“I have sometimes wondered whether polytheistic religions provide a good background for democratic development. Pluralism in heaven, with gods and goddesses quarrelling, but still managing to govern mortals, may be a useful intellectual background…Greece and Rome have long been our models; and the fact that India has taken to democracy like a duck to water make this, at the least, an interesting hypothesis.”
– Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations, 2003
Is religion dead in the West? Does today’s fundamentally “Christian” world view — a view that’s become infused in the politics and laws of our time — render monotheistic religions sociologically obsolete? Are their basic principles (thou shalt not kill/steal/etc.) now so culturally engrained that explaining their social importance no longer requires any discussion of “god” at all? (finding instead a more secular justification in the modern criminal code).
To be sure, religion served a very practical purpose (once upon a time) as a tool for social control, particularly at a time when the world was a seething cauldron of hedonism and unbridled self-indulgence, and the multitude of religious sects made organizing an empire and maintaining social control that much more difficult. In the face of all this, Catholicism was born. Cast in the fires of ancient Rome (literally), an empire that spanned most of the known world could ill afford to let its growing host of civilians do whatever they pleased, whenever they pleased. So entered Constantine the Great.
Known commonly as the emperor who “Christianized” the Roman Empire, Constantine was in fact a high-priest of a competing religious cult until the final days of his life, long after he “legalized” Christianity as an acceptable form of worship within the broader pantheon of contemporary Roman deities. An ardent supporter of the pagan god Sol Invictus, Constantine was only baptised as a Christian on his deathbed as a sort of existential insurance policy (“better sign up for this heaven thing, just in case those Christians are actually right!”).
Early on in his tenure, Constantine realized that the Christians were becoming a powerful force in the politics of the sprawling Roman metropolis. Their bishops were some of the most highly educated men in all the empire, and their basic spiritual tenets were easy to teach and understand (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Constantine’s only major problem with this growing religious sect was that its followers wouldn’t agree to worship any of the other Roman gods in addition to their own (as was the custom of all conquored religious at the time). In many public circles, it was believed that such flagrant disrespect for the many powerful Roman gods would cause the empire to “fall out of favour”. As a culture that sought almost obsessively to earn that “favour” (to help protect itself from marauding barbarians at its fringes as well as social strife within its walls), a compromise had to be found.
That compromise was the Edict of Milan, which effectively “legalized” Catholicism within the empire. As a result, Christians were now allowed to worship their own god freely, and were given their own day on which to do it (co-incidentally, the English name of that day still smacks of Constantine’s own religious cult: Sun-day). But the empire was no closer to embracing Jehovah than before, and the only reason “god” was introduced into Roman spirituality was to synthesize this growing group of gifted intellectuals and their powerful spiritual flock.
In the next decade, Christianity flourished under the protection of the Edict of Milan, but that protection gave rise to another major “spiritual” issue: which of the many sects and denominations of Christianity was the one true way to worship the lord? Infighting ensued, sometimes violently so, and once again the social order of the time was challenged by the lack of a single system of spiritual belief and basic ethical conduct. Some of the sects still believed in the existance of Jesus’ half-brother “James”. Some believed that Mary Magdelaine wasn’t a whore at all, but the mother of Jesus’ children and his happily married bride. Still others (see the Arian Controversy) believed that Jesus was in fact an inferior spiritual being, much more like a prophet than an actual “god”. In the face of all this confusion, Constantine intervened to restore order once again.
The Council of Nicaea was Constantine’s answer to the problems of the times. Considered the first ecumenical council of the bishops in the sprawling Christian diaspora, the meeting was designed (by Constantine) to help estabish a shared set of beliefs under which all Christians would practice and from which there would be no spiritual deviation or individual interpretation. All of the bishops were conveened to agree on a laundry list of basic Christian doctrine (the Nicene Creed), a list that’s still repeated today in every Catholic mass around the globe.
The point of all this (yes, there is a point in here somewhere!) is that organized religion was first and foremost a social institution, governed by laws (the creed) and their associated agents (the bishops), with the goal of achieving some semblance of social control (making sure that people were basically good to one another). In a more contemporary context, you might recognize these same basic principles, although the source is somewhat secular. Our modern constitution is essentially a social institution, governed by laws (the legal code) and their associated agents (the politicians), with the goal of achieving some semblance of social control (making sure that people were basically not bad to one another).
If that’s true, there’s only one fundamental difference between politics and religion: the former requires us not to harm each other, while the latter actually compells us to do good. In this very subtle distinction, we can actually glimpse into the true nature of god.
I once participated in this very debate with a wise Muslim friend of mine, and the outcome taught us both about the nature of human kind. A few months back, in the midst of one of our (always thrilling) theological debates, as a response to my challenges about the existence of god, he mentioned that every decision in the world becomes incredibly clear once you align yourself and all your actions with the omniscient will of the almighty. That’s quite a beautiful image, to say the very least. My only response to him was, when we make anything the center of our universe, be it god or money or another human being, all of our decisions are instantly given meaning, and all of our decisions are made incredibly clear. God can help guide us through the pain and suffering of a lost relative, just as money can help guide us when our will to persevere is challenged and our conscience becomes clouded with despair and self-doubt.
In my mind, there are many truths in this world, and all of them are beautiful in their own right. Take, for instance, the image of god as a symbol of love and piety. Once again, what an unbelievably beautiful thought. But is it a universal truth? Perhaps. For me, that beauty isn’t necessarily in the existance of god himself, it’s in the existance of the potential for man to conceive of and aspire to become such a perfect living being, giving it all the attributes which together are almost supernatural…free of fault and flaws and failings, always doing the right thing and saying the right thing and feeling the right thing and willing the right thing.
And maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe humanity just needs a role model. Maybe we just need direction. Maybe humanity just needs to be inspired. And god is simply that…the personification of man’s own image of perfection. The ultimate superhero. The ultimate father. The ultimate wife. The ultimate teacher. The ultimate healer. The ultimate everything.
God as a modern social enforcer may already be dead, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes of almost 2000 years of spiritual edification, the concept has emerged as a higher form of inspiration: a comforting mythology, designed to teach humanity about its own unlimited potential. It’s a breath of fresh air in a world of fact and circumstance, as nature’s own law gives way to rational social interaction. Towers may burn and cities may fall, but as the west moves away from religion and toward more secular definitions of perfection, the only “gods” we trust may be the lofty moral prose in our charter of human rights.