It is a commonly held viewpoint in our times that history moves in only one direction, from the benighted past to the enlightened present. This viewpoint is justified in the fields of science and technology. We obviously have much greater knowledge of the natural world and far better tools and machines than our ancestors could have dreamed of. This progressive view of history is less justified in politics and culture. In those fields it is less clear what really constitutes progress and whether history is really moving in a straight line toward some end. What I am trying to get at is that our ideas about what is right and wrong, or true and untrue, or desirable and undesirable are not necessarily superior to the ideas of our ancestors nor is it certain that we are forever moving in a certain direction toward the truth or the good, etc.
I mentioned, in passing, in a recent post that the idea of our time being uniquely liberated in its sexual mores while all past ages were repressed and puritanical is not really true. These sorts of cultural movements seem to go in cycled. A similar idea is held about the status of religion in society. It is often believed that religion is a relic of past ages in which people were ignorant and superstitious. In our more enlightened times, in which we have solved many of the mysteries of the universe, religion is no longer needed. As people become more educated, the influence of religion must fade. Europe is held as an example of this phenomena. The continent has become steadily more secular over the last two centuries and surely before long the people of Europe will be entirely free of religion. The fact that the United States is just as advanced as Europe in science and technology but has remained consistently more religious than Europe may seem to disprove the rule that societies become more secular as they advance, but the US is, in some ways,culturally backward compared to Europe, especially in the Red States. After all, those ignorant Americans still don’t have nationalized medicine or strict gun control. In twenty years, the US will be just as secular as Europe. After all, that is the way history is moving. So goes the argument.
But, perhaps not. Religious observance too tends to run in cycles. Periods of great fervor,even fanaticism in religion alternate with periods of laxity and skepticism. Atheism is by no means a new phenomena. There were atheists in ancient Greece and Rome, and curiously enough, they used the very same arguments against religion that the so-called New Atheists use. The current period of secularism in Europe may be followed by a religious period and there is no reason to believe that the US must inevitably follow in Europe’s footsteps.
On a recent Sunday, my family and I only showed up 10 minutes early for Mass. That meant we had to sit in fold-out chairs in the spillover room, where the Mass is relayed on a large TV screen. During the service, my toddler had to go to the bathroom. To get there, we had to step over a dozen people sitting in hallways and corners. This is business as usual for my church in Paris, France.
I point this out because one of the most familiar tropes in social commentary today is the loss of Christian faith in Europe in general, and France in particular. The Wall Street Journal recently fretted about the sale of “Europe’s empty churches.”
Could it be, instead, that France is in the early stages of a Christian revival?
Yes, churches in the French countryside are desperately empty. There are no young people there. But then, there are no young people in the French countryside, period. France is a modern country with an advanced economy, and that means its countryside has emptied, and that means that churches built in an era when the country’s sociological makeup was quite different go empty. In the cities — which is where people are, and where cultural trends gain escape velocity — the story is quite different.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. My wife and I now live in an upper-crust neighborhood with all the churches full of upwardly-mobile professionals. When we were penniless grad students, we lived in a working class neighborhood and on Sunday our church was packed with immigrant families and hipster gentrifiers.
It was only recently that I was struck by the fact that, imperceptibly, the majority of my college and grad school friends who were Christmas-and-Easter-Catholics when we met now report going to Church every Sunday and praying regularly. On social media, they used to post about parties; now they’re equally likely to post prayers for persecuted Middle East Christians or calls to help the homeless over the holidays.
My friends live all over town; some of them are young singles who move around a lot; all of them report looking for those mythical “empty churches” we hear so much about — and failing to find them. In fact, it’s closer to the other way around: If you don’t show up early, you might have to sit on the floor — and people are happy to do it.
The massive rallies in France, underwritten by the Catholic Church, against the recent same-sex marriage bill stunned the world: Isn’t France the poster child for sexually-easygoing secularism? Perhaps more than a million people took to the streets, and disproportionately young ones, too. (Compare Britain’s “whatever” response to its own same-sex marriage act, passed around the same time.) But they forgot that a century of militant secularism didn’t kill the Old Faith — it merely drove it underground. And perhaps by privatizing faith, the secularists unwittingly strengthened it; after all, the catacombs have always been good to Christianity.
There is more.
I hope that this is really the case, that there is a revival of Christianity in France and ultimately Europe, with the difference that there will be no more state sponsored churches. The melding of church and state that took place in the late Roman Empire and afterwards has been very bad for Christianity. Most of the bad behavior attributed to Christianity, which has served to discredit the church in the eyes of many, has been the result of an institution backed by the state, and employing coercion. Whatever form a possible revival of Christianity in Europe might take, it would certainly be better than the alternatives. I believe that secularism is a dead end. Man does not live by bread alone. He needs something higher to believe in. If people do not have religion, they will find something else, or they will cease to live. As it is, Europe is dying.
The are many who believe that the future of Europe is in Islam. They project a future in which thanks to a higher birthrate and conversions, the Muslim population of Europe will come to be a majority and impose their culture and values on Europe. I am not so certain of this, myself. It is unwise to take current demographic trends and project them in a straight line into the indefinite future. People do react to events and it may be that the Europeans will wake up to the threat to Islamization. Whatever happens, the influence of Islam is not a good one, and the less such influence Islam has on Europe and the world, the better. Secularism cannot really counter Islam. You can’t fight something with nothing. If the Europeans do not want to descend in the poverty and barbarism of the Islamic world, they will have to find a competing ideology, and what better than their Christian heritage.
- Pope Francis Declares Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero ‘a martyr’ (lawprofessors.typepad.com)
- Morning Catholic must-reads: 09/02/15 (catholicherald.co.uk)
- Lent begins for Christians young and old (reviewtimes.com)
- Local Catholics observe Ash Wednesday (wndu.com)