Generational Dynamics: Forecasting America's Destiny Generational
 Forecasting America's Destiny ... and the World's


Generational Dynamics Web Log for 3-Jun-07
Book review review: Christopher Hitchens: "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (II)

Web Log - June, 2007

Book review review: Christopher Hitchens: "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (II)

Part II: The role of religion in Generational Dynamics theory.

Part I Part II

In this book review review, Part I looked at the politics issues around Hitchens' book.

In Part II, we become a lot more theoretical. We turn to Generational Dynamics theory, as it looks at religion.

As I discussed in Part I, Christopher Hitchens' justifications that "religion poisons everything" are mostly bizarre, and certainly not logic. In particular, he notes examples of correlation between war and religion and thereby claims that religion causes war without, for some reason, considering that war causes religion.

In fact, it is the Generational Dynamics view that war causes religion, as this essay will demonstrate. But that conclusion will come later.

As we'll show, the reason that "war causes religion" is that religious arguments are used as justification for wars that were going to occur anyway. Obviously, this kind of explanation wouldn't satisfy the religion-haters, like Hitchens, but it also won't satisfy the religious believers. (I was recently discussing religion with a web site reader, when she finally wrote to me, "I think you're dead already." She certainly wasn't too happy.)

What causes war?

Let's start at the beginning. If war causes religion, then what causes war? This question is at the heart of generational theory.

People sometimes write to me accusing me of following some ideology. I always write back asking them to tell me exactly what ideology they believe that I'm following. I'm perfectly happy criticizing airheads on both the right and the left, the neocons as well as the loony left, and so that question is never answered.

These people are mostly disturbed by the Generational Dynamics finding that there MUST be genocidal wars at regular intervals, and that a new world war is coming.

In fact, it's very easy to prove that SOME kind of genocidal war cycle must exist.

In order to understand this, let's put humans aside for the moment, and look at what happens to animals.

In the case of animals, as the population grows, it fills up available land and uses up available food and water resources. The result is that some animals have to die. Generally, animals simply "die quietly" of starvation or disease. In the case of two sub-species competing for the same food and water, the weaker sub-species may simply "die quietly" and become extinct.

But human beings don't "die quietly," because human beings are "intelligent."

All of the above considerations are the same for humans, except for one major one: Humans don't "die quietly." Suppose that you have two ethnic groups, one short and one tall, living together. After the low-hanging fruit has been eaten, the shorter humans will face starvation. Instead of dying quietly, they'll first ask the taller humans to pass down some of the high-hanging fruit. When the high-hanging fruit becomes scarce, and the taller human refuses, the short human doesn't "die quietly." He becomes violent, rather than starve to death. Eventually, the group of shorter humans will get together and wage war against the taller humans, and eventually this will become a genocidal war.

This proves that SOME kind of genocidal war cycle exists. By itself it doesn't provide proof for the rich descriptions of generational turnings archetypes originally developed by William Strauss and Neil Howe, the founding fathers of generational theory, and further developed by Generational Dynamics.

But it does provide a proof that a major part of generational theory, indeed the part that most people viscerally object to, is absolutely true. There MUST be genocidal wars at regular intervals, because population growth always eventually -- in a matter of decades -- exceeds the availability of land and resources.

As I wrote in my my 2004 article on the Green Revolution and the Malthus effect, I estimate that worldwide population has grown at an average of 1.72% per year since World War II, while food production grows at only 0.96% per year. This means that periodic genocidal wars must occur to reduce the population so that there'll be enough food for the survivors.

As we said, animals usually "die quietly" when food, water or other resources aren't available. But some animals do have wars, as described by one of the great antiwar activists in American history. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 12 of Henry David Thoreau's 1840s book, Walden:

"I was witness to events of a less peaceful character. One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely. I watched a couple that were fast locked in each other's embraces, in a little sunny valley amid the chips, now at noonday prepared to fight till the sun went down, or life went out. The smaller red champion had fastened himself like a vice to his adversary's front, and through all the tumblings on that field never for an instant ceased to gnaw at one of his feelers near the root, having already caused the other to go by the board; while the stronger black one dashed him from side to side, and, as I saw on looking nearer, had already divested him of several of his members. They fought with more pertinacity than bulldogs. Neither manifested the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle-cry was "Conquer or die."

In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement .... He saw this unequal combat from afar -- for the blacks were nearly twice the size of the red -- he drew near with rapid pace till be stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; then, watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and commenced his operations near the root of his right fore leg, leaving the foe to select among his own members; and so there were three united for life, as if a new kind of attraction had been invented which put all other locks and cements to shame.

[[In the following, Thoreau mocks the marching bands that accompany armies going to war. Saying "the less the difference," he means that both wars are equally futile. He's specifically inveighing against the Mexican-American war, which was the Vietnam war of those days.]]

I should not have wondered by this time to find that they had their respective musical bands stationed on some eminent chip, and playing their national airs the while, to excite the slow and cheer the dying combatants. I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference....

[[Now, Thoreau specifically mocks the Revolutionary War, partially triggered by the tea tax and the Boston Tea Party.]]

I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker Hill, at least. ...

I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door."

Thoreau was clearly moved by the war between the black and red ants, but has no idea why the war had to take place. But it's obvious what must have happened: Several weeks earlier, a small black ant nest established itself at one end of the wood pile, and a small red ant nest established itself at the other end. Both populations grew, and soon there wasn't enough vegetation and other food to support both nests. The wood pile was soon too small for both nests to co-exist, and so there was a war of extermination. Only one group could survive; or, if both groups survived, then the population would be so reduced that there would be enough food for everyone. Then all the ants could be happy until the next war.

Note that this situation could mean that there's a genocidal war among the ants every few weeks. The reduced population grows again in both nests, until it becomes necessary to have another war, and the cycle repeats.

So the war had a very important purpose: To decide which group survives, and which group is exterminated, since there wasn't enough food for both of groups. It's as simple as that. Why couldn't Thoreau see that? Beats me.

It's not as if there was any other choice. There simply wasn't enough food for both groups. There HAD to be a genocidal war.

The purpose of World War II

Why don't people understand that World War I, World War II and other major wars have exactly the same purpose? Germany needed "Lebensraum" to expand the German population. Japan was starving economically, and had already conquered Korea and was gaining ground in Manchuria and China. There was no other choice; there HAD to be a genocidal war, because there wasn't enough food in the world to feed everyone.

Today there are, once again, too many people. There are 6.5 billion people in the world, and by my rough estimates, the population would have to be reduced to about 4.5 billion to have the same amount of food per capita as in 1950.

As world population has continued to increase, and since the gains from the 1960s "green revolution" petered out in the 1990s, and as food per capita has been decreasing, the price of food has been increasing dramatically around the world.

Around the world there are "megacities," each containing tens of millions of people with no access to farmland. Families in poverty in those cities often survive by foraging in large garbage dumps for scraps of food left over by people who can afford to buy food. As population continues to increase, this problem of megacities will multiply. These problems have occurred in cycles throughout human history, and have gotten many times worse in the last two centuries because medical discoveries have lowered the infant mortality rate from 40-50% to 1-2%. That's why, for example, the death rate (as percentage of population) was ten times higher in WW II than it was in the Napoleonic wars.

We're approaching the Clash of Civilizations world war, at a time when infant mortality has fallen far, leading to masses of people who are packed by the millions into large megacities, in a fragile world where any economic dislocation can cause mass starvation, creating huge pools of young men ready for war.

Many of these megacities are already megaslums around the world, filled with hundreds of millions of people squatting on marginal or toxic land, drinking filthy water filled with excrement, just barely surviving on the garbage left by others.

Here's where you see the real power of terrorists. Terrorist acts can inflame populations, and when you have a huge mass of young men who can't feed their families and have to forage for food in garbage dumps, then they have nothing to lose by spontaneous riots, civil wars, or external wars. At least when you're in an army, you get fed and you get paid with money you can send back to your family.

For example, the effects of explosive population growth is especially clear in China. There are tens of thousands of mass riots every year in China. There are over a hundred million migrant workers, high unemployment, high food prices, high income disparities, and addiction to a bubble economy, unraveling of Mao's social structure and several provinces threatening to secede. Recently, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said that China is "unsteady, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable." As I wrote in January, 2005, China is becoming increasingly unstable and approaching a civil war, and a resulting world financial and war crisis.

Incidentally, one of the largest megacities in the world is Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, with some 20 million people. A major financial crisis will strike Mexico very hard (as well as many other countries with poverty-stricken megacities). Generational Dynamics predicts that Mexico is headed soon for a new civil war along the European/indigenous fault line, and that this civil war will spill over into the southwestern U.S., especially in California where 1/3 of the population is Mexican.

Cycles of animal populations

The ant wars that Henry David Thoreau described are not typical of animals; in most cases, there are no such wars, and animals that can't find food simply "die quietly."

However, what is very common among animals is a population cycle. Even in simple cases, where you have a species of animal eating vegetation, you might have a surplus of animals eating all vegetation available. Once there's nothing left, there are mass deaths from starvation, causing near-extinction of the animal. Then the vegetation can grow back, the surviving animals start to eat and reproduce, and the cycle repeats itself. This kind of thing happens with locust populations near the equator, for example.

These kinds of cycles occur frequently among animal populations, as described by University of Connecticut Professor Peter Turchin in his book Complex Population Dynamics.

The population density of lemmings and owls over time <font face=Arial size=-2>(Source: Peter Turchin in <i>Complex Population Dynamics</i>)</font>
The population density of lemmings and owls over time (Source: Peter Turchin in Complex Population Dynamics)

The adjoining graph shows the population density of lemmings and owls in a certain region.

As you can see, the lemmings become almost extinct, but then every four years or so the ground is covered with them (giving rise to the myth that lemmings follow one another off a cliff).

The owls eat the lemmings (among other things). So as the number of lemmings grows, they get eaten by more owls, and the number of owls increases. When all the lemmings get eaten, then the owls die off as well. So the result is a 4-year cycle.

These kinds of cycles, where there are interplays between predator and prey, can cause very complex population cycles.

So it shouldn't be surprising that the population cycle in human beings is also complicated, and in fact it's a lot more complicated than it is in animals.

I receive criticisms of Generational Dynamics all the time, and two that I see a lot of are: "It's too simple" and "It's too complicated."

It IS simple in the sense that it says that population growth leads to genocidal war, as we've been discussing.

But it's also complicated, because Generational Dynamics supplies the details of how this population cycle works, through generational turnings and archetypes and through crisis wars.

So let's now turn to one of these "details": How wars are the cause of religions.

Defining fault lines with religion

Previously we discussed the example of shorter and taller humans. Let's discuss this example further.

Imagine an island in the ocean somewhere with a population of 10,000 horses, one short subspecies and one tall subspecies, with enough vegetation to support a population of 100,000 horses. Well, those are happy horses, with plenty to eat. But suppose the population of horses grows to 100,000. What happens then?

Well, the low-hanging food gets eaten by the all the horses, but when that runs out, and only high-hanging vegetation is left, the short horses starve. Horses aren't like ants, so there won't be a big war. The short horses will simply "die quietly," and in fact the entire short subspecies may very well be extinguished.

But human beings don't "die quietly."

Suppose now we're talking about 10,000 human beings, rather than horses, on an island with enough crops, hunting and fishing to sustain a population of 100,000. And let's suppose that one group of humans is smaller and weaker, and the other group is taller and stronger. What happens when the population of humans grows?

Well, around the population of 50,000 or so, you begin to see shortages of food in some regions. The short, weak humans will begin to be jealous of the tall, strong humans, who seem to have control over everything. The short, weak humans will make a lot of noise and will even perform acts of aggression to get food for their families. The tall, strong humans will alternate between punishing the aggressors one day and promise to provide them with food the next. As the population approaches 100,000, and food becomes very scarce, and some people are dying of starvation, there's a war between the two groups which, presumably, the tall, strong humans win. Either the short, weak group is completely exterminated, or else enough of the population in both groups is killed so that the total population is, say, 30,000, and once again there's enough food for everyone to live on until population grows again, leading to the next genocidal war.

What made the above example easy to describe was the distinction between short, weak humans and tall, strong humans. In real situations, it's usually not that simple.

Sometimes there are two groups with distinct physical differences. In the 1994 Rwanda civil war genocide the Tutsis (victims) were a bit taller than the Hutus (the attackers). In fact, the genocide was triggered by a radio call from a Hutu leader "cut down the tall trees."

The most obvious difference is with skin color. In the Darfur crisis civil war going on today, there is a small skin color difference between the two sides, although it's mostly been erased by decades of intermarriage.

The point is this: When the population becomes so large that a genocidal war becomes a necessity, then there must be a mechanism that permits the choosing of sides. If there's a physical distinction, then that can be used. If there's a language difference, that can be used. If there's a geographical border separating the groups, then that can be used.

But what happens when two sides are homogeneous in appearance? Many civil wars in history have been "brother against brother."

This was true in the American civil war. There were those people unambiguously in the South, and there were those who were unambiguously in the North. People in the border states had to choose sides. "Am I a Northerner or a Southerner?" It was a crucial decision, sometimes leading to "brother against brother" kinds of fights.

(And, given how Christopher Hitchens and his brother Peter get along, as described in Part I, it wouldn't surprise me if they were on opposites of any civil war, should one occur.)

If a genocidal war is coming, each leader has to be able to say what makes his side unique, different from the other side. He has to be able to say, "We're superior to them because we're taller / shorter / darker / lighter / richer / poorer / more moral."

More moral? That's where religion begins to appear. Each side wants to be "right," and has to believe they're "right" in order for a leader to convince his followers to go out and kill people.

One dramatic example occurred in Russia in the late 1600s. There was a power struggle between the Tsar and the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1652, the Patriarch Nikon introduced some changes in rituals, in order to be consistent with the Greek Orthodox Church. The changes in rituals were, to an outsider, incredibly trivial: Make the sign of the cross with two fingers instead of three; sing alleluia twice instead of three times; refer to "the True Lord," instead of just "the Lord," in the Creed; and change the spelling of "Jesus" slightly.

As trivial as these changes were, they met with wide opposition and created a schism in the Church and a secessionist group called the Old Believers. Starting in 1685, persecutions began, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.

Now here you had two groups of people with the same physical characteristics, living in the same geographical areas, and having the same religion, but engaged in a power struggle between peasants and Tsar. The struggle turned into a war and created a new religious branch as a by-product; it was the existing conflict between the peasants and the Tsar that CAUSED the new variant religion to be created. Incidentally, Old Believer groups continue to exist to this very day.

Many historians, and probably Christopher Hitchens, would claim that it was religion that "caused" this war. One group wanted to make the sign of the cross with two fingers, and one wanted to make it with three fingers, and so they fought a war over that and similar religious differences.

But just reading this last sentence makes you see how unrealistic that view is. You would not have massive persecutions and ten thousand deaths over a simple ritual matter, unless there were something else going on.

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, religion did NOT cause that war. It was the continuing ancient conflict between Tsar and peasants that was going on anyway that caused the war; the ritual differences, and the resulting creation of a new religious variant, were the RESULT of the conflict, not the cause.

Let's look at some further examples.

The rise of great religions

In my book, Generational Dynamics: Forecasting America's Destiny, I describe how some of the world's great religions came about through generational changes. Here's a brief summary:

This illustrates an important finding of Generational Dynamics: That great ideas are born during Awakening Eras, and they become either established or extinguished during Crisis Eras.

In each of these cases, ask yourself whether religion CAUSED the war, or was a by-product of the conflict.

Did the Romans REALLY attack the Jews because of their religion? If they had been pagans, like the Romans, would they have left that population alone? Or would they have attacked anyway, just because the population was getting too large and unruly?

In the case of the Muslim clan war that began in 656, the clans all had the same religion, so there wasn't a religious difference to fight over. The religious difference was born because of a power struggle between the clans that was going to happen anyway.

The rise of non-religious ideologies

I mentioned in Part I of this review of Christopher Hitchens' book that Generational Dynamics considers non-religious ideologies like Marxism to follow similar patterns as religions.

Marxism was born during the European Awakening era "revolutions of 1848." It was first tried in the Paris Commune of 1871, leading to a violent crisis civil war. Communism was extinguished there.

It was established in Russia in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and in China in Mao Zedong's civil war that began with the Long March in 1934 and climaxed in 1949.

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, Communism is just another ideology, like religion, used as a justification for a war that was going to occur anyway. In the Bolshevik Revolution, Communism was almost a perfect mirror image of religion, demanding atheism, as opposed to the Russian Orthodox religion of its followers. In China, Communism was Mao's method for distinguishing his followers from those of his enemy, Chiang Kai-Shek.

Communism is no different from Fascism and Naziism, in the sense that they were ideologies spread by leaders who wanted to use the ideologies to become dictators. Each of these ideologies can be thought of as a kind of "reverse religion," with all the good removed, and replaced by more evil. In each case, the ideology was used by a psychotic monster -- Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Hitler -- to justify the torture and extermination of tens of millions of people.

What I find astonishing is how popular they were and even still are. Fascism was a great "liberal" favorite in the 1930s, since Mussolini "may be a dictator, but he keeps the trains running on time." Communism was extremely popular when I was attending MIT in the People's Republic of Cambridge, Mass., in the 1960s, and it seemed that half of my friends carried the little red booklets, "Thoughts of Chairman Mao" in their back pockets -- even as Mao had slaughtered tens of millions of innocent Chinese peasants in the Great Leap Forward.

I'm not a religious person, but I like religion and I can understand the value that religion fills in people's lives -- providing comfort and support to those who need it, and providing a framework for keeping families close to one another.

But I just can't understand why any intelligent person would adulate Naziism or Fascism or Communism. Even today, I know several people who adulate Communism, despite its repeated failure, and its use as a justification for tens of millions of murders.

"You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet," is what I've been told -- you have to kill a few million people if you want to create a Worker's Paradise. But as we showed in Part I, Communism can only work for small populations; you can use the mathematics of Computation and Complexity theory to prove that it simply collapses as populations get larger. That's why Communist societies in Russia, Cuba, East Germany and North Korea all got stuck in the 1950s, using 1950s products and forbidding any economic innovation. In the end, "laissez-faire capitalism" is not an ideology so much as a mathematical imperative, as populations grow.

And this brings us back to Christopher Hitchens, the believer in Communism, because it's "rational," the rejecter of religion because it's "supernatural" and "irrational." And the only reason Communism hasn't worked is because Trotsky didn't win the civil war in Russia in the 1920s. What faith!

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