Religion and the Survival of Culture

Among the more interesting things I've had occasion to notice, during the time The Archdruid Report has been online, is a common assumption shared by the two popular viewpoints about the future of industrial society -- the belief in a future of perpetual progress and the belief in a future of sudden collapse. Despite their disagreements, both viewpoints embrace the claim that there is nothing to be learned from the past; our present situation, both insist, is unlike anything else in history, and therefore history cannot be used as a yardstick to measure the possible shapes of the future ahead of us.

It will not come as an unbearable surprise to readers of this blog that I find this claim unconvincing. It's true, of course, that the current predicament of industrial civilization differs in some ways from the equivalent challenges that faced, and overwhelmed, civilizations of the past. It's equally true that historical patterns never repeat themselves precisely. Still, it's worth suggesting that despite the differences, our predicament is analogous to those earlier examples, and the experiences of the past thus may turn out to be useful as we face our own future.

One pattern found very commonly in the decline and fall of civilizations, as I pointed out in last week's post, is the transmission of cultural heritage from one civilization to its successors through the medium of a newly established religious movement. The classic example, which has seen a certain amount of discussion in futurist circles since Roberto Vacca's The Coming Dark Age (1973) introduced it to contemporary culture, is the role played by monasteries in Europe in preserving Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, and scientific knowledge through the worst years of the Dark Ages.

The same thing has happened often enough elsewhere that Arnold Toynbee made the concept a key theme in the later volumes of his massive A Study of History. In Toynbee's view, the fading years of every civilization form a seedbed for new religious movements; one or more of these movements break free of the others as decline continues, to become a major cultural force; as the civilization that nurtured it collapses completely, the new religious movement fills the vacuum, salvaging what remains of the old civilization's heritage, and the concepts central to that religion become the framework on which a new civilization begins to take shape.

Toynbee’s account of this process, like so much of his historical vision, derives primarily from Roman history, and some of his details do not wear well when applied to other historical examples. In his view, for example, the religions that rise from one civilization to pass on cultural heritage to another are newly minted or recently imported missionary religions with a sense of universal mission, and this is by no means always true.

The Jewish and Zoroastrian religions provide persuasive counterexamples. Both were old religions that underwent major retooling after the collapse of their national communities, the Roman depopulation of Israel after 70 CE and the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century respectively. Both abandoned universalizing ambitions to become ethnic religions, holding outsiders at arm’s length through a formidable body of custom and taboo. Both nonetheless played a significant role in passing on the cultural heritage of the classical Middle East to rising cultures in Europe and the Arabic world, in the case of the Jews, and India, in the case of the Parsis.

Broaden Toynbee’s insight to embrace a wider range of religious phenomena, though, and his basic claim – that religion very often serves as the conduit by which the cultural treasures of one civilization reach the waiting hands of the next – is true much more often than not. It’s easy enough to see why this should be so. In a time of social disintegration, when institutions collapse and long-accepted values lose their meaning, only the most powerful human motives can ensure that the economically unproductive activities needed to maintain cultural heritage will be carried out in the teeth of the difficulties. Religion is the only cultural force that consistently provides motivation strong enough for the job; the same sense of transcendent value that leads martyrs to sing hymns as they are burnt alive can just as easily inspire scholars and scribes to preserve and transmit knowledge to a future they will never see.

Nor was Toynbee wrong to point out that the religions that accomplish this function are rarely identical to the established faiths of the old civilizations. Both Rabbinic Judaism and the Zoroastrian faith of the medieval and modern Parsis differ in significant ways from the forms the same faiths took in the ancient world; the forms of Buddhism that enabled classical Japanese culture to survive the breakup of the Heian period were not the forms that thrived under the patronage of the Nara and Heian courts; even in imperial China, where a cult of cultural continuity persisted for some five thousand years, the end of a dynasty generally meant the rise of a new form of Buddhist or Taoist spirituality.

Here again, the reasons behind this changing of the guard are straightforward enough, though certain features of a civilization in decline have to be taken into account. In Toynbee’s view, as a civilization moves into its imperial phase, it suffers a schism between the dominant minority, which benefits from the imperial project, and the bulk of the population of the imperial state, which does not. As this schism in the body politic widens, the bulk of the population – the internal proletariat, in Toynbee’s terms – becomes alienated from the values of their own culture, which becomes identified with the interests of the dominant elite.

Religion is among the things most affected by this sense of alienation, and so one of the classic signs of a society on its way to collapse is a widening religious schism along class lines. America offers an interesting example of this process in motion. As it entered its imperial phase around 1900, a significant minority of Americans began breaking away from the religious consensus of their culture – a consensus that used the forms of mainstream Protestantism but, in the name of the “social gospel,” transformed that faith into an anthropolatrous worship of progress.

The vehicle for the countering schism was Christian fundamentalism. Twice, however – in the 1920s and then again in the 1980s and 1990s – fundamentalist leaders proved all too eager to cash in their ideals in exchange for crumbs of political power from the tables of the dominant minority; the result in the first case was a near-total implosion of the fundamentalist movement, and a repeat of that process seems increasingly likely today as fundamentalist churches move further away from their once-challenging role as social critics to embrace unthinking partisan loyalties nicely calibrated to support the status quo.

The failure of fundamentalism to establish itself as an alternative to the values of the dominant minority left the field open to other new religious movements. Some of those have proven just as willing to sell out as their fundamentalist equivalents; others never did veer far enough from the values of the mainstream to attract a following outside the privileged classes.

At the same time, the mainstream Protestant-progressive religiosity of the elite has widened into a consensus shared by most varieties of American Judaism, much of the English-speaking wing of the American Catholic church, and several forms of Americanized Buddhism, not to mention a very large number of people who would insist they follow no religion at all. What is often portrayed as a rising tide of tolerance among these traditions actually marks the widespread embrace of a common ideology of social progress unrelated to the central historic commitments of the faiths in question, but easy to insert into the shell of any religious (or irreligious) tradition once awkward questions about transcendent values are quietly put on the shelf.

Thus it’s hard to name a religious movement in contemporary America, or for that matter most other parts of the industrial world, that is well placed just now to rise to the occasion as industrial civilization begins the long slow process of its decline and fall. At the same time, it’s crucial to remember that we are still in a very early stage of that process. A Roman scholar of 150 CE, say, who tried to guess at the religious forms that would rise to prominence during the empire’s decline, would have faced a ferocious challenge in sorting through the contenders; his world was awash in new religious movements, some homegrown and many others from elsewhere in the Mediterranean world; nothing special marked out the destinies of Christianity and Judaism from those of their many competitors, and the religion that arguably played the largest role in passing classical culture to the medieval world, Islam, didn’t even exist yet.

Thus one of the religious movements that will pick up the remnants of modern culture and pass them on to the future might well, at the present time, consist of a few dozen people gathered around a charismatic teacher in a commune in Kentucky. Another might have been founded fifty years ago in Brazil or Bangladesh, and still awaits the brilliant missionary who will bring it to Europe or America and transform it into a mass movement. A third might still be an inchoate current of ideas that will not find its prophet for another two hundred years. The one thing that can be predicted in advance is that those movements will draw on the religious heritage of contemporary culture, but reshape it in unexpected ways that will inevitably be at odds with the conventional wisdom of our age.

Yet new religious movements there will be, and it’s far more likely than not that they will attract a growing number of followers as the industrial age stumbles toward its end. It’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and there tend to be very few in times of social decay and collapse. In every age in which people believe that their own efforts can bring them the material goals their culture sets before them, it’s common for them to stop worrying about the transcendent dimension of life; it’s only when those goals become too obviously unreachable that the majority will raise their eyes to other possibilities and, as Augustine of Hippo phrased it, perceive a difference between the City of Man and the City of God.

Efforts to turn this religious impulse to foster the survival of today’s cultural heritage will succeed or fail, I think, on their willingness to let go of the assumptions of contemporary culture, and to make peace with religious forms that offend modern sensibilities. Thus, for example, there seems to be little hope in the suggestion made now and then that today’s scientific thought ought to redefine itself as a religion for this purpose. The raw material of religion certainly exists in modern science, or rather scientism, the belief system that has grown up around the simple but powerful logic of the scientific method; Carl Sagan, who did more than any other recent thinker to cast that belief system in religious terms, is arguably one of the significant theologians of the 20th century.

Yet scientism as it exists today, certainly, embodies the attitudes and values of the dominant minority at least as well as any of the more obviously religious forms mentioned above. From its long struggle to seize intellectual authority from religious institutions, too, the culture of contemporary scientism embraces a bitter hostility to more explicitly religious belief systems. This no man’s land of the Western mind forms perhaps the single most troublesome barrier to the survival of science in the deindustrial world of the future. The prospects of crossing it, and transmitting the modern world’s greatest intellectual adventure to the future, will be the focus of next week’s post.