The decline of religious belief in the 20th century

As James Joyce argues “in the nineteenth century in, the full tide of rationalistic positivism and equal democratic rights for everyone, it (the Catholic Church) proclaims the dogma of the infallibility of the head of the church and also that of the Immaculate Conception.

Consequently it is reasonable to think that the long standing isolation of Roman Catholicism could hold out for such a long time and also that many, no longer socially bound to obedience, turned their backs to the church.

In the 20th century no one any longer admitted with St. Augustine that “we here below are travelers longing for death”. The 19th century revolutions together with the events that sparked uninterrupted mass-movements revealed that it was on terrestrial grounds that all action and energy were to take place.

However, the great conflicts and confusion that resulted from the unfortunate use of exhibiting religion belief, precisely on terrestrial grounds, had determined people to retreat into a solitary world and commit themselves to religious thought only from an individualistic perspective.

It is a fair speculation that this phenomenon led to a decline in religious belief in the sense of a diminishing of the institutional model or the establishment and replacement of it in the form of individual belief and confidence.

Few thinkers have accepted this theory that the essential core of religion, true religiosity, is a product of the individual intimacy. Kant holds that religion has for its sole basis the idea of immortality. The anthropologists claim it is the belief in spiritual beings (Taylor); or mere sensations of fear, the recognition that there are other beings more powerful than man (Lubbock). Spencer defines religion as something which passes the sphere of experience, and, therefore, belongs to the unknowable. To Freud, the psychoanalyst, religion is “an obsessional neurosis of humanity” which originated in the Oedipus complex (The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud, 1928).

In the eyes of the mystics and metaphysicians (Santayana), religion is poetry making itself for reality, whereas Albert Einstein defines it as follows:

“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms,- this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men”. (Living Philosophies, 1931, p.6)

The idea of an embodiment of sentiments and affections, a combined force of emotions that rests within the individual himself marks a new phase in the human development. It is a derivation without derivative, a replacement from the sphere of authority and legitimacy towards the individual level.

An important element in the Christian realm, particularly Catholic and Orthodox, holds on the willingness and respect of such congregations not to break away definitively with the church, but, as I mentioned above, to transport that energy from inside the walls unto themselves wherever they happen to be. It is a break within recognition, a rupture that involves attachment.

As again in the words of James Joyce, when confronted with a similar problem of representation and reception:

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

The passage resembles Stephen Dedalus’s unwillingness to pay homage to something which he no longer believes as he confesses. Albeit his refusal, non serviam, Stephen Dedalus, through the the voice of the author, continues throughout his dealings to gravitate around the religious orbit and thought.

It is the figure of the modernist individual to remain elusive against the blurring contours that formed and shaped our recent society. One may even talk about a new consciousness which was rendered by this new environment. Religion in its essence has nothing to lose since it remains intrinsically entwined with our chemistry.

Whether a new form of religious sentiment in the new society will flourish, or whether it will be absorbed by science or reappear under a different name, it gradually belongs to the uncertainty of future events to predict such conclusive assumptions.



  1. Badulescu, Dana – Early 20th century British Fiction, ed. Demiurg, Iasi
  2. Chugerman, Samuel – Lester F. Ward – The American Aristotle, A Summary and Interpretation of His Sociology, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C.
  3. Jouco C. Bleeker and Geo Widengren – Historia Religionum II, Religious of the Present
  4. Martin, David – A Sociology of English Religion.

Ionut-Andrei Manea


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