Ideological warfare dominates our past, present and future. As empires rise and fall among the many civilisations known to mankind, we must understand the role of ideology. As Aristotle points out, we are ‘political animals’ prone to ideology and emotion. The concept of ideology involves political science, theology and philosophy. Within our daily lives, there are traces of ideological systems and beliefs: no matter the effort, humanity will never rid itself of ideological difference, and therefore, conflict. ‘Ideological Warfare’ explains this tension and we can use it to explain a variety of conflicts: The Balkans in the mid to late 20th century, the Viking invasion of England, the conversion of the Middle East to Islam and of course, World War II.

Yet a man can have an ideology and still control himself. He may profess conservativism and not have a hostile response to a progressive. Thanks to concepts such as human rights, dignity of the individual and tolerance, it is unmodern and therefore, unenlightened to submit to dogmatic actions and thoughts. Yet these notions are difficult to maintain and we should not assume they come naturally to all. Tolerance also comes at a price: by allowing opposing ideas to spread and gain dominance, this can crush and persecute your own position. Karl Popper calls this the ‘Paradox of Tolerance.’ Yet there is little distinguishment between ideas and behaviour. Even if my ideology does not call for the extermination of an ethnicity, this does not make my behaviour unextreme or rational. Such is the power of ideology that it infects our behaviours and unconscious mind. As implied earlier, there is no escape from this.

One aspect of modernity is re-evaluating ancient and medieval societies, which come under new scrutiny and moral judgements. The most notorious example is Medieval Christendom. Thanks to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the severity of our judgement has only increased with time. Portrayals of religious fanatics and persecution reign over our perception of the Middle Ages. One group earning sympathy in our modern age are the Cathars. This comes from an odd, ideological diverse place – filmmakers working for film producers, popular historians and certain Nazis like Alfred Rosenberg. And there is something seductive and sympathetic about the Cathars, the group of heretics from Southern France and Northern Italy, who walked into the pyre, where they’d burn for their sins. 

It may seem as if our world is becoming less religious – unlike the past, where religious warfare ruled and crushed dissidents. However, we must understand that religion thrived as it fulfilled the desires for meaning, connection, power, community, purpose and knowledge. Ideologies and religions gain prominence and spread when they can fulfill these aspects, as did the Medieval Church. Because of this, we should view medieval and ancient cultures as reliant on the Church. This goes well beyond making laws and into the realm of becoming the lifeblood for the citizens. Therefore, religion is suited to human nature and it will continue to thrive as long as we desire purpose. As a result of this, I question the ongoing power of secularism. It is questionable to depict mankind as no longer requiring meaning or connection. Even as the Enlightenment dawned on Europe, religion was, and still is, prominent in the world today. Much of the global population belongs to a religion, with special emphasis required for Islam, Hinduism and Eastern Christianity.  

Religion is more than a matter of culture, art, ethnicity, nationhood or political power – ideology is incredibly important to understanding the towering importance of religion. Although we can analyse the Cathar heresy on terms of economics, geography and class, there is little point in ignoring ideology. As Solzhenitsyn warns, ideology is the justification for tyrants. But it’s also the key to understanding the supporters of tyrants as well as liberators.

There is little point in denying the mythos of the Cathars, however. Since the Crusade against them, the Cathars have entered folklore and gained sympathisers, romantic portrayals, increased tourism to Southern France as well as more historians doing scholarship on the Cathars. Much of this is due to their status as a persecuted faith during the Middle Ages. Yet perhaps there is more. By sympathising with the Cathars on ideological grounds, we communicate our disapproval of the medieval Church and culture. This is essentially the core reason why the Cathars appeal to a contemporary audience, who take fault with the Catholic Church and broader Christendom. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own perspectives on religion, even if I disagree. However, I’m not sure glorifying and undercutting the threat the Cathars posed does any favours.

For one, the Cathars were a threat. This does not justify the persecution against them. Yet if the Cathars are converting and spreading their message which counteracts the core medieval Christian theology, then that’s a clear threat. Also, the Cathar beliefs of dualism, Satan establishing the material world and general, anti-life principals (opposition to reproduction, for example) it’s not too hard to see why there is antagonism towards the Cathars. One Cathar practice that stands out is their treatment of the sacraments, mainly baptism. According to the Cathars, baptism is false and John the Baptist, was an evil sent to hinder God’s teachings. More than that, the Cathars attack on the Old Testament and claiming it was written by Satan is quite peculiar.

Modern narratives of equality and pluralism must not corrupt our perception of the Middle Ages. Too many looks to the premodern era and search for glimmers of progressive individuals. Those who glance inside the Cathars will be disappointed. Although the Cathars were radical, they were the result of various previous theologies: Gnosticism, Arianism, Manicheanism, the Paulicians and of course, the Bogomils of the First Bulgarian Empire. There’s a crucial, necessary point: The Cathars were just as antique and historical as the Catholics were. That said, I do appreciate ongoing debates among historians about the Cathars, with some questioning their origins and the extent of Church propaganda.

A vast number of scholars on the Cathars are reasonable who do not seek glorification or utter condemnation for the heretics. The truth is never dualist; it does not submit to our binaries of complete righteousness or utter evil, and as historians, we must not succumb to romantic or hysterical depictions of the Cathars. The focus on ideology is important – it represents the marriage of politics, religion, law and society.

All throughout history, ideologies wage war on each other. Why would the Cathars differ?

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