The Game of Everything, Part 6: Civilization and Religion

20 Apr

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

— Albert Einstein

If you ever feel like listening to two people talking past one another, put a strident atheist and a committed theist in a room together and ask them to discuss The God Question. The strident atheist — who, as a colleague of the psychologist and philosopher of religion William James once put it, “believes in No-God and worships Him” — will trot out a long series of supremely obvious, supremely tedious Objective Truths. He’ll talk about evolution, about the “God of the gaps” theory of religion as a mere placeholder for all the things we don’t yet understand, about background radiation from the Big Bang, about the age-old dilemma of how a righteous God could allow all of the evil and suffering which plague our world. He’ll talk and talk and talk, all the while presuming that the theist couldn’t possibly be intelligent enough to have considered any of these things for herself, and that once she’s been exposed to them at last her God delusion will vanish in a puff of incontrovertible logic. The theist, for her part, is much less equipped to argue in this fashion, but she does her best, trying to explain using the crude tool of words her ineffable experiences that transcend language. But her atheist friend, alas, has no time, patience, or possibly capability for transcendence.

My own intention today certainly isn’t to convince you of the existence or non-existence of God. Being a happy agnostic —  one of what the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson called “the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flap around in the middle” — I make a poor advocate for either side of the debate.  But I will say that, while I feel a little sorry for those people who have made themselves slaves to religious dogma and thereby all but lost the capacity to reason in many areas of their lives, I also feel for those who have lost or purged the capacity to get beyond logic and quantities and experience the transcendent.

“One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony,” writes William James. “One must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.” Richard Dawkins, one of the more tedious of our present-day believers in No-God, spends the better part of a chapter in his book The God Delusion twisting himself into knots over the Einstein quote that opens this article, trying to logically square the belief of the most important scientist of the twentieth century in the universe’s ineffability with the same figure’s claim not to believe in a “personal God.” Like a cat chasing a laser pointer, Dawkins keeps running around trying to pin down that which refuses to be captured. He might be happier if he could learn just to let the mystery be.

In a sense, a game which hopes to capture the more transcendent aspects of life runs into the same barriers as the unadulteratedly rational person hoping to understand them. Many commenters, myself included, have criticized games over the years for a certain thematic niggardliness, a refusal to look beyond the physics of tanks and trains and trebuchets and engage with the concerns of higher art. We’ve tended to lay this failure at the feet of a design culture that too often celebrates immaturity, but that may not be entirely fair. Computers are at bottom calculating machines, meaning they’re well-suited to simulating easily quantifiable physical realities. But how do you quantify love, beauty, or religious experience? It can be dangerous even to try. At worst — and possibly at best as well — you can wind up demeaning the very ineffabilities you wished to celebrate.

Civilization as well falls victim to this possibly irreconcilable dilemma. In creating their game of everything, their earnest attempt to capture the entirety of the long drama of human civilization, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley could hardly afford to leave out religion, one of said drama’s prime driving forces. Indeed, they endeavored to give it more than a token part, including the pivotal advances of Ceremonial Burial, Mysticism, and Religion — the last really a stand-in for Christianity, giving you the opportunity to build “cathedrals” — along with such religious Wonders of the World as the Oracle of Delphi, the Sistine Chapel, and the church music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Yet it seems that they didn’t know quite what to do with these things in mechanical, quantifiable, computable terms.

The Civilopedia thus tells us that religion was important in history only because “it brought peace of mind and the ability to get on with the work of life.” In that spirit, all of the advances and Wonders dealing with religion serve in one way or another to decrease the unhappiness level of your cities — a level which, if it gets too high, can throw a city and possibly even your entire civilization into revolt. “The role of religion in Sid Meier’s Civilization,” note Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich in Civilization: or Rome on 640K a Day, “is basically the cynical role of pacifying the masses rather than serving as an agent for progress.” This didn’t sit terribly well with Wilson in particular, who happened to be an ordained Baptist minister. Nor could it have done so with Sid Meier, himself a lifelong believer. But, really, what else were they to do with religion in the context of a numbers-oriented strategy game?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do feel compelled to make the argument the game fails to make, to offer a defense of religion — and particularly, what with Civilization being a Western game with a Western historical orientation, Christianity — as a true agent of progress rather than a mere panacea. In these times of ours, when science and religion seem to be at war and the latter is all too frequently read as the greatest impediment to our continued progress, such a defense is perhaps more needed than ever.

Richard Dawkins smugly pats himself on the back for his fair-mindedness when, asked if he really considers religion to be the root of all evil in the world, he replies that no, “religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of everything.” And yet, he tells us:

Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian Wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers,” no Northern Ireland “troubles,” no “honour killings,” no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money (“God wants you to give till it hurts”). Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.

Fair points all; the record of religious — and not least Christian — atrocities is well-established. In the interest of complete fairness, however, let’s also acknowledge that but for religion those ancient statues whose destruction at the hands of the Taliban Dawkins so rightfully decries, not to mention his Jews being persecuted by Christians, would never have existed in the first place. Scholar of early Christianity Bart D. Ehrman — who, in case it matters, is himself today a reluctant non-believer — describes a small subset of the other things the world would lack if Christianity alone had never come to be:

The ancient triumph of Christianity proved to be the single greatest cultural transformation our world has ever seen. Without it the entire history of Late Antiquity would not have happened as it did. We would never have had the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Renaissance, or modernity as we know it. There could never have been a Matthew Arnold. Or any of the Victorian poets. Or any of the other authors of our canon: no Milton, no Shakespeare, no Chaucer. We would have had none of our revered artists: no Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, or Rembrandt. And none of our brilliant composers: no Mozart, Handel, or Bach.

One could say that such an elaborate counterfactual sounds more impressive than it really is; the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in antiquity could presumably also have deprived us of all those things. Yet I think Ehrman’s deeper point is that all of the things and people he mentions, along with the modern world order and even the narrative of progress that has done so much to shape it, are at heart deeply Christian, whether they express any beliefs about God or not. I realize that’s an audacious statement to make, so let me try to unpack it as carefully as possible.

In earlier articles, I’ve danced around the idea of the narrative of progress as a prescriptive ethical framework — a statement of the way things ought to be — rather than a descriptive explication of the way they actually are. Let me try to make that idea clearer now by turning to one of the most important documents to emerge from the Enlightenment, the era that spawned the narrative of progress: the American Declaration of Independence.

We don’t need to read any further than the beginning of the second paragraph to find what we’re looking for: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” No other sentence I’ve ever read foregrounds the metaphysical aspect of progress quite like this one, the most famous sentence in the Declaration, possibly the most famous in all of American history. It’s a sentence that still gives me goosebumps every time I read it, thanks not least to that first clause: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” This might just be the most sweeping logical hand-wave I’ve ever seen. Nowhere in 1776 were any of these “truths” about human equality “self-evident.” The very notion that a functioning society could ever be founded on the principle of equality among people was no more than a century old. Over the course of that century, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke had expended thousands of pages in justifying what Thomas Jefferson was now dismissing as a given not worthy of discussion. With all due caveats to the scourge of slavery and the oppression of women and all the other imperfections of the young United States to come, the example that a society could indeed be built around equal toleration and respect for everyone was one of the most inspiring the world has ever known — and one that had very little to do with strict rationality.

Even today, there is absolutely no scientific basis to a claim that all people are equal. Science clearly tells us just the opposite: that some people are smarter, stronger, and healthier than other people. Still, the modern progressive ideal, allegedly so rational, continues to take as one of its most important principles Jefferson’s leap of faith. Nor does Jefferson’s extra-rational idealism stand alone. Consider that one version of the narrative of progress, the one bound up with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s eschatology of an end to which all of history is leading, tells us that that end will be achieved when all people are allowed to work in their individual thymos-fulfilling roles, as they ought to be. But “ought to,” of course, has little relevance in logic or science.

If the progressive impulse cannot be ascribed to pure rationality, we have to ask ourselves where Jefferson’s noble hand-wave came from. In a move that will surprise none of you who’ve read this far, I’d like to propose that the seeds of progressivism lie in the earliest days of the upstart religion of Christianity.

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley in The Go-Betweens. “They do things differently there.” And no more recent past is quite so foreign to us as the time before Jesus Christ was (actually or mythically) born. Bart D. Ehrman characterizes pre-Christian Mediterranean civilization as a culture of “dominance”:

In a culture of dominance, those with power are expected to assert their will over those who are weaker. Rulers are to dominate their subjects, patrons their clients, masters their slaves, men their women. This ideology was not merely a cynical grab for power or a conscious mode of oppression. It was the commonsense, millennia-old view that virtually everyone accepted and shared, including the weak and marginalized.

This ideology affected both social relations and government policy. It made slavery a virtually unquestioned institution promoting the good of society; it made the male head of the household a sovereign despot over all those under him; it made wars of conquest, and the slaughter they entailed, natural and sensible for the well-being of the valued part of the human race (that is, those invested with power).

With such an ideology one would not expect to find governmental welfare programs to assist weaker members of society: the poor, homeless, hungry, or oppressed. One would not expect to find hospitals to assist the sick, injured, or dying. One would not expect to find private institutions of charity designed to help those in need.

There’s a telling scene late in The Iliad which says volumes about the ancient system of ethics, and how different it was from our own. Achilles is about to inflict the killing blow on a young Trojan warrior, who begs desperately for his life. Achilles’s reply follows:

“Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life
a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
death and the strong force of fate are waiting.
There will come a dawn or sunset or high noon
when a man will take my life in battle too —
flinging a spear perhaps
or whipping a deadly arrow off his bow.”

Life and death in Homer are matters of fate, not of morality. Mercy is neither given nor expected by his heroes.

Of course, the ancients had gods — plenty of them, in fact. A belief in a spiritual realm of the supernatural is far, far older than human civilization, dating back to the primitive animism of the earliest hunter-gatherers. By the time Homer first chanted the passage above, the pantheon of Greek gods familiar to every schoolchild today had been around for many centuries. Yet these gods, unsurprisingly, reflected the culture of dominance, so unspeakably brutal to our sensibilities, that we see in The Iliad, a poem explicitly chanted in homage to them.

The way these gods were worshiped was different enough from what we think of as religion today to raise the question of whether the word even applies to ancient sensibilities. Many ancient cultures seem to have had no concept or expectation of an afterlife (thus rather putting the lie to one argument frequently trotted out by atheists, that the entirety of the God Impulse can be explained by the very natural human dread of death). The ancient Romans carved the phrase “non fui; fui; non sum; non curo” on gravestones, which translates to “I was not; I was; I am not; I care not.” It’s a long way from “at rest with God.”

Another, even more important difference was the non-exclusivity of the ancient gods. Ancient “religion” was not so much a creed or even a collection of creeds as it was a buffet of gods from which one could mix and match as one would. When one civilization encountered another, it was common for each to assimilate the gods of the other, creating a sort of divine mash-up. Sumerian gods blended with the Babylonian, who blended with the Greek, who were given Latin names and assimilated by the Romans… there was truly a god for every taste and for every need. If you were unlucky in love, you might want to curry favor with Aphrodite; if the crops needed rain, perhaps you should sacrifice to Demeter; etc., etc. The notion of converting to a religion, much less that of being “born again” or the like, would have been greeted by the ancients with complete befuddlement. [1]There were just three exceptions to the rule of non-exclusivity, all of them also rare pre-Christian examples of monotheism. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten decreed around 1350 BC that his kingdom’s traditional pantheon of gods be replaced with the single sun god Aten. But his new religion was accepted only resentfully, with the old gods continuing to be worshiped in secret, and was gradually done away with after his death. Then there was Zoroastrianism, a religion with some eyebrow-raising similarities to the later religion of Christianity which sprung up in Iran in the sixth century BC. It still has active adherents today. And then of course there were the Jews, whose single God would brook no rivals in His people’s hearts and minds. But the heyday of an independent kingdom of Judah was brief indeed, and in the centuries that followed the Jews were regarded as a minor band of oddball outcasts, a football to be kicked back and forth by their more powerful neighbors.

And then into this milieu came Jesus Christ, only to be promptly, as Douglas Adams once put it, “nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.” It’s very difficult to adequately convey just how revolutionary Christianity, a religion based on love and compassion rather than dominance, really was. I defer one more time to Bart D. Ehrman:

Leaders of the Christian church preached and urged an ethic of love and service. One person was not more important than another. All were on the same footing before God: the master was no more significant than the slave, the husband than the wife, the powerful than the weak, or the robust than the diseased.

The very idea that society should serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized became a distinctively Christian concern. Without the conquest of Christianity, we may well never have had institutionalized welfare for the poor or organized healthcare for the sick.  Billions of people may never have embraced the idea that society should serve the marginalized or be concerned with the well-being of the needy, values that most of us in the West have simply assumed are “human” values.

Christianity carried within it as well a notion of freedom of choice that would be critical to the development of liberal democracy. Unlike the other belief systems of the ancient world, which painted people as hapless playthings of their gods, Christianity demanded that you choose whether to follow Christ’s teachings and thus be saved; you held the fate of your own soul in your own hands. If ordinary people have agency over their souls, why not agency over their governments?

But that was the distant future. For the people of the ancient world, Christianity’s tenet that they — regardless of who they were — were worthy of receiving the same love and compassion they were urged to bestow upon others had an immense, obvious appeal. Hegel, a philosopher of ambiguous personal spiritual beliefs who saw religions as intellectual memes arising out of the practical needs of the people who created them, would later describe Christianity as the perfect slave religion, providing the slaves who made up the bulk of its adherents during the early years with the tool of their own eventual liberation.

And so, over the course of almost 300 years, Christianity gradually bubbled up from the most wretched and scorned members of society to finally reach the Roman Emperor Constantine, the most powerful man in the world, in his luxurious palace. The raw numbers accompanying its growth are themselves amazing. At the time of Jesus Christ’s death, the entirety of the Christian religion consisted of his 20 or so immediate disciples. By the time Constantine converted in AD 312, there were about 3 million Christians in the world, despite persecution by the same monarch’s predecessors. In the wake of Constantine’s official sanction, Christianity grew to as many as 35 million disciples by AD 400. And today roughly one-third of the world’s population — almost 2.5 billion people — call themselves Christians of one kind or another. For meme theorists, Christianity provides perhaps the ultimate example of an idea that was so immensely appealing on its own merits that it became literally unstoppable. And for political historians, its takeover of the Roman Empire provides perhaps the first example in history of a class revolution, a demonstration of the power of the masses to shake the palaces of the elites.

Which is not to say that everything about the Christian epoch would prove better than what had come before it. “There is no need of force and injury because religion cannot be forced,” wrote the Christian scholar Lactantius hopefully around AD 300. “It is a matter that must be managed by words rather than blows, so that it may be voluntary.” Plenty would conspicuously fail to take his words to heart, beginning just 35 years later with the appropriately named Firmicus, an advisor with the newly Christianized government of Rome, who told his liege that “your severity should be visited in every way on the crime of idolatry.” The annals of the history that followed are bursting at the seams with petty tyrants, from Medieval warlords using the cross on their shields to justify their blood lust to modern-day politicians of the Moral Majority railing against “those sorts of people,” who have adopted the iconography of Christianity whilst missing the real point entirely. This aspect of Christianity’s history cannot and should not be ignored.

That said, I don’t want to belabor too much more today Christianity’s long history as a force for both good and ill. I’ll just note that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which led to the bloodiest war in human history prior to World War I, also brought with it a new vitality to the religion, doing much to spark that extraordinary acceleration in the narrative of progress which began in the eighteenth century. I remember discussing the narrative of progress with a conservative Catholic acquaintance of mine who’s skeptical of the whole notion’s spiritual utility. “That’s a very Protestant idea,” he said about it, a little dismissively. “Yeah,” I had to agree after some thought. “I guess you’re right.” Protestantism is still linked in the popular imagination with practical progress; the phrase “Protestant work ethic” still crops up again and again, and studies continue to show that large-scale conversions to Protestantism are usually accompanied — for whatever reason — by increases in a society’s productivity and a decline in criminality.

One could even argue that it was really the combination of the ethos of love, compassion, equality, and personal agency that had been lurking within Christianity from the beginning with this new Protestant spirit of practical, worldly achievement in the old ethos’s service that led to the Declaration of Independence and the United States of America, that “shining city on a hill” inspiring the rest of the world. (The parallels between this worldly symbol of hope and the Christian Heaven are, I trust, so obvious as to not be worth going into here.) It took the world almost 2000 years to make the retrospectively obvious leap from the idea that all people are equal before God to the notion that all people are equal, period. Indeed, in many ways we still haven’t quite gotten there, even in our most “civilized” countries. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine the second leap being made absent the first; the seeds of the Declaration of Independence were planted in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

Of course, counterfactuals will always have their appeal. If, as many a secular humanist has argued over the years, equality and mutual respect really are just a rationally better way to order a society, it’s certainly possible we would have gotten as far as we have today by some other route — possibly even have gotten farther, if we had been spared some of the less useful baggage which comes attached to Christianity. In the end, however, we have only one version of history which we can truly judge: the one that actually took place. So, credit where it’s due.

Said credit hasn’t always been forthcoming. In light of the less inspiring aspects of Christianity’s history, there’s a marked tendency in some circles to condemn its faults without acknowledging its historical virtues, often accompanied by a romanticizing of the pre-Christian era. By the time Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312, thus transforming it at a stroke from an upstart populist movement to the status it still holds today as the dominant religion of the Western world, the Roman Empire was getting long in the tooth indeed, and the thousand years of regress and stagnation that would come to be called the Dark Ages were looming. Given the timing, it’s all too easily for historians of certain schools to blame Christianity for what followed. Meanwhile many a libertine professor of art or literature has talked of the ancients’ comfort with matters of the body and sexuality, contrasting it favorably with the longstanding Christian discomfort with same.

But our foremost eulogizer of the ancient ways remains that foremost critic of the narrative of progress in general, Friedrich Nietzsche. His homage to the superiority of might makes right over Christian compassion carries with it an unpleasant whiff of the Nazi ideology that would burst into prominence thirty years after his death:

The sick are the greatest danger for the well. The weaker, not the stronger, are the strong’s undoing. It is not fear of our fellow man which we should wish to see diminished; for fear rouses those who are strong to become terrible in turn themselves, and preserves the hard-earned and successful type of humanity. What is to be dreaded by us more than any other doom is not fear but rather the great disgust, not fear but rather the great pity — disgust and pity for our human fellows.

The morbid are our greatest peril — not the “bad” men, not the predatory beings. Those born wrong, the miscarried, the broken — they it is, the weakest who are undermining the vitality of the race, poisoning our trust in life, and putting humanity in question. Every look of them is a sigh — “Would I were something other! I am sick and tired of what I am.” In this swamp soil of self-contempt, every poisonous weed flourishes, and all so small, so secret, so dishonest, and so sweetly rotten. Here swarm the worms of sensitiveness and resentment, here the air smells odious with secrecy, with what is not to be acknowledged; here is woven endlessly the net of the meanest conspiracies, the conspiracy of those who suffer against those who succeed and are victorious; here the very aspect of the victorious is hated — as if health, success, strength, pride, and the sense of power were in themselves things vicious, for which one ought eventually to make bitter expiation. Oh, how these people would themselves like to inflict expiation, how they thirst to be the hangmen! And all the while their duplicity never confesses their hatred to be hatred.

To be sure, there were good things about the ancient ways. When spiritual beliefs are a buffet, there’s little point in fighting holy wars; while the ancients fought frequently and violently over many things large and small, they generally didn’t go to war over their gods. Even governmental suppression of religious faith, which forms such an important part of the early legends of Christianity, was apparently suffered by few other groups of believers. [2]The most well-documented incidence of same occurred in 186 BC, and targeted worshipers of Bacchus, the famously rowdy god of wine. These drunkards got in such a habit of going on raping-and-pillaging sprees through the countryside that the Roman Senate, down to its last nerve with the bro-dudes of the classical world, rounded up 7000 of them for execution and pulled down their temples all over Roman territory. Still, it’s hard to believe that very many of our post-Christ romanticizers of the ancient ways would really choose to go back there if push came to shove — least of all among them Nietzsche, a sickly, physically weak man who suffered several major mental breakdowns over the course of his life. He wouldn’t have lasted a day among his beloved Bronze Age Greeks; ironically, it was only the fruits of the progress he so decried that allowed him to fulfill his own form of thymos.

At any rate, I hope I’ve made a reasonable case for Christianity as a set of ideas that have done the world much good, perhaps even enough to outweigh the atrocities committed in the religion’s name. At this juncture, I do want to emphasize again that one’s opinion of Christian values need not have any connection with one’s belief in the veracity of the Christian God. For my part, I try my deeply imperfect best to live by those core values of love, compassion, and equality, but I have absolutely no sense of an anthropomorphic God looking down from somewhere above, much less a desire to pray to Him.

It even strikes me as reasonable to argue that the God part of Christianity has outlived His essentialness; one might say that the political philosophy of secular humanism is little more than Christianity where faith in God is replaced with faith in human rationality. Certainly the world today is more secular than it’s ever been, even as it’s also more peaceful and prosperous than it’s ever been. A substantial portion of those 2.5 billion nominal Christians give lip service but little else to the religion; I think about the people all across Europe who still let a small part of their taxes go to their country’s official church out of some vague sense of patriotic obligation, despite never actually darkening any physical church’s doors.

Our modern world’s peace and prosperity would seem to be a powerful argument for secularism. Yet a question is still frequently raised: does a society lose something important when it loses the God part of Christianity — or for that matter the God part of any other religion — even if it retains most of the core values? Some, such as our atheist friend Richard Dawkins, treat the very notion of religiosity as social capital with contempt, another version of the same old bread-and-circuses coddling of the masses, keeping them peaceful and malleable by telling them that another, better life lies in wait after they die, thus causing them to forgo opportunities for bettering their lots in this life. But, as happens with disconcerting regularity, Dawkins’s argument here is an oversimplification. As we’ve seen already, a belief in an afterlife isn’t a necessary component of spiritual belief (although, as the example of Christianity proves, it certainly can’t hurt a religion’s popularity). It’s more interesting to address the question not through the micro lens of what is good for an individual or even a collection of individuals in society, but rather through the macro lens of what is good for society as an entity unto itself.

And it turns out that there are plenty of people, many of them not believers themselves, who express concern over what else a country loses as it loses its religion. The most immediately obvious of the problematic outcomes is a declining birth rate. The well-known pension crisis in Europe, caused by the failure of populations there to replace themselves, correlates with the fact that Europe is by far the most secular place in the world. More abstractly but perhaps even more importantly, the decline in organized religion in Europe and in North America has contributed strongly to a loss of communal commons. There was a time not that long ago when the local church was the center of a community’s social life, not just a place of worship but one of marriages, funerals, pot lucks, swap meets, dances, celebrations, and fairs, a place where people from all walks of life came together to flirt, to socialize, to hash out policy, to deal with crises, and to help those less fortunate. Our communities have grown more diffuse with the decline of religion, on both a local and a national scale.

Concern about the loss of religion as a binding social force, balanced against a competing and equally valid concern for the plight of those who choose not to participate in the majority religion, has provoked much commentary in recent decades. We live more and more isolated lives, goes the argument, cut off from our peers, existing in a bubble of multimedia fantasy and empty consumerism, working only to satisfy ourselves. Already in 1995, before the full effect of the World Wide Web and other new communications technologies had been felt, the political scientist Robert D. Putnam created a stir in the United States with his article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” which postulated that civic participation of the sort that had often been facilitated by churches was on a worrisome decline. For many critics of progress, the alleged isolating effect of technology has only made the decline more worrisome in more recent years. In Denmark, the country where I live now — and a country which is among the most secular even in secular Europe — newly arrived immigrants have sometimes commented to me about the isolating effect of even the comprehensive government-administered secular safety net: how elderly people who would once have been taken care of by their families get shunted off to publicly-funded nursing homes instead, how children can cut ties with their families as soon as they reach university age thanks to a generous program of student stipends.

The state of Christianity in many countries today, as more of a default or vestigial religion than a vital driving faith, is often contrasted unfavorably with that of Islam, its monotheistic younger brother which still trails it somewhat in absolute numbers of believers but seems to attract far more passion and devotion from those it has. Mixed with reluctant admiration of Islam’s vitality is fear of the intolerance it supposedly breeds and the acts of terrorism carried out in its name. I’ve had nothing to say about Islam thus far — in my defense, neither does the game of Civilization — and the end of this long article isn’t the best place to start analyzing it. I will note, however, that the history of Islam, like that of Christianity, has encompassed both inspirational achievements and horrible atrocities. Rather than it being Islam itself that is incompatible with liberal democracy, there seems to be something about conditions in the notorious cauldron of conflict that is the Middle East — perhaps the distortions produced by immense wealth sitting there just underground in the form of oil and the persistent Western meddling that oil has attracted — which has repeatedly stunted those countries’ political and economic development. Majority Muslim nations in other parts of the world, such as Indonesia and Senegal, do manage to exist as reasonably free and stable democracies. Ultimately, the wave of radical Islamic terrorism that has provoked such worldwide panic since September 11, 2001, may have at least as much to do with disenfranchisement and hopelessness as it does with religion. If and when the lives of the young Muslim men who are currently most likely to become terrorists improve, their zeal to be religious martyrs will likely fade — as quite likely will, for better or for worse, the zeal of many of them for their religion in general. After all, we’ve already seen this movie play out with Christianity in the starring role.

As for Christianity, the jury is still out on the effects of its decline in a world which has to a large extent embraced its values but may not feel as much of a need for its God and for its trappings of worship. One highly optimistic techno-progressivist view — one to which I’m admittedly very sympathetic — holds that the ties that bind us together haven’t really been weakened so very much at all, that the tyranny of geography over our circles of empathy is merely being replaced, thanks to new technologies of communication and travel, by true communities of interest, where physical location need be of only limited relevance. Even the demographic crisis provoked by declining birth rates might be solved by future technologies which produce more wealth for everyone with less manpower. And the fact remains that, taken in the abstract, fewer people on this fragile planet of ours is really a very good thing. We shall see.

I realize I’ve had little to say directly about the game of Civilization in this article, but I’m not quite willing to apologize for that. As I stated at the outset, the game’s handling of religion isn’t terribly deep; there just isn’t a lot of “there” there when it comes to religion and Civilization. Yet religion has been so profoundly important to the development of real-world civilization that this series of articles would have felt incomplete if I didn’t try to remedy the game’s lack by addressing the topic in some depth. And in another way, of course, the game of Civilization would never have existed without the religion of Christianity in particular, simply because so much of the animating force of the narrative of progress, which in turn is the animating force of Civilization, is rooted in Christian values. In that sense, then, this article has been all about the game of Civilization — as it has been all about the values underpinning so much of the global order we live in today.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Story of Civilization Volume I: Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, The Iliad by Homer, Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World by Bart D. Ehrman, The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital by Robert D. Putnam, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.)


1 There were just three exceptions to the rule of non-exclusivity, all of them also rare pre-Christian examples of monotheism. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten decreed around 1350 BC that his kingdom’s traditional pantheon of gods be replaced with the single sun god Aten. But his new religion was accepted only resentfully, with the old gods continuing to be worshiped in secret, and was gradually done away with after his death. Then there was Zoroastrianism, a religion with some eyebrow-raising similarities to the later religion of Christianity which sprung up in Iran in the sixth century BC. It still has active adherents today. And then of course there were the Jews, whose single God would brook no rivals in His people’s hearts and minds. But the heyday of an independent kingdom of Judah was brief indeed, and in the centuries that followed the Jews were regarded as a minor band of oddball outcasts, a football to be kicked back and forth by their more powerful neighbors.
2 The most well-documented incidence of same occurred in 186 BC, and targeted worshipers of Bacchus, the famously rowdy god of wine. These drunkards got in such a habit of going on raping-and-pillaging sprees through the countryside that the Roman Senate, down to its last nerve with the bro-dudes of the classical world, rounded up 7000 of them for execution and pulled down their temples all over Roman territory.

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59 Responses to The Game of Everything, Part 6: Civilization and Religion

  1. Suk Chan Lee

    April 20, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    I don’t agree with everything in the article, but with respect to the idea of equality:

    “He was shaken by an unwelcome insight. Lives did not add as integers. They added as infinities.” (Lois McMaster Bujold, Mirror Dance)

    which I’ve always found to be a beautifully elegant encapsulation of the apparent contradiction between the obvious observation that people are inevitably different by virtually any measure and the notion that people are nonetheless fundamentally equivalent in some regard.

    I personally think uncertainty is a better means of unifying the two, but the comparison with infinite values is so appealing and (relatively) accessible that it has always seemed like a good start on trying to understand how both mindsets could be true at once.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2018 at 8:02 am

      That is a lovely way to put it — although, once again, it’s a very metaphysical notion.

  2. Gnoman

    April 20, 2018 at 7:18 pm

    While I realize that this whole article is a tangent not intended to provide more than a bare overview of the thesis, I do have a few comments.

    1. The whole “religious buffet” thesis is not nearly as definitive as you suggest. While there are cases of cultures absorbing gods, and of different cultures worshiping the same god by a different name, it isn’t necessarily as common as some studies of history suggest. Either the connection is provided by moderns applying Däniken levels of interpretation (Horus was nursed by his mother, Jesus was nursed by Mary, obviously Jesus is a renamed Horus!), or else by deliberate attempts at cultural assimilation (the common claim that the Norse gods are the same as the Greco-Roman gods rather than an independently developed theology is likely a case of this).

    2. Most of the “holy wars” and atrocities attributed to Christianity have causes far more complex than suggested, and are often heavily distorted.

    As a famous example, take witches. Pop-history claims that millions of women were burned as witches by the medieval church, with the aid of the Inquisition. This is often portrayed as an attempt to put women in their “proper” subservient place, as pagans had women in positions of power. Most serious historians, including top neo-pagan scholars, put the number of witches executed at under fifty thousand, at least three quarters of which were men. The vast majority of these were condemned by secular courts. This is because the official position of the Catholic Church was “there is no such thing as witchcraft”, and trying to haul a “witch” in front of the Inquisition would land YOU in hot water.

    Meanwhile, most of the wars had strong secular reasons involving tribalism and political power. Most would probably have happened even in Lennon’s hell-world.

    3. By the time Christianity was legalized, it had adopted a great many pagan notions. Many of these are those most heavily criticized – the role of women in the Catholic Church owes a great deal to Roman notions of woman as property.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2018 at 8:16 am

      These are some interesting positions, although I’m going to judge them to be just a little bit out of scope for what I wanted to do the article proper.

      To your second point in particular: one could certainly say that Christianity was used at many points in history to justify what the believer just really wanted to do anyway, but trying to separate good-faith from bad-faith holy wars does strike me a bit of a fool’s game. Meanwhile the world would have been so different if Christianity had never appeared that to speak of these things happening anyway doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

      That said, I take (what I believe to be) your point that studying history from the lens of current political ideologies just leads to *bad* history. Part of the reason I felt compelled to write this semi-rehabilitation of Christianity’s role in history — one which I suspected wouldn’t be hugely popular with a big chunk of my readership — was because of the way religion’s present-day foes are so eager to dismiss its benefits while condemning its failings, thanks to the culture wars which have consumed so much of modern American society in particular.

      • Gnoman

        April 22, 2018 at 3:24 am

        That’s a pretty fair reading of what I was trying to get at. Note that I *did* acknowledge that I was getting far afield of your main point.

        As to your criticism of my second point, what I was getting at was the way in which so many people insist on ignoring all possible extra motivations for an action to focus on the ideological – usually so that they can demonize an ideology they dislike and champion their own.

  3. Pedro Timóteo

    April 20, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    Being one of those pesky atheists, I have plenty to disagree with here (for instance, the “supremely obvious, supremely tedious Objective Truths” you mention have never, in my opinion, been successfully addressed by believers unless one thinks “well, it’s true for me” works as an argument in a rational discussion about objective reality — I’ve watched many debates with supposed Christian leaders, and they *always* revert to that –; I also think you mischaracterize Dawkins (he’s not perfect, but I don’t think he’s “smug” — much the opposite, to me he always sounds like a child in wonder at the natural world — the exact opposite of a fundamentalist believer who *knows* they have The Truth(tm) and closes their mind to everything else), and there’s also, I think, some historical revisionism here and there, although Ehrman is probably to blame for it (Christians “invented” caring for the weak? To me, that sounds as believable as their claim that then ended slavery in the U.S., when back then they used to justify slavery biblically… and don’t get me started on Ehrman’s claim that early Christians were equalitarians, unless you ignore most of the New Testament), you minimize the atrocities commited in the name of religion and exaggerate any perceived good parts; you accept that you don’t have to believe in a literal God to recognize the virtues of Christian culture, but (maybe it’s that living in secular Denmark :) ) you forget that for many Christians those literal claims *are* the point, and are absolutely non-negotiable and it’s OK to shun or expel someone from a community for doubting
    their literal truth, and I disagree that you can’t justify equality rationally, and this sentence is already far, far too long, and…)

    … but I’d really rather stop here; I like your blog too much, so we’d best agree to disagree, I think. :) And I actually agree and share most of your hopes for the future, near the end of the post, so there’s that. :) (I hope you aren’t offended by that huge paragraph, by the way. Really, you don’t have to answer any of it.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2018 at 7:58 am

      Fair enough. I think you’re conflating a number of issues here in ways that aren’t terribly helpful — and, for what it’s worth, Christian activists in the North *did* play the dominant role in the abolitionist movement before the Civil War, even as other Christians in the South used the Bible to justify slavery — but unpacking all of this would take a lot of time and would, I suspect, just lead us to continue to talk past one another. Because I know you to be a good guy from all of your comments (including the way you approached this one), I’ll just make one respectful suggestion: the next time a believer tells you about her faith, don’t judge it or hold it up to logic or think in terms of convincing and being convinced. Just listen and try to empathize. We can always use more empathy in this world.

      In the meantime, hopefully you’ll find the next article more to your taste. ;)

      • Laertes

        April 21, 2018 at 9:48 am

        I know that your answer was for Pedro, but I will allow myself to answer too. I can empathise with the need of believing in something or someone above and how that may help some people in thei daily struggle. What is really, really difficult for me to understand is how many people choose to follow an (usually) very old privileged male, dressed in funny clothes, with very outdated ideas and claiming to know what God wants. Specially if you are a woman, gay/lesbian or any other kind of person that are normally belittled by them. I think that part of the explanation is that such figures have a lot of charisma, not only in themsleves, but inherited from their long history. And that, well, paraphrasing Fox Mulder’s poster, they want to believe.

  4. Ilmari

    April 20, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    Great article as always! I do have one critical remark:

    “Hegel, a non-believer who saw religions as intellectual memes arising out of the practical needs of the people who created them, would later describe Christianity as the perfect slave religion, providing the slaves who made up the bulk of its adherents during the early years with the tool of their own eventual liberation.”

    Are you sure you aren’t talking about Nietzcshe here? At least the idea of Christianity as a slave religion sounds very much like him and he definitely was a non-believer. Hegel, on the other hand, is a much more difficult nut to crack. He did at least play lip service to Lutheranism, but his interpretation of it was rather innovative, to say the least, and even nowadays it is a contentious question whether to call him a pantheist, theist or atheist. His attitude toward Christianity was equally ambiguous – on the one hand, he applauded what he thought was basically a Christian idea that each individual human being mattered and had in principle right for freedom, but he was highly critical and dismissive of the notion that the final liberation of all human beings could happen only in afterlife or in a distant future after apocalypse. You might say Hegel was a forerunner of your idea of secularisation, but was still fascinated by the God-idea and therefore didn’t want to lose the emotionally suggestive religious terminology.

    Getting back to games, Civ 2 does give more of a role to religion by introducing fundamentalism as one form of government, although I must say it is a rather biased and one-sided view of religion – more in line with Dawkins’ ideas what religion is all about.

    • Pedro Timóteo

      April 20, 2018 at 8:18 pm

      That’s why it’s called “fundamentalism,” and not “religion.” :) Though maybe “theocracy” would have been a better word?

    • Tom

      April 21, 2018 at 4:05 am

      I think Hegel and Nietzsche were using the idea of a “slave” religion/morality in two different ways. Hegel was using the term “slave” in reference to someone’s position in society. Nietzsche was using the term “slave” in reference to how someone thinks.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2018 at 8:30 am

      Thanks for this!

      I had always read Hegel as dismissive of religion as anything other than a social construct. Made a slight edit to reflect this more ambitious attitude.

      The idea of Christianity as a slave religion actually did originate with Hegel, who saw that as a good thing, a means for their elevation. Nietzsche took the idea from him, but turned it around into a pejorative. He saw Christianity as giving the weak and unworthy a way of self-righteously holding themselves above those who would otherwise be their superiors because they were the “morally good” who would get to go to heaven. As with so much in Nietzsche, there’s something both really perceptive and really discomforting in the whole line of argument.

  5. Jonathan Badger

    April 20, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    “There could never have been a Matthew Arnold. Or any of the Victorian poets. Or any of the other authors of our canon: no Milton, no Shakespeare, no Chaucer. We would have had none of our revered artists: no Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, or Rembrandt. And none of our brilliant composers: no Mozart, Handel, or Bach.” [without Christianity]

    This argument gets made often, but it doesn’t really work. Yes, these people used Christian themes in their works, but that’s just because they lived in Christian societies. There is no reason why they couldn’t have created works equally good or better in a pagan society. Or an atheistic society.

    • Laertes

      April 21, 2018 at 8:29 am

      Precisely. And for example the destruction of the statues was specifically done because they belonged to another religion, no othe reason, they were not a danger for anyone nor they were accidentally destroyed in a battle. The main tenet of many religions is not love or peace, it is just the one that says theirs is the only one true religion, whatever that means (check the first Commandment of the Ten Commandments for an example). Which of course implies that all the others are wrong. I don’t think that believing that everyone is wrong but you is the best way to go around in life.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2018 at 8:43 am

      With all respect, I think this is a somewhat shallow take on the subject. The works and lives of people like Milton, Bach, and Michelangelo were so intertwined with Christianity that you can’t imagine the one without the other. Even more to the point, a world without Christianity would have been so different that none of these people would ever have existed. It’s possible that, as Ehrman acknowledges, we would have had even greater artists in their stead, but that’s just building castles in the air. We have to judge the world we actually live in, and in that world much of the greatest art ever created is deeply, inextricably immersed in the Christian faith.

      • Laertes

        April 21, 2018 at 9:12 am

        I agree, the world would be different, and we don’t know how different or even if it would be better of worse. And as we can’t go back and start again (like we can do in Civilization) we will never know. But I am reasonably sure we would have art.

        In line with your last sentence, when I am asked I describe myself as atheist and catholic. This always disconcerts anyone, then I clarify that I am atheist and culturally and historically catholic, if that makes sense.

      • AK

        January 12, 2019 at 8:37 am

        Hey Jimmy, long time fan of the blog and patron, I’m currently catching up with the backlog, so here’s a very late comment.

        I have to agree with Jonathan Badger, your general argument “here are the benefits of christianity, look at the great art that christianity gave us, like Michelangelo, Mozart and Shakespeare” is thoroughly unconvincing. These artists were living in a christian society, Michelangelo specifically needed to work as everyone else and he got patronage from the catholic church, the most wealthy institution of its era, of course his art would be related to christian themes; saying that without christianity he would not have created great art is like saying that without christianity the farmers and plumbers of that era would not exist.

        There was plenty of awe-inspiring art before christianity, just look at the ancient greek era, all the way back to cave drawings..

        I understand that you don’t claim to argue that we wouldn’t have _any_ art, but mainly arguing that “without christianity the world would have been very different”, hence that Michelangelo may not have created any art of may have never existed, but that’s again not a compelling justification to try to bring up art as a direct benefit of christianity. To continue with the earlier analogy, it’s like saying “this house builder would not exist because the whole world would be different” but that doesn’t make a convincing argument that christiany gave us house builders.

  6. Martin

    April 21, 2018 at 1:00 am

    So while I was reading the article, I was thinking about a method of supporting a religion. If you want a more nuanced answer, you’ll have to write a longer article :)

    So, at the start of the game, the computer decides if there is going to be a god and if there is, some attributes that the god (or goddess) likes/wants/hates. You know nothing about this including whether there even is a god in this run of the game.

    Periodically, you will be told a person claiming to be a prophet has entered one of your cities and is saying the ways of the lord are xxx. These ways may be all the ways of your god, some of them, none of them or even the things that your god really hates. At this point, you need to decide if these are the way you are going to run your civilization or not. If you choose yes, a shrine is built in your city in the name and the ways of your prophet. If you reject them, the person is run out of town never to be seen again. Accepted or not, other so-called prophets will enter your domain with other ideas and each time you will have a chance to stick with the old ways or change to the new. At least once in the game, a prophet with exactly the right set of criteria will enter one of your cities unless you end up with an atheist version where none can be right.

    If you accept prophets with the “right” kind of attributes, a small, maybe 5%, advantage will start to factor into your random possibilities. This small advantage will not be so easily detectable so it won’t be so obvious whether you have picked the right religion.

    In addition the key virtues of your religion will also give you one time percentage advantages if you perform them and they also happen to be the virtues of the god of your game. So if for example, your game’s god is a war-like entity and you have accepted a war-like religion, your acts of war will get an extra success factor.

    If alternatively you practice the attributes that your game deity hates, you will get a strike for each action. If you perform too many of them, you get a “Sodom and Gomorrah” effect. OK, it isn’t supposed to be that bad but it should be something bad within the lowest range of chance.

    If coded properly, by the Alpha Centauri event, you should not have enough evidence to prove what your game’s god wants but you may have seen enough to BELIEVE you understand their needs.

    At the end when you get your assessment, if you end up serving the needs of the game’s god, you get told and even if you are not the civilization to launch, you can still be the actual winner! If you didn’t serve the game’s gods needs, you will be told that you spiritually failed but not told where you went wrong. And if you were playing in a god-less world, nothing get mentioned.

    To add extra mystery to this, the games instructions should mention nothing about the religious aspects of the game so you’ll only find out what’s going on by playing and believing.

    Also interesting is those that want to play an aggressive game in a peace loving god’s world and all the bad luck that they keep on getting. So this only works for a monotheistic world. I do have some thoughts of how to expand it to a polytheistic setup but that would be far too many more word to type.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2018 at 8:46 am

      Wow! You should become a game designer (if you aren’t already). One little push back: this very much turns religion into just another quantifiable game mechanic, which Sid Meier, given its meaning in his own life, may very well *not* have wished to do. But still… impressive!

      • Martin

        April 21, 2018 at 1:23 pm

        Thanks for the comments. I’m certainly no game designer though I do work with those soul-less mainframes that you bash from time to time :) Strangely I do my best thinking when I’m reading someone elses work.

        As for your “another quantifiable game mechanic”, I would certainly say it is “another game mechanic” because it has to be part of the computer program. But if coded correctly, I don’t know how you the player would be able to quantify it. Remember, you get no instruction in the computer guide, and any positive or negative effects remain within the realms of the possible without the deity modifier. As Sid Meier would be the game designer, he would be one of the few with some quantifiable information but he wouldn’t know himself which sort of deity that particular game created.

        Maybe the only sort of person that could create a good deity mechanic would be an atheist.

  7. Laertes

    April 21, 2018 at 9:04 am

    Hi Jimmy, as another one of those atheists, I have to say that his sentence is so wrong: “(atheist) believes in No-God and worships Him”. We just don’t have the need of a religion and of worshipping any deity or no-deity. We carry on with our lives just fine without it. Is that so difficult to understand?

    And we can feel the trascendent. I can be brougth to tears by music, I can appreciate art, I can be overwhelmed by the beauty of a cathedral (although not because it is the house of God), and I am awed by the mere fact that we are alive against all ods and at how marvellous is the history of the universe, how we are made from elements that once were hidrogen in a star. That’s a far more beutiful story that we were just made from mud by God or any one of the other creation stories. These stories have their own merit, I don’t deny that, and I love knowing about them and reading them, as being a reader of a blog about history surely demonstrates. In fact I think that atheists in general know more about religions than the believers. Point out the nastier bits of the Bible (and there are nasty bits in the New Testament too) to some catholics and they will vehemently deny that the bible says that.

    As my last point, I would like to ask you if you really think that understanding something somehow detracts from its worth or its capacity to awe us as you seem to imply in the text. If the answer is yes, then why are you writing these articles? Wouldn’t it be better just to play the games and leave anything else be?

    Apologies if anything above is not clear, english is not my native language and these are diffcult points to convey.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2018 at 9:45 am

      Of course it’s not difficult to understand. I would ask you to note that I prefixed the adjective “strident” to “atheist” in that first paragraph. The exchange I describe is characteristic of a certain type of atheist who feels a need to convince the entire world of his point of view with, one might say, a missionary fervor.

      As for your other question: to feel that there is some ineffable quality to art and to life doesn’t conflict at all with those things that admit themselves of rational inquiry. I can analyze the chord progressions and lyrics in my favorite song, “Waterloo Sunset,” and learn many valuable things about songcraft from them. Yet there is something else that art does which I can’t analyze or fully explain — a yearning toward the infinite — although I do my level best to *describe* the feeling when I have occasion in something I’m writing here. Some people call that God, some people something else. (It caused the noted atheist Nietzsche late in his career to abandon the structures of conventional philosophy, which he felt were incapable of exploring it, in favor of poetry and narrative in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.) I seek knowledge in the realm of knowledge, but am tolerant of ambiguity in the realm of the ineffable.

      • Laertes

        April 21, 2018 at 10:00 am

        Fair enough. In fact, if you see me showing that kind of “missionary fervor” let me know immediately :-)

        Wouldn’t it be possible that the ineffable is just that we can’t understand yet but we will eventually?

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 21, 2018 at 3:51 pm

          It may. It’s helpful to remember that science is a logophilic tool humans have developed for relating to physis, not something intrinsic to the universe itself. It’s served us incredibly well, and I’m all for it. But the question remains whether *all* of existence is a suitable nail for this hammer. I can only say that, as someone of a fairly artistic temperament, I’m not sure I’d wanted to live in a world without an element of the ineffable. But I’m quite confident these questions will not be answered in my lifetime, so I’m content to let the mystery be.

          • Alex Freeman

            April 25, 2018 at 8:01 pm

            Well, as I see it, psychology will likely explain why we feel the way we do about the ineffable if it hasn’t already.

        • Mike Taylor

          November 13, 2018 at 12:12 am

          “Wouldn’t it be possible that the ineffable is just that we can’t understand yet but we will eventually?”

          That’s not ineffable, that’s just uneffed.

          • Lisa H.

            November 13, 2018 at 3:41 am

            I feel like I should recognize “uneffed” as a particular reference, like the Principia Discordia or from Pratchett or something, but it’s not coming to mind.

          • Mike Taylor

            November 13, 2018 at 1:41 pm

            For what it’s worth, I’ve never seen the word “uneffed” before, but there is something similar in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency — which is course is Douglas Adams, very much in the same space as Terry Pratchett. Dirk says something like “Let us grapple with the ineffible and see if we may not eff it after all.”

          • Mike Taylor

            November 13, 2018 at 1:42 pm

            (Rats, I failed to close the italics properly!)

    • Michael Russo

      April 22, 2018 at 4:06 pm

      This is why I prefer to categorize myself as an “apatheist” (combining the words apathy and theist) rather than atheist. I just don’t care all that much for theology as a subject, including believing in a god or gods. I do make time for articles like this one or other comparative religion type things, but on the whole I’m just not that into it. But I did enjoy this article and I hope there’s at least one more Civilization-related article next week.

  8. whomever

    April 21, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    Interesting article. Nit to your footnote 1: Zoroastrianism is also Monotheistic.

    I have to say, I’m an atheist but I find the strident atheists just as tedious as religious fundies. They tend to be, well, total dicks.

  9. Spike

    April 23, 2018 at 4:32 am

    I think this argument is basically right. (And it’s fascinating to read it on a blog about the history of computer entertainment!)

    A few comments:

    1. “I’ll just note that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries… also brought with it a new, works-focused — as opposed to faith-focused — vitality to the religion.”

    Theologically, this is actually backwards. One of the main rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation was sola fide, “faith alone” – as opposed to what Luther perceived to be the works-focused Roman church at the time. (See, for instance, the Roman church’s practice of the selling of indulgences.)

    The vitality was there, yes, but I wouldn’t say it was “works-focused.”

    2. “The state of Christianity in many countries today, as more of a default or vestigial religion than a vital driving faith…” and “As for Christianity, the jury is still out on the effects of its decline in a world which has to a large extent embraced its values but may not feel as much of a need for its God and for its trappings of worship.”

    I think it’s worth pointing out that, globally speaking, Christianity isn’t actually declining. It only appears that way to a Westerner because its growth is nearly all in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of eastern Asia. That’s not to say that the larger point here isn’t well-taken, with respect to the effect on Western culture of the decline of the religion that did so much to shape it.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 23, 2018 at 5:55 am

      1. Indeed. That was the reverse of what I ought to have said, but it winds up kind of counter-intuitively cutting against the generally more accepting attitude Protestantism has had toward practical, worldly progress throughout its history. The whole subject of faith versus works in Christianity is a super-complicated one, so I just cut that bit. Thanks!

      2. These articles as a whole are overwhelmingly written from the perspective of the developed West. In my defense, a) the game is also written from that perspective, b) almost all history, at least *in* the West, is written from that perspective, and c) let’s face it, it’s what I know. But your point is well taken.

  10. David Rugge

    April 23, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    Later versions of Civilization, notably IV and V, added religion in expansions to the original games. To me it had more the feel of a “war by other means” rather than a unique game mechanic, since it was largely about moving around missionaries like armies, hoping to get converts in your enemies’ cities. Civ IV had a pretty cynical (but perhaps accurate?) design choice: in the modern age, corporations replaced religion and ended up being more important to your victory than what type of cathedral you were building. I feared the day that the computer beat me to founding Sid’s Sushi Co!

  11. tedder

    April 25, 2018 at 9:59 pm

    ‘The Go-Betweens’ is singular. Now I have a few new books to read- I’m a recovered Christian but still interested in the cultural impact of Christianity and the Bible.

    I disagree on the causal relationship between declining “society” as you’ve defined it and a decline in religion. I think there’s a much stronger argument to be made for the car and car-oriented city development isolating us.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 26, 2018 at 5:55 am

      For what’s worth, I see the decline of religion as just one factor among several leading to more diffuse societies. The car, particularly in the United States, could certainly be said to be another. I don’t think that’s *all* it is, though, because these trends have also been noticed in Europe, which tends to develop its cities in a much more rational way. Certainly, as referenced in the article, the explosion of various new forms of electronic media is another huge factor.

  12. Michael

    April 25, 2018 at 10:21 pm

    An enjoyable read, as usual. I had one or two minor quibbles, but nothing that big. Then I hit this: “Majority Muslim nations in other parts of the world, such as Indonesia and Senegal, do manage to exist as reasonably free and stable democracies.”
    I immediately turned to your sources, to try to see where you got your information about Indonesia, but I don’t see anything. Now, the depth of my ignorance about Indonesia could put the Marianas Trench to shame, so I’m not claiming to know anything. In fact, my one source is the recent documentary “The Act of Killing.” BUT, that source makes Indonesia look anything but free, stable, or democratic.
    Can you enlighten me what I should be reading?

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 26, 2018 at 5:42 am

      I got that from Pinker, who, as the Murder Chimp Debate has illustrated, isn’t an unimpeachable source. Nor am I an expert an Indonesia. But it’s my understanding that the atrocities chronicled in the (great and disturbing) film you mention took place in the 1960s. Since roughly 2000, Indonesia has managed to function pretty well as a democracy. That said, it may indeed be jumping the gun just a bit to call it “stable” already. The evidence of history would seem to indicate that a democracy needs to survive somewhere around 40 years to become thoroughly entrenched in the culture. At that point, it becomes virtually impossible to topple. So, while Indonesia would appear to be well on its way, it could all still go wrong. But I’m willing to hide behind my qualifier of “reasonably” for now.

  13. Alex Freeman

    April 26, 2018 at 4:27 am

    I would like to point out the Einstein quote is out of context:
    What Einstein was basically saying was “Science without the desire to improve our world is lame. The desire to improve our world without science is blind.”

    In regards to whether all people are equal, though, I’d argue that the onus should be on the one arguing that two or more persons are not equal. After all, if treating someone is superior to someone else and thus deserves special treatment, surely it’s up to the person making that claim to explain how.

    Regarding Steve Pinker:

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 26, 2018 at 5:15 am

      Yes, but Einstein’s “definition” of religion is in fact the definition of an ineffability: “And even after finding an answer which may satisfy me at this particular moment, I still remain convinced that I can never under any circumstances bring together, even to a slight extent, the thoughts of all those who have given this question serious consideration.”

      While Noam Chomsky is undoubtedly brilliant, and there are certainly things to quibble with in Pinker, I don’t think his rebuttal of Pinker here is all that thoughtful or compelling. He trots out the old canard about “how can things be getting better when we just had the two bloodiest wars in human history,” which Pinker actually spends a lot of time addressing and rebutting in the book. He brings up the atomic bomb, but the fact that we have this technology and have only used it twice can be and is actually cited as support for Pinker’s thesis. And, while there may not have been wars as we understand them today during the hunter-gatherer era, the archaeological evidence indicates that there *was* rampant violence, and that you stood a vastly greater chance of dying through violence then than you do today. (Remember’s Pinker’s book is about the decline of *violence*, not just about the decline of war between nation-states.)

  14. Matyas

    May 5, 2018 at 4:01 pm

    I have nothing concrete to add, but I do want to thank Jimmy for providing another well-written and interesting article, and also all the commenters for keeping everything civil and reasonable on a touchy subject, even when you were disagreeing with Jimmy and/or one another. “Let’s agree to disagree” isn’t a sentence I often see in comment sections :)

  15. Odkin Wood

    May 6, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    I see many inept and inapt comparisons today about “communism” being the enemy of “fascism”. Communism, Socialism and Capitalism are the left-to-right of an economic X axis, while Fascism/autocracy, Democracy, and Anarchy are the top-to-bottom of an authoritarian Y axis. Any combination are theoretically possible, but in practice (if you graphed it) every step leftward to Communism requires a step up towards Fascism on the authoritarian scale. Because even dumb animals fight over their share of food, mates, territory and toys. Maybe in the afterlife there is selfless community, but it ain’t ever gonna happen on Earth.

    • Simon_Jester

      September 19, 2022 at 11:03 am

      I’m coming to this much later, but it occurs to me that this particular two-axis model of politics raises some inconvenient questions.

      For instance, if you actually put a bunch of real, living, breathing communists and anarchists in a room together, they generally get along with each other much better than either of them would get along with a fascist. Communists will sometimes quote Kropotkin, and anarchists will sometimes quote Marx, but neither of them is quoting, say, Evola or Goebbels as an authority on anything ever.

      Conversely, nearly every distinctively fascist political faction that has ever lived* has talked quite openly about their desire to hunt down and destroy those they see as communists. And virtually all modern communists take it as a given that if fascists obtain power they will seek to hunt down and destroy them, that is, the communists.

      The fascists themselves will tell you that they are fiercely anti-communist and that communism is very much the enemy, more so than almost anything else with the possible exception of maybe one or two ethnic groups they really don’t like. Why not take them at their word? Granted, it makes the two-axis political compass model a bit more complicated, but the world’s a complicated place.

      *(Unless you retroactively define communism as fascism, which requires being willing to ignore most of political science and history’s definitions of “fascism” and “communism” and make up one’s own)

  16. Wouter Lammers

    June 24, 2019 at 9:13 pm

    Just read my first article where I don’t agree with your sentiment, not fully at least. No need to make my point here, I see plenty of commenters have done that already. Just wanted to add that despite not agreeing with the point of the article, I did still enjoy reading it, thanks!

    • Wouter Lammers

      June 25, 2019 at 8:29 pm

      I noticed btw in the exchange you laid out early in the article, that the atheist was a “he”, not something I’m used to reading in your articles unless you’re describing an actual person! :)

  17. Leo Vellés

    April 2, 2020 at 10:11 pm

    “I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do feel compelled make the argument the game fails to make, to offer a defense of religion…”
    “feel compelled to make the argument”?
    “Even governmental suppression of religious faith, which forms such an important part of the early legends of Christianity, was apparently suffered by few other other groups of believers”.
    The double “other” is intended?

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 3, 2020 at 10:27 am

      The first was as intended; the “do” is used to add a bit of extra emphasis. The second was indeed a mistake. Thanks!

  18. killias2

    August 27, 2021 at 10:23 am

    I know I’m coming years later, but, while I love this series, I thought this one was a bit sloppy with its logic and argumentation. Probably my biggest pet peeve was this line of argument, which you repeat in the comments (quote from comments, as it was easier to find):

    “Even more to the point, a world without Christianity would have been so different that none of these people would ever have existed. It’s possible that, as Ehrman acknowledges, we would have had even greater artists in their stead, but that’s just building castles in the air. We have to judge the world we actually live in, and in that world much of the greatest art ever created is deeply, inextricably immersed in the Christian faith.”

    Straightforwardly, you cannot make the claim you try to make here. In scientific terms, your hypothesis is that Christianity is central to Europe’s cultural and aesthetic contributions, such that they wouldn’t exist otherwise, but you can’t use a case of 1 without any variance on the IV to make that argument. What you’ve made is a case for claiming ignorance/null hypothesis, as the evidence cannot be used for any stronger claim.

    It’s actually rather interesting that you just ignore all the countries with amazing cultural and aesthetic achievements, which lacked major influence from Christianity, as at least that would give you some leverage on the thing you wish to study. But… “humans do great stuff pretty much regardless” would have undercut what you wanted to argue.

    I absolutely love the blog and this series, but I just felt this needed to be called out.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 27, 2021 at 11:01 am

      I’m a little confused by this. Literally the only claim I’ve made in the quotation above is that a person named — to take Sid Meier’s favorite — Johann Sebastian Bach would not have existed if Europe had gone in so different a direction as not to become Christian, and thus would not have made the art we associate with him. That seems a fairly obvious, value-neutral statement to me; when one thinks of the extraordinary confluence of circumstances necessary to produce any single human being, one has to acknowledge that something as immense as the non-existence of Christianity is one heck of a butterfly flapping its wings. ;)

      I agree with you entirely, in other words. I’m afraid you’re making a fine argument against claims I never made. In fact, we both make the same argument right there in my quotation (“castles in the air…”) and your reply. If I fail to talk about other cultures, it’s because I’m discussing the effect that Christianity had on certain cultures in actuality, and explicitly not indulging in counterfactuals or subjective, value-laden comparisons. So what is there to say about them in that context?

      • killias2

        August 27, 2021 at 8:49 pm

        Here’s the version in the article:

        “If, as many a secular humanist has argued over the years, equality and mutual respect really are just a rationally better way to order a society, it’s certainly possible we would have gotten as far as we have today by some other route — possibly even have gotten farther, if we had been spared some of the less useful baggage which comes attached to Christianity. In the end, however, we have only one version of history which we can truly judge: the one that actually took place. So, credit where it’s due.”

        Wrt the comment one, I understand that you’re talking about a specific person and specific art, but it also appears that you are talking, structurally, about the impact Christianity had writ large on art. My understanding of your claim there wasn’t just that a person existed and was Christian, but that we have to give the existence of Christianity credit for European art without knowing the counterfactual of a Europe without Christianity. If that is the wrong read, I apologize.

        However, the article version seems more straightforward. The argument you make for giving Christianity the credit for liberalism doesn’t really work because it assumes or ignores what the counterfactual might look like. I’m not saying there isn’t an argument to make there, but this line of argumentation just seemed off to me.

        To be clear, while I’m an atheist, I don’t have any problems with Christianity or any other religion. I don’t particularly give Christianity as a doctrine much blame even for religious wars, as I assume there would just be some other dumb nonsense motivating mass death, rape, and destruction.

        I guess I’m broadly of the idea that religion in practice is driven more by context than root ideology and that the conditions that led to Christianity in our time-line probably would’ve ended in a broadly similar religion in most other similar timelines

        In any case, your blog is great, and I appreciate the response.

        • Jimmy Maher

          August 27, 2021 at 9:28 pm

          I still don’t understand this line of argument. Should I not, say, give Tim Berners-Lee credit for inventing the World Wide Web because, if he hadn’t, someone else might have come along and invented an even better Web? We have art that is deeply rooted in Christianity and some of it is quite extraordinary. Similarly, the emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual in Western liberalism pretty clearly has its roots in the Christian ethic of salvation as a personal choice. I make no claim about what type of art nor what types of societies might have existed absent Christianity because I have no data to go by, but I am acknowledging the world as it is. I’m not trying to be glib or facetious; I’m just honestly baffled by this line of argument.

          In fact, you’ve done exactly what you’ve accused me of: “The conditions that led to Christianity in our time-line probably would’ve ended in a broadly similar religion in most other similar timelines.” That’s one heck of a claim to make. In addition to being unsupported by any evidence, it perhaps fails to appreciate just how unlikely Christianity’s rise actually was. It really was a billion-to-one proposition.

          For whatever reason, we seem to be talking past one another a bit, so I’ll bow out now. Thanks for your kind words about the site. If you’re interested in some deeper writing on this topic, I’m in the midst of a long series at the Analog Antiquarian about Alexandria, which is focusing now on Christianity’s rise. That begins in Chapter 15 of the current series.

          • killias2

            August 27, 2021 at 10:12 pm

            I guess I think there’s a difference between discussing individual level events or even the historical sequence of events than the structure that guides history. There’s a difference between asking “was this artist motivated by Christianity” (which is true in a great many cases) and “without Christianity would there be good art here” (which is probably an impossible question to answer).

            “In fact, you’ve done exactly what you’ve accused me of,” I wasn’t trying to make a claim there. I was trying to demonstrate my broad viewpoint and perspective, for the sake of context. That’s why I couched that with a “probably” and introduced it with “I guess that I’m broadly of the view…”.

            The strongest claim to make is that we cannot know the relative importance of Christianity for the rise of modern liberalism or the relative likelihood that our religion would look the way it does based purely on the historical sequence of events. (Though I do think there are probably ways to get purchase on the more general idea that Christianity helped lead to liberalism.) With that final paragraph, I was just trying to clarify that I’m not somebody who is just rabidly anti-Christianity or religion or anything.

            • killias2

              August 27, 2021 at 10:18 pm

              Of course, insofar as you are making more of an individual level argument or just reiterating the historical sequence of events, I apologize for reading arguments into this that may or may not have been there.

              Thanks, and I’m excited to (eventually) catch back up with the blog chronologically.

  19. Simon_Jester

    September 19, 2022 at 11:08 am

    One thing I think would be interesting, or would have been interesting, would be to see an expansion of this article’s general thesis to a wider stretch of the world.

    Perhaps Mr. Maher does not (did not?) feel qualified to comment on the impact of, say, Hinduism in India (where the prevailing religion has evolved much more smoothly from ancient to modern times than is the case in the Mediterranean and Europe) or Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan (where a new religion arrived and shaped things but did not fully supplant the old beliefs), or the evolution of religion in China (which I myself don’t even feel qualified to summarize).

    But one of the interesting things one can say about Civilization and its series as a whole is that it is very much an artifact of specifically turn-of-the-millennium Americans, writing within a cultural context where the big, relevant examples that matter most are the characteristically Western ones. Which means that we can have a lot to say about Christianity (some of it through the lens of Civ games) and something to say about Islam, and much to say about the ancient half-forgotten gods those two juggernauts replaced…

    But we often have very little to say about any religion whose centers of influence are east of the Indus or south of the Sahara.

    • Mike Taylor

      September 20, 2022 at 12:02 pm

      Surely that’s just the classic old adage Write What You Know in action.


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