CULTURE by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
World war to social media: how we were secularised
, May 9, 2015
Philip Jenkins’ book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, des-cribes how most Churches on both sides regarded the conflict as a holy war and called on their young men to join their country’s armed forces (See News Weekly, April 11, 2015).
How did this devastating war affect religious faith and practice?
The numbers attending church services of the major faiths remained stable or increased slightly in Britain from the beginning of the war to the late 1920s, according to the British Religion In Numbers (BRIN) project at the University of Manchester’s Institute for Social Change. BRIN also says that churchgoers disproportionately enlisted in the armed forces, fusing religion and patriotism in Europe.
This led to some disillusionment with the Churches for failing to prevent or shorten the war, and a search for alternative forms of spiritual expression, including spiritualism.
World War I was a primal shock that shattered the old order of Europe, opening the way for other changes that set in motion the secularisation of Christian Europe.
In his 20th-century classic, Modern Times, historian Paul Johnson invokes Karl Popper’s “law of unintended consequences”, which says that ideas and events can have very unpredictable effects, all the more so when several ideas or events happen together.
In attempting to understand what unhinged Western civilisation from its Christian moorings, Johnson says that four things came together to trigger the radical secularisation of Western civilisation.
First, World War I shattered the ancien regimes of Europe. The Hapsburg and Ottoman empires had become despised and collapsed, leaving an unstable political vacuum in Europe.
Second, Einstein’s theory of relativity did much more than set the world on the road to the atomic bomb; it inadvertently led to seismic changes in how people viewed the universe and morality. The old certainties of the Newtonian cosmology, which was the framework for the European Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, had provided physical and philosophical certainties about the universe.
But according to Einstein, matter and energy is interchangeable; all matter exerts gravitational forces on all other parts of matter across the entire universe, warping space and time; all motion is relative since all matter is in motion.
In the minds of many, this posed another question: if all things are now relative in the physical world, are all things relative in the world of human morality? Einstein’s “relativity” mistakenly became for many “moral relativism”; a rejection of the fundamental certainties of Christian morality.
Third, Judeo-Christian moral reasoning was further undermined by Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis – which Johnson says contains nuggets of truth but is anything but scientific.
Freud dismissed personal conscience – which stood at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic of free will, sin and guilt – as a collectively created safety device to protect civilised order from human aggression. Guilt was a socially constructed internal conflict, an illusion to be dispelled. Religion was mass delusion.
For many, Freud’s writings were echoed in phrase, “That’s what I always thought.”
Writes Johnson: “The impact of Einstein and Freud upon intellectuals and creative artists was all the greater in the coming of the peace and made them aware that a fundamental revolution had been and was still taking place in the whole world of culture, of which the concepts of relativity and Freudianism seem both portents and echoes.”
He cites impresario Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes: “We are witnesses of the greatest movement of summing-up of history, in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away. That is why, without fear or misgiving, I raise my glass to the ruined walls of the beautiful palaces, as well as the new commandments of a new aesthetic.”
Fourth, Marxism gave a radically new interpretation to the world created by the Industrial Revolution, claiming there was an inevitable struggle/war between capitalists and the oppressed working class. Marxism began to win supporters as a reaction to the horrors of World War I and won many more during the economic and social devastation of the 1930s Great Depression.
In the wake of World War I, Marx, Freud and Einstein all conveyed the message that our ideas of time and space, right and wrong, law and justice, the nature of man’s behaviour in society, were not to be trusted.
These “modernising” forces affected every aspect of Western culture, on what seemed an empty stage after the Great War. Then came an even more devastating world war, consumer capitalism, television in every home, the Sexual/Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the internet and social media.
World War I was the beginning of the marginalisation of religion from the culture, secularisation and the privatisation of religion … of all religions.
French sociologist Olivier Roy convincingly argues that religion separated from culture leads to religious fundamentalism and opens many paths to extremist ideologies. We are grappling with how this process continues to reshape our world.
Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.