At the instigation of a friend, I am writing a brief post on the reason’s for Western Europe’s apostasy from Christianity. I say apostasy because it has moved away from it’s ancient faith, the faith that has defined and shaped Europe more than any other single force with the possible exception of the Greek and Roman legacies.
The roots of European apostasy are deep and vast. You could trace them to Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance rejection of the Middle Ages or to the rise of modern philosophy and science with their strongly anti-authority bent. However all these are vast and varied topics, beyond the meager powers of your Servant. I will instead limit myself to a few brief thoughts.
The strain of anti-authority feeling in philosophy begins with the French philosopher Renee Descartes. While Descartes was himself a faithful Catholic, his reliance on a philosophy of radical doubt, a prior rationality and discursive reasoning led the way in the West for throwing off the shackles of the past. The science of Newton played a role as well, though not on the author would have liked, I think.
The Reformation, sadly, played a part in the rejection of patrimony as a guide for human society. Luther and Calvin sought to explicitly reject the Catholic teaching, the dying Scholasticism they knew and mistook for the Scholasticism of Aquinas, and replace tradition and magisterium with the pure Word of God. But as the Oxford Movement in 19th century England was to learn, the Bible alone as standard for all things provides one with a large set of problems. The individualistic ideas of the Reformers, especially of such radicals as the early Anabaptists, provided the impetus for a Cartesian attitude toward religion, philosophy and more.
With the coming of modern philosophy in the form of French, Scottish and English Enlightenments, we see yet more proof of the West wandering. The French Enlightenment of the philosophes, men like Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau provide a sneering contempt for the faith of old. The Scottish and English Enlightenments were not so radical by half, but in such men as Locke and Hume they managed to undermine the Christian faith and seek to replace it with either a snide skepticism or an arid Deistic rationalism. These ideas were to reach across the Atlantic to touch early American, most notably Thomas Jefferson.
The explicit dating for the start of Western rejection of its most defining characteristic is varied, as I’ve said before. I will though give my own dating for it, for the purposes of this essay.
While the roots of Western apostasy run deep into our cultural life, the first explicit rejection of Christianity is found in the French Revolution.
Following their sneering forebearers, the French Revolutionaries sought to throw out the Faith wholesale, despite the efforts of some to moderate their approach. The grand Cathedral of Notre Dame was turned into a Temple of Reason, with a young harlot playing the role of the Goddess of Reason.(if memory serves). This age also saw the first replacement of Christianity by a secular faith.
The painter Louis David was assigned to create the pageants and paintings which would embody the new Faith. Celebrations of the abstract Gods of Reason, Equality, Fraternity and Liberty now replaced the Catholic celebrations of Advent, Annunciation, Christmas and Easter. David’s paintings of the Oath of the Tennis Court, and the Death of Marat, provided the secular men with their idols and saints.
But this madness could only go so long. Within a short time, the Revolution turned on itself, and produced the dictator Napoleon, the first of his kind in the world. Roger Scruton has called the French Revolution ‘man’s second disobedience.’ With my next post I will hope to show why this is so.
The French Revolution, instead of dying as it ought to have, produced poisonous seeds in the revolutions in Russia and China, under Communism and in the Western universities under the guise of no less vile deities. This evil tree, planted and tended by men of innovating spirits and sneering glances, is with us even today, and serves as the model for those who admire it and the warning for those who are wiser.
Your Humble Servant, C. McDonald