Since I’m a book-nerd I probably would put the printing press as one of the top five technologies of the period between 1000 and 2000 A.D. I’ve written before about how I think the printing press drove rapid cultural and social change. But in this post, I want to make explicit something which I’ve long believed: the mass production of very cheap books allowed for the development of “religious fundamentalism” that we see in the modern world.
Martin Luther and his fellow travelers opened up a vast new domain of reading for the lay public by their assertion that reading scripture was essential for any believing Christian and their relationship to their God. This is why Luther and colleagues furiously produced Bibles in the vernacular so that the people could have access to God’s words themselves. This was new, as most people during the Middle Ages were illiterate, and the Church provided Christianity through liturgies. For the literate, the Bible was in Latin in any case, inaccessible to the lay worshipper.
People participated in public Christianity and were guided by their priests. A “personal” relationship with God may have been possible for some mystics, but for most people, the Church was the avenue through which salvation occurred.
The Reformation changed that by opening the door to a radically individualist and demotic Christianity. Protestantism is strongly associated with increased literacy in Europe, just as the density of printing presses is associated with a greater propensity for a region to become Protestant. Though the state Protestant churches attempted to take on a very similar guiding position that the Roman Catholic church explicitly claimed as its role in society, they were subordinate to the nation-state, and Luther and Calvin had opened up an alternative path for lay worshippers in private devotion to the scripture.
This is not limited to Christianity. The Ottomans famously banned printing presses for Muslims for centuries, but the genie could only be kept in the bottle for so long. Korans with the original Arabic on one page and translation on the other are now widely available, as well as books relating to the Hadith. Though Islam is self-consciously a religion of the book, for most of its history most believers were illiterate, and very few had Korans. And even if they had a Koran most Muslims were not Arabic speakers, and the Arabic speakers who were literate may have had difficulty with the archaic Arabic in the Koran. ‘
The words of the Koran are the words of God, therefore they had a magical quality. The meaning was less important than repeating the words of magic, and that was often the purview of the prayer leader, a representative of the ulema. With the exception of some Shia groups, Islam does not have an official clerical class, but operationally the ulema are like rabbis in Judaism, providing advice, guidance, and instruction in affairs of religion.
Just as in Christianity the spread of religious literature to the masses resulted in “reform” movements and changes in behavior and self-identity. In some areas and cases, the power of the traditional ulema was broken. After all, with cheap books, anyone could learn the law of God and master his Word.
The same pattern can be found in other populist reform movements across many religions (e.g., Won Buddhism and Arya Samaj). The “higher religions” tend to have religious scriptures or revelations of various forms, and eventually, these were all put down in the physical form. When the printing press made these sacred books cheap, they spread across much of the population, breaking the information monopoly of religious elites.
With the spread of cheap Bibles and religious pamphlets, along with literacy which allowed many more people to reflect and identify with a particular sect or confession, the strength of an explicit religious identity deepened across the world. One of the facts which I find amazing and interesting is that in the 16th century it was plausible that peasants on the lands of particular rulers were naturally obligated to follow the religion of the ruler, even after the ruler converted to a new religion. Oftentimes this was grudging, as the new Protestant faith often overturned old festivals and the familiar calendar. By the 17th century, this was not feasible. The House of Stuart was overthrown due to its defection from the Protestant religion in England, while in Germany many rulers who changed their religion faced hostility and suspicion from their people. When the rulers of Saxony converted to Catholicism, the people remained Lutheran (in fact, for some time the only Catholic priests in Saxony were those which served the royal household!). Similarly, when the rulers of Prussia embraced Reformed Christianity, their people remained Lutheran.
The religious book transformed the nature of religion, from being guided by religious professionals, to being a coordinated project of elites along with bottom-up enthusiasm from the masses. In the process, it made religion much dumber, as it took on the shape of its guiders, who were a combination of intelligent and stupid. The textual method of Salafists and Protestant Fundamentalists is, to be frank dumb as shit. If you teach dumb people to read Holy Books, it won’t make them smart. Rather, it has turned religion somewhat dumber.
Book-populism can lead to strange directions. Pentecostalism is not very focused on scripture. But it is clearly inspired by democratic populism, which rests on the back of an educated citizenry. It is hard to think that the same religion produced St. Thomas Aquinas and the trussed-up shamans who are Pentecostal preachers, but here we are.
The integration and evolution of religion within civilization has been a matter of scaffolding it with accouterments of functionality and form which made it acceptable and useful to elites and high culture. It is a long march from the fetish idol in the wood, to temples of ancient Egypt, finally to the Sistine Chapel. But the Reformation ended the long march of elite religion, and demotic and populist urges and passions once more came to the fore. The shamans and demons burst out of our deep psyches, that which had been sublimated and suppressed but wrapped now in the lexical garb of higher religion.
Civilization, rational, ingenious, enables the return of the repressed.