to America’s founding stock.

I have perhaps mentioned before my discomfort with the word “racism”–not because I don’t think people discriminate against other people, but because it privileges offenses that cross a certain level of genetic dissimilarity between people as worse than offenses that cross smaller differences.

Was the English genocide of the Boers somehow less bad simply because the English and Boers are both “white”? Yes, we could say that the English were racist against the Boers, despite being part of the same race, or declare that the “English race” is a thing, but this is confusing. Plus, people can dislike each other for reasons totally unrelated to race, such as being male or female, disabled, or unattractive. I doubt anyone who was turned down for a date or denied a job because they happen to have the misfortune of being ugly ever comforted themself that at least they weren’t turned down because of their race.

And then there is the recent trend of calling people racist for disliking particular religions, even though Americans have traditionally thought of religions as belief systems–matters of opinion–rather than ethnic groups. (Indeed, there is a deep conflict between the traditional American view that religion is a matter of conscience, enshrined in the Bill of Rights next to the Freedom of Speech, and thus freely criticisable like any other opinion, and the view put forth by various endogamous ethno-religious groups that religion is ethnicity and therefore any criticism is racist.)

But to sum: when I use “race,” I am referring to the macro-races of Caucasians, East Asians, and Sub-Saharan Africans. I try not to confuse matters by mixing up genetic levels, but I can’t promise I have always been consistent in every post.

Mysticism and Greater Male Variability

ctqda7fweae8tnbBuzzwords like “the male gaze” “objectification” “stereotype threat” “structural oppression” “white privilege” etc. are all really just re-hashings of the Evil Eye. We’ve shed the formal structure of religion but not the impulse for mystical thinking.

Today while debating with a friend about whether men or women have it better, it became plain that we were approaching the question from very different perspectives. He looked at men’s higher incomes and over-representation among CEOs and government officials and saw what I’ll call the mystical explanation: male oppression of women. I looked at the same data plus male over-representation among the homeless, mentally ill, suicides, and murder victims, and advocated the scientific explanation: greater male variability. 

What do I mean by mystical?

In primitive tribes, an accusation of witchcraft can quickly get you killed. What might inspire an accusation of witchcraft? A sick cow, a sudden death, a snake in a spot where it wasn’t yesterday, a drought, a flood, a twisted ankle–pretty much anything unexpected or unfortunate.

People understand cause and effect. Things happen because other things make them happen. But without a good scientific understanding of the world, the true causes of many events are unfindable, so people turn to mystical explanations. Why does it rain? Because a goddess is weeping. Why do droughts happen? Because someone forgot to make a sacrifice and angered the gods. Why do people get sick and die? Because other people cursed them.

If you’ve never encountered animist or mystical thought before, I recommend starting with some of my previous posts on the subject, which are thoroughly-researched and include lots of quotes from first-hand sources: Animism 1, 2, and 3; Aboriginal Witchcraft, more Australia 1, 2, and 3; mysticism and voodoo 1, 2, and 3. In this post I will be drawing on summaries of these and similar works.

A curse need not be deliberate. Simply being mad at someone or bearing them ill-will might be enough trigger the Evil Eye, curse them, and be forced by angry villagers to undo the curse–however the witchdoctor determines the curse must be undone. (This can be quite expensive.)

In animist thinking, things do not just happen. Things happen for reasons–usually malicious reasons.

In The Life and Adventure of William Buckley, 32 Years a Wanderer amongst the Aborigines, Buckley recounts: “They have an odd idea of death, for they do not suppose that any one dies from natural causes, but from human agencies: such as those to which I have alluded in previous pages of this narrative.”

The death of a companion via snakebite (probably a  common occurrence among people who walk barefoot in Australia) triggered a brutal “revenge” killing once it was determined who had cast the curse that motivated the snake:

“The cause of this sudden unprovoked cruelty was not, as usual, about the women, but because the man who had been killed by the bite of the snake belonged to the hostile tribe, and they believed my supposed brother-in-law carried about with him something that had occasioned his death. They have all sorts of fancies of this kind, and it is frequently the case, that they take a man’s kidneys out after death, tie them up in something, and carry them round the neck, as a sort of protection and valuable charm, for either good or evil.”

Buckley’s adoptive Aboriginal family, his sister and brother-in-law, who had been helping him since the tribe saved his life years ago, was killed in this incident.

“I should have been most brutally unfeeling, had I not suffered the deepest mental anguish from the loss of these poor people, who had all along been so kind and good to me. I am not ashamed to say, that for several hours my tears flowed in torrents, and, that for a long time I wept unceasingly. To them, as I have said before, I was as a living dead brother, whose presence and safety was their sole anxiety. Nothing could exceed the kindness these poor natives had shown me, and now they were dead, murdered by the band of savages I saw around me, apparently thirsting for more blood. Of all my sufferings in the wilderness, there was nothing equal to the agony I now endured.” …

“I returned to the scene of the brutal massacre; and finding the ashes and bones of my late friends, I scraped them up together, and covered them over with turf, burying them in the best manner I could, that being the only return I could make for their many kindnesses. I did so in great grief at the recollection of what they had done for me through so many years, and in all my dangers and troubles. ”

An account of Florence Young’s missionary work in the Solomon Islands (which are near Australia) recounts an identical justification for the cycle of violence on the Solomon Islands (which was quite threatening to Florence herself.) Every time someone died of any natural cause, their family went to the local witch doctor, who then used magic to determine who had used evil magic to kill the dead guy, and then the family would go and kill whomever the witch doctor indicated.

The advent of Christianity therefore caused a power struggle between the missionaries and the witch doctors, who were accustomed to being able to extort everyone and trick their followers into killing anyone who pissed them off. (See also Isaac Bacirongo’s account of the witch doctor who extorted his pre-pubescent sister as payment for a spell intended to kill Isaac’s wife–note: Isaac was not the one buying this spell; he likes his wife.)

So why do women make less money than men? Why are they underrepresented among CEOs and Governors and mathematicians? Something about the patriarchy and stereotype threat; something about men being evil.

Frankly, it sounds like men have the Evil Eye. A man thinks “Women are worse at math” and women suddenly become worse at math.

To be fair, my friend had only half the data, and when you have only half the data, the situation for men looks a lot better than the situation for women. But men aren’t only over-represented at the high ends of achievement–they’re also over-represented at the bottom. If patriarchy and stereotypes keep women from getting PhDs in math, why are little boys over-represented in special ed classes? Why are they more likely to be homeless, schizophrenic, commit suicide, or be murdered? Neither patriarchy nor male privilege can explain such phenomena.

Biology supplies us with a totally different explanation: greater male variability.

To review genetics, you have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Most of them are roughly X-shaped, except for the famous Y chromosome.

You have two chromosomes because you received one from each of your parents. Much of what the chromosomes do is redundant–for example, if you have blue eyes, then you received a gene for blue eyes from one parent and one from your other parent. One blue eye gene would be enough to give you blue eyes, but you have two.

Eye color isn’t terribly important, but things like how your immune system responds to threats or how your blood clots are. A rare mutation might make you significantly better or worse at these things, but the fact that you have two (or more) genes controlling each trait means that each very rare mutation tends to be paired with a more common version–lessening its effect.

There is, however, one big exception: the XY pair. Men don’t have a pair of Xs or a pair of Ys; they have one of each. If something is wrong on the X, the Y may have nothing to fix it, and vice versa.

The upshot is that if a man happens to get a gene that makes him extra tall, smart, conscientious, creative, charismatic, etc. somewhere on his X or Y chromosomes, he may not have a corresponding gene on the other chromosome to moderate its effects–and if he has a gene that makes him extra short, dumb, impulsive, dull, or anti-social, he is still unlikely to have a corresponding gene to dull the effect.

ci_generos
ASVAB scores: women in pink, men in blue.

Height is an uncontroversial example. Yes, the average man is taller than the average woman, but the spread of male heights is wider than the spread of female heights. More women are clustered around the average female height, while more men are both taller than the average man and shorter than the average man.

The graph to the right shows test scores from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, but it shows the same basic idea: different means with women clustered more closely around average than men.

Whether the greater male variability hypothesis is true or not, it is an explanation that assumes no malice on anyone’s part. No one is maliciously forcing little boys into special ed, nor grown men into homelessness and suicide. The architecture of the XY and XX chromosome pairs is simply part of how humans are constructed.

But notice that you are much more likely to hear the theory that uses mysticism to blame people than the theory that doesn’t. One is tempted to think that some people are just inclined to assume that others are malicious–while ignoring other, more mundane explanations.

 

 

 

Anthropology Friday: Mainline Paradox II

In response to my post on the Mainline Paradox, Nick B. Steves requested an explanation of a different paradox:

Why do these declining denominations—or at least their ideas—remain so influential? I’ve only met one or two Unitarians in my life—although those COEXIST bumper stickers are everywhere—and I’ve never wittingly met a Quaker.

Well, I’ve met lots of Unitarians, and if we include the children of Unitarians I have now lived most of my life with Unitarians.

First, though, who exactly are the “Mainline Protestants”?

Wikipedia is helpful: They’re denominations that are Protestant but not fundamentalist, evangelical, or charismatic. In other words, they’re not too conservative and they don’t move or shout too much during services. (In the Mainline view, excessive movement or noise is animalistic and a sign of mental disability or weakness.)

In general, the Mainlines include Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, not-Southern but “American” Baptist Churches, and a variety of smaller deonominations like the Quakers and traditionally African American churches. 

Formal Unitarian Universalists are a little questionable theologically since they don’t have much theology and reject the Trinity and many of their members are outright atheists, but from a cultural standpoint they are clearly Mainline Protestants who have simply completed the journey.

There are a welter of small Protestant denominations with not terribly helpful names like the “United Church of Christ;” I do not know how similar these are to UUs.

Map pagesSteves is right that you don’t meet many Quakers these days; you also don’t meet many Puritans, due to churches changing their names over the years, eg, many “Congregational” churches are now “United” churches. I suspect most of the “Quakers” have been absorbed into Methodist churches, while Puritans have been absorbed into these blandly named “United” and “Unitarian” denominations.

As you can see on the map, if you don’t count the recent Irish and Italian immigrants, core New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire) now prefers to attend American Baptist (not Southern) churches, while Quaker stronghold Pennsylvania is largely Methodist. (This map of course only shows membership in organized denominations; if folks in an area prefer churches that aren’t part of larger denominational structures, they won’t show up.)

Wikipedia has some solid data explaining why Mainline Protestants and their atheist children are culturally dominant, even if they don’t loudly proclaim their religious affiliation:

Some mainline Protestant denominations have the highest proportion of graduate and post-graduate degrees of any other denomination in the United States.[18] Some also include the highest proportion of those with some college education, such as the Episcopal Church (76%),[18] the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (64%),[18] and the United Church of Christ(46%),[19] as well as the most of the American upper class.[18] compared with the nationwide average of 50%.[18] Episcopalians and Presbyterians also tend to be considerably wealthier[20] and better educated than most other religious groups,[21] and they were disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of US business and law until the 1950s.[22]

Probably the only people in the US who are better educated than Episcopalians are Hindus, Unitarian Universalists, and Jews–and Hindus are selected for their degrees. (Hindus: 77% college degrees; UU: 67%, Jews: 59%, Anglicans: 59%, Episcopalians: 56%–but for all practical purposes, Episcopalians and Anglicans are probably the same thing.)

Wikipedia also notes that Mainlines have:

played a leading role in the Social Gospel movement and were active in social causes such as the civil rights movement and women’s movement.[14] As a group, the mainline churches have maintained religious doctrine that stresses social justice and personal salvation.[15] Members of mainline denominations have played leadership roles in politics, business, science, the arts, and education. They were involved in the founding of leading institutes of higher education.[16] Marsden argues that in the 1950s, “Mainline Protestant leaders were part of the liberal-moderate cultural mainstream, and their leading spokespersons were respected participants in the national conversation.”[17]

If you want to be a respectable person in America, you join the Episcopal Church and make sandwiches for the homeless on Saturday afternoons. If you’re really smart, you join the Unitarians and make rainbow flags for the homeless on Saturday afternoons and try to get your kids to marry a nice Hindu doctor.

This dynamic is a different in the South, where the Southern Baptists dominate and the culture is more conservative, but influential cultural ideas don’t typically come out of the South. For starters, New York and Hollywood aren’t located in Atlanta.

While reading Richard Wayne Sapp’s Suwannee River Town, Suwannee River Country: Political moieties in a Southern country community, I came across an interesting and relevant discussion of the local religious denominations:

The primary recreational field outside schooling… kin folk… and outside voluntary associations… is the church. White owned churches…. are highly organized, formally constituted, and then formally reconstituted at a myriad of age-graded levels; each department, class, and committee electing its own slate of ranked officers and keeping them busy. …

In Apalachee County* church rank reiterates the general rank of its membership. Urban churches consider themselves higher in rank than rural churches. The rural churches consider themselves no better than, but “just as good as” the urban churches.

Note: the county name has changed and is now I believe Suwannee county.

We may correlate church social rank with the amount of individual freedom to extemporize during a communal service, with which rank varies inversely. In Apalachee County the small Episcopal church, for example, ranks very high; nearly every word and movement conform to a schedule, and communicants know exactly what to expect from the preacher… and from each other. Activity proceeds at an unemotional, orderly rehearsed pace, led by a single individual specifically clothed and trained for this specific ask. Changes in the form of worship or in interpretation of the holy writings are not local prerogatives. The service emphasizes reaffirmation and continuation.

….

Holiness churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Churches of God bear low social rankings; Baptist churches occupy the mid-range, the numerous sects [of different Baptist churches] comprising he overwhelming majority of he Apalachee County church-going public.

Note that “Baptist” here is Southern.

Churches of low rank value spontaneity and regard individual experiences “with the Lord” with rapture; individuals prize self-expression; several people, all informally clothed, initiate to the audience a different times in the ceremony; people move in specific relation to the circumstances of a particular … preacher, who often serves part time, is inventive in speech and gesture, although he relies on repetition of key phrases and movements, emphasizing a personal commitment, an emotional religious experience.

1024px-Snakehandling
Snake handlers, Holiness Church

For example, the Church of God with Signs Following is a Pentecostal Holiness church famous for its tradition of handling poisonous snakes, speaking in tongues, and drinking poison (usually strychnine) during services. I don’t know if this specific denomination ever made it into Apalachee County, Florida, but I don’t think they’re going to become popular in NYC anytime soon, either.

(But before anyone gets jumpy, I’ve got Pentecostals in my own family, and they’re perfectly nice people who know better than to go handling rattlesnakes.)

If you ask me, Pentacostalism appeals to people who have emotions and want to express them, while Episcopalians and Presbytarians, as they say, are the “frozen chosen.”

Baptists span the high-and low-valued church types… The ceremonial format of Baptist churches varies between secs, locally ranked by the same criteria as other denominations, Southern being not only the most numerous but also the highest ranked. As with the Methodists, the downtown First Baptist Church… is the largest, most formal, most active, most organized, most visible, and most wealthy of is denomination in the county. Indeed [it] is the largest church of any denomination in the county.

Of course, Sapp doesn’t look at the question of actual religious fervor, what it means to actually believe something. That is a much more difficult matter, especially for an outsider.

So let’s turn to humor:

Different Denominational Ministries:
The Methodists pick you up out of the gutter.
The Baptists get you saved.
The Presbyterians educate you.
The Episcopalians introduce you to high society.
Then the Methodists have to pick you up out of the gutter again.

Why are Unitarian Universalists such lousy hymn singers?  They are reading ahead to see if they agree with the next line.

An Episcopalian is either a Roman Catholic who flunked Latin or a Presbyterian whose stocks paid off.

Have a great weekend, wherever and whether you chose to worship.

 

 

 

The Mainline Paradox: Memetics and Liberal Christian Collapse

Warning: Just a theory

I wanted a graph that went back further in time, but this is what I found.
Courtesy of Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”

Liberal Christian denominations (ie, Mainline Protestants) are caught in a paradox: even though they have increasingly defined themselves as open to everyone, their membership roles keep decreasing. It’s as if the more people they let in, the fewer people show up.

[insert Groucho Marx cartoon about not wanting to belong to the set of all clubs that would have him.]

Recent data from Minnesota highlights the precipitous decline:

Mainline Protestant churches have been hit the hardest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Minnesota has lost almost 200,000 members since 2000 and about 150 churches. A third of the remaining 1,050 churches have fewer than 50 members. The United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in Minnesota, has shuttered 65 churches since 2000.

Catholic membership statewide has held steady, but the number of churches fell from 720 in 2000 to 639 last year, according to official Catholic directories.”

Note the timeframe: we’re not talking about change over the course of a century. The Presbyterian church of Minnesota has lost 42% of its members since 2000.

Meanwhile, membership is basically holding steady at conservative denominations that practically define themselves by whom they don’t let in. Evangelicals and fundamentalists are not hemorrhaging nearly as badly as their more welcoming brethren.

Among Mainline Protestants, the only denomination that’s basically holding steady is the American Baptist Church, which has gained black souls as it has lost white ones.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church has more than doubled in size.

Interestingly, a conservative spin-off of the Presbyterian church is doing fine, and the notorious Southern Baptists are doing fine. [source for denomination data.]

The Amish, who are practically their own ethnic group due to only marrying other Amish, have been nearly doubling their population every 20 years, and that’s even with a significant number of children leaving each generation. Of course, the Amish have plenty of children.

Of course, one of the biggest factors in the decline of liberal denominations is fertility–the Amish have a lot more kids than Mainline Protestants.

But why have the Mainlines, with their open and tolerant ideologies and welcoming attitude toward nearly everyone, not attracted more members as society in general has moved leftward on many issues? If you have read Dumbing of Age for as long as I have, then you are well aware of the main character, Joyce’s, rejection of the particular brand of conservative Christianity she was raised and homeschooled in over the issue of homosexuality, and her subsequent search for a more liberal church (which has so far involved freaking out at an Episcopalian service because it smacked of papistry.)

Why are Presbyterians failing to attract the Joyces of the world?

I propose this is because functionally religious identity is about group identity, and a group identity that hinges on “openness to outsiders” is not a functional group identity.

Now you might be saying, “Wait, I thought religious identity had to do with what you think God, or ethics, or how the world was created. People give some sort of rational thought to their beliefs, and then pick the church that best suits them.”

No. I don’t think anyone ever said, “Hey, the religion where you can’t eat pigs sounds much more rational than the religion where you can’t eat cows.” Nor did anyone logically think that the religions with animal sacrifice sounded more logical than the one where the feces of priests are holy, or where alien ghosts are causing all of your problems. (Basically, every religion that isn’t whatever you happen to practice is full of totally illogical beliefs.)

This is why conversations between atheists and theists are so boring. Atheists try to explain that religion doesn’t make sense, and theists try to explain that religion is about faith, not logic.

The nation of Pakistan is 96.4% Muslim, and it didn’t get that way because everyone in Pakistan spontaneously decided when they were about 16 years old that they all agreed that Islam was the only true religion. Israel is 74.7% Jewish, not because all of the Jews logically examined all of the world’s religion and then spontaneously agreed that Judaism was the best one. No; most of the world’s Muslims are Muslim because their parents were Muslim. Most of the world’s Jews were born to other Jews. Most Christians were born to Christians, and so on.

Multi-religious states exist, but within those states, people tend to marry within their own religion or abandon religion altogether, for religion is ethnicity.

3,000 years ago, this would have been an unexceptional statement. The People of the Crocodile God worshiped crocodiles and were certain those folks over there worshiped the Snake God were up to no good. Note that they didn’t deny the existence of the Snake God; they just didn’t worship it.

Our ancestral memetic environment was very different from our modern one because most people couldn’t travel far and mass media didn’t exist. As a result, people tended to only interact with their own group; outsiders were demonized and war was frequent. To be part of a tribe was to worship the tribe’s totems or ancestral deities. In an uncertain world where wind and rain, life and death were mysteries in the hands of capricious deities, to not worship the tribal gods was akin to saying you did not care whether your brothers lived or died.

Indeed, the big issue Rome had with Christians and Jews was less that they worshiped some strange god with weird food rules and transubstantiation–the empire had a pretty inclusive attitude of adopting new deities as it encountered them–but that Christians and Jews refused to adopt the empires deities into their pantheon. More to the point, they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, which the Romans believed would bring the wrath of the gods on them and showed very poor civic spirit. As Tertullian complained in the second century:

They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, “Away with the Christians to the lions!

Monotheism of course triumphed over paganism by taking over the empire itself. The conquering of pagans and thus their gods happened on a small scale within Judea, then on a large scale with Rome and Mecca. The big religions now expanded past pure ethnic lines, but still functioned for ordinary people as ethnic identities due to the lack of long-distance travel–Christians, for example, were members of “Christendom,” which stood in contrast with the pagan, barbarian, and non-Christian hordes–places which, of course, the average christian never saw.

But modern technology has drastically changed our memetic environment. Today you can hop in a car or plane and within hours be hundreds or thousands of miles away–distances your ancestors would have taken months to walk. You can pick up your phone and talk to a friend on the other side of the planet, or read headlines detailing the spread of disease in a foreign country. (I have written extensively about this change in the memes category.)

In the ancestral memetic environment, almost everyone you talked to and got information from was either your immediate family or lived in your community. As a result, memes that promote the survival of you, your family, your community, and your genes tend to dominate. Memes that promote the survival of strangers don’t do as well.

In our modern memetic environment, most of the people you talk to and get information from are strangers. You get movie recommendations from strangers on Rotten Tomatoes; you learn about new business ideas from the reporters at Forbes or Wired or The Wall Street Journal; you get parenting advice from a nanny on TV and medical advice from WebMD. You no longer raise barns or herd goats with your brothers, cousins, and extended family, but work in a cubicle farm with a hundred people who probably aren’t even 5th cousins.

As a result, the modern memetic environment favors the horizontal (rather than vertical, ie from parent to child,) meme transfer. This environment favors the spread of memes that prioritize the interests of strangers, simply because so many of the people you are talking to and interacting with are strangers.

The liberal churches–in particular, the Mainline Protestants–have worked hard to signal openness to others, because this is how horizontal morality works. (The group identity of people who define themselves as open to others thus has as its group it’s defined against as “people who aren’t open to others.”) But if religion itself is about group identity, then a group identity of “let’s be open to others and not have a strong group identity” is going to leave people unenthusiastic about attending liberal churches.

Group identity used to be more intuitive for people, again, because they mostly interacted with members of their own group. Modern religious identity for most Christians is no longer explicitly ethnic (not if you want a place in polite society,) so the “outgroup” has switched gay people, who are such a small percent of the population (2-3%) that they’re effectively a symbolic issue for most parishioners. Unlike those dastardly followers of the Snake God, homosexuals have never made their own army, invaded a neighboring tribe’s territory, massacred all of the women and carried off the men.

(This is, in my opinion, a very silly rock to build one’s church on. Certainly churches for the first 1,900 years of Christianity didn’t make this a major, defining point of what makes them different from their competitors. Jesus himself didn’t say a whole lot about gay people.)

And getting back to fertility, people with stronger group identities–such as people whose religions tell them they should have a group identity and it is good to have a group identity that excludes those [evil outgroup people] tend to have more children, who are the literal future of the church.

Summary version: Religion is about group identity, but the modern memetic environment, ie liberalism, is anti-group identity. Churches that try to set themselves up in opposition to group identity therefore fail. But since ethnic identity is no longer in fashion, conservative religious groups now define themselves in opposition to homosexuals, a somewhat symbolic opposition considering that homosexuals have never constituted a military threat to anyone’s ethnic group.

Thou Shalt Not Wirehead: Religion vs Gratification

Humans are just smart enough to wirehead themselves, but stupid enough to do it very badly. For example, over in South Africa, addicts are trying to develop a new variety of AIDS by combining heroin, antiretroviral drugs, and other random crap like “crushed glass” or “cleaning detergent,” injecting it, then drawing their drug-laced blood and injecting that blood into a second person for a secondary high:

Mary Mashapa estimates that one person in every five in this community uses nyaope [the drug] – and she says they will try anything to get a fix. …

An articulate young man called Thabo told us drug users have started to sell – or share – their blood with other addicts in Dieplsoot. The practice is known locally as ‘bluetooth’. …

Thabo inserted nyaope into the vein of his friend Bennet, then immediately withdrew a small amount of his friend’s blood which he re-injected into his arm. “I’ve just bluetoothed, eh,” said Thabo with a look of relief on his face.

“I gave my friend a hit and took one from his blood, you know …”

What about your health, HIV, what about sharing needles? I asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there,” he replied.

You know, if people are going to try that hard to give themselves AIDS, maybe other people should stop giving them anti-retroviral drugs.

And I thought Siberians drinking each other’s urine to get a psychedelic mushroom high was bad enough. Can you imagine Shaka Zulu witnessing what has become of these Black South Africans? Injecting themselves with pain killers and detergent so they can sway like zombies for a few hours? He would have had them executed.

Drugs aren’t just a Black South African thing. Whites have meth. African Americans have crack. Asians have opium in its various forms. Suburban housewives have wine. Mexicans and Russians have krokodil, which rots off your genitals:

Public authorities in Mexico shared details of a gruesome case of the flesh-eating drug krokodil, the first to be officially reported in the state of Jalisco.

According to José Sotero Ruiz Hernández, an official with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, a 17-year-old [American tourist] in Puerto Vallarta presented lacerations to her genitals that she said were caused by her addiction to krokodil.

“The young woman who used this drug had an infection that had rotted her genitals…

The woman told authorities that the drug was readily available on street corners. …

Krokodil is a street drug with effects similar to heroin that is made by cooking crushed codeine pills with household chemicals. It is significantly cheaper than heroin, and reportedly ten times as potent. However, the impurities in the drug damage vascular tissue, which causes the flesh to rot.

Repeat after me: don’t inject random crap into your genitals. Nor anywhere else on your body.

Meanwhile in America, librarians are learning how to save the lives of overdosed meth and other opioid addicts:

Long viewed as guardians of safe spaces for children, library staff members like Kowalski have begun taking on the role of first responder in drug overdoses. In at least three major cities — Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco — library employees now know, or are set to learn, how to use the drug naloxone, usually known by its brand name Narcan, to help reverse overdoses.

Their training tracks with the disastrous national rise in opioid use and an apparent uptick of overdoses in libraries, which often serve as daytime havens for homeless people and hubs of services in impoverished communities.

In the past two years, libraries in Denver, San Francisco, suburban Chicago and Reading, Pennsylvania have become the site of fatal overdoses. …

“[Kowalkski’s] not a paramedic,” the guard, Sterling Davis, said later. “She’s just a teen-adult librarian — and saved six people since April. That’s a lot for a librarian.”

I… I need a minute. These articles are kind of heavy. The Portland library, too.

I don’t think librarians should have that responsibility. Like suicide, I’m not sure that trying to stop people from dying when they themselves so clearly don’t care is not necessarily good for them or society.

On the other hand, I have a good friend who did nearly die of alcohol addiction on numerous occasions and is now sober and glad to be alive. People don’t start using drugs because they want to die.

Ironically, most people get into drugs socially–they get a joint from a friend or start drinking at a party–but addiction and death separate you from everyone else and are, ultimately, dealt with alone.

Let’s talk about religion.

One of the features of religion is it generally discourages wireheading in favor of investing in long-term reproduction and growth. Utilitarians might come to the conclusion that wireheading is good, but religions–especially conservative religions–almost universally condemn it:

“Thou shalt not wirehead.”

We can include here not just drugs, but other forms of instant gratification. Promiscuous sex, wasteful status signaling, laziness, etc., are all discouraged by most religions. A great deal indeed has been written on the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth; and a bit less on their less famous cousins, the Seven Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity. All of these sins fritter away wealth, time, health, or the well-being of others, while the virtues emphasize the benefits of delayed gratification.

In a normal social system, people often feel pressured to imitate others in wasteful or harmful ways, such as by drinking excessively at parties because “everyone else is doing it,” having unprotected sex that leads to unwanted pregnancy or disease because “men won’t date you if you won’t put out,” or spending money they really ought to be saving in order to signal social status, otherwise “people will look down on you.”

Religions provide an alternative social system which solves the collective action problem by top-down dictating that everyone has to stop wireheading or otherwise being wasteful because “God says so.” The religious system allows people to signal “I am a devout person,” sidestepping the normal signaling process. Thus, instead of feeling like “I am a socially awkward weirdo because I don’t get drunk at parties,” people feel “I am good and virtuous because I don’t get drunk at parties,” (and other religious people will see the teetotaller in the same positive light.)

So religious groups feature quite prominently in anti-drug therapy groups (Alcoholics Anonymous, most famously.) Seventh Day Adventists enjoy some of the world’s longest life expectancies because of their religion’s emphasis on “clean living,” (probably most attributable to not smoking, possibly also the vegetarianism.) Islam forbids alcohol; Judaism and Christianity generally encourage people to drink responsibly. When you control for national SES, religious people are healthier overall than non-religious ones.

Religions also encourage people to be thrifty and hard-working, putting their efforts into having more children rather than drugs or fancy cars. Religious people tend to have high fertility rates–the humble Amish are growing at a tremendous rate, having nearly doubled their population in the past two decades–and have been doing so for most of the past century. The Amish are the meek and they shall inherit the Earth, or at least our part of it. (Similarly, Israel is the only developed country in the world with a fertility rate above replacement.)

A sudden religious change can help overturn otherwise sticky, horrific traditions, like cannibalism, human sacrifice, and revenge killing, by suddenly supplanting the old social system whose internal logic demanded the continuance of the old ways. For example, in many areas of Australia/Melanesia, any time anyone died an accidental death, some other person was accused of having used witchcraft to murder them and summarily executed by the tribe. Christianity did away with these revenge killings by simultaneously teaching that witchcraft isn’t real and that murderers should be forgiven.

Religion also helps people cooperate in Prisoner’s Dilemma type situations–“Why should I trust you?” “Because God will send me to Hell and I’ll burn for eternity if I betray your trust.” “Oh, okay then.”

If you signal belief in God strongly enough, then you signal also your trustworthiness. I don’t think it’s just coincidence that Medieval and early modern trade/finance networks depended heavily on groups that all shared the same religion. Religious Judaism, in particular, has some very heavy, costly signaling, from the inconvenient food laws to the easy to spot hats to the burden of running divorce law through both secular and religious authorities. One potential explanation for why people would go to so much bother is to signal their sincerity, piety, and thus trustworthiness to potential business partners who otherwise know little about them.

In times and places places where a much larger percent of the population shared the same religion, this kind of trust, aiding in cooperation with people outside of one’s family or local tribe, probably helped spawn the large, high-trust, organized societies those of us in the developed world enjoy today.

A big difference between conservative religions and progressive religions is the progressive ones tend to say, “Hey, what if God is okay with wireheading?”

The command against wireheading doesn’t always make sense on its surface. What is so bad about smoking pot, especially if I do so in the privacy of my own home? Yet the long-term effects of wireheading tend to be bad–very bad. God (or GNON) favors trust, humility, hard work, and putting your efforts into children, not wires.

Anthropology Friday: Appalachia, pt 2/4

Gutierrez map of 1562 showing Appalachia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today were are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913.

Physical appearance:

“Spartan diet does not put on flesh. Still, it should be noted that long legs, baggy clothing, and scantiness or lack of underwear make people seem thinner than they really are. Our highlanders are conspicuously a tall race. Out of seventy-six men that I have listed just as they occurred to me, but four are below average American height and only two are fat. About two-thirds of them are brawny or sinewy fellows of great endurance. The others generally are slab-sided, stoop-shouldered, but withey. The townsfolk and the valley farmers, being better nourished and more observant of the prime laws of wholesome living, are noticeably superior in appearance but not in stamina.”

EvX: I cannot help but think we have lost something of healthy stamina.

“There is a wealthy man known to everyone around Waynesville, who, being asked where he resided, as a witness in court, answered: “Three, four miles up and down Jonathan Creek.” The judge was about to fine him for contempt, when it developed that the witness spoke literal truth. He lives neither in house nor camp, but perambulates his large estate and when night comes lies down wherever he may happen to be. In winter he has been known to go where some of his pigs bedded in the woods, usurp the middle for himself, and borrow comfort from their bodily heat.”

EvX: I do not now about you, but I feel a kind of kinship with this man. Often I feel a restlessness, a sense that I am trapped by the walls of my house. It is not a dissatisfaction with the people in my house–toward them I feel no restlessness at all–but the house itself.

I am at peace again when I find myself in the woods, the trees towering over me; I am at peace in the snow, drifting through a blizzard. I am at peace in a fog, the world shut out by a faded haze. In the distance I see the mountains, and though I am walking to the playground or the shops they tug at me, and I am always tempted to turn my feet and just keep going until I arrive.

I do not want a large or fancy house; I just want to live in the woods among the plants and people I love.

But back to the man in the woods in the court:

“This man is worth over a hundred thousand dollars. He visited the world’s fairs at Chicago and St. Louis, wearing the old long coat that serves him also as blanket, and carrying his rations in a sack. Far from being demented, he is notoriously so shrewd on the stand and so learned in the law that he is formidable to every attorney who cross-questions him.”

Religion:

“The first settlers of Appalachia mainly were Presbyterians, as became Scotch-Irishmen, but they fell away from that faith, partly because the wilderness was too poor to support a regular ministry, and partly because it was too democratic for Calvinism with its supreme authority of the clergy. This much of seventeenth century Calvinism the mountaineer retains: a passion for hair-splitting argument over points of doctrine, and the cocksure intolerance of John Knox; but the ancestral creed itself has been forgotten.

“The circuit-rider, whether Methodist or Baptist, found here a field ripe for his harvest. Being himself self-supporting and unassuming, he won easily the confidence of the people. He preached a highly emotional religion that worked his audience into the ecstasy that all primitive people love. And he introduced a mighty agent of evangelization among outdoor folk when he started the camp-meeting.

“The season for camp-meetings is from mid-August to October. The festival may last a week in one place. It is a jubilee-week to the work-worn and home-chained women, their only diversion from a year of unspeakably monotonous toil. And for the young folks, it is their theater, their circus, their county fair. (I say this with no disrespect: “big-meetin’ time” is a gala week, if there be any such thing at all in the mountains—its attractiveness is full as much secular as spiritual to the great body of the people.)”

EvX: Vacation Bible Camp is still a thing, of course.

“It is a camp by day only, or up to closing time. No mountaineer owns a tent. Preachers  and exhorters are housed nearby, and visitors from all the country scatter about with their friends, or sleep in the open, cooking their meals by the wayside.

“In these backwoods revival meetings we can witness to-day the weird phenomena of ungovernable shouting, ecstasy, bodily contortions, trance, catalepsy, and other results of hypnotic suggestion and the contagious one-mindedness of an overwrought crowd. This is called “taking a big through,” and is regarded as the madness of supernatural joy. It is a mild form of that extraordinary frenzy which swept the Kentucky settlements in 1800, when thousands of men and women at the camp-meetings fell victims to “the jerks,” “barking exercises,” erotic vagaries, physical wreckage, or insanity, to which the frenzy led.

Christian snake handlers

“Many mountaineers are easily carried away by new doctrines extravagantly presented. Religious mania is taken for inspiration by the superstitious who are looking for “signs and wonders.” At one time Mormon prophets lured women from the backwoods of western Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Later there was a similar exodus of people to the Castellites, a sect of whom it was commonly remarked that “everybody who joins the Castellites goes crazy.” In our day the same may be said of the Holy Rollers and Holiness People.”

EvX: Wikipedia appears to have nothing on the Castellites, but Wiktionary says they were a religious group in North Carolina in the late 19th century.

Language:

“An editor who had made one or two short trips into the mountains once wrote me that he thought the average mountaineer’s vocabulary did not exceed three hundred words. This may be a natural inference if one spends but a few weeks among these people and sees them only under the prosaic conditions of workaday life. But gain their intimacy and you shall find that even the illiterates among them have a range of expression that is truly remarkable. I have myself taken down from the lips of Carolina mountaineers some eight hundred dialectical or obsolete words, to say nothing of the much greater number of standard English terms that they command. …

“Our highlander often speaks in Elizabethan or Chaucerian or even pre-Chaucerian terms. His pronoun hit antedates English itself, being the Anglo-Saxon neuter of he. Ey God, a favorite expletive, is the original of egad, and goes back of Chaucer. Ax for ask and kag for keg were the primitive and legitimate forms, which we trace as far as the time of Layamon. When the mountain boy challenges his mate: “I dar ye—I ain’t afeared!” his verb and participle are of the same ancient and sterling rank. Afore, atwixt, awar, heap o’ folks, peart, up and done it, usen for used, all these everyday expressions of the backwoods were contemporary with the Canterbury Tales.

“A man said to me of three of our acquaintances: “There’s been a fray on the river—I don’t know how the fraction begun, but Os feathered into Dan and Phil, feedin’ them lead.” He meant fray in its original sense of deadly combat, as was fitting where two men were killed. Fraction for rupture is an archaic word, rare in literature, though we find it in Troilus and Cressida. “Feathered into them!” Where else can we hear to-day a phrase that passed out of standard English when “villainous saltpetre” supplanted the long-bow? It means to bury an arrow up to the feather, as when the old chronicler Harrison says, “An other arrow should haue beene fethered in his bowels.”

Social Organization (or lack thereof):

“Bear in mind that in the mountains every person is accorded the consideration that his own qualities entitle him to, and no whit more. It has always been so. Our Highlanders have neither memory nor tradition of ever having been herded together, lorded over, persecuted or denied the privileges of free-men. So, even within their clans, there is no servility nor any headship by right of birth. Leaders arise, when needed, only by virtue of acknowledged ability and efficiency. In this respect there is no analogy whatever to the clan system of ancient Scotland, to which the loose social structure of our own highlanders has been compared.

“We might expect such fiery individualism to cool gradually as population grew denser; but, oddly enough, crowding only intensifies it in the shy backwoodsman. Neighborliness has not grown in the mountains—it is on the wane. There are to-day fewer log-rollings and house-raisings, fewer husking bees and quilting parties than in former times; and no new social gatherings have taken their place. Our mountain farmer, seeing all arable land taken up, and the free range ever narrowing, has grown jealous and distrustful, resenting the encroachment of too many sharers in what once he felt was his own unfenced domain. And so it has come about that the very quality that is his strength and charm as a man—his staunch individualism—is proving his weakness and reproach as a neighbor and citizen. The virtue of a time out-worn has become the vice of an age new-born.

The mountaineers are non-social. As they stand to-day, each man “fighting for his own hand, with his back against the wall,” they recognize no social compact. Each one is suspicious of the other. Except as kinsmen or partisans they cannot pull together. Speak to them of community of interests, try to show them the advantages of co-operation, and you might as well be proffering advice to the North Star. They will not work together zealously even to improve their neighborhood roads, each mistrusting that the other may gain some trifling advantage over himself or turn fewer shovelfuls of earth. Labor chiefs fail to organize unions or granges among them because they simply will not stick together.”