The decline of religious belief in the 20th century

 “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. James Joyce


Immense and often unexpected shifts of events were the most obvious characteristics of the period (1890-1940). These were accompanied not only by intense physical and emotional pain but also by a breakdown of assumptions about stability, certainty, continuity and tradition.

These shifts caused confusion about the center and the periphery, about whether there were still such centers, and if there were where these could be located, and about the relation between centers and margins. All these questions failed to turn into positive answers precisely because shifts of power were shattering centers to pieces and made the relation between center and periphery hard to pin down.

The fact that the Victorian age had been long and relatively stable, still attached to the principles and values of continuity and tradition, made this sense of crisis feel, sound and look even more rampant in the early 20th century, especially in the aftermath of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, followed by King Edward’s death at an interval of only nine years, in 1910, when King George V came to the throne.

Britain was not alone to experience this: in the rest of the Continent and even in US previous societies had tended to have a visible center and to produce centrally located cultures on a model provided by God as the supreme authority, and by extrapolation, the monarch as the supreme authority in human societies.

Professor Codrin Liviu Cutitaru from the University of Iassy offers an edifying overview on the matter:

  The King represents God on earth (from the teachings of the Old Testament where we learn that God approves at one point on the suggestion that people should be led by kings and no longer by judges and priests) and his unnatural, violent elimination from the top may push the whole order of things into immediate devastating chaos (example of such situations appear in different Shakespearian tragedies, where Kings are killed and substituted by impostors; this happens in Hamlet and Macbeth, where Claudius and Macbeth replace violently their monarchs and eventually bring disaster into the social and political order of their countries).

In other words, modernity marked a paradigm shift from the continuity of tradition to the disruption of it and this engulfed status quo could not have remained without repercussions at the level of religious feeling.

In the medieval times, modernus was used as an antonym of antiquus. Modernus was anybody whose name descended from a venerable past. Antiquitas stood for the essential uniqueness of tradition, whose continuity had not been broken by the advent of Jesus Christ. This paradigm of continuity could hold only by dint of strong faith, which was faith in divine authority.

The challenge of this faith came along with the critical spirit of the Renaissance, and acquired even more force when the Romantic thinkers grew aware that the religious spirit was in dissolution.

The myth of God’s death inflamed the spirit of the Romantics long before Nietzsche made it the main point of his prophetic doctrine. In this respect, Nietzsche fathered the profound sense of a crisis brought about by the death of authority voiced with so much zeal by the early 20th century.

As Matei Calinescu argues, “the crisis of religion gives birth to a new religion of crisis, in which all the insoluble contradictions of the Judeo-Christian tradition are simultaneously brought to discussion in order to shake any sense of despair and sufferance”.

The spirit of the age also affected Catholicism. Politically it was expressed in the separation between state and church which had occurred during the French Revolution.

Starting with the second half of the nineteenth century, the church was almost everywhere in fact and in law separated from the state. There were some exceptions the most important being those churches which had been state-churches since the sixteenth century in countries not affected by the revolution, namely England and the Scandinavian countries.

This contingency of events caused a confusion of minds which appeared less definitive in the second half of the 20th century. The will of the Catholic clergy towards centralization unto Rome continued.

To be continued

Ionut Manea

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