Religion and History

Figure 1.--

Religion since the dawn of civilization has been a major force in history. In many historical eras, civilization was ordered around religion. Many in the 20th century have seen religion as a spent force, buffeted by both nationalism and socialism. Certainly the force of religion has declined in Western Europe. Some have described the de-Christianization of Europe. The same processes are a work in America, but are not as dominant. Events in the late 20th century, however, have shown the continuing force of religion in modern life. The ability of Pope John Paul to confront Communism in Poland, the Muhajadeen to confront the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the conflict between Al Queda and the secular West show that religion is not as spent force. The on going religious conflicts also show the continuing force of religion, the Catholic and Protesatants in Northern Ireland, the Isrealis and Palestinians in the Middle East, the Muslims and Hindus over Khasmir, the Muslems and Christians in Lebanon, the Muslims and Budhists in Thailand, and Muslim upon Muslim violence in many countries.


One fascinating character in the history of religion is the pharoah Akhenaten. Amenhotep/Amenophis IV changed his name to Akhenaten, supressed the traditional religon and attempted to replace it with a kind of solar monotheism. Amenhotep overturned oiver a milenia of tradition when he renounced the numerous gods worshipped by the Egyptians and abolished the priesthood of Amun. He established a new order based on the worship the sun god Aten and changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning "servant of the Aten." Some Egyptologist believe he advoacted a kind of universal brotherhood of man under a single god. The main temples of Amun were located at Thebes modern Luxor). The resistance there to the new religion caused Akhenaten to move his court to Akhet-Aten, whivch meant, "Horizon of the Aten." It was located some distance north of Thebes. Akhenaten also advocated a realistic depiction in art. The depictions of him and his Queen Nefertriti which survive are some of the most realistic in Egyptian art. Even more interesting, the depictions of his family of six daughters provide a rare realisic glimse ino the life of an Egyptian royal family. Akhenaten tendency toward pacifism greatly weakened Egypt's international position and control over the various client states in what is now Syria and Palestine.

Biblical Miracles

The Bible is without question one of the great books of all time. Some of the faithful consider it the literal word of God. Uncommited scholars seen the Old Testament as a facinating collection of folk tales. Archeologists have, however, been able to confirm a fascinating number of places and even individuals apparing in the Bible. (David is, however, one key individual for hich there is little real evidence. Many religions have traditions which describe miracles and Christianity is no exception. Many miracles are described in the Bible. The miracles of Exodus are perhaps the most famous: plages, arting of the Red Sea, burning bush, ect. Christianity is, howevver, one of the few relgions in which adherents have thought it necessary to explain the miracles in terms of natural explanations. Some of these explanations are quite clever. [Humphreys] The whole exercise seems rather silly. After all if the Bible is the word of God, why would God be limited to understandable natural processes.

Rome and Christianity

Conflict between Pope and Emperor

The Crusades

The Crusades are the series of religious wars launched by the Medieval kingdoms of Euroope during the 11th-13th centuries to retake the Hollyland from Islamic rulers. Christian pilgrims after the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries had to travel through Islamic lands to venerate the great shrines in Jeruselum and other Biblical sites in the Holy Land. In addition the Ottoman Turks were increasingly encroaching on the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. The Turks apparently preyed upon Christian pilgrims. Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, perhaps concerned about the plight of the pilgrims, more likely seeking allies against the Turks, wrote to a friend Robert, the Count of Flanders, in 1093. He recounted the alegeded atrocities inflicted on the pilgrims by the Turks. Count Robert forwarded Comnenus' letter to Pope Urban II. Pope Urban like Emperor Comnenus perhaps concerned about Christian pilgrims, more likely seeing a political opportunity, decided to promote a military crusade to seize the Holy Land from the infidel Turks. European Christians at the time were locked in intractable dynastic wars in England, France, Italy, and other domains, destabilizing large areas of Europe. The Pope sought to redirect the fighting to an infidel adversary. Pope Urban's crusade, the First Crusade, was launched in 1095.

The Plague (1347-51)

The Plague was a massive epidemic that spread from Asia to Europe. It was the single most disastrous event in European history. Historians estimate that one-third of Europe's popularion perished. The Plague was a medical phenomenon. We mention it here in coonection with religion because it had profound consequences for established authority. It destroyed among many the old certainties. One of these were the monopoly the Church held on the religious and cultural life of Europe. Many came to question the moral authotity of the Church. If the Church really spoke for God, why was the Plague inflicted on European Christians. Europeans began to question the Church and its theological. This was dangerous and those who quesiioned too openly were harshly dea;lt with, but ultimately the Renaisance, Reformation, and Enlightement evolved out of the entelectual ferment--in short the evolution of the Western world. Strikingly no similar evolution of thought was tolerated by Muslim scholars in the Islamic world.

Boy Bishops

A popular custom of the medieval Christian church was the Boy Bishop which became part of the Christ,as festival. This custom was very common in several European countries. A boy of the Cathedral choir (and later at schools as well) was elected on Saint Nicholas day (December 12). On the Eve of Feast of the Holy Innocent (December 28) he took with his colleagues possession of the cathedral performing all the ceremonies and offices except mass. Several ecclesiastical councils attempted to abolish or restrain the abuses of the custom, and the Council of Basel prohibited it in 1431. It was however too popular to be easily suppressed. In England it was finally abolished by Elisabeth I. An analogous custom survived until the late 18th century in Germany, were a schoolboy was elected as bishop in honour of St. Gregory the Great, the patron of schools.

The Renaisance

Although generally classified by most scholars as the last century of the medieval era, the 14th century is generally seen as the beginning of the Renaissance and the beginning of a modern state of mind. "Renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and describes the cultural and economic changes that occurred in Europe beginning in the 14th century. The precise time is difficlt to set and of course varied accross Europe. The Renaissance began at Firenze around 1300 and gradually spread north. Even so, the indicators that constitute the Renaissance did not reach other areas of Europe 1-2 centuries. It was during the Renaissance that Europe emerged from the Feudal System of the Middle Ages. The stagnant Medieval economy began to expand. The Renaissance was not just a period of economic growth. It was an age of intense cultural ferment. Enormous changes began in artistic, social, scientific, and political endevours. Perhaps of greatest importance was that Europeans began to develop a radically different self image as they moved from a God-centered to a more humanistic outlook. The Renaisance was not anti-religious. In fact it was in pat promoted by the Church. By changing the the focus oc culture, however, it ultimately affected religious attitudes.

The Inquisition

The Holy Office of the Inquisition was a system of tribunals which became a permanent institution charged by the Catholic Church to eradicate heresies and preserve the Faith. The Catholic Church, reflecting its Roman origins had a hierarchical structure with a strong central bureaucracy. When Constantine made Christianity the state religion, heresy became a crime under civil and not just cannon law. Heretics could now be punished by secular authorities. For centuries the Church addressed heresy in an ad hoc manner. But in the Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem. Beginning in the 12th century, the Church decided to create a permanent institution to fight heresy. The Church in the 12th century was at the peak of its power. Its moral authority was unquestioned. The Papacy decided that strong action was needed to disuade non-conformistrs like the Catahri. Pope Gregory IX in 1231 published a decree detailing severe punishment for heretics and created the Inquisition to enfirce hisb decree. Pope Gregory gave the Dominican Order responsible for organizing the search and investigation of heretics, although individual inquisators did not have to be Dominicans. The Holy Office of the Inquisition by the end of the 13th century had been established througout Europe in all principalities loyal to the Catholic Church. Inquisitors had the authority to bring suit against any individual. Those accused by the Inquisition had virtually no rights as we know them today. The inquisators employed various means to ensure the accused cooperated in the trail. Until the creation of the Holy Office, there had been no tradition of routinely employing torture in Christian canon law, although it was commonly resorted to in civil trails. The Inquisition gradually adopted the measures used by civil authorities. Inquisators were commonly resorting to coersive measures including torture by the mid-13th century. The inquisators findings were read before a large audience.

The Reformation

The Protestan Revolution was the religious struggle during the 16th and 17th century which began as an effort to reform the Catholic Church and ended with the splintering of the Western Christendom into the Catholic and Protestant churches. Combined with the Renaissance which preceeded it, the reformatuin marked the end of the Medieval world and the beginning of a modern world view. The French Revolution which followed the Reformation in the 18th century marked the beginning of our modern age. Conditions developing in Medieval Europe laid the groundwork for the Reformation. The Reformation began when a German monk, Martin Luthur nailed his 95 Thesis on the church door in ??? (1517). Luthur was offended by the papal sale of indulgences by which the Renaissance popes were fiancing the splendid new church of St. Peters in Rome. Luthur's concern with indulgences were soon mixed with a complex mix of doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural issues that would take Ruropean Church anfd temporal leaders nearly two centuries to partially resolve and several devestating wars, especially the 30 Years War in Germany. Western Christendom would be left permanently split and even the Cathloic Church profoundly changed. Changes in man's view of himself and the Church were to also affect his view relative to the state and many in Europe began to question royal absolutism and divinr right monarchy, a process keading to the French Revolution.

Ireland and Catholcism

The Enligtenment

The Enlightenment along with the Renaisance and Reformation was a key step in the formation of the Western mind. Many of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers were French, but the Enlightenment was a movement which over time affected all of Europe to varying degrees. America was also affected by the Enlightenment, but the American exoerience was different, in part because of the Great Awakening. The Enlightenment is also termed the Age of Reason. Authors define it differently and there were many different aspects, but the Enlightenment at it heart was a basic turn in the Western mindset. The West for more than a milenium had been dominated by religion, often descrined as faith. Even the Reformation had not changed this. In fact the Protestants were often more consumed with faith and theological questions than the Roman church. With the Enlightenment, primacy was given to reason. Intelectuals began to think that objective truth about life and the universe could be achieved through rational thought. The advances achieved in physics, led by Sir Issac Newton in Britain, had a profound impact on European intellectuals. Enlightenment writers begasn to think that the same kind of systematic thinking could be used to understand and improve areas of human activity as well. A whole new system of aesthetics, ethics, government, and logic was developed based on reason. The Enligtenment was an era of great optimism. Enlightenment thinks were convinced that reason could dramatically improve society. They were not openly athiestic, but they were highly critical of religion which they often equated with irrationality and superstition. The Enlightement also attacked political tyranny. The intelectual ferment of the Enlightenment led to the American and subsequent Latin American revolutions as well as the French Revolution which had a much more pronounced impact on Europe. the Enlightenment prepared the foundation for both classical liberalism and capitalism. There were comparable movements in music (high baroque and classical) and art (neo-classical).


Religion has over time played a curious role in slavery. It has usually proven a bulwarr for slavery, both justifying and institutionalizing it. It is mentioned in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures. Curiously the most ancient of the scriptures, the Jewish Old Testament, provides the most benign form of slavery and the most recent, the most recent recent, the Islamic Koran, presents slaves as war booty. While religion has been used to justify slavery, the abolition of slavery and the African slave trade was largely set in motion by the work of Protestant churches in Britain and North America. Of course it took the Royal Navy and the Grand Army of the Republic to actually achieve the effort set in motion by the churches.

The Communists and Religion

The NAZIs and Religion

Hitler and the NAZIs initiated an assault both on traditional Christian values, but religions institutions as well. The NAZI assault on Judism is best known. But here the focus were the Jews themselves and not the religion. One religion seen in more positive terms was Islam, in part because it was helful in the effort against Jews. It was Christianity that suffered most from the NAZIs, primarily because it posed the greatest danger to the NAZIs. Sects like the 7th Day Adventists were attacked because they opposed military conscriptiom. The mainstream church that suffered the greatest was the Catholics. Despite signing a Concordant with the Vatican in 1933, the NAZIs steadily undermined the power and influence of the Church in Germany and arrested many priests. Once World War II began, German policies toward religions varied from country to country. The Church in Poland was a symbol of Polish nationalism and relentlessly persecuted. Priests were arressted and thousand died in the concentration camps. The Church in France because of the anticlerical nature of the Revolution was less important as anational symbol and the NAZIs did not seek to totally destroy French national and cultural institutions, so it was not targetted by the NAZI occupiers.

Indo-Pakistini Conflict

The ongoing conflict betwwen Moslems and Hindus dated back to Mongul invasions of the 16th century. Many Indians converted to Islam under Mongul rule. There were economic advantages. Some Mongul emperors forced conversion. In addition, Islam offered relief from untouchibility. Areas of northern and eastern India in particular became strongly Muslim. After the decline of Nongiul empire tensions developed between Muslim and Hindu communities. This was kept in check by the British Raj, altjhough the British also played on this division in administering India. The current conflict dates from the independence of India after World War II. Lord Mountbatten was sent to India by Britain's post-War Labour Government to be the lat Viceroy and oversee independence. India's independence was achieved by the Congress Party. Ghandi through the Congress Party had promoted the idea of a secula Indian state in which people of all faiths could live harmoniously. Muslims were an important part of the Congress Party coalition. In the negotiations over independence, Muslim leader Jenna decided that Muslims needed a separate state--Pakistan. Britain granted India independence August 15, 1947. Inter-communal rioting in 1947 resulted in hundred of thousands of deaths if not million as Muslims fled from India and Hindus from Pakistan--one of the largest migrations in history. Thousands more died in violence as these collums foraged or food and were set upom by villagers also inflamed by religious and national zealotry. The two collumns also fought with each other. The flash point for armed conflict between India and Pakistan was Kasmir. The formula agreed to by Congress and the British was that the aristocratic rulers were allowed to chose whether to join India or Pakistan. This was a complicated process as colonial India was composed of 565 separate states. Pakistan expected Kashmir to affiliate with their country because of the majority Muslim population. Local extremists supported by Pakistan attempted to seize control. Kashmir's Hindumaharajah decided to affiliate with India and pleaded for military support. The result was the first India-Pakistan War. United Nations Resolutions in 1948 and 50 called for a refreandum, but India has never allowed this. Pakistan since 1989 has supported a violent insurgency in Kashmir. The coinflict has been further complicated in the 1990s. Both India and Pakistan developed and tested nuclear weapons. Hindu nationalists have defeated Congress in Indian elections. Since the 9-11 attacks, the Pakistani Government has reassessed its support of terroism in Khasmir, but Islamacists in Pakistan object to this and other actions by the country's secular Government, especially cooperation with America on the war against terrorism.


Tibet is one of those countries in which religion is inseperable from the national ethos. A symbol of the struggle od the Tibetian people is the Dalai Lama--one of the most respected religious figures of our time.

Afghanistan and the Soviets

Afghanistan had been a matter of contention between Russia and England in the 19th century Great Game. The Soviets after World war became increasingly involved in Afghanistan. The Soviets hoped to create a compliant client state along the model of their European sattelites. The Soviets were concerned about the possible impact of Islan in Afghanistan on the Moslems in the Soviet central Asian trpublics. The Taraki Government with Soviet advisors attempted to modernize Afghanistan, often with brutal methods. An Islamic resistance movement, the Mujahideen, developed and by the mid-1970s was beginning to challenge the regime The Pro-Soviet regime headed by Taraki was deposed in coup carried okut by Amin during September 1979. The soviets were not pleased with Amin's independent attitudes. Brezhnev ordered the Soviet military to invade Afghanistan in December 1979 with a force of over 80,000 men. Amin was killed and replaced by Karmal who was more willing to abide by Soviet directions. The Soviet troops at first looked like they could subdue the Mujahideen. The initial minor American condemnation of the Soviet invasion eventually became a major operaion conducted through Pakistan. After 10 years and the loss of 13,000 men, Gorbachev finally withdrew Soviet troops from the country in 1988-89. The ensuing struggle for control among Afghan groups leyt to the victory of the Talliban and Islamic fundamentlism. The Talliban's relationship with and support for Isama bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism led to American intervention in 2001.

Pope John Paul II

Stalin once asked of the Pope, "How many divisions does he command?" Subsequent Soviet leaders found that the Pope and the Church he commanded, even without military divisions, was a force that effectively challenged their Wastern European empire. The challenge occured in Poland. Pope John Paul, first a priest and then as a bishop and cardinal and finally Pope increasingly challenged Communist rule. The fall of Communism in Poland was the first step in the desintegration of the Soviet Empire and in the end the Soviet Union itself. At it was aohn Paul II that played a key role. It is understandable that the KGB was probably involved in his assasination. The Pope's opposition to Communism was not just the police state assault on human rights, but also its secularism. In fact, the Pope seems closer to other religious traditions: Orthodoxy, Islam, Judiasm, Hinduism, and others--a feeling on his part that is often not reciprocated. The Pope also struggles with the seculasrism of the democratic West--a schism that he sees as growing. He warns against the dangers of "secularism and ethical relativism". [John Paul II]

Islam and the West

Fundamentalist muslems have proven very succesful in convincing the Aran and Islamic world in general that Islam is under assault from the West in general and America in particular. Osama Bein Laden is only the most extreme manifestation of the fundamentalist movement in Islam. Some see this as a developing cultural war between Islam and the West. The centrality of the Palestinian-Isreali conflict in the Arab mind has plasyed a major role in radicalizing the rest of the Arab world and the the Muslim world in general. Another factor is the nature of Whabism in Saudi Arabia and the willingness of Saudis to use oil money to support fundamentalism throughout the Islamic world. In fact, the idea that America leads a Western assault on the Arabs and Islam is so absurd that it is surprising that the notion has gained such currency, not only in the Islamic world, but even in Europe. The actual facts is that the major killer of Arabs has been Saddam Hussein and fundamentalist Iran. America has in fact intervened to protect Aab and Islamic people in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kurdistan (nothern non-fly zone in Iraq), Saudi Arabia, and Somalia (humanitarian mission). No other country (including Islamic countries) has acted so forcefully to protect Islamic people. It also shoiuld be noted that many of the countries listed are not oil producing countries and that the United States acted primarily for humanitarian reasons. The reason that the notion resonates is that there are fundamental differences between fundamentalists and the West on issues like democracy, freedom of religion and expression, fights for women, and many other aspects of modern life.


Humphreys, Colin J. The Miracles of Exodus (Harper: San Francisco, 2003), 362;p.

John Paul II. Go in Peace: A Gift of Enduring Love (Loyola University), 244p.


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Created: June 1, 2003
Last updated: 8:51 PM 12/3/2006