What is religion, exactly? Hieratic monks singing their hymns? Fanatics performing human sacrifices? Old ladies praying the rosary? Pentecostals speaking in tongues? It is all that and more. Religions are not old superstitions, but part of the way the human mind works. They are communication tools designed to build empathy in society. (originally published on “The Seneca Effect”)
You surely noted how a new religion is being born right in front of our eyes. It includes a complete set of sacrifices, rituals, canons, saints, prayers, and competition of good and evil. It does not officially include the belief in an all-powerful God, but it worships an abstract entity called “Science.” We may define it as “Scientism.”
I am not a religious person, not normally, at least. But I recognize that religion can be a good thing. It is a life hack that gives you a moral compass, a code of behavior, a social purpose, a dignity, and support as you go along the various passages of life. For some, it also provides a path to something higher than the mere human experience in this world. So, I am not surprised that many people have embraced Scientism with enthusiasm.
The problem is that there are evil aspects of religion. Witch hunts, human sacrifices, fanatic cultists, the Spanish inquisition, suicide bombers, and more. Even moderate religions, such as Christianity, can be perfectly evil when they try to scare you into submission, or use force or deception for the same purpose.
So, what kind of religion is Scientism, good or evil? It may be both as it keeps changing and adapting to an evolving situation in which humankind is facing enormous challenges, from resource depletion to ecosystem collapse. Scientism may be understood as a desperate, last-ditch reaction to these threats, but it may well worsen the situation. It is normal when humans try to control complex systems.
In the following, I propose to you my thoughts on this point. Sorry that it is a long story (some 5000 words). I am also sorry that it is focused mostly on Christianity in Western Europe — it is a subject I have studied in some detail and I will use ancient Roman history as a mirror in which to see our own future. But I do believe that what I propose is valid with some modifications also for other regions and other religions.
1. Christianity: the first universal religion
In 250 AD, Emperor Decius issued a law that obliged all Roman citizens to make public sacrifices to the traditional Roman deities, including the Emperor himself as a living God. Refusal to do so enticed stiff penalties, even death. The government spared no effort to make sure that nobody could escape. The sacrifice had to take place in the presence of witnesses and a public officer would issue a “libellus,” a certificate attesting that the sacrifice had been performed.
We have a detailed description of these events from Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who tells us in his “De Lapsis” how the Roman authorities played on the responsibility of the Romans toward the state and their fellow citizens. This tactic of persuasion had a certain success: many Christians lapsed into idolatry rather than face death or ruin. But but some resisted and offered their lives as martyrs (witnesses) of the Christian faith. Cyprian himself was martyred in a later persecution ordered by Emperor Valerian.
At that time, the Roman state was still able to impose its will by brute force, but that did not last for long. Decius’ reign lasted just two years. Later on, Valerian was captured in battle against the Persians and it is said that he was used as a human footstool when the Persian Emperor Shapur 1st mounted his horse. A few decades later, the Roman Empire was ruled by a Christian Emperor.
If Christianity was so successful despite the effort of the state to stamp it out, there must have been good reasons. It was, mainly, because it was the first truly universal religion, at least in the western side of Eurasia (on the other side, Buddhism came centuries earlier). Before Christianity, there had been nothing like that: the term “religion” was applied mainly to cults of local deities.
During their expansion phase, the Romans were playing the syncretism game, a term that implies combining different beliefs and mythologies. That is, by the way, the probable origin of the term “religion” that comes from the Latin verb ligare, meaning “tie together.” The Romans dealt with the cults of conquered regions by asserting that the divinities worshiped there were the same as in Rome, except for having different names. So, the Greek “Zeus” was supposed to be the same entity as the Latin Iovis (Jupiter), and they went on matching every foreign divinity with its Roman counterpart.
For the Romans, religion was no marginal element of their culture. They attributed their successes to their proper behavior and reverence toward the traditional Gods: it was the concept of “pietas.” So, it was important for everyone to perform the sacrificial rites and refusing to do that was a serious crime. Cults that were seen as incompatible with this view were considered evil and suppressed, and their followers could be exterminated. That was the destiny of the Druids, for instance, accused of performing human sacrifices by Roman propaganda. The early Christians were also seen in this way, including the usual accusations of human sacrifices and cannibalism.
The Roman approach to religion worked reasonably well up to the 1st-2nd century AD, when the Empire started to show signs of decline. As it is typical in all declining societies, the result was to attempt to solve the problems by using more of whatever had caused them. Religious rites became more and more focused on supporting the state. The Empire was gradually turned into a military dictatorship dominated by an elite concerned only with keeping their wealth and their power at the expense of everyone else.
Christianity arose as a response to these totalitarian trends. It was an attempt to protect the poor and the dispossessed by giving them the dignity that comes from being members of the ecclesia, the community of the faithful. That surely was a highly subversive idea. Christians claimed that the Emperor was not a god and that even the Emperor had to submit to an all-powerful supernatural entity: the Pantocrator, the creator and the ruler of the universe, the one and the only God.
In a certain sense, Christians were trying to use the holy books, the Bible and the Gospels, to impose what we call today a “constitution” on the Roman state. While God was theoretically even more powerful than Emperors, at least he was not mad, cruel, or a pervert, as many emperors turned out to be. God was good by definition and, later on, would be characterized in Islam as benevolent and merciful.
Countering the excessive power of the Roman elites was a badly needed idea, but not easy to put into practice. Against the repression of the Imperial police, a powerful God was needed, a pantheon of many deities just wouldn’t have worked. The Stoic philosophers of that age had been already playing with monotheism, but never tried to transform it into a mass phenomenon. Christianity, instead, did exactly that. It was a triumph of social engineering performed by a single man: Paulus (Saul) of Tarsus.
Paulus was a Jew and he created Christianity as a sort of “Hebraism light.” As many religions of the time, Hebraism was not universal: it was the religion of the people of Israel who had entered a covenant with their God. But it was a special religion in its claim that there was only one God and that all the others were illusions or evil spirits. Paulus’ genius was to pivot on the Jewish religious tenets to promote monotheism as a form of universal religion. Christianity could be embraced by anyone, independently of their ethnic origin. Paulus also eliminated several of the requirements of Hebraism: Christians did not need to go through the painful and risky ceremony of circumcision, nor they needed to respect special dietary rules.
Once created, Christianity became a powerful social tool. Not only it could oppose the excessive power of emperors, but Christians could create low-cost governance services exploiting their capability of creating communities on the basis of shared beliefs rather than on law enforcement. Even after the collapse of the Empire, Christianity maintained an organization that mirrored the disappeared state: the Pope was the equivalent of the Emperor, Bishops played the role of the bureaucrats, the clergy were the army, and so on.
Christianity continued to dominate Europe throughout the Middle Ages. It started waning with the Renaissance, when the European governments found that it was an obstacle to their plans of worldwide expansion. The “controversy of Valladolid” saw European states and the Christian Church fighting over the status of Native Americans. States wanted them as slaves, the Church as devout Christians. The Church won the debate, but it was a hollow victory. It started an irreversible decline of Christianity that continues to this day, when states seem to have decided to replace it with scientism — a new secular religion that dispenses with many details, including “God.” It is a long story that needs to be told in some detail, starting from understanding what exactly “religion” is.
2. Religion as a Technology for Large Scale Empathy Creation
The interactions among humans are based on “empathy.” It is a wide-ranging concept that includes many facets of human behavior but, in any case, without empathy, humans cannot work together and cannot accomplish anything. Chuck Pezeshky gives us a basic definition of empathy:
[Empathy] is a stacked, nested complex phenomenon. It’s not simply ‘feeling’ for someone, or even worse, ‘feeling sorry’ for someone. That’s sympathy. And it stacks through our automatic, emotional and cognitive centers. Empathy, and how it manifests itself, is THE information coherence function for humans, and consequently, social networks. It, dependent on the level of development of the individuals, is the nuts-and-bolts of how the collective over-mind functions.
Pezeshky lists five levels of empathy, from the lowest (“automatic”) to the highest (“immersive”). The lowest level has military overtones of obeisance to orders, you do what you are told to do, or what you see others doing (marching in goose steps, for instance). The highest has some aspects of communion with others at the same global level — you do what you think is good for everyone to do.
These are interesting elements describing how humans interact with each other. But there is a basic requirement implicit in all these levels: empathy is possible only as long as people can understand each other. For that, they need a common language.
The problem is that language is a local tool or at best a regional one. In ancient times, if you walked just a few hundreds of miles from where you were born, you would find yourself surrounded by people who couldn’t understand a word of what you were saying — and the reverse was also true. It was a problem known from the time of the tower of Babel.
Now, how do you build an empathic feeling with people whom you cannot understand? Not easy, and it is no wonder that the ancient termed all foreigners as “Barbarians,” meaning those people who speak “bar-bar,” nonsense.
Barbarians can be fought, kept away, or killed. But it is also true that a living follower is worth much more than a dead enemy. So, the problem for kings and emperors was how to rule over people who didn’t understand their language. It is the problem of governance that we might consider as a state-wide form of empathy.
One possibility for large-scale governance is to use international “trade languages,” such as the koinè of the ancient Mediterranean region. These languages are powerful networking tools, but it is expensive to train people in a language that is not theirs and that most of them won’t ever be able to master completely. And it is not easy to build a high-level, empathic relationship using a language that you don’t master as well as a native speaker.
A solution to bypass the problem is to use non-vocal communication methods. It is a very ancient idea: if you find yourself surrounded by strange people who don’t speak your language: what do you do? Before modern times, there were only two ways: 1) use gestures, 2) offer gifts.
About the first possibility, gestures, it is remarkable how some forms of body language are universally known: a head nod, for instance, means “yes” practically everywhere in the world. From that, you can build entire languages based on gestures, as the Native Americans used to do. Of course, there are limits to the complexity of the message you can pass using gestures, but in some cases, a gesture may become a ritual.
Think of making the sign of the cross: it is a simple gesture, but also a statement of what you are, what you believe, and to which group you belong. You can do that also dressing in a certain way, another form of symbolic communication. There is no specific reason why wearing a black shirt should define you as a “Fascist,” but it is normally understood as exactly that. The same is true for a whole universe of flags, hats, lapel pins, and other dress accessories.
A set of religious rituals is called “liturgy” from the Greek word leitourgia, which can be translated as “public service.” Indeed, the key feature of liturgy is that it is public. It is an event where all the participants publicly declare that they belong to a certain social group and their adhesion to a set of beliefs.
In a liturgy. it is not necessary for the faithful to know the language of the clergy and not even that of the other members of the congregation. It is enough to join with gestures and dances, and, in some cases, by chanting or reciting sacred formulas — without the need of understanding them. Think of how, until relatively recent times, Catholic Christians would recite formulas in Latin during the mass, even though most of them didn’t understand Latin. Liturgy may also involve complex manifestations of collective behavior, public prayers, abstaining from some specific foods in specific periods, performing sacrifices (meaning, “making sacred”), and more.
Sometimes, liturgy also involves penance, a typical way to show that one is serious in proclaiming his or her beliefs. It may mean fasting, discomfort, or self-inflicted pain. It is typical of young religions when they face stiff opposition from competitors and from the state. The early Christians were sometimes asked to renounce their life to promote their beliefs. The early martyrs were a powerful factor in the diffusion of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
In addition to liturgy, a religious group may develop a governance superstructure formed of the people who can understand the cult’s sacred language: they may be called “priests,” “imams,” or “initiates”. The result may be a structure called “church” (from the Greek term ecclesia, meaning the assembly of the believers). A Church is a more complex entity than religion and not all religions have it. Islam does not, but in some secular religions, such as Fascism and Communism, the Church took the name of the “Party.”
These structures have been common empathy creation mechanisms over a few thousand years of human empire. The most diffuse religions in the world, Christianity, Islam, and others clearly state that all humans are the same in front of God and so they tend to generate a “horizontal” or egalitarian form of empathy. Not that the assembly of the faithful (the ecclesia) is truly egalitarian, but at least it tends to avoid excessive inequality: everyone is supposed to be equal in front of God.
As you see, religions are complex and multi-faceted entities, far from being just old-styled superstitions. They respond to deep needs of humans to create empathy in complex societies. They are an innovation that appeared in history only in very recent times: just a few thousand years ago after hundreds of thousands of years in which humans lived in small groups of no more than a few hundred individuals. We are still trying to adapt to this new way of living, and religion may be a help or a hindrance. It is evolving with us all the time, and with the other complex entity that evolves in parallel: the state.
3. State, money, and empathy
States and religions have similar aims, but different ways to put them into practice. Both aim at creating empathy-based governance systems. But whereas religion is based on liturgy, the state is based on money.
Monetary economies and the associated states arose from the ancient tradition of gift-giving. With trade becoming widespread, metals started being used as a compact and portable form of commodity. We have evidence of metal trading as early as in the 3rd millennium before our era. From the 6th century BCE, coinage became a diffuse technology in Eurasia. “Money” soon acquired the form of standardized metal disks, gold or silver coins, with an impressed image that guaranteed their title and their value. These coins were a practical form of communication even among people who did not share a language.
Already in ancient times, money and the state were strictly linked to each other. The state produced precious metals from mines and minted coins. The state also levied taxes, so it got back from the citizens the money it spent. It is the same nowadays, even though money is not anymore based on metals but it became “currency,” an entity created by obscure virtual processes carried out by the “financial system” on behalf of the state. The triad of money, markets, and the state has been the powerhouse of human social systems during the past 5,000 years, and it still is.
Spending money is the way to communicate to others your status and your power (nowadays, it is called “conspicuous consumption”). The beauty of the idea is its universality. In ancient times, gold or silver-based money was recognized in all urban societies in the world. It made it possible for wealthy Romans to purchase precious silk from China (a habit that eventually ruined them, but that’s another story).
If we see human society as a complex network of nodes (single human beings) linked to each other, we can say that money is a “vertical” kind of empathy, that is a one-directional kind of communication where someone gives orders and someone else executes them. Money tends to generate a hierarchy simply because people have different amounts of it and those who have more money tend to rule over those who have less. Inequality tends to increase as states go through their cycles of decline (and, as Seneca the Stoic said: growth is sluggish, but ruin is rapid).
Over history, young states tend to be strong and growing, and their rulers often think that they do not need a religion, except as an ornament to their glory. When these strong states enter into a conflict with a religion, the latter is nearly always the loser. The reason is simple: if you want to fight wars, you need soldiers. And soldiers need to be paid. So, you need money, and in order to have money, you need a state. It is the control of the money that gives the state its military strength.
Religions are not so good at waging wars. From the time of the warrior monks called parabolonoi of the 5th century AD (those said to have killed the Pagan philosopher Hypatia in 415 AD) to the modern Japanese kamikaze pilots and Islamic suicide bombers, at best religions have been able to line up bands of aggressive fanatics, but nothing like a professional army. Even the Templar Knights, supposed to be elite warriors were easily defeated and exterminated by the king of France when he decided to get rid of them, in 1307. But there is no need for states to recur to brute force to subdue religions. Religious leaders are easily corrupted and turned into government employees.
The interaction between state and religion goes through cycles of dominance and interdependency. When the state is strong, it tends to dismiss or suppress religion. When the state goes through a phase of decline, money is expensive to produce and, more than all, in order to work there needs to exist a market where those who have money can buy something. If the economy collapses, money disappears. And, with it, the state. Then, religion appears as a cheaper form of social networking and the state discovers that it needs to enlist it as support in order to survive. Over time, the state may become so weak that religion takes over as the structure that manages society. It happened when the Western Roman Empire collapsed.
These cycles tend to repeat themselves and we may now be in a situation in which the declining power of the state generates the necessity of new forms of religions. The one that seems to be emerging out of the battle of memes is called “Scientism.”
4. The rise and fall of Scientism
Scientism arose as a set of ideas related to the rapid economic and technological developments of the Renaissance. The founder is often said to have been Galileo Galilei, who found himself in conflict with the Catholic Church and underwent a minor form of martyrdom — as it is fit to the founders of new religions.
At the time of Galileo, during the 17th century, the Church still had the upper hand in the conflict, but things changed with Charles Darwin and his idea of evolution by natural selection, in the mid 19th century. Soon, European leaders found that a distorted version of Darwinism could be used to justify their worldwide dominance. The idea that Europeans were a superior race, destined to rule all the others grew into an official position of several governments during the 20th century, with some of them actively engaging in the extermination of “inferior races” and unfit individuals as an act of racial hygiene. Of course, Darwin never ever remotely intended his ideas to be understood in that way, actually, they are perfectly compatible with the Christian religious views. But that’s the way the human mind works.
Scientism gained enormous prestige during the 20th century. Nuclear weapons became Scientism’s paradigmatic divinities. The associated spectacular liturgy of powerful explosions menaced (and in two cases obtained) human sacrifices on a scale never seen before. In time, Scientism moved into an even more powerful set of rituals, those involving the modification of the very nature of human beings, also called “genetic engineering.”
Yet, up to relatively recent times, Western states maintained a dalliance with Christianity as their state religion. But things are rapidly changing as the Western states reach the limits of the natural resources they exploit. It is a condition that normally goes unrecognized, but its effects are clear to everybody. The increasing costs of exploitation of natural resources appear in the form of deep financial troubles.
So far, the cure to the problem has been “fiat money,” that, unlike precious metal coins, can be created out of thin air. We may be running out of minerals, but for sure we won’t ever run out of virtual currency. The problem is that without a market, money of any kind is useless. And a market needs resources to be created. That’s the unsolvable problem faced today by the Global Empire.
At present, money is being progressively siphoned away from the commoners to the elites, who still have access to a market and can continue playing the game of conspicuous consumption (very conspicuous, nowadays). At the same time, the number of those who have zero money, presently known as the “deplorables,” increases. Lockdowns are used to give the surviving members of the Middle Class the illusion that they still have money and that it is just a temporary situation that of not being able to spend it. But a larger and larger fraction of the population is being pushed out of the economic system into a limbo in which they survive only as long as the elites are able and willing to provide doles for them. And nobody can say for how long.
The ultimate inflation occurs when there is nothing you can buy, money simply ceases to exist (or, if you like, its value becomes zero). With it, there goes the “vertical” empathy network that keeps the state together. And the state disappears. We are not there, yet, but this is the moment in which the state desperately needs the support of religion. And it seems that Western states are dumping Christianity for Scientism, by now officially the state religion almost everywhere in the world.
Scientism has been so successful in this new role because the state has been using its brute force in the form of mass propaganda to exploit the basic characteristic of all religions: creating empathic bonds among people who don’t understand each other’s language. The complexification of society has created specialized fields of knowledge that use different, mutually incomprehensible jargons. Scientism links together all the resulting Babel under a single banner, “trust science.” Reliance on the “experts” replaces the need for understanding different sets of ideas.
The result is that the faithful are not required to know anything of the complex rituals performed by the adepts. In fact, scientists abhor the idea of “citizen science” and they tend to believe that Science must be left to scientists only. Lay people are asked to express their acceptance of the new religion by participating in a liturgy that involves jabs, face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing, and more.
The new liturgy seems to have been remarkably successful: the faithful are genuinely convinced that they are doing what they do as a service to others. It is the magic of “horizontal” empathy. People like to help others, it is a built-in behavior of the human psyche that has been hijacked by the creators of the new religion. Scientism, as it is now, is a remarkable success of social engineering.
Unfortunately for the promoters of Scientism, there are enormous problems with their idea. One is that it can be defined as a “granfalloon,” to use Kurt Vonnegut’s term for “a proud and meaningless collection of human beings.” Even though many people see the new liturgy as a service for others, Scientism’s rituals need to be imposed by the government by means of stiff penalties. It is the same as when the Roman Government imposed sacrifices to the Emperor on pain of death. We haven’t arrived at that for the disbelievers of Scientism, so far, but we are clearly sliding in that direction.
A religion that needs to be imposed by force is doomed from the beginning. It means that it cannot create a stable kind of horizontal empathy” natural for human beings. You cannot create it on the basis of the idea that humans are filthy, germ-carrying bags, that need to be kept at a distance from each other or locked in cages. And masked people cannot really speak to each other, they are only expected to receive orders from above. It is a brutish form of “vertical” empathy, based on the powerful giving orders to the powerless. As it happened at the time of the Roman persecutions of Christians, people may lapse into formally surrendering in order to survive, but they remain ready to toss away the veneer of political correctness on the first occasion. Scientism may be already starting an irreversible decline, pushed down by its own supporters who bombard people from TV screens with sentences such as “trust science.”
Another enormous problem with Scientism is that it requires years of training for the adepts (“researchers”) to make them able to perform the complex liturgy required (“scientific experiments”), also because they need expensive liturgic equipment (“instrumentation”). The whole contraption is simply impossible to keep together in a society that’s rapidly sliding down to economic collapse.
The Catholic Church lasted for nearly two thousand years, Communism (that the Italian Catholic writer Lorenzo Milani termed “a page torn out of the Christian books”) lasted less than a century. Will scientism last more than a decade? And if not, what will come afterward?
5. The future of religion
You see in the image a group of Italian workers in the city of Trieste protesting against the restrictions imposed by the government, this October, before they were dispersed by the police using hydrants, tear gas, and sticks. Note how some of them were holding a rosary in their hands. Not usual for protesting workers, normally supposed to be godless leftists. But you see how things change: some old ideologies have completely lost their grip on the people they were supposed to represent and now we see old values and ideas re-emerging. This image shows how Christianity may return to its original form of a way to protect ordinary people from the excesses of a totalitarian government.
Of course, at present, Western Christianity has taken a completely submissive stance in front of the onrush of the triumphing Scientism, but that may change in the future and there is evidence of the growth of a new strong opposition. It is the same for the other major world religions, Islam, Buddhism, and others.
Then, there is the possibility of new forms of religion. Gaianism is a movement on the rise that includes some elements of ancient Paganism, and the same is true for the Wiccan movement. Right now, these are mostly intellectual fads. Especially Gaianism seems to be making the same mistakes that traditional churches are doing, that is subservience to Scientism. Unless we develop a strong and compelling Gaian liturgy, Gaianism risks becoming little more than a public relations agency for companies involved in greenwashing. Right now, Gaia works as influencer for an Italian chain of supermarkets.
What we need is a higher form of empathy that involves relations not just among human beings, but among all living creatures as well. Maybe it could take completely and unexpected new forms: religion is, after all, is just a tool to attain empathy and enlightenment. So, could we perhaps revitalize Scientism returning it to its original meaning “natural philosophy”? Not impossible but not easy, either. Centuries ago, St. Francis tried to revitalize a corrupt Christian church by eliminate the very source of corruption: money. It didn’t work, but today there are proposal to replace money with forms of “social credit” which are not controlled by the state, at least not directly. So, how about using Google to create empathy via social credit? Could the new religion be called “Googlism?” Who knows? At the very least, a religion should defend us, poor human beings, from the tiranny of governments.
Or might it be that we could go along without any form of religion and be what we are and we have been over our history? Simply human. Imagine!