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In this new ‘Age of Anxiety’, where the world’s future appears unprecedentedly bleak and volatile, historical parallels between our times and the Protestant Reformation can draw some comfort – and some alarm.


Illustration: Guy Shield

In 2017 we live in a world that is gripped by fear.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay has dubbed our times an ‘Age of Anxiety’. All the old certainties have been turned upside down and the only thing that we are told we can rely on is an ever-increasing pace of change.

To a jittery population that is cold comfort. In our existential dread we thrash about for people to blame: the left, the right, Muslims, refugees, feminists, believers, unbelievers, terrorists and that reliable old omnibus – political correctness. The one thing we all agree on is that the future looks alarming and unpredictable. We are, we believe, in uncharted waters.

But perhaps that is not so. Perhaps human beings have been through something like this before.


In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and changed the world. Prior to this technical marvel, every book had to be handwritten, predominantly by monks laboring in scriptoriums.

Information was controlled by a tiny number of educated scholars, most of whom were priests of the Catholic Church, and almost all books were Bibles. The rest of the population were mostly illiterate. Information was guarded zealously and people were woefully ignorant.

Those in power liked it that way. The many Bibles and religious texts that were laboriously produced by hand were written in Latin, a language ordinary people did not understand. When people participated in worship – and it was compulsory – religious ceremonies were conducted in that same dead language, with the priest behind a screen, his back to the congregation.

Worshippers were only permitted to participate in a pre-ordained, ritualistic manner. Indeed, it was one of the tenets of the Catholic Church that ordinary people should neither read the word of God nor pray to God directly. Their only contact with their maker had to be through a man of God: a priest. Everything else was heresy. In this way, the priests and the Church controlled virtually all information for centuries. And through controlling information, of course, they also controlled the population.


In my other life, I have written a trilogy of young adult historical novels about Elizabeth I, and this has meant I had to research her life and times. As I did I began to see powerful resonances with the present.

Elizabeth Tudor’s very existence was a direct consequence of the dramatic changes occurring within the power structures and organisation of the world at that time. Changes that were the result – as I suspect they always are – of a technological innovation.

In the 1500s it was the printing press. Elizabeth Tudor was born in 1533, during the tumult that followed the first information revolution. We are currently living through the second.

It was the invention of the printing press that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation. Suddenly, books (most of which remained Bibles) could be produced more rapidly and in greater numbers, and at much lower cost.

With more books available, supply created demand. People, particularly those with means, began to learn to read. Even before Martin Luther nailed his ‘The 95 Theses’ to the church door in 1517, cracks were beginning to appear in the ironclad control the Catholic Church had previously exercised over access to information and knowledge.

Even the language of knowledge started to change. Luther translated the Bible into the German vernacular, and William Tyndale translated it into English. Such was the Church’s fear of the spread of information that both men were excommunicated. Tyndale was eventually condemned as a heretic. He was strangled and his body burnt at the stake.

But even in the face of such draconian consequences, the public continued to demand their own direct relationship with God and their right to read the Bible in their own language. What people were really agitating for, perhaps, was access to information and knowledge. They were no longer willing to know only what the priestly class wanted them to know.

Elizabeth I’s mother, Anne Boleyn, a devout and evangelical Protestant, is famous as the coquette who held a King’s ardour at bay for a decade until he eventually made her Queen. It was Henry VIII’s determination to get a divorce from his Catholic first wife, Catherine, so he could marry Anne that led to his countries’ break with Rome and the establishment of the Protestant Church of England.

Henry was a Protestant for political, dynastic and sexual purposes, but Boleyn was a true believer. Her tenacious commitment to ideas, such as each Christian’s right to a direct and personal relationship with God, was one of the reasons she made so many powerful enemies.

In response to the Protestant schism and the threat it posed to their power and control, the Catholic Church burnt heretics, hunted them down and tortured them. The Spanish Inquisition was formed to stamp out heresy. Huguenots were massacred in France and wars were fought between Protestant and Catholic nations. Elizabeth herself lived under a Catholic fatwa. (Protestants, of course, were brutal and fanatical, too.)

The Catholic Church had to learn to share power…with the growing secular society that emerged as a result of widening education.

None of it worked. The Catholic Church had to learn to share power. Not only with Protestants but with the growing secular society that emerged as a result of widening education. From ruling half the planet, to such an extent that Pope Alexander VI actually divided the new world in two and gave one half to the Spanish and the other to the Portuguese, Catholicism became just another branch of Christianity.

As education and knowledge spread, Enlightenment followed the Reformation, and then all the liberation movements that emerged thereafter, including the abolition of slavery, child labour, and increased rights for women. After all, if every man could have his own relationship with God, why not every woman? Why not every slave?

This democratisation of the word of God led inexorably to democracy itself; predicated on the idea that all men (even, perhaps, women) were created equal. Everyone ended up entitled to not just a relationship with God but with a vote and a say. One followed inevitably, I think, from the other. As those in power understand only too well, once a few difficult questions began to be asked, a great many more would follow.


The internet is at least as revolutionary as the printing press and we can already see the effect it is having on today’s information gatekeepers. In the West, these are no longer the churches, although they battle on manfully. The mainstream media, particularly newspaper proprietors – the high priests who used to set the daily political agenda – big business, banks, retailers and governments are all feeling the loss of control. Many are thrashing about in protest, trying to hold onto a power that they once acquired so effortlessly that they may have begun to see it as a divine right.

Now that everybody with a smart device has access to the media as well as the ability to create content themselves, things that used to be kept quiet are getting out; everyone can have a direct relationship with what used to be privileged information.

Most recently, WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden have brought that home to the powers that be in no uncertain terms. I can’t help wondering if Julian Assange, Snowden and Chelsea Manning are the William Tyndales of our time. They can expect – and indeed have received – no mercy if they are.

Wherever you look in the modern world, old certainties are collapsing. Bricks and mortar retailers are struggling to hold onto customers and profits. The music industry has returned to concerts and touring to make money, not just because of internet piracy but because even when fans legally purchase their download, prices (and so profits) have collapsed. The troubadour, it seems, is back.

The same is true for books, films and TV. Advertisers are in a cold sweat about how to catch viewer’s attention in these days of fragmenting media, Apple TV, Netflix, IQ, live pause and fast forward. Those that rely on making a profit to exist are badly shaken.

Rupert Murdoch began his attack on the new media landscape by berating public broadcasters like the BBC and ABC, aware that their publicly subsidised model allowed them to offer viewers much better service than his stations could afford. Public broadcasters are now under siege around the world.

Murdoch’s desperation about holding on to the readers and viewers has led to staff at some of his newspapers using the new technology to break the law and invade the privacy of those who attract the attention of a fickle public. Arguably it is the sense of having lost control that drives people to take escalating risks.

Newspapers – direct products of the invention of the printing press – appear to be on the brink of extinction, at least in hard copy and on weekdays. And news stories no longer break on the evening news or in first-edition headlines, or even on radio. They break on Twitter, Instagram and on Facebook. The witnesses to momentous events now upload their smart phone photos and videos instantly. Who needs an expensive camera crew anymore?

Newspapers – direct products of the invention of the printing press – appear to be on the brink of extinction.

Even that indomitable old dame feminism has found herself firmly back on the political agenda, thanks to women’s unmediated voices on social media. When the women of India find the courage to march in the streets to protest the endemic rapes in that country because access to social media (even the poorest have smart phones) has at last given them a voice, you know the world is changing.

The current outpouring of rage by women over the treatment of the Stanford rapist is also an expression of the new capacity to speak up and speak out. LGBTQI activists are asserting their rights just as emphatically, further panicking those who see power as a zero sum game. Polish women have marched in their thousands and gone on strike in their millions in protest against proposed draconian laws against abortion. Their combined voices are forcing politicians and church leaders to take notice.

The response of today’s powerful class to their comprehensive loss of control mirrors that of the Catholic Church five hundred years ago. They are furious and they are fighting back.

Politics have moved sharply to the right. Only three decades ago, it was a conservative Fraser government in Australia that reacted with compassion and generosity to the first boat people from Vietnam. Today even Labor appears to be in some kind of competition with its conservative counterparts as to who can be most cruel.

The election of Donald Trump, the triumph of Brexit, the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson – all are signs of such fear-based responses.

It is human nature to react to a sense of losing control by clamping down twice as hard on anything you can control. Hence the triumph of the measurement-maniacs in areas such as health, education, government policy and management theory. I have even read an article touting a new quantitative process for ‘objectively’ measuring success in the arts.

Worse, what now goes by the once liberal term of ‘reform’ often looks much more like old fashioned authoritarian ‘control’ when scrutinised. As author C. J. Sansom warned in the preface to his dystopian novel Dominion, forget fascism and communism, what we may be facing now is the development of toxic democracies based on nationalism and xenophobia, both favourite boltholes for the frightened and insecure. The election of Donald Trump, the triumph of Brexit, the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson – all are signs of such fear-based responses. If things feel out of our control, we turn to leaders who find us scapegoats to blame.


But it is in climate change denial that the powerful most resemble the Catholic Church of the 15th century. Faced with the literally earth-shattering realisation that the old economic model of continuous growth is starting to decline and that the planet’s resources are not infinite, many of those running the world have reacted by closing their eyes and covering their ears.

Like the Inquisitors of old, they prefer to accuse climate scientists of heresy and conspiracy than listen. Using somewhat more subtle tactics than burning or torturing, they have still managed to intimidate many – including our public broadcasters – into a nervous silence or, at best, spurious attempts at balance. Professor Brian Cox debating One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts on the ABC’s Q&A was a recent example. I won’t labour the point by mentioning Galileo, but you get the idea.

Of course, such tactics didn’t work for the Catholic Church then and won’t work for the powers that be now. But if history is any guide (and it’s the only one we’ve got) we should expect the powerful to fight back hard and to fight dirty for some time before they bow to the inevitable. The fear and loathing around debt and deficit, the constant pressure on public services, particularly those that serve the vulnerable, are examples of desperate attempts to take back control.

Living in a constant state of ‘crisis’ helps keep people docile. Frightening them into compliance by taking away social safety nets is another way, as is exhausting them by making jobs insecure and asking them to work until they drop.

Increasing the barriers to further education is another method of keeping control in the hands of the already privileged. Noam Chomsky put it like this in a speech on the cost of public education in May 2011:

Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalised the disciplinarian culture. This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.

I’m not saying political leaders have done all this consciously, or as some sort of conspiracy, but, as I was taught in my advertising career long ago, if you want to know why someone does something: follow the benefit.

The part of the world, however, where the impact of this latest information revolution may be most powerfully felt did not experience a reformation last time around.

As I was taught in my advertising career long ago, if you want to know why someone does something: follow the benefit.

We can see that already in what used to optimistically be called the Arab Spring. Not just the explosions of dissent in Egypt, Libya, Syria and, more surprisingly, Thailand and even Hong Kong, but also the general resurgence of fundamentalist Islam (and Christianity, for that matter) makes perfect sense when looked at through the prism of history.

In 15th century Europe the once all-powerful church tried – vainly, as it turned out – to shut down access to newly available information and to continue to control the population. In the 21st century, extreme anti-information movements, like the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and now ISIS, are attempting to do the same thing.

They will fail just as they did five hundred years ago. So will the authoritarians and the previously all-powerful information gatekeepers in the West. The only question is how long it will take until they do.


We do not have the same luxury in terms of time that we had in the 15th century. Climate scientists believe it may already be too late to cap global warming at two degrees and no one really wants to contemplate what effect uncontrollable global warming may have. Add to that the super-destructive weapons that technology has put into the hands of modern humans and I cannot help fearing what state the world may be left in once the virtual reformation has run its course.

In the words of George Santayana: ‘Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.’

My only hope is we repeat them in a hurry.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Martin Luther’s ’95 Theses’ were put up in 1522, not 1517.