Zero-sum and expansionist thinking and religious policies of pre-modern empires: an analysis framework centered on church-state relations

SUN Yanfei1

(1.Department of Sociology, Zhengjiang University)

【Abstract】Recent scholars of pre-modern empires like to compare pre-modern empires with modern nation-states and stress the propensity of pre-modern empires to tolerate diverse religions and cultures under their control. This emphasis, however, belies the fact that the religious policies of pre-modern empires differ significantly: while some allowed all kinds of religions to exist and flourish, others persecuted heretics and non-believers, and carried out forced conversions. This paper examines the religious policies of 23 pre-modern empires and ranks them into six tiers according to their degree of tolerance towards non-state religions. Arguing against the existing theory that highlights state capacity of empires as the key to explaining their religious tolerance, it proposes a new theory that stresses the nature of the state religion and the related church-state relations. More specifically, it argues that pre-modern empires associated with a state religion that had a zero-sum mentality towards other religions and a strong drive to convert people tended to be intolerant towards non-state religions. Among these empires, those whose political power was more circumscribed by the power of the state religion are found to be even more religiously intolerant.

【Keywords】 pre-modern empires; religious tolerance; church-state relations; zero-sum and expansionist thinking;


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    [1]. (1) The Chinese “基督教” mentioned in this paper corresponds to Christianity in English and is a general designation for all denominations that take Jesus Christ as their savior. [^Back]

    [2]. (2) Zhou has conducted many meaningful discussions on the governance logic of the Chinese Empire in recent years (Zhou, 2014, 2016). However, from a theoretical point of view, there are two problems in his view: first, he ignores the influence of ideology on the logic of an empire’s behavior; and secondly, the various “imperial logics” he proposed and analyzed are often only some general organizational behavior logics, not peculiar to empires. [^Back]

    [3]. (3) When Weber uses the concept of “world religion,” he refers to several major religions or value systems with followers of wide geographical distribution and far-reaching influence on the process of world history. Mann also uses this concept in this sense. For them, world religions generally include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and sometimes Confucianism and Taoism. [^Back]

    [4]. (4) Please refer to Sun (2017). [^Back]

    [5]. (5) This study is still in progress. This paper is the result of the first stage of the study, focusing on the empires that appeared in Eurasia and had great influences on the process of world history. The Buddhist and Hindu empires have yet to be included. [^Back]

    [6]. (6) The religious policies of Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, which were very tolerant of the conquered peoples, were not unique in ancient Near East empires deeply rooted in polytheistic traditions. For political reasons, these empires sometimes forcibly moved people, even desecrated and destroyed their temples, but they all allowed conquered peoples to continue to believe in their gods. [^Back]

    [7]. (7) He was the emperor of the eastern half of the Roman Empire from 379 to 392 and the emperor of the unified Roman Empire from 392 to 395. [^Back]

    [8]. (8) For example, such persecution and conversion occurred during the reigns of the Byzantine emperors Heraclius I (610–641) and Basil I (867–886). [^Back]

    [9]. (9) In the Reconquista, the persecution of Jews began in the 14th century in places that the Spanish forces had regained control from the Muslim regimes. In 1391, social riots and massacres against Jews swept through many cities, forcing a large number of Jews to convert to Christianity. After that, the royal family grew more and more strict with the Jews and formulated and implemented discriminatory policies. In order to identify the hypocrites and heretics among the Jews who converted to Christianity, the royal family established the Inquisition in 1478 (Kamen, 2014). [^Back]

    [10]. (10) “Zero-sum nature” in this paper refers to a state where my gain is your loss, and the more I gain, the more you lose. In other words, zero-sum nature is a strong exclusivity. [^Back]

    [11]. (11) The definition of religion can start from two approaches, namely, functional definition and substantive definition. According to most functional definitions, Confucianism can undoubtedly be regarded as a religion. Most substantive definitions regard interactions with supernatural forces as the most essential feature of religion. According to this definition, Confucianism may not be a typical religion. [^Back]

    [12]. (12) Even so, out of religious piety and fanaticism, individual kings of these empires may deviate from the more tolerant religious policies, which once again proves the dominance of ideology. For example, the Mughal Empire’s Aurangzeb renounced the tolerant policies of previous emperors because of its devout Sunni faith, triggering an insurgency by Hindus and Sikhs, which led to a sharp decline in the country’s fortunes and the empire soon fell apart. [^Back]

    [13]. (13) Advocacy of Ghazan Khan of the Ilkhanate of Islam as the state religion is a typical example. [^Back]


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This Article


CN: 11-1100/C

Vol 34, No. 02, Pages 96-122+244

March 2019


Article Outline


  • 1 Concepts and theories
  • 2 Examined objects
  • 3 Measuring the religious tolerance of empires
  • 4 Interpretations
  • 5 Conclusion and discussions
  • Footnote