At the first Legatum Institute Summer School, historian William Connell, archaeologist John Hale, professor Wang Gungwu, and Middle East scholar scholar Reuel Gerecht discussed the role of religion in the rise and fall of civilizations. Moderator and Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan noted in his introduction how astonishing it is how little attention we pay to religious belief when we think about international affairs. We know that the US is consumed with one religion when it comes to international relations—Islam—but human belief is a huge motivating factor on a broader level. It’s essential to remind ourselves that religious belief is a powerful force in shaping our attitudes towards ourselves, our societies, and our world.

Instead, we tend to concentrate on tangible things, the things that we can measure such as economic development and military issues. But we don’t focus on the harder to measure beliefs, whether they be secular or ideological, or religious.

Most Enlightenment thinkers thought that religion was the opposite of civilization. It was superstition, the cause of bloody wars, and the opposite of reason.

"Religious belief is a powerful force in shaping our attitudes towards ourselves, our societies, and our world."

Edward Gibbons attributed Christianity as playing a role in the fall of the Roman Empire; Machiavelli was very harsh on Christianity, too, arguing it extolled weakness, rather than strength, humility rather than pride, teaching people how to take a beating rather than taking revenge. It was therefore entirely unsuitable to the leadership of a state that requires the willingness and ability to exercise power over others.

William Connell defends Christianity, arguing that religion is a good thing for a civilization, and that certainly even Machiavelli would agree, people need habits: no society can function unless there’s a certain predictability to human behaviour with a shared response to the same events. We have expectations that are very important in our lives and religion helps provide habits that a society can share.

Connell argues that religion especially helps in dealing with non-mechanical events. How one should behave during rituals such as death and births. That society doesn’t shut down and wonder what to do at each stage is remarkable, a terrific resource, something that religions throughout the world provide. One has to accept religion as a good thing, in one sense, as engendering habits that prevent us from a total shutdown. 

Christianity also gets us to think about context—there’s a pattern out there. The suggestion that there’s some sort of providence guiding things leads us to the of study data. Things are no longer random. This is perhaps one of the reasons that Christianity endures, its long-lasting structure of the Church, the Bible, they demand that we continue to keep looking, to join the dots through faith.

Reuel Gerecht rejects the notion of Christianity as enfeebled. If we look at William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire, he questions whether it was Christianity’s great fortune of misfortune to have been adopted by the most savage collection of tribes the world has ever seen, from the Proto-Europeans, the Lombards and the Franks who killed with incredible passion. Gerecht thinks it’s fair to say that Christianity didn’t really pacify these folks, if anything it took Christianity, flipped it, and successfully turned it into a warrior’s religion. 

John Hale discusses religion as a choice as a new phenomenon. For the first 40,000 years of our existence you had no more choice about religion than you had about your eye colour, or the language you spoke.

"Religion as a choice is a new phenomenon. For our ancestors religion was part of their communal identity."

Religions were part of the essence of society and culture, each having its own helping to define itself from others. Their religions were rooted in the land in which they lived, in ancestral monuments, with special places of worship identified in the landscape. Our ancestors couldn’t even conceive that you would believe in other gods. Frankly, it would be freaky. Religion was part of their communal identity.

The “great break” comes in the time of the Roman Empire in Tarsus where two religions present themselves for the first time in human history as religions of choice. The Persian religion, Mithraism, is suddenly presented to soldiers of the Roman Empire as a way to be a better solider: stand under a grill where a bull is slaughtered above and you will be reborn a warrior of Methras with the force of good and truth and light, against the universal forces of darkness and evil. This was a soldier’s religion. Mithraism, however, lost out to the religion, crafted by Paul, of the teachings of Jesus. Paul had the bigger demographic: the dispossessed, the poor, the enslaved, and women.

Christianity starts to infiltrate the Roman Empire with the idea that religion can be something that can be either forbidden or legislated. Religions can be spontaneously generated and you can believe in something, as if the belief is a physical thing out there and you move inside it.

Wang Gungwu introduces religion from a Chinese position, and it’s a difficult one: the Chinese don’t have a word for “religion”.

"In Chinese characters, 'religion' is made up from two words: 'ancestors' and 'teachings.'"

When translated into Chinese characters, it’s made from two words—one representing ancestors, and the other, teachings. The emphasis wasn’t on gods, rather your descent line; respect for ancestors because you have no other identity. There is no choice. The element of choice enters when someone uses this respect to acquire authority and power, and this is how the state in China was built.

The Chinese were lumped with “superstition”, a European construct that is has inferior connotations. Superstition was adopted in Chinese and Japanese as the opposite of religion, and then it became the opposite of science. Superstition became the target of the progressive Enlightenment types who believed science was the future. All religion became superstition. 

Religion didn’t create the state or a civilization, rather whoever wanted power could take on these concepts and ideals and provide them with the dignity and respect, an awesomeness and a majesty of power.

The state became more powerful than religion in the East. The Romans aspired for this, but the Chinese got away with it. They merged state into religion and there’s no separation—it’s inconceivable that a church could excommunicate a ruler. It’s the ruler who has the choice, not the people.

The Legatum Institute Summer School is a place of fusion and fission bringing together up-and-coming global leaders and a world-class faculty across disciplines and generations. This year’s inaugural event took place in August at the Castiglion del Bosco estate in Tuscany, Italy, and explored the question “What makes civilizations flourish - and fail?”