The New Dark Ages, Part I: From Religion to Ethnic Nationalism and Back Again

The Torture of a Witch, Anne Hendricks, in Amsterdam in 1571by Akim Reinhardt

European Historians have long eschewed the term “Dark Ages.” Few of them still use it, and many of them shiver when they encounter it in popular culture. Scholars rightly point out that the term, popularly understood as connoting a time of death, ignorance, stasis, and low quality of life, is prejudiced and misleading.

And so my apologies to them as I drag this troublesome phrase to center stage yet again, offering a new variation on its meaning.

In this essay I am taking the liberty of modifying the tem “Dark Ages” and applying to a modern as well as a historical context. I use it to refer to a general culture of fundamentalism permeating societies, old and new. By “Dark Age” I mean to describe any large scale effort to dim human understanding by submerging it under a blanket of fundamentalist dogma. And far from Europe of 1,500 years ago, my main purpose is to talk about far more recent matters around the world.

Life is, of course, a multi-faceted affair. The complex relationships among individuals and between individuals and societies produce a host of economic, cultural, political, and social manifestations. But one of the defining characteristics of the European Dark Ages, as I am now using the term, was the degree to which those multi-faceted aspects of the world were flattened by religious theology and dogma. As the Catholic Church grew in power and spread across Europe from roughly 500-1500, it was able, at least to some degree, to sublimate political, cultural, social, and economic understanding and action under its dogmatic authority. In many realms of life far beyond religion, forms of knowledge and action were subject to theological sanction.

Those who take pride in Western civilization, or even those like myself who don't necessarily, but who simply acknowledge its various achievements alongside its various shortcomings, recognize a series of factors that led to those achievements. Some of those factors, such as colonialism, are horrific. Some, like the growth of secular thought, are more admirable.

Not that secular thought in and of itself is intrinsically laudable; maybe it is, though I don't think so. But rather, that the rise of secular thought enabled Europe, over the course of centuries, to throw off it's own self-imposed yoke of religious absolutism. And that freeing itself in this way was one of the factors spurring Europe's many impressive achievements over the last half-millennium.

Most denizens of what was once known as the Christian world, including various colonial offshoots such as the United States and Australia, now accept and even take for granted a multi-faceted conception of life and human interaction. For most of them, including many of the religious ones, it is a given that moving away from a world view flattened by religion, at the very least, facilitated the development of things like science and the modern explosion of wealth. Of course the move from a medieval to a modern mind set also unleashed a variety of problems; but on balance, relatively few Westerners would willingly return to any version of medieval Christian theocracy.1

This confidence in a modern vision of human life and society, which acknowledges that religion, like science, politics, economics, culture and countless other facets, each have a role to play and that none should squeeze out the rest, can lead Westerners to look down their noses at those societies which are currently flattened by religion, or struggling to avoid it. Too many Westerners, either with sneers or pity, look askance at other parts of the world where such battles are currently being waged.

Fundamentalist Muslims in a number of countries are literally fighting to assert a theocratic vision over hundreds of millions of people. And though much smaller numerically and not plagued by civil war, Israel likewise suffers from a deep divide between ultra-Orthodox Jews who want religion to dominate most if not all aspects of Israeli life, and those Jews, both religious and not, who embrace a more secular vision for their state in which those divisions will continue to be respected.

When contrasting the West to places mired in such struggle, it becomes oh, so easy for those of us in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the former Christian world to smugly assert that we moved beyond such theocratic perils some time ago and we simply shan't be returning. It is tempting for some to see history as an irregular but fairly steady linear advancement, progressing forward. This Photo Credit, Reutersallows people to frame the secular West as winning some kind of race and as superior to, say, the Middle East, which many suppose is “still” struggling to achieve secularism.

But to think that the West has permanently moved past such Dark Ages, never again to return, is just as big a mistake as failing to realize that some of the societies now struggling to avoid a religious Dark Age have in fact been very secular in the recent past.

Such assumptions are not only mistaken but dangerous. The reality is that there are no guarantees about history except that it is dynamic. Things always change. And change does not occur in some neat, linear pattern, which is precisely why you cannot predict historical change.

To illustrate this, we can unveil various dogmatic impulses that have continued and continue to dog the West long after the collapse of Europe's medieval theocratic order.

For starters, it is quite clear that real theocratic impulses are actually still alive and well in some places across the West, and particularly in the United States, where religion routinely trumps science in the minds of many people. For example, polling data has consistently indicated that a majority of Americans are either lukewarm to Evolution or deny it outright.

When attempting to explain how a majority of the population in a modern Western nation is willing to deny a firmly established scientific tenet, our initial instinct is to blame the religions. The most obvious answer seems to be that religion itself, particularly Christian fundamentalism, is responsible for such anti-scientific attitudes. As if there were some inherent rivalry between science and religion, particularly evangelical Protestantism. What's more, that suspicion is only reinforced when one considers that the Americans most likely to accept Evolutionary theory are Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews (in that order), while those most likely to reject it are Jehova's Witnesses, Mormon's, and various Evangelical Christians (also in that order).

However, it's actually more complicated than simply blaming a particular religion or set of religions for a dogmatic impulse. For starters, there was no shortage of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish theocracies in pre-modern times. So why are Western adherents of those religions today so likely to accept Evolution and not display theocratic tendencies?

We can immediately dismiss actual theological concerns since all religions have immensely broad theologies that are interpreted in any variety of ways in different cultures, different places, and at different times as best reflects a particular historical moment for a given set of people. We can rightly point to the minority status of Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews in America as having a neutralizing force against any potential theocratic tendencies. Vast cultural opposition would be real. But then again, that has not stopped minority theocratic movements such as Chassidic Jewry, Jehova's Witnesses, the Amish, and the Nation of Islam (a.k.a. Black Muslims).

So putting aside that complication, one might then be tempted to assume there is something intrinsic about fundamentalist Christian evangelicalism that renders it hostile to Evolution and that promotes a theocratic or at least quasi-theocratic ideal. However, the idea that it's simply an issue of identifying hostile religious theologies is insufficient. In fact, to do so is a case of putting the horse before the cart.

For the most part, a given religious theology does not uniformly lead to a specific expression with regards to such minutae as one particular scientific theory. There may be an official stance, of course, but the indisputable fact is that religious adherents actually pick and choose which elements of their doctrine to follow, and how “religiously” to do so. So widespread and vociferous Evangelical opposition to Evolution is really driven by about a mulitplicity of factors in this larger historical moment, not just by theological dogma. And once the decision to resist is made and established, Evangelicals are then apt to cite arcane religious doctrine to justify that decision to themselves and others. But at the same time, we must not forget that they freely and without guilt routinely ignore other religious imperatives, which is why none of them seem to care a wit about severe biblical injunctions against eating shrimp or shaving.

Generally speaking, theological details of religious dogma do not drive people's actions and beliefs. Rather, larger historical forces drive people, and theological details merely frame their actions and beliefs. If you need further proof, then just ask yourself how we are to explain American Catholics?

Nearly half of American Catholics also reject Evolution. This is quite peculiar considering the Catholic Church is arguably the world's most hierarchal religious structure and boasts a vast, detailed and (as far as it's concerned) infallible and indisputable set of theological dogma. And official Catholic theology accepts human evolution. And we can't simply chalk it off to mass confusion among Catholics, since the vast majority of people in predominantly Catholic nations like Italy, Ireland, and Spain readily accept Evolutionary theory.

Evolution cartoonInstead, when seeking to explain theocratic impulses, we must conclude that the issues in play are much larger than just religion itself. In other words, we cannot simply assume that theocracies exist because of religion. Rather, theocracy” is just the term we use to describe an ascendant dogma that happens to be religious.

Theocracies are merely one brand of world-flattening dogma. Thus, religion by itself is not the cause of a theocracy; it's the vehicle. The broader problem, which can sometimes lead to a Dark Age, is the rapacious qualities that all dogmas are capable of exhibiting. Expansive dogma is the disease, a quest for absolutism is the symptom, and the emergence of a Dark Age, in which all other forms of knowledge must bow down, is the terminal condition.

There are actually many brands of doctrine that can emerge into a world-flattening dogma, and when any of those dogmas gain supremacy, a Dark Age can ensue. Using religion to create a theocracy is just one example.

So yes, of course it is important to recognize the existence of and remain on guard against a coterie of fundamentalists in the West who would put most of life under a religious canopy if they could. However, let us not be fooled into thinking that this is the full story. It is also dangerous to assume that the U.S. and other seemingly secular nations have permanently moved past any potential “Dark Ages.”

In some sense truly, the real danger comes when we take too narrow a view of fundamentalism itself. It is at our own peril that we embrace the false sense of security which comes from a linear ascent conception of history, or from misidentifying theocracies as the only flavor of Dark Age.

There is always an assortment of dogmas vying for supremacy. Most fail to achieve any long lasting and widespread influence on a truly grand scale. By far the most successful set of dogmas has been religious ones. Not just in Europe or during the Middle Ages, but throughout human history and across the world, the power of religions to incorporate and control vast expanses of social order has been unparalleled.

Because of the historical prevalence of theocracies, religion takes center stage when we conceptualize dogmas capable of ushering in a Dark Age. But this only increases the importance of identifying other dogmas that threaten to flatten our understanding of the world, lest those threats become more dangerous as they fly under the radar.

I would argue that during its transition away from theocracy, the Western world initially moved from one form of Dark Age to another. Over the course of several centuries, European nations traded the flattening world view of religion for the equally holistic, dogmatic, and dreadful doctrines of race and ethnocentrism. And as religion can find totalitarian supremacy through the vehicle of theocracy, racism and ethnocentrism have at times found dogmatic ascendance through the vehicle of ethnic nationalism.

Europe's move away from the Dark Ages of religious domination was a centuries long process. One of the culminations of declining church power was the rise of the nation-state. And let's be perfectly clear about this: despite linear proclamations like Francis Fukuyama's now charmingly näive Cold War post-mortem The End of History (Free Press, 1992), there is absolutely nothing inevitable or fixed about the emergence of nation-states, liberal democracies or otherwise. And there is certainly nothing inevitable or fixed about the emergence of ethnic nationalism specifically.

Both the nation state and an ethnically or racially interpreted version of the nation state are developments specific to European culture that owe their existence to too many historical factors to list in this brief essay. However, the relevant point to note is that just because church power declined in the face of more secular state institutions does not mean that fundamentalism disappeared with it. Quite to the contrary, nation states have spawned a variety of new fundamentalisms over the last two centuries.

The most obvious of these, and probably the most damning, has been ethnic nationalism. In many respects, the idea of proscribing the most elemental aspects of society under church doctrine yielded, in many places and at many times, to the idea of proscribing the most elemental aspects of society under the banners of race and ethnicity during the 19th and 20th centuries. The old Western Dark Age of religious absolutism was replaced by a newer Western Dark Age of ethnic and racial absolutism.

The most reprehensible results of that impulse can be seen in everything from racial apartheids in the United States and South Africa to Nazi exterminations of Gypsies and Jews. Such actions and the Flatdogmas driving them can be fairly understood as the most extreme manifestations of Modernism's own Dark Age.

Today, religion remains in the West, but its influence is greatly diminished. Likewise, ethnic nationalism remains in the West, but its influence is also greatly diminished; World War II was the vital and bloody crucible that commenced its retreat. In a broad sense, German Nazi and Imperial Japanese atrocities greatly discredited racial theories, or at the very least opened them to serious question. Even then, however, tearing down the Dark Age of ethnic nationalism has not occurred overnight or without mighty struggle. Various civil rights movements around the world have spent decades challenging ethnic, racial, patriarchal, and heteronormative hegemonies.

We should be so lucky as to believe that ethnic nationalism is on a permanent decline. Maybe. Hopefully. Probably not. Furthermore, given religion's unfathomable influence on humanity, I believe it would be profoundly näive to think that the West has seen the last of its world flattening efforts. Even as much of the Islamic world and the Jewish world of Israel struggle to avoid their own religious Dark Age, Westerners should not fall into the trap of thinking that theirs is simply behind them forever. It is quite conceivable that they will pop up again, and current matters in the United States are perhaps only the harbinger of what will be a semi-permanent threat for the foreseeable future.

While both the religious and ethnic nationalist Dark Ages of the West have been substantially beaten back, we must keep in mind that both brands of dogmatic absolutism still have their extremist adherents who would again use them to flatten our multi-faceted world if they could. Whether it's anti-scientific religious fundamentalists in the United States or anti-pluralist ethnic nationalists in a range of European nations (mostly recently Greece), we must not ignore the threat of a Dark Ages redux that such extremism represents.

Next month, in part II of this essay, I will discuss the dogma that I believe most palpably threatens the West here in the 21st century: materialism.

Akim Reinhardt's website is

1 I'm aware that most medieval European societies and governments did not fit a very rigid definition of “theocracy” as there was, despite frequent familial overlaps, a degree of separation between the aristocracy and the church. No matter. I am using the phrase “theocracy” as shorthand for any society in which religion plays an overly dominant role, whether or not a king or queen literally doubles as a priest or priestess. And so while I'm talking mostly of the European past in this essay, it is worth noting that within the context that I use the word, many pre-modern societies around the world were theocratic to some degree.