Summer Study Part 2 – History and Religion Intersect

This blog continues insights from my last summer reading program (see part one here) with a focus on religion’s impact on some key global historical moments. I started reading about religion and it veered into reading about history. The intermingling of religion, politics, and economics throughout history is fascinating.

One of the key global turning points in world history is when the Roman Empire decided a single religion with a clear doctrine would help unify an ethnically diverse empire (an empire acquired through imperialism) and selected that religion as Christianity.

Building and maintaining empires (imperialism) was a common approach in world history.  It was a core belief that their “superior culture” was being spread to the lowly “barbarians” – its language, laws, and religion.  However, this spread often required (still today?) vicious slaughter of large populations (indigenous people, believers of other religions), brutal oppression of everyone left, and exploitation of conquered assets/resources (in the name of economics). For much of history, this imperialistic spread would lay waste to a country/region by destroying villages and temples through plunder & slaughter.  However, most empires (Roman Empire, Egyptian Empire, Arab Empire, Han Empire, Aztec Empire) absorbed a lot from their conquered people; the Roman Empire was as much Greek beliefs as Roman.  Not that this made assimilation (acculturation) of the conquered easy; it could take decades or centuries (never?) for the vanquished to be accepted as “us” versus the “barbarian them”.

It’s an interesting hypothesis as to what might our world might look like if the Roman Empire had selected a different region versus Christianity as their singular religion. Judaism and Islam were both also significant religions in the area at the time.

Another key global turning point was the expansion of European Imperialism with its basis in Christian religion and its link with the Scientific Revolution.  Like all imperialistic expansion, Europeans claimed altruistic endeavors, providing education about ideal ways to live (their culture, their religion including its ideas on white supremacy and patriarchal hierarchy), building railroads (economics), ensuring justice…. and yet they brought disease and oppression to so much of the world.

It was also the first time in world history that geographic expeditions were done in the name of imperialism AND science, linking political, economic and religions goals with scientific agendas.  It was a shift from conquer and subjugate/destroy to explore and discover (and conquer and subjugate/destroy also). The discovery of the “Americas” and realization it was not Asia was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution in Europe. This discovery and the awareness that there is more than what is written in the “Infallible scriptures” became a mindset shift from the past was better to the future will be better.  The start of this growth mindset, the core belief that the future will be better, allowed the concept of loans and credit to flourish – a key feature of today’s world economics! 

The spread of European Imperialism (politics and the Christian religion), supported by the Scientific Revolution (discoveries in medicine & combustion engines), and its new thinking on economics, extended from the Americas to many parts of Asia. Even though Islam is today actually the largest religion in the world, with Hinduism third largest, today humans globally to a great extent view economics, politics, and science with a European (and Christian) basis. And realizing that global impact of Christianity (and Christian beliefs) began with the Roman Empire’s choice is fascinating.

I’m a bit surprised with this interest in history in my retirement, as I’ve never been a history buff! Is there some new topic area you learned about in retirement that surprised you?

Picture credit: totally random – our banana tree has bananas ripening – such a tropical element in our landscape!

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7 thoughts on “Summer Study Part 2 – History and Religion Intersect

  1. So interesting! I grew up Roman Catholic but distance myself from it at an early age much to my parents’ dismay. Finally, at the age of 90 my father agreed with me and saw the horrors of the church. I respect those who have different beliefs and those who find comfort in organized religion but it’s not for me. I realize that this comment applies more to Part 1. So much harm has be done in the name of religion. I love to read about Buddhism as it’s more of a philosophy of life than a religion.

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    1. Buddhism is one I do want to explore in more depth. I also was raised Roman Catholic and still find comfort in the rituals, but struggle with the doctrines and have not practiced any religion for years. I searched for a good definition for what is and is not a religion, versus a philosophy or an ideology, and could not find a definitive answer. And yes, when you look at human history, a whole lot of bad things have been done in the name of religion and that even continues today.

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  2. I remember visiting Herculaneum where one property has Christian crosses decorating its altar at a time when the townspeople generally were still polytheists. The guide suggested that archaeology has revealed the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire almost like a fashion to begin with. Nonetheless when I learnt that the Christian Church had to fashion Easter to coincide with refusal of ordinary people to give up their worship of Eostre the ancient goddess of spring and that Christmas coincides with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, I began to realise how “mixed up” everything is and that’s before I start on all the sons of a god in ancient religions.

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    1. As I read about the history of various religions, many many times there was a melding of ideas from other religions and other ideologies. There was even a comment that religions need to evolve or they die off. When I was reading some recent Christian writings, I was thinking, “this sounds like Taoism”! I think one of the other things that hit me was the monotheism thinking of one God but then having a litany of saints. How is that much different than the parthenon of lesser gods in polytheism? I guess I always knew that the Christian calendar was aligned to what was referred to as pagan worship.

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  3. I sometimes wonder if Rome adopted Christianity because it saw how committed Christians were to their faith? After you’ve thrown multitudes to the lions and tortured them in other ways, if they refused to give up God and worship Caesar, then maybe there was something there to look into?

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    1. Leanne, We can’t know the rational behind the Roman Empire’s choice, but every religion was persecuted especially when “young”. Islam and Judaism as well. And there was more killing of Christians in the wars between Protestants & Catholics (both in the name of the Christian faith) than in early Rome. Reading about history shows both the good and the bad of various religions.

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