On the evolution of religion

Consider the following sayings from two prophets of different religions:

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

An honest merchant has a guaranteed place in paradise.

Now if you had to predict, which religion would you suspect would be more compatible with markets and modernity?

The first quote, of course, is from Jesus the second is a saying attributed to Muhammad.

My point is not to argue that Christianity or Islam are either more or less compatible with capitalism or liberal democracy.  In my view all religions of reasonable age and numbers contain traditions and teachings compatible with modernity and all religions of reasonable age and numbers contain traditions and teachings incompatible with modernity.  Call it the completeness theorem.

It’s how religions adapt and evolve to modernity that is important.  Religions are constantly changing, emphasizing certain features, downplaying others, creating new interpretations.  Given enough time, I believe that any religion will evolve towards compatability with modernity because it’s the memes that combine modernity and religion which will survive and prosper. 

The problem is that Christianity has had hundreds of years to adapt itself to modernity while Islam has had modernity thrust upon it.

Fish don’t walk overnight and neither do religions.  Nevertheless there are Islamic leaders who, under the pressure of current events, see the direction in which Islam must move and who are actively encouraging evolution in that direction.  Dan Drezner, for example, points to this article on developments in Morocco:

42-year-old King Mohammed VI has discovered religion as a means of
modernizing his society — and progress through piety seems to be the
order of the day. By granting new rights to women and strengthening
civil liberties, the ruler of this country of 30 million on Africa’s
northern edge, which is 99 percent Muslim, plans to democratize Morocco
through a tolerant interpretation of the Koran.

350-year-old dynasty, the world’s oldest next to the Japanese imperial
dynasty, claims to be directly descended from the prophet Mohammed. And
as "Amir al-Muminin," or leader of the faithful, the country’s ruler
enjoys absolute authority.

The Conseil Supérieur des Oulémas, or
council of religious scholars, which the king installed a year and a
half ago, has been issuing fatwas on the most pressing questions of the
21st century — and, surprisingly, they’ve been well-received by both
young people and hardened Islamists. If the king’s reform plan
succeeds, Morocco could become a model of democratic Islam.

Addendum: For more on Islam, markets and democracy see the Minaret of Freedom Institute.

Comments are open.


This is too much a "Whig" theory of history, in which everything evolves in the right direction over time. What if Christianity in the year 350 was more compatible with an advanced economy and complex society than Christianity in the year 1000? What if Islam in the year 1000 was better suited to modernity than Islam in the year 1900 (or than Christianity in the year 1000)?

Remember the Christian journey to modernity began with the Renaissance and a conscious effort to recover the Greco-Roman past.

I'm sorry. That was Alex's post, not Tyler's. My apologies.

In 1453, the Ottoman Emperor hired Hungarian gun smiths to build for him the largest canons in the world with which to destroy the walls of Constantinople. He succeded in conquering the city. The next year, Guttenberg printed his first Bibles. At the urging of the ulema and the scribal guild, printing was not allowed in Constintople until the 18th century.

The Muslim rejection of modernity (or European ways) is not a new thing but goes back to the era of Muslim dominance. It was easier for them to be rejectionist in the 15th century, they were still winning.

I like Mr. Taleb's point about "something strange ... taking place since the beginning of the 20th Century."

While I don't agree with Alex's idea of religious evolution towards modernity, his completeness theorem, or his view of Islam, I do agree with him that society exerts a pull on religion, and that religious leaders do accomodate themselves to society as surely as corporate marketers do.

In fact, I think that even "fundamentalists" are often very modern, even pioneering new applications for technology, despite their backwards image. In the US, Christian right groups pioneered a new wave of political techniques including direct mail and audience-targeted tv and radio efforts, as well as starting companies to reedit DVD's to suit a wider range of audience tastes. Likewise, Hezbollah and Hamas are in many ways political pioneers and masters of marketing and self-promotion -- they have their own tv stations and social services infrastructures more advanced than their local governments' services. Even Al Qaeda can arguably be seen as an innovator in use of the Internet and modern technology to wage war.

IMHO, the problem in the Middle East has little or nothing to do with Islam and very much to do with fascism, socialism, Nazism, and excessive nationalism, all highly modern and secular imports from Europe, all with very destructive economic and political effects. Those "isms" have influenced both Christinity and Islam in the countries where the "isms" have been dominant, just as freedom, democracy, and tolerance have influenced both religions in countries where openness has been dominant.

No HTML comments! What a travesty! At least it warned me.

Juan Cole's _Modernity and the Millennium_ is on topic here. It sees the founding of Baha'ism (the world's youngest independent religion) as a reaction to the wave of modernity rolling over the Middle East in the 19th century -- joint-stock corporations, industrialization, modern war methods. Unlike some threads of Islam, Baha'i engaged with modernity instead of rejecting it. I read the book in college before I'd ever seen Cole's blog and liked it.

Hello Dennis. I made no such implication --as a matter of fact I call these back-fit explanations. My point is that something extremely strange happened around the turn of the century.
Incidentally, things tend to take place very rapidly in the area. As I am writing my next book "The Black Swan" about consequential and unpredictable changes, I am hungry for accounts of the greatest mystery of all: why a long Greco-Roman, later Christian tradition were blotted out in a matter of years. Alexandria, Antioch, and other Levantine cities were the center of Western thinking. Yet Islam penetrated the Meditterranean (Eastern and Southern) in no time at all. These transitions are very abrupt, very strange and invaluable to the historian, yet nobody, except for a few open minds like Duby, talks about them.

"This article" contains a non-trivial error. The Danish royal family
is as old as the Japanese, dating back to King Gorm in the 9th century,
the Viking era. They and the Japanese one get along famously becaue of
this. The Moroccans are Muhammed-come-latelies.

On Islam's historical "tolerance" of other religions, read about dhimmitude.

I don't agree with the implicit assertion that modernity is incompatible with a very conservative, historical, "what did the original authors intend" interpretation of the Christian Bible. I was going to say more on this topic, but let me avoid controversy and move to the next point.

The Koran has many more specific injunctions related to commerce than does the Christian Bible. In particular, conservative interpretations of the Koran (i.e., interpretations faithful to the text) are going to run into big trouble with modernity. I claim that this is not a problem faced by Christianity.


"Dhimmitude" was a lot more tolerant than the auto da fe that
was practiced against the Muslims and Jews during the Inquisition.

Nassim, I am sure that you ment more than simply politics or warfare when you asked your question about why the "western" traditions disappeared so quickly from the near east. However, I will venture one reason why Islam took Egypt and North Africa so quickly.
Because less than one generation earlier Justinian waged a horrible war agaist heretics in that area and weakened both the population and leaders. The war was followed by a plague. Perhaps in that climate, there was simply not enough intellectual power left to form any sort of resistance to the Islamic juggernaut.

I have a few comments.
1) Dhimmi, from my understanding of the use (I am not going to the dictionary but rather referring to common usage) sems to imply "moral obligation to protect, related to the expression "bi dhimitak" meaning "subjected to your conscience". A Christian and a Jew not only were not "harmable" but one was under the obligation to protect them. So dhimmitude was not inferior status, rather special protection.
I am saying that with some knowledge: my ancestors were dhimmis, and, as Eastern Orthodox Christians, felt far safer under Islam than to the "West" --the "West" was Catholicism, the sack of Byzantium, the pillages around Antioch.
What happened after the Ottoman Empire evaporated is truly unusual. Just consider that Copts are routinely massacred today --they made it for 14 centuries without harm!
2) Kyle, Christianity at the time was immensely fractious, especially in the Levant. Alexandria had serious mob fights, with entire massacres (say with the Arian heresy).

Ronald Brak, Jesus addressed that comment to one specific rich man whose source of wealth was not identified, and who had specifically asked Jesus for personal advice on how to be a good person. The main rich people with identified professions whom Jesus addresses were tax collectors, who were generally depicted as having gotten their money illegimately and needing to make restitution for past overcharges.

Nassim, I have met a lot of feminists who say that "special protection" is an "inferior status." I try to stay out of those arguments myself.

I'm only nominally Christian, if that, and not to get too focused on the "eye of the needle" verse, but it never stops surprising me that people almost invariably take it out of context. The next verses (from Matthew in this case, but pretty much the same in all three synoptic Gospels) are these: "When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible."

That changes the meaning pretty radically--by means of a highly characteristic rhetorical move on Jesus' part, by the way--and in my opinion brings the quotation more in line with Kyle N's thinking.

I almost agree with Jack. Torah (the books of Moses) promises a great amount of physical blessing for the people (as a whole) when the people (as a whole) are obedient--and the opposite. It also contains specific warning that this was not true at the individual level. Nevertheless, the popular view grew that personal wealth was a trustworthy sign of God's blessing, absent public knowlege to the contrary. Jesus was definitely NOT talking about tax collectors. While they were rich, they were social outcasts, and no one expected them to make it to heaven. Jesus' point was that no one gets into heaven without a miracle from God, which is in well accord with the Psalms & Prophets.

Tell me Nassim, how many janissaries did your family supply the Moslems? (Others: these were regular conscripts of Christian boys in preparation for military service. Taken at a young age, they were indocinated in Islam. When old enough, they became slave warriors.) I have little good to say about the crusaders, but Muslim "tolerance" was almost nonexistant during its early period. As Islam reached empire status, "tolerance" was extended, but this "tolerance" had all the earmarkings of persecution--special taxes, forbidding of weapons, regular ceremonial degredation, etc.

Ronald Brak, Jesus generally spoke in metaphor and parables, (he acknowledged this method,) and with "the eye of the needle" he actually was referring to the common experimental finding, (frequently noted in all spiritual traditions, including Christian and Islamic mysticism, etc.) that it is completely impossible to achieve god-consciousness if one's mind attends to the acquisition of material things. This is not to disparage the success and usefulness of economic growth, although that is usually the next objection. But the Enlightenment has ignored the mystical path until it has been all but forgotten, and substituted another monism -- a rather foreshortening psychology of methodological individualism -- so reality remains a bit obfuscated.

Dhimmitude is inferior status, as that of a child, or a woman, to a man.

I don't think Christ would disagree with the notion that an honest rich man/merchant is guaranteed a spot in paradise, just that honest rich men/merchants are few and far between.

Alex - interesting point.

Some religions are more open to change than others.

Pope Benedict XVI apparently is skeptical of the ability of Islam to adapt to modern society. In a seminar conducted in 2005 he spoke directly to this issue and described "the word" given to Muhammad as immutable, not subject to change - an eternal word.

By contrast the Pope sees Christianity as capable of adaptation since the Xtian revelation involves "God working through his creatures".

When you consider the opposition Irshad Manji has run into with her Project Ijtihad, which simply aims at reviving the tradition of critical thinking in Islam, it makes you realize that there is strong opposition to this type of conjecture.

I think one of the reasons Christianity has adapted more readily, is the emphasis on love and accommodation. Jesus injunctions with respect to giving all you have, turning the other cheek etc. The opppositional force of Hebraic law is replaced with a new spirit that seeks to embrace rather than confront.

That's a fairly poor analysis. Within the Islamic tradition are codified texts of beliefs that teach the original interpretations of the faith. Evolutions or changes in the religion are called Bid'ahs (innovations) and are generally frowned upon. Islamic law is also quite stable.

At most, emphasis on one aspect over another is the only thing that can change.

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