RELIGION IN THE MODERN WEST
The term modern West embraces not only Western and Northern Europe but also North and South America and Australia and New Zealand. In spite of the existence of nonwhite populations in these countries the dominant pattern of life and value system have a European ancestry. Undeniable differences notwithstanding, it is the legacy of the GraecoRoman civilization and the Christian religion which best explains the nature of the moral values which they respect and to which lip-service is pa id even when they are fluted.
To understand the religious currents which influence this huge area one must also take account first of the changes and transformations which the Industrial Revolution and the civilization it created have brought about; secondly of how continued contact over several centuries between East and West, particularly du ring the colonial era, has forced the white reaces to shed some of the prejudices Europe used to entertain about ancient Eastern religions. The process has been considerably expedited by the influx of non-white populations into Europe. America and Australia. Thirdly, the effect of modern communications on life. Radio and television, the cinema and jet travel continually expose the world’s populations, no matter where they live, to new ideas.
The greatest single factor behind the changes which the West has undergone in the past three hundred years has been
the emergence of science as the main arbiter and determiner of life. In the extent of its impact science has surpassed ail past challenges to the old basis of traditional religion as it was understood and practised. Science of course is not anything new, and has existed side by side with religion and philosophy for ages. But having been tolerated as a handmaid to religion for many centuries it embarked on a new life in the 17th century. The greatest influence exerted on the sudden acceleration in its pace was Newton, the English mathematician.
The main protagonists of the scientific outlook in the Middle Ages had been not the Europeans but the Muslims. It is the latter who, at a period when the whole of Europe lay sunk in superstition, and observation and experiment were thought to conflict with the teachings of Christianity, were busy advancing the frontiers of knowledge. No history of modern science would be complete without reference to the work of such men as Avicenna, Averroes, AI-hazen and many others whose identity is sometimes obscured by the corruption their names have suffered in the mouths of European speakers. These Muslim scholars were however deeply religious men who perceived no conflict between science and religion. What science revealed seemed to them to be a manifestation of the wonders of God’s creation. They were enabled to uphold this view by the fact that there are few dogmatic statements about the universe in the Quran which the sciences of their time contradicted. The Quran does not speak of the universe as being either geocentric or heliocentric. Nor is it said anywhere that what man sees on this earth exhausts ail the possibilities latent in God’s creative powers.
Mediaeval Christianity, on the other hand, put an interpretation on both the New and Old Testaments which made it difficult for the scientists to make discoveries without coming upon phenomena which appeared at odds with Biblical assertion. The Catholic Church was so firmly committed to this interpretation that it seemed initially to regard new scientific findings as a challenge to its authority. Such findings were condemned outright as heresies punishable and deserving of suppression. When such men as Copernicus, Kepler and Tycho Brahe announced findings which seemed to have no support in the Bible or the writings of Christian philosophers, they were denounced, Galileo was obliged to recant. Even Francis Bacon in England in the 16th century was regarded as an enemy to established religion.
The rebirth of the scientific spirit in the 16th century was widely felt to be a challenge to the Church. That spirit witnessed the emergence of rationalism in philosophy as the dominant trend in European thought. Unlike the mediaeval Schoolmen who believed that the purpose of philosophy was to justify faith by logic as Aquinas had done, men like Descartes emphasised tht independent enquiry must not be shackled by dogma. The movement of thought which led to a re-examination of doctrine in a new light is known as theRenaissance. It is believed by historians to have been spurred by renewed contact with the works of the Greeks after 1496 when a large number of Greek scholars fled from Byzantium to Italy. By insisting that reason must be accepted as the ultimate criterion of validity, the Renaissance considerably weakened the foundations of the mediaeval church. The revoit against the authority of the Catholic Priesthood which began in the 16th century and which is known collectively as the Reformation owed its inspiration to ideas which were diffused by the Renaissance. Neither Martin Luther nor Calvin nor John Knox can be fully understood without reference to the profound change in men’s attitude to religious authority which resulted from the Renaissance, particularly from the resurgence of science which it stimulated.
The splitting of the Catholic Church into a number of independent churches did not lead immediately to changes in basic beliefs. But as men began to exercise the right to read the Bible on their own and apply their judgment to the interpretation of its teachings instead of accepting what was passed down from the church, old doctrines came under attack.
The mediaeval church reacted by cracking down on deviationism wherever it couId. The answer to the Reformation was the Counter-Reformation which relied on the Inquisition to stamp out heresy, to punish new thought, sternly oppose departures from officially approved interpretations of docrtrine. Slight deviations were sometimes punished with death. The general belief among church authorities was that it was preferable to destroy the body rather than allow the soul to be doomed eternally to hall. People judged to be heretical were given the choice of recanting or being broken on the wheel or bumt at the stake. Fear of death forced many to recant but there were thousands who perished on the wheel or at the stake. Latimer and Ridley in England are famour. They were burnt at the stake on account of their refusai to accept the Pope’s authority. These punishments continued throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
However disconcerting this fact may appear today, most orthodox Christians saw nothing evil in the suppression of heresy by force. What is regarded as horros did not arouse then the revulsion that they evoke today. But as the climate of opinion changed gradually as a result of the work of the philosophers and scientists the authority of the church diminished, till by the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, it became possible to denounce ecclesiastical authority openly. This process culminated in what is called the Enlightenment, a term which by itself signifies a judgement on the past. The period when men obeyed the church blindly began to be seen as an age of darkness and superstition. One of the great representative figures of the Enlightnement was Voltaire who dominated France in the 18th century.
The men who called themselves enlightened were by no means atheists. They did not repudiate religion. What they refused to accept was the right of the church to dictate the manner in which the Bible was to be understood. Loyalty to Christianity went hand in hand with rebellion against established church authority. Sorne like the great English mathematician Isaac Newton (1642-1727) attempted a reconciliation between science and the Bible. Newton believed that contrary to what mediaeval schoolmen said the heliocentric theory was known to Moses.
Nor will it do to assume that the increasing influence of science made any appreciable change to the pattern of social life in general. People attended church as usual; church laws on marriage were respected in general; expressions of heresy in literature were condemned; and conformity was considered a virtue. What was eroded was the belief that the Bible contained answers to ail the problems of life.
The Enlightenment originated in France but it was really a European phenomenon. Its influence was felt everywhere. The men whose writings and preachings brought this new rationalism into being are known as philosophes. This term is applied to such thinkers as Voltaire (1694-1778), Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Rousseau (1712-1778), and Montesquieu (16891755), who were ail in different ways defenders of freedom on
belief. Thier powertul advocacy drew men away in increasing numbers from orthodoxy towards the worship of reason.
This trend in England gave birth ta a new form of religion or religious attitude called Deism. The Deists despensed with God as He had been understood for ages, and instead conceived of a deity who was the first cause, the master clock-winder of the universe. They thought it useless to invoke the intercession of Gad in arder to cause the laws of Nature to deviate from their ordered course. Men must tely on reason ta slove the problems of society. Although the Deists dispensed with God in the traditional sense and did not think it necessary to worship Him formally, they did not openly reject the doctrine of immortality and believed that man had to atone for sin. The aim of religion, they thought, was virtue or sensible living; some of them however had no place in their theology for Chirist’s redemptive mission; some were doubtful of immortality. Deism came to mean at certain stages a belief in a personal deity who is distinct from the world, and not very intimately interested in its concerns. The universe is expected to run in conformity with the laws that He originally framed. Deism is an interesting stage in the evolution of the religious life of the West, but unlike other sects it never became a church with formai rituals.
The father of English Deism was Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648). The famous historian Gibbon was also a supporter of Deism. One well-known Deist Rev. Thomas Wooiston (1669-1733) was so openly critical of the belief in miracles that he was imprisoned for blasphemy and died in the King’s Bench prison.
Confined to the upper strata of society, Deism was never a popular cult. The hostility it aroused as eviden~d by such cases as that of Wooiston testifies to the fact that in spite of rationalism’s being in the air, traditional Christianity had not lost its hold on the public either in England or elsewhere.
But emphasis was shifting from formai worship to such things as practical charity and philanthropy which were believed to reflect the real spirit of Christ’s teachings. This tendency was strongest in France. The rumblings which became increasingly more and more strident as the century advanced finally exploded into the upsurge known in history as the French Revolution.
It is impossible to ignore the French Revolution in any account of European history, whether religious or political or social. Apparently triggered by political and economic discontent, it also represented a conscious break with tradition and was led and dominated by rationalists who wanted to do away with everything including Christianity which savoured of past oppression and tyranny. They even inaugurated a new calendar, gave new names to the months of the year and disestablished the church. The Revolution can be seen as the climax of philosophical trends which began with the philosophes. Those responsible for it sincerely desired to create an age of reason freed from superstition of ail kinds. But as developments which its outbreak in 1789 set in motion showed, this was easier said than done. While the Revolution did away with the monarchy and granted rights to the workers and peasantry, persecution against the supporters of the Old Regime led to a widespread reign of terror, which eventually devoured sorne of the leaders of the Revolution itself. One famous victim was Robespierre who himself had ordered the execution of many on the ground that they were opposed to Revolutionary principles. Another equally famous leader who fell prey to Revolutionary fervour was Danton.
The worst phase in the Revolution’s course was the period trom August 1792 to July 1794, which is known as the period of the Jacobin Republic. The Jacobins were an extreme group among the revolutionaries who wanted to install not only a new political order but also a new religion. They closed the churches and destroyed religious images. The anti-Christian movement reached a climax in the Festival of Reason held in Paris in November 1793 when a number of deputies wearing red liberty caps marched to the Cathedral of Notre Dame to enthrone an actress as Goddess of Reason. The Cult of Reason was considered to go too far in its rejection of religion and Robespierre, himself a Jacobin, replaced it by a creed based upon belief in a Supreme Seing and immortality of the soul. A number of festivals were provied for in the na me of the Supreme Seing, Lite and Liberty, the Human Race and other idealistic concepts. One of the festivals was dedicated to la Maternite, a forerunner of Mother’s Day in the U.S.A.
The Republican religion did not last long and was practically discarded after Napoleon became emperor early in the following century. Napoleon himselt was not a religious person but he realised that the Jacobins had created deep popular resentments by repudiating the Catholic Church. The church was restored in France by means of a Concordat that he signed with the Pope. The state agreed once again to pay the salaries of the clergy. In spite of the restOration of the church, the secularist tendencies, strengthened by the French Revolution, were destined to have an enduring effect on the outlook of Europe and America. Sorne of the men who played a leading role in the Revolution had also influenced the American Revolution which predated it by a few years. It is to their influence that the strict separation of church and state which the American Constitution insists on is due.
The main intellectual legacy of the Revolution can be said to be the general belief that there must be no direct intrusion of religion into state affairs. Christian values were sought to be detached from state functions in the sense that legislation was not to be allowed to be influenced by anything said or emphasised in the Bible. The line of distinction drawn between the two things is not al ways clear to outsiders. The observance of the Sabbath continued down to the first half of the 20th century, but both religious and anti-religious elements defended it on grounds which were said to be secular. No one approved of George Eliot’s defiance of Christian morality by maintaining an open liaison with a man not her wedded husband. Lord Nelson to whom England owed its famous naval victory at Trafalgar and many others had mistresses, but bigamy as the Christians cali it is still illegal. King Edward VII of England had what nowadays is called a stable relationship with a woman with the tacit approval of his Queen Alexandra. ln Frnace adultery went farthest. The Royal family who were supporters of the established church so flouted the Christian law on marriage that at Versailles adultery acquired a respectable venner. French fiction by such writers as Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal and Zola paints a society which would not approve of attacks on the church but accepted extramarital relationships as perfectly normal. At the same time polygamous societies in the East continued to earn criticism as centres of vice.
The fact is that the gap between profession and practice kept growing. Few in their personal lives would care to abide by the laws framed by the mediaeval Church Fathers. They realised that the edifice erected by them was in danger of collap~ing owing to the pressure exerted on it by science and modern philosophy. But a kind of e[11otional nostalgic
attachment to the church was substituted for conformity to orthodoxy.
The 18th and 19th centuries are marked by considerable ambiguity in respect of the religious beliefs and practices of Europeans and Americans. It would be wrong to say that science had alltogether shoved religion into a side ally. Although church going as a regular habit lost some of its popularity as a meansure of social respectability, there was no open repudiation of Christianity by any group. The philosophers could say what they liked, but the public would not have tolerated the banishment of established religion by formai legislation.
ln the middle of the century came the works of Darwin which propounded the theory that man is the end-product of a long process of evolution. Although Darwin did not claim to ofter anything but a hypothesis, his Origin of Species (1859) was regarded by many as a bombshell. It seemed to throw the Biblical story of creation completely out of gear. The events which the Bible had compressed into seven days appeared now to have taken millions of years. Secondly, the assumption that each species was created separately was shown the lack support in science. That taken at its face value the Darwinian hypothesis substituted a deeper unity embracing the universe as a whole was lost sight of.
Darwin convulsed the foundations of traditional religion as they had never been convulsed. The last half of the century is dominated by debate about his acceptability. While men like T.
H. Huxley defended him, others denounced him equally vehemently. Indeed the debate cannot be said to have ended yet. There are large groups who still think that evolutionism is not a satisfactory answer to the riddle of the universe. ln the USA a group which calls itself creationists insists that evolutionism is only a hypothesis; it cannot be claimed to have greater validity than the Genesis story.
While debate over the hypothesis of Darwin were agitating the minds of the educated classes, other trends also appeared in their approach to the Bible. The Germans led the vanguard in their approach to the Bible. The Germans led the vanguard in what is ‘called the higher criticism of scripture, which menas the application of modern methods to questions of authorship, dates, and accuracy of the present day texts of the Bible. Scholars were able to throw light on the relation between book and bokk, the nature of the changes which they had undergone, interpolations and the historical accuracy of the facts stated as far as they could be judged with reference to indisputable historical data available elsewhere. While people gained as a result of these investigations of greater insight into the contents of the Bible, they also weakened its authority as an unassailable guide to ethics and morality. For it was shown that gradations cou Id be perceived in the formulation of ideas which ultimately came to be accepted as the bedrock’ of Christianity.
Ernest Renan (1823-92), a devout Catholic scholar, was influenced by German criticism to write his Vie de Jesus (Life of Jesus) in which while he did not repudiate Christianity as such, he cast doubt on the historicity of the person called Christ. Christ seemed more a composite figure, a name given to the idea o~ a religious teacher who represented a succession of preachers in the Middle East than a single historical character. His teachings could be explained as the crystallisation of a long line of ethical and religious beliefs, reformed and reshaped under the impact of historical factors.
Anthropology, a modern science developed towards the second half of the 19th century, brought to light fresh evidence about how religious ideas and practices had evolved age by age. Lecky in his History of European Morais and particularly Sir James Frazer in his monumental. The Golden Bough, arrayed an enormous mass of facts collected from different societies and in the case of Lecky from different ages to demonstrate the fragility of standards which from time immemorial had been taken to be unchallengeable. Frazer also showed that rituals and practices regarded as peculiar to Christianity had many parallels elsewhere. At the same time that these studies led to a broader understanding of the bases of religion, they could not but cause serious cracks in the edifice of the established church. Bigotry was dealt a death blow. It was no longer possible to defend orthodoxy by blind adherence to old beliefs. One needed the support of logic and history to ward off attacks on tenets hitherto accepted without question.
The rise of the Salvation Army founded by General Booth in 1865 seemed in this context to revitalise Christianity by emphasis on love and service and by encouraging Christians to engage in practical social work. The Salvation Army which is still active became a tremendous force towards the end of the century but if did nothing to arrest the erosion of the intellectual basis of some of the beliefs handed down trom the past.
Yet another challenge to orthodox religion came from geology, the earth science which by an examination of geological st rata was able to determine the age of rocks with greater accuracy. New facts emerged about the formation of mountains and seas. They demonstrated how unreal was the assumption of old Christian theologians that the earth was just about four thousand years old. What astronomy had done in the 16th and 17th centuries about the size of the universe, by revealing the existence of stars and planetary systems enormously larger than the solar system (as it is now ca lied) was now done by geology about the earth itself.
The cumulative effect of modern geology, astronomy, biology and anthropology was to pose a serious challenge to theories deduced by theologians from the Bible and naturally to the value system erected on that basis.
It is not to be supposed that new intellectual ideas transformed society immediately, or that the established churches, Protestant or Catholic, collapsedin ruins. The general public continued to cherish the same beliefs as before, but the climate of educated opinion changed slowly and orthodoxy lost the support of science in its defence of traditional morality. Secondly, there grew up a more tolerant attitude towards creeds other than Christianity. New scholarly studies of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Chinese and Japanese systems of religious belief helped mitigate sorne of the hotility which they used to provoke. Prohet Muhammad (God bless him), painted in mediaeval Christian writing as Mahound, a demon, was now seen to have been a historical figure. The elements of similarity between Islam and Christianity led many missionaries to condemn him as a heretic who had deliberately corrupted the religion, and this belief has been dying hard. It is still repeated in many circles and some exceptions apart even scholars who seem fair-minded cannot altogehter banish trom their minds the suspicion that the similarities must be due to deliberate borrowings coupled with a refusai to accept the truth of Christianity as the real religion.
The studies of the German scholar Max Muller on Hinduism and Buddhism in the 1860’s initiated a similar revision of established opinion about these ancient faiths. Cuits which had been dismissd as unworthy of notice were now perceived to be the outcome of slow crystallisations of religious attitudes.
The later half of the 19th century is a period marked by diverse tendencies. On the one hand Christianity was faced with an intellectual threat emanating from science; on the other hand the application of scholarship to the understanding of nonChristian systems of belfief contributed to the growth of a more tol~rant attitude towards them. The old prejudice did not disappear wholly but the tendency. to condemn everything outside of Christianity as vile received a setback as a result of new discoveries.
One interesting aspect of the changes which the West was undergoing was a new surge of interest in Catholicism among a class of intellectuals in such a citadel of Protestantism as England. Cardinal Newman (1801-90) who was born a Protestant and was the founder of the Oxford Tractarian Movement eventaully resigned from the Anglican church and embraced Catholicism. His Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an autobiographical explanation of his conversion, moved many others to similar emotions. Catholicism was popular among the poets of the 1890s. The best known among them was Francis Thompson whose Hound of Heaven is a passionate statement of the need for belief in God. G.K. Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc whose lives span the two centuries courageously defended Catholicism in intellectual terms. This however, did not blossom into a popular movement. The temper of the times is better represented by the Fabian movement of the end of the century dominated by such men as Sidney Webb and George Barnard Shaw who believed in the practical application of socialism in the solution of economic problems.
These tendencies spi lied over into the first decade of the 20th century. One must also remember that the altitude to religion was not the same ail over Western Europe and North America. France was in the peculiar position of having no established church but with the Catholic establishment maintaining its grip on the educational system. State secularism flourished along with a degree of influence exerted by the church which was not paralleled by anything in Britain where the head of state continued to be the head of the Anglican Church. Italy, the seat of the Pope, had to contend with the Papal State as a political power until the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929 which recognised the Vatican in Rome as astate within the Italian state enjoying a kind of sovereignty without detriment to the sovereignt of Italy as a whole. Germany had seen in the 19th century several philosophical movements led by such men as Schopenhaur and Nietzsche which undermined the foundations of Christianity and represented a trend away from it. It was the cumulative influence of these philosophies that prepared the ground for the rise of Nazism after the First World War. The Nazis stood for a return to primitive Nordic gods.
The First World War was a turning point in the religious and political history of Western Europe. The devastation it caused, the horrors it created, the widespread sufferings it generated completely shattered old morality and wrecked the foundation of family life. Pessimism about the future was accentuated by the failure of the established order to prevent the catastrophe or to restrain the cruelties each side inflicted on the other. Sociologists and historians note in the post-war world a weariness, an indifference to values which people associated with the system that had given rise to the conflict. Hope seemed illusive, a mirage, and the only thing that mattered was instant satisfaction of crude appetites.
ln Russia a communist revolution made short work of the old political order and abolished the church in an effort to inaugurate an era of freedom unshackled by moral laws derived from Christianity. Although the rest of Europe escaped a similar catastrophic change, the early successes of Communism persuaded many among the working classes and also sorne intellectuals that the future of civilisation lay in Marxism. This belief percolated even into such strongholds of orthodoxy as Spain. This became evident in the Spanish Civil War of the late thirties. The issues in the Civil War were confused. The Republicans who wanted a system modelled on Russia were able to attract much sympathy by championing the cause of freedom. General Franco’s forces who ultimately won the war espoused political orthodoxy as weil as religious conservatism. They were helped by the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy, and their victory meant a triumph for the Gatholic Church over forces which had tried in the name of freedom to abolish it in Spain.
On the intellectual front the researches of Freud into workings of the human mind contributed contributed considerably, along with Marxism and other factors, to the weakening of the bases of orthodox belief. Dr Sigmund Freud, an Austrian Jew, a pioneer in modern psychoanalysis, was concenrned with the way the subconscious worked, and maintained that the concept of God lord and protector was nothing but a sublimation of the influence of the father on the family, People who resisted Marxism found it difficult to resist Freud. Those who did not embrace Marxist atheism outright increasingly favoured an attitude of agnosticism to religious belief. Agnostics do not reject religion straightway but refuse to commit themselves to theories about the unknown for which no material evidence can be produced. This was typical of thousands of educated people ail over the Western world, in Europe as weil as North America.
The general decay of religious faith amont the Christians was reflected most strikingly in social legislation. It came to be held that morality was a private business, to be determined by each person according to his wishes. Again we notice sorne contradictions. Plural marriage continued to be condemned and to be punishable, but adultery and homosexuality were treated as matters on which society should not seek to impose legal restrictions. In America especially this attitude has gone furthest. Men who have what is called a homosexual orientation have been known to be ordained as priests. The law which penalised homosexuality has in many countries been abolished, provided it is practised between consenting adults, men or women. It should not be supposed that Christian society approves of this laxity, but by and large restrictions on homosexuals in the matter of appointment and promotion are now viewed as an infringement of minority rights.
Group marriage is another thing which the Muslims find it difficult to reconcile with the continuing Western disapproval of limited polygamy in Muslim soceity. This practice involves a number of men and women being declared married to one another with the right (as it is called) to have sexual relations with anyone in the group marri age but occasionally one hears of Churchmen officiating at such unions. An equally interesting practice is the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as the equivalent of marriage for purposes of inheritance and maintenance. Whatever social stigma once attached to sexual aberrations has virtually disappeared in parts of America.
Artificial insemination of wives by men other than husbands is not considered sinful or socially harmful, Orthodox Muslims find it difficult to understand the difference between adultery and artificial insemination where the donor is not the legal spouse of the woman who receives the seed. Again it must be remembered that eveybody in the Christian world does not approve though msot do.
The Cartholic Church does not approve of either artificial insemination or premarital sex or promisculty or abortion but a majority of Catholics do not in practice obey the Curch’s opinions in these matters. The same attitude is noticeable in matters of divorce. Catholic marriages are theoretically indissoluble but the ban on divorce is circumvented in various ways and in certain circumstances dissolutions are granted to permit men and women to marry again. Divorce is also disapproved in Protestant society but Protestant churches lifted the ban on divorce long ago and no religious stigma attaches to divorced couples.
The greatest evidence of the decay of religious faith is provided by the general acceptance of extra-marital sex and its consequence, namely, illegitimacy as a normal feature of social life, which can be talked about openly. The recognition of the rights of iIIegitimate children is an advance in social legislation which Islam anticipated more than fifteen hundred years ago. For although adultery is punishable, children born of such unions are fully entitled to claim a share of parental property once their paternity or maternity is recognised.
Another sign of indifference to religion is the growing tendency among people to form unions and live together as man and wife without formai marriage. What used to be called living in sin has lost its horror.
It wou Id not be an exaggeration to say that the concept of marriage as such has undergone a profound chage in the West. The majority still regard marriage as a union sanctioned in accordance with formai rites, but this has ceased to have any effect on actual social relationships.
Private and social morality is now thought to benot a matter to be regulated by laws laid down in scripture but in accordance with a gradûally evolving pattern of ethical beliefs. Christianity is more and more being sought to be interpreted as a cosmic philosophy rather than as a code of moral conduct.
Again it wou Id be highly misleading to assume that religion in the old-fashioned sense has died in what is described as the post-Christian world. The emergence of such thinkers in the 20th century as Pastor Martin Niemoller in Germany who courted imprisonment rather than conn ive at Nazism, Reinhold Niebuhr in the USA, Chardin de Teilhard in France, who attempted a reconciliation of modern biology with the theory of Immaculate Conception, C.S. Lewis, the British literary critic and scholar who also wrote movingly on Christian doctrine and many others testifies to the vitality of the Christian tradition. The stark atheism of Marxism coupled with disenchantment with the actual practices of the communists in Russia led in the 305 and 40s to the conversion of many intellectuals to Catholicism. The God That Failed, a collection of statements by a number of former supporters of the communist party, The Opium of the Intellectuals by the French thinker Raymond Aron. 1 Believed by Douglas Hyde, a former secretary of the British Communist Party, and The Outsider by Colin Wilson represent a trend towards mystical forms of Christianity, usually Catholic, providing a marked contrast to Marxism. Ali these books appeared in the third, fourth and fifth decades of the present century when the influence of Communism as a philosophy and a supposed panacea for ail political and economic iIIs was running strong.
The reasons which led sorne intellectuals 0 recoil from Communism were also responsible for the popularity of Esatern, mystical cuits in both Europe and America. Zen Buddhism, an atheistic school of Mahayana Buddhism in which great importance was attached to the value of meditation and non-attachment acquired a large following, Islamic Sufism also had its admirers. Particularly interesting was the rise in America of the Hare Krishna movement, a cult founded on devotion to the Hindu god, Krishna. Its adherents would try to conform to tradition by shaving their heads and wearing saffron robes in the manner of Hindu Sanyasis or religious mendicants. A number of Hindus set up Ashrams in America which attracted hundreds. These persons claimed to be incarnations of Krishna or sorne other Hindu god, preached the doctrine of complete freedom including free and promiscuous sex, and rivalled in their influence many of the older sects. A parallel manifestation of the same fascination for unconventional mysticism was T. M. or Transcendental Meditation, a cult founded by a Hindu preacher who claimed to have power to solve ail problems, not excepting the problem of international peace. Advertisements in newspapers in his name-he was generally known as Maharishi-threw out an open invitation to governments to submit their disputes and worries to him and he asserted that no problmes could go unsolved under the methods he had discovered. T. M’s popularity can be gauged from the fact that there have been demands that it should be put on the British Health Service as a valid system of therapy. The revival of belief in incarnation in the modern West-to be distinguished from the doctrine of incarnation which forms the basis of Christianity-sometimes encourages some Christians themselves to claim to be God incarnate. One Rev. Jones was able at the beginning of the 80s to establish a new cult with himself as a divine being. After being driven out of America he moved to Latin America and organised mass suicide involving over nine hundred men and women and children who swallowed poison in the belief that death meant an immediate transition to heaven.
These phenomena symptomatised a great deal of confusion about religious values, showed that atheism was not necessarily a component of industrialism and at the same time indicated how a new wave of eclecticism in religious matters was inspiring a search for beliefs and doctrines from which the Christian community as a whole had moved away.
That Christianity is still a living force was demonstrated in the late eighties of the century by the role the Catholic Church played in the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe; in Poland in particular the Church became the main focus of opposition to communist totalitarianism. Eisewhere too, it exercised an influence on developments which culminated in the re-estab’lishment of democratic Government and political pluralism. The same forces led to the relaxation of the ban on religion in Russia: This may not result in the return of orthodoxy of a mediaeval character but the political and social revolutions of 1989 and 1990 are a warning against the assumption that religion has ceased to matter in the West.