by Zbigniew Brzezinski


Extracted from

"Between Two Ages - America's Role in the Technetronic Era"






The crucial breakthrough in the development of human self-awareness on a mass scale came with the great religions - the first universal syntheses that simultaneously expanded man's vision both vertically and horizontally:

  • vertically, to define in extended and complex terms man's relationship to a God that was not a small group's alone but everyone's

  • horizontally, to articulate a series of imperatives that governed man's obligations to man on the grounds that all shared the divine spark

Universalism thus emerged as a state of mind even at a time when man was still provincial and isolated in mutually exclusive social-cultural compartments.

Accordingly, the birth of the universal religions represents the appearance of humanity qua humanity.


The assertion of man's equality before God in terms of his spirit, his conscience, or his soul, laid the basis for the transcendental importance of the human being and for the much later assertion of the equality of men in their political and social dimensions.


In that sense, proselytizing Christianity, which universalized the more limited Greek and Judaic tradition, was a particularly revolutionary force and was viewed as such by established authority, in spite of the distinction it made between equality before God and obeisance to Caesar on Caesar's terms.


If human history can be said to involve both a struggle and an evolution toward the progressive liberation of man, then the attainment of equality before the supernatural was the first major step on that road.

But early man could neither control nor comprehend either himself or his environment.


Both were essentially a mystery, a given to be accepted, whatever the pains of life might be.

As a consequence, the distant future became a much more intense object of preoccupation than the immediate present.

The inability to cope effectively with disease, plagues, infant mortality, a short life span, or natural disasters such as floods and crop blights prompted man to seek refuge in all-encompassing definitions of his reality.


These in turn provided at least partial justification for the view that human endeavor was futile and for the necessity of accepting events with fatalism.


By taking refuge in an autonomous, distant, divine future, man relieved himself of the obligation to struggle intensely with the present under circumstances he was neither intellectually nor practically prepared for.

Even the notion of "free will" - a central component of the most activist of the great religions, Christianity -  basically involved an inner act of conscience necessary for the state of grace, rather than a point of departure for morally motivated external action.


No stress was placed on the struggle to improve external conditions, because the unstated assumption was that they could not be fundamentally improved.


The emphasis was on the inner man:

by riveting his attention on the universal and the divine future, man could master the present by simply ignoring it.

Minimum social action was matched by maximum commitment to the supernatural.

To meet the central need of their time - mainly, to provide man with a firm mooring in a world which could not be comprehended  - and to assert firm control over man's spirit,

religious beliefs crystallized into dogmas and were organized into institutions.*


The more individually demanding the religion, the higher was the degree of institutionalization.

(This has prompted the analogies made by a number of scholars between Islam and Christianity on the one hand and communism on the other.) 5


With the institutionalization came more activism (the Crusades and the 'holy wars' of Islam) and the exercise of muscle by religious organizations on their environment.


Power was asserted, however, to extend the conquest of the spirit, not to effect social change.


The institutionalization of belief thus combined two functions:

  • it was the zealots' self-defense mechanism against a non-believing environment

  • it was a tool for sustained proselytizing, one designed not only to win over adherents but to overcome the inertial resistance of the masses, who were largely indifferent to spiritual requirements 6

Although Christianity has been the most activist of the great religions and has thereby laid the basis for the subsequent secular revolutionary movements that have dominated Western history, the process of institutionalization - and hence the emergence on the part of organized religion of a stake in the status quo - has tended to mute the radical message in the Christian concept of history:

the movement toward salvation "on earth as in Heaven"...

Thus in practice the Christian churches have gradually come to accept social stratification and even to benefit from it (as in Latin America), and some Lutheran varieties have even come to sanction in dogma concepts of racial inequality that are at extreme variance with the initial egalitarian revolution represented by the new Christian relationship between God and man.

The other great religions have been more passive - both in practice and in theory.


Buddhism does not contain imperatives for social change but offers salvation from reality.

Unlike Christianity, nirvana did not serve as a springboard for temporal activism.

Similarly, Islam's dominant strain of fatalism has worked against the presence of at least that element of tension between "eternal peace" and "heaven on earth" that is so strong in Christianity and that has prompted its repressed activism. 7





* I do not propose - nor do I feel qualified - to become involved in the debate among Marxists, Freudians, and Jungians concerning the autonomy and the functionality of religious development. My concern here is with the emergence of a conceptual and institutional framework for defining man's relationship to his reality.

† An extreme example is provided by the Catholic Church's insistence on celibacy. As one scholar has noted, "Celibacy ensured for it an exclusive loyalty of its personnel that was unavailable to other modern religious institutions. It often contributed to its amazing capacity to resist secular authority. It is worth noting in passing that churches with married priesthoods, be they Lutheran, Anglican, or Greek Orthodox (the latter allowing marriage only for the lower orders of priests), have not been able to stand up against secular authority in a way comparable to that of the Catholic Church. The Protestant and Orthodox churches have typically been servants and appendages of secular authority. They rarely could afford to resist it. One reason for this was precisely that their clerical personnel was deeply involved in the mesh of civil social life" (Lewis A. Coser, "Greedy Organizations," European Journal of Sociology, Vol. 7, 1967, p. 206).


5. See, for example, Jules Monnerot, Sociology and Psychology of Communism, Boston, 1960.

6. In this connection, interesting data are provided by Jacques Toussaert, Le Sentiment religieux en Flandre a la fin du Moyenage, Paris, 1963.

7. "The writer knows of no instance in present day South Asia where religion has induced social change" (Myrdal, p. 103). See also Teilhard de Chardin, pp. 20911, for a discussion of the passivity of oriental religions, and Kavalam M. Panikkar, Hindu Society at Cross Roads, Bombay, 1955.