Notwithstanding the encouraging rise of the Christian Left,the general slant of religious leaders and their followers across the modern world is often a deep shade of conservatism in relation to the progressive elements in their societies. As Hindu nationalists coalesce around an election victory in the world’s largest democracy and other semi-theocratic governments fester elsewhere, I think now would be a good time to give my take on how we should view religious conservatives and their views.
The fundamental (and ironic) aspect of all religious conservatism is that it is paradoxically based on progressive foundations.
At least relative to the time that the religion was created in.
The sacred texts of most world religions actively promote peace, love and kindness. The golden rule of most world religions is basically to ‘love thy neighbour’. Relative to their time and environment Mohammed, Jesus and Buddha cannot be seen as anything but revolutionary ‘liberals’ so to speak. Religious organisations from their earliest days usually served charitable, civic or social ends for their members.
Our early religious brothers and sisters are therefore actually our intellectual ancestors in many respects. Certainly if I was to travel back in time to the labyrinths of Rome in the earliest days of Roman Christianity I have no doubt that I would have had more in common with an early Christian than the average Roman citizen of the era philisophically.
With such profoundly morally uplifting ideals the appetite for religion became insatiable. The morally ambiguous roman gods were replaced with a loving, caring god of the New Testament. People flocked to this new liberal order. The process repeated itself around the world in relation to the other major religions as well as old atavistic natural and ancestral religions were cast aside for gods with expressly moral foundations.
And then the conservatives took over.
Through a process of what I call religious ossification, religious teachings failed to evolve with the times. Whether by inertia or belligerence religious leaders clung to ancient texts written hundreds and thousands of years ago; completely unwilling to update the religion to deal with new technologies, social developments and science. This has certainly made them look foolish of course (The major historical example being that of Galileo), but fundamentally even the enlightened moral teachings of hundreds of years ago in their times now seem quaint in today’s world.
This ossification presented the major world religions with a quandary – either attempt to use the philosophical foundations (limitations) of their religions to reinterpret the rules or stick to literal interpretations of texts and the political pronouncements from their leaders. Obviously they mostly chose the latter – often explicitly attempting to marry religion with politics (The psychological yearning of conservatives for ‘strongmen’ who can direct society is a topic I will return to in a later post).
The question then arises as to why major world religions unified around themes of peace and civility in the first place. Wouldn’t the conservative elites at the time have wanted to stop their foot soldiers from having moral compunctions about carrying out their orders of violence? Don’t they hate peace?
The answer, from a political economy perspective is that religion was a glue that held the peace within and not without. As the psychologist Kevin Rounding explains the purpose of religion for a human being may be seen as a mechanism for self control. Now what Kevin Rounding doesn’t say is why this mechanism is so delightful to elites.
If you can imagine an unenlightened thuggish populace without the restraints of religion, you can see how the costs of maintaining social order and deflecting internal threats against ones power becomes prohibitive, particularly once you scale up your realm of control. It becomes messy to extract rents in this scenario. It is no coincidence that expansion of centralised governments/empires also symbiotically developed with the institutional establishment of religion. Indeed the greatest example of this can be seen with the expansion of the Spanish empire in the late 16th and 17th centuries and its profound desire to convert its new subjects to Christian religion by sending missionaries all over the world.
While new religions may initially start out as a threat to the established order, the conservative establishment usually finds some way to co-opt the religion and prune it of its ‘liberal’ values (of taking care of the poor, the sick, the old etc.) and emphasising the ‘law and order’ side of it. In this way we can now see why the institutions of world religions often acted hand in hand with the political elites of their day, even siding with elites of other sects against their own followers. Religion was thus a useful tool of controlling people to milk them without actually expending resources to control them overtly or as Marx would say – it was used a kind of ‘opiate of the masses’. Basic game theory shows the stationary or roving bandit takes on a cost to extracting rents. With religion, this was minimised.
And this brings us to the present day. How should we view our religious conservative brothers and sisters?
Lets us answer the question first with more questions. How should one view concentration camp prison guards? The ‘useful idiots’ of the Stalinist USSR? How should one view the foot soldiers that work for the machines in the Matrix saga? Or the mutilated elves known as orcs that serve Sauron?
With shades of pity. Sadness. And as political opponents – with extreme prejudice.