In March I explained why religion behaves as it does, why people feel compelled to join religions, and what religions do to people.
In that entry, I did say that religions are inherently pretentious. This is not quite 100% true, though for all modern religions that have little or no connection to either the current power structure or to scientific fact yet profess to know the keys to metaphysical concepts are quite pretentious. However, in the past there have been what we'd recognize as religions that show us that it's possible to have a religion with little or no pretense. These religions drew clear lines to actual power and authority, whereby worship was given to a real entity with real power over the worshippers.
Now, we need to get a couple of concepts out of the way before this concept can really gel in our head. The first is what is meant by "God". In the Abrahamic religions, which most readers will be familiar with, "God" is this all powerful, birthless, deathless being who is the virtual embodiment of the universe. This concept of God contrasts with the classical idea of a god, which to our current mind just means any entity who has overwhelming power and unusually long life. You will note that this is not at all incompatible with a strong central government, that wields overwhelming power and exists for many decades. Hmm. We'll come back to this.
The second concept is to assume, for a moment, that God is real, and all the crazy Christians/Muslims/Jews in the world aren't just talking to themselves. What, then, do we make of all their prayers, rituals, etc? Well, it turns out that these activities make a lot of sense, if God is actually real. Prayer is a request to a superior, rituals show both your solidarity to the leader and your submission to his will. As a bonus, the feeling the people get from being a part of a large and powerful
Of course, no God by the Abrahamic tradition exists, to the best of our knowledge, and worshiping the Universe itself seems pretty silly, since it can't address your concerns, accept your praise, or appreciate your loyalty to it.
Clearly, for an authoritarian, reactionary government, these mechanics are highly desirable. A well-defined communication method** with the sovereign, endorphin rewards for loyalty to the King, AND a buffer against public unrest? Where do I sign up?
But wait! There's more!
While most modern religions use their tribal influence as a conduit for falsehood, it's possible to use religion as a conduit for truth. Consider, for instance, that a God who is not expected to be entirely omniscient has no dogmatic qualms. If the science changes, his dogma changes, simple as that. In order to illustrate how smoothly this change can occur, we shall take a brief look at the Chinese Communist Party leader, Deng Xiaoping, who successfully reversed Maoist policy without significant backlash. As a second illustration of the merits of state religion, consider beginner science texts, such as A Briefer History of Time, which illustrates advanced scientific concepts in an easily digestible way. Its explanations may not be entirely perfect from a scientific perspective, but they're good enough for the average Joe. In a similar fashion, a state religion can be an explanation of advanced governance concepts, which would otherwise be inaccessible to the common person. It is probably this quality that makes a state religion most desirable to the reactionary, since one of the most prized aspects of reactionary government is honesty. With a state religion, the government can be open, using the pulpit to explain complex concepts in simple terms, in a way more elegant than just handing out copies of The Government For Dummies.
How does one establish this state religion on top of the mess of various religions who have all been shown "tolerance" for many decades? Well, it's reasonably simple. People tend to worship anything that seems like a good idea, from Jesus, to Elvis, to Naruto characters, which means that the first step is to get yourself power*** as the sovereign. The second is for you, the sovereign to revitalize the country, and cause the majority of people to love you. For this you must court the people, an activity distinct from being beholden to the people. Is Lady Gaga popular? Yes. Do her fans collectively determine her touring schedule? No. The final step, after the corners of your society begin to wear amulets to you around their necks, is to culture this budding religion, guide it, and ensure that it works to your aims. Voila, you are now a God-Emperor!
Whoopsie, did I just propose an Empire where the leader is literally worshipped by the people as a God? My bad.
*For an illustration of just how powerful this effect can be, observe the differences in attitudes of the Japanese soldiers towards the end of the Second World War and Russian soldiers toward the end of the First. Striking, isn't it?
**In this system, prayer would be via letter or email. We have not yet developed the technology to mentally communicate directly with your sovereign. Sorry.
***Or, you know, someone else, if you are too much of a pussy to do it yourself.