Based on the book Dominion by Tom Holland, this post covers the period of the Enlightenment c 1750 through to the modern Era
A Jewish student of Manasseh, Baruch Spinoza, expelled by the Jewish synagogue in Amserdam, in 1656, writes a book, his Theological-Political Treatise in defence of religious liberty. He brought a new philosophy, that God was not beyond the laws that governed the universe, but that God was the whole universe. He argued against many basic Christian beliefs such as the trinity, Christ’s divinity, the authority of scripture. He argued that that ministers of sacred things should not be allowed to make decrees or handle the business of government. But he argued very much in favour of the New Testament teaching of Paul when writing to the Galatians (5:22) the idea of true liberty found in the light and ‘fruits of love, joy, peace long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control’. By 1674 his book is banned and he is considered by many to be ‘the chief atheist of our age’.
Voltaire, frances most admired writer, baptised a Catholic and educated by nuns, views the Catholic church as an abomination. Denis Diderot, another philosopher, labels him admiringly as the anti-Christ. Increasingly he, with the foremost thinkers of the age view the church with its superstitions and unwarranted privileged as anethema. Despite admiring the tolerance in England, Voltaire is convinced Christian sects will always persecute each other. He still claimed worship God, but ‘a Just God whose acts are beyond human comprehension’, free of any particular religion.
Others went further claiming in blatant atheism, for example in an anonymous Treatise of the Three Impostors, also known as he Spirit of Spinoza, a mythical book title appropriated by several authors from the 13th to the 17th century, reappears in 1719 claiming that Jesus, Moses and Muhammed are all derided as impostors.
By 1753 people start popularising history as having distinct ages, referring to the Middle ages, that it was Luther who banished the shadows from the world corrupted by the Popery of the Catholic Church ushering in the Reformation. And now a new Age of Enlightenment lead by reason.
In 1783 George Washington hails the United States as a monument to enlightenment: ‘The foundation of our empire, was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than ever before’.
In America New England provided its model of democracy and Pennsylvania its model for tolerance. ‘That all men are created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we hold self-evident.’ These were built on fundamentally Christian beliefs. ‘The genius of the authors of the United States Constitution was to garb in the robes of Enlightenment the radical Protestantism that was the prime religious inheritance of their fledgling nation.’ No one represent this better than Benjamin Franklin, one of the authors of the US Declaration of Independence and the US constitution who was born in the Puritan homeland of Boston, New England and ran away to the city of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia with his lifelong admiration of Puritan discipline, his liberal theological views through to his publication of Benjamin Lays exhortations against slavery.
Along comes the French Revolution of 1789, enlivened by the Spirit of Enlightenment, France was to be ruled by new philosophers. Many wanted to sweep away Christianity completely, the counting of years was restarted at the start of the revolution and Sunday’s were to be swept away. ‘In the pagan world, a spirit of toleration and gentleness had ruled all. It was this that the sinister triumph of Christianity had blotted out. Fanaticism had prevailed.’ Now the revolution would change that. But the founding documents of the new republic were built on the example of the US and Christian thinkers : ‘the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.’ As much as the thinkers of this age claimed to harken back to the period pre Christianity, the democracies of Ancient Greece and Rome, their true foundations lay in Christian thinking from the Cannon lawyers of the Middle Ages about the value and rights of the individual. (This declaration also restored he rights of full citizenship to the Jews).
And even in their fervour to separate church from state, their violent actions harkened back to the same actions that the Church had taken in establishing its authority: Maximilien Robespierre leader of the revolution, once an opponent of the death penalty now lead a bloody revolution set on the execution of the king and the nobility, purifying the nation of all the taint of what had gone before in a very familiar pattern. In echoes of the slaughter of the Crusade against Beziers the revolutionaries marching to pacify the town of Vendee in 1794 are told ‘skew with your bayonets all the inhabitants you encounter along the way. I know there may be a few patriots in this region – it matters not, we must sacrifice all.’ A quarter of a million civilians end up dead.
Following on from the revolution there is much enthusiasm for pre Christian symbols: the revolutionary leaders model themselves of Cicero, and much like Ancient Rome, France ends up with a military dictatorship, with Napoleon modelling himself on Caesar, taking on the title of emperor (of France, not the Holy Roman Emperor) complete with laurel wreath and eagle banners.
In 1806 the last of the Holy Roman emperors Francis the II abdicates, bring to an end the lineage since Otto the Great as Napoleon disrupts Europe. By 1814 the monarchy is restored in France in the Bourbon Restoration, but this time as a constitutional monarchy, unable to roll back many of the changes wrought by the revolution and Napoleon. A monarchy continues until 1848, when the French Second Republic is formed under a President Louise-Napoleon Bonaparte (who then goes on to declare himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 until 1870) before the Third French Republic from 1870.
Slavery continues to be a key issue. The passages of the bible that appear to sanction slavery continue to be used by the southern United States , and the West Indies. But the tide is rising against it. To be a Quaker or a Baptist or an Anglican was to understand the Good News, that God was a not only the God of Justice but also of Love. ‘Slavery was ever detestable in the eyes of God’. In 1807 Britain passes the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, though other nations were slower to come around. In 1815, eight powers in Europe sign a declaration stating that slavery is repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality. Human Rights were increasingly the values that Europe promoted to the world.
Prussia had been key in defeating Napoleon and at the Conference of Vienna the focus is on redrawing the map of Europe. Frederich Wilhelm the King of Prussia, in the face of potential revolution in 1848 is forced to concede a constitution entitling male citizens to vote for parliament and granting equal citizenship to Jews.
An interesting concept that becomes more widely applied in contexts it had not previously been applied is that of the separation of religion and the secular. For example the Jews are now unified by a religion termed Judaism, rather than being a people where the religion and culture were not really differentiated. The Jewish Law was not the law of the countries they live in. This lead to the development of a split amongs Jewish thinkers with the Jewish ‘Reformed’ branch (emphasising faith over Law) and ‘orthodox’ branch (emphasising the definitiveness of Mosaic Law) (I am not very clear here on the exact differences in thinking that lead to this split). Similarly in India the people had no word or concept of religion, but the British imposed a separation between the state and the beliefs that they termed the ‘Hindoo religion’.
Despite the European attempts to halt Slavery it is an ongoing issue. In 1842, this is taken a step further when an American Diplomat defines slavery as a ‘crime against humanity’, the first time this term is used. While it is increasingly halted in the West, it is still common place in
Muslim countries had a different view. Slavery is licensed by Muhammed in the Qur’an and the Sunna, the Islamic collection of traditions and practices. There are more slaves exported from Africa to the Muslim world than were exported to the New World. The British continue to push Morocco and the Ottoman Empire to abolish slavery. In 1854, when the Ottomans need financial assistance due to a series of financial and military crises, the price is the abolishment of slavery and the jizya, the financial tax on Jews and Christians that reached back to the beginnings of Islam. Of course banishing slavery does nothing to dampen Britain’s expansionary colonisation policies, with the typical justification that the barbarians will be better off under their ‘civilising’ rule.
In 1861, the secession of the southern states of the United States from the Union to form the Confederacy over the issue of slavery leads to the Civil War. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln issues a proclamation declairing all Slaves on confederate territory to be free.
In 1859 Charles Darwin, the grandson of two prominent abolitionists, publishes the Origin of Species, promulgating the theory of evolution ‘One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, like the strongest love and the weakest die.’ Of course people were already struggling with the conflict between the age of dinosaur fossils versus the age of the world according to the scriptures. Now there was a direct challenge to the narrative that Man and Women were created in God’s image. In addition the very essence of natural selection of survival of the fittest was a challenge to Christian belief in part because of its contrast to Jesus’s teaching that there might be strength in weakness, victory in defeat and that the meek shall inherit the earth.
Thomas Henry Huxley is a huge champion of science ‘In matters of intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstratable’. This was what he described as the principle of ‘agnosticism’. As before thinkers of the new Age of Enlightenment attempted to paint the new thinking as a contrast to the previous thinking, picking out the example of Galileo that the Church had opposed all science and that some how in past more enlightened times the ancient Greeks and Romans had allowed science to flourish.
Also in terms of sexuality the new age started to rethink things. Homosexuality was a term first coined in 1869 in Prussian morality writing. Why in seeming defiance of Darwin’s law did some choose to sleep with people of their own sex? German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing studied sexuality. He came to the view that homosexuality should not be regarded as a sin but as an ‘immutable condition’, and that the correct Christian response should be one of generosity and compassion. He argued that sodomy should be decriminalised and that ‘homosexuals are no less familiar with the noblest inspirations of the heart than any married couple.’
Capitalism vs Communism vs Fascism in the 20th century
The theory of evolution led to some radical different concepts when different thinkers extrapolated what it meant for society.
Andrew Carnegie, Scottish immigrant, rose to dominate the American steel industry and become one of the wealthiest men alive. Applied evolution to capitalism, believing indiscriminate charity served no purpose but to subsidise the lazy and the drunk. ‘In days when men acted by ecclesiastical rules these prejudices produced waste of capital, and helped mightily to replunge Europe into barbarism,’ said Yale professor William Graham Sumner. But, in Carnegie’s view, that charity was only pointless if it failed to help the poor to help themselves. His objective was to help the poor become rich ‘The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise’. He went on to find many community libraries, schools, parks and endowments which last to this day. (There are many examples around London actually for example on the Isle of Dogs in east london a poor area, there is a library sponsored by Carnegie).
At the other end of the spectrum, was Karl Marx the grandson of a rabbi and son of a Lutheran convert, he was exiled from the Rhineland for mocking the religiosity of Frederich Wilhelm IV.
‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution as it applies to organic matter, so Marx discovered the law of evolution as it applies to human history,’ so it was said at his funeral in 1883. He believed that over time different classes of society had emerged. Exploitation become the norm. The struggle between the rich and the poor became an unforgiving tale of greed and acquisition. Under the likes of Carnegie it Capitalism became as pitiless as never before, workers were reduced to machines. Marx believed that ultimately this must lead to a great climactic class struggle inwhich capitalism would devour itself and there would emerge a class-less society. Within such a society there was no need for God. Religion was a mechanism of the exploitative class, a stage in the development of the human mind, a snake skin that could now be cast off. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ was the belief he developed, eerily reminiscent of the early Christian society in the Book of Acts. Throughout history the early church has inspired radicals looking for this holy society. While his theories sounded scientific they continually painted a picture of cosmic forces of a good communal society and an evil and greedy society based on capitalism.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or Lenin, took up these beliefs most literally, believing that Capitalism was doomed to fail, the workers of the world or ‘proletariat’ were destined to inherit the earth as the gap widened between ‘the handful of arrogant millionaires who wallow in filth and luxury, and the millions of working people who constantly live on the verge of pauperism.’ Religion, the opiate of the masses, needed to be eradicated. Oppression had to be eliminated but his belief that the end justified the means split the ranks of Marx’s followers, with those following Lenin calling themselves ‘the Bolsheviks’ or ‘the Majority’.
In philosophy in 1882 Frederich Nietzsche proclaims ‘God is dead’. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor, a professor by 24, resigning at 34 and then having a mental breakdown and dying in 1900. Not well known during his life, his writings become more popular after his death. More than Spinoza, Darwin or Marx he is the bastion of atheism. He rejected not only Christianity but also some of their associated virtues: ‘such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of labour. Concern for the lowly and suffering is a form of poison. Helping and caring for others, being of use to others, constantly excites a sense of power. Charity in Christendom had become a means to dominate.’ A society focused on the feeble was a society enfeebled itself. He believed that there was no truth, no value, no meaning in itself – and that only be acknowledging this would man cease to be a slave.
By the 1910 Prussia became the centre of a German Empire with a Kaiser (modelled on Caesar). France and Britain push back on the expansion of the Prussian empire and are mired in the standoff of World War One. In the battle of the Somme there are a million casualties.
In November to December 1917 in Palestine, the British win a battle against then Turks of the Ottoman Empire and take back Jerusalem. The British Foreign Secretary issues a declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land, a development many Christians believed would herald the return of Christ.
At the end of the war the Kaiser abdicates. But in Russia in 1917 the Bolsheviks led by Lenin overthrow the monarchy and seize power. A quarter of the world’s Christians live in Russia under the Orthodox Church with its Byzantium lineage. Lenin is convinced ‘In practice, no less than in theory, communism is incompatible with religious faith.’ In 1918 churches were nationalised. Bishops were shot, crucified upside down or imprisoned. In 1926 a monastery is converted into a labour camp. In 1929 the responsibility for religious affairs is given to the organisation ‘the league of militant atheists’, their stated goal: to eliminate religion once and for all.
By the 1930s we have the rise of Fascism. Benito Mussolini’s reading of Neitzsche inspires him to become a new Caesar at the head of a new elite state. Similarly in Germany the rise of the National Socialists or Nazis under Hitler, in the belief of a state for the elite race in society, so superior to other races that it justified the extermination of inferior races, and the subordination of personal interests to a common good. This was rooted in Hitler’s interpretations of Darwin: that he had a responsibility to ensure the purity of the German race. Goebbels compares a young Nazi to Christ. By 1937 Hitler is envisaging the elimination of Christianity, largely due to the Churches objections to some of his policies like forced sterilisation. Many Christians hesitated to support the Jews given old emnities that condemned then as the murderers of Christ and in league with the Devil. In contrast some Christians were identifying themselves with Jews in the face of Nazi persecution: in Sept 1938 Pope Pius XI declared himself spiritually a Jew and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in 1933 saying Christians had an unconditional obligation towards victims of any social order, even when those victims do not belong to the Christian community. He was later executed in a concentration camp. Pius was later ciriticised for not saying enough though he does recognise the limits of his power ‘But the Pope cannot speak. If he spoke, things would be worse.’
The allies were also responsible for atrocities. The bombings of Dresden and Hamburg killed many civilians. George Bell, a british bishop and friend of Bonhoeffer’s spoke out ‘if it is permissible to drive inhabitants to desire peace by making them suffer, why not admit pillage, burning, torture, murder and violation?’ In the end many felt the end justified the means.
The country of Israel promised by the British in 1917, is finally founded in 1948. Communism grows to envelop much of Eastern Europe and the Cold War and proxy wars are fought across the globe. Korea, Vietnam.
Post World War 2 the United Nations is formed and with it a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement rises up against continued segregation and discrimination in America. The campaign for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s gave Christianity an overt centrality in American politics that it had not had in the preceding decades. The renewed spark of the abolitionists living on. Following his assassination riots break out and many push for less peaceful, more violent revolution.
In the 19th century Africa has been largely carved up by the European colonial powers. In the 20th century, despite the end of colonial rule, it became the area of fastest growth in Christianity.
In South Africa the doctrine of Apartheid was defended to the fiercely religious Afrikaaners, attributing incorrectly to Calvin a theology that claimed certain people were more likely to be saved than others. They claimed that separate development was needed for each race to come to God. Desmond Tutu and others worked to convince them this was not the case through forensic examination of Calvin’s writings. In the end it was Tutus words that allowed FW de Klerk to trust in a path forward for his people: ‘when confession is made, then those of us who have been wronged must say “we forgive you.”’ A promise Nelson Mandela was then able to execute on as power transitioned peacefully.
The late 1980s also saw the fall of communism.
Many secular countries have become skilled at repackaging Christian concepts for a non-Christian audience. The concept of human rights is far more likely to be accepted if its origins in Catholic cannon law is disguised. The insistence of the United Nations agencies on ‘the antiquity and broad acceptance of the conception of the rights of man’ was a necessary precondition for their claim to a global, rather than merely Western, jurisdiction. While Charle Hebdo attacks the ‘the myth of a God as architect of the universe, the myth of Mary‘s virginity, the myth of Christ’s resurrection’ it was easy to forget that secularism too was founded on a myths that are today accepted as orthodoxy. And today’s orthodoxy in secular society is to accept today’s liberal Western ideals, and expectations: freedom of speech, association and human individual rights.
Thus it appeared to many in the West that it was their own political and social order that constituted the ultimate, the unimprovable form of government. Secularism; liberal democracy; the concept of human rights: these were fit for the whole world to embrace. The inheritance of the enlightenment was for everyone: a possession for all of mankind. It was promoted by the west, not because it was western but because it was universal: It was no more Christian than it was Hindu, or Confucian or Muslim, so its proponents claimed.
The rise of militant Islam in the subsequent decades claimed otherwise. ‘Islam, as practised by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others,’ said George Bush. To fundamentalist Muslim clerics like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi , there was only laws authored by God. Muslim countries, by joining United Nations, had signed up to a host of commitments that derived, not from the Qur’an or the Sunna, but from law codes devised in Christian countries: that there should be equality between men and women; equality between Muslims and non-Muslims; a ban on slavery; a ban on offensive warfare. Islam was in his and those like him in need of a return to the Salaf, ‘the ancestors’, to be reformed. He orchestrated a car bomb targeting UN headquarters in Iraq in 2003. The lead to the attempt to set up an Islamic State across Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, reintroducing many of the original laws.
But for the vast majority of Muslims, many have come to accept some of these Protestant inspired ideals, in states where religion is separated from the secular, and religious beliefs are something private and personal.
On the other side of this, historically Christian European countries are struggling to grapple with an influx of refugees, many of them Muslim, and the implications for their cultures. Look no further than the Charlie Hebdo related violence in recent years..
Charlie Hebdo defines itself a ‘laic, joyful and atheist’, satirising popes and priests, Christ and the Virgin. And while Catholics have repeatedly been obliged to test their faith against the satire, blasphemy and desecration of the magazine, in 2011 Islam started coming under the same obligation: this is what it is, in a secular society, for Muslims to be treated as equals.
The tensions remain today. In 2017 millions of Evangelical Christians in the US voted for Donald Trump, a proven bullying ‘pussy-grabbing’ misogynistic philanderer because he claimed to stand for Christian values that they felt were even more important: family values, abortion, transgender rights (or against these) and immigration controls.
In the latest iteration in 2020 we are now focused on the current issues. #metoo, gender pay gaps, George Floyd, racism , feminism and the patriarchy. Any condemnation of Christianity as patriarchal and repressive derives from the framework of values that is itself is utterly Christian.
There will always be a tension in Christian people between the demands of tradition, scripture and the claims of progress, between the prerogatives of authority and structure and the longing for reformation, between the Christian supposition that every woman’s body is her own and to be respected by every man, and the rights of an unborn child to life, between the churches enthusiasm for monogamous relationships and its celebration of love, and the biblical condemnations of homosexuality. A retreat of Christian belief does not seem to imply a retreat of Christian values. To the contrary, even in Europe with churches far emptier than those in the United States, the trace elements of Christianity continue to infuse peoples’ morals and presumptions so utterly that many fail even to detect their presence.
And in the secular world, as in the days of Darwin and Huxley, so in the 21st-century, the ambition of agnostics to translate values into facts that can be scientifically understood is a fantasy. The wellspring of humanist values lies not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in history. Securalism owes its existence to the mediaeval papacy. Humanism derives ultimately from claims made in the Bible that humans are made in God’s image; that the son of God died equally for everyone; that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.
Christianity has repeatedly sent its reverberations across the world. First it was the primal revolution preached by St Paul. Then the after-shocks: the revolution of the 11th century that set Latin Christendom on its course, then the revolution of the Reformation; then the Elightenment that killed God. All bore an identical stamp: the aspiration to create a world view, to reform and replace the old, the claim to universalism, and the claim that all human beings are born equal with human rights. While the foundation of its morality are a myth, a myth need not be a lie. As Yuval Noah Harari argues, our myths define our societies and allow homosapiens to achieve great things.