The Secularization of the West


The great religious upheaval of the sixteenth century contributed to the long-term decline of religion and the rise of secularism in the West, although few of the participants could have foreseen this at the time.

The great religious upheaval of the sixteenth century contributed to the long-term decline of religion and the rise of secularism in the West, although few of the participants could have foreseen this at the time.

Perhaps the most important effect was the reality of religious division itself. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Western Christians had to begin to cope with the reality of what would later be called pluralism. Now such pluralism is usually discussed with respect to religious values in public life, but there is a deeper problem which it poses and which is often overlooked. In the midst of a continually multiplying number of groups claiming to have the truth, it becomes difficult for many people to believe that any faith can be true. During the religious wars in France, for example, the essayist Michel de Montaigne, though at least a nominal Catholic, expressed a certain skepticism about all religion. He wondered how the people on opposite sides of the wars could be so certain of their beliefs. The fact that people held to contradictory beliefs with dogmatic certitude was, for Montaigne, grounds for wondering how either side could be right.

His attitude was not widely shared by his contemporaries, but in the next century it came to be expressed more openly. Put simply, the argument of the incipient skeptics was, "If a variety of religious groups each claims to have the truth, and each claims that all the others are in error, does it not seem reasonable that all of them are in error?"

The wars and persecutions which accompanied the religious divisions also had an important effect on the growth of skepticism. The spectacle of bloody violence and hatred directed by Christians at other Christians decade after decade took its toll. The religious wars in Europe lasted from roughly 1540 to 1700. Although they always had political causes as well, religion usually provided the passion and the chief justification for the fighting. Religious persecution was practiced in virtually every Western country until after 1700. One does not often judge the teachings of a religion by the conduct of the people who do not live up to them. However, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, religion did appear as a destructive force, and this certainly had a deep psychological effect.

The reaction was not usually outright skepticism, although there was some of that. More common was a half-conscious decision by many Christians to dampen the passions which their faith generated. Insofar as those passions were murderous, this was a genuinely Christian thing to do. However, religious belief, since it is supposed to infuse the believer's whole life, must transform his being in profound ways. Some religious and political leaders of the late seventeenth century decided, more or less deliberately, to encourage a bland, formal, nearly contentless religion which could never arouse sufficient emotions to threaten disorder.

From the period just before 1700 we can date a familiar type of modern Christianity. It stresses ethical teachings, denigrates the importance of basic doctrines, relegates belief to people's private lives, and is embarrassed by open displays of religious fervor. The familiar modern social convention appeared whereby it is considered bad manners to discuss religion, in part because it is likely to be divisive. Religious toleration came to mean not only allowing others to practice their faith but never implying that their faith might be incomplete or that some matters of truth cannot be ignored.

England was probably the place where such attitudes were most clearly manifest after about 1690. England had two revolutions in the seventeenth century, one of them accompanied by a civil war. Especially in the first one (1642-1660), religion played a major role. An ardent Puritanism was pitted against the Anglican monarchy. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, many Englishmen espoused a religious philosophy called Latitudinarianism which, as the name implies, was a style of church life broad enough to encompass almost everyone. For the next 150 years, membership in the Anglican Church was a social necessity involving minimum conformity to its public observances. But any kind of open religious fervor, anything that smacked of what was called "enthusiasm," was held in disdain. It was in reaction to this aridity that the Methodist movement began.

By itself the fragmentation of Christianity and the bitter conflicts which accompanied it would probably not have produced the secularization of the West. There were other forces at work, the long-term effects of which were only dimly recognized at the time. The most important of these was probably the growth of science.

In 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus published a book in which he challenged the ancient theory that the earth is the center of the universe. He claimed that the sun is the center and the earth merely a planet. It took sixty years for the new theory to become widely known even in educated circles, but by the early seventeenth century it was the subject of much controversy. The Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Catholic Church for teaching the Copernican theory.

Protestants and Catholics both resisted the new theory because it seemed to contradict the Scripture, which speaks of the sun moving in the heavens. There were other problems as well. Not the least of these was that man had been dethroned from a central place in the universe and was now a mere inhabitant of one of the planets. The image of the cosmos which had been almost universally held for two millenia was called into question, and people wondered about other beliefs handed down from the past.

It would take man a long time to work out the problem of reconciling scriptural authority with scientific discovery. Many more conflicts (for example, over the age of the universe) would arise in the next three centuries. Though many of them had the effect of weakening the credibility of religious authority only slightly, their cumulative effect was powerful.

It would be a mistake, however, to regard the Scientific Revolution as leading directly to secularization. The leading scientists (Galileo and Isaac Newton, for example) were devout. Almost all scientists were at least conventional believers. Indeed, Newton thought that the laws of physics which he formulated made the existence of God more certain rather than less so, since only a Supreme Intelligence could have created such a marvellously ordered and rational universe.

The philosophers inspired by the new science, like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, took pains to protect religious belief from skeptical attack. Their very act of protecting it helped subtly to undermine it. They seemed to imply that faith could not withstand rational scrutiny and was primarily a matter of subjective choice. Descartes prided himself on developing a rigorous proof for the existence of God. But his fellow Frenchman Blaise Pascal, as great a mathematician as Descartes and a fervent Christian apologist, asked whether "the god of the geometers" had anything to do with the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." (Pascal, precociously, also foresaw that science might become anti-humanistic, by reducing man to a mere speck in the vastness of the universe.)

From the beginning of the European universities in the twelfth century, theology had been the "queen of the sciences," and religion had been seen as at the center of reality. Now thinkers like Descartes "protected" religion by putting it off to one side. Descartes regarded mathematics as the most perfect of disciplines, the one which provided a hope of certitude in other areas of inquiry. Others looked to other sources, such as empirical investigation. Religion was not openly attacked nor, for the most part, was it disbelieved. It just ceased to be important. The dramatic success of the new science stimulated an enormous sense of self-confidence in many people. They assumed that the scientific method would in time unravel all mysteries, solve all problems. Religion was increasingly felt as something unnecessary even if true, to be shunted into a side room of one's life.

If the seventeenth century still treated Christianity with respect, the eighteenth century opened a frontal attack on it. The philosophes (probably best translated as "intellectuals") were self-proclaimed apostles of an "Enlightenment." This term implies the existence of prior darkness, largely the result of Christianity, which was equated with superstition and ignorance. In their mental world there was no room for mystery or the supernatural. Whatever could not be discovered or proven rationally was false.

In the eighteenth century, for the first time since Roman days, there were self-proclaimed atheists, though atheism was not fully respectable even in advanced intellectual circles. Most of the intellectuals were Deists, meaning that they believed in a God like Newton's Supreme Intelligence, who had planned and created the marvellously well-ordered universe. But, after creating it, this "clock-maker God" had left it to run in accordance with its own laws.

There was no divine providence or miracles-God did not "interfere" in his creation. Nor did he reveal himself to his people, in the Scriptures or through the church. All of man's knowledge of God came through his creation, by means of rational inquiry. There was thus no need for formal religion; in fact, formal religion was based on falsehood. One "worshipped" God only by living in accord with reason. Prayer was meaningless. The Bible, while it contained some elevated and inspiring passages, was considered a hodge-podge of man-made tales, many of them actually harmful if believed. For the most part the intellectuals of the eighteenth century held to a morality quite similar to Judaeo-Christian morality, but they derived it solely from reason and recognized no religious authority in moral matters. Some of them believed in the possibility of an afterlife but many did not.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the basic outlines of modern Secular Humanism had been expressed most wittily and influentially by the French writer Voltaire. There was one major difference from modern Secular Humanism: Voltaire could quip that "If God did not exist, he would have to be invented." Most intellectuals of the time thought it unreasonable not to believe in a God, although this was not, as Pascal had foreseen a century earlier, the God of Christian revelation.

The anti-religious sentiment of the Enlightenment was not solely a matter of ideas. Voltaire also often said about the Catholic Church, "Crush the infamous thing!" In all the Western societies, education was largely the responsibility of the churches, and the churches, established by law, were highly influential. Thus the anti-Christian intellectuals also opposed the church as an institution and a social force. The statement "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," though often attributed to Voltaire, did not represent his views accurately. He was willing to use coercion against his intellectual enemies.

As far back as the Reformation a few people had, for religious reasons, advocated complete religious toleration. Later, many people espoused limited religious toleration as a way of avoiding destructive civil wars. In the eighteenth century, the intellectuals began to advocate religious toleration as a matter of principle. Their motives were somewhat mixed. In part they urged religious toleration out of respect for individual conscience. In part, however, it was out of the conviction that all religious beliefs were equally false and thus all should be equally tolerated. Voltaire rejoiced that, in a society where there were many religious groups, all of them would be weak.

Probably no more than about a tenth of Europe's population was seriously affected by Enlightenment ideas in the eighteenth century. (Indeed, Voltaire tried to keep those ideas from the masses. He thought they were not ready for them.) But, among the educated classes they were highly influential. By about 1770, it was fashionable to scoff at organized religion and its teachings.

Although the intellectuals of the time portrayed the churches as reactionary enemies of progress, those churches offered surprisingly feeble resistance to the Enlightenment onslaught. In England, except for a few groups like the Methodists, religion slumbered and was content with mere formal adherence. Of this situation Voltaire heartily approved. At one point he raised a storm by claiming that the Calvinist clergy of Geneva secretly agreed with him. In Catholic France the higher clergy were particularly worldly. Many of them viewed the church mainly as a career, and not a few were eager to embrace Enlightenment ideas, no matter how destructive of Christianity. It was not the last time secularism triumphed by the passivity and even active cooperation of the supposed guardians of the faith.

The French Revolution of 1789 accomplished many of the goals of the enlightenment, sweeping away by violence all the social institutions to which the intellectuals objected, including the church. Most of the leading philosophes were dead by then; the few still alive found that their ideas did not save them from prison and even execution. If they approved of many of the goals of the Revolution, they did not approve its methods. They had believed in reason, but the Revolution seemed to be the triumph of violent passions and hatreds.

If the Revolution was in one sense the fulfillment of the Enlightenment, it was in another sense its repudiation. It destroyed the philosophes' dream that, having given up religious authority, man could remake his life peacefully and tolerantly. Instead, discrediting all traditional authorities ushered in a period of near anarchy. During the so-called Reign of Terror, thousands of Frenchmen were summarily guillotined. Most of them were probably innocent of any crime, and few of them had been given even the semblance of a fair trial. The Terror, an orgy of hate and revenge, was strong disproof of the Enlightenment belief that man, left to himself, would inevitably behave in a rational and just way. The dark side of human nature asserted itself with a literal vengeance in the mid-1790s.

The Terror was the first example of a familiar modern phenomenon: a movement to remake the world in the name of humanity gives birth to a murderous and destructive fanaticism. Every modern revolution has borne the same witness. It is one of the strongest arguments against total reliance on man and his goodwill. It has also given rise, among thoughtful people, to a strong distrust of all movements which proclaim that they have the welfare of "humanity" at heart. Time and again, this has meant the crushing of individual human beings in the name of a political abstraction.

The facts of the revolutionary Terror are well-known, yet their implications have not been widely recognized. Secular Humanists have often manipulated public opinion in their favor by charging that religion has a history of bloody persecution, while Humanism has always been tolerant. When they want to invoke the specter of murderous intolerance they talk about either the Catholic Inquisition or the "witch-burnings" carried out by both Catholics and Protestants. Rarely is there reference to the "Committees of Public Safety," which implemented the Reign of Terror in the name of humanity.

Modern Secular Humanism has been stained with blood from its very birth. At first, the Revolution seemed willing to tolerate the church if the clergy would promise to be loyal to the regime. Soon the government embarked on a systematic "deChristianizing" campaign. Churches were closed and converted to profane uses, like stables for horses. Religious symbols were destroyed. The religious press was outlawed. All religious services were forbidden. Priests and nuns were rounded up in large numbers and sent into exile, imprisoned, or executed. The aim of the government was to wipe out every remaining vestige of Christianity.

Although its full fury was found in France, similar ideas and practices spread to other parts of Europe where the Revolution itself spread. It became, in time, a permanent feature of European life. Since the Revolution, there have been few instances of physical persecution directed against believers in the West. However, in France and Spain in particular, certain political parties, when in power, have closed religious schools and done all they could to harass the church and destroy its influence. For the most part, the people responsible for such policies could subscribe to the tenets of the two Humanist Manifestoes.

The restoration of the European monarchies in 1815 was generally accompanied by a religious revival. In part this was in reaction to the suppression of religion during the Revolution. In part, however, it was also out of the belief that the philosophy of the Enlightenment had itself been narrow and restrictive. It had not taken account of the depth and complexity of human nature. The dominant cultural movement of the early nineteenth century was Romanticism which, in general, emphasized the profound mysteries of existence. While many Romantics were no more friendly to the church than the Enlightenment had been, some became ardent believers.

Christianity in the Western world may have reached its low point in the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century produced a situation rather like two elevators passing each other, one going up, the other down. There was a widespread, religious revival, both in Protestant and in Catholic countries, all through the nineteenth century. The Oxford Movement in England, whose leading figure was John Henry Newman, is one of the best known. Religious belief and churchgoing were once again respectable, and in some circles mandatory. There were important Christian intellectuals, like Newman and the Danish Lutheran Soren Kierkegaard, which the eighteenth century had lacked.

But the implications of eighteenth-century secularism continued to be developed, in more and more radical ways. The French Revolution established what amounted to a permanent party dedicated to using political power, when it could, for the systematic expunging of religious influence from public life. Science too continued moving in directions sometimes damaging to religion, though some leading scientists (like Louis Pasteur and Gregor Mendel) were devout believers. Besides the conflict over the authority of the Bible (centered now on the creation account in the book of Genesis), there developed in the nineteenth century what has been called "scientism." This holds that only science has the key to truth and that whatever is not scientific is false. Nineteenth-century science sometimes held up the promise of solving all human problems, rendering religion obsolete in the process.

Only gradually were the practical benefits of science, in the form of useful technology, discovered. In the nineteenth century industrial technology came into its own, and it developed its own cult. The avante garde held that in time the practical application of science, through the invention of the right kinds of machines, would solve all human problems. Technology gave to some people such an immense sense of self-confidence that dependence on God came to seem meaningless.

The nineteenth century also gave birth to three new revolutionary systems of thought, those identified with Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. What all three shared, different though they were in many respects, was a basic materialism. Human existence was described, respectively, by economic necessities, biological evolution, and sexual urges.

All three movements gave further impetus to Secular Humanism in that all three dispensed with God. Marx was a militant atheist. Darwin did not reject God out of necessity, but as he grew older he became more and more a skeptic. Freud regarded religious belief as a neurotic illusion. Yet, in a sense, all three can also be called anti-humanistic, helping to reveal some of the internal contradictions of Humanism itself. Since the days of the Greeks, men had prided themselves on their spiritual and rational natures. This was at the basis of authentic Humanism. Marx seemed to say that most rational thought was a mere cover for economic self-interest. Knowingly or unknowingly, men acted in accord with class interests over which they had no control. Darwin and his followers were never able to resolve man's exact relationship to the animal kingdom or determine how much dignity he could claim by virtue of transcending his animal nature. Freud treated almost all conscious thought as misleading and saw human nature as shaped by unconscious drives of which man had little accurate understanding and even less control.

The few passing moves towards atheism that had occurred prior to 1800 had been turned aside. The Enlightenment itself had erected a bulwark against it. In the nineteenth century, atheism came into its own. The focus had also shifted, subtly but importantly. Earlier atheists were mostly people who thought that there was no rational basis for believing in God. Nineteenth-century atheists argued that belief in God was undesirable. In effect, they willed not to believe in him.

Marx proclaimed atheism as a necessity. All religious belief reflected unjust social structures. Belief in God would necessarily distract people from the struggle for social revolution. The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, roughly Marx's contemporary and a major influence on him, argued that mankind would remain forever in a kind of childlike state so long as belief in God persisted. It was left for the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, later in the century, to proclaim the "death of God," by which he meant the death of the idea of God. Nietzsche postulated the Superman who, without the benefit of divine authority or objective moral law, would make his own values and decree the kind of world he would live in.

The strain of modern Humanism which comes down through Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche can be called Promethean Humanism, after the figure in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods to give it to man. It is a Humanism which bases itself on rebellion and a denial of God. It would counter Voltaire, "If God exists, he must be destroyed." The older, somewhat gentler Humanism deriving from the Enlightenment is less passionate. It was content to say that there is no rational evidence for believing in God.

Enlightenment Humanism had always prided itself on its morality. Its proudest boast has been that, without the sanction of religion, its moral code has been very similar to that of Christianity. But the new Humanism of the nineteenth century embodied a demonic urge to negate and destroy. As Nietzsche saw clearly, it was not only a matter of not believing in God. Once God had been denied, man could achieve true freedom only by denying all moral constraints on himself and inventing his own morality. The human will alone became sovereign. This type of Humanism has often descended into Nihilism, the urge to destroy and annihilate every accepted good. The older, more genteel kind of Humanism has been steadily losing ground to this newer kind, which is in essence profoundly anti-humanistic.

The major intellectual bases for Secular Humanism had mostly been laid by the middle of the nineteenth century. Besides new and revolutionary ideas, the nineteenth century marked the beginning of the age of mass communications. For the first time in history, a majority of the population, at least in some countries, could read and write. Mass-circulation newspapers, magazines, and books began to be published. Most Western nations made at least a beginning toward establishing compulsory education for all children. In addition, most remaining censorship was either abolished or severely curtailed.

The result was that ideas which in the eighteenth century had been confined to an educated elite now started to gain common currency. For a long time they were resisted. Popular culture in the West remained conservative with respect to religious and moral values. But gradually the movement spread. Organizations of self-proclaimed atheists or humanists were established. In the 1880s, an atheist was elected to the English Parliament. After attempts to deny him his seat because he could not swear the customary oath, he was allowed to serve.

America has shared in the general secularization of the West, but it has followed its own path in certain ways. It deserves special consideration.


Hitchcock, James. "The Secularization of the West." Chapter 3 in What is Secular Humanism. (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1982), 33-48.

Reprinted by permission of the author.


James Hitchcock is a widely published author on many topics and Professor of History at St. Louis University. James Hitchcock is a member of the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1982 James Hitchcock

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