THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: A TIME OF RADICAL DOUBT
By the end of the 19th century, the decline of Christianity in Western Europe that began in the early modern period seemed irreversible, and had come moreover to be regarded by many as representing the natural course of history, for all of humanity. The educated classes of the continent had more and more detached themselves from the faith of their ancestors, and atheism had even begun to acquire the kind of quiet respectability in some circles it had never enjoyed in any previous age.
[A print by the illustrator Gustave Dore shows St Paul's Cathedral amid the teeming metropolis of London in the 1870s. In the 19th century new social factors such as industrialization and the rapid growth of cities helped engender an increasingly materialist outlook whose corollary was secularization]
To some, the decline of Christianity was a cause for rejoicing; to others, it was simply a cultural fact, probably to be rued. Whatever the case, a great many thought they could foresee a time when religion would vanish entirely.
Elegies for Faith
Throughout the 19th century, of course, the vast majority of Europeans were not only nominal Christians, but in all likelihood believers of some variety or another. In absolute numbers, sceptics and unbelievers constituted a distinct minority; but they were an increasingly public minority, and their explicit rejection of received beliefs was in many ways symptomatic of a more general loosening of traditional Christianity's hold over the imagination of Western culture.
The causes of this larger cultural movement are impossible to isolate with any certainty. No doubt some were material, some intellectual, some social and some more or less unquantifiable. In part, the rise of a literate middle class in an age of discovery had created a culture in which differing 'narratives of reality' naturally multiplied. In part, the early modern disintegration of Christendom into often irreconcilable versions of Christianity had served to make all dogmatic claims seem somewhat less credible. And, in part, a general (if not necessarily logical) sense that the modern scientific picture of the universe was somehow irreconcilable with Christian doctrine began to take hold. But the phenomenon of 'secularization' has no single explanation.
Many reflective observers of the time — even many who were themselves no longer believers - wrote of the new reality in distinctly elegiac tones, aware that with the departure of faith, much of what had in the past given form and meaning to existence, and had provided hope and solace to those most in need of these things, had also disappeared; and aware also that the moral nature of a society devoid of religious belief might not necessarily be something in which one could vest much confidence.The most famous expression of wistful unbelief was 'Dover Beach', the 1867 poem by Matthew Arnold (1822-88), with its imagery of the 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar' of the 'sea of faith', and of a world devoid of joy, love, light, certitude, peace or help for pain, in which the poet descries only 'a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night'. Less known, however (deservedly, perhaps), is the poem 'God's Funeral' by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), written around 1908, which describes a vision of a funeral cortege upon a 'twilit plain', bearing the 'mystic form' of the dead God away: a procession in which, as it progresses, more and more mourners join. The poet confesses his own sorrow over the loss of something he too once had prized, and speaks longingly of those times long past when one began the day 'with trustful prayer' and ended it in assurance of God's presence. Now 'who or what shall fill his place?' And, says Hardy, 'how to bear such loss I deemed/ The insistent question for each animate mind'.
Nature Red in Tooth and Claw
Without question, no greater blow was struck against conventional religious belief in the 19th century than the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species, in which Charles Darwin for the first time publicly unfolded the concept of special evolution, as something accomplished over vast periods of time by fortunate mutation and natural selection. Though Darwin did not there discuss the evolution of humanity, the implications of his thought were obvious; and those implications became explicit with the 1871 publication of The Descent of Man.
To the most literalist readers of scripture, of course, Darwin's ideas were scandalous simply because they contradicted the creation story of Genesis; but the ancient Christian practice of reading that story allegorically had never died out in Christian culture, and there were many 19th-century Christians who found the idea of special evolution entirely inoffensive. One of Darwin's earliest and most vigorous champions, the extremely accomplished American botanist Asa Gray (1810—88), was a devout Christian who saw such evolution as a manifestation of God's creative power in the fabric of nature. The true challenge Darwin's books posed to the Christian vision of reality was not so much one of logic as one of sensibility: it was not so much the idea of evolution as such, but that of the mechanism of natural selection, that seemed to exercise a corrosive effect upon
[A caricature in a popular 19th-century French magazine lampoons, Charles Darwin's theories of the descent of man from the higher apes by portraying him as a monkey swinging in a tree]
the power of the imagination to see the world in a Christian light. Darwin's argument summoned up before the mind of his society an image of the world as a reality governed at once by heartless necessity and mindless chance, shaped by countless epochs of death, and struggle, and blind striving. Could such a world have been created by the Christian God?
Masters of Suspicion
In truth, the 19th century gave birth to all the great schools of 'post-religious' or 'materialist' thought that have either explicitly or invisibly formed late modern culture at its deepest levels: the most notable of these being modern psychology and modern social theory. Sigmund Freud (1856—1939) was, of course, the most important figure for the development of the former, and though his reputation has perhaps declined somewhat in recent years, the 'mythos' of human consciousness created by him remains very much intact. For Freud, the self is — rather than a soul with an eternal nature — a complex amalgam of biological and social impulses, many of them quite 'Darwinian' in their primal mechanisms, and the conscious mind is only the surface of the 'unconscious', where hidden, largely irrational impulses, repressed desires, secret resentments, tacit memories and conflicting sexual urges reside. Freud, moreover, firmly believed that, as science advanced, and as the science of the mind progressively defeated supernatural thinking, the 'illusion' of religion - whose origin he ascribed in large measure to the human fear of death — would melt away.
[Darwin's half-cousin Sir Francis Gallon was the originator of the theory of eugenics, which posited an improvement of the human race by means of selective breeding]
Of all the theorists of 19th century Europe who attempted to construct a vision of the social or political good in unambiguously materialist terms, obviously none was more influential than Karl Marx (181 8-83), the father of a somewhat heterodox form of revolutionary socialism. Marx's reputation has also suffered considerably over the past century; but, again, his vision of politics, culture and society as creations of a 'material dialectic', and of history as driven almost exclusively by class struggle and economic motives, profoundly affected the thought even of many of his detractors. And, if nothing else, the 20th century demonstrated the enormous power of his sort of atheist utopianism radically to transform (and often to destroy) whole societies.
Another school of social theory that attached itself to socialist economics and 'progressive' thought at the end of the 19th century - with worse than tragic consequences — was that of 'eugenics'. Its principles were first clearly enunciated in the 1860s by Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911),and its aims were shared by many of the most 'enlightened' minds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries including, it seems, Darwin himself. Many who embraced this movement believed they were simply drawing the conclusions dictated by Darwinian science: if, they reasoned, natural selection is the mechanism by which a species thrives and improves, then civilization should not be allowed to retard this process among human beings, and carriers of hereditary defects, as well as those who are racially, morally or mentally 'inferior,' should ideally be prevented from reproducing. Of course, logically speaking, to mistake Darwinian biology for a moral imperative is rather absurd; but the eugenic premise was widely accepted by liberal-minded individuals and states for decades. In the early 20th century, many of the traditionally Protestant countries of Europe, as well as the USA, Canada and Australia, admitted certain eugenic principles into law. And it was not unusual to read an idealistic socialist like H. G.Wells (1866—1946) calmly predicting a day when entire races would have to be exterminated for the good of the species.
Western society was on the verge of discovering that a radical materialism could breed horrors far greater than even the worst religious fanaticism.
THE PROPHET OF ANTICHRIST
[Nietzsche's most famous dictum from The Gay Science is 'God is dead! He remains dead! And we have killed him!']
In the writings of no other thinker of the 19th century did the voice of unbelief reach so pure and piercing a pitch as in those of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the brilliant classicist, philologist and philosopher.
Nietzsche was the most coherent interpreter of faith's decline, the most uncompromising advocate of a post-religious ethos, and the most vehemently anti-Christian philosopher of his or any era. He believed that the triumph of Christianity had been a catastrophe for Western humanity, one that had elevated the slavish airi resentful values of the weak and ill-constituted over the noble, life-affirming and healthy virtues of the strong and guileless. He also thought that Christian tales of heavenly reality had drained the earth of meaning, that the 'moral' distinction between good and evil was a perversion of human values, and that the gospel's concern for the frail and meek, and its cult of pity, had poisoned the wellsprings of human nature. He did not hesitate to speak of himself as an 'antichrist'.
Nietzsche was not, however, entirely sanguine in his prognostications for a future without God. He feared that, in the absence of any higher aspiration, humanity might degenerate into those he called the 'Last Men' (die letzten Menschen), an insect-like race of vapid narcissists, sunk in petty satisfactions. But he hoped that humanity might rouse itself from the stupor induced by two millennia of Christianity to will 'that which is beyond the merely human': the 'Overman' (der Ubermensch), that inspiring but indefinable hero or artist or leader to whose advent humanity might yet aspire, if it still had the strength to affirm earthly life rather than succumb to an ultimate nihilism.
In a famous passage from The Gay Science (1882) Nietzsche relates the fable of a madman who comes into a city to announce the 'death of God' - that is, the end of human faith in the transcendent an event of such immense significance that the very horizons of our world have been 'sponged away'. But no one knows what to make of his words. Even those who have ceased to believe in God cannot understand how momentous his message is. So the madman leaves, knowing that it may be centuries before humanity grasps what the death of God has meant: what an utter revision of all values it must bring about, and how utterly it will transform all things human.
TO BE CONTINUED
SADLY A FALSE, OFTEN PHYSICALLY BRUTAL, CHRISTIANITY, HAD HELPED BRING IN THE MODERN ERA OF "GOD IS DEAD" AND "WE DON'T NEED A GOD" ATTITUDE OF MIND. WHICH FURTHER LED TO THE BELIEF IN EVOLUTION, TO WHERE IT IS TODAY SPOKEN ABOUT AND TAUGHT, AS IF 100 PERCENT FACT.
THE WHOLE SCENE WAS NOT HELPED WHEN CERTAIN THINGS TAUGHT BY A FALSE RELIGION, SUCH AS THE AGE OF THE EARTH AND MAN UPON IT, WAS SMASHED TO PIECES BY SCIENCE. MANY CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS STILL CLING TO FALSE TEACHINGS, WHICH MAKE IT THAT MUCH HARDER FOR PEOPLE TO ACCEPT THERE IS A GOD AND THE BIBLE IS HIS WORD OF TRUTH.
THE IMPORTANT FALSE TEACHINGS OF CHRISTIAN RELIGION WITH SCIENCE, I HAVE EXPOUNDED FOR YOU ON MY WEBSITE. CORRECT SCIENCE IS IN HARMONY WITH CORRECT BIBLE UNDERSTANDING AND TEACHING.