The economic benefits of heresy

This seems to have been written as a talk. Maybe it was a sermon I gave. I can’t remember; but it’s an idea I worked on for at least a decade, starting when I was trying to analyse everything from an evolutionary perspective, to see when that worked and didn’t. I still think it works here.

In situations where limited resources are being struggled over, it is often advantageous to belong to a team or coalition. Sometimes, team membership becomes more or less essential: consider access to modern healthcare, which is almost entirely supplied by team membership, whether the teams involved are American corporations or European nation states, or even private insurance schemes.

Religious belief is an aspect of team, or tribal or ethnic identity in almost all societies anyone has ever studied outside modern Northern Europe. So it clearly plays a role in inter-group conflicts, and so, ultimately, in the allocation of resource and status. In the light of this, I want to examine two phenomena: the spread of missionary, monotheistic religions, especially the way in which Christianity supplanted the more sophisticated and psychologically realistic paganisms of the Roman Empire; and sudden outbursts of popular interests in theology once Christianity had so triumphed.

I am not offering a general theory of religious belief or even of the function of religion in human societies. Religions serve many functions; and spread many different beliefs. The piety of a Buddhist monk does not closely resemble that of a modern Taliban guerrilla, while even within contemporary religions the modern African nun has few interests in common with the Archbishop who keeps her in his harem.

However, it still seems legitimate to ask why theology has, from time to time in human history, raised hugely violent passions far outside the restricted circles of intellectual life.
It is a commonplace that one of the advantages of Christianity as it has spread across the ancient world is that it appealed to outcasts: slaves and women, especially. I want to make this argument more precise by showing that it increased both their access to resources, and — just as important — their status within a group. The significance of Christianity in this context was that it provided a team, or tribe, or coalition, which almost anyone could join. “In xt there is neither Greek nor Jew; slave nor free, etc”, and while this was not strictly speaking true there was certainly a lot less of slave or woman involved in being an early Christian than an early pagan. The coalitions which form the traditional bases of human society are pretty much involuntary and based on birth. This may not matter in a rural or peasant setting where the family or village is the basic unit of production, so there is no advantage to changing.

In an urban situation, though, where the family is no longer the prime economic unit, monotheistic religions with clear boundary conditions provide a way for people to join new coalitions more suitable to the conditions than the ones they are born with. It is undisputed that Christianity spread in the Mediterranean world among those people who had least status in the existing coalitions, especially women and slaves.

This is not a general theory of the spread of Christianity. But I am not trying to come up with a general theory. The pattern outside the Roman Empire, for example, was entirely different. In some cases monotheistic religions spread along existing coalitional lines, without disrupting or dissolving existing social structures; but in those cases, they are adopted by elites , for perfectly comprehensible geopolitical reasons, and then enforced on subject peoples.

In this model, conversion – joining a new religious coalition or tribe – offers two kinds of advantage independent of the truth of the theology espoused. The first is that you may become a member because it conveys a higher status within the group than outside it. This need not convey any actual, material advantages, though there are recurrent features of Christianity very suited to outcasts who can be content with raised inner status – the whole apocalyptic tradition. But it is also possible, once the coalition or tribe is established that you will stay, and your children will stay, if there are more tangible advantages to being a member of the new religion.

I don’t think that religious beliefs need be held for individual advantage, either consciously or unconsciously. It is easy to think of cases where this is quite untrue, and where religious passions have done much to cause pain to their bearers, by all sorts of martyrdom short of death. But these are individual cases, and I do think it is fair to argue that religions, however they may arise, do not persist as mass movements without offering most of their followers most of the time, the best deal available on this earth.

Monotheistic Religions which have clear boundaries provide a means of team building across traditional boundaries which are not available to “pagan”, syncretic or polytheistic religions. In a traditional society, the most important thing about you is where you are born and into which networks. You’re not going to get away from those. But the monotheistic and proseletysing religions push away from that. [“Who is your mother and father?” asked Jesus. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek].

So they will spread in troubled polytheistic societies because they offer new coalitions to belong to – and these are not purely contractual, like market relationships which can at any time be revoked when a more attractive opportunity presents itself.

But what happens once the whole of a society has converted to monotheism? How can new coalitions and constellations of loyalty arise? This is where heresy comes in.
One of the minor puzzles of history is why there are sudden outbreaks of popular enthusiasm for theology. The classic example is found in Byzantium, under the early Christian emperors, when mobs rampaged through the streets, united by trinitarian slogans.

Traditionally, for example the interest of the Byzantines in trinitarian disputes — theological riots etc — has been put down to the subtleties of the Greek language or temperament. Now, I just don’t believe this. Fifteenth and Sixteenth century England was convulsed by quite similar disputes without their being any particular theological virtue to the English language or temperament. German, a language eminently well suited to metaphysics, has not in fact seen that kind of widespread popular theological enthusiasm — and whatever else the 30 years war may have been, it was not an outburst of popular interest in theology.

Another explanation is that people are crazy: why argue over the number of persons in the Trinity, or their exact relations to one another, when the answer is completely unknowable and impossible to decide from any imaginable evidence. But this explanation, or objection, needs to be turned on its head. It is precisely because theological questions have no earthly answers, or use, that they are so valuable as things to argue about when times are hard. They are pure contests of rhetoric and political skill. Theological argument supplies the hot air necessary for a balloon debate to take place and the purpose of such a debate is to expel the losers.

In situations where limited resources are being struggled over, it is almost always advantageous to belong to a team. So you would expect an interest in divisive religious questions to rise at times of economic uncertainty or heightened competition for resources. If there is not enough land in Bosnia for all the peasants, there is almost certainly enough for all the Serbs, the Catholics, or the Muslims.

Widespread popular interest in theology is correlated with competition for resources precisely because it leads to disputes and schisms. It follows that it is a form of gambling to be interested in these things: you are going to multiply your losses and your profits. But perhaps that’s the only choice. If there is to be a religious war, then one side will end up much worse off. That alone shows that a sizeable minority, at least, of the participants, are not activated by any very obvious kind of self-interest. But once one party, team, or sect has started to lay claim to particular resources, the only way for outsides to cope is either to join the winning team, or to form one of their own.

I think the idea of pure fundamentalists overthrowing corrupt elites is a special case of this, in the sense that a corrupt elite may be considered to be robbing the (poor, honest) masses of resources rightfully theirs.

This ties in with Scott Atran’s theory that it is the meaninglessness of theological statements that makes them useful indicators of sincerity. Someone who dies defending their family is less to be feared – because more rational – than someone who allows herself to be burned at the stake to defend the supremacy of the papacy.

This is a very compressed form of the argument, but I think it more or less stands up to explain what wants explaining, which is why, sometimes, whole societies understand their differences as theological ones, when at other times they don’t at all. The questions don’t change, after all.

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2 Responses to The economic benefits of heresy

  1. Chris Eilers says:

    On the face of it, your theory in regard to one of the dimensions of religious belief sounds to me to have a lot going for it. But then I know little or nothing about, for example, the outbreaks of theological enthusiasm you refer to, and — naturally enough — these would need to be fleshed out in a less compressed version of your argument.

    BTW, “suite” should be “suited” and there needs to be a full stop after “human societies”.

  2. acb says:

    Thanks. I have fixed the typos you noted. I agree the argument needs fleshing out with much more detailed examples but I don’t know who’d pay me to do that properly.

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