Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “religious

Hobby Lobby SCOTUS Ruling:

The Supreme Court ruling on BURWELL, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL. v. HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC. has now opened up the precedent (ignoring how narrowly tailored the ruling was to only contraception) that under the RFRA, even if its a compelling government interest, the state cannot mandate any firm with sincere religious beliefs to carry out a requirement, so long as the government can pick up the slack? It seems like the least restrictive means will always be making the government do it instead and not restrict at all anyone’s religious beliefs.

On page 46 of the opinion, Alito writes: “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.”

This certainly leaves open the possibility that the Court could rule differently on the “least restrictive means” issue in the future, but his language in section V-B, which discusses the “least restrictive means” test, seems to indicate that it is a difficult standard to pass. On page 41 of the opinion, he indicates that “the most straightforward way of [meeting the least restrictive means test] would be for the Government to assume the cost.” He also says that “HHS has not shown … that this is not a viable alternative.” This seems to indicate that if such a challenge were to come up regarding vaccination or blood transfusions, or whatever else, the burden would be on the Department of Health and Human Services to show that it would be impractical for the Government to cover the cost. That would be quite the burden for the Government to prove.

Ginsberg seems to agree with that reading in her dissent. On page 29 on the dissent, she writes, “And where is the stopping point to the ‘let the government pay’ alternative? Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, … or according women equal pay for substantially similar work…? Does it rank as a less restrictive alternative to require the government to provide the money or benefit to which the employer has a religion-based objection?” In addition to indicating that the Court’s logic could prove problematic in the future, she asserts that it is flawed at present, saying, “In sum, in view of what Congress sought to accomplish, i.e., comprehensive preventive care for women furnished through employer-based health plans, none of the proffered alternatives would satisfactorily serve the compelling interests to which Congress responded.”

I agree with Justice Ginsberg on many points here, especially the last few pages of her dissent. Justice Alito attempts to narrow his ruling as much as possible, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered as to the basis for his narrow ruling. To me, the most compelling arguments come from sections III-4 and IV (pages 27-35) of Ginsberg’s dissent. She basically asserts that the Court’s ruling has much broader implications than it intends, and poses quite a few questions about the basis for the narrow ruling.

I am also inclined to agree with her reasoning that the Court should have no business in determining which religious views are legitimate and which are not, and that religious exemptions from generally applicable law should be reserved for groups that are organized “for a religious purpose” and/or “engaged primarily in carrying out that religious purpose”.

The Supreme Court ruling can be found here:

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent here:


Torture during the inquisitions of the 12-14th centuries.

There is little evidence of much inquisition-inflicted torture outside those directly related to the conditions of imprisonment in 13/14th century.

The papal bull Ad exterpanda restricted torture in its same authorization of it: no breaking bones. It doesn’t say what one should do, but emphasizes imprisonment. The unstated concomitant tortures of prison were variously hunger, disease, cold, close confinement and shackling.

In fact the most famous of inquisitors and author of key inquisition manuals, Bernardo Gui, explicitly states in the early 14th c in his Practica inquisitionis that imprisonment is the most effective method for extracting confession. A review of Gui’s registers the Liber sententiarum, which are fairly detailed, shows imprisonment being highly varied in type (from a style of short house arrest to multi-year). Gui also suggests psychological techniques such as threats against family and friends being discovered as heretics, or threats they will be ‘outed’ by family and friends, all driving to the ‘relief’ of confession, ‘relief’ that the worst punishment for everyone in your social circle has been avoided.

Although we should generally dismiss the view that torture such as the ‘rack’ or ‘flaying’ or other such dramatic ideas for this period of inquisition for lack of evidence, or rather misinterpretation of the use of the word ‘torture’ found in sources, we should see clearly the totality of the consequences of imprisonment mentioned above. The best source on this is James Given’s Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc (Cornell, 1997), in particular chapter ‘Inquisitor’s Techniques’.

Below is the letter from the consuls of Carcassonne complaining about the local inquisitor Jean Galand at the end of the 13th century, 50 years on since the establishment of the first real inquisitions at Toulouse. This is wholly taken from Given’s book above, and he suggests there is perhaps some exaggeration in it:

We feel ourselves aggrieved in that you, contrary to the use and custom observed by your predecessors in the inquisition, have made a new prison, called the mur. Truly this could be called with good cause a hell. For in it you have constructed little cells for the purpose of tormenting and torturing people. Some of these cells are dark and airless, so the those lodged there cannot tell if it is day or night, and they are continuously deprived of air and light. In other cells there are kept miserable wretches laden with shackles, some of wood, some of iron. Nor can they lie down except on the frigid ground. They have endured torments like these day and night for a long time. In other miserable places in the prison, not only is there no light or air, but food is rarely distributed, and then only bread and water.

Many prisoners have been put in similar situations, in which several, because of severity of their tortures, have lost limbs and have been completely incapacitated. Many, because of the unbearable conditions and their great suffering, have died a most cruel death. In these prisons there is constantly heard an immense wailing, weeping, groaning, and gnashing of teeth. What more can one say? For these prisoners life is a torment and death a comfort. And thus coerced they say that what is false is true, choosing to die once rather than endure more torture. As a result of these false and coerced confessions not only do those making the confessions perish, but so do the innocent people named by them […]

In this we can see the use of the verb ‘torture’ in its abstracted, descriptive sense. This use has been co-opted into historiographical narrative about medieval inquisition as a capital-t ‘Torture’, divorcing it from context. It has thus been merged with our understanding of medieval secular torture and punishment which did involve various (famous) forms of corporal torture.

At the same time, we can see this as skillful use of the concept of ‘torture-that-isn’t-really-torture’ by ecclesiastics; it allowed claims by popes, legates, inquisitors that it was simply ‘imprisonment’ and that the conditions of imprisonment were the fault of the imprisoned: they inflict it upon themselves. This is a more subtle view, but makes clearer our understanding of the relationship between Christian notions of sin and punishment within an ethic of self-punishment that are distinctly medieval, and which we live with today.

The Roman Imperial Cult:

What was the Roman Imperial Cult?
Well, first of all, throw everything you know about separating religion and politics from each other out of the window. The Roman Imperial Cult is one of the most ingenious ways in global world history of keeping order in an empire. It was a mix of religion, politics and propaganda that is hard to grasp the extent of fully.

Who did they worship?
They worshipped the numen and the genius of the Emperor, but also the genii of the entire imperial family. A loose modern translation would be the life spirit and the soul of the living Emperor. The genius is something that everyone in the empire had, and you could certainly pray to your mother’s genius if you wanted to. The numen was unique to the living Emperor. It was thanks to the numen that the Roman Empire was such a great place. The reason for which they could hold back the barbarians on the borders, enjoy gladiatorial games, walk safely on the streets, and so on.

How did it work?
To keep this immense structure in a constant and working condition it required a mass of different priesthoods and priests, as well as governors who were determined to make sure that everyone followed suit. Very few decisions about they cult emerged from the city of Rome itself. Instead most of the decisions regarding the cult were decided on a local level, either regionally or within a municipality. Thanks to this we have altars showing Gaius and Lucius Caesar, despite them never actually becoming Emperors.

What about the deification?
Only certain Emperors did in fact get deified. Although all Emperors up to and including Diocletian were divus <name>, but only a few of them got the title divi <name> when they died. The case of divi is a complicated matter which has to do with the priesthood flamines. Flamines were priests that belonged to temples, and temples were only allowed to be erected for gods. Certainly not for living Emperors.

They exception to the rule is Tiberius, who refused to have himself treated as a potential god. A refusal that was only acknowledged in the West; the East had a different history of ruler worship and did not play by the same rules as the West. Emperors that were in fact deified were divus Augustus, divus Claudius and divus Vespasianus, among others.

Did any women get deified?
Yes! Most importantly Livia, the wife of Augustus, who died 13 years after her husband. When she died in 27 AD her son Tiberius was Emperor and it has been speculated that it played part in the defification. Nonetheless, Livia Augusta became diva Augusta when she died, one of few women to hold that title.

What did the propaganda look like?
My personal favorite is this statue, called Augustus of prima porta.

Notice they artwork on the breastplate, the stout facial features, the prominent stance and the combination of a breastplate and a toga. Now imagine that it was painted as well.

Most people in the Roman Empire would never have met or even seen the Emperor. Instead this, and images like this one, is what they would be seeing. On coins, statues or similar. What they see is the pater patriae, the father of the fatherland. The man that keeps peace and prosperity in the empire through his wisdom and intelligence.

So, what can we learn from this cult today? The Roman Imperial Cult is a prime example of how a politician can use various ways to get the people on his or her side. It is also a great example of how religion can be used to strengthen the power structure in a state. More than anything it shows us the power of something else, something that distances itself somewhat from both politics and religion – the sense of belonging.
Many people today have trouble finding their true identity. So were the case also when Augustus came to power in the Roman Empire. The Imperial Cult joined together (almost) everyone in a mutual cult worship that both meant that you were Roman and at the same time that the people across the borders were not Romans.

There are lots of things to learn from this cult, a cult that kept the Roman Empire prosperous for 250 years, before the importance of the cult started to decline in favor of Christianity. If you have a hard time imagining it working in modern times, I suggest you take a look at Vladimir Putin.


Often times in history we confront extremely challenging and provoking question, none more so than whether Mithraism was the most metal religion…

The Mithraic mysteries are a fascinating little cult because it was extremely prevalent, yet we know almost nothing about it. There are a handful of literary mentions of it, but the lionshare of information on it comes from its iconography, which places Classical archaeologists in the same place most archaeologists are all the time in reconstructing religious belief from imagery. Because of this, its importance has been exaggerated somewhat in the modern world, and it is not uncommon to see it appropriated by assorted kooks and new agey people today. There is also a persistent story going around that it is the basis for Christianity and Jesus is a redressed Mithras: what the justification for this claim is I will never know. Within the Roman Empire it was of profound importance within the army and within the networks of freedmen and others who made up the Imperial household bureaucracy. That being said, it was never given official sanction, and no Mithraic site has ever been found within the confines of a military camp.

Its origins are a little vague: it was once widely accepted that it was an Eastern import from the Persian Empire, a rather reasonable conclusion given that Mithras was an Iranian deity of great antiquity. However, more research on the Persians has shown that the Mithraic cult was really quite unlike anything that actually existed within Persia itself, rather, the Eastern elements were borrowed to make the imagery more exotic and antique-seeming. Interestingly, Mithraic sanctuaries closer to Persia show a greater prevalence of imagery that was ‘accurate” to Iranian belief, so it seems that those with familiarity with Iran purposefully shifted the imagery to be more authentic.

Even without witches and Jesuses, however, it is a fascinating example of the sort of religious diversity within the Early Imperial period of the Roman Empire.

Conservative Christianity and the Republican Party:

I read a really good history of the Southern Baptist Convention, a couple of years ago (sadly, I forget both author and title) that documented the conscious decision by which the national leadership of the SBC, during the Reconstruction, made a conscious decision to be the voice of moral authority on the Confederate revisionist side, to embrace and defend the religious and social complaints of the former slave-holding class in the old Confederacy. So by the time of the rise of the Religious Right as we know it, the Southern Baptist Church had already invested nearly 100 years in raising, training, and providing volunteers for pro-segregation candidates in both political parties. After Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, that put the Southern Baptist Church firmly on the Republican side.

Also in 1964, at the presidential nominating convention (per the speeches and writings of Goldwater delegate and best-sellling conspiracy theory author John Stormer), was the meeting of the Republican Anti-Communist Caucus at which the leader of the top fundamentalist seminary in America, Dallas Theological Seminary, committed to revising the curriculum to persuade all future fundamentalist ministers that fighting Communism was Christian cause number one, and to teach that it was therefore a religious duty of all Christians to support politicians from what they saw as the only reliable anti-socialist, anti-communist party, the Republicans.

In 1968, the Pope of the Catholic Church issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which, among other things, banned the practice of contraception or abortion. By 1968, feminism was already seen as a left-wing political cause for long enough that it was being paid lip-service by even center-left politicians in the Democratic Party, which fairly rapidly coalesced into the current situation where observant Catholics feel forced into supporting the only anti-feminist political party, the Republicans.

In the second volume of his auto-biography, Francis Schaeffer, Jr., the son of the famous evangelist (and founder of the modern fundamentalist movement) Francis Schaeffer, documents that it was his personal revulsion to the idea of legal abortion, after 1973 Roe v Wade, that persuaded him to argue his father into telling wealthy Protestant fundamentalists that opposition to abortion was the most important Christian cause, and that they needed to donate money that funded the founding of Moral Majority. Schaeffer Junior says that he approached politicians in both parties, offering them the support of Moral Majority if they would denounce legal abortion, making the argument to Democrats that the traditional Catholic origins of organized labor and their traditional embrace of government regulation made anti-abortion a Democratic cause, only to find himself out-maneuvered by feminists on the platform committees and organizing committees. So, he says, he had no choice but, as their lead fund-raiser, to encourage early Moral Majority leaders to embrace Republicans, and their embrace of traditional rural values (see neo-Confederacy, above), as the only hope of seeing legal abortion overturned. (A decision he now says he regrets, but feels that the feminists left him with no alternative.)

(*Post-1964, the Southern Baptist Church embraced the Republican Party for segregationist reasons; post-1973, Moral Majority and the Catholic bishops both embraced the Republican Party for anti-feminism reasons.)

Humans and the End Times:

[This is limited to Europe and the Middle East.]

Amanat states that religions originating in the Middle East – Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam – all share broadly similar apocalyptic beliefs, often in a millennialist framework. This was, perhaps, partly a way of understanding the passage of time in general.

An obvious focus of millennialist beliefs was the year 1000. Fried argues that Europe broadly awaited the end of the world then, and any extraordinary events, even seasonal changes, were seen as prophetic. For example, it was reported that blood rained for three days in Aquitane in 1027. The Duke of Aquitane immediately informed the king, and the agitated Robert the Pious immediately wrote to Gauzlin of Fleury for clerical advice. Around the turn of the millenium, signs were observed by everyone, from the peasantry to the high aristocracy, to ascertain the time of the end of the world. It has even been argued that these apocalyptic expectations were the cause of an enhanced awareness of sin and thus the extraordinary piety around the 11th century, part of the causation for so many major medieval developments such as the crusades. This was, of course, part of a magical worldview shared by all social strata, and the statement in the Scripture that no one knows the day and the hour of the apocalypse except God surely did little to ease any fears. On the other hand, it should be remembered that this was also a time of intense violence and disorder, in which royal powers in France in particular were too weak to enforce justice: hence local warfare was very prevalent.

It seems, indeed, that apocalyptic fears arise most often in times of rapid change or disorder. Sebeos, writing in Armenia in the 7th century following the early Muslim invasions that both destroyed the Persian Empire and much reduced the power and prestige of the Byzantines quickly defaulted to an apocalyptic conclusion in the face of these events. He sees the Arab invasions as a fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy: “This fourth, arising from the south is the Kingdom of Ishmael, just as the archangel explained (to Daniel), “The fourth beast, the fourth kingdom, shall arise, which shall be greater than all kingdoms; and it will consume the whole earth”. Furthermore, he concludes: “‘The day of [the Arabs’] destruction is close; the Lord has arrived upon them in readiness”. Turmoil and quick political change were thus something that brought the end of times into the mind of a historian. This was not, however, unique to Armenia, and Byzantine authors of the period also predicted that the End was close at hand. For the Byzantines, the time was one of decline not only in military terms but also economically, and politically the empire saw coups d’etat.

Similarly, the Mongols, who invaded much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the 13th century, were promptly cast into an apocalyptic role as the tribes of Gog and Magog who too signaled the end of the world. These two occasions of millennialist fears appear to be an attempt to put new circumstances into a familiar framework of a Christian conception of history. If God willed all that happened, it had to be the case that the armies invading Christian lands would have been part of his plan. Historical moments found meaning through the way in which they were linked to divine intentions. Of course, after the situation became more permanent more pragmatic policies were followed: the Latin Christendom, for example, attempted to make alliances with the Mongols to gain influence and territory in the Middle East.

Millennialism around c. 1000 seems to have been more linked to general disorder, the year 1000, and the generally pessimistic Medieval world view: degeneration, after the Classical times or even Charlemagne’s reign, was apparent, and supernatural occurrences such as the rain of blood were further signs that the end was nigh. This is probably also the reason why apocalyptic fears were not as prominent in more prosperous times, or after great military successes. One of the most prominent aspects of an imminent apocalypse was a struggle between Good and Evil, and this could easily explain military conflicts and barbarian invasions that were incomprehensible if not part of “God’s plan” for mankind.