Terror, Secularization, and “Imaginative Understanding”

In the last two weeks of my Modern Europe course, we’ve twice run headlong into the hardest question historians ask: Why?

Emile Henry Mugshot
Émile Henry’s mugshot

First, I had my students read The Dynamite Club, John Merriman’s account of Émile Henry, a young French anarchist who threw a bomb into a crowded Paris café in 1894 — thereby, in John’s analysis, helping to initiate the modern age of terror. Not content merely to chronicle the events leading up to and following from this incident, John sets an ambitious goal for himself:

This book is motivated by a very simple question: why did Émile Henry do what he did? Getting inside the mind of a bomber is no easy task, especially when the bombing took place over a century ago and halfway around the world. (p. 3)

This is a classic example of what the British historian E.H. Carr called the historian’s quest for “imaginative understanding.” Because historical evidence is, by its very nature, fragmentary and fleeting (sources get misplaced, archives burn down, relics get buried, memories fade, eyewitnesses die, ideas get lost in translation), historians need to employ some degree of imagination. And that’s especially true when you decide that history requires asking more than What?, Where?, When?, Who?, or even How? If you want to ask Why?, then you must fill in that most ephemeral piece of the historical record: the motives for an individual or group’s actions. As Carr put it:

History cannot be written unless the historian can achieve some kind of contact with the mind of those about whom he is writing. (What Is History?, p. 27)

We also encountered a very different variant of the challenge of imaginative understanding the class before we discussed The Dynamite Club. While I teach Modern Europe at a Christian college, I cover religious history itself only intermittently. But one moment where it seems appropriate to visit that field is at the end of the 19th century, when one finds an increasing number of Europeans observing (and for some, lamenting or decrying; for others, celebrating) the secularization of their societies.

Émile Durkheim
Émile Durkheim

Now, Christianity was seemingly everywhere in late 19th century Europe: there were established churches, and civil religion was pervaded by Christian imagery, rhetoric, and ritual; an enormous share of the population was baptized, married, and buried by a Christian clergyman; almost every person (and many cities and organizations) was named after a saint or biblical figure. But as John Merriman points out in the fine textbook I also am using for this course, there is ample evidence that Europe was on its way to becoming a “post-Christian” society even before the 20th century began. A survey of Londoners ca. 1900 found that only one in five went to church regularly; in his studies of life in industrial cities, Émile Durkheim noted that churches no longer were providing the social cohesion they once had, with levels of suicide especially high among Protestants.

(I should add that Merriman, while focused on evidence of secularization, also documents counter-examples, such as the rise of Marian devotion around Lourdes and the pietist revival that so influenced my Swedish ancestors and the university where I work. In The Dynamite Club, he observes that the anarchist writers Paul Adam and Victor Barrucand compared Émile Henry’s hero, the terrorist François-Claudius Ravachol, to Jesus Christ. Whether this is evidence of Christianity’s decline or of its lingering cultural influence…)

But is religious participation (whether in the sacramental or social life of a faith community) a good indicator of secularization if one takes that term to include declining belief? One could continue to affirm every article of the Apostles’ Creed and await Final Judgment in the non-churchgoing privacy of one’s own heart. Studies of religious behavior might not help us to make contact with the minds of European (post-)Christians in the late 19th century; we can document the How, When, and Who of secularization, but none of them necessarily helps us to understand Why?

Of course, there are numerous examples of intellectual elites turning their backs on Christian orthodoxy or even a more generic theism as they found that belief in the supernatural could not withstand the new insights of biology, geology, psychology, historical criticism, etc. And we know this because they were highly articulate and, in some cases, stridently polemical in explaining their rejection of the religion they had formerly professed (or at least been born into). But few historians now would build their history around “Great Men”; it would be unacceptable simply to trust that Freud and Nietzsche, Darwin and Huxley were somehow representative of the secularizing drift of European culture in the 19th century.

So I introduced my students to the work of two historians undertaking more populist projects: Susan Budd and Timothy Larsen. Using speeches, pamphlets, memoirs, obituaries, and other sources, both sought to understand working class Victorians (almost entirely men in both cases) who had embraced deism, agnosticism, atheism, or another kind of “Freethinking.” The two historians came, however, to radically different conclusions.

Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society

In her classic 1967 article, “The Loss of Faith” (Past & Present, vol. 36), Budd noted that focusing on “the members of a small intelligentsia… led to an overwhelming emphasis on the intellectual, rather than the moral or social, causes of unbelief” (p. 106). But studying the obituaries (important because they were published so as to refute the notion that atheists repented and embraced God on their deathbeds) and biographies of nearly 150 working class members of the National Secular Society (still active today) led to a focus on factors other than Higher Criticism or scientific advances, such as a correlation between their political views (overwhelmingly radical or socialist) and their disdain for the cozy relationship between the Church and State in Victorian society.

To be sure, such secularists were strongly influenced by the books they read, but rather than The Descent of Man or Beyond Good and Evil, the two most mentioned were Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and, drumroll, the Bible itself, which secularists found to be full of immorality and profanity, at least in the Old Testament. The key for Budd was that their objections were moral, not intellectual; few of the people she studied had ever encountered biblical criticism. They simply found the Bible to be morally unacceptable, or the actions of the God it described to be so. Many of them also abandoned Christianity in objection to its traditional doctrines about Hell, Judgment, and Atonement, all of which seemed to inflict unnecessary violence on people who didn’t deserve it.

None of this would necessarily faze Timothy Larsen, whose most recent book reveals the pervasive influence of the Bible among even the least religious Victorians. But in a 2001 article answering Budd (“The Regaining of Faith,” Church History, vol. 70), he pointed out that many of these working class Freethinkers actually converted back to Christianity. It’s probably impossible adequately to quantify how common this was, since most did not have the means, occasion, or inclination to record their spiritual pilgrimages, but as one snapshot, Larsen points out that of the eight leaders at an 1860 Secularist camp meeting, three reconverted.

Thomas Cooper
Thomas Cooper, one of the most famous Victorian reconverts

Employing a similar methodology to Budd’s, Larsen found several causes of such reconversions. First, reconverts, whatever their initial reasons for doubting Christian teaching, simply did not enjoy the experience of being Freethinkers. Many concluded that a system built on “reason, reason, reason” (as the beleaguered J.H. Gordon put it, p. 534) was ultimately “bleak, gloomy, and solely destructive” (Larsen’s wording, p. 533). Budd’s Freethinkers found the God of the Bible to be venial; Larsen’s reconverts found that it was impossible to have a strong moral foundation apart from a moral Lawgiver. Indeed, in Larsen’s research this problem “[loomed] largest” in the “crisis of doubt” among Victorian atheists (p. 537).

To some degree, classic Christian apologetics (e.g., philosophical arguments for the existence of God, answers to the problem of evil) were effective in answering the challenge of disbelief on the plane of intellectual debate alone. However, Larsen discovered that reconverts who had rejected what they experienced as the overly rational, unfeeling nature of atheism were primarily drawn back to Christianity (as opposed to a more vague theism) not by a theological argument or system, but by the nature of Christ Himself. Said reconvert George Sexton, “…the person of Christ… haunted me night and day” (p. 540).

Despite their differing focuses and findings, Budd and Larsen help us to understand the complicated religious lives of ordinary Europeans. While Budd confirms that this was, for many Victorians well below the level of intellectual elites, an age of religious crisis, she offers a much more subtle portrait of losing faith than that presented by classic secularization theorists, who assumed that religion would simply wither because of the onslaught of science. And Larsen muddies the water even more, suggesting that the secular drift of modernity was neither inevitable nor irreversible.

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