Is the worst of history repeating itself?
Looks like what we deemed religious behaviour was humans being human
Hey! Paid support starts next week! I’m so excited for what I’ve got for you! But let’s get to today (which is coming a bit late, I know)!
I’ve been thinking about something quite a bit lately. About how much modern online behaviour tends to resemble the worst of ancient and medieval religious behaviour. (It happens offline too, of course, but online is more readily visible.) The resemblance is most with the church in Europe who, after centuries of persecution followed by increasing power, now focused it on persecuting those who disagreed with them.
It’s deeply worrying, and more so because we don’t seem to recognise it enough, which means we are headed for the same path all over again. It’s happening now, not just within the church, but within practically every modern movement. Allow me to explain what I mean — but keep in mind that while it’ll be tempting to apply this to others, it’s probably most useful to apply it to the movements you yourself see yourself as part of.
A narrow creed, or set of beliefs
The Christian church began with a group of people who were convinced that an event had happened which changed everything about the world. They recorded the event in the documents we know now as the New Testament, codified the beliefs into what we know now as the early creeds, and thought through its implications for every aspect how they lived. But over time, several groups became more and more rigid about it, and narrowed the set of set of acceptable beliefs and positions in ways that excluded everyone else but their small groups from being “true Christians.”
Sound familiar? Today, for every group online, there’s ever narrower acceptable positions and beliefs that define the “true” from the “fake.” And that feeds into the next thing.
There’s a place for recognising those within any group who are actually against the spirit of the group. They’re, in many ways, more dangerous to the group than those who simply aren’t part of it, because these faux insiders undermine the group, both within and without: they discourage those within and represent it falsely to those outside it.
The problem, though, is that when the set of acceptable beliefs becomes ever narrower, you end up excluding everyone except a increasingly smaller group. Which is a good way to stifle any life out of the thing. Happened to the church then, and it’s happening again now to so many movements.
This is an aspect of the excommunication bit but it’s serious enough to deserve its own category. See, the thing about being excommunicated back then was not just the exclusion from the community, but the ensuring that there was no way to get back in. And now it’s resurfacing in what’s sometimes referred to as “cancel culture,” where those who were supposedly within the group are not only excluded permanently, but the community goes on to ensure the next thing…
Burning at the stake
This was one of the worst parts of religious behaviour in medieval times, with the church burning people at the stakes who were considered the worst of humanity, and a growing Islamic movement readily dispatching all kinds of infidels. We don’t do burnings and public hangings anymore, of course — we simply work to see that people’s reputations and careers are permanently destroyed. I’m not referring to criminal justice here, mind you. My point is, while most people believe they’re right to insist that some of those who disagree with them should be “hung” career wise, let’s not forget that the religious movements of the past were just as convinced about their being right to literally burn people as well.
Us versus them
Another of the worst of religious behaviour from back then, and the inevitable effect of the above, was an us versus them approach to everyone else. People became — and are becoming — increasingly antagonistic to anyone not within their tiny circles of approved “true believers.” Humans have always existed within small communities, and even with the Internet, it turns out we continue to. But those communities didn’t always see those outside as the enemy, in a way that happened with the Christian church at its worst and is happening today not just within it but in all kinds of movements. This in turn leads to…
Refusing to engage “infidels”
I see more and more today the expression of the idea that certain people should not be at all engaged with. And while the criteria for “true believers” means there’s fewer and fewer who qualify, it also means there increasingly more people who are considered not worth engaging, even if you can’t “burn” them at the stake. This means, of course, that the tribes continue to become more and more self-focused and less and less aware of what’s going on outside their bubbles. Except, in an increasingly globalised world, that might be the least useful way to exist.
But what to do with all this? Well, I honestly don’t know. It’s just something I see that really worries me: it’s like we’re repeating history all over again, but with more people, using more tech, and across more movements. Maybe we all really just need to take a step back and think about how we personally are exhibiting any of these traits, and how those we consider “our people” might be as well.
A first step to changing things is recognising there’s a problem, right?
Or what do you think? Do you think I’m reading too much into all this? That maybe I’m reaching a little (or a lot)? I’m curious to know what you think so please email me (you know I’ll reply!) and share it with anyone you think will find it interesting, oror on your social media. (And if someone forwarded this letter to you, go on and sign up to get it in your own inbox!)