I've been working on a little story about a society that was a lot like ours, but a little more rational. The people there were just a little bit better than us at figuring out what was best for them and acting on those beliefs. Since the topic has come up at Philosophy, et cetera and Siris I thought I'd rush my story into print.
He was a clever man, and to him the Church was grateful. In a society that was becoming increasingly secular and rationalistic, with one argument he was able to bring the people flocking back to the Church. What's more, those who returned from their time astray did not merely come as nominal members. They showed a surprisingly high dedication to living in accordance with the commandments of the Church. As the Church surged in strength and the people made great strides in regulating their own conduct out of respect for the religion, opinion writers marveled at the people's remarkable capacity for goodness, if only the right conditions were created. Outside of a few industries that had suffered a precipitous decline, all of society seemed to be coming together for the good of everyone. The Pascal figure had been praised and promoted to the highest levels of the Church when everything began to unravel.
The first sign of trouble was a new tactic among beggars on the street. They shared with great humility and understatement their unfavorable circumstances, and noted that God was kind to those who were kind to people in need. The people of the Church were at first touched by these meek and humble beggars, and by the charity and kindness that everyone showed them. They spoke with genuine piety of how the return to religion would create a just and caring society in which there would soon be no more poor left to beg.
Instead, the beggars became more common, their claims more elaborate, and their tactics more aggressive. Though many of the original panhandlers disappeared from the streets, a new breed of beggars rose up, calling themselves messengers of God. They warned passersby that God had sent them as a test to humanity. Those who showed them charity would be rewarded with eternal salvation, those who failed to do so punished with eternal damnation. The new beggars thrived and proliferated among the Pascal-educated populace. The most learned intellectuals would talk about how absurd and unlikely their claims were, while being sure to never pass one by without handing over a nicely sized bill. The society was scandalized by stories of the luxury in which some of these beggars lived, and the legislature had begun to discuss vast redistribution schemes so that the wealth that was now circulating on account of society's newfound love of charity would not all flow into the hands of obvious frauds. The Pascal figure retained much of his popularity, as optimists claimed that this massive economic restructuring would be a greater boon to society than the original turn to religion.
Before the legislature could undertake such a complex project, though, the unraveling accelerated. The beggars' demands became less and less simple, as they turned more and more into charlatans and prophets. With extraordinary rapidity, whole new religions sprung up and spread. Most had doctrines that offered bliss but threatened suffering, depending on whether certain conditions, often conveniently beneficial to their founders, were met. Initially, these new religions were careful not to contradict the established Church, and they grew on a fertile ground of people who were eager to supplement their afterlife insurance. Many now place the blame on the Church for not being aggressive enough in stamping them out, but it is hard to see how they could have been stopped in anything resembling an open society. Some sermons against these quasi-religions were preached, often by clergy who made personal contributions to the upstarts. The people who knew of this apparent hypocrisy were undisturbed by it, as they recognized that, however scathing the critique in the sermon, it was still only rational to give a little bit, just in case. As these new religions came to permeate the entire society and their demands became more extensive, the Church and the State both made efforts to curtail their power, but to no avail. Once awareness of a new religion had spread, its position became unassailable.
Among a growing field of competitors, and with the established Church still holding the strongest ground, these new religions did have to compete for this awareness and for the size of contributions. Once the playing field got crowded enough, the gloves came off, and the religions no longer showed restraint in directing attacks at each other. As the people began to choose between religions, it became essential for each prophet to discredit his or her opponents, including the Church, personally and doctrinally. Though the attacks got nastier and nastier, and much of the mud that was slung seemed to stick, the populace proved unwilling to choose sides or to abandon their mud-covered prophets. Many prophets were threatened by physical violence and murder, though the most successful of them were able to stay out of this brutish struggle, to protect their lives from potential attacks, and to flourish through better doctrine. Some, including the man who had brought Pascal to the people, were not able to survive every assassination attempt.
A great deal was written in the popular press about one of the first to pursue a strategy of complete seclusion from the conflict, almost every word of it positive. He spoke out against the mob-like turn of religion and the abandonment of simple religious truth, casting himself as above the fray and encouraging conciliation between religions. Indeed, all accounts agree that he never did take part in this petty interreligious squabbling. He possessed an air of holiness, and preached a simple yet highly plausible doctrine. Success in God's eyes, he proclaimed, did not require jumping through some arbitrary set of proofs to please Him and His Prophet. Those who basically did good and who worked, as he did, to help reduce the conflict that was spreading in God's name, would be rewarded with a simple and agreeable eternal afterlife, while those who failed to do so would perish forever with their bodies. Many people saw that there was a great chance that he spoke truly. He did not demand any gifts to himself, though most people found that, in order to serve his noble goal, it was easier to give to him than to abandon their support for his competitors.
Other religious leaders saw that they could not compete with these claims on the basis of plausibility, at least not without sacrificing a great deal, for no one would consider their grandiose claims to have a special position with respect to God that made them more probable than the simple claim of this much admired prophet. However, they knew that they did not need to compete on plausibility, as long as they retained a plausibility above zero. Instead, they could compete on consequences, portraying grander and grander visions of heaven and scarier and scarier visions of hell. As their tales of heaven and hell became more incredible, our society of Pascalians proved unable to resist them. The arms race in more enticing heavens and more disastrous hells led to greater and greater exclusion and strife between the religions and disregard for everything else. The simple prophet was forgotten, and the Church outcompeted, as various religions developed theories of incommensurable orders of heaven and of hell, each placing their own doctrine at the top of the heaven hierarchy and in the deepest bowels of all the hells. Suddenly, no respectable citizen could remain ignorant of set theory and the transfinite numbers.
The turn to higher mathematics notwithstanding, for a moment it seemed like society might destroy itself through its increasingly bloody infighting. However, the most astute prophets were able to extricate themselves and their followers from the seemingly hopeless situation. At a moment of temporary dominance, they commanded their followers to leave the old, sinful society and form their own closed society, cut off from any means of communication with those who did not share their understanding of God. Even though many of the most loyal, devout, and trusting members of the congregation stayed behind, rather than accept separation from all future doctrinal innovations, enough people were willing to leave for communes to form all around the outskirts of society. In a surprisingly short period of time, the original society itself was transformed into a homogenous commune, though it was now no larger than the Church had been before the great Pascalian conversion.
Despite their radical and violent origins, the religious communes proved to be highly orderly, conservative, and risk-averse. Under the strict direction of its unquestioned leader, each commune worked to ensure isolation, stability, and self-sufficiency. Though it was not a happy equilibrium, conditions did seem to be settling into a new order.
The new equilibrium, however, was not as stable as it initially appeared. Though it has now become fashionable to say that competition over limited resources led to the inevitable conflict, I am afraid that people are reading too much of the present world back into the past. The problem was not with nature, but with the communities of men. Out of a desire to expand their power, more than their resources, the leaders of some communes attempted to infiltrate other communes with their message. The prophets who had separated their flocks later, armed with sophisticated and persuasive arguments that had already been developed against the earlier exiles, knew that they could spark discord among an antiquated rival commune and ultimately achieve conquest. They only needed to send in a loyal member of their community or an auditory or electronic signal that could not be ignored. No commune could be impermeable to communication.
Though a few communes were converted and conquered en masse, with the converted prophet leading his followers into the arms of the rival religion, most leaders were unwilling to give up their position without a fight. Incapable of surviving an extended informational onslaught, they chose to respond decisively with a physical onslaught.
The battles between communes raged and spread as the dedicated troops knew of no surrender but death. No neutrality was possible, and no compromise, between tribes that could not even cede their enemies an opportunity to communicate a word to them. Many leaders made all of their followers deaf before heading off to combat, for even in the midst of ruthless battles the greatest threat came from words and ideas. The all-out religious war reached every commune as they fought, each against all.
The remnants of that war were a few scattered survivors, no prophets among them, many of whom had been too sick or injured to participate in the full-fledged battles. As small groups of them uneasily came together (for they could not survive apart), they tended to speak warily about food and shelter and medical care, making no mention of God or religion. When someone finally broached the subject, often a skirmish would break out. As those most eager to share their dogma were gradually killed off, the remainder developed into small cooperative bands that shared their talents and their labor to survive.
Over time, religion was slowly reintroduced into the conversation, though always in a detached way, with no one giving any indication of allegiance to a particular doctrine. As the conversations grew more open, it became apparent that this detachment was not merely a result of caution and tact. All of the survivors were convinced that what they had seen was definitive proof that God did not exist. God was dead, slain in war, lifeless and beyond even the reach of probabilities. On this shared vision, and on the basis of everyone's great need for survival, society has begun to rebuild itself.
It is strange how remote recent history can seem.