Martyrdom as an Antifragile Narrative

In Dan Carlin’s recent Common Sense podcast ‘Arab Spring Fever’ (I recommend this podcast very highly, especially if you are interested in how the US might internally restructure itself to continue evolving and avoid stagnation and decay), he mentions one of the features that unites most, if not all, of the major religions is some kind of concept of martyrdom. Here, I mean this in the loosest sense to simply mean a kind of ‘divine’ suffering. That is, seeing hardship as a blessing in disguise, if you will.


One might ask why this is such a common feature of organized religion. Perhaps it contains some truth, and is therefore invariant over many specific instances of genuine spirituality. However, what struck me was the consequence Carlin pointed to of such a belief structure. Essentially, if the religious narrative of an individual or a people includes being downtrodden as verification of the narrative itself, then becoming downtrodden can only strengthen the narrative. It follows that if followers of such a narrative are not exposed to persecution, suffering, etc. the staying power of the narrative weakens through a lack of empirical verification.

Systems that gain from being exposed to disorder, stress, the unpredictable, etc. and are harmed by a lack of such volatility have been called ‘Antifragile‘ by author and decision-making expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It strikes me that martyrdom-centric religious narratives seem to display this feature of antifragility. When true believers become downtrodden, the narrative is strengthened; when no outside stress is applied to true believers, the narrative may dissipate.

If this analysis is correct, it is perhaps no surprise that most of the major religions share this feature. Real systems in the real world are inevitably exposed to volatility. Those that benefit from it prosper, those that do not are here and gone again in the blink of an eye.

An interesting twist on this framing is the fact that Taleb promotes ‘non-narrative’ modes of thinking and living. However, for the human animal, it seems a narrative can serve as an antifragile heuristic. Or, perhaps more precisely, collectives (e.g. religions) may employ antifragile heuristics through leveraging narratives at the level of human psychology. Either way, it seems the reason the world religions share this martyrdom-narrative could be precisely the strengthening effect volatility then plays on it, whereas non-martyrdom-narratives can appreciate no such effect of the random.


About Joe

I'm a PhD candidate in Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University. I'm currently studying the neural dynamics of visual perception.
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