"One's first step in wisdom is to question everything--and one's last is to come to terms with everything." ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Column by tzo.
Exclusive to STR
Once upon a time there lived a businessman named Muhammad who, at the age of 40, had a divine revelation. He then proceeded to pick up some followers, united them under the Constitution of Medina, took over Mecca, destroyed the pagan idols, then conquered and converted most of the Arabian Peninsula to Islam. After he died, the succeeding Caliphates expanded the Muslim Empire across northern Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East, covering an area much larger than the Roman Empire had ever controlled.
Muhammad founded a religion that launched an empire. So what exactly are we talking about here? Religious chicken or State egg?
The Roman Empire had its own creation myth beginning with Romulus and Remus. Numa Pompilius supposedly had direct contact and personal relationships with a number of deities, and the rulers of Rome were always closely associated with the gods. The Catholic Church and the lineage of Popes sprang up right there in the midst of the empire when it officially shifted on over from poly- to monotheism. Are we quite sure that the Roman State absorbed and used religion as a means to justify its rule, or did religions develop or appropriate the teeth of the State for their own use?
Does it even make sense to try and separate religion from State when considering these social institutions when they are operating on such a grand scale? It seems that long-standing States are tied together internally by long-standing religions, which may have congealed into the States that contain them. In this world of politico-religious chickens and eggs, the salient point is not which came first, but rather that both are co-dependent entities that combine to create the ongoing, dysfunctional and violent social structures to which the world has unfortunately grown accustomed.
The common State creation narrative is that conquerors unite large groups of people over large areas of land and then take by force a tribute from everyone within their area of control. Then some time later the conquerors recruit religion as a means of justifying their rule so that at the very least the conquered become mollified, and in the best cases inspired to actual awe of their divine rulers.
But I’m not so sure that was always the sequence. The initial round-up of tribes and villages into large, controlled units very well could have been a combination of hard coercion (brute force) and soft coercion (training people to believe in superstition [or taking advantage of existing superstitions] so as to persuade them to surrender control over their own individual lives).
And superstition really boils down to plugging in supernatural answers to life’s unknowns, which were abundant in the past when people had not yet accumulated enough knowledge to understand the natural forces that comprised the world around them. Superstition was part and parcel of human life ever since large societies began to form, and so those who were able to convince the masses that they had some measure of knowledge and control over these forces found themselves in positions of power over the unenlightened crowd.
Hard coercion, soft coercion, or both—the end result is a small group of controllers and their controlled masses. And whichever may have come first, the truly successful empires have both genes in their DNA.
The Mongols and the Huns didn't pretend to have religious reasons for conquering all that they could. They also generally allowed the conquered to keep their religious beliefs and customs, as they were primarily interested in collecting tribute and wanted peace and order within their borders. But when those empires fell apart through overextension and internal strife, they were done. Without the coercion, the conquered were free to re-associate themselves with others as they saw fit.
But remember, these people kept their religious beliefs, and when these force-based empires crumbled, the people remained united in clumps through those shared beliefs. Then, like magnets, these clumps of people looked for States to protect them while States looked for people and territory with similar beliefs to incorporate.
After the Roman and Muslim Empires fell, Christianity and Islam continued on and at least a few people have been caught up in wars since then in the names of these “great religions.” Many nations still identify themselves as being either “Christian” or “Islamic” nations and seem ready and willing to annihilate the infidels both outside and inside of their State borders.
“Ethnic” strife typically occurs between folks with religion A and those of religion B (or subsets of either) who happen to find themselves within the same national borders, and the State-backed religion wins every time. Surprised?
Yes, religions can exist without violence, and yes, States can exist without religious justifications. But either dies off in the long run if it doesn’t merge with the other. Christianity and Islam have endured because they merged with States. The great empires of the past flexed their muscles and stretched out across the globe because they merged with religion. Today’s nations are just the current set of petty (and temporary) subdivisions that share common religious threads.
Witness Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of the Civilizations” theory, which he summarizes thusly:
The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
Notice he uses “culture” and “civilization” as synonyms. Yet if you look at the world map he uses to define the “major civilizations” of the world, it is a map divided into major religious beliefs.
Very few of all the myriad wars in human history are categorized as religious wars—especially the more current ones—and yet the reality is that almost all of them are indeed wars of religion at their core. The great majority of the world’s population holds on to irrational religious beliefs and these are the beliefs that ultimately create the justifications for killing innocent people. I really do believe it’s that simple.
In the absence of knowledge, superstition is understandable and to be expected. In today’s world, superstition is just plain irrational, and widespread irrational beliefs create hierarchical structures that inevitably dedicate themselves to launching wars against competing irrational belief systems.
Irrational beliefs become integrated into and are the basis of all religions and are the main root system that leads to violence and war. Today, “culture,” “civilization” and “ethnicity” are code words for religion so as to make barbaric wars of religion seem like a thing of the past and not a part of the modern “secular” world that likes to pride itself on its rationality, science, and logic.
But the Roman Empires and the Islamic Caliphates and the Crusades and the Inquisitions continue on, re-carving out new territories with new names, and it is all the same old bellum sacrum. Only the names have been changed to deceive the indoctrinated.
The commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged wars on the authority of God, or those who have imposed the death-penalty on criminals when representing the authority of the state, the justest and most reasonable source of power. ~ “Saint” Augustine