How and Why Religions Die // The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins

I found the book in a local bookstore near the local farmers market, and opened it up to this quote:

May religions perish of disease or only violence?

James Bissett Pratt

It is an interesting question, how a religion lives and dies? If we’re interested in preserving or ending a religion, we ought to know what its weaknesses are.

Nietzsche said,

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Nietzsche believed that rejection of God would force us to reject absolute values themselves. A hundred years later we see that this is obviously true to some degree. We see it in the cultural acceptance of nihilism and moral relativism. We see it in the media and in pop culture. But people are tired of living meaningless inherent in nihilism, and a counterculture is growing in response.

Universally preferable behavior (UPB), the non-aggression principle (NAP), the moral landscape and the concept of using science to determine human values all exist as atheistic laws of objective morality. We need a philosophy of ethics to fill the casket of a dead god.

Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?


Eastern Christianity expressed Nietzsche’s same sentiment with a slightly more optimistic tone some several hundred years before,

For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.

AthanasiusBishop of Alexandria

The concept of the Holy Trinity in Christianity is one just one place where the religion crosses the line between reality and the mystical. Humans abstracted the idea of God to be the ideal of perfection. A perfection we knew we would never obtain, so we could spend the rest of our lives trying desperately to obtain it.

The Lost History of A Global Christianity

As sad as it is to admit, the majority of Americans know nothing about the history of Christianity. We know it came from the Middle East to the West, and that Jesus wasn’t cool with Caesar. Teaching religion in America is so politicized, we’ve decided not to teach history at all.

Schools teach confusion and disconnected facts. When the reality is that family, race, and religion are all entangled. Understanding how they influence the world is essential for understanding our evolution as a culture, and ourselves as people.

The history of the Christianity is not as whitewashed as The American Textbook Council would have you believe. Christianity is not just a Western European tradition. For hundreds of years, it had a global reach from out of the Middle East into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Christianity did not become uniquely European until,

  • The Arab invasion of Africa in the 600’s. Before then, the major cities of Rome were seated in Africa and speaking Latin.
  • The outlaw of Christianity by the Ming dynasty in China. Before then, the Nestorians had spread the religion in Asia among the Mongols from the 600’s to 1500’s.
  • The conversion of pagans, and overthrow of Muslims in Spain in the 1500’s.

Identity Entanglement: Ethnicities, Families, States, and Religions


Ethnicity and religion are deeply connected. In the early days of Muslim jihad, Muslims had a hard time keeping the faith together. They fought two civil wars in the 600’s, and two more in the 700’s. At a time when the religion was fracturing their Arab identity was the primary foundation that kept the religion intact.

Muslims were slow to identify themselves as a distinct religion wholly separate from jews and Christians matters were seen on ethnic terms Muslims and Christians but of Arabs and Syrians.

Philip JenkinsThe Lost History of Christianity

Arabs became Muslims, and the Syrians became Muslim-light. The Syrians maintained cultural aspects of Christianity because they were Christians for hundreds of years before Muslim rule.

In the Shiite tradition, for instance, the Alawites made up just 11 percent of the population of Syria, but they hold disproportionate political power under the Asad family and the Baathist Party, which has been in office since 1970. They not only venerate the prophet Ali but see him as an incarnation of God - an idea that appalls orthodox Muslims. They have a special devotion for Jesus, they celebrate some Christian holidays, and Christian elements survive in their liturgy as of the people of light, seeking salvation in a world of darkness. In older sources, they are usually called Nusayris be descriptive: it means “little Christians.”

Philip JenkinsThe Lost History of Christianity

A sliver of Shittes religious history can shed a bit of light on the issue of why the Shiites are a continually persecuted minority in the region.


All Abrahamic religions are familial descendants of Abraham. The shared history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was one that united them against the pagans.

Under Muslim rule:

Christians were treated better than other groups, who did not qualify as approved and tolerated People of the Book. In theory, we might expect the Zoroastrian religion to have been persecuted from the beginning, as the Quran condemned fire worshipers as pagan. In fact, Muslims attitudes were initially more favorable, only gradually were harsher standards applied. Increasingly, Muslims destroyed the fire temples and built mosques on the sites; churches, in contrast, operated publicly.

Philip JenkinsThe Lost History of Christianity

While a shared history and descent can unify, it can also divide. As is the case with the fundamental split between Muslims between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and the Muslims and the Christians at large.

Underlying the struggle between the Christians and Muslims is the fact that theirs is, ultimately, a conflict within a family, and no feud is more bitter.

Philip JenkinsThe Lost History of Christianity


The political affiliation between Church and State is always risky for both parties. Which is why there is no such divide in the Islamic faith. State protection can help a religion survive, as it did when the Christian united across countries in Europe to protect themselves from Muslim invasions.

Or religions and states can turn on each other. Spliting on political lines, when one identity take precedence over another.

This is what happened with this Christians in Mesopotamia and China who came to be seen as tools for the Mongol conquerors. Japanese Christians were targets as potential allies of European imperialism; Latin Christians in the Levan, and the advance guard of the crusader movement.

Philip JenkinsThe Lost History of Christianity

How do Religions Die?

Religions die like all group identities. They die when extinguished, forgoten, or abandoned. Our group identities are only tools; tools that can unify us or divide us.

We all bleed together, but sing songs of suffering in different languages.

We know this true because it’s so impossibly difficult to say where one identity ends and another begins.

  • Judaism a religion, for the Jewish people, in the State of Israel.
  • Islam requires that prayers be said, in Arabic.
  • America is one country, under God.

Identities are like phenotypic traits and tend to come as pairs.

  • Blonde hair, blue eyes. American Christian.
  • Chinese Buddhist. Small noses, wide cheeks.
  • Sunni Muslim. Libyan Arab.

People have multiple, sometimes conflicting identities. Ultimately, people choose to identify with whatever group they believe is most “like them”. Whether that’s in appearance status or disposition.

We all have identities we inherit, and identities we co-create. Every individual needs group identities because we are social animals. As social animals, we need an identity to root us in tradition, and an identity to move us forward into action.

Religions and languages span multiple states. States encompass people of various religions and ethnicities. Despite the current totalitarian laws of a politically correct dominant culture, there is nothing wrong or inherently evil about identifying connections between race, religion, and culture.

Why do Religions Die?

Religions die for the same reason states fall, the same reason species go extinct.

Religions die because they are only human.