Historians of periods of decadence often refer to a decline in religion, Glubb says, but, if we extend our investigation over a period covering the Assyrians (859-612 B.C.) to our own times, we have to interpret religion in a very broad sense:
Some such definition as ‘the human feeling that there is something, some invisible Power, apart from material objects, which controls human life and the natural world’.
We are probably too narrow and contemptuous in our interpretation of idol worship. The people of ancient civilisations were as sensible as we are, and would scarcely have been so foolish as to worship sticks and stones fashioned by their own hands. The idol was for them merely a symbol, and represented an unknown, spiritual reality, which controlled the lives of men and demanded human obedience to its moral precepts.
We all know only too well that minor differences in the human visualisation of this Spirit frequently became the ostensible reason for human wars, in which both sides claimed to be fighting for the true God, but the absurd narrowness of human conceptions should not blind us to the fact that, very often, both sides believed their campaigns to have a moral background. Genghis Khan, one of the most brutal of all conquerors, claimed that God had delegated him the duty to exterminate the decadent races of the civilised world. Thus the Age of Conquests often had some kind of religious atmosphere, which implied heroic self-sacrifice for the cause.
But this spirit of dedication was slowly eroded in the Age of Commerce by the action of money. People make money for themselves, not for their country. Thus periods of affluence gradually dissolved the spirit of service, which had caused the rise of the imperial races.
In due course, selfishness permeated the community, the coherence of which was weakened until disintegration was threatened. Then, as we have seen, came the period of pessimism with the accompanying spirit of frivolity and sensual indulgence, byproducts of despair. It was inevitable at such times that men should look back yearningly to the days of ‘religion’, when the spirit of self-sacrifice was still strong enough to make men ready to give and to serve, rather than to snatch.
But while despair might permeate the greater part of the nation, others achieved a new realisation of the fact that only readiness for self-sacrifice could nable a community to survive. Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.
In this manner, at the height of vice and frivolity the seeds of religious revival are quietly sown. After, perhaps, several generations (or even centuries) of suffering, the impoverished nation has been purged of its selfishness and its love of money, religion regains its sway and a new era sets in. ‘It is good for me that I have been afflicted,’ said the psalmist, ‘that I might learn Thy Statutes.’