Nationalism: the Canonical Public Myth

Hi all,

The reader can consult the book On the Means and Methods of Mass Deconversion found on this site for a more complete understanding of the greatest of public myths, the greatest fraud of all time, religion. But whether you accept the idea of religion as public myth or not, the second greatest public myth of all time (or the greatest if you reject religion as public myth) is the myth of the Nation-State, the seed of nationalism.

The Nation-State is an abstract construction upon which the sentiment of nationalism is nurtured within a population. This statement presupposes the view that nationalism is a recent construction invented and employed by the founding “fathers” of the “first” political State. While the prevailing academic opinion treats nationalism as a recent construct, it does not treat nationalism as an invention that significantly predates the industrial revolution. My own suspicion is that nationalism is not ancient or biological as has been suggested by many. But I do think its origins go further back than the industrial age of aborning. In fact, I believe nationalism ran parallel to the development of “modern” religion approximately 1000 years ago. But this I need to explain.

Attempting to uncover the deep history of the myth of the Nation-State is wrought with difficulty, but by tracing what I submit as the public myth of religion as a historical marker, we can examine the history of the origins of religion to see if there are any clues found there regarding the Nation-State. Considerable evidence is beginning to emerge to suggest that rather than civilization preceding religion, religion may have preceded civilization. But let’s reframe that statement. This is analogous to saying that the State followed religion; exactly what I’ve been arguing throughout this site. In other words, my thesis is that religion is a weapon used to create the political State. And I contend that the myth of the Nation is a similar weapon.

The ancient ruins at Goblecki Tepe, Turkey

So, the promised explanation for these odd dates, and the scenario I am about to describe, is that what I am saying here is not necessarily historical fact in every regard. The point of this explanation is to illustrate what is by far the obvious explanation of how the myth of the Nation-State evolved, even if I don’t know the particular details of dates, chronology or the immaterial; and I will leave that to the historians to sort out.

Most academics tend to think of the Nation-State as having been created around the emergence of the so-called J-curve of per capita energy consumption. This is the point in time when there was an inflection in the graph of the average energy consumed per person. The first inflection occurred around 1700. And this is the date, very roughly, most academics point to when discussing the origins of the Nation-State. I can agree with this with some qualification: I suspect, for many reasons, that the Nation-State began as chiefdoms 500 to 1000 years ago. The conventional Scaligarian historical chronology would place these events much farther back in time. But whether we accept the seemingly well-established Scaligarian chronology or not the basic premise is the same. My contention is that spiritual beliefs originated organically. And I believe that the ruins at Gobekli Tepe, Turkey – to be discussed next – are the remnants of the activities of one such group of adherents. At this point in time, nothing had been “created”, “invented” or “fabricated”.

Location map of neolittical site Göbekli Tepe,...

Location map of neolittical site Göbekli Tepe, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The archaeological site in Turkey consists of dozens of massive stone pillars arranged into a set of rings, one mashed up against the next. Known as Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.

The sculpture of an animal at Gobekli Tepe, cl...

The sculpture of an animal at Gobekli Tepe, close to Sanliurfa. The photo was taken during a visit to Gobekli Tepe in 2008. Cropped the image a bit to focus on the interesting pillar. To the best of my knowledge it was one of the recent finds from Prof. Schmidt's group, when the photo was taken. Decided to put it online after it appeared also in a BBC documentary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the time of Göbekli Tepe’s construction much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals. Construction of the site would have required more people coming together in one place than had likely occurred before. Amazingly, the temple’s builders were able to cut, shape, and transport 16-ton stones hundreds of feet despite having no wheels or beasts of burden. The pilgrims who came to Göbekli Tepe lived in a world without writing, metal, or pottery; to those approaching the temple from below, its pillars must have loomed overhead like rigid giants, the animals on the stones shivering in the firelight—emissaries from a spiritual world that the human mind may have only begun to envision.

Deutsch: Panoramaansicht des südlichen Grabung...

Deutsch: Panoramaansicht des südlichen Grabungsfeldes English: Göbekli Tepe (Turkey): a panoramic view of the southern excavation field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Proponents of this alternative view of the origins of the myth of the Nation-State point out that these narratives need not have occurred universally across all geographies and populations. The narrative continues by suggesting that chiefdoms were invented using the spiritual authority with which adherents abide to legitimate their accretion of power over ever larger numbers of so-called alpha males who, in the absence of a chiefdom, would otherwise redound to clan leaders. In other words, the belief in a god or gods was hijacked for political purposes by ‘exceptional’ alpha males. At that point, some contend, civilization as traditionally defined began. After the passage of time (which is amenable to chronological adjustment) ever more ‘exceptional’ individuals began to expand on these ideas. The J curve appeared about 300 to 700 years after two seminal events in human history occurred.

Part of a megalithic structure at Göbekli Tepe...

Part of a megalithic structure at Göbekli Tepe (Turkey). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, written language appeared and was first used widely to control large populations. Written language was essential for administrative code maintenance and enforcement. Immediately following this and because of it, religion became much more sophisticated, and was modified and honed ever more for political control. The geographic area and population size one could control increased by orders of magnitude: the fear of God, who just happens to espouse a philosophy that implores you to be docile and submissive to a curiously political-like authority, could be sent to you in writing.

For the first time it was possible to organize large numbers of people (greater than one’s immediate kin) for a common purpose. Today we take for granted the ability to organize large numbers of people, but at the advent of this kind of political activity, the ability to do so would have been a major, paradigm-shifting invention similar to the scale we today attribute to things like Special Relativity or Quantum Mechanics. Prior to this time there was no means by which a presumptive ruler could apply his authority one thousand miles away upon a tribal family that had never heard of him. No army was large enough to issue constant verbal orders constantly verbally updated by horseback in every village of every region the ruler controlled. No human enterprise could achieve this. But God could. It was the hijacking of a virtually universal, core, ingrained belief of the Gods of seemingly infinite power who controlled all of nature that allowed orders to issue and hold in fidelity over many miles and over many months or years. Religion became a wicked political weapon of control and domination.

With written language a theology of religion could be devised that promoted religious thought from being a nature-bound set of beliefs in supernatural powers that no one at that time could explain in purely rational terms to a more complex set of expectations for adherents which were abstracted from the natural events that instilled the belief in the first place. And these expectations would take the form of behavioral boundaries consisting of – if we strip the supernatural elements from it – a distinctly political nature, suggesting in their writings, stare decisis, that an earthly power was its author. Once read with this mindset almost all religious writings leap out to the reader as the obvious statutory law they are, imbibed with the color of mysticism and the supernatural that would compel adherents to obey it. By additionally applying the litmus test of motive, this observation becomes yet clearer, as the motives of a ruler would lead directly to the boundaries found therein. And this includes the presumptuary laws, provided we understand their merit in the context of hundreds of years past. It is clear at that point that to understand the history of politics and the State one must explore religion, for it is there that it all began.

Once the formal religion was founded, the secondary myth of the Nation-State was born of it. For it was not a leap for what eventually became the ‘exceptional alpha family’ to promulgate the ‘morals’ (also a public myth) and guidelines of the religion as behavioral boundaries that must be obeyed under penalty; that penalty usually being violence, abuse or dispossession. In other words, these things were separately codified and institutions were built around their administration and enforcement. But this connection between the Nation-State and religion only explains the creation of the Nation-State. Other connections likely existed as well. As an inherited tradition from the chiefdoms, the idea that the rulers and the institutions that operated on their behalf were sacred and had some special connection to the gods of nature, was easy enough to transplant into the more sophisticated religious chiefdom, the State. This would later evolve to the notion of divine right.

Other oddities that seem to peer back in time are the consanguineous relations that apparently existed in “royal” families and that in fact existed almost ubiquitously in all cultures’ royalty if we trace them far enough back. Fallacious explanations for this to sustain the myth included the idea that royalty did this to keep the wealth and royalty “in the family”, which is an absurd kernel of truth but widely believed as the whole truth (public myths often rely on subtle but significant distortions of fact). Any “royal” family can keep that in control by fiat. There is no need to adhere to such rules. Why, then, was incest so common amongst royalty? What most people even today don’t know (due to the public myths surrounding sexuality) is that consanguineous relations, that is, incest, does not necessarily, certainly result in genetic defects. To understand this one can consult the rare but still existent horse breeders of extremely old lines. It is well-known in this field that repeated incestuous breeding results in dramatic enhancements of existing, favorable phenotypes as a measurable quality and an eventual disappearance of genetic defects (for human beings it takes about 6 to 10 generations of selfing). By “selfing” descendents eventually reach a point called “breed through”. After breed through, provided no outside genetic contributions are allowed in the family, genetic defects disappear. That is why “royalty” engaged in it. They knew this. The average modern, ‘educated’ person does not. And in all likelihood the degree of incestuous behavior in royal families known to historians today was probably merely the remnant of a much more consistent and ubiquitous trend in royal incest that extended deep into history.

Once we see the obviously more likely historical origins of the myth of the Nation-State we can more adequately address the problems this myth causes. The most important characteristic of the Nation-State is how it promotes and nurtures nationalism, whose most important characteristic, in turn, is the strength and effectiveness with which enforces behavioral boundaries. Only religion is stronger in this regard. And we know this not just because of what we see around us but because nationalism developed alongside and in the same context as religion did; for nationalism analogously instilled the belief that all those outside the chiefdom’s domain were profane, and all those within were, at least to a first order approximation, sacred. Nationalism ensured that the behavioral boundaries of “others” did not “confuse” the subjects within, which would undermine the rulers control. Indeed, in cases of war it would be absolutely essential to convince the subjects that the “others” were profane.

But like religion this public myth greatly impairs our ability to ratify global rule of law in a manner that is transparent, just and has the buy-in of the majority of the world’s population. In convincing others that nationalism is born of public myth, we could point out that the very definition of “nation” is murky at best. Curiously, State boundaries do not match ethnic, cultural or language borders. This is yet another clue that something is incomplete about the definition of a “nation”. Indeed, the “nation” appears to be whatever a given State wants it to be, and which usually matches the political boundaries of that State perfectly. If we insist on the concept of a “nation”, wouldn’t it be more just to lay its boundaries along ethnic, language and/or cultural boundaries? That is rhetorical since the very idea of a fixed geographic origin or residence is rapidly vanishing in consequence of changes in technology.

And like religion, the nation-state myth requires a leap of faith. And it is taken nearly as often and easily. Still today students around the world are taught that the Nation-State is the basic unit of international relations, not just in the legal personality of the State.

The philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out that a fundamental shift in attitude—away from parochialism and toward a redefinition of self-interest is needed for nationalism to be overcome and global rule of law to be feasible. One of the quickest ways to redefine that self-interest would be to establish a General Federation in which movement across traditional borders is paperless and of no mention. For me the analogy would be like driving from Georgia to Florida (two adjoining provinces of the United States): Because there is no paperwork and virtually no mention of the crossing I don’t think of Florida as a different “nation”, just a slightly different but really cool place to go to the beach and make new friends.

– kk

    • Great link, thanks. When I studied Singer’s position on ethics and morals our differences in opinion were fairly fundamental. If you’ve read my blog through you might have noticed that I believe morality is a public myth (see; that is, it is one of a suite of public myths used to control societies and is in reality a meaningless term. So, this puts me and Singer far apart since I do not believe atheists can be moral, any more than anyone else can.

      I am not familiar with this author but it wouldn’t surprise me that much of his ethics might overlap with Christain ethics, since every moral system (we might need to define the difference between ethics and morals) is a basically subjective enterprise that, because humans engage in it, will lead to similar conclusions. It is a kind of confirmation bias.
      Sam Harris ‘plagiarized’ Singer’s thought experiment to make one of his key, fallacious points, basically plagiarizing Singer’s fallacy:

      There is a trolley just below a cliff and you stand above. The trolley is certain to impact and kill 4 people, but a nice large fat man is beside you and if he fell on the tracks he would stop the trolley. Do you push him off for a net rescue of 4 people? How does this compare when the act of pushing him off is abstracted from you (say, by being able to drop someone on the track by some distant remote control scheme)?
      And my reply in On the Means and Methods of Mass Deconversion (which you can download from this site), was:

      In the case of the hospital and trolley example, the logic is similar but not exactly the same. In Harris’ trolley example the point of this that I gathered is to illustrate the difference between a rational decision versus the impulses of reciprocal altruism which may not be rational, at least within the limitations of the example. How is this? When a human being has to make a decision about who shall live or die based solely on number (the remote control example), the decision will revert to reason alone as there is nothing confounding the thought process. But when the presumptively purely rational decision is contaminated with an emotional component (the “fat man”) the outcome may not be rational. What we mean by emotion is essentially identical to Hume’s “passions”. And it is the introduction of abstraction into this example that finally explains this. When the “fat man” is standing directly next to you, the reality of that person’s existence is less abstract than the reality of the existence of the people on the trolley. And this is normal and good. It is a trait that helps protect us from deception.

      But what does this story, as well as most of the similar stories Harris and Dawkins offer, ultimately tell us? It demonstrates that the interests of the individual may, in many circumstances, be more likely defended by an advocate acting out of passions rather than reason. To understand this, one only needs to see that the Trolley example is an extreme. Consider what would happen if we change the Trolley example to a scenario where there is one person on the trolley and the “fat man” standing next to you. You know one must die by the circumstances given. But let’s add a caveat. Say you don’t know the man next to you but the person on the trolley is a friend or acquaintance. Now it gets murky. If you don’t know the person that well you might well leave the “fat man” right where he is and let your “friend” die. In fact, this kind of oxymoronic behavior is all too common in human society. It is the physical proximity of the “fat man”, hence his reification to the actor, that forces the “passions” to override reason. And it was this “passion” that allowed the “fat man” to gain favor. We could come up with better examples for sure, but the point is that we can sustain this argument with Harris’ example alone; to wit, our example illustrates our point but need not serve as proof of it

      Wikipedia notes that Singer believes that:
      “ … evolutionary psychology suggests that humans naturally tend to be self-interested. He further argues that the evidence that selfish tendencies are natural must not be taken as evidence that selfishness is right.”

      Which denotes the practical point where Singer and I part ways in ethics, if we consider ethics to be something distinct from morals, which I do. I differ with Singer in that, while I agree that we cannot assign universal value to this fact (“ … must not be taken as evidence that selfishness is right”), we can say that it has value universally to all human beings if that is our intrinsic biological character. But because we can only assert this relative to human beings, and not in some universal manner, it is ethics and not morals. Morality is thus illusory and a fallacious construct.

      So, my view of ethics is that we can rely on the 4 F’s to guide us, something I’ve posted about here already.

      Finally, I would just add that if Christians accept this argument they are compromising their theological integrity, imo, because the manner in which their “moral” system is derived matters.

      Thanks for the great recommendation.

      – kk

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