Re: response:re.evolutionary coherence

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 07 Aug 1997 15:54:03 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 07 Aug 1997 15:54:03 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: response:re.evolutionary coherence
In-Reply-To: <c=SG%a=_%p=TP%l=STAFF-EXCHA-970807074016Z-225984@staff-exc hange.TP.AC.SG>

Aaron Lynch responding to Alex Brown:

Thanks for explaining your position more fully, Alex. I will reply just
briefly to a few of the points that call for comment.=20

>Thanks to Aaron Lynch for his comments on my posting. Here are some of
>my responses:=20
>HISTORY, by Rodney Stark (Princeton University Press, 1996). There you
>will find considerable evidence of how the Roman Empire became
>predominantly monotheistic because of a monotheism that OUT-POPULATED
>polytheism. It did so by growing at 40% per decade, compounded over
>several hundred years. The extra babies and extra proselytizing of the
>Christians accounts for this growth. A monotheistic god allowed the
>faith to coherently command these retransmission behaviors in the
>service of just the one god-meme. (It would be nice if Stark had also
>been able to analyze the differential propagation of monotheism in
>pre-Christian Semites.)......"
>AB: I haven't read this book but I have had to read several others on
>the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the foundation and
>explosive growth of Islam from the 7th century. In the year 313, the
>emperor, Constantine, trying to save a disintegrating empire, MADE
>Christianity the state religion of the (polytheistic) Roman Empire.=20

Alex, I again recommend reading Stark=92s book--not because I see any
deficiencies in your prior reading on ancient Christianity, but because o=
the remarkable NEW evidence he has found by pouring over ancient records
and texts. While it is indeed a widespread pre-memetic view that
Constantine MADE the empire Christian, Stark proves that it was the other
way around. Though an emperor, Constantine was still a political creature=
and the steady proliferation of Christianity is what forced the wise
politician to choose that faith. As if to prove the point, look at Julian
"the Apostate's" failed attempt to restore paganism: belief propagation i=
a more powerful force than the empire's most powerful individual.

>show just how bad things were at the time, eleven years later he moved
>the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople. As I understand it,
>he had two alternative possible religions which could possibly have done
>the same job of ideologically unifying the empire: Mithras (Persian)
>and/or Osiris (Egypt). All three religions were very popular in the
>empire of the time. He had to make a politically pragmatic choice. The
>obscurities and complexities of the Osiris option probably ruled it out.
>How do you make a state and public religion out of some rather esoteric
>practices, popular or not? Mithras, which had a lot of mythology in
>common with Christianity and at the time was equally popular had one
>problem, it was Persian and Persia and Rome were not the best of
>friends. Roman emperors were not noted for their consensus approach to
>politics, so all things considered, in the end Christianity got the job.
>What this meant of course was no persecution of Christians, state
>finance to build churches and the PR value of being recognized as the
>imperial religion. What it also meant was a very rapid growth in
>popularity, probably as per your quoted figures.=20
>So what does this little potted version of history tell us about
>monotheisms per se or their relationship with polytheisms? The answer is
>very very little. According to the memetic reproduction theory, it could
>equally well have been a poytheistic religion which replaced a
>monotheism at that or any other time. It could even have been a
>pantheism. It apparently doesn't matter, nor apparently does the
>cultural context of the time. Babies and proselytising would seem to
>explain everything. The possibly interesting fact that Mithras, Osiris,
>Christianity, Judaism and Islam - all monotheisms have sprung up in
>roughly the same geographic area, while Buddhism, Hinduism and Daoism -
>non-monotheistic religions have arisen in Asia. Two different social and
>political environment - CONTEXTS - producing radically different types
>of religious philosophies. Or the interesting fact that Judaism,
>Mithras, Christianity and Islam are based on a seemingly common set of
>religious mythologies which go right back into the early religious
>beliefs of the Middle East. They are versions/variations or
>recombinations of a common set of religious forms. In other words, they
>are ideologically and mythologically related.=20
>Take the fact that chronologically, monotheisms seem to occur AFTER the
>development of a polytheistic religion. Why? This might suggest to me
>that there was a developmental relationship between the evolution of
>pantheisms and their seeming historical transformation into monotheisms.
>(From many answers to one as in the development of scientific theories
>and artistic styles). In other words it would seem to suggest an
>evolutionary or developmental THEORY which does not rely on individual
>heros or villains or number of babies born within the philosophy. It
>suggests a theory which is generalizable across different cultures and
>which driven by the dynamic of social interaction - the dynamic of the
>Thus, even with the growth statistics mentioned above, I have a problem
>with a statement like this: ".....the Roman Empire became predominantly
>monotheistic because of a monotheism that OUT-POPULATED polytheism....."
> At one level, this may well be a DESCRIPTION of what happened, but
>descriptions are not explanations. What exactly does it tell us that we
>can use as a general rule about the evolution of cultural forms? What
>does it explain? Monotheism? No. That success can be defined as that
>which succeeds?=20

Come on now. If you read my book and Stark's book, you will see that both
he and I attribute the rise of Christianity to many propagation factors, =
which only some arise from the monotheistic advantages I mentioned before.
I do not define success so vacuously as to call it "that which succeeds,"
but explain it in terms of very specific, concrete retransmission behavio=
accumulating over time across millions of people.

Was monotheism constructed or invented just like the
>lightbulb or the steam engine and marketed accordingly? Was the Theory
>of Evolution constructed in a similar manner? The answer is no. It was
>an evolutionary SYNTHESIS of theories circulating around at the time
>including that of Malthus and Adam Smith. What was Darwin's
>contribution? In my view the same as that of any avant-garde, including
>religious leaders: the brilliant synthesis of prevailing tendencies. Yet
>even that is not enough to assure the emergence (or numerically-defined
>success) of a religious (or any other) meta-system because one could ask
>why then and not before or after? The answer is of course the (cultural)
>environmental conditions which constrain (but do not dictate) the
>occurence of events. Cultural forms are not made and marketed. They
>evolve/emerge from prevailing forms and their development is constrained
>by the cumulative state of other cultural systems.
>Just to conclude this part of the reply: lets take a hypothetical
>situation where a society has a polytheistic religious system. Given the
>inevitable continuous (collective) interpretation and development of
>that religious state, what are the historical options? There are three:
>1. It can remain polytheistic forever. 2. It can revert to a pantheistic
>state, or 3. It can evolve to a monotheistic state. In other words,
>given its current state, where can it go from there? What is the most
>likely option?
>Alex Brown


--Aaron Lynch

How Belief Spreads Through Society
The New Science of Memes
Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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