I guess it is unlikely you have not already heard about the big brouhaha that erupted when Bill Donohue targeted PZ Myers for showing disrespect towards a belief that made some religious nuts go crazy and violent against a child (yes, Eucharist is just a cracker, sorry, but that is just a factual statement about the world). If not, the entire story, and it is still evolving, can be found on PZ’s blog so check out the numerous comments here, here,
here, here, here, here and here.
Also see what Greg Laden and Tristero say. [Update: see also John Wilkins and Mike Dunford for some good clear thinking on the issue.]
Of course, since it is Bill Donohue, everyone’s favorite douche-bag, I went to see what is said on the blogs of my other two friends who, quite recently, had to survive the army of ogres that Donohue can send to make good people’s lives miserable – Melissa and Amanda.
On Shakesville, Jeff Fecke wrote about it.
On Pandagon, it is Jesse Taylor (yes, he is back there on his old blog) who wrote about this today (as Amanda is in a middle of a move and offline).
Both posts also triggered an interesting round of comments.
So, go and check out all those links, spend several hours immersed in this topic, and you’ll both learn a lot and get really, really angry (at whom? That’s your choice).
But while I was at Pandagon I also saw that Amanda started reading (and blogging about) Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” (I never wrote a real book review of it, but most of what I intended to say found its way into some posts of mine, e.g., here, here, here and here). The initial post triggered an interesting discussion in the comments, so Amanda added some clarifications which triggered another round of interesting comments.
The main question in both of those Pandagon thread is how to define religion. The focus is on what people believe, thus there is a lot of parsing the words going on, trying to define “God”. “personal god”, “supernatural”, etc. This is important as the second recurring question in those threads is if Stalinism/Maoism is a religion or not.
If you have been reading my blog for a very looooong time, back at the time when I used to write about religion (and politics) much more often, you may recall that I think of religion in somewhat different terms. I think that the main reason religions evolved is to ensure group cohesion. In other words, I think that the social aspect of religion is the most important one and that other aspects – beliefs, canonical works, behavioral rules, priestly hierarchy, ceremonies, etc. – are additions that in some way help ensure the group cohesion. This is why I was really mad at both Dawkins and Dennet for their outright dismissal and refusal to even consider the group-selectionist ideas of David Sloan Wilson whose book, Darwin’s Cathedral, although thin on data, is in my mind the best-laid-out hypothesis and the most promising avenue for future research on the evolution of religion. For the same reason, I think that Dawkins’ and Dennett’s infatuation with memes is misplaced and that the memetics will be pretty useless in this endeavor (or in any endeavor for that matter – it is an immature photocopy of sociology and linguistics with new terminology).
What does it really mean “group cohesion”? In the olden days, this was a feeling of belonging and loyalty to one’s own tribe – obviously maladapted to the modern world of multicultural societies, global economy, fast travel, instant communication and overpopulation. The inevitable result of group cohesion is the division of the world into an in-group and out-group. Members of the in-group are friends to be defended, while the members of the out-group, barely human, are to be detested and, when possible, killed.
For the group cohesion to work, one HAS to, by definition, feel that one’s group is superior to all other groups. This sense of superiority is enhanced by the additional “attachments” that may differ between different religious traditions, e.g., the belief in an inerrancy of the leader who gets orders directly from the group’s omnipotent god(s), various trance-inducing chants and dances, behavioral rules, sacred books, etc. All of these also promote internal policing by the group – those of “weak faith” are detected and punished mainly by other members, not necessarily by any kind of official armed forces, though some groups may use the latter as well.
In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is further enhanced by the sense of insecurity as “the other” is portrayed as much more dangerous than reality warrants – this persecution complex is a great way to ensure that all group-members “stick together” and severely punish the members who question the wisdom of the leaders, beliefs and behaviors.
In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is also enhanced by adding another layer of personal sense of insecurity – the strict sexual norms render both men and women insecure: the men do the macho man-bonding stuff in order to keep each other courageous (those who survive wars will get to breed in the end, after all), while women try to find security by exchanging sex for protection with powerful men.
To go back to the question of Stalinism/Maoism as a religion, if one looks at the religion as group coherence mechanism detached from what people believe, then the answer is Yes – those were religions (and so is being a Republican, for what that matters). But I will try to support this statement with the example I know best – that of Yugoslavia:
Yugoslavia is a good case study because, unlike in any other ex-communist country, religion was never banned: churches were open, had regular services, the Seminary had students, etc. Thus, the argument that people in communist countries did not go to church because it was a crime goes out of the window. In Yugoslavia, they did not go to church anyway although they could, it was not a crime, and nobody could say anything about it to them. Sure, you could go to services and see a handful of very old people there, but most of the population just had no need to do so.
Laughing at religion (by the state and in schools) quickly led to the new generations (after WWII) to grow as atheists. People visited each other for Christmas or their family’s Saint’s Day mainly to meet and eat: there was not much in terms of religion at those events at people’s homes. My father, an atheist, went to church on Sundays to sing in the choir because he loved the music and loved to sing (I went with him a couple of time and sang myself).
So, if people were generally not believing in sky-fairies, what happened to the evolved human need for group cohesion? Oh, it was there all right! We had a huge sense of national superiority – we really believed that Yugoslavia was the best country in the world evah! And that Tito was the bestest, nicest, smartest President of any country in history evah! We had our ceremonies (especially Tito’s birthday: a multi-week relay-race similar to the carrying of the Olympic torch culminating with a gymnastics event at which the baton was given to Tito himself). There was Tito’s picture in every classroom. In school we had competitions who knows more about Tito’s (official) biography, similar to science and math competitions.
All the trappings of religion were there: insecurity (squeezed between the Big Bad USSR in the east and the Big Bad USA in the west), leader-worship, sacraments, holy places (Tito’s birth-home in Kumrovac), holy books (his biography, as well as Das Kapitaal), the superiority complex – the works. While Tito-worship was absent from my home (my Dad was a loud and angry Tito-basher and cusser), it took leaving the country and reading up on stuff before I shed some of the Yugoslavia-is-the-best ideas myself.
How did that all happen, and so fast? During the first decade or so after the WWII, Tito was a typical dictator, ruling with Iron Fist, destroying the political opposition, etc. But later, he switched to a different tactic: he did everything in his power to get people to love him, not fear him. Unlike people like Causescu or Stalin (or his successor Milosevic, universally reviled at home), he did not need a powerful security force any more, or spies infiltrating the populace. He gave us an illusion of freedom – while one could not start a new political party or write anti-Tito screeds in the newspapers, it was perfectly safe to cuss him out in a bar – see, you are free to criticize the Leader!
He was good at manipulating the international community as well – by refusing to align himself with either the East or the West, he got both to fawn over him. By founding the Non-aligned movement, he got friendship of the other 150 or so world leaders of smaller nations. Loans and business deals were coming in truck-loads. The economy grew at the 2nd fastest rate (after Japan) for a while. Almost everyone had a decent place to live, a decent job, a decent car, decent modern clothes and other stuff. Dinar was exchanged in all banks around the world (just try exchanging zlota or roubles at the time!). Everyone could easily get a passport and travel anywhere in the world (it was a highly valued passport as it could take you from Moscow to Washington and back without the customs officials on either side giving you a second degree). Everyone went to Greece or Italy or Cyprus for summer vacations. To England to study the language. To Austria, Germany or Sweden to work and send money home. One could build a factory and employ up to 50 people and participate in a market economy of sorts.
Why bother politically organizing against him when the life is so good? Why bother politically organizing against him when you cannot get enough supporters for your cause anyway as everyone loves the guy?
The feeling of Yugoslav supremacy also kept nationalism in check. While in 1948 one could expect to end up in jail for singing a nationalist song, later on, it was just un-PC: you would get jumped on by the people around you for being such a backwards schmuck. This worked especially well in the bigger cities as you could not know what the nationalities of people around you were.
Also, the education that combined promotion of Yugoslav supremacy, “brotherhood and unity”, “imagine there’s no countries”, multiculturalism, europeanism, internationalism, atheism and yes, science, resulted in new generations of people (including myself) completely identifying with Yugoslavia. The words “Serbia”, “Croatia”, “Bosnia”, etc. had no emotional meaning to us – those were just place-names for some administrative sub-divisions of the country. We were born into the Yugoslav religion. No need for God or church when we had Tito and the Party.
In rural places, where it is likely that all people were of the same ethnicity, nationalism could survive under the surface. Due to weaker education, some level of religiosity (as in “God belief”, not just group cohesion) could survive as well.
Then Tito died in 1980. The inerrant leader was gone. What he left behind was a governing system designed to prevent a rise of another dictator – an eight-member collective Presidency that had to rule by consensus. The eight idiots on the Presidency could not agree on anything, so nothing ever got done.
Gdansk happened in 1980 as well. Reagan got elected in 1980 as well, with his Red Scare rhetoric. Europe was in the incipient and very painful stages of unification. Brezhnev, Tchernenko and Andropov died one after another and then this new guy, Gorbachov, came in with some weird new ideas. Everyone was nervous – the world was starting to lose stability it had for decades.
And there was no Tito with his charisma to go around the world making friends for us. The World Bank started asking for some repayment of the old debts. As a result, the economy started sinking. With the economy sinking, with no Tito, with no obvious love coming from other countries (and some critical words as well), the feeling of Yugoslav superiority crumbled. Insecurity breeds a need for belonging to a group, yet the main group everyone belonged to was getting weaker by the day. What to do, where to go? To church, of course. Suddenly, the churches were over-flowing with young people!
Yet, those young people were atheists in the sense they did not believe in God or Bible or miracles or any of that supernatural stuff. They did not go to church to find God, they went for the sense of community and security. The churches knew that and, instead of pushing God too strongly (thus alienating all those new kids), they emphasized community. But, here’s a catch – that community was also the ethnic community.
The churches of different kinds were not evenly distributed geographically. Suddenly, it was not Catholic Church, but Croatian Catholic Church, not Orthodox, but Serbian Orthodox, not a mosque, but a Bosnian Church. What the churches did was teach young kids nationalism: local group superiority defines others as dangerous and sub-human. Brotherhood and unity were gone. The nationalist political parties led by would-be dictators (e.g., Milosevic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic) caught on quickly and started supporting the churches. This unholy alliance first took root in the most fertile soil – in the rural areas.
The things remained relatively stable for a little while for several reasons. First, the USA promised not to recognize independence of the parts, fearing that this would lead to a violent break-down of the USSR – James Baker III personally came to Belgrade to say so. Second, the sense of Yugoslavism was still strong in the cities, especially in 1989 and 1990 with great economic reforms by then Prime Minister Ante Markovic. In the year of 1990, after a decade of economic woes, everyone was rich and optimistic, people were starting thousands of new businesses every week.
Then, several things happened. USSR broke down – the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania broke out and – nothing happened. Other Eastern European countries kicked out their communist leaders (most violently in Romania) and – nothing happened.
The nationalist leaders in different Republics were not happy with the resurgent Yugoslavism. They managed to get elected a year or two before, but now felt they were losing ground. What they did was make Federal money hostage in some way. The money that the Federal government had to send to, for instance, to farmers in exchange for corn, had to go through the Republics, not directly to farmers. The Republics were supposed to manage that money and to give farmers the Federally determined price for their corn. But Milosevic and Co. lied to farmers, saying that the Federal Government did not send money, or did not send it in time, or not enough so the price is lower, etc., thus doing two things at the same time: giving the Federal Government a bad name AND hoarding all that money that could be made useful for other things, e.g., fixing elections, building the military and security, propaganda, etc.
Then the two Germanies unified. Suddenly, the German government was facing a hugely expensive project of building the East Germany from the ground up, modernizing it, re-educating and employing people, etc. They needed a fresh source of income for such a huge project. This was promised by the nationalist parties of Slovenia and Croatia. The Yugoslav law did not allow a foreign company to own 50% of a Yugoslav company. The new nationalists promised Germany that they would change that. Once that agreement was made, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence and, sure enough, immediately changed those laws. Germany officially recognized their independence immediately. German firms came in and bought 51% of every valuable corporation there, using the local cheap labor to make profits they could take home and use to start businesses in East Germany. As the EU was being built at the time, Germany got several other countries to also formalize the recognition of independence in exchange for some other secessions by Germany towards unifying Europe. The USA (Bush Sr.) had no choice, really, but to also officially recognize Slovenia and Croatia some months later.
The rest is history – a series of wars which can best be described as wars between City and Country, with peasants of one ethnicity attacking the cities of the other (or each other). The politics within the Republics was divided along the same lines as well: nationalist parties were strong in villages, modern democratic parties in the cities.
As the administrative borders between Republics were not ethnically clean, and the West insisted on the ‘principle of non-violation of the borders’ (except in the case of Yugoslavia itself, and later Kosovo, when the opposing ‘principle of national self-determination’ was used), people of one ethnic group that suddenly found themselves within the borders of a country dominated by the other ethnic group felt insecure and wanted to change borders in a way that would unify them all. But the geographic mix of ethnicities made that impossible. Some people moved on their own, some went abroad, others were “ethnically cleansed”, some were killed, and others had to suffer the indignity of being legally second-rate citizens in wildly nationalistic new countries. In all of these cases, the churches were important players, helping strengthen the national/ethnic identity of the warriors. The horrors of war made many of those warriors (and their victims) truly religious – really, truly believing in God: for emotional solace, I guess.
So, the religion of Yugoslavism was replaced by the religion of local nationalism enhanced by formal insignia of the local churches. As Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Montenegrans and Macedonians cannot distinguish each other by looks, and in many cases even by language/accent, they needed visible signs of identity and churches provided those: a Catholic cross, an Orthodox cross and a halfmoon. Nationalism became the group coherence mechanism, i.e., it became a religion.
The only exception to this was the case of Kosovo. Albanians LOOK different. Wear different clothes. Speak a very different language. Many Serbs were straightforwardly racist towards Kosovo Albanians. The Orthodox church helped foster those feelings as well. Albanians there, on the other hand, being the poorest nationality in the region, had their own personal insecurity problems. Yet, they could not use a church to form a group in which they could start feeling superiority – some Kosovo Albanians are Moslem, some are Catholic and some are Orthodox. So, they jumped on the first ship that promised grandiose future in which Albanians will be superior to everyone else – the KLA: a terrorist organization that funded itself through drug and arms smuggling, was trained by Al Qaida, and had the support of Bob Dole (who is Albanian and who could always count on the Albanian diaspora to be his most fervent supporters and voters in all his elections). Thus, Serbs were duped by Milosevic and the church to develop their racism, while Albanians were duped by KLA to support nasty terrorist acts against the local Serbs (until most of the Kosovo Serbs left in fear – the process which a Serbian Orthodox priest called “ethnic cleansing” – the first use of the term, later much loved by Western reporters in Bosnia).
The presence of churches, monasteries and other “sacred places” in Kosovo (Kosovo was originally the only territory of Serbia when it was young and there were just a few Albanians living in the mountains out of sight – it expanded northward to include Belgrade and more over the centuries) became a religion to nationalist Serbs, complete with complex mythology surrounding it – a cause that unified them in their feeling of superiority.
The persecution complex helped unify Albanians under the banner of Greater Albania. In the PR war between the two nasties, the KLA won and got Clinton to bomb the Serbs (thus frustrating the democratic opposition as the bombing solidified Milosevic’s support and delayed his ouster by at least a year). It could have gone the other way round just as easily, as Clinton’s foreign policy team and military leaders were almost as big a bunch of ignorant incompetents as his successor’s, ending as war criminals in my eyes.
So yes, nationalism in Yugoslavia had all the essential forms and goals of a religion. Both the Yugoslavism of the much of the 20th century, and later the more local nationalisms. It had all the trappings of a religion except the belief in God (some did, others did not – did not matter). In fact, when an over-zealous Minister in Serbia wanted to kick evolution out of classrooms, there was such a national outcry that she had to get fired by the Prime Minister within days. Strong science education and predominance of atheism in a country do not immunize a population from religious fervor, including murder in the name of it.
While old religions often used belief in deities and the supernatural as one of the tools that ensures fervent group loyalty, the modern religions, including Stalinism/Nazism/Maoism, cannot reliably use such beliefs – too many people are too modern for this to be an effective mechanism. Thus, 20th century religions often keep God at bay, or at least on the periphery – it is not needed, or it may even clash with the ideological belief system in place. It is not what you believe, but how you believe: with what level of fervor and what level of loyalty.