The Long View: The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century

This is a seminal essay that John wrote for a presentation at the annual conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in Minnesota, USA in 2005. He synthesizes many of his ideas into a broader prediction of the 21st century.

The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century


By John J. Reilly
For the 34th Annual Conference of the
International Society for the
Comparative Study of Civilizations
Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
June 9-11, 2005


The term "Second Religiousness" was used by Oswald Spengler in his great metahistorical study, The Decline of the West, to mean the final phase in the spiritual development of a civilization. (1) This phase arrives "after history," when all internal development is over, and the only change possible is accident or syncretism. To put it briefly, this refers to a time when the primordial religion comes back: holy people, holy law, holy places overshadow the theological systems that the civilization creates earlier in its history, as well as the skepticism that briefly replaces religion among the educated. With the coming of the Second Religiousness, there is no longer any great divide between popular and elite opinion on these matters.

It is easy to multiply examples of what Spengler was talking about: popular Sufism, and later Wahhabism, in Islam; millenarian Taoism in China; emperor-worship and Stoic piety in the Roman world. All comparative studies of civilizations are a footnote to Spengler: this paper is a footnote to a footnote, the one on page 311 of the second volume of The Decline of the West. There, Spengler says the Second Religiousness still lies many generations in the future of the West, but he speculates briefly about what the Western Second Religiousness would look like when it finally arrives:

"It is perhaps possible for us to make some guess as to these forms, which (it is self-evident) must lead back to certain elements of Gothic Christianity. But be this as it may, what is quite certain is that they will not be the product of any literary taste for Late-Indian or Late-Chinese speculation, but something of the type, for example, of Adventism and suchlike sects." (2)

Well, here we are, at least three generations after that was published in 1922, so let us take another look.

Here is the gist of Spengler's model of history. The notion is that at least some societies develop in roughly the same way over a period of between 1,000 and 1,500 years. They begin as feudal societies organized by common metaphysical insights; they become increasingly urban and develop those insights into characteristic art and philosophy and politics; they enter a period corresponding to Western modernity, which Spengler dates to the French Revolution, that is intellectually skeptical and politically chaotic; finally, they enter the age of Caesarism and full civilization. By then, as a rule, the international system has collapsed into what Spengler called the Imperium Mundi, and which Arnold Toynbee would later call a "universal state." The Second Religiousness is the spiritual complement of Caesarism.

We should note two things about this outline. One is that, considered just as a narrative structure, it is very close to Northrop Frye's definition of a "comedy," meaning a form of drama in which what was hidden and implicit in the first act is revealed and explicit in the last. (3) The other is that it is actually not a bad description of the ancient Mediterranean world through the end of the Western Roman Empire and of China through the Latter Han. It works after a fashion for the second round of Chinese history and, maybe, for the Middle East. It also seems to work well for the West in the second millennium. Why should the model work? That is a good question. (4) All that concerns us here, however, is that the model suggests that modernity in the West will end in something like the way the Hellenistic Period and the Era of Contending States ended in antiquity.

Spengler and Toynbee both assert that the world of late civilization becomes resacralized, not because the critical intelligence is repressed or underfunded, but because it refutes itself. We can empathize with this: postmodernism, someone said, is not a philosophy, but a "bag of tricks." (5) To the metahistorians, that is the fate of every great philosophical tradition. It becomes a canon, an armory of techniques, which no longer makes strong claims to truth. According to Toynbee, this is what happens then:

"If we pass to our examination of the complementary movements in which the philosophers of the dominant minority make their approach towards the religions of the internal proletariat, we shall find that on this side the processes begins earlier, besides going farther. It begins in the first generation after the breakdown; and it passes from curiosity through devoutness into superstition." (6)

Toynbee, at least in his later period, did not regard this transition as much of a loss, because he became convinced that the meaning of history is the development of the higher religions. Civilizations, and particularly the universal states into which they collapse in their final stage, can be justified only because they act as chrysalises for Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam: add your own examples. Notice that Toynbee was no longer thinking just about the religious future of the West, but of the whole world, which he held was moving toward an ecumenical society.

In the middle of the 20th century, Toynbee was not the only person having thoughts along these lines. In 1956, William Ernest Hocking, the theology-friendly Harvard Pragmatist, published what I think is a remarkable little book called The Coming World Civilization. (7) It scarcely speculates about what that civilization will be like. Rather, the book argues that any society must have some transcendent basis, and goes on to discern what the transcendent basis for a universal society must be.

Little of what Hocking says is original, but is nonetheless important. For instance:

"[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art — the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command...

"We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We have taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

"We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things." (8)

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. (9) Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the inner disposition of the individual is essential. Political rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Hocking was keen to link the basis of science with the basis of religion. He tells us that the experience of the Thou, of a rational Other, is the foundation of science, and is identical to the intuition of the existence of God. Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. For instance, the will to futurity is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer.

As an aside here, we may note that, in Spengler's system, the era of the Second Religiousness is also the period in physical science becomes another finished canon. Spengler's favorite example is Classical mathematics, which culminated in Euclidian geometry and then just stopped, though there were plenty of teachers of mathematics for centuries afterward. If you need a parallel example today, it might be the search for a Theory of Everything. Curiously, Stephen Jay Gould's last book on popular science, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox (10), outlined a model for integrating science and humane learning, including religion, by using the concept of "non-overlapping magisteria," which is very similar to Hocking's model. What Gould wants to avoid is the sociobiological reductionism that his colleague, E. O. Wilson, advocated in his book Consilience.

In any case, what Hocking was trying to do was to end inter-religious controversy, and for that he employs a form of existentialism. Start with this premise: the sense of sin is not an artificial guilt created by an external command, but a direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand. When Hocking talks about religious unity in the world civilization, he was not predicting a new revelation. He advocated that the existing great religious traditions accept that they are united at their summits, where creed becomes wordless experience. (Again, if you are familiar with René Guénon or Frithjof Schuon, none of this will sound new. (11)) Hocking did argue that Christianity would play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era, because the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

One might note that the necessity for a transcendent basis of world order has not been lost on the Bush Administration. In his Second Inaugural Address, President Bush identified the transcendent basis of the United States as the principle that legitimizes America's role in the world:

"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth." (12)

This aspect of 21st-century geopolitics is one of the key themes of Walter Russell Mead's essential book, Power, Terror, Peace, and War. (13) Mead accepts the Bush Administration's assessment that nothing less than the Kantian Peace of a world of liberal republics can ensure the security of the United States. Unlike Kant, though, Mead recognizes that any world consensus for world order must have some basis less self-referential than the Categorical Imperative. Meade argues that there are two reasons to applaud the appearance of conservative ecumenism in the United States among Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox Jews. The first is that, by deploying Realpolitik for moral ends, American governments can hope for a level of domestic political support that, frankly, Cold War internationalism never enjoyed. The second is that a conspicuously religious America can actually make the United States a more attractive partner to much of the world. It is not Christianity that offends Muslims, Mead argues, but atheism. American hegemony is in competition with secular transnationalism, and it is not at all clear that the secular transnationalists have a long-term advantage.

This raises the question of just what kind of transcendent the world wants. Hocking said that Christianity should deal with modernity by divesting itself of its own mythological and cultural baggage, so that it can become less Western and more Christian. Well, now we know better. "Exculturation" refers to the process by which a religious denomination becomes disassociated from the surrounding culture. (14) It may reject its own traditions to meet the believer afresh, the way a missionary would. Many denominations and religious institutions actually tried this in the last half of the 20th century; they lost their old audience and gained no new one. The prospects for a worldwide religious revival have not dimmed with the passing decades, however. The irony is that the religion of an ecumenical society cannot be Hocking's Christian existentialism, but it might be Pentecostalism.

This, at any rate is what one might gather from Philip Jenkins's book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. (15) Anyone who foresees a Muslim future is going to be gravely disappointed, he says, if for no other reason than that Christianity is well represented in the countries with the fastest-growing populations. In fact, that has been the case for centuries, even though the areas of growth have changed. Demographics are the least of it, however.

In general, he characterizes the Christianity of the South (which, oddly, includes the East, except for Japan) as visionary, charismatic, apocalyptic. At the same time, it is also theologically and culturally conservative. Jenkins points out that, when the Vatican reasserts dogmas that seem to Europeans and Americans to run against the tide of history, it is in fact simply responding to the Church's key demographics.

Jenkins cites repeatedly Harvey Cox's noted study of the worldwide spread of Pentecostal worship, Fire from Heaven. (16) By Pentecostalism, Jenkins does not mean principally the self-identified Pentecostal denominations, important though those are. More important is the spread of a pluripotent spirituality through the older denominations. If present trends continue, there will be a billion Pentecostals, variously defined, by 2050.

Jenkins says that, in much of the South in which this spirituality is spreading, we are back in the world of the New Testament. Much of the world is becoming urbanized in chaotic megalopolises The displaced people there need communities, and services that the government cannot provide, which in part explains the growth of the new churches. In the long run, Jenkins suggests, the greater threat to secular McWorld may not be the Jihad, but the Crusade. The North could eventually define itself against Christianity.

Reasonable people might quarrel with Jenkins' conclusions, and for that matter with his facts. He himself points out that there is a long tradition on both the Right and Left in developed countries of using the South for rhetorical purposes. A generation ago, the radical Left said that political battles that were lost in the West would be won in the South and East. Now conservatives are saying the same thing. One suspects that the Right will be just as surprised by what actually happens as the Left ever was.

So far we have been eliding the difference between the future spiritual state of the West and that of the rest of the world. That actually makes more sense in Toynbee's model, which, as we have seen, tries to understand world history in terms of spiritual evolution. But let us take a look at the final form of the West, or at least of the Western tradition.

When both Spengler and Toynbee wrote about the future, they had a preference for images of blood and iron, which was perfectly reasonable, considering the era in which they lived. It would be rash to assume that we have all the blood and iron behind us. However, these models of history that foresee the end of modernity also see the beginning of an era of peace, when all the great questions are answered. Francis Fukuyama wrote a book about this 15 years ago; the thesis of The End of History (17) can still be defended, even if its application to current events seems in retrospect premature. Fukuyama is not a Spenglerian, but Hermann Hesse was, for some purposes. If you want an image of the world of the Second Religiousness, you could do much worse than to read The Glass Bead Game. (18)

We get no dates, but the novel seems to be set around the beginning of the early 24th century. The age of wars has ended. We learn that major historical events no longer happen in the Occident. The Catholic Church seems to be as influential again as it was in the High Middle Ages. There is a lively intellectual life, but it is directed toward competition in a sort of game show, the "Glass Bead Game" of the title. Scholars in that period have to struggle to understand what the past meant by terms like "Bohemian" and "avant-garde," or even "revolutionary." Modernity is called "the Age of Wars" or the "Age of the Feuilleton," thus suggesting a connection between universal disorder and a culture that lacked intellectual seriousness. The Introduction puts it like this:

"The world had changed. The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to the pruning back of the plant to its roots...[It had] become common knowledge, or at least a universal sense, that the continuance of civilization depends on this strict schooling. People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer's slide rule and the computations of banks and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization -- technology, industry, commerce, and so on -- also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality." (19)

This is oddly reminiscent of the account of the Roman Empire that Peter Brown gave in The Making of Late Antiquity. (20) The more common view has it that the glittering culture of the empire in the second century masked a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. The civil wars and economic immiseration of the third century simply revealed the real state of things. Many historians who say this also characterize the rise of Christianity as a "loss of nerve," as men fled from reason in a world that no longer seemed to make sense. Brown, however, says that the fusion of piety, culture, and society under the high empire was adaptive, because it served to prevent the recurrence of the excesses of the late Republic.

Brown keeps the conventional structure, but changes the plus and minus signs. Maybe the culture of the Antonine period was more interested in the performance of classical styles than in creation; that is where Hesse's Glass Bead Game comes in. However, the formalities of Antonine culture did serve to channel private ambition. At the local level, the empire ran on the competition between notables to garner popularity through providing public amenities. Roman politics during the Republic had degenerated into a potlatch of vote-buying; the control of the state was at stake. Two centuries later, competition took the more seemly form of privately financed infrastructure and religious festivals; generally, the only thing at stake was good repute, which was quite enough.

What was true politically was also true spiritually. The empire in the second century did not lack for cults and proselytizers. For the most part, however, such wizards kept their claims limited. Toward their colleagues, they were tactful. Ordinary people believed that they had direct access to the supernatural through oracles (the gods spoke notoriously good Greek in this period) and through dreams. Brown repeatedly mentions the dream-compendium of Artemidorus, composed around AD 140, which reports dreams from all around the Mediterranean, along with their interpretations. Some of these dreams were quite dramatic. In other cultures, at other times, they might have launched the careers of prophets and conquerors. In the Antonine empire, in contrast, their use was diagnostic. Indeed, Freud cited Artemidorus as a sort of forerunner.

This condition did not last after Marcus Aurelius, but Brown emphasizes that the empire of the third century was not seized by superstitious hysteria. (21) Quite the opposite: people saw the supernatural as just another of life's problems. As in the second century, people in the later empire believed they encountered the supernatural daily. The difference was that they tried to limit their contact with it.

In the third century, the mechanisms that had dampened ambition no longer worked. This development was overdetermined: civil war, barbarian invasion, monetary inflation; the list is well known. The traditional life of the towns and smaller cities did not break down, but exploded upward, seeking powerful protectors. Society everywhere became more pyramidal. The powerful mined civic life, sometimes even diverting public buildings to private use. One is reminded of privatization in some post-Communist countries, particularly in the former Soviet Union and once-upon-a-time Yugoslavia.

Something similar happened spiritually. In the third century, the "debate about the holy" became a matter of life and death, of salvation and damnation. The great anxiety of the age, in Brown's telling, was to sort out saints from sorcerers. Just as in public life people sought reliable connections to the center of power, so in spiritual practice people sought out "friends of God," who could be relied on not to exploit the connection. The early Christian desert fathers gained credibility precisely because they did not promise magical effects.

Is this the future? I don't know. One thing is certain, though: Oswald Spengler inspired some really great science fiction, of which perhaps the best-known example is Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. (22) In those books, a scholar named Hari Seldon develops a model for predicting the future, and he tries to ensure the best of all possible outcomes for crises that will occur long after his death. During one of those crises, a group of politicians meet, and ask what Seldon meant them to do. They finally realize that, if Seldon long ago could see the answer to their problems, then they should be able to see it now that Seldon's future had arrived.

That will always be sound advice.


(1) The Decline of the West, Volume I, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1926; German original 1918), p. 424.

(2) The Decline of the West, Volume II, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1928; German original 1922), p. 311note

(3) Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrop Frye (Princeton University Press, 1957; Paperback 1990). Comedy is defined on pages 43, 44, but see Frye's own views on Spengler at 160, 343. Note also that Spengler himself said that Western civilization is uniquely tragic, because it insists on a historical goal even after history is over: see Spengler, Decline, Volume I, p. 365.

(4) The use of the "generation" as a fixed quantum of historical change has, perhaps, rendered parallels in the pace of historical change in different societies a little less mysterious. For a popular treatment, see Generations: History of America's Future, 1584—2029, by William Strauss & Neil Howe (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991).

(5) See, for instance, "A Bag of Tired Tricks," by B. R. Meyers: Atlantic Monthly, May 2005 (

(6) A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement (Oxford University Press, 1947), Volume I, p. 478

(7) The Coming World Civilization, by William Ernest Hocking (Harper & Brothers, 1956)

(8) Hocking, pp. 6, 7

(9) Ibid.

(10) The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities, by Stephen Jay Gould (Harmony Books, 2003)

(11) The modern doctrine of the transcendental unity of religions is called "traditionalism" or "Tradition." The leading study is Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, by Mark Sedgwick (Oxford University Press, 2004).

(12) See:

(13) Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, by Walter Russell Mead (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

(14) The term "exculturation" was coined by the French sociologist, Danièle Hervieu-Léger. My use of it here, as a self-destructive modernizing tendency in religions, follows that of Gianni Ambrosio in his article, "On the Future of Catholicism in France" (English title from the Italian original), in La Rivista del Clero Italiano (No. 12, 2004), which was excerpted for the English-language version of Chiesa (May 9, 2005) by Sandro Magister (

(15) The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2002)

(16) Fire from Heaven, by Harvey Cox (Reading, MA; Addison-Wesley, 1995)

(17) The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama (The Free Press, 1992)

(18) Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse: German Original Das Glasperlenspiel (1943); English Translation by Richard and Clara Winston (Bantam Books, 1986)

(19) Hesse, pp. 24-26

(20) The Making of Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown (Harvard University Press Paperback, 1993). The book contains the Carl Newell Jackson lectures of 1976.

(21) An issue that lies beyond the scope of this paper is Spengler's interpretation of Christianity as a development of the Springtime of what he calls the Magian Culture of the Near East, a Culture part of whose territory happened to be controlled by Greco-Roman Civilization during the latter's Winter. One result of this accidental overlap was "pseudomorphosis," the cloaking of Magian spirit in Classical form. An example might be the cult of Apollonius Tyana, a Sophist contemporary of Jesus with a reputation as a wonderworker. Scholars of the New Testament often point out the formal similarity between the canonical Gospels and the early third-century biography of Apollonius by Philostratus. (See, e.g., What is a Gospel? by Charles H. Talbert (Fortress Press, 1977).) The difference is that we must imagine that the Sermon on the Mount dealt with the benefits of a high-fiber diet.

(22) Foundation (1951); Foundation and Empire (1952); Second Foundation (1953), by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday & Company)