Christianity, Secularism and European Peace

In one of his comments to my original blog post on the Soviet Persecution of the churches, Robert claimed that European peace was strongly linked to the growth of secularism and the decline of Christianity, stating ‘European peace is positively correlated with the spread of secularism and the decline of Christianity.’ This is an extremely debatable claim, as it seems to assume that the peace Western Europe, at least, has enjoyed since the end of the Second World War is the product of the growth of secularism, if not atheism, and that religion, and particularly Christianity, is somehow responsible for war and violence. This claim can be criticised on a number of points.

Firstly, it’s an important philosophical point that correlation is not causation. One can suggest a number of factors that may have created greater social and political stability in Europe that could lead to a decline in religious belief and international peace in Europe as a whole, without atheism or secularism being the direct cause of either of peace or the political and social stability both nationally and internationally that created it.

Economic Deprivation and Underdevelopment as the Cause of Military Aggression and War

Western Europe, along with North America and Japan, is economically the most prosperous part of the world, despite economic stagnation and challenges from the rapidly expanding and developing economies of India and China. One of the classic causes of social and political instability is economic decline and hardship. A lack of jobs, and thus the means for people to support themselves and stave off starvation, can lead to political instability and violence as nations turn to radical ideologies to provide solutions to their economic and social problems. The Nazi party in Germany appealed to the electorate by promising work and bread on their election posters, and achieved their greatest successes at the ballot box after the catastrophic Wall Street Crash threw the global economy into chaos and millions throughout the world out of work. In such a political climate of economic deprivation and threat, radical parties like the National Socialists were able to make great electoral gains by promising radical solutions to the country’s economic and political problems, including the use of force, violence and brutality against those they claimed, both within Germany and internationally, were responsible for her problems. The result was the emergence of the Third Reich in 1932/3 , characterised by the imprisonment and murder of the regime’s political and religious opponents, as well as those who were considered a danger to it or its racist objectives because of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability. The Nazis attempted to create a new, stronger, more powerful Germany through the conquest of central and eastern Europe and the exploitation of its resources, which were considered to form the key to global power generally, while those nations and states at the periphery of this area, such as Britain, were considered to be in a process of eventual decline through lack of access to this area and its natural resources.

The Russian Revolution and Italian Fascist imperialism were similarly strongly influenced by the lack of economic development and progress in these nations compared to the more economically developed and prosperous nations elsewhere in Europe. Lenin, for example, believed that Russia had been deliberately held back and exploited by the capitalists of the more developed nations. He therefore appealed to the Russian working class to support Communism and the Bolsheviks’ programme of economic and social development by destroying international capitalism’s hold over the nation with the slogan ‘Smash capitalism at the weakest link’.

Although usually considered to be at the opposite end of the political spectrum to Communism, Italian Fascism also had its basis in revolutionary Socialism, though this was anarcho-syndicalism, rather than Marxism, and Mussolini’s regime similarly used arguments based in the ideology of the radical left to support its campaign of military expansion and annexation. The Fascists declared that Italy was a ‘proletarian nation’ lacking the economic development and prosperity of other countries like Britain and France, and so deserved the resources of an empire, such as both of those powers possessed, in order to take its place as leading modern nation. Thus the Fascist regime justified its invasion of North Africa, Abyssinia and Eritrea, as well as its annexation of Albania and parts of Greece in Europe as part of Mussolini’s campaign to create a new, Roman empire.

Economic Success and Improving Conditions Supporting Democratic Peace in Italy and Greater Openness towards West in Russia

The collapse of the former Soviet Union created massive economic and political dislocation in the former Soviet bloc, including widespread poverty in the former Soviet Union itself as the change to capitalism saw inefficient factories and concerns closed, throwing millions out of work, and pensions destroyed over night as the rouble became valueless. Observers of the contemporary Russian political scene, such as the British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby in the recent BBC TV series, Russia, have expressed grave concern about the increasingly authoritarian, anti-democratic nature of the regime and general political climate. Nevertheless, Russia remains a capitalist state open to outside investment, and a far more peaceful attitude to Western Europe at least than under the former Soviet Regime.

Italian politics has been notoriously unstable, which has resulted in a process of political fragmentation in which a large number of small parties have emerged to compete for power, compared with the two and three party systems of North America and Western Europe. Governments have frequently fallen due to corruption, while the country has also been subject to terrorist atrocities by both the extreme Left and Right. Despite this, the Italian economy has developed considerably, so that while explicitly nationalist parties have emerged to play a major role in Italian politics, such as the Allianza Nazionale, which became a partner in Enrico Berlusconi’s coalition regime, Italian politics is still democratic and there is little popular demand for the rejection of democracy and the use of military force to increase Italy’s stature in the international community or develop her economy and society.

Nationalism as Cause of War and Stable Borders as Strong Factor for Peace

Of course, nationalism has also always been one of the major causes of violence and war. Many of the wars in the 19th century were nationalist conflicts, such as the campaigns of Greece and the other Balkan nations to gain their freedom from the Ottoman Empire, and Poland and the other nations in central Europe to gain their independence from Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The independence of many of these central European nations, like Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, was finally achieved after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the redrawing of European national boundaries after the First World War. The borders of many of the central and eastern European nations were similarly revised at the end of the Second World War, as Germany ceded large parts of its territory, such as Pomerania and Silesia, to Poland. Despite this, the national boundaries have, with the serious exception of the former Yugoslavia, been stable, though there are still continuing national tensions in the Balkans and the possibility of further warfare there. Nevertheless, in western Europe at least the question of national territories appears to have been settled. Where there is an increasing demand for independence amongst some nations, such as Scotland and Wales in the United Kingdom, there’s the expectation that this can be gained through the democratic process at the ballot box, rather than through armed insurrection and conflict.

European Peace Produced through Economic Prosperity, Lack of Nationalist Tensions and Desire to Avoid Another War after World War II

Thus part of the reason for the fifty years of peace experienced by Europe after World War II is the lack of economic and nationalist motives for war amongst the various European nations. Indeed, the horrors of the War itself and the devastation it caused economically, socially and politically left Europe exhausted and acted to turn public opinion against war and the use of military force. Of course this does not mean that these nations became pacifists, or that they ceased to wage wars against their enemies. The British fought a series of wars against nationalist rebels, such as the Mau Mau in Kenya, and the French in their turn fought militant indepence movements such as those in Algeria. Nevertheless, after the carnage of two World Wars, the military did not have the same glamour it possessed during the heyday of High Victorian imperialism. Within Europe there was a strong emphasis on international co-operation and rapprochement as a deliberate attempt to prevent the horrors of the Second World War occurring over again.

Post-War Peace in the West Product of Necessity of Creating Alliances against Threat of Soviet Expansionism

The division of Europe between the western and Soviet blocs also helped create peace in Europe. In the West, Britain and other European nations, with the exception of France, banded together with America and Canada to form NATO in order to protect themselves against the threat of invasion from the Soviet Bloc. In eastern Europe, the Communist nations formed a similar military alliance, the Warsaw pact, while the massive political control of these nations and their subordination to the Soviet Union effectively presented an economically and politically united bloc confronting the liberal, capitalist societies of the West, rather than each other. If there is an explicitly atheist cause for peace in this situation, it’s probably through the atheist nature of Communism and the Communist bloc’s suppression of freedom and independence in the member states, rather than through atheism necessarily making western Europeans less militaristic.

European Secularism Produced by Greater Prosperity and Social Stability Creating an Emphasis on This-Worldly Concerns in European Attitudes

There are numerous sociological and ideological reasons for the secularisation of Europe over the past century, many of which are outside the scope of this article. However, it’s possible that the increased prosperity and social stability in post-war Europe was partly responsible for the decline of organised religion in the continent. Material prosperity and social stablility undoubtedly helped to create an emphasis in European culture on the concerns of this world, rather than the other worldly focus of traditional religion. For many Europeans it could appear that it would be possible to find satisfaction and fulfillment on Earth through human rational social and technological developments and planning, without the assistance of the Almighty. Religion could be seen as irrelevant to more pressing earthly concerns, such as the pursuit of one’s own pleasure and interests.

Secularism Produced through European Spiritual Crisis, Prosperity and Loss of Confidence in Traditional Western Culture after World War II

Furthermore, the carnage of the two World Wars also created a spiritual crisis in many Europeans. The fact that European civilisation had created the mechanised slaughter of millions, including the planned, industrial-scale genocide of the Holocaust and similar campaigns to eradicate other peoples and minority groups, such as Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals and the disabled, during the Third Reich discredited traditional European culture in the eyes of many European intellectuals. The appearance of the Affluent Society in the 1960s produced a feeling of dissatisfaction with traditional European politics and society amongst young people, and particularly with the traditional ruling classes who were viewed as out of touch and obsolete. For many Europeans this rejection of traditional authority necessarily included the church, which was criticised because of the support parts of it had given Fascist regimes and because of its central place within traditional European culture and as the guardian and promoter of traditional European morality. This morality had been severely compromised and discredited by the horrors committed by Europeans in the Fascist regimes, and the moral authority of the European powers to govern their colonies in Africa and Asia was successfully challenged as these nations gained their independence. Away from the political sphere, the Churches’ traditional moral stance, particularly on sexuality, was criticised as repressive, if not actually oppressive. Prosperity and security helped encourage Europeans to seek to gratify their desires immediately on Earth, rather than adopt the moral restraint advocated by the Church, which was attacked as oppressive and hypocritical.

European Peace and Secularism both Products of European Prosperity and Stability

Thus the material prosperity and social stability Europe achieved after the War helped to produce both the long period of peace and the increased secularisation experienced by its nations. While undoubtedly some of those who became atheists after the War did become active in various peace movements and initiatives, the main causes of European peace lay in these social and economic developments, rather than being directly produced by the growth of either atheism or secularism in Europe.

Religion as Cause of War

Robert’s implied claim that European peace was produced by the growth of secularism further suffers from its assumption that religion, and specifically Christianity, is a major cause of war. Now clearly religious differences have resulted in tension between different faiths, tensions that have resulted in violence and armed conflict. In British politics the most obvious example of this was the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, though this could also be viewed as the result of centuries of conflict over Irish independence and its government by Britain, in which religion is one aspect of a larger question of national identity and political allegiance. Similarly, some religions do have an extremely martial character that has promoted warfare and armed conflict. In the ancient Norse religion, for example, men could only get into Valhalla, to feast and fight with the gods in preparation for the final combat with the forces of evil at the day of Ragnarok if they died in battle. Those who had the misfortune to die of natural causes instead went to the far less pleasant realm of Helheim, a cold and miserable place, though not a place of punishment and torment like the Christian Hell. One ancient Viking king was, however, so terrified of the prospect of going to Helheim through dying in bed that, as an old man, he and his elderly retainers deliberately fought a battle with the specific intention of being killed so that they could enter Valhalla. Thus ancient Norse paganism reflected and promoted the martial, warrior ethos of Viking society and its consequent positive promotion of violence and warfare.

Promotion of Peace and Attempts to Limit Warfare in Christianity

However, attitudes to violence and the morality and conduct of warfare may differ strongly between religions and different sects and denominations of the same faith. While Christianity as a whole did not reject warfare, and at times could have an extremely militaristic character, such as during the Crusades in the Middle Ages, nevertheless it also sought to promote peace and restrain violence. In this Christians have been guided and sought to put into practice Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount that ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. Although Christians and the Church have engaged in warfare, this was subject to moral and legal constraints. Theologians and philosophers such as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas formulated theories of the Just War, based partly on existing Roman law and the moral demands of Scripture, with the intention of limiting its violence and brutality. Warfare was adopted and promoted by Christianity purely as a means for combating evil, and violence for its own sake was explicitly condemned by the Church. St. Augustine himself condemned ‘the passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power’ and other moral failings in warfare. 1 Canon law during much of the Middle Ages required that soldiers do penance after battles because of the danger that they had fought from these immoral motives, rather than the higher morality demanded by the Church. Even those soldiers who were unsure whether or not they had actually killed anyone were thus required to do penance for 40 days after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. 2 Furthermore the chaos and bloodshed of the 16th and 17th century Wars of Religion resulted in Christians rejecting holy war because of the way Christians had attacked and persecuted fellow Christians during them. The result was that although religious freedom was very restricted in many Christian states, internationally nations rejected religious warfare. Indeed, the 16th and 17th century Wars of Religion, which included the French Wars of Religion, the revolt of the Netherlands, the Thirty Years War in Germany and central Europe, and the War of the Three Kingdoms/ British Civil War were the last time western European nations fought purely religious wars. Indeed, the British sociologist David Martin, in his book, Does Christianity Cause War?, noted that after these wars religion became merely an aspect of national identity, an aspect whose importance depended on the enemy being fought, but that wars were not fought in the name of Christianity itself or for the purposes of imposing a particular religious doctrine on the opposing side. 3

Proposal for International European Parliament by William Penn to Prevent War

Indeed, some Christian denominations, such as the Amish and the Quakers actively reject violence. William Penn, the great Quaker writer and founder of Pennsylvania, in his pamphlet arguing for religious toleration, A Perswasive to Moderation to Church Dissenters, in Prudence and Conscience, noted the constitutional arrangements granting freedom of conscience and worship in various European states to demand that Nonconformists receive similar toleration in England. 4 Rather than use warfare to settle their disputes, Penn instead urged that European states should instead solely use diplomacy. He thus proposed a plan for establishing European peace through the creation of an international parliament of European states that would meet annually to discuss and resolve disputes between the member states without resorting to military force. 5 In many ways Penn’s idea is a remarkable precursor of the contemporary European Union, and similar international bodies such as the United Nations.

Despite their aims of promoting peace and international harmony, the EU and UN have been the subjects of suspicion and criticism because of the threat they represent to national sovereignty and the national traditions of civil liberty in various member states. Critics of the EU, for example, have attacked its lack of democratic accountability and the financial corruption in some of its institutions, as well as its bureaucracy, inefficiency and bizarre official policies that can place some states at a disadvantage and leave them resentful of the benefits granted other, sometimes more powerful states.

19th Century Largely Peaceful Period in European History

Even if a single, international organisation governing the affairs of its member states is not as popular or as powerful a guarantee of freedom and prosperity as early advocates of the idea like William Penn may have hoped, nevertheless European international politics during the 19th century, when religious faith was far stronger than today, was remarkably peaceful. It has been stated that

‘Perhaps no century since the fall of the Roman Empire has been so peaceful as that between 1815 and 1914. The widespread wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had culminated in the massive campaigns of Napoleon and his enemies. Nothing like this took place in nineteenth-century Europe.’ 6 Despite brief military expeditions by various European powers into Italy Spain and Greece, and a short war between Russia and Turkey in 1828, there were no major wars in Europe between Napoleon’s defeat and 1830. The period from 1830 to 1854 was similarly peaceful, until it was broken by the outbreak of the Crimean War. This was, however, confined to the Crimean peninsula and the nations involved maintained contact with each other through neutral Austria until peace was achieved in 1856. The wars of 1859 consisted of two months of fighting in northern Italy. Bismarck’s campaigns of 1864, 1866 and 1870 were very localised and only ever involved two great powers. The 1866 war was only seven weeks long, and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 did not last for a year. 7

Peace in 19th Century Europe Produced by Deliberate Policy of Diplomacy in preference to War by European Statesmen

This long period of European peace was the product of the ‘Concert of Europe’, the system of diplomacy and alliances that had been created to oppose Napoleon, and its successors. It consisted of regular meetings of the great powers of Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia and, after 1815, France, with the intention of preserving European peace. The 1815 peace treaties that formed the basis of the Congress system, as it came to be known, had been designed not only to reorganise and make secure the boundaries of the various European states, punish France and reward the victorious allies, but also to preserve from revolution Europe’s traditional, established order and religion. 8 The main concern of many of the statesmen involved in the Congress system was to promote their countries’ concrete political interests. Louix XVIII’s minister Talleyrand wished to return the various European states to their original borders before 1815 and advance France’s particular national interests in Europe. Metternich of Austria and Hardenburg of Prussia were both concerned to preserve their countries from revolution, while Britain’s Castlereagh hoped to create a balance of power in Europe so that Britain could consolidate her considerable imperial gains overseas. Despite the focus of the European powers on promoting their own national concerns, Alexander I of Russia sincerely hoped to create a lasting European peace, through creating a union with his fellow European rulers ‘as members of a single Christian nation.’ 9 This ideal of a union of Christian European powers did not survive Alexander’s death. 10

Attempts to Abolish War by British Liberal Politicians

Nevertheless the European powers, and particularly the British, hoped that diplomacy could preserve peace in Europe. The Liberals in Britain in particular were deeply concerned to avoid the suffering and economic damage caused by war. In 1856 at the Congress of Paris Lord Clarendon, the chief British plenipotentiary, presented a proposal for the complete abolition of war. Declaring that ‘the calamities of war are still too present to every mind not to make it desirable to seek out every expedient calculated to prevent their return’, he recommended that Article VIII of the peace treaty between Russia and Turkey, should be generally applied to settle all international disputes. 11 This clause stipulated that any country in dispute with Turkey should first attempt mediation through a friendly state before resorting to arms, and Clarendon hoped that the adoption of this as a general principle of international diplomacy would lead to European states settling their disputes through mediation rather than armed conflict. Clarendon’s proposal was made too late to become a formal part of the 1856 peace treaty, but it did become part of the treaty’s protocol and was signed by all the plenipotentiaries of the great powers present at the Congress. Despite continued British requests to the other European powers in the years immediately following the signing of the treaty that they should respect it and attempt a mediated settlement for their conflicts, it was never used to solve any of the major international crises of the time. The attempt to create a complete diplomatic solution to international disputes and abolish war was a complete failure. 12 Nevertheless the fact that it was attempted shows the genuine commitment to peace of the European powers involved, as well as their confidence in the ability of the diplomatic machinery established by the 1815 peace treaty to solve international disputes. 13

19th Century European Peace Maintained when Europe Far More Religious than Today

The 19th century system of international diplomacy catastrophically failed to preserve European peace in 1914, and the following decades saw the rise of aggressively militaristic, Fascist regimes that utterly rejected the 19th century goal of preserving and promoting peace. Nevertheless, despite its failure the attempts of contemporary European nations to maintain peace through diplomatic negotiation and alliances is clearly partly derived and developed from these 19th century attempts to provide a diplomatic solution for international disputes, rather than the use of military force. These attempts to create the diplomatic methods to prevent international conflict were made when Europe was far more religious than it is at present and by politicians who mostly, though not exclusively, shared the concerns of general European society to preserve and maintain religion. It could therefore be considered that the peace currently enjoyed by contemporary, secular European society was founded by 19th century people of faith.

Attempts to Create Peace often Led by People of Faith Inspired by Religious Convictions

It was not just in the 19th century that people of faith attempted to achieve internationl peace. In contemporary Europe as well many of the individuals who actively worked to promote peace were people of faith who were directly inspired by their strong religious principles. The 19th century Liberal Party in Britain was strongly informed by the Protestant, Nonconformist conscience with its concern for moral and social improvement, and in the 20th century Christian clergy and lay people were also involved in various peace movements. The chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain from 1958 to 1964 was the controversial clergyman Lewis John Collins. 14 The scientist and Anglican priest, Charles Raven, was an ardent pacifist and one of the sponsors of the Peace Pledge Union. He based his arguments for pacifism very much on his Christian beliefs and theological views, presenting them in hsi work, The Religious Basis of Pacifism. 15

Peaceful Personal Conduct Commanded by the Bible, and World Peace Traditional Subject of Christian Prayers

Pacifism remains the frequently controversial view of a minority of Christians, as most Christians would probably argue that in all too many cases evil can only be combatted through warfare and deserves the use of military force against it. Nevertheless Christians, regardless of their particular views on war, have prayed for peace in the world since the period of the Early Church. The Apostolic Constitutions, for example, amongst the prayers for the Church and its people also requests Christians to pray for world peace with the words

‘Let us pray for the peace and happy settlement of the world, and of the holy churches; that the God of the whole world may afford us his everlasting peace, and such as may not be taken away from us’. 16

This concern for peace is based firmly in the Bible. St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews 13:20 describes the Lord as the God of peace, for example. 1 Peter 3:11 advises the Christian – ‘he that will love life’ – as they are described in verse 10 – to renounce evil and turn to peace with the words

‘let him eschew evil, and do good

let him seek peace and ensue it’ 17.

St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews 12:14 also urges Christians to live in peace with everyone with the command

‘Follow peace with all men, and

holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.’ 18

Thus while the Bible does not necessarily reject warfare, it does command that Christians attempt to live in peace with their fellows and condemns violent behaviour. The Bible’s concern and encouragement of peace as a part of Christian morality directly contradicts Robert’s assumption that Christianity must somehow, by its very nature, promote violence and warfare, and that European society has therefore become more peaceful through its decline.

Conclusion: European Peace Product of Post-War Prosperity, Stable Borders, and Preference for Diplomatic Solutions by European Politicians rather than Secularism

Thus while the long period of European peace in the 20th century has also been a period of decline in the Christian faith, or its observance, neither secularism or atheism is the cause of this peace, as Robert’s comment implies. Rather the immediate causes of European peace have been stable borders, produced by the emergence of the nation-state in the 19th century, and the deliberate policy of European governments to settle international disputes by diplomacy rather than military force.

This policy became a necessity after the carnage and devastation of the Second World War, and the threat of war with the Soviet bloc after the establishment of the Iron Curtain. However, European governments and statesmen had preferred to solve their disputes through negotiation rather than force, though certainly not to exclude warfare, since the middle of the second decade of the 19th century. The system of international alliances and organisations that emerged after World War II with the deliberate intention of promoting international peace and curbing the military aggression or the territorial ambitions of the individual member states can be viewed as a development of 19th century great power diplomacy with its preference for negotiation. There is a major difference between the two diplomatic systems, however in that the architects of the ‘Concert of Europe’ believed strongly in national sovereignty and would have rejected the threat posed to it by supranational organisations like the EU. Nevertheless, even the EU has its predecessors in the proposal of Christian statesmen and theologians, such as William Penn, for a common European parliament of member states to maintain European peace and harmony. Europeans had ceased to wage war purely for religious reasons after the 17th century. The main cause of European warfare in the succeeding centuries was nationalism, of which religion was largely just one aspect. The system of great power diplomacy and alliances that constituted the Concert System, although far less radical than Penn’s plan for a common European parliament, was nevertheless established by statesmen and diplomats who generally viewed religion as essential to their nations’ wellbeing, and wished to preserve it as a vital part of their nations’ security. The preservation and maintenance of established religion from attack from political radicalism was therefore one of the major purposes in the attempts to establish and preserve European peace after the defeat of Napoleon.

European Peace Partly Caused by Christian Moral Doctrine

Furthermore, while Christians have committed horrific atrocities in terrible religious wars, such as during the Crusades and the Wars of Religion, Christianity has also viewed the Almighty as a God of peace. Christian morality required peaceful, non-violent personal conduct, particularly as stated by St. Paul and St. Peter. A number of Christian sects, denominations and individuals have been determined pacifists. While these have only been a minority, Christianity as a whole has attempted to place moral limits on warfare and its conduct through the development of theories of the Just War, and Christians have continued to pray for peace in the world since the Early Church. While undoubtedly the various peace movements and initiatives that appeared in the 20th century were by no means confined to people of faith, nevertheless they have also included Christian clergy and laypeople. The peace Europe has enjoyed for the last half-century is thus partly the product of the attempts of Christians over the centuries to limit war and promote peace.

Secularism Product of European Peace, Stable Borders and Economic Development

It may be considered that the success of European governments and diplomats in establishing a largely peaceful, stable Europe may be one of the causes of European secularisation. International stability within Europe, as well as increased material prosperity and rising standards of living have led Europeans to adopt a far more this-worldly attitude to life, often to the exclusion of traditional other worldly religion. Thus national prosperity and international peace, as well as ideological challenges from secular philosophies, may have contributed to secularisation and the attitude amongst some Europeans that religion, or religious observance, is unnecessary.

20th Century Totalitarianisms Example of Possible Dangers to Peace from Rejection of Christianity and Christian Moral Support for Peace

It’s a very flawed attitude. The great totalitarianisms of the Left and Right that emerged in the 20th century did so partly as a rejection of Christianity, and traditional Christian morality. Fascism in particular celebrated warfare for its own sake, in direct contradiction to Christian theology and morality. In their attempts to impose their own ideas of the perfect society on their subject peoples, these regimes murdered millions. Terrible atrocities have been committed by Christians in the name of their religion, yet European attempts to create a genuine, just peace owe much to Christianity. The horrors committed by the extreme Left and Right during the 20th century show how peace too can suffer once the traditional moral views supporting it, based on Christianity, have been rejected.

Notes

1. St. Augustine, cited in Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (Encounter Books, New York 2002), p. 90.

2. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, pp. 90-1.

3. David Martin, Does Christianity Cause War? (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1997), cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 95.

4. ‘A Perswasive to Moderation to Church-Dissenters, in Prudence and Conscience: Humbly Submitted to the KING and His Great Council’ in William Penn, ed. Edwin B. Bonner, The Peace of Europe, the Fruits of Solitude and Other Writings (London, J.M. Dent 1993), pp. 187-223.

5. ‘An Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe, by the Establishment of an European DYET, PARLIAMENT, or Estates’, in Penn, ed. Bonner, The Peace of Europe, pp. 5-22.

6. Harry Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century 1830-1880, Second Edition (London, Longman 1988), p. 154.

7. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, p. 153.

8. Esmond Wright, ed., History of the World: The Last Five Hundred Years (Middlesex, Hamlyn 1984), p. 406.

9. Wright, ed., History of the World, p. 386.

10. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, p. 155.

11. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 155-6.

12. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, p. 156.

13. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, p. 156.

14. ‘Collins, Lewis John’, in The New Illustrated Everyman’s Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (London, J.M. Dent and Sons 1985), p. 370.

15. ‘Charles Raven’ in Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams, eds., Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford, Oxford University Press 2001), p. 612; Charles Raven, ‘The Religious Basis of Pacifism’, in Rowell, Stevenson and Williams, eds., Love’s Redeeming Work, p. 613.

16. F. Forrester Church and Terrence J. Mulry, The MacMillan Book of Earliest Christian Prayers (New York, Collier Books 1988), p. 61.

17. 1 Peter 3:11 and 1 Peter 3:10 in the Holy Bible, King James Version (London, Collins), p. 242.

18. Hebrews 12: 14, in the Holy Bible, King James Version, p. 235.

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8 Responses to “Christianity, Secularism and European Peace”

  1. Feyd Says:

    Hi Beast ,

    Great stuff as ever.

    Yeah while Robert is correct about Christianity declining slightly in western Europe, this hasn’t reflected a rise in atheism , but as you say many folk concentrating on reaping the rewards of this world while remaining relatively indifferent to both atheism and religion.

    If anything its atheism thats not only declined but almost collapsed in the later half of the 20th century – this is certainly true globally and largely true for Europe especially if you’re including the Eastern states.

    By the late 19th early 20th century atheism had achieved a commanding cultural position with advocated like Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell & George Bernard Shaw. As for political power, by the 1950s almost half of the world’s population had the misfortune to be governed by an atheist regime. As you know the typical experience of these poor souls was far from the liberating one atheist propaganda had promised. The brutally oppressive Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao are only three of more than 50 atheist tyrants.

    Happily most of those regimes were either overthrown or abandoned militant atheism, and culturally atheists are now far less credible when they attempt to pontificate about religion and its important role in public life.

    As we’ve discussed before Global Christianity is once again increasing even in percentage terms and the best available analyses suggests the long decline in Europe is bottoming out and will soon reverse.

    There was some very encouraging news in this Sat’s FT – the CoE and two other Christian charities are set to double their number of academies due to favourable changes to government rules. Apparently a Christian education is very much in demand even from totally secular parents thanks its high standards!

    Its good to know the various destabilising influences on the horizon are likely to be at least partly counterbalanced by resurgent Christianity with its positive effect on peace!

  2. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Interesting. Of course there is the old charge about religion and war. Which is a half truth devoid of context, but yes it has happened. Then again the wiles of females have caused war as well as the personal insults felt by kings. Secularism of course is hailed as the cure-all not only in terms of demographics and benefits and the “good life”, but in quelling religious dissent, etc. Europe is about to find out, however, if what some term as a “nothingness” of the mush of secularism can rise to the challenges of welfare benefits exceeding said demographic inputs as well as the Islamist challenge. It can be pointed out that while truly Islam is violent in SOME of its manifestations, the resistence to it might likely come from other faiths including a resurgence of European Christianity, which bequethed to Europe in no small part her notions of rights and humanism.

    Often demographics is key more than philosophy and other forces. It was not without irony, but still prescient, that some have remarked that only the knuckle-dragging redneck country church going folks of the South in the US are reproducing at rates similar to the majority of the world of Islam. Secularism does not bolster its own defense often. It was a Dutch parlimentarian who reportedly said, in his hip way of being an athiest secularist and leftist (the trifecta of cool in the Continent?), who said he’s glad for his rights but is not likely to ever be in the mood to fight for them with arms or laws.

    Imagine that. Wow. If that’s not a confession of impotence of the political and spiritual kind–or just a spiritual deadness one might think happens more in Eastern Europe, I don’t know what could be.

    –W

  3. Beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Wakefield. Regarding the origins of war in previous centuries, I’ve come across at least one historian who stated that it was probably caused by feudal society and princely dynastic ambitions, rather than from religion. Kings and aristocrats were primarily war leaders. Their role was to provide military protection for those under them – the workers, merchants and tradesmen as well as the Church. In feudalism government, military service and landholding are all combined, so that personal ambition becomes a powerful feature of state government, including the use of military force to achieve it. Many of the wars fought in the European Middle Ages were between competing aristocratic families attempting to gain each other’s estates, or from noblemen trying to resist the Crown’s attempts to force them to submit to its authority.

    As for secularism providing the answer to war, undoubtedly European society became far more tolerant with the establishment of freedom of conscience and belief in some European states, like Britain, during the 17th century. However, in my opinion to build a lasting, peaceful society requires the creation of a common set of moral and political views amongst its citizens. The Communists and Fascists who utterly rejected democratic society and its institutions were clearly a violent threat to peace and order in Europe despite the secular nature of their beliefs. One can similarly argue that, despite the immense horrors of Civil War, America has succeeded as a state and society because it’s citizens have a common morality and belief in essential political institutions.

  4. Beastrabban Says:

    As for demographics, you’re certainly right about birthrates amongst atheists being lower than amongst religious believers, and it doesn’t surprise me that Muslims would have higher birthrates than westerners. I can distinctly remember an article in New Scientist about five or so years ago that discussed the real possibility that there would be a population crash later in this century, with massive consequences for global politics and the economy. As for the Dutch atheist, secularist Leftist parliamentarian, one wonders what he does actually believe in if he doesn’t feel that he wants to defend his rights and his freedoms, with laws or arms. I’m not sure how many he actually speaks for. When the Labour government took power after World War II, it was on the basis of trying to create a better society for the servicemen and women who had sacrificed so much for their countries. How far they were successful depends on one’s own personal politics, but there’s no doubt that they genuinely believed that one had to defend one’s rights and freedoms, as they’d been forced to. I’ve got a feeling that such an attitude, in which rights and freedoms are seen as something not worth bothering to defend, are probably the result of the ‘post-ideological’ age we’ve supposed to have entered. It seems that contemporary opinion seems to consider that political ideologies are divisive and lead to conflict and violence, or counterproductive political infighting, so have to be rejected. Some of this is because of the atrocities committed due to the political ideologies of Communism and Fascism, while part of the attitude may also be due to a general dissatisfaction with politics. Politics on its own hasn’t created the social and economic improvements people may at one time have expected. Politicians frequently fail to deliver the improvements they’ve promised at the election, or even to put the demands made in their manifesto into action. Moreover, after privatisation people in Britain have become less interested in politics because the services formerly provided solely by the state have increasingly been offered by private industry. The result has been that people have become increasingly disenchanted with politics, and seen politicians themselves as motivated entirely by self-interest. I suspect that a lot of the hedonism that now characterises European culture is motivated by this rejection of ideology and politics, in favour of trying to find satisfaction instead in pleasure and escape from political and ideological problems, rather than in the creation of a better society in the future.

  5. Beastrabban Says:

    As for European democracy and society being preserved by Christianity – this was certainly the view of very many of the academics in the symposium on science, philosophy, religion and the democratic way of life in 1941. This included a number of politicians, one of whom, A.A. Berle, the assistant secretary of state, noted the example of St. Paul and that in Nazi occupied Poland, Roman Catholics as well as Jews were forced to wear badges indictating their inferior status.

    Similarly, M.L. Wilson, the director of extension work, of the US department of agriculture, stated that when it came to state planning boards, he didn’t know one which didn’t need philosopher or religious teacher on it as much as the scientific and technical personnel, because they were aware of the limits of knowledge and the nature of humanity, what was good or bad in human society in a way that the scientiests and technologists weren’t. He considered that ‘the science of culture’ stopped in a twilight zone because it didn’t distinguish between good and bad cultures, or what direction cultural change should take. In his view, philosophy and religion were vital because they dealt precisely with the ultimate ends of humanity and moral values, and so deserved an equal place with the human sciences.

    Douglas Bush, a literature professor at Harvard at the same symposium strongly recommended the Christian humanism of Milton, who believed in freedom of speech and conscience, and whose faith was supported by a wide reading in the science of his day and the Classics. When he saw his dreams of political liberty destroyed during the British Civil War, Milton turned away from politics. For Bush, Milton thus saw clearly that only personal reformation and regeneration in Christ could supply the personal basis for the reform of the wider world. He states that during the 19th century western writers had become aware that scientific progress had created a spiritual vacuum, but unlike Milton, they did not fall back on religious faith. The result was, in Bush’s view, a profound spiritual crisis in the West that expressed in literature through descriptions of the squalid and degrading. It pretty much describes much of post-War literature as well. His solution was to return to teaching the Graeco-Roman classics and the Bible as part of the tradition of Christian Humanists like Milton and the Elizabethan English Humanist Roger Ascham.

  6. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Thanks for the responses, BR.

    As a Brit, it IS interesting YOUR take on these “religion is bad for society, secularism is a path to peace and social stability” type mantras. It is fascinating to dig into further real context and history.

    As far as the United States, the history here is being “reset” or recalibrated to suit the memories. Some call this revisionism. Now to be sure the Founders had their true deists among them as well as outright Christians but would agree that the underpinning of a moral society was Christian morals. One notable standout who ALWAYS makes the rounds in agnostic and athiest blogsites is of course Thomas Paine who is supposed to have said:

    Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize
    mankind; and for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel. “

    Generally a precis of what Euro secularists say today and have for a while, in that the history of the Bible is one of torment and violence and then later long after written it continued in the tortures of various chambers and whatnot. Of course as you pointed out, kings and kingdoms who feigned God’s work had no small part in this. Though there was the Crusades and the Inquisition and witch burnings. So to the modern sensibility in Europe and America no doubt even beyond THESE true horrors there is some consernation about the fact that the Bible merely MENTIONS horrors it does not approve of (it logs items, to be sure) though to be certain God certainly God rid of the Amelekites, et al. I have tried to explain that there is a difference in detailing something as opposed to advocacy by God.

    To which I get the bumper sticker reply: Gods don’t really kill people–people with gods kill people.

    Thus the connection made between truly horrific crimes found among some Islamist and past Christian purges and political goals today, it would seem.

    The Age of Reason (1794)

  7. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    oopps–

    meant to say Tom Paine said those word in 1894 in the Age of Reason.

    Not to place that at the end. Yipes!

    –W

  8. Disabled Chat Says:

    I have Bell’s Palsy and enjoy your blog very much. First time I’ve commented, but have been reading here and there.
    Great blog. I enjoy reading it every chance I get and value your opinions!

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