Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Religion and the Survival of Culture

Among the more interesting things I've had occasion to notice, during the time The Archdruid Report has been online, is a common assumption shared by the two popular viewpoints about the future of industrial society -- the belief in a future of perpetual progress and the belief in a future of sudden collapse. Despite their disagreements, both viewpoints embrace the claim that there is nothing to be learned from the past; our present situation, both insist, is unlike anything else in history, and therefore history cannot be used as a yardstick to measure the possible shapes of the future ahead of us.

It will not come as an unbearable surprise to readers of this blog that I find this claim unconvincing. It's true, of course, that the current predicament of industrial civilization differs in some ways from the equivalent challenges that faced, and overwhelmed, civilizations of the past. It's equally true that historical patterns never repeat themselves precisely. Still, it's worth suggesting that despite the differences, our predicament is analogous to those earlier examples, and the experiences of the past thus may turn out to be useful as we face our own future.

One pattern found very commonly in the decline and fall of civilizations, as I pointed out in last week's post, is the transmission of cultural heritage from one civilization to its successors through the medium of a newly established religious movement. The classic example, which has seen a certain amount of discussion in futurist circles since Roberto Vacca's The Coming Dark Age (1973) introduced it to contemporary culture, is the role played by monasteries in Europe in preserving Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, and scientific knowledge through the worst years of the Dark Ages.

The same thing has happened often enough elsewhere that Arnold Toynbee made the concept a key theme in the later volumes of his massive A Study of History. In Toynbee's view, the fading years of every civilization form a seedbed for new religious movements; one or more of these movements break free of the others as decline continues, to become a major cultural force; as the civilization that nurtured it collapses completely, the new religious movement fills the vacuum, salvaging what remains of the old civilization's heritage, and the concepts central to that religion become the framework on which a new civilization begins to take shape.

Toynbee’s account of this process, like so much of his historical vision, derives primarily from Roman history, and some of his details do not wear well when applied to other historical examples. In his view, for example, the religions that rise from one civilization to pass on cultural heritage to another are newly minted or recently imported missionary religions with a sense of universal mission, and this is by no means always true.

The Jewish and Zoroastrian religions provide persuasive counterexamples. Both were old religions that underwent major retooling after the collapse of their national communities, the Roman depopulation of Israel after 70 CE and the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century respectively. Both abandoned universalizing ambitions to become ethnic religions, holding outsiders at arm’s length through a formidable body of custom and taboo. Both nonetheless played a significant role in passing on the cultural heritage of the classical Middle East to rising cultures in Europe and the Arabic world, in the case of the Jews, and India, in the case of the Parsis.

Broaden Toynbee’s insight to embrace a wider range of religious phenomena, though, and his basic claim – that religion very often serves as the conduit by which the cultural treasures of one civilization reach the waiting hands of the next – is true much more often than not. It’s easy enough to see why this should be so. In a time of social disintegration, when institutions collapse and long-accepted values lose their meaning, only the most powerful human motives can ensure that the economically unproductive activities needed to maintain cultural heritage will be carried out in the teeth of the difficulties. Religion is the only cultural force that consistently provides motivation strong enough for the job; the same sense of transcendent value that leads martyrs to sing hymns as they are burnt alive can just as easily inspire scholars and scribes to preserve and transmit knowledge to a future they will never see.

Nor was Toynbee wrong to point out that the religions that accomplish this function are rarely identical to the established faiths of the old civilizations. Both Rabbinic Judaism and the Zoroastrian faith of the medieval and modern Parsis differ in significant ways from the forms the same faiths took in the ancient world; the forms of Buddhism that enabled classical Japanese culture to survive the breakup of the Heian period were not the forms that thrived under the patronage of the Nara and Heian courts; even in imperial China, where a cult of cultural continuity persisted for some five thousand years, the end of a dynasty generally meant the rise of a new form of Buddhist or Taoist spirituality.

Here again, the reasons behind this changing of the guard are straightforward enough, though certain features of a civilization in decline have to be taken into account. In Toynbee’s view, as a civilization moves into its imperial phase, it suffers a schism between the dominant minority, which benefits from the imperial project, and the bulk of the population of the imperial state, which does not. As this schism in the body politic widens, the bulk of the population – the internal proletariat, in Toynbee’s terms – becomes alienated from the values of their own culture, which becomes identified with the interests of the dominant elite.

Religion is among the things most affected by this sense of alienation, and so one of the classic signs of a society on its way to collapse is a widening religious schism along class lines. America offers an interesting example of this process in motion. As it entered its imperial phase around 1900, a significant minority of Americans began breaking away from the religious consensus of their culture – a consensus that used the forms of mainstream Protestantism but, in the name of the “social gospel,” transformed that faith into an anthropolatrous worship of progress.

The vehicle for the countering schism was Christian fundamentalism. Twice, however – in the 1920s and then again in the 1980s and 1990s – fundamentalist leaders proved all too eager to cash in their ideals in exchange for crumbs of political power from the tables of the dominant minority; the result in the first case was a near-total implosion of the fundamentalist movement, and a repeat of that process seems increasingly likely today as fundamentalist churches move further away from their once-challenging role as social critics to embrace unthinking partisan loyalties nicely calibrated to support the status quo.

The failure of fundamentalism to establish itself as an alternative to the values of the dominant minority left the field open to other new religious movements. Some of those have proven just as willing to sell out as their fundamentalist equivalents; others never did veer far enough from the values of the mainstream to attract a following outside the privileged classes.

At the same time, the mainstream Protestant-progressive religiosity of the elite has widened into a consensus shared by most varieties of American Judaism, much of the English-speaking wing of the American Catholic church, and several forms of Americanized Buddhism, not to mention a very large number of people who would insist they follow no religion at all. What is often portrayed as a rising tide of tolerance among these traditions actually marks the widespread embrace of a common ideology of social progress unrelated to the central historic commitments of the faiths in question, but easy to insert into the shell of any religious (or irreligious) tradition once awkward questions about transcendent values are quietly put on the shelf.

Thus it’s hard to name a religious movement in contemporary America, or for that matter most other parts of the industrial world, that is well placed just now to rise to the occasion as industrial civilization begins the long slow process of its decline and fall. At the same time, it’s crucial to remember that we are still in a very early stage of that process. A Roman scholar of 150 CE, say, who tried to guess at the religious forms that would rise to prominence during the empire’s decline, would have faced a ferocious challenge in sorting through the contenders; his world was awash in new religious movements, some homegrown and many others from elsewhere in the Mediterranean world; nothing special marked out the destinies of Christianity and Judaism from those of their many competitors, and the religion that arguably played the largest role in passing classical culture to the medieval world, Islam, didn’t even exist yet.

Thus one of the religious movements that will pick up the remnants of modern culture and pass them on to the future might well, at the present time, consist of a few dozen people gathered around a charismatic teacher in a commune in Kentucky. Another might have been founded fifty years ago in Brazil or Bangladesh, and still awaits the brilliant missionary who will bring it to Europe or America and transform it into a mass movement. A third might still be an inchoate current of ideas that will not find its prophet for another two hundred years. The one thing that can be predicted in advance is that those movements will draw on the religious heritage of contemporary culture, but reshape it in unexpected ways that will inevitably be at odds with the conventional wisdom of our age.

Yet new religious movements there will be, and it’s far more likely than not that they will attract a growing number of followers as the industrial age stumbles toward its end. It’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and there tend to be very few in times of social decay and collapse. In every age in which people believe that their own efforts can bring them the material goals their culture sets before them, it’s common for them to stop worrying about the transcendent dimension of life; it’s only when those goals become too obviously unreachable that the majority will raise their eyes to other possibilities and, as Augustine of Hippo phrased it, perceive a difference between the City of Man and the City of God.

Efforts to turn this religious impulse to foster the survival of today’s cultural heritage will succeed or fail, I think, on their willingness to let go of the assumptions of contemporary culture, and to make peace with religious forms that offend modern sensibilities. Thus, for example, there seems to be little hope in the suggestion made now and then that today’s scientific thought ought to redefine itself as a religion for this purpose. The raw material of religion certainly exists in modern science, or rather scientism, the belief system that has grown up around the simple but powerful logic of the scientific method; Carl Sagan, who did more than any other recent thinker to cast that belief system in religious terms, is arguably one of the significant theologians of the 20th century.

Yet scientism as it exists today, certainly, embodies the attitudes and values of the dominant minority at least as well as any of the more obviously religious forms mentioned above. From its long struggle to seize intellectual authority from religious institutions, too, the culture of contemporary scientism embraces a bitter hostility to more explicitly religious belief systems. This no man’s land of the Western mind forms perhaps the single most troublesome barrier to the survival of science in the deindustrial world of the future. The prospects of crossing it, and transmitting the modern world’s greatest intellectual adventure to the future, will be the focus of next week’s post.


Bill said...

Nice post. Because of the impending change to our climate and the approaching loss of our most important energy source, I believe the most probable form of religion to challenge our minority ruling class will be some kind of pagen, anti-technical, earth oriented creed. We will have to find a way to return the vast majority of our working people to the fields and an earthy religious call might do the trick. If the religious movement happens before the coming collapse of population there might even be a form of population control involved since we now have no way to invoke that needed process.

Robin said...

If the scientific tradition is to bbe passed on via a quasi religious vehicle, it would more likely be in the tradition of the Aryan religions, Hinduism & Buddhism since their world-view does not conflict with the attitudes of science.

Neither of them conflicts with Darwin. Two of the six schools of Hindu philosophy reject the concept of a supreme deity, as does Buddhism; Buddhism goes even further and rejects a soul.

This gets very close to Judaism, which declines to give the Deity a name, referring to It as Ha-Shem ("the name"), to avoid making the deity too concrete, thereby creating an idol of cognition. Indeed the highest cognitive concept of the Deity in Judaism, the Ain Sof - is described as the void, bearing a striking resemblance to the Buddhist Sunyata, also the void.

The concept of "One without a second" which is found in many places in Hinduism (most notably in Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination) is found in only one place (to my knowledge) in Judaism, viz. the Sefer Yetzirah, (Chapter I, verse 7). The "One without a second" is so inclusive that it does not permit one to rope off a portion of the universs (time & space) where one may dwell as a separtate "I".

I am unacquainted with Druidry, but I am aware that it too, integrates the whole rather than splitting it up into us vs. them or creator vs. creation, etc.

Traditions such as these are more likely to ba a vehicle for science; the folks who are allergic to evolution will transmit a different science, if any.

paradise lost said...

In New Guinea, the wild pigs, if left alone, destroy the ecology thru over grazing/soil grubbing.

The indigenous people control their own population with that of the pigs every 7 years or so.

A hunt is organized amongst all tribes to reduce the pig population in addition to the human population.

Young men cannot marry and start a new family until each one of them has killed another man from another tribe.

Harsh but it has controlled both pigs and people for thousands of years.

yooper said...

Pigs and people...What's the difference? Some with wings, others without.....

Thanks, yooper

SCM said...

I don't think the characteristics of the religions as they are now is that relevant to their likely role as conservers. The characteristics of a religious based conserver community would probably look very different from its roots, and religions (or parts thereof) can and do change radically in character over time.

I also suspect that some of the people drawn to such communities may be as motivated by the work it allows them to do (eg cultural conservation) as by religious motivations and this would affect the character of the community over time.

Jeff Gill said...

I'll chime in from the Christian perspective. There is a growing number of evangelical Christians who

__have no problem with science and see stories like creation and the flood as truth rather facts.

__are willing to be critical of certain western values, especially consumerism, and are discovering a willingness to suffer, rather than try to make others suffer, for their beliefs

__are looking for ways to be Christians that are simpler to transmit and more connected with the communities in which they live (good search terms: house church, simple church, missional, new monasticism).

__are more mystical than evangelicals have tended to be.

All these trends seem very healthy in light of the future JMG is describing. The one thing that doesn't fit so well at the moment is the idea of preserving culture. It's not something we evangelicals have been known for.

I dunno, maybe I should fashion my MacBook into a weapon and head over to the local pig farm.

galacticsurfer said...

I have been following this particular series with great interest via Energy Bulletin and find this quite interesting, wondering what part my particular religious / scientific / philosophical meanderings could have in this process.

I think due to my particular experience that Tamil Siddha tradition is convincing but I have tried out other such practical transcendental schools and find they acheive similar results-Tibetan, sufi, etc.(more than one way to skin a cat).

For me transcendent experience through practical method is the critical motivating element in religion, indeed in human experience. In wealthy ages people live in a consensus trance based on logical truths discovered by the few who acheived transcendence during dark age collapses. The critical times therefore are not the high points of civilizations but rather the low points as these encourage inwardness and true discovery which canonly be made by intuitive leaps (visions from "God" so to speak). Of course stability brings the ability to experiment in religion and science so really this is cyclical, i.e. new religious ideals germinate during the height of culture which are then intensified and applied during the dark ages by the masses. I know from my small amount of reading on say Tai Chi or Kriya Yoga (siddha traditions) or Sufi traditional practices all lead through practical exercises, breathing and meditation to higher energy states and altered consciousness/awareness.

These were all hidden to all but a few initiates until late 19th century, earlier twentieth century times from the masses,when they were revealed to a broader audience of thousands then millions since 1960s-90s, basically in preparation for the collapse to help us through the coming Dark Ages.

I believe preservation of particular scientific or technological traditions (a particular method of planting or making steel or paper) is secondary to preservation of these techniques so we can draw on our innermost strengths in times of hardship. this is perhaps how evolution takes place as some sort of energy is added internally to the body and mind in such a way as to encourage accelerative cell/DNS changing. This last is purely speculative although talk of Golden/Diamond/Rainbow Body acheived in various traditions if true would lead one to believe that physical changes of massive proportions could be acheived in the invdividual allowing bodily dissolution, miraculous powers or immortality. To study these issues in a scientific context would be no mean feat.

We know that meditative states in Buddhist monks allow voluntary bodily changes (temperature, brain wave control, pulse stopping,etc.) otherwise impossible through technology. These techniques in terms of very long-term history (10,000-20,000 years since start of cultural/religious life) would then be the high points of cultural acheivement preserved through the dark ages of over materialistic cultures, doomed to self destruct from the beginning like the present one, by a few dedicated souls.

Scientific truths are abstract truths about existent reality like Einstein concepts or Quantum mechanic. These are philosophic, revealing nature of time and space. Technology on the other hand is simply a way of acheiving wealth (making surplus energy available) in a large scale or small scale civilization. Again in this there is more than one way to skin a cat. We can argue however that reality is only one and a revealed truth about the actual form of natural existence, not just religous theory ("how many angels on head of a pin").

So if we maintain these transcendent techniques as the true technology, then revelations about absoulte truth(Einstein, quantum mechanics, etc.) can be acheived easier(access to intuition) and these intuitions give access to true technolgical innovations-the bomb or antigravity or electricity or modern chmistry, the true basis of high level cultures and possibly give us access to the key to evolutionary change or even more mind dazzling techniques, levitation, telepathy or what-not out of legends about Atlantis or such like.

Of course as emphasized in Hinduism these acheivements are all secondary to enlightenment and are really just distractions from the one true goal.

So whatever religion we take to preserve whatever it is we want to preserve from what we know (not much of this will make it through to the future), the essentials are pretty similar and already very old but exist under various names and traditions, mostly Asian I think.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, you may be right that something earth-centered has a very good chance to take a leading role in the religious landscape of the next few centuries. It's been interesting to me, as head of a Druid order in the US, to note that the largest part of our membership comes from middle America, not from the avant-garde cultural hotspots on the coasts -- we have more members in Tennessee than in California, for instance.

Robin, I'll be discussing this issue at some length in next week's post; for now, let's just say that the issues are a bit more complex than you suggest.

Paradise, there are other ways.

Yooper, true enough -- but I don't expect to catch my breakfast bacon with a butterfly net any time soon.

SCM, the monastic community model is by no means the only option out there, though it has a place.

Jeff, these are very hopeful trends -- I've also been pleased to see a sizable body of Evangelicals reject their assigned role as wholly-owned subsidiaries of the status quo in order to embrace an ecological stance based on respect for Creation. Not long ago, I blush to say, I assumed that the Protestant impulse had basically bottomed out, subsumed completely into either liberal or conservative politics; I'm less sure that's the case now. It will be interesting to see if the Evangelical movement can reinvent itself for the very different demands of a deindustrializing world.

Surfer, you've touched on an important point, one that I haven't developed in these posts but have discussed elsewhere. While some of the more extreme claims made for the results of spiritual practices are, I think, to be taken symbolically rather than literally -- in Jeff's useful phrase, as truth rather than fact -- there are some very remarkable traditions out there, which enable trained people to accomplish unusual things with their bodies and minds. Those are certainly part of the cultural heritage that needs to be saved for the future. Most traditions that have such things, though, are adept at preserving and transmitting them -- if anything at all survives, I suspect at least a good working selection of these practices will. Certainly those of us in the Druid tradition have this in mind.

ladybug said...

Hmmm, I guess I don't have a problem with scientism, as you call it, Perhaps because I don't see it as a threat to religion at all, but a support to it, if you choose to follow one. But also, I was educated in non-fundamentalist Xian institutions for much of my life (Jesuit and Xian Brothers schools mostly), where rigorous science is respected, rather than seen as threatening faith, so perhaps I lack understanding for that viewpoint.

It seems the real difference may be be between seeing human history as "progress", which happens to fit in nicely with a scientific view and which some speculate as a creation of Jewish culture, (see The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels by Thomas Cahill for more on this idea).. rather than as a cycle (the traditional Pagan perspective).

Be that as it may, my concern for a future religion that would "get us through" a crisis in civilization" is that such religions are often dangerously hierarchical and ruthlessly efficient in eliminating "unorthodox" secular and/or religious information.

Xianity and Islam are famous for more extreme authority forms...but the ossification of Hindu and Buddhist social casts indicates huge social inflexability and cultural stagnation as well.
Even the ancient Hawaiians grew tired of their burdensome taboo culture (along with it's authority/spiritual cleanliness emphasis).

My question: How do we promote cultural conservers in a time of crisis and NOT devolve into an extreme authoritarian form of religion?

I personally prefer the non-sectarian institutions like 4-H or grange halls (Understandably, they have a kind of quasi philosophy I "Head, Hands, Heart and Health-represented by a 4-lobed Shamrock)...but I'd like to hear what other ideas folks are kicking around.

Loveandlight said...

and a repeat of that process seems increasingly likely today as fundamentalist churches move further away from their once-challenging role as social critics to embrace unthinking partisan loyalties nicely calibrated to support the status quo.

Case in point.

Ada-baka-shika-moka-sa-tala-bahaiya indeed.

Anthony said...


I am in the midst of "Circles of Power". I wonder do you draw a distinction between a religious tradition and an esoteric order? Are they merely shades of the same thing or will both fulfill a role in the decline?

As to scientific religions this video of a brain scientist who had a stroke and experienced reality as only filtered through the right hemisphere of her brain has strong religious overtones.

I wonder if people start conserving now, one thing that they may need to do is to have the flexibility to convert to whatever religion is dominating at the moment. Depending on the attitude of the religion towards non-believers one conserved knowledge could be placed at risk.


Ahavah said...

This decline will be like all other declines before it - until somebody gets the bright idea to eliminate competition for resources by using nukes. At that point, all bets are off.

FARfetched said...

An important point, one I think has been largely lost in the current creationist debate, is that science and religion are meant to answer different questions. To wit, science deals with "How?" and religion with "Why?" — each invades the other's turf to their own detriment. That's not to say religious orders can't preserve & transmit scientific literature (especially since it's been done), or that a person can't practice both religion & science (ditto). Both science and religion are meant to serve humanity, and one is not incompatible with the other.

Coming from the Christian (Protestant) tradition myself, I think Christianity will end up as an important vehicle of cultural conservation. That's not to say there will be major disruptions to the faithful — history shows that spiritual power and political power are incompatible, and far too many of us have considered ourselves masters instead of servants. In the end, I suspect a major backlash is coming, and we may again become a minority (as in Roman times) before a true revival can happen. How we conduct ourselves during the backlash and aftermath will largely determine our relevance to the future.

Panidaho said...

Paradise Lost said:

Harsh but it has controlled both pigs and people for thousands of years.

I was musing on something along these lines a few days ago. I was wondering just why it has been so hard for people to understand that we HAVE to control our population growth. Then I realized - except for isolated instances like you just mentioned - we've never had to even consider taking responsibility for our numbers.

Malnutrition and disease, famine, acts of nature, predators, accidents, and aggression by other human groups have all acted in the past to control human populations for us - albeit in the most brutal way. Because we didn't understand the forces behind these things, man attributed it all to the will of some god of his choosing. (As well as the near-misses, the miraculous recoveries, the bountiful harvests, etc.)

So mankind, for the most part, never learned over thousands of years of sentient existence that he should - or even could - take responsibility for his numbers himself. That was nearly universally seen as "god's turf" until very recently. And, until recently this attitude obviously had some survival value for the species as a whole - otherwise we wouldn't be closing in fast on 7 billion in population right now. But the problem is, unchecked reproduction is NOT a good strategy for the survival of our species any more and it's likely going to be a recipe for a self-made disaster of the most painful kind as our "population bubble" bursts in the not too far distant future.

So, whatever culture and science that gets transmitted down to the people who come after us - let's please consider adding moral admonitions to not abdicate our responsibility for keeping our numbers under control so that we don't have to face this sort of problem again.

shadowfoot said...

Good post. I certainly am hoping for the continuance and growth, and/or creation of, religions that are more earth-oriented, although I'm not completely anti-tech -- I am using a PC after all, and penicillin was a great invention in my book.

Some of the more ecologically sound technologies that some people are trying to develop, I hope will be a part of the future. Although I don't personally have the background for such things -- there's a fascinating page on biomimicry here:

I'm sure different groups of people will seek to save different types of knowledge and aspects of their cultures, but I'm hopeful that more than one group will try to save things in a sort of whole-picture sense, in a way that considers the whole environment, not just what is useful for humans.

In our little area, some of us are slowly working our way toward collecting knowledge and experience that we think will be useful both now and later, be it herbal medicine use, tai chi, reiki, different growing/harvesting/storing methods, alternative building and energy techniques, and also simple things like how to darn a sock. We are doing this by collecting books, getting info off the internet, and by practicing and teaching. We expect it to be a lifelong project, but since we all enjoy learning, that's hardly a burden.

(Referring to comments from previous post, because I've had limited internet access the past several days...)

Dwig, glad JMG's in favor of the conservation ideas wiki, I am too.

Peter, when you mentioned the Pioneer Valley, were you referring to western Massachusetts? If yes, feel free to get in touch with me, as I live there, along with some other folks you might like to meet.

- Heather G

tst said...

An interesting discussion, but it seems to me that we should take a look at, and possibly reconsider, one of the underlying assumptions of John’s recent posts.

Is it always a “good” thing to pass along the accumulated knowledge and technical acumen of a society in decline? How much of an intellectually bereft, consumer-driven culture should we share with our descendants? At some point in the not-too-distant future, we may well prove that our society does not, and quite possibly can not, work. At least not in a broader, long-term, sustainable context.

Which begs the question, “What should we pass along and what should we let slip away?” We might want to tackle this particular conundrum before we devote too much thought to the actual mechanics of succession. After all, we don’t want to put the cart before the horse.

(By the way, I’ve been on the road and haven’t had the opportunity to read the comment sections for the last few posts. If it turns out that I’m rehashing old ground here, I apologize.)

John Michael Greer said...

Ladybug, as a life member (and past Worthy Master) in the Grange, I can certainly sympathize with your affection for it and organizations like it -- and, as I've pointed out here more than once, they could quite possibly play a very important role in our future. Still, I have to disagree with your characterization of religions as "often" oppressive and authoritarian; that's a common polemic among believers in scientism, but religion is no more often these things than any other human institution -- and less so than some. We'll get into that in more detail next week.

Loveandlight, thanks for the link!

Anthony, exoteric religion and esoteric spirituality are two different things -- a point I'll be discussing in more detail later on.

Ahavah, nukes don't actually change the equation that much. I expect them to be used sooner or later, most likely in the Middle East, and that will likely be the main factor driving the worst of the downward lurches we'll face. Still, nukes have become the focus of a great deal of apocalyptic fantasy; if they are used, they will certainly kill a very large number of people, immediately and for years to come -- but they do not mean the end of the world.

Farfetched, I think you're quite right -- if Christianity can rediscover itself as a religion of love and service, it could accomplish a lot of good. I hope that happens.

Teresa, my take is that the population bubble is a normal biological response to the boom times of the age of cheap energy -- it's an effect, not a cause, and once the conditions that made it happen go away, it will go away. It would be good if it could do so without too much participation by those four guys on horses, and that's something we can work for, but I don't see a recurrence of it as even remotely likely in the foreseeable future, because the resources for it simply won't be there.

Shadowfoot, I'm not anti-tech either -- my take is that the old slogan from the Seventies, "appropriate technology," is the wave of the future. Some of the discoveries of the last 300 years or so are more useful than others, and in a world of limited resources, my guess is that the more useful ones will be saved and the others will be footnotes in history books.

Tst, that's an excellent point, but it also enables me to point up one of the common assumptions being made here -- that what I'm talking about is primarily the survival of scientific and technical knowledge, or of the culture of today's consumer society. That's not actually the case. Philosophy, literature, and the arts seem at least as important to me as the high-tech gimcracks that seem so important to so many people these days, and such practical crafts as organic farming and metalwork are even more so.

More broadly speaking, though, of course you're right, and if you page back through the archives you'll find that I've discussed exactly this point at length in several previous posts.

Panidaho said...

JMG said:

It would be good if it could do so without too much participation by those four guys on horses, and that's something we can work for, but I don't see a recurrence of it as even remotely likely in the foreseeable future, because the resources for it simply won't be there.

Yeah, I hadn't thought through that part. You're right - after the easy oil is gone, there likely won't ever be anything else that's going to produce the same sort of population bubble effect. I guess we'll also likely be back to the four horsemen, as you put it, in charge of our population numbers again.

So that leaves the question we've all been discussing - what are we going to have to show for all this in a few hundred years? I'm looking forward to hearing more ideas on that over the next few weeks.

tst said...


I just read your response. There’s an old, if a bit silly, line that goes, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” I don’t think I’ve ever used it before, at least not in print, but this might be a good time to trot it out.

It’s a little ironic, but while I can see how you might think so, I didn’t actually intend to limit my earlier comments to scientific and technical knowledge. In fact, I don’t believe that science and technology are nearly as important as the underlying system of beliefs and assumptions - the cosmology, if you will - that have allowed us to create our current social system.

To my mind, the unhealthy belief that we’re separate from nature (or that we’ve been granted dominion over nature) is the basis for many, if not most, of our current problems. When we look at the natural world as something to possess or exploit, as opposed to a gift we should treasure and caretake, we open up a whole Pandora’s Box of difficult issues. If I could consign one single concept to the trashbin of history, it would be the idea that we have the right to destroy the planet in exchange for our short term comfort and convenience.

When you think about it, there’s a reason that most indigenous cultures didn’t develop advanced metallurgical technologies. Their belief systems would never allow them to do so. As Thom Hartmann has pointed out, treating the world as a collection of inanimate parts or raw materials would be considered “insane” in most cultures; a true fall from grace.

With that in mind, perhaps the most dangerous thing we can pass along to our progeny is our belief that everything is unconnected; that it’s progress to follow our current path of materialism and consumption.

Anyway, enough from the soapbox for one night. Thanks for a thought-provoking conversation.

SCM said...

Following on from jeff-gill's comment about new directions in evangelical christians, I thought I would mention a movement called earth-song here in Melbourne Australia. It emerged from a collaboration between some local catholic religious orders. They have a strong focus of eco-spirituality and earth stewardship and take inspiration both from the insights into the universe from science as well as from experiencing nature directly. I could imagine a group like this evolving into a cultural conserver group.

As for my earlier comments I do think the monastic model is very valuable as a cultural conservation - particularly in the most difficult times. I've been reading quite a bit of old english lately, much of the literature from that time emerged from King Alfred's attempts to revive scholarship following year of Viking incursions which had been responsible for the decline of learning in the monasteries.

I think there's quite a bit we can learn from Alfred's struggles at the time. In his preface to one of his translations he laments the loss of books from the monasteries resulting from the invasions, but also notes that as few spoke latin the larger part of the population could not benefit even when the texts were still available. He therefore determined that the heart of his push to re-establish learning and scholarship was to translate latin texts into the anglo-saxon vernacular and to begin a program of literacy education of free-born youth. This makes me this of JMGs earlier point about the need for transmission so that scholarship remains an active concern rather than just passive preservation or the preserve of an elite.

What little Alfred was trying to preserve had survived thanks to the monasteries, but the monasteries themselves were much diminished by this time and Alfred didn't really succeed in reviving them as he had hoped. Even so the infrastructure of the church was essential to his task which laid the foundations for english as a literary language.

Around the same time of course there was a huge cultural flowering in the arab world reaching Europe via Arab Spain.

Factors which made this possible included the availablility of texts in the arabic vernacular, widespread literacy, and a culture which highly valued learning aided by paper technology. The sheer amount of books made and copied in this favourable environment permitted survival of texts and technology through the next cultural bottleneck into the European renaissance.

What I take from this is the importance of institutions such a monasteries for preservation in the darkest times but also the risks of this model without periods of cultural revival to spread learning more broadly across the whole community. The cultural flowering periods are essential to sow the seeds far and wide enough that some knowledge will survive the intervening bottlenecks to promote cultural flowerings in other times and places.

Nnonnth said...

I understand all that is said here but have a problem with it. The unfreeness of ‘religion’ is the problem. No doubt we have not in fact defined ‘religion’, and maybe this is where the difficulty lies, but I just want to give some ideas to move discussion. I want to say that ‘social religion’ is not necessary in order for the benefits outlined as those of ‘religion’ by JMG to appear.

The ‘spiritual’ concerns of people right now do fall into some well-defined streams but they are astonishingly broad. Take ‘new age’ for instance – in some ways it fulfils very well many of the Toynbeean criteria – it has arisen indeed to fill that kind of void, what I might call a ‘belief deficit’.

But it isn’t actually a religion. It has its more fanatical adherents, but also attracts people who are merely mildly interested. The former might believe in motherships about to land at any moment, the latter might be responding to a - quite sincere - spiritual malaise with an interest in anything from (what a young girl of my acquaintance calls) ‘curly photography’ to hot stone massage, to chakra cleansing. None of these people would feel a religion is involved, simply a search. Of course, some religious leaders disagree! And this is precisely because they know such a search signals disaffection and a decrease of their power base.

Perhaps this ‘search’ idea seems woolly. But take Taoism, which in some parts is purely a religion; in others, it is actually more a set of skills. Many westerners become involved in it because of the health benefits of Taoist qigong – essentially a medical approach. They do not see themselves as having ‘changed religion’. And why should they? Some of the more visible western Taoists (Mantak Chia, Stephen Chang) are also ‘Christians’.

No-one is saying Christ asked them to become a Taoist! But equally, Christ was very interested in healing of both physical and spiritual kinds, and in the care of the soul. So what more natural than to conflate the two, and why stop there? It seems to me that the new spiritual environment emphasizes a what-works inclusiveness of this kind as a fairly fundamental tenet, nothing woolly about it, whereas social religion is – as we all know – quite capable of the opposite.

Maybe people think that the sing-while-you-burn fanaticism is really what is necessary for successful negotiation of the trials of cultural conservation, and that only old timey, I’m Right You’re Wrong religion can really generate this. But nothing could be less true. See for example Jim Stockdale, the ‘Philosophical Fighter Pilot’, who was quite happy to punch himself repeatedly in the face (thus rendering himself unfit for enemy propaganda presentations) when incarcerated as a prisoner of war. His only influence was the philosophy of Epictetus.

Equally, spiritual ideas which arouse great loyalty and which are perfect vehicles for cultural conservation do *not* have to take religious forms. Hermetics is an example, one our druid will know well, which has lasted quite happily for a couple of millennia, absolutely providing specialist spiritual skills and absolutely passing on specific knowledge, but not ever becoming a religion.

Or if that is too elitist an example, how about the Silva Method of mind control? It has millions of adherents, is taught in 131 countries and 29 languages (it says here), teaches meditation and self-improvement, including reports of real miracles, medical and otherwise, etc. etc. But is *not* a religion. And in fact has been quite happy to piggyback on scientific research *and* religious superstition, when either is available.

(It definitely is worth hanging onto actually, it develops meditation skills quickly and well. Personally I think the skill is what is important. I would be alot happier about the future if I knew everyone in the world could meditate.)

In thinking about Taoism one thinks of health, and many other strands of spirituality have vital health methods to pass on – not to mention the fact that the enormous (and very welcome) rise in the number of people using alternative medicine is in fact another verdict of no-confidence in government propaganda – really another ‘belief deficit’ being filled, as in a religion, but again, no actual ‘religion’ is present. A belief system shift does not have to involve a religion therefore.

I know many people who are spiritually interested, in these wide definitions of what that means, and who equally are absolutely interested in being cultural conservers, and also in some cases very devoted indeed to a spiritual point of view – but none of them would give ‘religion’ a second glance, no, not even Druidry! It is just not necessarily that relevant.

So it may well be that, this time around, spiritual knowledge will not have to be permanently handcuffed to the post of a particular religious banner with particular social power structures. My hunch is that cultural conservation could take place quite as well in the context of a ‘spiritual or philosophical tradition’ as of a religion – the difference being quite simply, that the latter is also a prime means of social cohesion and control, which the former has no need to be.

You could find your spiritual devotion, your spiritual skill, your philosophy, and your understanding of how to conserve and pass on information you felt was very important, without ever using the conventional pigeonhole of religion.

I feel it better to opt for that openness. It is quite clear that adherents of permaculture, acupuncture, and so forth, are all very passionate about conserving the skills and knowledge necessarily to pass their arts on, and have something of immense practical use. The same is true, for me, in spiritual disciplines. There is no actual need (other than a habitual one) for what one might call ‘umbrella religion’ – not at all. Everything it seems to offer for the future can be found in another form, and that is what so many millions of people are now doing.

Seaweed Shark said...

The Archdruid's posts tend to generate meaty responses so I'll try to be brief. I agree wholeheartedly, but I am still uneasy about what the so-called "values of the dominiant minority" argument. I assume that in the sense you are talking about, a perusal of the journalism of David Brooks and Tom Friedman, or other writers of that kind, would represent these values.

The problem I see, is that one could reasonably assert that the Archdruid and the rest of us responding to his posts are also members of the "dominant minority," being educated people with access to digital communications and the leisure to ponder big questions of society and life. We may feel disaffected, but we live in houses that commercial capitalism built. Where is the place for us in this scheme?

Lisa said...

I would love to see nature-based religions play more of a role - but what religions need are easy to understand, palatable ways to help the ordinary person channel their need for transcendence, ritual, etc. Most of the monks in the middle ages didn't do a lot of original thinking, and most people today probably won't either.

And mainstream religions often pick up a lot of baggage. It makes it difficult to capture the spark.

Last midwinter I wanted some observation or celebration to replace idealogically but retain
the very high emotional/cultural content of Christmas, since I have a harder and harder time caring about the original story, and more and more want to get in synch with the seasons. The wicca etc. traditions are full of do-it-yourself, very esoteric things for the self-motivated. But there isn't much that an ordinary person could just use. (same with druidism; it looks like the program is indended that everyone be a druid "priest", where do followers fit in?) Not everyone wants to be a priest or leader or wise-woman or shaman, nor do they want to think about theology.

I think an earth-centered religion might be the only thing that could stop the waste and disregard and destruction of the earth; one of the only things that can deter the force of I-want-now.

yooper said...

Ok John, I'm with ya......

Gee, it was just the other day, when one of my "pals" hinted that our views are quite similar. Then she went on and alluded that this was brought about "scientism". I thought, how odd, what is this "scientism"? So I tried to look this term up in my little dictionary, but to no avail. Guess "scientism" hadn't be born before 1946....

People have told me, that a lot of my views boarders on "naturalism". This term my little dictionary had....... I suppose, there's no boardering about it....

Thanks, yooer

Dwig said...

What an interesting collection of comments around spirituality and religion! It warms the cockles of this old agnostic's heart to see such open exploration of the territory. Here's a small contribution from an essay I wrote a while back (and which needs some updating):
I find it useful to mull over these four words: spirituality, faith, religion, church. Clearly (at least to me) they’re not synonymous, so what are the differences and relationships among them? For one thing, the order in which I’ve listed them seems to me to capture a definite progression, an increase of something in going left to right – perhaps an increasing commitment or definiteness.

I haven't gotten much further than this, other than to occasionally use the four words as "facets" through which to look at various phenomena in the space.

Actually, there's another excerpt from near the end of that essay that might be relevant here:
There are three fundamental ways of seeing and exploring the world available to us: the scientific, the spiritual, and the artistic. (Don’t put too much weight on the particular words; I don't identify the scientific way of seeing with science (per se), or the spiritual way with religion, or the artistic way with any particular medium, form or school of art.)
So, here's one way to classify some of the aspects of culture that might be worth conserving, as well as a reason to try to bring these ways of seeing into harmony. (Another update I need to make: after writing the essay, someone reminded me of the Greek philosophers' "big three": The Good, The True, and the Beautiful. D'oh!)

John, your esoteric/exoteric distinction captures nicely the distinction between my Community project and things like Jeff Vail's Rhizome Theory, intentional communities, etc. I'm focusing on the esoterics of community, not the exoterics.

Finally, thanks to shadowfoot for the additional vote of confidence. I'll try to put an initial page or two together in the next couple of weeks.

Danby said...

My, what a lot of vapour you seem to have attracted, John.

So many of the commentators don't understand that religion is not something you choose based on what's best for the world. People choose their religion based on what they perceive to be true. Frankly, people need miracles and forgiveness. If your spirituality can't deliver, or like Scientism discounts the concepts wholesale, it's not of much use to people living on the edge of survival.

This whole "spirituality but not religion" approach is the product of a middle-class prosperous European way of thinking. It comes from never having to rely on your Creator to carry you through when your own faculties fail.

The other thing to understand is that religions do not exist in a vacuum. They live in an evolutionary environment every bit as demanding as the equatorial jungle. That environment includes predators, such as Islam, that cannot and will not leave the heathen in peace to think good thoughts and preserve their culture, but will convert them at the point of a sword.

So when the gun is against your head, literally or figuratively, and the holy warrior is demanding that you submit to Allah, or Jehovah, or Baha'ullah, or Christ, or the Great Wheel, or Ahura Mazda, or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, you'd better have something more than some "skill at spiritual disciplines" and a vague sense of seeking if you expect to retain your culture.

Far too many people today have constructed themselves a religion. It's rather like building yourself a horse. It may make an amusing pastime and your may well marvel at your ingenuity and skill at being able to make a horse. Just don't try to hitch it to the plow and get any real work done. Don't even think about entering it into a race.

Caryl said...

I think there is more vitality in Catholic Christianity than you give credit for. The big push among the dominant minority-neoconservatives is to absorb the Catholic Church. They have had some limited success. But there is also much resistance among anti-war faithful Catholics who don't go along with the rerun of the Caesar program. A religion is not just, say, a better brand of toothpaste. A valid religion is founded on an authentic communication or revelation from the spiritual world. Catholic and Orthodox Christianity meet this test in my opinion; Protestant Christianity does not. The case of the Jews is even more complicated. I think there was an authentic revelation to the ancient Hebrews which took form as the first five books of the Old Testament. But the original Hebrews cast their lot with humanity and so disappeared into the mists of history. Elements of the authentic Hebraic faith were later incorporated into Judaism,
which was essentially a reaction-formation against Christianity but which also added many new questionable elements - the "Second Law" (Deuternonomy) and the intense ethnic focus of the Judahites, Pharisees, and later Zionists. Whether the Jews will succeed in affirming their original revelation - the sublime revelation given to Adam-Moses-Isaiah-the prophets- culminating with Jesus and St. Paul - and throw off the shackles of an oppressive ethnic ideology is one of the big open questions of history.

John Michael Greer said...

Teresa, what we'll have to show for the last three hundred years depends quite a bit on what we do in the next decade or so -- more on this soon.

Tst, thanks for the clarification. I tend to see ideologies as the product of historical and ecological circumstances, rather than the other way around; thus the modern world developed its shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating attitude toward nature because, for three centuries or so, they were more successful than the competition. Indigenous cultures learned, sometimes the hard way, to live within ecological limits; now it's our turn. Thus I don't see a continuation of current attitudes toward nature as an option, much less one to worry about.

Scm, excellent. Alfred's experience offers another lesson, one that's been pointed out more than once here: collapse is not a geographically or temporally uniform phenomenon. Britain suffered more cultural losses than most in the aftermath of Rome's fall, which is why Alfred's revival of learning drew heavily on teachers and books from abroad. It would be worth trying to gauge the likely impact of the current example on different regions, though it's a task fraught with challenges.

Nnonth, it will be interesting to see if you're right. Historically, there are very few successful examples of the sort of thing you're suggesting, and I have my doubts about how much passion and commitment today's alternative movements will be able to muster once it's no longer a matter of finding something meaningful to do with one's leisure time -- thus my interest in the one institutional form that has consistently been able and willing to tackle the job of passing on cultural heritage to the future.

Shark, good. One of the features of an age of decline is the collapse of the middle classes, with those who lose out in the scramble for wealth and influence falling into the internal proletariat. That's well under way now, as I'm sure you've noticed. In historical examples, it tends to provide a lot of the intellectual basis for the emerging post-imperial religion -- think of the way that the Christian church got its theology by way of educated converts with a philosophical education. It's early days yet, but I suspect our equivalents later on will have a similar role.

Lisa, one of the major transformations in the rise of any religious movement is the one that hits when it stops being the passion of a committed few and turns into a mass phenomenon, in which the bulk of the membership want (and can handle) only a very modest level of participation. I can't speak for any other Earth-centered religion just now, but in most Druid traditions priesthood and priestesshood are for those who are willing to work for them; most of the members of the order I head, for example, observe the basic practices of meditation, seasonal celebration, and living in harmony with the earth, without going beyond that into the more intensive spiritual disciplines of the tradition.

Yooper, I'll have to look up the origin of the word "scientism" for next week's post.

Dwig, excellent. I look forward to seeing your project unfold!

Danby, I knew going into this post that it was going to raise a pretty fair cloud of misunderstandings, though it's been a good deal less extreme than I'd feared. Of course religion isn't primarily a means to the end of cultural preservation, or for that matter any other end; religion is that which deals with matters of ultimate concern, and so in some sense it is the end to which all other things are means. Still, it does happen consistently in history that when civilizations fall, religions pick up the pieces, and I thought it was past time to introduce so unpopular a concept to the peak oil discussion.

Caryl, I never said the Catholic faith had lost its vitality; I said that a great deal of the American Catholic church had basically been absorbed into the anthropocentric faith in progress that is the established religion of the present day. I've commented before that Catholicism may well become one of the major religious influences in Dark Age America -- but if that happens it'll be the Hispanic Catholic church, with its deeper roots and stronger passions, that does it.

There seems to be an odd sort of Traditionalism, in something like Rene Guenon's sense, underlying your claim that Orthodox and Catholic Christianity have a connection with the spiritual world while Protestant Christianity does not. I know plenty of Protestants for whom their faith is a living link to the transcendent; nor, may I suggest, do the origins of a faith necessarily limit what the divine can or will do through it. As for Judaism, it's long been a keynote of Christian polemic to try to argue away the Old Testament's identification of Jews as the chosen people of the god you worship; as the Bible is no more (and no less) holy to me than any other sacred book, I'll decline your invitation to climb into that particular mud-wrestling pit.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thanks, JMG, for opening up the topic of religion, and thanks to everyone for commenting. A special thanks to Danby and Caryl, as intellectuals writing from within my own Church. (Caryl, I know I owe you private e-mail, and I'll attend to that! The battle to save our beloved Observatory, with Canada's largest optical telescope, from the condominium developers - cf my essay on this crisis at - has cramped my epistolary style. But I was overjoyed to see you here on this blog.)

Everybody: Don't take Caryl DEFINITIVELY as a Catholic commentator on Judaism. She is loads of fun, but naughty. Caryl and I have in the past disagreed on the public Internet regarding Judaism, and her writing both here and in that past Internet controversy is of a tone and colour that will not make her Archbishop fully happy. JMG is wise in saying that he for his part will avoid the mudpit of Judaism-in-Catholicism in which Caryl and I have so squishily wrestled.

One of our best theologians here in Toronto, Fr Thomas Rossica, used to argue convincingly in his Newman Centre homilies that Catholicism is Jewish, a Jewish phenomenon, a radically kewl Jewish thing (I'd say, Jewish even as bagels and Yiddish are Jewish). It is inconceivable that his homiletic positions, visible in the glare of a university pulpit, will have touched any raw nerves with Archbishop Collins or with his predecessor Archbishop Ambrozic. Indeed the confidence the Archdiocese reposes in Fr Rossica was demonstrated in 2002 by his being entrusted with the World Youth Day leadership responsibility, as we all gave a moving and fervent welcome to poor, ailing JP2, plonked down by helicopter like some Mick Jagger or Britney Spears at Downsview Park into a sea of 800,000 polite young people, woof woof.

Fr Rossica is, unsurprisingly, a product of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, and I was interested to learn in the parish porch after Mass this evening that our own local pastor (at Mary Immaculate, Richmond Hill, Ontario) is leaving for an Ecole Biblique year of study.

Now I turn to Danby. Yes, absolutely. As Danby accurately says, we adhere to a religion in so far as we believe it to be true. I ask myself basically every day: should I continue to be Catholic? Am I, on this day, I again and again ask, going to continue being Catholic, or am I going to turn to something else (for instance, to austere no-resurrection, no-supernatural-eternal-rewards, no-special-favours Judaism)? It comes down to the question whether what Catholicism teaches is true. At the core of its own specific teaching, for good or, as it might be, for ill, is an empirical, historical, proposition, namely, that the fatally crucified dissident rabbi locally called Jeshua or some such, and acclaimed by some sectors in the Palestinian society of 33 AD or so as the "Christos", as the "Anointed", walked away from the tomb after the internment. I don't say that the details of the Gospel narratives of the first Easter morning - who saw "angels", who mistook the rabbi for a gardener, who from among the rabbi's faction came to the internment site first, who came second or third - are propositions of mandatory-for-Catholics canonical assent. (How could they be, since the details in the four extant narratives are not mutually consistent? How could they even be expected to be internally consistent, since the simple koine-Greek Gospel writers were innocent of the sophisticated Herodotus-and-Thucydides
conception of composing a historical report, and moreover were themselves embedded in divergent oral folk-memory traditions?)

All I assert, if I decide, yet again, so to speak after pushing the blankets aside and getting dressed and showered, day after difficult day, is that this core empirical Catholic proposition, that the fatally crucified rabbi left the tomb, is true.

The core proposition has to be true in more than some "symbolic" or "literary" sense: it has to be true just as it is true that the processes generating light in nebula M1 were triggered by the supernova explosion recorded in Chinese annals in the year 1054; it has to be true just as it is true that a body moving in the lab rest frame suffers, in that frame, time dilation and length contraction.

Being Catholic, as anyone reading this can see, involves going out on a long and shaky limb, and I could well imagine at some point personally deciding that I have to ABANDON my ever-so-dramatic perch. "Holy Mary," it is movingly said in Catholic life, "Mother of God, pray for us."

Now enough of THIS. I hope later to write yet again about JMG's official topic, cultural preservation, of such anxious interest to everyone here, of whatever theological school. But I very much hope the spectacle of Catholics growling and woofing has been been useful for the general readership.

PS: Oh gee. I may as well add a postscript. I heard a VERY good comedy skit on radio a few years ago, purporting to be the reminiscences of a Jewish Mum who had to hire out a hall for a Bat Mitzvah or something similar. On looking at signage around town, she saw one sign that said, "Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt." Oh, she said, this hall MUST be linked to a synagogue. The hall turned out, however, not to be linked to a synagogue.

Nnonnth said...

I probably let myself in for your disappointing answer, JMG, through my facetious examples. I don't expect purveyors of UFO literature or massage to save our culture.

The current cultural situation, though, is unprecedented. Were there ever before these millions of literate people looking at this topic?

Take a spiritual training course such as the ones you yourself have written, involving a years' worth of training with twice-daily meditations. Doesn't it imply a certain commitment that people will go through it - more commitment than you see in the average churchgoer? Yet people do. And where is religion here?

People are training for energy medicine courses that take as long as or longer than conventional medicine courses - and using the results to have serious effects on diseases the medical establishment won't touch. Something committed? Of course. Something of value to preserve for the future? Unquestionably. Something spiritual? Beyond a doubt. Something religious? Nope.

Same goes for most non-conventional healing modalities of course - acupuncture etc. Homeopathy most definitely, you will know better than I. Aren't these the results of the work of 'non-religious spiritual people' with immense commitment? And haven't they proved useful?

The people who preserve and pass these things on will do so no matter what the prevailing 'religion', and doubtless people will be happy to have them since they save lives.

How many more examples do you want? It does add up to millions of people. It really is precisely the same impulse that is feeding transition towns in many ways, the impulse to forge ahead with what is correct whether or not it conforms to the standard view of what is supposed to be possible.

Danby, I wish I knew what you were saying here:

"So when the gun is against your head, literally or figuratively, and the holy warrior is demanding that you submit to Allah, or Jehovah, or Baha'ullah, or Christ, or the Great Wheel, or Ahura Mazda, or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, you'd better have something more than some "skill at spiritual disciplines" and a vague sense of seeking if you expect to retain your culture."

... what exactly is it that I won't have without having religion in this situation? Just curious.

It's very interesting that you choose a darwinist bully-boy view of religion to bolster your argument, whatever exactly that argument may be. I don't know if the founder of your own religion would have approved.

Do bear in mind that if our esteemed host hasn't quite 'invented his own religion' - he has certain reinvented it in his chosen image, and done a rather fine job in the process.

In the end *all* religions are invented by someone.

hapibeli said...

SCM said "He therefore determined that the heart of his push to re-establish learning and scholarship was to translate latin texts into the anglo-saxon vernacular and to begin a program of literacy education of free-born youth."

There, in someone's interpretive translations, often lies the beginnings of new belief systems evolving from the old.

hapibeli said...

May God save us from his more righteous believers!

hapibeli said...

Thank you JMG for NOT stepping into that "mudpit". Your calm and your thoughtfulness are why I enjoy and learn from this blog.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, many thanks again for your perspectives!

Nnonth, I think you're stuck in a model of religion drawn from 20th century American Christianity. I know quite a few Buddhists, for example, and no small number of Christians who put at least as much effort into the inner dimensions of their faith as any student of mine puts into Druidry. The "ordinary churchgoer" is ordinary only in irreligious times. As for my Druid faith, I hate to disappoint you, but I've done very little inventing or reinventing -- the Druid Revival traditions I follow and teach have almost three centuries of evolution behind them, and most of what I do is detail work on a structure raised long before I was born.

Hapibeli, there are a lot of issues I think are better left alone, and that's one of them. Speaking of which...

John Michael Greer said...

The inbox had yet another comment from yet another believer in mass apocalyptic dieoff, rehashing the same arguments and making even more extreme claims than the last couple of examples of the species, with even less relevance to the issues being discussed here. It's probably worth stating again that such posts will not be put through; that entire set of issues has been discussed repeatedly here and it's long past time to move on.

Danby said...

I was not taking issue with anything you said, but rather with the "I would wish that everything would be all happy, and pretty roses and fluttering butterflies" approach to religion. Religion is properly not just a lifestyle, nor a point of view, but a proposition about the nature of the hidden structure of the universe, man's nature and purpose, and how to structure one's life and community.

Religion, properly, should be the mistress of our souls. She can be stern and austere and certain as the virginal priestess standing at an ancient altar. She can be terrible and glorious and beautiful as an Amazon leading the charge into doomed battle and glorious death. She can be tender and fair as a shepherdess leading a flock to pasture. Indeed for a Catholic, she can be and is sometimes all these things at once. What she cannot be is vague, inconsequential or easy. That sort of religion doesn't last in the midday heat, nor the cold of a dark night of the soul.

I don't want to get into a theological discussion here, especially an intra-Catholic squabble, as that is contrary to the purpose of our gracious host. I do want to say howwver, that your apparent assertion that the Jews are not the bodily and spiritual descendants of the Hebrews is both historically and theologically false. In fact, your comment verges on the heretical.

.. what exactly is it that I won't have without having religion in this situation? Just curious.
What won't you have? ... a future... a choice... breath...

I'm not making a religious argument per se. I'm making a sociological argument about the purpose and nature of religion in human society. I'm not sure how one could not see Darwinism in it's crudest possible form at work in our bloody history of war, genocide and forced migration and assimilation.

Religions are born, not made. Protestantism was born out of Catholicism. Had Martin Luther been an Orthodox priest, rather than a Roman one, Protestantism would be a very different animal. Catholicism was born from Judaism, with a healthy crossing of Greek philosophy. Islam was born out of Christianity and Judaism, with a large dose of Arab paganism. Baha'iism was born out of the crossing of Islam and Christianity, with a fair dose of Parsiism. and on and on. Yes all of them were founded, but none were founded on sand, nor in the air. They were founded on what came before.

Oh, and JMG is constitutionally incapable of building his own religion. Had he wanted to do so he would be much more cynical and much more wealthy than he is now. I know this because we've discussed it more than once. It seems to me that he values truth and distrusts his own intellect too much to do so.

I'm by no means an intellectual. I'm a computer administrator, dirt farmer, mechanic, husband and patriarch of my own clan. I think all but the computer thing are higher callings than being an intellectual.

jrc9596 said...


As always, enjoyed the post. I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to write it. I'm still digesting it so my question is primarily about the role of history in contemporary thinking.

Do you believe that our assumption that we have nothing to learn from the past ie "this time is different", is a natural evolutionary response to prevent long term concerns from overwhelming short term needs?

The signs of decline seem to be all over on the nightly news, but the faith in progress that you mention is predominatly the majority opinion. Perhaps this is because Americans didn't grow up the in world of our ancestors, but I find the lack historical perspective in most areas shocking to say the least.
Of course, being an American I realize that we have very few historical examples that affected our culture which seems to produce an arrogance such as "it won't happen to me/us".

I would appreciate your thoughts on understanding this lack of perspective, it confuses me a great deal.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, I know you weren't taking issue with what I said. Still, there's always the risk, in this sort of conversation, of seeming to imply an instrumental approach to religion and treating it as a means to an end -- in this case, the end of cultural preservation -- and I thought it was as well to make it clear to all and sundry that that's not what I have in mind. (BTW, I'm honored by the vote of confidence -- thank you.)

JRC, no, I think that the insistence that "it's different this time" is an attempt to deal with the severe cognitive dissonance between the faith in progress that is our society's established religion, on the one hand, and the reality of contraction and decline that is unfolding all around us, on the other. I expect to see ever more drastic attempts by believers in progress to deny the evidence of their senses, to blame the signs of decline on scapegoats, or to embrace apocalyptic fantasies, instead of grappling with theend of progress and the beginning of regress. That won't change the fact of regress; it will waste energy and most likely result in a bumper crop of human tragedies, but at this point that probably can't be helped.

Nnonnth said...


Q:.. what exactly is it that I won't have without having religion in this situation? Just curious.

A: What won't you have? ... a future... a choice... breath...

um... ok! Just for the record that makes no sense to me whatsoever.

The way I see it, in a convert-or-die scenario, my choices are: convert, or die. :) Or perhaps there is a third choice, something like: "No, I won't convert to your religion, but if you let me live I can probably heal that limp you've got."

If I'm choosing the first choice, how is it easier for me already to have a religion when converting to a different one?

If the second, my entire point is that my own spiritual experience has prepared me for death and I am satisfied with that preparation, no religion required. And why should that surprise anyone? Socrates is a good example of the same attitude, and Chuang Tzu another.

So "spirituality without religion" must precede by quite a long way the 'European middle class' I should think. In fact I would contend that, logically, it must always precede spirituality *with* religion - but that's another story.

If the third option, well - presuming I have something about me that makes me worth more alive than dead, what on earth does it matter what religion I follow?

So perhaps you can explain... still curious.

AuntieR said...

It is interesting to note that in the growing movement of interfaith, or multifaith as some are beginning to prefer, a unique idea is forming...the idea that one may take ideas that they like from a religion and leave the rest, combining many different religious philosophical ideas (most of the time without understanding the basic theosophy behind these ideas) to create a personal spiritual path.
Whew, that was quite a pen full, but what it boils down to is syncretism.

As a member of several national and international interfaith organizations, I see this type of "personal spiritual practice" as a growing form of religious observance. A friend of mine who belongs to many of those same organizations says that he feels that Western Civilization is heading for some ultimate form of Christo-pagan theosophy. I see it as a far more individual type of practice in which "no other practice is wrong but mine is perfect for me."

As most anyone involved in religion is aware, the interfaith movement is growing exponentially. If this attitude is growing at a similar rate, where does that leave religion of the future? I don't see it developing into a massive body of believers.

That said, I don't see that mass civilization is long for this world either. I don't think that current civilization will come to an abrupt end nor can I believe that all repositories of knowledge will be lost, nor all literacy, nor people who enjoy literate pursuits. As resources shrink and the environment becomes more hostile I think that communities will shrink and become self sufficient in resources. Perhaps it will also become self sufficient in knowledge repositories and religious practice.

I don't think that current civilization will come to an abrupt end nor can I believe that all repositories of knowledge will be lost, nor all literacy.
R Watcher.

John Michael Greer said...

Auntie R., syncretism is a very common phenomenon of late imperial ages, and very often the new religious impulse of the next civilization draws heavily from it. I agree that we're not facing an imminent collapse -- that's exactly the problem; the long slow decline studded with crises makes the preservation of knowledge a good deal more challenging than a single sudden crash would be. But as I read it, at least, it's early days yet in the overall decline, and plenty of time remains for syncretic religious expressions before the educational level needed to support that withers away.

Danby said...

Since the topic is cultural conservation, my comment was about conserving a culture when an aggressive and ruthless competitor enters the niche. In other words, this isn't about individuals, but communities.

hapibeli said...

May I suggest Distraction and Democracy on the Dianne Rehm show for Tuesday the 11th. Spot on discussion with two authors regarding the attentions of USA culture. You'll be able to listen online for the second hour's show.

Nnonnth said...


>>Since the topic is cultural conservation, my comment was about conserving a culture when an aggressive and ruthless competitor enters the niche. In other words, this isn't about individuals, but communities.<<

In that case I see your point even less. If you are trying to conserve our culture via religion, yet it is vulnerable thereby to other religions - preserve it via something else instead.

Isis said...


Ran Prieur ( has commented on your last few posts. I'm not entirely sure where I stand on the matter (i.e. to what extent I agree or disagree with him), but it would be great if you could respond to at least some of his points.

Here's his post:

"June 11. For the last few weeks, John Michael Greer has been writing about the need for "cultural conservers", like the monks in medieval Europe, to keep the best parts of our culture alive through a long decline. Morris Berman wrote a book about the same kind of thing, The Twilight of American Culture.

"This subject is just a massive can of worms:

"Worm #1. What did the monks really save that was worth saving? Offhand I can't think of anything. Another Greer post mentioned that after the fall of Rome all the pottery got broken and nobody was making more. So why didn't the monks save the pottery industry instead of, say, Aristotle, a boring categorizer who would be better off completely lost?

"Worm #2. Anne reminds us:

'The majority of the "learning" of the Roman Empire was actually preserved intact in the universities and libraries of northern Africa and Al-Andalus. Even as Europe fell into a dark age, the Arab and Muslim empires continued the scholarly tradition unimpeded, and were able not only to retain the classic texts, but make significant advances in metallurgy, anatomy, mathematics and philosophy. Intellectualism and science seem to require a cosmopolitan culture with some good physical resources remaining to it.'

"I'm predicting that in the 21st century some regions will disintegrate while others thrive, and it's anyone's guess who the next "Arabs" will be, or where exactly they will make advances.

"Worm #3. Maybe what the monks were really preserving was a cultural tradition in which being a thinker was worth something. But I remember Fredy Perlman pointing out that the monasteries later grew into the bureaucracy that enabled the church to be so powerful.

"Worm #4. We also need to keep in mind that the "dark ages" were a great time for Europe's nonhuman populations, and that even many human populations welcomed the fall of Rome. And there was also plenty of underground transmission of pagan cultures and herbal lore and a more ecological world view.

"Worm #5. Of course, if any way of thinking has been truly lost, we wouldn't know about it, but the remarkable thing is how much we have, how easy it is for ideas to survive or be reinvented or appear out of nothing. Extreme primitivists want to destroy libraries and museums, but ancient people with no libraries or museums managed to exterminate species and cut down forests and invent complex hierarchical society over the world. Many modern ideas and inventions were invented first by ancient people and lost, and reappeared anyway. And tens of thousands of nature-based cultures have been wiped out, yet the dominant culture has been getting more and more ecologically sensitive. (I'm talking about beliefs, not collective behaviors, which continue to be destructive. And the difference between these is another giant subject.)

"Worm #6. A week ago in this post [i.e. 'Religion and the Survival of Culture'], Greer pointed out that complex cultural artifacts often pass through "dark" ages in the form of religion. At the end he raises the fascinating possibility that what we call "science" could be the religion-like belief system that does it. He'll have a new post up some time today, and I'll continue this extremely difficult subject tomorrow."

Peter said...


Yes, western Mass. How do I access your email address? Or, drop me a line: