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Civilization Theory

Theories in this broad category assert that each major civilization, and perhaps smaller units as well in prehistoric times and remote regions, has a degree of cultural coherence, often marked by a distinctive religion. When two such civilizations come into contact, they compete, sometimes for several centuries, with resultant religious conflict. Also, it seems likely that every civilization eventually will exhaust its central cultural principles and collapse. Thus these theories tend to concern the rise and fall of civilizations (See Gibbon 1776).

Gibbon suggests that the establishment of Christianity as the state religion was an attempt by Constantine and some of his successors to strengthen the Roman Empire. More recent scholars have argued that Christianity did indeed have a characteristic that made it suitable as a stabilizer of the state and perhaps the civilization in which the state was embedded, namely particularism. By rejecting the truth of alternative religions, it asserted a principle of central authority that could be useful to stabilize the governance of a large society (See O’Donnell 1977).

A more general civilization theory was proposed by Oswald Spengler. Spengler asserted that every great civilization was based on a single idea, and when this idea became exhausted, the civilization would fall. For modern, Western civilization the idea was boundless space, and when the Age of Exploration came to an end, by the year 1900, the doom of the west approached. Ideas like Spengler’s continue to be popular among politically conservative intellectuals, some of whom consider Christianity to be the central idea of the West (See Burnham 1964, Buchanan 2002).

Among the modern attempts to develop data that could test or refine civilization theories, the World Values Survey stands out. Publications based on it tend to give a mixed picture, with some evidence that major cultural blocs in the world do indeed have somewhat different values, but perhaps not markedly different (See Inglehart and Baker 2000).  Samuel Huntington was well-known advocate of the idea that civilizations are based on competing and incompatible religious traditions, thereby limiting the extent possibilities concerning inter-civilization cooperation. 


Buchanan, Patrick J. 2002. The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s.

Burnham, James. 1964. Suicide of the West. New York: John Day.

Gibbon, Edward. 1776. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Macmillan.

Huntington, Samuel.  1998.  The Clash of Civilizations.  New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Inglehart, Ronald, and Wayne E. Baker. 2000. “Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values.” American Sociological Review 65: 19-55.

O’Donnell, James J. 1977. “The Demise of Paganism.” Traditio 35:45-88.

Spengler, Oswald. 1926-1928. The Decline of the West. New York: A.A. Knopf.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.

Civil religion represents a diverse tradition of scholarship, but generally refers to public dimensions of religion, and especially to connections between religion and ethno-nationalism.  Robert Bellah, who is credited with coining and popularizing the concept, defines it as “a public religious dimension that is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” (1967: 100).  This is typically conceptualized with regard to the sanctification of political institutions such as the veneration of the U.S. constitution or flag. 

See Gorski, who posits that civil religion exists as a middle ground between fundamentalisms seeking to merge religion and the public sphere and secularists who seek a full separation between public life and religion.  Research on civil religion is typically conducted in a comparative historical fashion, due to its imprecise conceptual boundaries.


A more-or-less coherent system of statements about the world, that often achieve some degree of consensus in a formal religious organization or diffuse religious subculture.  A broader term than religion, ideology refers to a belief system that is constructed and maintained to deal with moral issues in personal experience and social relations.  All adequately functioning humans operate from some form of belief system, which establishes the mental schemas from which they derive patterns of action.

The term ideology has often been used pejoratively to connote belief systems that are considered false or misleading.  This is especially the case from Marxist perspectives.  More recently however, some researchers have moved toward using the term in a more value-neutral manner.  See Gerring (1997) for an overview of the uses of the term. 

For a critical discussion of what stated personal beliefs (and by implication ideology) mean in relation to one's understanding of his or her position relative to others in "social space" see (Martin 2000; Martin and Desmond 2010). 

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