Thursday, February 7, 2019

Part 1: The Divine Victimhood Fight Club

Clark's recently raised an interesting question on Mormon Metaphysics with respect to a twitter thread about how the Israeli exile during the middle of the 8th century BCE facilitated a grandiose religious narrative to explain national destruction (and how / why Yahweh could have allowed it)

This seems to me how opposition and persecution, particularly in an isolated location like Utah, led to big group cohesion in Utah. This siege mentality of Mormons didn’t really end until Pres. Hinckley started engaging heavily with other Christian religions. By the late 90’s that siege mentality was mostly over. While there are definitely other factors, it’s also around this time that Mormon growth starts to slow. Is it a coincidence that at the time of Mitt Romney’s Presidential run when Mormons are most accepted we start seeing the biggest slowdown in Church growth? - Clark

The interesting question is what religions, particularly North American based religions like Mormonism, could have done to rationalize and offset the memberships costs that occurred with the 21st century's "rise of the nones".

After reading Wright's "The Evolution of God", I'm increasingly inclined to view moral and moderately moral politicized groups from a lens of inter-deity meta-narrative competition*. While many people get caught up in policy differences or political party delineations, I suspect those units of analysis are, respectively, either too fine grained or too coarse grained. The salient unit of analysis for moralized groups, seems to be the moral vignettes which frame a Big Brother's (or "god's") action.

This idea reflects a lot of List & Pettit, and a lot of Jordan Peterson (see this post of mine for JP particulars). Basically, inter-group competition between moralized adaptive groups functioning in a political or governance landscape occurs not at the level of meta-narrative stories (e.g. the RNC is racist), but at the level of morally significant policy-like ...fables or vignettes (e.g. and it came to pass that Kavanaugh overcame the false assertions against him revealing the hysteria of #MeToo 'ers).

The fable word isn't quite accurate, but as Wright's book suggests, chiefdom and early empire state meta-narratives were operationalized via mythical vignettes that were tied to very practical narratives about on-the-ground political realities (dusted off with a bit of shamanistic angst explaining / embodiment). So fable gets at the right idea. It's something more than an idea or policy, but less than a narrative. It's a type of condensed meta-narrative vignette with a bit of group-moral meaning, national dynamic narrative, and just the right-amount of counter-factualness for memetic virility.  Examples might include:

  • why another nation gained the upper hand in battle,
  • a functionalist explanation about why a famine came about,
  • how / why international power shifts occurred or will occur etc.

All these things were expressed in polytheistic deity episodics. If I'm piecing my history together right, the time frame over which this type of vignette would have dominated thought would have been during the polytheistic pantheon era (my term: i.e. post Tobleki temple, pre-Christianity).

In the monotheistic era though, the particulars of this type of competing mini-vignette game mostly died out (at least in religious spheres). Instead, you had grand narratives and technical theology/policy.**

But since the 90's, grand narratives have seem to become a bit too.... imperialistic? Technocracy too has reached its Manchurian peak. Its death throes are obvious to populists of any persuasion. Rationalists though, still seem to be searching for politicians with just the right policy combinations. In my mind that's an increasingly futile endeavour.


Adaptive group size changes have produced a landscape where the old mini-narrative fabilized vignette with practical policy and existential angst grounding has re-emerged as an optimal political-cultural memetic solution and unit of analysis.

So how does this framing relate to what churches could have done with respect to membership decline?

The explosion of Social Justice since the post 2008 Prop 8 inflection point demonstrates that traditional oppression rationalizations, similar to what Israel did post Babylon exile, have power. Vulnerable minorities can gain power via oppression narratives.  Clark's persecution speculation definitely hits this point. So could Mormonism or other similarly positioned religions have beat Social Justice to the punch?


Social Justice has leveraged identity to an astonishing degree. While I find it largely racist. It has worked. I suspect competition with it would have required an equal degree of identity based racism. But how do you universalize such (deplorable) things?

To effect plausible competition from an oppressive narrative, imagine what would have happened if Mormonism, or any other similar religion had locked into one of the following narratives at the right time:
  • It's OK to have arbitrary standards
  • It's OK to respect tradition
  • It's OK to be religious - it's practical
  • It's OK to prioritize the family unit
  • It's OK to be white (or male or both)
  • It's OK to be a brown female Mormon
Which one, in hindsight, sufficiently leverages the victim narrative? Which one has a thread that can get beaten down, but which, if it's adherents survive, proves the narrative's original point?

The only point I can think of, that survives Wright's summarized tests as stated above, seems to be the one based upon identity. The other narratives are too malleable and, in a sense, too universal. They don't have the right quasi-factuality to them. Identity on the other hand does...

Now, please, please, don't take this as some alt-right, supremacist, dog whistle. It isn't. But memetic competition against the classically racist premises of intersectionality at the meta-narrative vignette fable level would, according to Wright, require subsuming that narrative (or their deity-family's embodiment of it). It is not enough to have a different idea that is more attractive. Nor can you try to poke logical holes in the narrative (Sam Harris style). Those just don't work.

You need to think in terms of "deity" on "deity" competition.

So have another look at how "equity" as an oddly embodied "deity" works. Doesn't structural racism impregnate everything?

Oh, you've got a god of wind? Well my god's actually in there controlling your god's wind. Your wind's got structural racism! Structural racism is in everything! You can't deny that, can you!

Pretty funny, eh?

Well, actually its not.  Why?

What is always the solution?

Our "god" Equity can fix that structurally racist wind. In fact, Equity is only permitting the expression of your structurally racist wind  as a lesson for us to learn from. We need to admit our guilt and embrace Equity.
That is exactly how things seem to be working now days. According to Wright, the subsuming of gods is how polytheism gave rise to monolatry (lots of gods, but there's one big one that matters). This then gave rise to monotheism which, when combined with moralizing universalism, was a MAJOR evolutionary step forward in religion governance space.

How do you fight it? Not with another god that is tougher or more omnipotent. Why?

My god is so omnipotent they can get rid of hunger (if everyone just listened to him/her). 
Oh yeah? That sound a lot like equity...


So why does your god Equity permit inequality in the world? 
To show us how bad things would be without him. Our natural state is awful!

You fight this "divine" subsumation with a competing narrative. But, it should be a narrative where all you have to do for your narrative to be vindicated is to survive  And, you show triumph not through one-upmanship, but with cunning Kafka traps.  "It's OK to be white" (or "a coloured Mormon", or a "male Adventist") seems to do this.

ex. You're attack of my identity shows that I am still oppressed. But I know bigots like you will eventually die out. [Insert identity here] like me will never die. Why? Because it's OK to be [Insert identity here].

Here you have a "you're OK" god competing with an "Equity" god. That is a fair fight.

I think, if church's had latched onto identity politics, they may have been able to leverage a grand oppression narrative that would also have vindicated adherents as a chosen people. For many people such purposeful status loss would have been off-putting. After, all, Mormons at least were very proud at being almost mainstream enough to have Romney taken seriously. The victim card would have forsaken mainstreaming for the recruiting power of an ultimate (if delayed) meta-narrative.

Of course I think such identitarian tactics would have been horrible. They would have eventually blown up in everyone's faces. They would have created lots of potential fork-in-the-roads for German level ethno-centrism. But of course, I see radical intersectionalism as doing no less than this... It just gets a pass in much the same way German ethno-nationalism did - it is useful and "well-intentioned".

I think the draw of identity based "religion" is a landscape well. Moderation enables long-term survivability, but at the expense of virility. New, highly virulent strains always come into the picture, outcompeting old strains. Eventually they moderate or die. But during this process, old things whither. Competition requires capturing the invader's hosts and being similar enough trump invader processes.

The ingenuity of Social Justice's grand narratives should not be underestimated. They are a very fit solution to moral governance issues within a secular paradigm.


*hopefully it's obvious that I'm not referring to any real physical deities here. Rather, I'm using that term in the sense of List and Pettit's (moral) group agents. These are functionally real embodiments of a group's decision patterns which then become moralized for fast and frugal heuristic functions. Thus competition is almost more memetic in nature. There is definitely not any real supernaturalism implied. But I'm certainly purposefully connoting moral-based action. Norenzayan's Big Gods is probably needed to make sense of how I'm using "deity".

**Maybe the medieval exegesis renaissance was an expression of the draw of this nice mid-level unit of exposition. Maybe not.

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