Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why did the Middle East select for monotheism?

A variation on the Whig interpretation of history that still has surprising sway is of human religious history as having a “natural” progression from animism through polytheism to monotheism. It has led to such nonsense as the psychotic tyrant Akhenaton being written up positively solely because he was monotheist (or, at least practised monolatry: Kerry Greenwood’s Out of the Black Land provides a revealing fictional treatment). This animism-polytheism-monotheism “progression” is an interpretation that has nothing to recommend it, apart from monotheist self-satisfaction.

If one doubts that polytheism is perfectly compatible with highly sophisticated societies, I refer you to classical Rome and Greece; to India, China and Japan. If you doubt it is perfectly compatible with thoroughly modern societies, I refer you to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. If you think monotheism is necessary for a highly compassionate morality, I refer you to Jainism and Buddhism.

Not only does the animism-to-polytheism-to-monotheism progression fail as a moral and intellectual claim, it fails as history in the quite basic sense that monotheism is purely a product of the Middle East. It spread from there around the globe (indeed, it is still doing so), but it evolved nowhere else.

The Middle East itself produced not one but several forms of monotheism: the proto-monotheism of Zoroastrianism; the monolatry-turned-monotheism of Judaism; the universalising monotheism of Christianity; the universal dominion monotheism of Islam; plus various offshoots of the above. Monotheism in its various forms now thoroughly dominates the religious landscape of the Middle East. So, what is it about the Middle East that it has repeatedly selected for monotheism?

Social geography
When looking to a recurring pattern in a particular region, it is a good idea to start with social geography; the patterns of interactions of people with the terrain.

By the time monotheism first arose, the enduring patterns of Middle Eastern social geography were already in place. River-valley civilisations dominated by major urban centres interacted with herding pastoralists living in the surrounding deserts, mountains, plateaus and plains. Their interactions were those of trade, raid and conquest: interspersed with retaliation and protection payoffs. The fear of the settled (and thus vulnerable) farmers had for the mobile (and thus dangerous) pastoralists is well expressed in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.

The great conquering peoples of the Middle East after the demise of the last Mesopotamia-originating empire (also subject of a famous Biblical story)—the Iranians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols—were all pastoralist peoples. Pastoralist conquest became so much a pattern of the region that Abd-ar-Rahman Abu Zayd ibn Muhammed ibn Muhammed ibn Khaldun, statesman, jurist, historian and scholar, in his The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, written in 779 AH (1377 AD), famously developed his cycles of history based on it.

His analysis is that rule is based on the rise of group feeling (asabiyyah) that leads to rulership over others (pp 107-8). Having conquered urban lands, the ruling group becomes distracted by the luxuries available that weakens group-feeling and courage. This proceeds until it is swallowed up by other nations or dynasties (p.109).

Ibn Khaldun’s theory is based on internal dynamics and external response. Expenses grow (p.134), the ruling group become complacent and lose their edge (p.135), rulers become more isolated seeking people directly beholden to them (p.137) leading finally to dynastic senility and wastefulness, making them ripe for eventual replacement (p.142). Decay in authority usually starts at the edges of the dynasty’s territory (p.250). He repeats the theory in different words at various places (e.g. p.246ff), usually providing historical examples of the various processes. Russian demographer Peter Turchin has developed the theory further.

A review essay on a book on tribalism in the Middle East puts ibn Khaldun's model well:
… outlying tribes tied together by traditional kinship solidarities conquer, settle, and rule a state. In time kinship loyalties loosen, the rulers urbanize and grow effete, their state loses control over distant tribes, and the cycle begins again.
Precisely because herding life is mobile, kinship and lineage provide protective and support services. This provides a strong, but constrained, source of social solidarity. As the Arab proverb goes “me against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, my brother and cousin against the stranger”.

What began as a response to the demands of pastoralism can also deal with other sources of social insecurity. In the words of an enlightening review essay on Pakistan:
At the heart of Lieven’s account of Pakistan is kinship, pervasive networks of clans and biradiris (groups of extended kin) that he identifies as “the most important force in society,” usually far stronger than any competing religious, ethnic, or political cause. Several millennia of invasions, occupations, colonizations, and rule by self-interested states resulted in a “collective solidarity for interest and defense” based on kinship becoming paramount in the area that is Pakistan.

Monotheism’s advantages
The aforementioned great conquering pastoralist peoples—Iranians, Arab, Turks and Mongols—were all, with the exception of the Mongols (who came from furthest away and were profoundly affected by the long history of interaction with China), in their conquering phase, monotheist. Monotheism offers a motivating identity and framework of expectations able to operate across lineages. The common identity of believer is, in the right circumstances, able to unite people across otherwise competing lineages—Muhammad’s success in being the first person to unify most of Arabia is a striking example of this.

The common identity of believer can also unite across the pastoralist-farmer divide and do so in a way which gives an identity to cling to in adversity: both clearly important in early Hebrew history. Given that the pastoralist-farmer barrier in the Middle East can be particularly porous, depending on circumstances, an identity that can be persisted with across it has clear selection advantages.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer or at Critical Thinking Applied]

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