Hypotheses on Religion and Informal Power from a Historical Perspective

crops_kansas_ast_20010624Throwing out a few hypotheses that have developed in ongoing research – partly for brainstorming, partly for provocation.

A. Religion and International Relations

The halting steps of formalist political theory into the rough-and-tumble of international relations is, in itself, a topic for an entire post.  Here I want to limit myself to the sub-point that what we perceive to be internal turmoil caused by improper subversion of formal power by informal power is often in reality caused by external conflict between sovereign bodies (or over which bodies are to be sovereign, or who is to rule a given sovereign body).

This pattern is established very early in the Christian era.  One of the first East-West schisms centered on the removal of Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople over his alleged involvement in a plot to depose Emperor Michael III.  Fortunately for the unity of the Church, after nine years of councils and dueling excommunications the plotters finally managed to murder Michael; the victorious Basil I restored Ignatius to his see, ending the schism.  But the important point is that Michael III did not have a particularly firm grasp on imperium, and thus his religious policy was not merely a question of how to use the formal power at his disposal, but of how to assemble a coalition of powers that would allow him to continue his rule.

Acrimonious conflicts over sovereignty marked the later spread of the Paulician/Cathar family of heresies through Europe.  Ground Zero for the heresy: Bulgaria and Slavonia.  Originally, the Eastern Emperor had resettled troublesome Anatolian heretics into his Bulgarian border-themes to serve as a garrison, luring volunteers with the promise of religious toleration.  Subsequent rulers of Bulgaria, Slavonia and Moravia were not especially keen on being subordinated to either the Frankish or the Byzantine Empires, and thus encouraged the use of vernacular Bible translations and liturgies and rejected over-zealous attempts to enforce the will of Rome or of Constantinople in their own lands. Then the same situation recurred in Occitan, although there it was distinct levels of the feudal hierarchy rather than (occasionally) independent princes; local dukes and aldermen were not-sovereign-enough to reform a corrupt Church, but still powerful enough to refuse to persecute heretics whose grievances they shared.

Ultimately this crescendoed in the incredible bitterness of the Wars of Religion, and the resulting conclusion that each sovereign state would tolerate the existence of foreign states of differing religion, and that the threat guaranteeing this toleration would be mutual self-defense by co-religionists; however, the predictable symbolism and diplomatic charades that surround any sort of tit-for-tat defense strategy led inexorably to a third conclusion, namely that each state would stand as a sort of protector for minority populations of its co-religionists abroad.

B. Religious Symbolism and Political Symbolism

Due to the political nature of many religious rifts, “things indifferent” are quickly tapped as uniforms for the opposing sides.  Symbols which are at first relevant only because the other side must avoid them (or at least usually avoids them) become a mark of zeal and commitment.

At this point a special kind of purity spiral develops.  Out of the religious practices which are permissible to a pious man, a patriot signals his loyalty by picking those most unacceptable to the enemy.  Out of the religious practices which mark patriotism, the pious signal their moral seriousness by arguing that the practice is not merely permissible but laudable or — if it is already universally acknowledged to be laudable — theologically essential.

The three major cases:

  • The divide between the Church of the East and other Christians (in particular, the Oriental Orthodox churches) after the former came under the protection of the Sassanid Empire;
  • That between the Iconoclasts and the Iconophiles (the Blues and the Greens) within the Byzantine Empire, after the shock of the initial Arab conquests;
  • and that between the various national Protestant Churches and the Roman Churches after the Reformation (and in particular after the Wars of Religion).

In all of these cases, religious loyalties became a proxy for political loyalties, at which point tangential aspects of the religious dispute are invested with additional significance, first as a sign of political loyalty, then subsequently as a sign of piety and theological orthodoxy.

C. (Protected) Religious Minorities are Poz

Moldbug ties progressivism cladistically to “crypto-calvinism” and, morphologically, identifies universalist themes with Protestants over Papists, pietist practices over liturgical practices, and so on and so forth.  There are a lot of conceptual and historical problems with this aspect of Moldbug’s history of the Left (including, most fundamentally, a question about whether the “History of the Left” goes back to 1752 AD or 752 AD) but I want to focus on a narrower point for now: in every country, it is religious sects which are protected (by external actors or by custom) which pose the greatest threat to national religious traditions.

The tenets of the minority sect in question don’t seem to matter much.  The mechanisms are unclear, and probably several operate independently; but they appear to function absolutely identically whether the minority in question is Protestant or Papist.

  • Merely the fact that the sect is “protected” in some sense creates a huge collective-action asymmetry.  Blunt tools like pogroms and pyres are the most convenient ways for traditionalist majorities to cooperatively check the destructive potential of the minority sect; denied these, it is hard to find Schelling points to fight back, whereas it is easy for the minority to find ways to chip away at the power of traditionalists.
  • Overall, the minority is much more likely to see its sectarian interests (and in particular, the erosion of traditions) as worth cooperating over; the majority is huge and has its own bitter internal conflicts.  (Thus the industrial captains of Protestant America joining forces with Papist immigrants against native Protestant workers.) Special targets for sectarian cooperation include:
    • Dismantling the traditional religious monopoly over the educational system
    • Once this monopoly is broken; establishing a secular monopoly in its place
    • Increasing the size of the sect, or its reach in public life
    • Dismantling the administrative machinery (including functions as basic as census-taking) that could be used for religious censorship
    • Secularization and disestablishment in a general sense
    • Promotion of generic, schmaltzy religious expressions (e.g. the Knights of Columbus campaigning to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, after decades of campaigns against prayer in public schools… thanks, papists!)
    • Harmonization of the host nation’s foreign policy with the minority’s guardian
  • The minority seeks out disaffected segments of society and tries to (a) proselytize them and (b) bring them into an anti-traditionalist political coalition
  • The minority is used to practicing a certain form of taqiyya and, always cringing at the threat of imagined bias and persecution, schemes to advance the interests of co-religionists whom it knows will not be “bigoted” (thus leading to cabals in the civil service, in the cultural sphere, and in business).
  • With respect to how to identify a trustworthy person, the minority typically pushes to substitute zealous pursuit of some set of values, rules and goals (i.e., good intentions) for traditional piety.  The more this new attitude towards trust-signals spreads, the more easily minorities can compete with the traditionalist majority (and equally: the more easily members of the  majority can drift out of their traditional faith, or face expulsion from it, without serious consequences).
  • Even as it seeks to display its “well-meaning” sectarian zeal, the minority sect often provides a damp, dark atmosphere for moral rot; in part because the sect may not share the majority’s attitude towards vice (or its weaknesses), and in part because they prefer to forgive and staunchly defend co-religionists guilty of quite serious moral failings, rather than permit the majority to stand in judgement.
  • The minority sect is an edgy magnet for thrill-seeking, contrarian, ascetic, or unusually devout young men from the majority; this becomes a significant problem in times when political and aesthetic ambitions are thwarted by an over-large elite, and it magnifies the problems the sect causes by drawing an unusual store of (contrarian and/or self-righteous) talent to it. (On the other hand, it also heals some wounds by repairing the ethnic bond between the minority and the majority.)

It really doesn’t matter whether the minority sect celebrates communion with a ruby-encrusted chalice, or uses more incense than a stupa.  The Catholics in England were all socialists, were all susceptible to scandalous behavior alternating with pharisaical zeal, all opposed the undivided sovereignty of their ruler, all congealed into high-status cliques… just like the Protestants in France.

D. Manichaeanism Is (Probably) Morphological, not Cladistic

My discussion of Manichaeanism in Memetic Lebensraum led to several discussions about whether the figurative Manichaeanism of progressives was actually historically continuous with the religious of the (false) prophet Mani, or merely shared a distinctive theme. I am currently leaning towards the latter.

(Reminder: in Moldbug’s sense, labels like (a) flightless bird, (b) bipedal tetrapod, (c) nontheistic Christianity combine morphological modifiers which reflect observed traits of the organisms/traditions/whatever with cladistic identifiers which correspond to taxonomic family trees.  So I am speculating that progressivism is Manichaean in the same way penguins are flightless.)

There are four main ways Manichaeanism could have a genealogical relationship to specific themes in (contemporary) Western thought.

  1. Via early contact between Mesopotamian themes ancestral to Manichaeanism and Judaean traditions (in particular the Book of Enoch literature and Gnostic/Sabian sects) which were in turn ancestral to Christianity.
  2. Via early contact between ancestral themes and the Pharisaic Judaean tradition, ancestral to modern Judaism.
  3. Via the philosophical influence of systematic Manichaean theology on the Fathers of the Church; the most likely domain for Manichaean influence would be soteriology.
  4. Via direct transmission from Mani to the Paulician heretics of Anatolia, thence to the Bogomils of medieval Bulgaria, the Cathars and Waldensians, and finally the Reformation.

Of these alternatives, #3 seems like the most likely candidate.  #4 will be attractive to true believers in the “crypto-calvinism” hypothesis, since it incriminates the Reformation, but the problem is that the Reformation was not a particularly creative movement.  All of its distinctive theological claims had been popular items of debate between scholastic theologians for centuries, its exegetical techniques were bread-and-butter for Renaissance philology, and if the movement led by Luther had not been so successful it would be hard to draw a clear distinction between Luther and Hus, Hus and Wycliffe, and so on back to the early days of the Church.

#2 strikes me as unlikely because Jewish influence on Western thought was minor until the twentieth century, or the late-nineteenth at the earliest, and the Manichaean theme in progressivism was already robust during the French Revolution.  (For the same reason, I would dismiss the possibility that direct influence with Eastern religious texts infected Western thought; without trying to ascertain in great detail which of these texts might transmit Manichaean themes, they were only being translated for the first time c. 1800, and the first Western philosophers to be strongly influenced by them were of Schopenhauer’s generation.)  However, this possibility cannot be absolutely dismissed, because of the brisk interfaith exchange in hermetic and pseudepigraphical texts all through the medieval and early modern period.

#1 would be time-consuming to refute in detail. Non-canonical texts that are cousin to Mani’s scriptures influenced the idiom and conceptual allusions of writers who are reckoned as Scripture.  But the very process by which these texts (like the Book of Enoch) were drummed out of the Christian canon was so clearly predicated on their thematic overlap with heresies like Mani’s, that it seems unlikely anything the Fathers of the Church believed similarly tainted would have been allowed to remain in.

#2 is a strong candidate because of the psychological affinity between salvation as a theological concept and real anxiety about whether or not one is a good person.  (Or at least, such an affinity is the premise of famous works like Weber’s The Protestant Ethic.) I’m currently skeptical because (a) Pelagius and Augustine both accuse the other of Manichaeanism at great length and in multiple contexts, (b) they were certainly aware that this accusation would be made in any serious theological disputation and were at great pains to avoid it in formulating their ideas, and (c) the gist of these arguments is that each accuses the other of implying that humans are substantially (rather than merely accidentally) sinful, which would imply the existence of evil substances… a metaphysical no-no!  This subtlety does not strike me as likely to communicate Mani’s dualistic worldview, even if all Christian soteriologists were guilty of it.



2 thoughts on “Hypotheses on Religion and Informal Power from a Historical Perspective

  1. #4 will be attractive to true believers in the “crypto-calvinism” hypothesis, since it incriminates the Reformation, but the problem is that the Reformation was not a particularly creative movement. All of its distinctive theological claims had been popular items of debate between scholastic theologians for centuries, its exegetical techniques were bread-and-butter for Renaissance philology, and if the movement led by Luther had not been so successful it would be hard to draw a clear distinction between Luther and Hus, Hus and Wycliffe, and so on back to the early days of the Church.

    Perhaps the Crypto-Calvinism has evolved since MM’s original articulation. It certainly has in my own mind, and cannot now unravel which are MM’s, which are Jim’s, and which are my own ideas. At this juncture, we wish to incriminate the Reformation not because it was uniquely creative (indeed, as you say, the ideas are as old as any other Christian heresy… “Yet Another Communist Sex Cult”), but because the containment system that society+church had for destabilizing ideas (“enthusiasms”) broke down.

    I do think we should not neglect the importance of at least certain doctrines, which seem to be minimized in Theses C and D. Specifically ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) seems quite relevant. If the Church is principally hierarchical and authoritative (high polity), then the invitation to “game” the social system (e.g., by high verbal IQ/talmudic reasoning) is weak. If, on the other hand, the Church is “just us”… the “fellowship of all believers”, and “every man (eventually every person) a priest”, then you’re going to be handing out power and social status to people to can “be more priestly” (i.e., “holier”) than others. This is what Luther and (even moreso) Calvin, Hus, Wycliffe, Zwinglie, and Menno wrought. By flattening the Church hierarchy (getting more Jesusy than Jesus), the broke down the containment system for religious enthusiasm. Hence… The Poz.


    1. >and cannot now unravel which are MM’s, which are Jim’s, and which are my own ideas

      This is certainly an issue within the broader reactosphere – you guys have been having a very fruitful conversation for a decade (!) but it makes it a little difficult for an outsider like me to pick apart who advocates which version of what thesis. (Indeed, many interesting debates only remain on archive.is.)

      Hopefully I can respond to the substance of your comment some other time; I’ve been a bit scattered today. (Speaking of “more Jesusy than Jesus”; merely abstaining from twitter, sugar, and caffeine is giving me a newfound appreciation of death by crucifixion.)


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