The Political Effect of the Decline of Faith in Continental Europe

In one of the last published pieces of his career, John William Draper returned to a topic he had briefly touched upon in both his Intellectual Development of Europe and his History of the Conflict. Published in the Princeton Review in 1879, Draper addresses the “political effect of the decline of faith in continental Europe.” He asks, “When comes that black thunder-cloud, NIHILISMnow lowering over Eastern Europe?” According to Draper, nihilism, communism, and socialism have exploded all over the European continent. These movements greatly troubled Draper. “Society itself is in peril,” he said.

Who is to blame? Politicians blame the government, he notes. The statesman, however, has a more historical perspective. He perceives “that the affairs of men pass forward, not in a capricious or erratic way, but under the guidance of deterministic law.” During the medieval period, Draper argues, society was enveloped by an “irresistible authority—the Church.” But rather than criticising the Church, Draper believed that “it gave advice, consolation, support, in inevitable troubles, forgiveness for voluntary sins.” The Church, in other words, relieved a heavy burden from society. Its theology also instilled a sense of justice, and provided a hope “that so often kept him from attempting to rectify the wrongs under which he was suffering.” These were important and influential “advantages vouchsafed to the medieval man.”

Draper, in short, recognised the advantages of the Church to society. But in time, he argues, “the plain and simple demands of primitive Christianity had been burdened with many pagan fictions, or with legends that outraged common-sense.” These legends and fictions were enforced by ecclesiastical authority. This “fraudulent” religion was attacked by that “great political event, the Reformation.” With the reformers, progress was made. It demonstrated that the course of “events were taking in the less superstitious, the better informed, populations of Europe.” Thousands of “vulgar impostures” disappeared.

By the nineteenth century, however, many men and women had taken a extreme view, rejecting all aspects of religion as deception. He writes, “in the nineteenth century we have come to the conclusion that the whole, from the beginning to the end, was a deception.” This is quoted directly from his Intellectual Development of Europe. The result, he says, is the “wide-spread religious unbelief of so many thousands of men.”

Thus, according to Draper, the birth of nihilism, communism, and socialism came with the extinction of religious belief. “With no spiritual prop to support them, no expectation of an hereafter in which the inequalities of this life may be adjusted, angry at the cunningly-devised net from which they have escaped, they have abandoned all hope of spiritual intervention in their behalf, and have undertaken to right their wrongs themselves.”

These movements mark an epoch in history. Such epochs occur at the “close of a worn-out form of thought.” Such was the case, he argues, with the advent of Christianity. With Christianity came the “transition from polytheistic to monotheistic ideas in the interpretation of the divine government of the world.” The death of Greco-Roman mythology and personified phantoms was the inevitable result of religious progress.

The progress in religion thus signals the inevitable collapse of the ecclesiastical system. The ecclesiastic, however, blames the rise of nihilism, communism, and socialism on science. But the scientist, Draper argues, merely relies on facts of observation. So who is at fault for the great changes that have taken place in the thoughts of so many thousands? According to Draper, it is the Church. “Should we not rather blame those who invented these delusions, persuaded humanity to accept them, and reaped vast benefits from them.” Draper, in short, is arguing that the lack of faith in his time was entirely due to “ecclesiastical impostures,” those who had mixed Christianity with paganism. “Accordingly, Christendom became a theatre of stupendous miracles, ecclesiastical impostures, spiritual appearances.” The Church had organised a system of repression, and all attempts in any part of Europe at “intellectual development was remorselessly put down.” The Reformation attempted to sweep away the vast mass of dogmas enforced by the Church. It failed. “Hence it may be said that the existence of these dreaded societies is a consequence of the failure of the Reformation to establish itself in the countries in which they found.”

In the end Draper offered no remedies for the “godlessness of the present age.” His main contention is that simply attacking nihilism, communism, and socialism was not enough. We must first understand why they emerged in the first place, and that that will lead us to the cure.

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