Why modern culture resembles the Middle Ages

Philip Coggan
4 min readNov 24, 2021

Christians often lament the decline in religious belief in western societies. In Britain, for example, the 2021 census is expected to show that only half of adults identify as Christian, down from 71% in 2001. But while fewer people accept the doctrines of the church, secular western societies display many of the impulses and behaviours that marked the Christian world. The virulence of recent debates have even suggested that excommunication has achieved a modern equivalent in the form of “cancel culture”.
The parallels are everywhere. Take asceticism. Many monastic orders were set up by believers who wished to put aside the luxuries of the material world; they renounced their wealth, wore simple clothes and devoted themselves to a life of worship. (Over time, some orders drifted away from these strict precepts.) Modern ascetics give up meat, or travel, in the belief that this is both better for their health and their planet. Like the monks before them, they seem to get spiritual comfort from their self-denial and they like to preach that others should follow their path.
Another medieval habit was for rich people to express their piety by funding the building of churches or granting land to monastic orders. Wealthy people in the modern era tend to fund universities, museums or arts facilities. The medieval rich were hoping that their good works would grant them a place in heaven after their death; their modern counterparts are not just looking for good publicity in the here and now, but hope that their names will be remembered fondly in prosperity.
Over time, the medieval willingness to pay for redemption was turned into a fund-raising system called indulgences, in which people bought pieces of paper which would reduce the time spent by their souls (or the souls of dead relatives) in purgatory, a half-way house between heaven and hell in Catholic doctrine. It may seem remarkable that rich Christians would buy a paper promise that they had no way of checking could be redeemed. But today belief in far-off promises is just as strong as ever. People buy cryptocurrencies with no asset or government backing in the hope that one day, paradise on earth will be achieved in the form of universal acceptance of Bitcoin, Ethereum and the rest.
The modern world also rivals medieval Christendom in its fondness for doctrinal disputes. Transubstantiation is the belief that the bread and wine taken during Communion are literally the body and blood of Christ. Since the bread and wine look quite normal, many have struggled with this interpretation. An alternative view is consubstantiation; that the substances are simultaneously both bread and body, and blood and wine. Taking this latter view could get you excommunicated in the 15th and 16th centuries, or even killed.
The modern equivalent of this debate is over trans people. Many state that “trans women are women” because that is how they define their gender. In all legal and social respects, they argue that they have literally become women. Those feminists who point out that such people are not biologically female, and that allowing biological males into female spaces might cause women to be insecure or threatened, are denounced as transphobic. This divide seems as passionate as those theological debates with trans advocates often refusing to debate with opponents are deemed to have hurtful views.
Religious history is also dotted with cults and sects whose beliefs many modern Christians would struggle to define, and which faded into obscurity. But a secular culture is just as inclined to create new belief systems at the drop of a tweet; it is hard to believe that there will be many supporters of the Qanon cult, with its far-fetched talk of paedophile rings in pizza parlours, in 50 years’ time.
What underlies these parallels are two tendencies prominent in the human psyche. The first is that the world is both complex and apparently arbitrary in the way that it affects people; a child is struck down by disease or a farm is wiped out by drought. Rather than accept the randomness, we seek explanations for our good or bad luck — such as our success, or failure, to please a deity. The modern world is even more complex than the medieval one and that may explain why modern conspiracy theories are often so convoluted.
The second tendency is the desire to identify with a group. In the absence of a tribe, we create our own, based on our political beliefs, sporting enthusiasm or nationality. We may have little else in common with the other people in this group but we still identify with them. Even more importantly, we distrust those who are not members of the tribe; indeed this distrust forms part of the bonding experience. It is not enough to be right; others must be proved wrong.
The internet makes it much easier to find fellow members of our tribe, and to wage verbal battle with those of opposing groups. A secular world is not necessarily more rational than a religious one. Perhaps the most fitting motto for the age is a saying attributed to the novelist GK Chesterton. “When men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything”. Many people believe he said this, but there is no record in his written works.

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Philip Coggan

Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine