Tell a young child that they must not do something, and the inevitable response is ‘Why?’ In its infancy, human civilisation was no different.
Rulers ascended to positions of power, and created laws for all their people to follow. But why should they be obeyed? What makes their laws better than your own?
It is possible to compel compliance with the laws through law enforcement alone. Set a few harsh examples, and the people will fall in line. But all this really accomplishes is to convince the people to be more careful in the breaking of the laws. And a lawless people will require so many resources to police that the ruler would never have the opportunity to conquer their neighbours and put them under his rule.
Canny rulers realised this. The people needed to believe that the laws had to be obeyed, and that, regardless of secular authority, punishment in some form was inevitable. So many mysteries in life were attributed to the gods, and gaining the favour of the gods was a full-time pursuit. What better motivation for obedience than that the gods said so?
Obey the laws or your crops will wither, your well will dry up, and your oxen will become diseased. Obey the laws, and your crops will be plentiful, your sons will be strong, and your daughters will marry well and bring a rich dowry. Such logic was simple and effective.
The first thing a ruler had to do was establish their authority to speak for their gods. The oldest existing legal code is that of Hammurabi of Sumer. Hammurabi’s Code opens and closes with invocations to the gods, and it establishes Hammurabi’s authority to create those laws as coming directly from the gods Anu, Bel, and Marduk. For instance:
Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind. – Hammurabi’s Code
In the beginning of Western civilisation, the priests and the rulers were often one and the same. For example, Moses climbed a mountain and sat in secluded conversation with the god of the Hebrews before giving their laws to them. This gave him the authority to give his people simple instructions like ‘Don’t eat pork.’ In the ancient times, people would not have known that you had to cook the meat thoroughly to kill contaminants in pork. But after having seen people eat it and die, it was much easier to say, ‘It’s unclean’ than to have to explain that you could die from it, but nobody knew why.
In Egypt, the pharaoh was the reincarnation of the god Horus, who was given rulership over the earth, just as his father Osiris ruled the dead. His power was perceived to influence the cyclical Nile floods, which covered the surrounding land with such a fertile topsoil that the Egyptians could raise two crops per year. It is likely that the accomplishments of the Great Pyramids at Giza are due in no small part to the profound influence that the pharaoh’s immediate divinity, and his perceived connection to the life-giving Nile floods, granted him over his people.
The Greeks had a very curious set of gods. They were more or less human, with human foibles and faults, and the things which might please them or offend them were rather arbitrary. This might have been born from the observation of the fickle nature of natural forces. Good things happen sometimes to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, and their theology reflected that. People began to trust in their own ability to govern themselves, and had to figure out the hows and whys of doing so. This led to the development of philosophy, and intelligent people stood around in the town square talking about things related to human behaviour, sciences, and the gods for a living.
The Romans conquered the Greeks, and were much impressed by the Greek achievements in philosophy, as well as their religion. The Romans were curious and accepting of foreign ideas, and as they conquered more cultures, their religious beliefs and practices were welcomed and incorporated into the overall Roman culture. The conquered cultures likewise shared in the pre-existing Roman beliefs. It was an atmosphere of religious tolerance that has not been equalled since.
When the Roman Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar was faced with the problem anew. How to convince the Empire to obey his word of law, rather than the old structure? He borrowed from the Egyptian culture and declared himself a god. In the religiously accepting empire, this didn’t pose much difficulty. He became one of many gods, certainly not as powerful as Jupiter, but his presence here on earth and his position of rule made his authority more concrete than Jupiter’s. The citizens paid homage to the emperor on his holiday, and life in the empire went on.
In the early days of the Roman Empire, only one culture did not join in this religious exchange. The Hebrew religion forbade participation in other religions, or even recognition of other gods. The emperor, who relied on his divine status for authority, had to consider their failure to recognise his divinity as a challenge to his legal right to rule. The Jews chafed at the stewardship of the pagan Romans, and this gave rise to the messianic movements. Messianic Jews rebelled against Roman rule time and again.
One thing the messianic movements had in common was that they were very exclusive, and regional in scope. Paul changed that. As a Roman citizen, he presented the Christian movement in a way that made it available to the entire empire. As it spread, its perceived threat to the Roman government also grew. Common citizens were also growing alarmed, as Christians were withdrawing into their own communities and refusing to take part in the many religious festivals which held together their social fabric. The commoners began to develop a fear of the unknown, but to the emperors, the behaviour of the Christians was treasonous. It was for this reason, and not religious intolerance, that the persecution of Christians was initiated.
Different emperors handled the matter differently. For some, it was something akin to a witch hunt. For others, it was a simple matter of establishing imperial authority. Emperor Trajan, for instance, was very supportive of this procedure for handling Christians as implemented by the governor Pliny. They were to be brought to the magistrate and asked, ‘Are you a Christian?’ three times, with a reminder of the punishment if they say they are. If they said ‘no’ at any of those times, they were instructed to pay homage to the statue of the emperor, and then set free. Unfortunately, the nature of the religion and the dark outlook for the common man at that time caused many to convict themselves unnecessarily. For while theirs was a religion that taught of forgiveness, it also looked harshly upon those who turned their backs on it. And the lure of eternal bliss was powerful in an impoverished and violent world.
Emperor Constantine came to power in a tragically weakened empire. Internal competition for power had divided the empire in four. Constantine waged a successful war to reunite the empire politically. Constantine then turned his attention to uniting the empire culturally, and to do this he chose to implement a state religion. Although a member of the cult of Sol Invictus, Constantine cast aside his personal beliefs and examined each religion based solely on his political goals. He chose Christianity. Paul’s internationalisation of the religion was a major selling point, as was the fact that the Old Testament establishes Yahweh as a warrior god.
Christianity itself, however, was extremely divided. So Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Bishops from the entire empire (and some from Persia) gathered together to settle their differences. When they were finished, they had established a Christian orthodoxy. Bishops who refused to agree to that orthodoxy were killed as the first heretics. Backed by the emperor, the new Catholic (meaning universal) Church vigorously persecuted heresy wherever it could be found.
But eventually, external pressures became too much to bear, and in the 5th Century, the Western half of the empire collapsed. Barbarian raiding parties ravaged the countryside. Isolated and terrified, common citizens sought protection, which gave rise to the feudal lord. His authority was based on a social contract; the peasants worked his fields and served him, and he in turn gave them protection from marauders.
The church also came to rely on the feudal lords for protection. In exchange for this protection, the church offered a canon which granted the lord greater power over his subjects. By making virtues of meekness, obedience, poverty, and hard work, the church moulded the peasantry into the most desirable work force for the lord. The church also enriched themselves, by emphasising charity.
But this arrangement placed the lord in the position of authority over the church, and the church sought to reverse that. An important step towards that goal was made in 800CE, when Charlemagne was invited to Rome by Pope Leo III, and crowned emperor of Rome. This established the precedent that crowns were dispensed by the church. The tradition entrenched itself gradually, to the point that a monarch who was not crowned in a formal ceremony by a bishop or cardinal was not legally recognised as king or queen. The church used its unchecked power to raise awesome sums of money, build churches, wage wars, persecute dissenters, and engage in every form of vice known to man.
This growing abuse of power did not go unnoticed. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door. This first act of defiance inspired many others, and soon everyone was questioning the very nature of god, the world, and the church. Philosophy was rediscovered by western civilization, and church influence began a slow but steady decline. New churches sprang up everywhere with new doctrines, and Christianity became even more divided than it had been at the time of the Council of Nicaea.
Though church influence in government was waning, religious influence was not. Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet proposed that his king, Louis XIV of France, ruled by divine right. The argument is based on the presupposition that the Christian god is omnipotent, omnipresent, and that everything that happens on earth is in accordance with his will. Under such a god, only the person chosen to be king could become king, and everything that such a king decreed would also have to be according to his god’s will.
The concept of divine right passed unchecked power from the church to the monarch, and it wasn’t long before monarchs began abusing power in the same ways the church had. Unfortunately for the monarchs, their power had been established as a secular one long before, and competition with the aristocracy was likewise well established. The English aristocracy had established the precedent of their authority to check monarchic power as early as 1215CE, with the Magna Carta. As British kings and queens attempted to exercise their divine right, the lords’ resistance grew, and a slow, painful process of reform began, which continues to this day still.
If the British aristocracy cared little for divine right, their colonists in the New World cared not at all. Many had fled the continent of Europe to escape persecution of their particular brand of Christianity. They acknowledged the authority of the king, but established their own local governments, based on purely secular authority, to handle the actual administration of the colonies. When Parliament passed laws that were perceived as an attempt to usurp those local governments, they appealed to the king. And when the king declared them in rebellion, they responded with full-scale rebellion. When they won their independence, they created the first government in Western history without a direct religious influence since Augustus Caesar. In the First Amendment to the Constitution, they expressly banned establishment of a state religion. The founders were primarily Deists, who believe in a Creator but do not believe he takes an active interest in human affairs.
The ideas spread. The French Revolution abolished church authority. In various ways and to various degrees, direct religious authority was removed from governments throughout Europe. Ambitious, charismatic leaders managed to acquire absolute power from time to time based on their own authority, but, from Napoleon to Hitler, such governments stood for very short times. They were brought down by internal and/or external resistance, and none lasted longer than the natural life of the founder.
Though the term ‘humanism’ would not be born for some time, governments throughout Western civilization were being founded on humanist principles; that humans have dignity and worth, and that human reason, knowledge, and experience are the most valid sources for creation of a code of ethics and law. Individual leaders may still adhere to their old religious doctrines, but these doctrines have been heavily influenced by the rise of secularism and humanism. For example, the Levitical pronouncement on the fate of gay men, while clearly established by religion, is rejected completely by all Western governments as well as all but the most rabidly fundamentalist minority of leaders and general citizens.
In Western culture, religion has lost its validity as a legal basis for government. However, it does yet serve many individuals as a basis for personal morality and ethics. The moral and ethical systems are as diverse as the individuals who practice them, with influences of experience, environment, and interpretation added to the myriad varieties of available religions. And new religions appear all the time.
In the 20th Century, we saw that when people within the same government are divided on a political issue, and that division coincides with a religious boundary, escalation of hostilities is the inevitable result. The rise of the labour union, a class conflict, saw scattered rioting. The battle for racial equality in the US saw isolated acts of brutality and murder. But the violence in these movements pale beside those which also fell along religious differences.
The Northern Ireland conflict, for instance, is based on a political difference not unlike that of the peaceful difference between Quebecois separatists and their mostly English-descended unionist neighbours in Canada. The current Palestinian situation has been greatly exacerbated by religious disagreements, such as access to Mount Zion and the Temple on the Mount. And let us not forget that a prejudice in Germany, which divided the people religiously as well as racially, produced the Holocaust.
Though most of the world’s governments have discarded religion as a basis for authority, violence associated with religious belief continues. But as humanism takes a greater hold on society, religious beliefs continue to splinter off in new directions. And the more personalised religious belief becomes, the more tolerating of religious differences we can become. When there aren’t enough members of a particular religion to dominate a political disagreement, peaceful demonstration and reasonable discussion become realistic options for resolution.
Perhaps the next phase of our cultural evolution is the death of organised religion.