History

There is a definite process of change that can be observed in our history. I do not call it “progress” because I am not convinced that what we have now is better than what we have had before, nor am I sure that what we will have in the future will be much better. Nevertheless, there are patterns of development that are plain to see in the history of our societies and cultures.

Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever denied this. Instead, commentators seem to fall into two camps. One set of people sees a continuous evolution. Typically, these people are “progressives” who see a continuous improvement in the lot of man and look forward to even greater freedom and prosperity in times to come. Other people see the opposite: a gradual decline from an ancient golden age that we have long since lost. Such people generally expect some sort of apocalypse in the not too distant future. As far as that goes, there is not much difference between the former and the latter, merely a reversal of direction. I am reminded of G K Chesterton’s wonderful remark: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes.  The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

However, some people expect a rebirth after the apocalypse. Rather than seeing history as a linear progression or degression, they see it as a cyclic process of birth, growth, decay, death then rebirth. This certainly appears to be true on some scales. Civilisations appear to follow patterns not unlike the life-cycles of living creatures. Oswald Spengler and, slightly more respectably, Arnold J Toynbee both wrote famous books about this idea. But although we can observe similar life-cycles in many different historical civilisations, we must also account for the bigger picture. For instance, we can comment on the rise and fall of Roman civilisation but we must also consider the history of European civilisation as a whole, of which the Roman era is but one period. There is a pattern of change, beginning with the hunter-gatherers who first turned up when the ice retreated and continuing until we reach the modern West, which is either linear or the outer cycle in a concentric pattern of cycles within cycles. Although some religions claim that existence itself is cyclical, that doesn’t really mean anything from our point of view. For any living person, the outermost cycle might as well be linear.

So we end up with something like a 15th Century model of the solar system, with epicycles on epicycles on epicycles. I strongly suspect that a lot of the bizarre theories I have encountered concerning history and the future of the world stem from mistaking an inner cycle for an outer cycle, or the other way around. The progressives may have a point, when we consider our early hominid ancestors and compare them to people today, but I think they go horribly wrong when they assume such outer-cycle observations hold true in the faster inner-cycles as well.  Similarly, it is easy to find cyclic patterns in the history of any human society but their implications do not necessarily transfer to larger cycles.

Bearing the above in mind, let me choose a slice of history in which a linear progression is evident. In other words, let me choose a cycle and make it, for my current purposes, the outermost cycle. I wish to consider the survival of religions.

There were once a great many more religions than there are now. Or perhaps not, depending on how you wish to define ‘religion’. We cannot even agree on an etymology for the word, let alone a definition. But there is no need to be precise, a vague idea of spirituality and some sort of custom or traditional practice surrounding that spirituality is enough. Europe used to be full of such religions. Every region, every tribe had its own gods. Practices could differ from village to village.  Until recently, I had held the common belief that ‘pagan’ originally meant ‘country dweller’ or ‘country bumpkin’. But a few days ago I discovered that is not true, that in fact paganus was frequently used to designate city dwellers. Instead, it seems that it derives from pagus in the sense of a district or community. That is, a paganus is someone who follows the religion of his pagus, his locality.

The alternative to local religion is universal religion. There are some religions that claim to be good for all people in all places, indeed some religions claim not merely to be good but to be the only religion.  Such religions tend to be monotheist. I suppose there is a connection between claiming that there is only one valid religion for all people and claiming that there is only one god. If you accept that there is a plurality of deities, might not other people have their own?

I think it is fair to say that, over the course of recorded history, pagan religions have been dying out to be replaced by monotheism. There are very few traditional pagan religions left in the world, or perhaps it would be safer to say that there are very few pagans left in the world. Japan is often presented as a counter-example. It is said that Japan has managed to survive into the modern world, and not just as an island of pre-modern culture in a modern world but as a thoroughly modern culture itself, yet it retains its traditional Shinto religion.  This is partly true (and is one of the reasons that I find Japan fascinating) but it is impossible to separate Shinto from the Buddhism that entered Japan one and a half millennia ago. Furthermore, Shinto itself has been centralised. It was only when the Imperial family wished to consolidate its rule over the fragmentary Japanese society that the various different folk practices and stories were unified and written down. Even then, it did not have a name until it became necessary to distinguish between local customs and originally foreign Buddhism. Modern Shinto is largely a product of the 19th century Meiji Restoration: it was used as a tool to promote nationalism and the cult of the Emperor. So, although neither monotheistic nor strictly universalist, modern Shinto is not quite the religion of a pagus that it once was; and Buddhism, with which Shinto has been entangled for centuries, most certainly is a universal religion.

It is interesting that the only pagan empires have all practised a cult of emperor worship. Such cults existed alongside genuine pagan religions and they were not enforced outside the borders of the empire (although those borders were generally expanding for as long as they could) but there are clear similarities between emperor cults and universal religions. They were ‘universal’ within the bounds of the empire. They provided a common religion, a coherent cultural thread, to hold the empire together. Boris Johnson had this to say about the Roman Empire:

The emperor cult was a key element in the process by which Europe was Romanised… to understand how the Romans ran Europe so well for so long, we have to understand the mesmerizing way in which Augustus set up the idea of a divinely ordained empire, with a divinely ordained emperor at the centre… This had enormous political advantages, and it helps to explain how the Romans ran Europe and created that sense of unity that has eluded everyone else ever since… it was the pagan system with emperor worship at its heart that allowed the Romans to run Europe…

I don’t know as much about Chinese history as I perhaps should, but I strongly suspect that something like the same unifying process surrounded the Chinese cult of the emperor as that which evidently surrounded the cult in Rome and Japan.

This would make a truly universal religion quite attractive to an emperor. Indeed, when Constantine adopted Christianity he established himself as patron of the Church, a position which the Roman Emperor would hold for centuries to come. Roman art supports this thesis: the Christ of the Roman Empire was usually depicted as an emperor or a legionary. Christian doctrines that failed to recognise the secular authority of the Church and Empire, especially those that promoted a more egalitarian society, were condemned as heresies and violently persecuted.

So perhaps the monotheistic religions have survived so well compared to the pagan religions because they have more to offer a secular authority who wishes to inculcate a sense of unity in his subjects and to justify his own position at the top of the hierarchy. If a monotheist religion has the support of the state while that same state actively persecutes pagan religions, we should not be surprised that the former thrives while the latter dies out. And it certainly seems as if universal religions are more politically expedient than local religions. The former unifies an empire, while the latter differentiates between every component tribe, region or city.

On the other hand, while the above is certainly part of the story, might it not be that monotheism is particularly suited to civilisation? Not just that it is politically suited to dominion, but that it has something to offer the civilised soul that pagan religion cannot.  Zoroaster, whose teachings formed the monotheistic religion of the Persian empire, explicitly identified civilisation with virtue and the benevolent deity Ahura Mazda, while the nomadic herdsmen of the steppes were associated with the evil Ahriman. That may possibly be explained by circumstance, since the Persian civilisation was continually threatened by the nomadic Huns to the east. But still it cannot be denied that monotheism has proved particularly appealing to the civilised mind and in many cases the explanation that it was forced upon unwilling people by an oppressive monarch is insufficient.

At the end of H R Ellis Davidson’s wonderful book, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, there is a chapter on “The Passing of the Old Gods”.  The whole chapter, indeed the whole book, is well worth reading, but the final paragraph struck me particularly:

In many ways the old religion had pointed forward to the new, but while much of the pattern was the same, the Christian conception of the relationship between God and man was immeasurably richer and deeper. When we lament the passing of the old faith, it is largely a lamentation for a simpler way of life, and for the heroic ideas which belonged to that life, doomed to be lost when a more complex and organised society replaced the old one. As the way of living changed, and new vistas opened before the eyes of the young, the old deities could no longer satisfy, and men had reached the point of no return.

I have often thought of religion as a cultural expression, rather than merely a set of dogmatic beliefs. I don’t have a lot of time for “faith” in the sense of believing a thing to be true without any evidence, or even in the face of contradictory evidence. But I do appreciate the idea that religion provides or expresses a cultural identity. I do not think one can really separate a religion from a culture. Indeed, I think it is quite a modern idea to attempt to do so, a rather pernicious idea that leads to Jerry Falwell and Richard Dawkins. A religion is part of a culture, just as much as social organisation, language, architectural styles and all the other phenomena that arise when humans live together in a community. Of course all those things can be considered separately, but they can only really be understood in the context of the culture of which they are part. Any attempt to isolate one part at the expense of the whole is doomed to create something quite literally unwholesome.

Thus, rather than considering Christianity to be an imposition on the natural religion of Europe, perhaps I should think of it as the natural evolution of European religion. Certainly, the more I learn about early Christianity and in particular the versions of Christianity that took hold in Northern Europe, the less I feel that I am reading about an alien creed and the more European it all seems.

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Published in: on April 20, 2008 at 12:49 am  Leave a Comment