Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion. The greatest of the revolutionary upheavals that have shaped so much of the history of the past two centuries were episodes in the history of faith – moments in the long dissolution of Christianity and the rise of modern political religion. The world in which we find ourselves at the start of the new millennium is littered with the debris of utopian projects, which though they were framed in secular terms that denied the truth of religion were in fact vehicles for religious myths.
Communism and Nazism claimed to be based on science – in the case of communism the cod-science of historical materialism, in Nazism the farrago of ‘scientific racism’. These claims were fraudulent but the use of pseudo-science did not stop with the collapse of totalitarianism that culminated with the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991. It continued in neo-conservative theories that claimed the world is converging on a single type of government and economic system – universal democracy, or a global free market. Despite the fact that it was presented in the trappings of social science, this belief that humanity was on the brink of a new era was only the most recent version of apocalyptic beliefs that go back to the most ancient times.
Jesus and his followers believed they lived in an End-Time when the evils of the world were about to pass away. Sickness and death, famine and hunger, war and oppression would all cease to exist after a world-shaking battle in which the forces of evil would be utterly destroyed. Such was the faith that inspired the first Christians, and though the End-Time was re-interpreted by later Christian thinkers as a metaphor for a spiritual change, visions of Apocalypse have haunted western life ever since those early beginnings.
During the Middle Ages, Europe was shaken by mass movements inspired by the belief that history was about to end and a new world be born. These medieval Christians believed that only God could bring about the new world, but faith in the End-Time did not wither away when Christianity began to decline. On the contrary, as Christianity waned the hope of an imminent End-Time became stronger and more militant. Modern revolutionaries such as the French Jacobins and the Russian Bolsheviks detested traditional religion, but their conviction that the crimes and follies of the past could be left behind in an all-encompassing transformation of human life was a secular reincarnation of early Christian beliefs. These modern revolutionaries were radical exponents of Enlightenment thinking, which aimed to replace religion with a scientific view of the world. Yet the radical Enlightenment belief that there can be a sudden break in history, after which the flaws of human society will be for ever abolished, is a by-product of Christianity.
The Enlightenment ideologies of the past centuries were very largely spilt theology. The history of the past century is not a tale of secular advance, as bien-pensants of Right and Left like to think. The Bolshevik and Nazi seizures of power were faith-based upheavals just as much as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic insurrection in Iran. The very idea of revolution as a transforming event in history is owed to religion. Modern revolutionary movements are a continuation of religion by other means.
It is not only revolutionaries who have held to secular versions of religious beliefs. So too have liberal humanists, who see progress as a slow incremental struggle. The belief that the world is about to end and belief in gradual progress may seem to be opposites – one looking forward to the destruction of the world, the other to its improvement-but at bottom they are not so different. Whether they stress piecemeal change or revolutionary transformation, theories of progress are not scientific hypotheses. They are myths, which answer the human need for meaning.
Since the French Revolution a succession of utopian movements has transformed political life. Entire societies have been destroyed and the world changed for ever. The alteration envisioned by utopian thinkers has not come about, and for the most part their projects have produced results opposite to those they intended. That has not prevented similar projects being launched again and again right up to the start of the twenty-first century, when the world’s most powerful state launched a campaign to export democracy to the Middle East and throughout the world.
Utopian projects reproduced religious myths that had inflamed mass movements of believers in the Middle Ages, and they kindled a similar violence. The secular terror of modern times is a mutant version of the violence that has accompanied Christianity throughout its history. For over 200 years the early Christian faith in an End-Time initiated by God was turned into a belief that Utopia could be achieved by human action. Clothed in science, early Christian myths of Apocalypse gave rise to a new kind of faith-based violence.
When the project of universal democracy ended in the blood-soaked streets of Iraq, this pattern began to be reversed. Utopianism suffered a heavy blow, but politics and war have not ceased to be vehicles for myth. Instead, primitive versions of religion are replacing the secular faith that has been lost. Apocalyptic religion shapes the policies of American president George W. Bush and his antagonist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. Wherever it is happening, the revival of religion is mixed up with political conflicts, including an intensifying struggle over the Earth’s shrinking reserves of natural resources; but there can be no doubt that religion is once again a power in its own right. With the death of Utopia, apocalyptic religion has re-emerged, naked and unadorned, as a force in world politics.
GRAY, John, Black Mass: How Religion Led the World into Crisis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.