The accomplishments and success of civilizations are closely linked to their religious outlook and the role of religion in their governments and society. Throughout history rulers have used the influence of religions to control their populations and provide the justification for their power. A society with a greater degree of separation between religion and government promotes a superior level of liberty and creativity amongst its people. By the time of the decline of the Roman Empire in the west, however, the world had come full circle to a return to theocratic dictatorship.
In the ancient civilization of the Sumerians religion was an important part of both the lives of the citizens and the administration of government. People felt very distant from their rulers and this feeling was reflected in their religion. The great gods of the day were unconcerned with human welfare. They were in control of the forces of nature and were the source of authority for the rulers. Both inspired fear and veneration in the populace and the people created lesser gods as guardian intercessors to assuage the insecurity of their world.
Although the Sumerians developed systems of writing and mathematics, the use of these arts was restricted to an elite upper class while the majority of the people were enslaved by ignorance and fear. This structure of subservience to a higher power was established in their religion and played out in their government. The government of ancient Egypt was similarly autocratic. The pharaohs were both god and king and the religion taught the people to trust that their king would rule according to maat with concern for the welfare of the common man.
In return for the building and maintenance of great temples the gods preserved the absolute power of the pharaoh and ensured the duration of the state. These temples, the Great Pyramids, and the Sphinx as well were created and built by the will of the elite through the labor of the people. Again we see the absolute subjugation of the people to the indisputable, god-like authority of the ruler. The rise of the Greeks was a revolutionary step away from this system. Although Greek society was also greatly influenced by their polytheistic religion, they took an intellectual approach to the study of the man-nature relationship.
Instead of accepting or inventing mystical explanations for the world around them they applied their development of science to philosophy seeking out empirical answers to the questions of the universe. The focus of Greek thought was on the community of man within the polis. They developed their laws and philosophies in accordance with what seemed to them appropriate social interaction, not the decrees of a god, a priest, or a king. Ethics and morality became the questions of high-minded citizens who created schools and systematic empirical methods for seeking the answers to questions of right and wrong, politics, and the nature of man.
The gods of the Greek religion, while super-human in strength and immortal, were humanly fallible. They were seen as the patrons of certain city-states and their worship was out of a sense of civic duty and the hope that the gods would lend their assistance both to the community and the individual. Many of the teachings were common sense virtues such as self-awareness and moderation as in the Cult of Delphian Apollo. This naturalistic focus allowed them to seek their answers through the scientific method of philosophy.
They developed the beginnings of atomic theory and wrote fairly objective histories that sought to explain the causes and learn from the events of the past. The gifts of education were more available to the common citizen than in any previous time in history and the political system allowed each man a say in the government of his community. These were limited, but their very presence signifies a major shift away from the authoritarianism of the past. The Etruscan/Roman religious model began out of the familiar fear of the unknown.
By the time of the republic it had developed into an honorific system of ancestor worship that focused on family and the importance of that unit as a model for the republic. The Roman religion came to mirror that of the Greeks, as did so much of their society. Their government maintained a control over religion throughout, however, using laws to promote the worship of some and condemn the worship of other gods. Indeed, after the crises of the late republic one of Augustus’ actions was to promote a return to the traditional family and religious values by building temples and supporting religious schools.
He outlawed new, foreign religions and after his death he was worshiped as a god. This was the beginning of the turn back towards religious autocracy. The emperors became quasi-religious figures in life and were objects of popular cult worship after their deaths. This is a rejection of the Hellenic ideal of the greatness of the common man. It promotes the will of a single idealized super elite to the detriment of the populace. By the decline of the western empire the emperors ruled by decree, sending their infallible word down from on high to the masses. The free debate of ideas was dead.
This became the religious model propagated in the Byzantine Empire. There all semblance of separation between the state and religion was eliminated. The emperor made his decrees on matters of politics and law as well as matters of faith and theology. Christianity was declared the official religion of the state and was used to bind a vastly diverse population together under a common faith. The people lost their say in public matters and their place in society and the justification for it was dictated to them by the unquestionable leaders of the church and the empire.
It is evident that religions and their place in society have a profound effect on the growth, development, and accomplishments of a civilization. The theocracies that preceded and followed the Greeks certainly had a profound historical impact, but the tradition that would most greatly affect the development of the western mind was that of the Hellenistic world. The birth of democracy and a Golden Age of western scientific and cultural development occurred in the civilization that furthest separated its religion from its government.