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Using World History to Predict the Future of the Second Civilization
by William McGaughey
The book, Five Epochs of Civilization, lays out a specific theory of world history which builds upon the organic model of civilizations developed by Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. At the same time, it differs from theirs in asserting the existence of a worldwide (not regional) culture which develops in successive stages. Each stage, or historical epoch, is associated with a "civilization". The civilization has two principal dimensions - first, a new technology of communication which becomes dominant during its epoch; and, second, an institution (or institutions) which becomes dominant.
The successive civilizations are labeled: Civilization I, Civilization II, Civilization III, Civilization IV, and Civilization V. The following table summarizes them with respect to the two keys:
I believe that humanity (especially in the United States) now finds itself in the epoch of Civilization IV. The next civilization, Civilization V, is on the horizon. We see this civilization in its stage of infancy but cannot predict what it will become in the stage of maturity. All we know is that computers will play a large part in determining the culture.
With respect to time periods, the following dates indicate approximate beginning and ending points for each epoch.
Keep in mind that these dates are approximate and do not indicate a clean-cut "birth" or "death". For instance, despite having passed the first epoch of history, all societies still have well-developed governments. China yet retains an ideographic script. The world religions are major institutions in society though their heydays may have passed. Each of the communication technologies continues to be used. Each institution developed in earlier times remains firmly embedded in society.
This is my scheme of comparative civilizations. I am not comparing geographically distinct societies with each another but a single society at several points in time. I call this single society one civilization when, at a certain stage in its development, it exhibits certain institutional and cultural characteristics; and another civilization when, later in its development, it exhibits different characteristics. But the civilizations each have a kind of organic unity that follows a life cycle. Regular life cycles make it possible to predict the future of an organism when observed at an early stage of life. So it is that we can predict the future of civilizations.
What will be the future state of our society? At the present time, we have a society comprising many institutions and using all the communication technologies developed over the past millennia. Our focus will be upon the institutions: government, world religion, business, education, the news and entertainment media, and the Internet.
The Internet and personal communication devices are the basis of a culture now in its infancy. One can expect to watch this sector develop in as yet unforeseen ways. We are, however, presently in the mature phase of the fourth civilization. We are in an age that is dominated by news and entertainment spread by electronic broadcasting. This culture shapes our commerce, politics, religion, and all else in the society. Even though it is starting to give way to a new civilization, the fourth civilization remains strong. Foreseeably, it will characterize our society for quite some time.
The strategy here for predicting the future will be to look at the past course of the earlier civilizations and imagine that the same pattern will apply to society in the present and future. For civilizations are like living organisms that go through predictable life cycles. As we can anticipate our own fate in old age from what happened to our parents, so past history may give clues to the future of the civilization in which we live. First, some definitions:
A civilization is a particular cultural configuration appearing in certain societies at certain times. The term, Civilization II, for instance, refers both to the institutional configuration of the society (and its related culture conveyed through the dominant media of communication) and to the period in world history when this condition existed. We say that a society of the Civilization II type is one, following the age of imperial governments, where a so-called higher religion participates in a power-sharing arrangement with the political authority. With respect to time, we estimate that civilized societies fit the Civilization II pattern between 300 B.C. and 1450 A.D., roughly speaking. Again, please keep in mind that the dates of historical epochs are approximate. There are periods of overlapping civilizations.
In anticipating the future, we look at how a civilizations dominant institution changed in the epochs following its period of dominance. If the institution of world religion belongs to Civilization II, we will want to see what type of religion existed in the second, third, and fourth epochs of world history. (Since the fifth civilization is still in an immature stage, it would be pointless to carry the analysis through this period.) We will want to see how world religion fared after its period of dominance had ended. In other words, what historical trends may be observed in the period between 1450 and 1920 A.D. (Civilization III) and between 1920 A.D. and 1990 A.D. (Civilization IV)? The future of religion will be taken up in the remainder of this paper.
Religion before the Epoch of Civilization II
Religious practices date back to the start of human culture. Shamanic rituals served this function in primitive communities. We may assume that the rituals were related to a community desire for communal health and prosperity. Priests implored the gods to treat people well: to provide an abundant crop and avoid sickness. There were particular nature gods thought to control particular elements or aspects of nature. Priestly cults grew up around their worship at particular sites or shrines.
Religion was thus believed to comprise practical techniques to keep community life healthy. Priests needed to apply the techniques properly. Their rituals were directed at spiritual entities that would help in the process. Toynbee calls this type of religion nature worship. Religion was directed at changing the course of natural events to be more favorable to men. Even the Hebrew religion promised prosperity if the Jews continued to obey God and keep his Commandments.
In the first epoch of civilization, religion changed from nature worship to what Toynbee calls worship of Man himself or, in other words, the worship of ones own collective human power. Civic worship is another name for it. Humanity no longer worshiped elements in nature but, instead, political entities. Each city-state had its own god or goddess in the form of a statue enshrined in a temple. For instance, Pallas Athena, who was formerly the goddess of olive cultivation, became the personal guardian and spirit of the Athenian city-state. Her shrine was in the Parthenon. Toynbee believes that Jehovah, ancestral God of the Hebrew people, might originally have been a volcano god or weather god based upon his appearance atop Mount Sinai.
In any event, nature gods and goddesses were readily adapted to the needs of the state. They became spiritual representatives and protectors of the community. Community well being depended upon paying proper respect to these deities through the performance of rituals.
In large empires such as Egypts, the political leader became deified. Pharaoh was considered to be a living god, son of Re, begotten by an immaculate conception. After death, Pharaoh was believed to have joined the other gods and joined Osiris in the underworld. He himself survived in an embalmed body with a spirit kept alive by unceasing rituals and prayers. Pharaohs faithful subjects might enjoy immortality through his intercessions.
Alexander the Great succumbed to the idea of deification when he visited Egypt and was told by priests that he was Amon-Res son. Another great conqueror who also visited Egypt, Julius Caesar, had a similar experience. He gave consent to a cult that worshiped him as a god. Octavian persuaded the Roman Senate to confirm this institution two years after Caesars death.
While Octavian (Augustus) resisted deification, some of his successors did not. Caligula announced that he was a god equal to Jupiter. Nero erected a huge statue of himself with solar rays projecting from his head in the manner of Phoebus Apollo. If emperors were not worshiped outright, the state demanded veneration of their spirit. Roman citizens were expected to offer sacrifices to the emperors genius or divine spirit.
And so in the first epoch of world history, which was the age of imperial governments, the political ruler became either a god or a high priest. Each year, the Chinese emperor performed a ceremony at the Temple of Heaven that included incantations to ensure a successful crop. He was son of Heaven or Gods representative on earth. In Japan, the emperor, who was the head of a large extended family, paid homage to the spirit of the ancestors. The Roman emperor was Pontifex Maximus, high priest of the Roman state religion.
Religion was then seen as a tool of state craft. Emperors crafted religious solutions to organizational problems in their empires. They constructed pantheons of gods to accommodate the gods of conquered peoples in a structure reflecting political power. The Greek emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV precipitated a rebellion when he tried to install a statue of Zeus Ouranios in the temple at Jerusalem. The Roman emperor Constantine more successfully brought Christianity into the role of an acceptable state religion.
Religion in the Epoch of Civilization II
This epoch of history began with an outpouring of creative expression from individual thinkers. In the first instance, they were philosophers though some, such as Zoroaster and Buddha, had ideas easily adapted to religion. Judaic religion in the 6th century B.C. was profoundly changed by writers such as Jeremiah and Second Isaiah who reacted to events of the Exile. The philosophers sometimes offered a moral critique of society; it was implied that if the monarch accepted their ideas, the kingdom would become a much better place. Philosophers dealt in ideas which were general perceptions of truth.
Monotheism, the idea of a single God to replace all the nature or local gods, reflected that tendency to express many instances of reality in a single form. It also mirrored the consolidation of kingdoms in a single large empire such as Egypts. Pharaoh Ikhnaton, who first proposed the idea, was son of Amenhotep III who reigned when Egyptian power was at a peak.
The epoch of Civilization II saw the decline of ritualistic religion and its replacement by a religion promoting ethical ideals. The prophet Amos expresses this well. He quoted God: I hate, I spurn your pilgrim feasts; I will not will not delight in your sacred ceremonies ... Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream ... Hate evil and love good; enthrone justice in the courts. (Amos 5: 21, 24, 15) Philosophers were pondering the nature of good and other ideals. They were seeking truth and advocating that goodness be instituted in society. Religion absorbed those influences.
The religions of Civilization II are also characterized by the importance of written texts. This is especially true in Judaism where the experiences and teachings of Moses were embodied in sacred books. Christianity, in turn, is a product of the body of Jewish prophetic writings that began with Amos. These writing prophets, like the philosophers, were men who brought their individual intellects to bear upon questions of the day. In this case, the fall of Jerusalem and deportation of leading Jews to Babylon posed a challenge to the religion of Moses which had promised the Jews that all would be well if they continued to be faithful to their ancestral God Jehovah. Instead, the Babylonians had destroyed their nation. The prophets solved this problem by creating a scenario of history by which the Jewish nation would be restored in an even more glorious form after God had temporarily chastised them for their sins.
The canonical prophets wrote over a period of four centuries; the actual writing continued for twice that period. The cumulative body of scripture created a scenario of events that was ever more elaborate and fantastic. Whereas the Messiah in earlier writings was a descendant of David who restored the Jewish nation to the state of a glorious empire, the Messiah in later writings became a purely supernatural figure who arrived in a turbulent time when God established his own kingdom on earth. The prophets each added details to the scenario which became accepted - for instance, the idea that Elijah had to return before the Messiah could come or that humanity would have to endure immense tribulation before the Kingdom arrived. This was the script which Jesus followed in his earthly ministry.
Jesus death and resurrection in fulfillment of prophecy created a living community of believers in him as a Messiah who had come to earth and been rejected but who would come again in the glorious role of Gods agent in establishing a divine kingdom. The group developed certain communal practices, produced written accounts of Jesus ministry, waited for his return, and meanwhile went out to preach the Gospel in the far reaches of the Roman empire. Inevitably, its announcement of a risen Messiah came in conflict with the Roman state religion. Christians were persecuted. They fought rival rival religions and philosophies, and heresies in their own doctrine, but in the end acquired a singular structure of power and endured.
In the early 4th century A.D., the emperor Constantine decided to tolerate and support this religion. Later emperors made it Romes state religion. Then, in the 5th century A.D., the west Roman empire was overrun by Germanic barbarians. There was now a church without a state. Keep in mind that Christianity continued as Romes state religion in the eastern half of the empire which had survived the barbarian attack. Here the Byzantine emperor perpetuated Roman political rule while the patriarch of Constantinople handled religious affairs.
This eastern empire came in conflict with the Sasanian Persian empire, successor to the Parthian, where Zoroastrianism was the state religion. For several centuries, the two empires engaged in other in a series of wars having religious overtones. Then, in the early 7th century A.D., both suddenly came under attack from Arab armies infused with the religion of Islam. The Sasanian empire fell. From its more defensible position at Constantinople, the Byzantine empire survived the Moslem onslaught and continued to exist for another eight centuries.
The Bishop of Rome was head of the western church after Rome fell. This official had a special position within the Christian hierarchy as a lineal successor to St. Peter who had died in Romes capital city. After the fall of the empire, the church was without visible power. Political power in those territories was in the hands of barbarian kings. But the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, was in a sense heir to Romes cultural heritage. He was also believed to be Gods duly appointed representative on earth. This gave the Pope some leverage over the barbarians, especially after they converted to Christianity. The Pope was able to confer political legitimacy upon particular rulers. Conversely, he was able to excommunicate rulers who displeased the church in various ways.
The prophet Mohammed had established both a religious and political kingdom on the Arabian peninsula before he died in 632 A.D. His authority was based on direct revelations from God written down in the Koran. After Mohammeds death, his associates and successors to power waged aggressive wars beyond Arabia which, over the next century, created one of the largest political empires ever seen on earth. It extended from France through Spain and north Africa and the middle east to India and a central Asian frontier with China.
The caliphate, which was the political succession to Mohammed, was headquartered first in Damascus and then in Baghdad. The succession became split between the Umayyad rulers who had first assumed power in Damascus and a lineage from Ali, Mohammeds son in law, who was assassinated in 661 B.C. There was also a body of clerics and scholars who maintained Islamic teaching. And so, Islam, like Christianity, had both a church and a state.
The other great religion that emerged during this period was Buddhism. Buddha, who had lived during the 6th century B.C., was the first of the three founders of world religion. He was also a philosopher. His religion emerged from the community of persons who had attended Buddhas preaching. It was organized monastically rather than in the hierarchical form of a church.
Yet, Buddhism was the first of the three religions to become an official religion of the state. This occurred briefly during the reign of Asoka during the 3rd century B.C. After his bloody conquest of Kalinga, Asoka converted to Buddhism, announcing that henceforth he would cease to pursue military conquest and instead seek conquests of religion. Asoka zealously sought to reform Indian society using Buddhist principles. However, the Mauryan empire fell fifty years after Asokas death.
Buddhism underwent a transformation when it spread to Bactria in northwest India a century later. There it came in contact with Greek culture. Greek philosophy and the Zoroastrian cosmology of Heaven and Hell transformed Buddhism from a philosophy of personal enlightenment into a religious cult of personal saviors, called bodhisattvas, who were Buddha-like personalities who were meant to help humanity achieve an enlightened state. Buddhism also was influenced by Greek sculpture. Realistic statues of the seated Buddha became a hallmark of the religion. In that form, Buddhism was exported to China, and then to Korea and Japan. Mahayana Buddhism became the dominant Far Eastern religion, personally embraced by emperors of the Ching dynasty.
Some would say that one of Buddhas contemporaries in China also created a religion. Confucius, too, was a philosopher. However, starting in the Han dynasty, Confucian philosophy provided a moral structure to accompany imperial government. This philosophy did not promise enlightenment or continued existence in the afterlife, but instead provided guidance to proper conduct in this life for the betterment of society. Confucian scholars, versed in the classics, became imperial administrators. However, there were Confucian ceremonies resembling ritualistic religion.
A comparison might be made with the Zoroastrian philosophy in Persia. Zoroaster, like Confucius, wandered the land in search of a royal patron to put his ideas into effect. He found King Vishtaspa, reputedly the father of Darius I. Zoroastrianism became a state religion in the first (Achaemenian) Persian empire and, even more militantly, in the second (Sasanian) empire. Its philosophy combined faith in social progress with a fantastic cosmology that included Heaven and Hell, angels and archangels, Satan, a final spiritual battle, and a redeemer figure that would appear at the end of time. These various elements entered the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions. The idea of paradise became established on philosophical grounds.
When we look at the world religions in their mature state, we find increased emphasis upon continuing life after death. Religion becomes a gatekeeper for souls seeking to enter Heaven. The earlier philosophers had sought truth concerning things in this world. Religion comes more to depend upon faith in a personal savior than on finding a path to salvation through intellectual exertions. Religious life becomes more emotional. Works of art play an increasing role. Also, the hierarchies of religious authority come more to resemble political empires. Like spiritual empires accompanying the political, they become ambitious and worldly. In particular, they instigate wars.
Pope Urban IIs call for a crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Moslems may be the prime example, but all religions developed warlike features. The Moslems battled Christians in Spain and the Middle East and the Hindus in India. Buddhism became the cradle of the martial arts. Christianity split into warring Protestant and Catholic camps. The horror of religious wars plus the worldliness of its clergy were major contributors to the downfall of the Roman church as European society entered the next epoch of world history.
The flowering of great architecture, sculpture, and painting during the Italian Renaissance affected the Roman church. Much money was needed to built St. Peters church. To raise that money, Popes resorted to questionable fundraising techniques such as the sale of indulgences. That was the immediate cause of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, however, also challenged the foundation of church power and authority, especially the idea that sacraments administered by Roman priests were essential to salvation. Faith in Jesus was enough to gain salvation, he proposed. Each Christian believer was free to read the Bible and develop his own religious interpretations.
The Reformation of the 16th century A.D. split both the religious and political map of Europe. Luther was supported by the elector of Saxony and other German princes. While the church condemned his heresy and Luther was excommunicated, political protection spared him the fate of other heretics. Europe became divided between Catholic and Protestant nations. The Catholics were led by Emperor Charles V, heir to both the Hapsburg Austrian and the Spanish thrones. The Protestants were a coalition of kingdoms in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and England. Military conflict between the two religious and political camps erupted in the Thirty Years War, lasting between 1618 and 1648 A.D. It was a war of unprecedented magnitude and severity.
During this time, the institution of state religion continued. The difference was that Christianity was no longer a unified religion attached to a political empire. Rather, each kingdom adopted its own kind of religion. There was a principle that the prince determined the religion of his subjects. The most dramatic example was Henry VIIIs sudden conversion from Catholicism to the Protestant religion after the Pope refused to grant him a divorce. King Henry became the head of the Church of England, also known as the Episcopalian church. Lutheranism was favored in Germany and Scandinavia. John Calvin, a Protestant theologian living in Geneva, inspired Calvinist denominations including the Presbyterian church. Unlike Roman Catholicism, the Protestant type of Christianity tended to be sectarian. The emphasis upon individual interpretations of the Bible led to a host of sects including Quakers, Mennonites, and Anabaptists that were unattached to states.
The ferocity of the Thirty Years War turned many Europeans against state religion. Dissenters and free-thinkers promoted religious tolerance. The Pilgrims who settled in Massachusetts in 1620 were one such group. The epoch of Civilization III came to support the idea that religious affiliation was a matter of individual conscience and the state should have no part in deciding which religion anyone should have. In the United States, the doctrine of separation of church and state was written into the Bill of Rights. The American Declaration of Independence had declared that governments were authorized, not by God but by the will of the people.
Thus religion in this epoch centered on individual denominations which were distinguished by their differing interpretations of theology. The Roman Catholic church remained the largest denomination. Various Protestant churches including the Methodists and Lutherans also had large memberships. There was also room for tolerance of non-Christian religions such as Judaism and for offshoots of Christianity such as the Mormon religion, the Jehovahs Witnesses and Christian Science.
Even though in theory individuals were free to choose their own religious denominations, the mass of European immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to keep their previous affliation. Irish and Italians tended to remain Roman Catholic; Norwegians were Protestant. More than a system of personal beliefs, religion became an attribute of ethnicity. It embodied the cultural heritage, including moral values, of the particular peoples coming to a strange land. The descendants of African slaves also belonged to mostly Protestant denominations shared with the slave owners but developed their own institutions adapted to the needs of the black community. Central and South America, of course, remained predominately Catholic reflecting its colonial heritage.
Outside Europe and America, Orthodox Christianity went through changes of its own. It had long been a department within Roman imperial government. When the Ottomans finally captured Constantinople in 1453 A.D., the Roman government was extinguished. The new Turkish rulers gave the Patriarch of Constantinople political authority over the non-Moslem communities in the Ottoman empire. This figure remained the spiritual leader of Orthodox Greeks who continued to play a major political and commercial role in its life. But the real story was the shift of religious authority northward to Moscow, center of an emerging new empire. After the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Christianity in 987 A.D., Slavic peoples became the main component of the Orthodox faith. The see of Kiev was moved to Moscow where, in 1589 A.D., the Czar established a new patriarchate.
Orthodox Christianity formally split from the western church in 1054 A.D. when Pope Leo IX excommunicated Michael Cerularius, an eastern patriarch. The nominal issue was that the eastern church would not accept the filioque clause which declared that the Holy Spirit had proceeded from both the Father and the Son. But Photianism, or separatist feelings within the eastern church, had been brewing for some time. Relations between western and eastern Christians were further damaged when Frankish crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 A.D. Although a desperate Byzantine emperor agreed to accept Romes spiritual authority in the 15th century, it was not enough to save either the empire or Christian unity.
Islam during this period did not see a theological rupture similar to Christianitys. (Mohammed had once said, My community will never agree in an error.) Its fissures related more to issues related to the succession from Mohammed. The split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has to do with the murder of the fourth caliph, Ali, who was Mohammeds son-in-law, in 661 A.D. Alis son and successor, Hassan, Mohammeds grandson, was also murdered. Sunnis accept the succession through Muawiyah and the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, nonrelatives responsible for those murders. Shiites do not. They have supported the rival claims of Alis descendants.
A Shiite rebellion in 850-2 A.D. against Umayyad rule installed Abbas, a descendant of Mohammeds uncle, as caliph. The Shiite Abbasid dynasty, which moved its capital to Baghdad, brought non-Arabs, especially Persians, to positions of leadership within Islam. This dynasty lasted until Berbers, Turks, and other nomads overran the empire a century later. However, a descendant of the house of Umayyad became the Moorish ruler of Spain. Christian rulers expelled it from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century.
Finally, a mix of Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and even Christian religions claimed the region between India and Far East. Hinduism was a remnant of Indian ancestral religion which was originally ritualistic but was ideologically transformed under pressure from Buddhism, which it was able to expel from India. Its later challenge came from Islam which was establishing kingdoms in the north. Eventually the Mogul dynasty was able to unify much of the Indian subcontinent.
Hindu and Buddhist culture spread eastward to Java where Islam later became a challenging force. Buddhism in both its Mahayana and Hinayana forms claimed southeast Asia and Ceylon. Mahayana Buddhism spread to Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan in the first millennium A.D. Split into sects, it was the predominant religion of the Far East until the arrival of Christian traders and missionaries in the 16th century. The Japanese shogun rulers first played Christianity and Buddhism against each other but later decided to expel the Christians. Japan was closed to western influence for three centuries.
Religion in the Epoch of Civilization IV
In the early 20th century, Christianity faced several challenges. First there was the challenge to its belief system created by scientific theories such as Darwinian evolution. The well-publicized Scopes trial of 1925 made believers in the Biblical creation stories seem foolish. Second, there was the challenge of secular education. Young people were being steered toward other interests and values. Third, popular entertainment posed a challenge in seeming to glamorize sexual promiscuity, stylish clothes, flippant behavior, and loose living generally. Fourth, the courts later handed down decisions that curtailed religion in the name of preserving separation of church and state. Religious symbols were barred from public property. Abortion was made legal. Also, atheistic doctrines such as Freudian psychology advanced alternative explanations of human behavior. Marxist atheism claimed whole nations. Religion seemed to be fast becoming a relic of the past.
Such were problems that Christianity faced in the 1920s, during the jazz age. Modern culture was coming on like a tornado destroying much that people held dear. But that perception was also religions salvation. When wars, depressions, and other calamities struck, people yearned for moral stability. And so, preachers such as Billy Sunday, Aimee McPherson, and Billy Graham attracted large audiences. Christianity was the culture of their forbearers. The decadence of modern times could perhaps be reversed by a return to the ways of God. The Gospel preachers harnessed the mass media to their mission. These televangelists were as slick as any pop entertainer. Rock n roll, once the devils music, could easily be adapted to the ends of promoting a wholesome, religious life. Religion entered the entertainment age.
In this epoch of civilization, the earlier trend to denominational identifies was reversed. Who cared what theological position the preacher took so long as it was generally Christian? While the Southern Baptists and Penticostals form the core of Christian fundamentalism, the approach taken by televangelists is essentially non-denominational. Secular culture is the enemy, not another denomination - not even the Roman Catholic church. Fundamentalist Protestants and mainstream Catholics can agree on their opposition to abortion. They can agree on the evils of secularism and the need to return to personal faith in Jesus. Religion has been confronting a series of court decisions which, in the name of separation of church and state, promote secular values. Court orders banning harmless celebrations of Christmas in public places offend tradition-minded persons regardless of religious affiliation. Christianity is positioning itself to uphold the position of religion in public life against antagonistic secular influences.
In the 1980s, Christian fundamentalists made an alliance with the Republican party, then led by Ronald Reagan, which has produced a major realignment of voting blocs. With his faith-based initiatives, George W. Bush has taken it a step further. While the constitution forbids a state religion, it cannot forbid participation by religious persons in political life. Even so, certain political ideologies function as religions in a broad sense. The United States gives massive political and financial support to the state of Israel, a religiously defined state founded on the Biblical principle that God gave certain lands in Palestine forever to the Jewish people. Public remembrances of the Holocaust are a quasi-religious ritual. The struggle between capitalism and communism, in which the U.S. government picked sides, was equivalent to religious warfare between different economic ideologies. And now the war on terrorism pits a nation state, the United States of America, against a religious fringe group associated with Islam.
Beyond this, we can see how religion, in a broad sense, has moved to embrace the values of each age. We can see how, in a commercial age, the Christmas holiday has been converted into an obligation to do shopping for gifts. In an entertainment age, this holiday has provided a thematic background for entertainment events attracting an assured audience. Some make the pursuit of money lifes chief interest. Others are obsessed with fame and celebrity. One can argue that these values are substitute religions claiming worshippers in a post-Christian world. It was Jesus, after all, who said that a person could not worship both God and Money. He saw money worship as a competing religion.
Summary of Religion in Three Epochs of History
A polarity relevant to religious history is the extent to which religion is chosen freely by each individual or is imposed upon the individual by government or another external force. We tend to think that individuals voluntarily consent to religious belief and affiliation; but the history of religion does not always support that view. There is sometimes strong pressure to conform to the religious norm. Individuals who refuse are often punished, sometimes by death.
When religion consisted of nature worship, one would assume that whoever believed the rituals would help to achieve some desired end willingly participated in them. If one was skeptical about the efficacy of the ritual, one might decline to participate in the same way one might decline to take a pill that the doctor has prescribed. I would imagine that there was little or no moral stigma attached to not participating in the religious ritual; but I could be wrong.
When religion progressed to worship of the state, there was more pressure to engage in worship. Each person owed something to the community. Taxation and military service were one kind of civic obligation. Any normally patriotic male would, of course, fight to protect his community. Civic duty in those days also consisted of honoring the gods of the city or empire. Roman citizens were expected to respect the emperor by paying tribute to his divine spirit.
The early Christians angered Roman authorities by refusing to do this. Their monotheistic religion forbade them to recognize any god but their own. Followers of Judaism were likewise forbidden to worship statues that represented the gods of particular cities since these were a graven image. Jewish and Christian monotheism thus created systematic disobedience to the worship required in other peoples empires.
World religion began with prophets or philosophers advancing new ideas. These were individual thinkers presumably free to pursue the truth. Others were free to accept or reject their arguments. In a sense, this was perfect freedom. On the other hand, if the prophet spoke in Gods name, it might have represented a lack of freedom because God must be obeyed. But truth is, initially at least, a matter of individual discovery and persuasion. Christianity went through a period when its proponents needed to persuade audiences of the risen Christ. Mohammed for years tried to enlist citizens of Mecca in his new religion. Not until invited to take over the government in Medina did his enterprise succeed.
When Christianity became a state religion, this part of the process was settled. The Roman government gave certain privileges to church officials. This imported religion took the place of Romes civic religion and entailed the same obligations. Citizens of the empire were not free to reject this religion and choose another. Political and ecclesiastical law were two sides of a coin, both compulsory. And so religion swung over to the pole of its being imposed upon people by an external force. The choice of religions was a part of citizenship in the empire.
The same is true when, in the third epoch of civilization, the political ruler was allowed to pick the religion of his subjects. It was state religion on a smaller scale. Toward the end of the epoch, however, the pendulum swung again toward individual freedom as the oppressive environment and bloody sectarian wars gave rise to religious liberty as an ideal. When a nation has no established church, then citizens are free to pick their religion. There was a time in the 19th century when preachers representing different denominations argued in public which theology was best. Deciding that all existing denominations were deficient, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith founded his own religion.
At an extreme, picking ones religion might be compared with grocery shopping or picking food items from a menu; there would be perfect freedom to do as one pleases. The political elite may feel that it cannot entrust ordinary people to make the right religious decision. Inevitably there will be moves to force the decision to be made in a certain way. These may be self-interested moves by the political elite. Religious freedom, which represents an ideal, will always be curtailed to some degree by political power.
That is where U.S. society is now. Hidden political or religious agendas, in effect, create a state religion. Some values and beliefs are compulsory; that makes them religious in nature. The next step may be to question the compulsory values, force them to be discussed, and set religion on a new foundation of freedom.
Christianity, relatively innocent in this dispute, is nevertheless implicated by Biblical zealots who have dragged the United States into the conflict on Israels behalf through dark interpretations of scripture relating to the Anti-Christ and the end times. The U.S. invasion of Iraq has, in effect, elevated issues stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the status of a world war.
Judaic religion has now been established for thousands of years. Its essential claims are, in the words of Kenneth Boulding, impervious to feedback. It is impossible for a normal living person to know whether Christians go to Heaven after death or what the experience of Heaven actually is. This type of belief would be harmless enough were it not for such things as Islamic suicide bombers killing innocent people in expectation of entering paradise. The same is true of mass killings in Iraq and elsewhere by U.S. military operations. These are not defensive wars but ones fueled by ideologies that have distinctly religious elements. War, said Toynbee, is an exercise in state religion.
Sacred texts and traditions are not necessarily true. Did God promise Abraham that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan forever? How can we possibly verify that Biblical statement? How does it justify the modern-day Israelis forceably evicting Palestinians from their homeland to make room for Jews? And what is one to make of continued anticipation that events symbolically presented in the Book of Revelation and other prophetic scriptures will come to pass in our own day? The early Christians anticipated the imminent return of Jesus. Two thousand years later, many Christians are still waiting.
Again, these expectations would be tolerable if harmless, but, given political interpretations, they add fuel to a conflict in the Middle East that has brought untold suffering to our world. Somehow humanity must find a way to disregard these horrible doctrines. Jesus may have pointed a way to sanity when he said: By their fruits you shall know them. By implication, if the religion has bad consequences, shun it.
In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church abused its power in withholding the sacraments and, by implication, salvation from persons who opposed its worldly agenda. In the Sixth Crusade, for example, the Pope excommunicated Emperor Frederick II for not commencing hostilities against the Moslems quickly enough. Frederick responded by sitting down with the Sultan of Egypt and amiably concluding a sham agreement for Jerusalems surrender. He later wrote a letter to his fellow European princes urging them to confiscate church lands. Still more defiantly, Martin Luther disputed the doctrine that church sacraments were needed for salvation. Belief in Heaven remained intact as did the practice of church sacraments, but the Roman church lost its much of its power to do harm in the world.
Religion addresses fundamental questions of life, death, and an afterlife that will always be with humanity. It deals with supernatural phenomena inexplicable by other types of knowledge. Religiously inspired persons or "saints" who develop extraordinary personal capabilities and even the ability to perform miracles have enriched human culture. Their self-effacing ways have brought peace and healing to the world. Religion has provided moral purpose in life to its followers. It has offered hope in lifes dark moments. To the extent that the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions have given humanity such gifts, their tradition deserves to continue.
But the alliance between religion and worldly power does little to develop its positive side. Religion confers a benefit only if an individual freely chooses it and lets it work a spritual transformation within the human heart. Therefore, society should embrace religious freedom.
The lesson of history is that bloody wars often bring cultures to an end. If religious conflicts are bloody enough, humanity will find a way not to believe. Common sense will dictate that religious affiliation and participation again be a matter of individual choice. State religions are a bane.