This post is the first in a series exploring the importance and the evolution of religion in Western society. This is a vast and convoluted topic and it is impossible to do it justice in one of my: 'Trilogies in four parts' series. What follows is not even a synopsis but a fine skip across the surface that barely wets the reader’s toes. And for this, I make no apologies.
Don't expect finely researched scholarship. I am not an academic historian and have never made claims toward this end. What remains is an intensely subjective view based on my amateur interest in the topic spanning over 30 years. What spews on the page is my personal opinion, only. History, as a topic, is about interpretation and generally not subject to scientific rigour (science as I understand it, anyway) except in the realm of 'archaeology'. Anyway, gentle reader, read on and if not enlightened, at least be enchanted.
It is a rare society indeed that doesn't have its early development rooted in religion and a belief in gods. I say, gods, because primordial, developing societies invariably have a concept of god in the plural. The development of monotheism is a later, but not an inevitable societal progression. Even the devoutly monotheist Jews were originally polytheist. Thus, a belief in supernatural beings seems a basic drive and need for pre-scientific societies. And this, of course, is thoroughly understandable. Without a conception of natural law and causality, natural phenomenon such as storms, wind and the presence of the sun, the moon and stars must have elicited grave wonder and consternation. Primitive, but intelligent humans could only gape in awe. Life as they understood it was brutal, short and capricious. How could there be meaning in their unpredictable existence? Enter gods, stage left.
To the unsophisticated, the ‘deity concept’ fulfilled an epistemological void. To say that supernatural beings were responsible for natural causation enabled primitive societies to ‘explain’ their inexplicable world. Early gods were anthropomorphic and inventive minds soon filled in their biography with layers of character and intention. The gods became fleshed out and became fathers and lovers and were often destructive. Rarely were gods assigned moral and ethic values; they were beyond mortal strictures. They morphed into man writ large. Men would act as the gods if only they could. And with a pantheon followed a priesthood, usually an expensive and well-heeled priesthood.
How were the gods to interact with the mortal world? Surely intercession was required. A special caste emerged, often heredity, that could interpret the ‘signs’ and act as mediators between gods and men. Sacrifices were required to appease and please the gods to prevent plague, hunger and war. Arcane rites became established to further divorce the priestly class from the common and uninitiated folk. Power structures became established and religion became deeply intertwined within societies. Rulers embraced the theocracy and worked with the priest to maintain the social status quo. In times of political weakness, the priestly class became thrust into the political arena and exercised tangible secular as well as ‘other world’ power. All the most successful religions are firmly rooted in this world especially when it comes to obtaining land and money. In some societies, such as ancient Egypt (beyond my remit), the ruler became embedded into the theological system. Pharaohs were the embodiment of god manifest on earth.
Two thousand years ago the fierce rollicking and hard living gods of the West were typified by the theology of the barbarian Teuton and supposedly civilised Greek and Roman. A pantheon of jealous warrior and fertility gods had been spawned; a god for all seasons. This was not a sophisticated theology and in the Greek world at least, far-seeing thinkers criticised the prevailing theology. The Greeks were the first people, of which we know, who strayed from strict adherence to mythical explanations for the natural world. The initial Greek steps into the world of rationalism were faltering but at least it was a start. With Socrates, Plato and Aristotle it reached a zenith of intellectual endeavour which would not be matched for nearly 2,000 years. The writings of Plato suggest a belief in gods. I think with regard to Plato the sentiment was genuine as he was always prone to lapse into the transcendent and ridiculous even when he approached the most rational and sublime. What other Greek philosophers thought of the gods is another matter. Impiety or atheism could result in the ultimate penalty. I find it inconceivable that men of culture, high education and high intelligence could not perceive the inherent absurdity of the Greek pantheon and stodgy Greek theology. From there tis a single step to consider all religious systems absurd. The charge of impiety was a constant reality for upper-class Greek men. It covered a multitude of sins and was motivated mainly by partisan politics. If convicted the death penalty was a real threat. It is remembered that Socrates was charged with impiety, which from our lofty perspective of 2,400 years is patently ridiculous. His real crime lay in the realm of politics. He offended the existing power structure in Athens. Although not a political threat in any conventional sense, he did exercise a certain influence amongst the citizens, especially the young. Conservatism is always the default mode in society and major change comes only after the shedding of much blood.
To what extent educated Greeks believed in the ‘Classical Pantheon’ is difficult to divine. It is not inconceivable that many adhered to theism as a matter of practical form, cultural conformity and political policy. Performing rites and religious abeyance are not the same as theistic belief.
Brave principled Greeks did explicitly espouse a disbelief in gods. Diagoras of Melos (5th century BC) is credited with being the ‘first atheist’. This, of course, is not the case. Others before him espoused views which could be construed as atheistic. Two hundred years later, Theodorus wrote a book outlining his atheistic ideals.
With the Romans, we see nothing new and everything stated about the Greeks apply here. Some educated Romans stated theistic scepticism, but most kept their counsel strictly private. Seneca famously stated: ‘Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful’. Does this constitute a form of atheism? I would say, nay. But it does convey a world-weary, cynical and critical standpoint. We gain insight when we consider the Roman habit of deifying Roman Emperors. If men can become gods, what does this say about the concept of divinity? Surely it becomes devalued and loses its original supernatural connotation. Gods are no longer unique and become a mere abstract cypher for the state thus losing any believable content, at least amongst the educated classes.
Roman religion had plunged into a decadence which mirrored Roman society in general. The pagan religion lay prostrate and vulnerable to change. That change would come in the simple garb and unassuming raiment of Christianity. The development and influence of Christianity on the Western world will form the next two instalments of this gripping and succulent saga.