Data from five recent U.S. population surveys point to the vibrancy, ubiquity and growth of religion in the U.S. Americans are becoming more religious, and religious institutions are thriving. Consistent with some previous studies but contrary to widely held assumptions, many people who report no religious affiliation—and even many self-identified atheists and agnostics—exhibit substantial levels of religious practice and belief.
The evidence is mostly sophistry. It is probably true that there are more small churches as the big churches collapse, but a lot of small churches may still mean fewer religious people than a few big churches.
Here is belief in God and religious attendance from the GSS (one of their sources), and the trend is obvious:
We’re still mostly a religious nation. But there has been a massive breaking of the uniform religious consensus that was the norm in the 80’s and 90’s, where nominally religious people thought being irreligious was a step too far.
Last year I wrote The Myth Of Arabian Paganism, And The Jewish-Christian Origins Of The Umayyads. My overall contention is that Islam-qua-Islam was retconned in the 8th century back to the 7th century. The post was inspired by a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the Arabian peninsula was mostly Christian or Jewish by the 6th century A.D. This matters, because traditional Islamic historiography depicts Muhammad’s Mecca at the end of the 6th century as a pagan cult center. This was the “age of darkness” in Islamic tradition, one of polytheism and idol-worship. A neat idea, except for the fact that the ruling elites of North Arabia were are clearly Christian by 600 AD.
To recap, I think the Ummayads emerged in the milieu of Miaphysite Christianity in the Levantine littoral. The Arabs who conquered the Near East in the 7th century emerged out of a Nabataean background, not, a Hijazi one. The shift toward a Hijazi orientation for early Islam, and the importance of Mecca and Muhammad, come out of the Second Fitna in the 680s.
All that being said, I don’t discount a pagan substrate in Arab spirituality in totality. The Nabataean Agriculture famously describes the continuous practice of Mesopotamian paganism in rural Iraq into the 10th century A.D., three centuries after the Muslim conquest.
I do assume that Mecca had some cultic significance in ancient Arabian religious geography. After the Second Fitna this Mecca spiritual energy was co-opted (Muhammad becomes much bigger after this period, and Arabs stop worshipping in Christian churches in Damascus). The existence of the Kaba and veneration of the black rock is a testament to this.
All this leads to an obscure fact (to me) that I want to relay: the pagan practices that persist in Mecca were clearly very widespread in ancient Arabia because the Roman Emperor Elagabalus partook of them. If you know the name of Elagabalus it is because of his peculiar sexual practices, as well as his disastrous reign as Emperor. He attempted to supersede the customary religion of Rome with that of his native Syria. He was from a family of hereditary pagan priests of Arab origin. Here is what got my attention:
A lavish temple called the Elagabalium was built on the east face of the Palatine Hill to house Elagabal…who was represented by a black conical meteorite from Emesa…This was a baetylus. Herodian wrote “this stone is worshipped as though it were sent from heaven; on it there are some small projecting pieces and markings that are pointed out, which the people would like to believe are a rough picture of the sun, because this is how they see them”…
I joked that Elagabalus was Muslim when I found this out. Obviously, he was not Muslim. But the Kaba in Mecca famously has a black stone which is clearly a meteorite. Elagabalus’ peculiar religious enthusiasms persist down to the present day in Islam.
Moving away from the autocatalytic model, and describing what happened verbally, in a given population only a minority is strongly motivated on particular details of religion or ideology. Most seem comfortable aligning themselves with the “spirit of the times.” This is true even in the early modern period, as England was forced into Protestantism, while much of Austria and Hungary were dragged back to Roman Catholicism (see Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe). Only in the 17th century do you start to see populations resisting the demands or preferences of their rulers (e.g., the House of Hohenzollern converted to the Reformed faith but their subjects remained Lutheran, while the Saxons remained Lutheran after the Wettins converted to Catholicism).
What does this imply? The pagans who remained pagan in 450 AD could be more sure about the sincerity and conviction of their fellow dissenters from regnant orthodoxy than pagans from 350 AD. The Christians of 400 AD were less sure about the deep sincerity of the beliefs of their peers than Christians in 300 AD were.
Reading Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion has me thinking about the Pantheon. I visited Rome and stood outside (and inside) the Pantheon in 2010. I still remember the feeling of being in such an ancient and pristine building. It’s pretty awesome. That is, literally awe-inspiring.
How did this building persist? In 609 Emperor Phocas donated it to the Roman Church, which transformed it into a church (it is still used for some religious purposes). This did not prevent total despoilation and parts of the Pantheon were removed or destroyed. But, on the whole co-option by Christianity, a persistent institution, allowed for this monument from deep antiquity to come down to the present in relatively intact form.
I think this gets at something deep in terms of how we can preserve artifacts and ideas long after we are gone.
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.
First, the historical Muhammad existed. This seems to be something I can say with high confidence. Higher than before I read Muhammad and the Empires of Faith. The figure of Muhammad and many banal details of his life seems to be very likely. More likely than the historical Jesus (who I also believe existed as a Jewish reformer and prophet). In addition to Muhammad, something like the Koran in broad form also existed quite early.
Second, I am much more sure than the basis of a crisp and distinct Muslim identity which serves as the core of a universal salvation religion dates to the period in and around the Second Fitna, between 680 and 692. Basically, the texts seem to suggest to me that the Umayyad Caliph who came out of the conflict in victory engaged in fence-mending with the rebel faction, which was based out of the city of Mecca. The last decade of the 690s and early 700s is when we see the proliferation of distinctly Islamic aspects of the Arab Empire, from the phasing out of Greek in administration, to the separation between Muslims and Christians in the church in Damascus where they had earlier worshipped together. This is the period when the formula which we are so familiar with in regards to Muhammad’s prophethood comes to the foreground.
I believe that the middle to late Umayyads formalized and demarcated the sectarian heterodoxies of the Arabs of their Caliphate to create a unified and cohesive ruling elite. But, because the religion emerged out of a Christian matrix within it was the natural opening to conversion by non-Arabs, which had already occurred with assimilated clients of Arab tribes in various forms.
All that being said, I want to distinguish an Islamic identity from the substance and form of what Islam means today. Muhammad and the Empires of Faith makes it clear that the roots of many Islamic traditions and practices do date to the Umayyads (e.g., hadith culture was not created out of thin air). But it is during the Abbassids, after 750, that the flesh was put upon the skeleton of the religion created by the Umayyads. That flesh is a function of the reality that the Abbassid Islam transcended Arab identity through the assimilation of large numbers of Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist, backgrounds. Umayyad already had a potentiality of universality, but when Islam truly became multi-ethnic, with non-Arab Muslims retaining their own independent national identities, a rapid consensus of what Islam was and is emerged.
– The basic “furniture” to assemble the House of Islam was present in the early 7th century
– The foundations of the house date to the last quarter of the 7th century
– The house was completed in the last half of the Umayyad period and into the early Abbassid period
– The house was furnished, decorated, and painted, in the period between 750 and 900 AD, so that by 900 AD it looks just like the house we know today
Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao is readable anthropology that explores the resurgence of organized and institutional supernatural beliefs over the last generation in the People’s Republic. Though there is some general historical narrative at the beginning, the core of the book involves chapters on various local informants. Evangelical Protestant pastors, Buddhist lay devotees, and Daoist ritualists.
One of the most interesting and illuminating aspects of The Souls of China is that Johnson has to explain that religion, as it is understood in the West, did not entirely exist in China until the past century or so. Or, more precisely, a broad understanding of religion as it is in the West was not totally understood. By this, I mean the idea of strict and exclusive adherence to a particular institutional religious system with a package of beliefs and practices.
I stipulate broad understanding because the reality is that China has long had exactly these sorts of groups as part of its religious landscape. The first Ming Emperor, in fact, was affiliated originally with a group that had its origins in the White Lotus Society, a cult with Buddhist and Manichaean origins whose members were exclusive and devout adherents. But, these were historically marginalized, and only came to the fore during times of revolution. The first Ming Emperor discarded his radical religious connections upon obtaining power, becoming a patron of Neo-Confucianism.
Rather, typical peasant religion in China was not exclusive, nor was it bound up in a tight system of beliefs. Rather, it was customary, traditional, and part of the organic environment in which people were born, grew up and died. In this way, Chinese popular religion resembled ancient Roman paganism and folk Hinduism today. Buddhist and Daoist priests might perform particular services, but they did not have any particular owner of the identity of a community. Another way of saying this is that villagers in rural China were clients of a religious firm, they weren’t seen as part of the religious firm. This explains why Chinese and other East Asians have been rather liberal about borrowing from and participating in various religious practices (Chinese and Japanese initially assumed Roman Catholicism was a variant of Pure Land Buddhism).
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinese intellectuals underwent a crisis of confidence. In an attempt to modernize, they embraced Western science and a Western understanding of religion. They distinguished between religion and superstition. The former was what we consider institutional religions. Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Islam. The latter, Chinese folk religion. Long before the time of Mao progressive intellectuals and cadres destroyed and tore down the monuments to this folk religion, such as temples and shrines to city gods.
What arose in its place? Though the organic and locally rooted religions of rural China are shown to be coming back in The Souls of China, the explosion of Protestant Christianity, and the attraction of urban Chinese to Tibetan Buddhism, illustrates that urban people have different needs. I think these sorts of religions are very peculiar historically. I’m convinced that the Protestant Reformation, and in particular sectarian forms of Reform and Calvinist Christianity, would not have been possible without the economic and technological changes of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe.
The rise of movements such as fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, Salafist Islam, and “Western Buddhism”* make sense in light of a world of globalization, urbanization, and the detachment of individuals and families from localities. These religions are often the “public face” of religion, but really I think they are religions adapted toward a certain atomized, unmoored, and cosmopolitan world. Evangelical Protestant Christianity is not very thick and can be moved from exurb to exurb rather easily.
What this suggests for the future of religion, I’ll leave as an exercise to readers.
* The highly non-supernatural forms of Buddhism promoted by people of European background.
This weblog began in 2002. Back then the second Iraq War had not started, and the United States was in the throes of dealing with the 9/11 attack. There was a lot of discussion about Islam, and religion, in the public arena (there was a Bernard Lewis renaissance, and it seemed he was on Charlie Rose every other day).
In the 2000s I spent a fair amount of time thinking about and reading about religion. This was not a new thing for me. My family is Muslim, and I was raised in a very normatively conservative Christian region of the country. Though I can’t say I had deep theological conversations with friends, my atheist did come up now and then as it was not typical (for many people I had to explain what the word ‘atheism’ meant). In the 1990s I read a bit of Christian apologetics, older stuff like Summa Theologica, and atheist works such as George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God and Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (on the whole I think the older apologetics are actually more persuasive than the newer ones, but they are harder to parse for contemporary audiences).
Around 9/11 one would probably be accurate in pinning me as a proto-“New Atheist.” But with 9/11 I took a renewed interest in religion, and to be frank I found New Atheism to be unpersuasive. Reading Sam Harris’ End of Faith and Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust in short order really sealed my own views.
Atran’s argument that religion as a natural phenomenon had deep cognitive and evolutionary roots was persuasive to me. Though I agreed with many of Harris’ specific points (e.g., he correctly describes the reality that Islam, in particular, seems to have special difficulties with secular liberal democratic modernity), I found his reduction of religion to a set of propositions not helpful in mapping out the way religious people actually behave in the world out there.
As an adolescent, I had assumed that religion was to be found in sacred books. I believed this because coming from a Muslim family that is what we are taught, and my Christian friends also brandished books which they asserted were foundational, instrumental, and singular, in defining their faith. As a bookish person, this was entirely plausible to me that people would root their lives in books.
But Atran, and the cognitive anthropologists who moved in his circles, pointed out that most people are not bookish at all. Rather than being ruled by reason, by reflection and analysis, they are ruled by emotion, custom, habit, and instinct. The specific contours of religious affiliation and identity are shaped by history, theologies, and liturgies which demarcate, but the roots of the religious sensibility, affinity, and intuition, are ancient and primal.
As an atheist, I do agree with the New Atheists about the God question. But, I profoundly disagree with them about human nature and religion. Religiosity is not the deviation from the straight path, irreligion is!
Since about 2006 or so, with exceptions, I have not focused much on the religion, evolution and psychology question. It did not seem to me that the cognitive anthropologists were making much empirical progress. I had come to the conclusions which inform my current views, and nothing more of interest seemed on the horizon.
Over the past few years, that has changed. The field of cultural evolution has now matured enough so that it’s own insights on religion as a phenomenon can add value. Though, to be fair, this did not come out of a vacuum. In the 2000s David Sloan Wilson wrote, which put forward a view that a functionalist understanding of religion as a cultural adaptation was a valuable paradigm. At the time I was skeptical. Now I am more open to this view, as other researchers have added more theoretical and empirical insight.
So where are we? For decades there has been a line of thinking that religion is adaptive. That it serves particular functions in society or psychology. The authors of Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict propose that religious phenomena are critical in understanding the emergence of social complexity over the last 10,000 years. There is now a debate as to whether this is true or not using data within the cultural evolution community, but the key is that there is debate around data and theory, rather than interminable verbal volleys back and forth.
Not only may religion not be the “root of all evil,” but if some cultural evolutionists are correct religion is indispensable to the emergence of social complexity.
A cultural evolution perspective is important because there was always a lacuna within the cognitive anthropology perspective: how to explain variation between societies in religiosity and the nature of religious expression. Cognitive anthropologists had good arguments for why religious phenomena tended to canalize into certain directions (e.g., why gods are anthropomorphic more often than an essence, like water), but had poor explanations for why people were atheistic or why religiosity went up and down over time. A new preprint out of the cultural evolution perspective offers some answers, The Origins of Religious Disbelief: A Dual Inheritance Approach. The “dual” just means that both genes and culture matter.
Here is the abstract in full:
Religion is a core feature of human nature, yet a comprehensive evolutionary approach to religion must account for religious disbelief. Despite potentially drastic overreporting of religiosity…a third of the world’s 7+ billion human inhabitants may actually be atheists-merely people who do not believe in God or gods. The origins of disbelief thus present a key testing ground for theories of religion. Here, we evaluate the predictions of three prominent theoretical approaches to the origins of disbelief, and find considerable support for dual inheritance (gene-culture coevolution) approach. This dual inheritance model…derives from distinct literatures addressing the putative 1) core social cognitive faculties that enable mental representation of gods…2) the challenges to existential security that motivate people to treat some god candidates as real and strategically important…3) evolved cultural learning processes that influence which god candidates naïve learners treat as real rather than imaginary…and 4) the intuitive processes that sustain belief in gods…and the cognitive reflection that may sometimes undermine it…We explore the varied origins of religious disbelief by analyzing these pathways simultaneously in a large nationally representative (USA, N = 1417) dataset with preregistered analyses. Combined, we find that witnessing fewer credible cultural cues of religious commitment is the most potent predictor of religious disbelief, β = 0.28, followed distantly by reflective cognitive style, β = 0.13, and less advanced mentalizing, β = 0.05. Low cultural exposure to faith predicted about 90% higher odds of atheism than did peak cognitive reflection. Further, cognitive reflection predicted reduced religious belief only among individuals who witness relatively fewer credible contextual cues of faith in others. This work empirically unites four distinct literatures addressing the origins of religious disbelief, highlights the utility of considering both evolved intuitions and cultural evolutionary processes in religious transmission, emphasizes the dual roles of content and context-biased social learning…and sheds light on the shared psychological mechanisms that underpin both religious belief and disbelief.
The coda of the preprint is also worth reading since it has some meta-commentary that I think is probably on the mark.
There is a lot presented in this paper. Overall, it’s good to have a pregistered large sample from the USA, but they need more cultures, and they are aware of this. But, it does seem in the USA the most important factor is broader local cultural attitudes toward religiosity and expressions of religion in public. A shorter way to say it is simple: most people are sheeple. In highly irreligious environments the modal person finds religious propositions uncredible on the face of it. Conversely, in highly religious environments atheistic propositions seem laughable. Just as most people’s religious beliefs don’t come about through deep reflection, most people’s irreligion doesn’t come about through deep reflection. It’s all part of a bigger process of social cognition, and religion in this way shares a lot of characteristics with politics and culture more broadly (do most people in rural Mississippi like country music as opposed to techno because of deep aesthetic judgments?).
All that being said, they do see consistent results that deep analysis of religious questions correlate with atheism. But, this only applies in environments that are not so religious. In other words, the variation is exposed only in a particular environment.
Finally, there is a tendency of more “mind-blind” people to be more atheistic (a major prediction of the cognitive model), but it is a much smaller effect than the broad social impact of religious culture, broadly.
These results, on the whole, are not surprising, though I’m excited to have precise quantities to grapple with. When you summarize a whole society you may miss some details as well. Not only will future lines of research expand cross-culturally, but there will probably be insights sub-culturally.
There has been some work to show that religious intensity is moderately heritable. I would be curious to see follow-ups on this domain, and I do know that some people are working on finding the genomic predictors of religiosity as I write this.
Below some comments emerged reflecting differences in the understanding of religious identity and change. After writing on this blog for 17 years I am tempted to just scream “READ WHAT I’VE WRITTEN!”, but that really doesn’t suffice. So I’ll outline very quickly my general stance, which illuminates my sense of how and why the Roman Empire Christianized 1,600 years ago.
Many modern and intellectual understandings of religion focus on individual preferences and dispositions. In the 1980s Rodney Stark outlined a “supply-side” theory of religion in his book, A Theory of Religion. Stark explicitly utilizes a rational choice framework. In this model, a religious denomination provides a bundle of goods and services. Consumers choose from these various religious “products” in the “marketplace.”
A broader survey of this way of thinking about religion is provided in A Marketplace of Gods. Clearly, there is some insight to be gained from this methodology and framework. Over the past few thousand years of history, we see broad convergent trends in terms of the goods and services provided by the major world/higher/universalistic religions. For example, the common trend of promising a more pleasant afterlife as a reward for meritorious behavior and sincere belief.
Most people have common needs and fears. It is no surprise that similar “brands” will converge upon the same solution. Perhaps what we might today term “product-market fit.”
But, in the 30+ years since A Theory of Religion was published we can test some of its predictions, and to be frank, many haven’t panned out. For example, Stark makes much of the reality that the Communism dampened the availability of religious options in the Eastern Bloc. One of the predictions then is that the fall Communism would have unleashed a wave of conversion to Western religions, just as Eastern Bloc consumers initially flocked to Western consumer goods. In particular, American Protestant sects compete extensively.
Though there has been some proliferation of various Protestant sects, on the whole, the transformation of the religious landscape in Eastern Europe has not fulfilled the predictions of a rational choice theory of religion. In some cases, a mild level of government fiat may be implicated, but this is not the case in places such as the Czech Republic. On the whole, places that were relatively secular before Communism (e.g., Czech Republic) remain secular, while those nations that were more religious before (e.g., Romania) defaulted back to their “traditional” religions. Russia is an interesting case where religious belief and practice is relatively anemic, but Eastern Orthodox Christianity has returned to the center of the culture and state.
Today I recorded a podcast for Rationally Speaking. Julia Galef wanted to talk to me about my recent post, Stuff I Was Wrong About!. It was a long discussion, and I don’t know what will go into the final edit. But we did touch on this point from my post:
…I believe that some sort of complex ethical religious system was going to become dominant in the Roman Empire at some point. If Arbogast had won the Battle of Frigidus I think ultimately Christianity would still have become dominant within the empire (see the resistance to Buddhism in Tibet to envision a possible scenario).
The context here is that there is a tradition with the historiography which sees Theodosius the Great’s conquest of the Western Roman Empire from the usurper Eugenius, who was a puppet of the Frankish general Arbogast, as the final victory of Christianity as the state religion over the customary pagan cults. Though non-Christians, or people with strong non-Christian religious sympathies, were persistent as public figures in the Roman world for decades, the last hope for state paganism seems to have ended with Theodosius’ victory.
There are nuances and details here. Alan Cameron presents a mildly revisionist take in The Last Pagans of Rome, arguing that state paganism was in sharp decline after the withdrawal of public subsidies decades before Theodosius’ victory. But that does not impact my general argument. The emergence of Julian the Apostate as emperor heading a counter-Christian movement in the early 360s, and varying degrees of toleration of non-Christian cults in the decades after, tells us that the rise of Christianity as the Roman state religion was a gradual affair that took decades.
Many people perceive that Constantine’s patronage of the Christian religion in the early 4th-century as analogous to Henry VIII changing the English Church from the Catholic to the Protestant camp.* But this is not so. Though Constantine favored Christians, the ruling class of the Roman state remained predominantly pagan for decades.
There was no break with the pagan past. But a gradual evolution. Even though the Roman Empire had been ruled by Christian emperors for nearly two centuries, Anastasius I was still deified upon his death. Presumably, this was a customary honor which persisted, even though by the early 6th-century everyone understood this was a legacy of pagan emperor-cult.
With the gradual withdrawal of paganism’s hold on the landed aristocracy, the old cults declined as features of public culture due to lack of patronage. And, the eventual extinction of the tradition of philosophy also resulted in the intellectual death of elite paganism. By the early Dark Ages, paganism was associated with rustics and marginal peoples. Even if radical Protestants are correct that Europe’s people remained predominantly pagan their primitive beliefs and practices until the 16th-century, European political systems and elite culture were thoroughly Christian long before that.
Back to the original question: is there a scenario where Christianity did not succeed in capturing the Roman state, and so becoming the Roman religion? If Arbogast had won at the Battle of Frigidus in 394, would paganism have revived in the Western Empire? Perhaps, but, I think Christianity had sunk roots too deeply into the matrix of Roman culture and society to be turned back. The fact that Arbogast’s puppet, Eugenius, was a nominal Christian illustrates the reality that even in the Western Empire, where many elite families had pagan sympathies, the head of state was now expected to be a Christian. Christianity was the normative religion of the state.
We don’t know much about Arbogast. He was a Frank by origin, that is, a German. But the ancient sources indicate that Arbogast was a cultured individual, and assimilated into Romanitas. He was also a pagan, though from what I have read, one of the Greco-Roman variety, and not a devotee of Woden or any German god. There was likely an avenue of assimilation and integration whereby men from barbarian cultures could integrate into the high culture and society of old Rome during Late Antiquity, but we know little about it from Christian sources, who were likely not privy to such circles in any case.
If Arbogast had won at Frigidus and pushed forward a revival of the old pagan religion and Roman traditionalism through state patronage, some sort of short-term revival is likely. But a key issue to observe is that we are not talking about the old religion which Augustus attempted to preserve. The Roman religious culture was literally multicultural and very promiscuous. The 1st-century emperor Vespasian was a devotee of Isis, while the cult of Sol Invictus was popular in the 3rd-century. Roman religious traditions evolved and changed, and Kyle Harper suggests in Fate of Rome that pagan temple building decreased sharply after the Plague of Cyprian in the 260s. One interpretation might be that pagan religious practice itself was evolving in a less monumental and personal direction.
Anyone who takes an interest in early Christianity can observe that it evolves and mutates from its origins as a Jewish sect into something more elaborated in the 2nd-century. Very much a mystery religion of the gentiles. The life and thought of Origen illustrate the nexus between Christians and the broader culture. But the influence did not go in a single direction. Not only did the currents of Roman society affect Christianity, but the currents that led to Christianity shaped Roman society. Prominent Jews were already associated with some of the Julio-Claudians, in particular, Gauis, but the penetration of Near Eastern sects into Roman society was high. Christianity was one of these new religious movements.
Just as Arbogast’s personal evolution as a man of Roman culture is hidden from us, so we perceive the cults of the Great Mother, Mithras, or Isis, darkly through a fog. They seem but shadows of the depth and richness that was early Christianity. And they may indeed have been such. But there is an alternative hypothesis: perhaps a large set of new religious movements were converging toward the same broad configuration, and Christianity was the one which won the race to the top, whether through chance or necessity.
And there was a necessity. In my post The Invention Of World Religions 2,000 Years Ago I argue that “higher religions” evolved to fill a cultural niche that became very open with the rose of the Iron Age Empires. Rome, China, Persia, etc. The argument about whether “big gods” came before or after complex polities is a different one than the question I’m exploring here. Rather than “big gods,” the imperial polities of the last few thousand years seem to need “big systems.”
These systems can take various forms but share broad family features. One of the arguments made for the revival of paganism in the Roman Empire is that in the 9th-century Tang China suppressed the power of Buddhism at the cultural commanding heights. Though emperors could be personally devout Buddhists, the religion never obtained the same stature and monopoly power that Christianity or Islam did in western Eurasia. What this analysis ignores though is that the arrival of Buddhism fundamentally transformed the Chinese religious landscape. The development of complex religious Daoism was clearly due to Buddhist stimulus, while Neo-Confucianism took for granted many metaphysical presuppositions inherited from Buddhism. Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism in China began to operate as three legs of a religious stool.
If “paganism” had revived in the Roman Empire, it would have had a heavily Christian flavor by the 5th-century. The use of the word pagan in a non-pejorative sense is somewhat broad. Many Christians consider those outside of the Abrahamic tradition “pagans.” But there is a world of difference between Indian practitioners of Vedanta, and a Korean shaman. The latter is pagan in a way that is analogous to the augurs of ancient Rome. Those who espouse Vedanta have views sharply at variance with Nicene Christianity, but their philosophical sophistication is no less than that of the heirs of Basil of Caesarea.
The Romans of the Republic practiced what we would today call a “tribal religion.” The similarities between orisha and numina are not coincidental. The Romans of the Republic were a tribal people in a quite literal sense and worshipped gods of particular places. Though some of their elites were already cosmopolitan and Greek-educated, Roman religion and philosophy remained primitive. By 300 AD the situation was very different. Pagan Romans worshipped a variety of gods and adhered to many different cults, but Neoplatonic philosophy added an intellectual sheen to the new paganism, introducing monism whereby all gods might be emanations from the Ultimate. Christianity came out of the same milieu and was somewhat influenced by Neoplatonists, though Neoplatonists were some of the earliest intellectual critics of the religion, and the school remained the refuge for diehard pagans into the 6th-century.
Which brings us to perennialism. The perennial philosophy is the idea that the world’s religious traditions share a single, metaphysical truth or origin. Unlike perennialists, I do not believe in a single metaphysical truth or origin. Rather, I believe that particular social and cultural conditions 2,000 years ago made it very likely that a set of higher religions would emerge. In particular, in large and complex multi-ethnic societies you need more than big gods. You needed big religions.
These higher religions always came with abstruse and complex philosophies opaque to the vast majority of adherents. But these elements were appealing to and justified the project of a large empire for religious professionals. A unitary principle, a Ground of Being, justified the necessity of a vice-reagent of God upon the earth, the son of Heaven, or the Cakravartin. Pre-modern states lacked the tools for genuine totalitarianism or the rapidity of unifying information technology. They required ideological bindings across their administrative classes. Philosophy injected into supernatural systems and then universalized provided just that.
These higher religions had localisms (e.g., Rome), but they were not fundamentally local. Priests and monks could travel across the world with some surety of safety due to the respect given to them by rulers. Rather than appealing to raw power or the capricious favor of household gods, universal rulers could argue that their power was a reflection of the universal gods and universal principles. Just as there was a God in heaven there was an emperor on earth. Karma and the Dharma applied to all peoples.
In evolutionary biology on occasion, there is a rhetorical question asked: why doesn’t evolution favor a single fit species? Why is there diversity? One explanation is that there are different adaptive niches, but even here there is no single species that occupies an adaptive niche across the whole world. Abiotic factors dictate certain parameters in terms of body-plan and behavior for numerous species. They are clearly being pushed and shaped by the same selective forces, but history is such that they are distinct and different.
And so it is with cultural evolution. I have observed that pagan and antique cults of Babylon existed in Mesopotamia in the early centuries of the Common Era. But by the 4th-century they faded and under the Sassanians Mesopotamia became dominated in its public culture by a welter of sects, Christian, Jewish, Gnostic, and Zoroastrian, with combinations thereof. This is important because unlike in the Roman Empire, the Sassanian Persians took a liberal attitude toward religious liberty. There was no coercive imposition of the new religions on the elites. Rather, the elites adopted the new religions to integrate themselves into the Roman and Persian world.
There were selective pressures that militated in favor of this transition. It wasn’t simply an accident of history. It was an inevitable consequence of social complexity.
* I am aware that Henry VIII maintained a basically Catholic Church that had broken from Rome.