Resilience in the face of religious change

Recently my friend Josiah Neely mentioned offhand how in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gibbon argued that one reason paganism couldn’t reverse the tide of Christianity is that once a society or individual became Christian and ceased pagan practice, there wasn’t a good roadmap on how to reembrace the old traditions. In contrast, Christianity’s ideological content meant that even if there was a period of apostasy or public cessation of practice, ideological continuity could be maintained.

To be more explicit and extend the argument, I think the key is that there was a class of religious professionals who were devoted in a deep way to the ideological content of Christianity. If, as occurred in Britain and the Balkans, Christianity collapsed, they would endeavor to reconvert the populace, as they did.

There are other cases of this. Han Yu was a Confucian scholar who denounced Buddhism in the year 800 A.D. during the Tang dynasty. This period, between 600 and 900 A.D. was the “high water” point of public state Buddhism in China. But there always remained an alternative tradition of Chinese scholars and officials who were expositors Confucianism. Eventually, these people “recaptured” China during the Song dynasty for Confucianism, and Buddhism became a religion of the popular people and not the state.

As I said elsewhere, this may explain the persistence of Hinduism. Hinduism, like Greco-Roman paganism, is diverse and variegated. But unlike Greco-Roman paganism, there seems to have been a dynamic and reciprocal tension between philosophy and folk religion, mediated by Brahmins. Greco-Roman paganism was fundamentally an expression of ethnicity and identity. Tradition and custom. Greco-Roman metaphysics was the purview of secular philosophers. Hinduism is arguably more fused, and this may have given it more robustness.

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16 Replies to “Resilience in the face of religious change”

  1. \reciprocal tension between philosophy and folk religion, mediated by Brahmins\
    Yes Brahmins have meditated and written voluminous commentaries on pithy statements like ‘Tat tvam asi’ or ‘aham brahmAsmi’ which may mean anything and nothing depending on the commentator, plus tolerance and acceptance to difference gods/goddesses (all religious paths lead to Me) and castes and professions have made Hinduism stick in the face of state persecution.
    It would be interesting see it’s development in the face of globalized world (assumimg Covid19 has not killed it) and SJW slogans and activism

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  2. I think people are overblowing the influence of SJW and left leaning media in India. They operate in very Small bubbles in Indian cities like Delhi( mainly) , Mumbai , Bangalore etc.

    Could it be because Christianity wass just Better than old Paganistic practices which were ethnically coded and more diverse ideologically than Christianity.
    Also the influence of Greco-Roman culture and practices with European substrates is indeed very noticeable. The culture of Europe is still distinct than the Middle East for example.

    Although I have not read any book on Roman Empire It’s pretty Clear that No Christendom possible without Roman Empire vast geographic region under control.

    Islam also have regional variance like Arabia, Levant etc but things that connect the people is Belief in Allah.

    Are there any practices particularly associated with Anglo-Saxon culture?

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  3. One reason Christianity succeeded in Roman empire was that the Church based itself on the model of Roman Army with tight command structure, centralized command in the form Pope who is infallible and ideological cohesion of Jesus Christ instead of God-Emperors of Rome. Like Leninism defeating Menshiviks or Trotskyists crushed by Stalinists, the deviant sects like Arians or Cathari were thoroughly crushed in bloodbath.

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  4. this is not really true. the early church was based on a ‘cell structure’ which was pioneered by the epicureans. instead of a top-down structure, the local robustness of the church combined with transnational networks were its social power.

    the arians weren’t really crushed in a bloodbath, though there were riots. it’s just ‘moderate arians’ eventually sided with nicenes, and arianism became a gothic religion (ethnic).

    the suppression of the cathars does fit your model. but that’s a very different world than late antiquity (or the classical empire, when primitive christianity matured)

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    1. I was not taking of Early Church, but once it became establishment, it went to extraordinary lengths to prevent people going to Paganism Within (Heretics) and Paganism without.

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  5. “practical hindus” lead by rss+ are always incorporating all native gods and godesses into main stream hinduism.
    in course of time, catholic faith will become a associate member of the hindu clan, ( the way their churches have a brass dwaja stambha similar to hindu temples, use of the big nanda deepa, bharatanatyam, vedic style of liturgical prayers etc).
    if only jesus becomes brown eyed, the assimilation will be faster!!!

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  6. Paganism couldn’t reverse the tide because they were physically exterminated by Christianity – both their modes of worship and the adherents themselves. Gibbons himself states this.

    The Renaissance was the revival and re-establishment of Paganism. All the core elements of Paganism – emphasis on the Self, egotism, responsibility of belief, “everything is sacred” and a healthy scepticism of authority figures, which are antithetical to Christian values of faith and devotion, rule the roost in Europe today. Christianity is on the margins.

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  7. it went to extraordinary lengths to prevent people going to Paganism Within (Heretics) and Paganism without.

    this is false and not really a good description.

    i know plenty about late antiquity. i read about it constantly. no time to outline now but it’s a more subtle coercive process.

    the persecution of ‘heretics’ was also more constant and focused than pagans.

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  8. Paganism couldn’t reverse the tide because they were physically exterminated by Christianity – both their modes of worship and the adherents themselves. Gibbons himself states this.

    this is false in the second case. gibbon wrote in the 18th century. the empirical data has advanced.

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  9. “Greco-Roman metaphysics was the purview of secular philosophers. Hinduism is arguably more fused, and this may have given it more robustness.”

    Razib , could the greco-roman theory be also be extended to Zoroastrianism. ie lack of fusion of the priest class and the masses?

    On Hindu robustness i agree, the rise of secondary gods like Hanuman and Bhakti cult (driven by lower caste Hindus) in N-India, during the medieval age shows the rise of subaltern religiosity when elite religiosity has been superseded by a different religion. Buddhism couldn’t survive the displacement.

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  10. I would just add, just like the mystery around the crystallization of caste during the Gupta’s age confounds me, same is true for the reasons for “robustness” of Medieval Hinduism.

    In a alternate world, Hinduism would have met exactly the same fate as Zoroastrianism did in Iran. And we see evidence of it in the extinguish of Hinduism in S-E Asia. It ailed from exactly similar problems. An aloof priestly class, with its own exclusive language, rituals. A warrior class which switched sides freely converting to whichever religion gave them power. While a mercantile class whose allying with the powers to be couldn’t be rivaled. A super selfish elite par excellence. That even with all this issues it had still penetrated deeply to the subaltern for them to feel the religion was theirs as well, that even when the elite acquiesced to foreign powers, and they had no reason to stick to the religion, they still did. Something which runs contradictory to Marxist history of “people converting to egalitarian faiths”

    That all this did not happen, shows how much we underestimate Hinduism being the natural religion of India.

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    1. @Saurav Roots of Islam in SE Asia are as strong as their elites allowed them to be. It will be much more esaier for them to ditch Islam instead of muslims of Indian subcontinent.

      You are overblowing effects of crystallization of the castes among medieval Hindus. Haphazard nature of de-centralized caste structure was one of the reason why India somewhat managed to resist Abrahamization. You are completely overlooking impact of traditional village panchayats on Indic society.

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  11. “Greco-Roman metaphysics was the purview of secular philosophers.”
    Someone like @epbutler on twitter would very voraciously disagree

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  12. Why did Indonesians in Java dump Hinduism for Islam in very recent memory while it survives in Bali? Was it top down? or bottom up as proposed by Nassim Taleb (I.e. such as asymmetric marriage rules, one true god, etc.). Endogamy may have been the main bulwark against conversion. This recent breakdown of endogamy leaves Hinduism more susceptible today to asymmetry? In southern states and in the North East?

    The only protection from asymmetry on the short run is to create your own asymmetry- which is perhaps what Hindutva is all about.

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  13. “Greco-Roman metaphysics was the purview of secular philosophers. Hinduism is arguably more fused, and this may have given it more robustness.”

    The recent call for a fused “dharmic secularism” seemingly an oxymoron as a definition of “Indian secularism” is one approach to create ‘fused’ asymmetry in increasingly post-endogamy urban India. It satisfies the call for separation of state and religion while still promoting historical identity.

    Any other ideas for dharmic asymmetry? This could be an area of research.

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  14. “dharmic secularism” is to the right wing what “constitutional patriotism” is to the left wing in India. No one really knows what it exactly means, but since it sounds fancy everyone uses it

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