Monday, January 02, 2012

Religion and the end of empires

One of the interesting things I note, looking through history, is that the end of empires corresponds with a huge resurgence in religion. As the Roman Empire was winding down, you had a tremendous religious fervor that resulted in Arianism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, Macedonians, and other sects/cults, and the reaction of the Church against them, and the entire empire became embroiled in the question of what was acceptable doctrine and what was heresy. The Byzantines, the Russian Empire, even the Soviet Empire if you consider Soviet Communism to be a religion (which I do, since it was faith-based rather than fact-based and became even more faith-based as the empire crumbled towards the end), in all of these reason gave way to faith in an ideology and the worse things got, the more people double down on that whole faith thing. Whether it was praying for God to smite the Vandals at the gates or fervently believing that the next five year plan would surely bring Soviet industry to a higher level than Western industry despite the fact that Soviet industry couldn't even build a crappy 8085 yet, much less the snazzy new 80486 that Intel had just shipped, wishful thinking replaced any realistic assessment of what was happening and what to do about it.

So, did it work? Uhm. Do you need to ask? Instead of drilling with spears and shields and then marching out and smiting Vandals, the citizens of Rome instead huddled inside their city and prayed to God to smite the invaders. Yeah, that worked out well for them, didn't it? Instead of dumping their crufty ideology and opening up their economy, the Soviets doubled down on ideological purity -- a friend who was an engineer in their missile program during the 1980's noted to me that he wasn't even able to read Western scientific journals unless they'd been vetted for ideological purity by Communist party monitors and half the time so many pages were missing, cut out by the censors, that the journal was useless. Yeah, that really worked out well for them, didn't it?

So now I note another empire devolving into religious fervor -- I mean, what else can you call the collection of religious nutcases that are the so-called "serious" candidates on the Republican side of the aisle? Santorum surging, indeed (giggle!). Thing is, it was predictable. When the American Empire lost its first war in Vietnam -- defeated by a buncha pajama-wearin' gooks in flip-flops, for cryin' out loud -- the rise of something like Reaganism, a faith with no factual backing, was as sure to happen as the shocked withdrawal of the Roman citizenry into religious fervor after the disaster of the Battle of Adrianople. When events seem too huge and horrifying for people to confront and do something about, for some reason they react by withdrawing from the realm of reason and descending into the chasm of wishful thinking, where faith substitutes for fact. And alongside secular Reaganism that rejected reason arose a Christian fundamentalism that in turn rejected reason (despite the fact that no main-line religion rejects reason, even the Catlicks give lip service to reason). The merger of the two was inevitable -- when you have two religious beliefs with such power to explain why things are wrong (i.e., you just haven't prayed hard enough to God / the Free Market Fairy, an explanation which can be used *FOR ANY PROBLEM* with no reasoning required), it became inevitable that the two would end up co-opting each other and breed a mutt offspring that would become even more nasty and vicious due to hybrid vigor.

So anyhow, that's where we are today. The crumbling of the empire has become even more apparent after a buncha Arabs in Iraq beat our noses bloody (and don't say they didn't, why else did our last troops in that country have to creep out in the middle of the night?!), and what that means is that the religious nutcases are just gonna double down on the crazy. Which ain't gonna help a whole lot -- if the Roman citizenry had armed themselves, trained themselves to fight, and taken the fight to the barbarians rather than huddling with their rosaries babbling Hail Marys we'd all be speaking Latin right now, and that's pretty much what Reaganism and Christian fundamentalism consist of, babbling meaningless prayers like late-era Romans rather than doing what it takes to perpetuate the empire. But they have faith, faith I say, in their magical great sky demon and His son, the magical free market fairy, and no amount of reason will ever shake that faith and for some reason people who live in crumbling empires seem to prefer faith to reason so... (shrug). Hang on for the ride, folks. It's gonna be a wild one.

-- Badtux the Reality-based Penguin


  1. My initial reaction to this morning's blog was that it seemed a might hyperbolic. But then I went to Huff Post and saw the faces of the three republican contenders: Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. And there the GOP was in stark reality, the western libertarian, the vulture capitalist, and the fundamentalist. It's looking grim.

  2. Personally for me the ride is gonna be a lot shorter than for my offspring. I do think that I'll be around long enough to see some of what you state come to pass. I sure wish some of the folks would wake up and realize all three of the "Leading" GOP Clowns are just plain Bat$shit crazy.

  3. “In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.”
    Alfred Whitney Griswold quote

  4. "Santorum Surges from Behind" was the headline I saw.

    The current crop of crazy is so crazy and stupid, I see an opportunity. It couldn't be too difficult to convince red staters that Reagan is still alive and president, and that Obama doesn't actually exist, and staying home on Election Day is the best way of making billionaires happy.

    You just have to make Faux News look wildly liberal in comparison to yourself, and they'll listen.

  5. “In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost."

    In the long run of history, we're all dead. So I'm not sure what that's saying. So yes, Stalin's Soviet Empire didn't survive his death by more than fifty years, but that's a cold comfort for those for whom the censor and inquisitor *won* for their entire lifetimes, and who either lived under tyranny or died in Stalin's gulags.

    "The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.”

    Doesn't work. For example, in the field of economics Keynes pounded the classical economists like a drum. Classical economics had no answer for price stickiness during deflation. Keynes did. Classical economics had no answer for wage stickiness during deflation, for why businesses would cut their output rather than cut their prices and wages. Keynes did. The current Austerian "economics" consists of the faith-based statement "it's all da gubmint's fault!" with no evidence to support said faith based statement (indeed, Austerians explicitly *reject* what they sneer at as "aggregate statistics", i.e., all of modern statistical science for the past 100 years), yet this truly stupid faith-based idea appears to be the ruling ideology amongst those who decide government economic policy today. In the long run, I'm sure the better idea will win out because the people pushing the stupid idea will die out, but there seems no end of new stupid ideas to take the place of the old stupid idea that died out. In the long run, the better idea will stick around and eventually "win". But in the long run, we're all dead, and in the short run, stupid ideas seem to crowd out better ideas all the time because most people seem to be stupid (doh!) and result in far more misery, pain, and death than would be the case if your statement was actually generally true.

    - Badtux the Reality-based Penguin
    (Ain't no faith in wishful thinking here, nosiree!)

  6. yea ; Happy New Year fellow Centurian
    We got lots of Fail to look forward to eh?
    See ya at the great cesspool at the end

  7. I have to agree. The good ideas do not always win out. Just talk to someone who is a regular viewer of Fox News.

    I am not in favor of censorship but it is naive to think that the truth or good ideas or anything will always be what is accepted by the masses. People *are* stupid. They also believe what they want to believe.

  8. People *are* stupid. They also believe what they want to believe.

    Indeed. The Romans wanted to believe that they could have their empire without fighting and dying for it. It didn't work out in the end, because mercenaries only fight for you as long as you pay them, and eventually Rome exhausted their ability to pay.

    - Badtux the History Penguin

  9. Tux -

    If your point is that religion is magical thinking and MT is not a reliable approach to solving real world problems, then I agree.

    If your point is that excessive religiosity is associated in a cause-effect manner with the collapse of civilizations, then I'll say you have an interesting hypothesis, but a lot more work to do to give it credence.

    And which would be cause, and which would be effect?


  10. If Tux's point is that excessive religiosity is associated in a cause-effect manner with the collapse of civilizations, he would have to explain why the Eastern/Byzantine Empire (which was just as or even more religious as the west) lasted for a thousand years longer than the West. ;)

  11. Also a huge resurgence gays, actually, queers, that want you to honor them.

  12. Jazz, Lynne, I deliberately left out any discussion of causation. The cause of the Western Empire's economic problems which led to the eventual collapse of their ability to maintain armies in the field had nothing to do with religion. On the other hand, my point was that a) religion attracts many new converts during the collapse of empires, b) and this further accelerates the collapse, since religion by definition requires suspension of reason and thus eliminates the mentality of finding real-life solutions to real-life problems, instead carrying with it the mentality of relying on a fictional being to solve real-life problems. In short, religion is not the cause of collapse of empires, but is part of the process of escalation which speeds the collapse once it starts.

    - Badtux the Correlation-not-causation Penguin

  13. Too bad Tammy Faye Bakker didn't live to see this. Now there was a gal who preached face-paste economics...

    <grin_duck_run />

  14. Have people always been just crazy "sleepers" who come out of their hidey holes en masse when these propitious metronomic moments occur, and then they slink back into their shade?

    I don't know that people as a bloc have ever been very Enlightened. Frankly, I'm pretty amazed the U.S. has has lasted and even thrived for so many of its 250-some years. It seems innate human qualities -- greed, fear, sloth, anger, etc. -- would argue against the long survival of any free enterprise, seeing as our entrepreneurial (see, "rapacious") nature would seem to damn the existence of such an idealistic & egalitarian undertaking.

    Even Communism would be swell, were it not for the human failings.


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