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The Rise of European Secularism in the 19th Century Essay

In Europe, the long nineteenth century, (1789-1914) was a tumultuous era of political, economic, and social revolution which created an increasingly secular culture. Europeans of all races and classes looked outside the church to solve societal and familial issues. Gifted intellectuals proposed new philosophies on human thought and behavior, while innovative communication allowed ideas to travel quicker and easier than ever before. By the early 1800’s, Europeans began to question the role and necessity of the church and religion in their lives.

Revolutionaries developed political and social ideologies based on the Enlightenment values of reason, analysis and science, instead of religion, dogma and superstition. During the 1790’s, profound political changes created new and unique ways to adapt to a modern secular society. New constitutional governments were formed in response to mass political uprisings when French citizens rejected monarchical absolutism and forced the Catholic Church to become subordinate to the government.

Scientific advancements and industrialization, both contributed to the growing secularization of European society. British industrial workers adopted non-religious political ideologies by creating organizations like the “Chartists,” which protected workers and lobbied for universal suffrage. Europeans repudiated tyrannical governments, adopted non-religious political ideologies, and inspired the rise of alternative community associations. The innovations of the 19th century created a new, secular society, and inaugurated the modern, industrial world.

In the two centuries prior to the Revolution of 1789, many Europeans had subscribed to the political and religious doctrine of “divine-right,” which asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. 1 Therefore, kings – not subject to the will of the people, aristocracy or any other estate of the realm, could rule with absolute supremacy, and were only accountable to God as a higher authority.

As an “extension of God’s power on earth,” King Louis XVI of France believed in his own divine monarchical power; however, Enlightenment intellectuals such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire began questioning the king’s authority as absolute ruler of France. The validity of the divine-right doctrine had not been widely challenged in public until the era of Enlightenment. Divine-right had served as the basis for monarchical power, and was also the premise behind the authority of “ordained” clergy to act as intermediaries between God and members of the Catholic Church.

For the French, debating the legitimacy of king and clergy significantly challenged and undermined the absolutist ideology of supremacy, and encouraged the secularization of the future French state. For centuries, religion was the dominant cultural force in Europe. In Britain, Protestantism and the Anglican Church officially represented state doctrine, whereas Catholicism was practiced and recognized as the official state religion of the French monarchy. 2 Religion, and the church itself, were extremely powerful institutions which acted as extensions of state government.

Prior to the Revolution of 1789, members of the third estate were required to pay tithes (a portion of their income and harvest) to the church. Universities, presses and education were all controlled by the church. People rarely owned books other than religious texts, and the primary endeavor of education was to gain understanding of biblical and church theology. The church acted as society’s sole moral authority, and could inflict punishments upon those they believed were disobedient to the church’s laws and moral codes.

3 However, the Enlightenment brought extreme challenges to the existing religious culture. Promoting the use of reason and observation to interpret the outside world, instead of faith and revelation, was a significant divergence from traditional church doctrine. Enlightenment philosophers, like Voltaire, railed against organized theocracies and argued that religion prevented rational inquiry while it endorsed repression, tyranny and war.

The philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who sought, “liberation of the human mind from the dogmatic state of ignorance,” had a major impact on the future ideology of revolutionaries. 4 It was Enlightenment ideas which challenged people to question religious orthodoxy and use their own intelligence to draw conclusions about the legitimacy of traditional authority. These philosophies were the foundation of modern, egalitarian, democratic societies which would later replace Louis XVI’s absolutist monarchy. Enlightenment ideals had profound effects upon the politics of the early and mid-nineteenth century.

However, a severe backlash against rationalism and liberal ideologies in France caused the return of church-state power; while conversely, in the state of Prussia, Enlightenment ideals inspired a suppression of the church’s power. 5 Whether or not Enlightenment ideals and values were able to root themselves permanently in society, the introduction and widespread acceptance of secular ideas created major changes across Europe. After the Revolution in France, the old absolutist monarchy was replaced by the Constitution of 1791, and King Louis XVI was forced to share power with an elected legislative body in the new constitutional monarchy.

In a rather astounding victory for proponents of Enlightenment ideology, the new constitution also severely limited the power and eminence of the Catholic Church. The 1791 Constitution subordinated the church to the state, assuming the administrative role of paying the clergy, which effectively made them employees of the state, and not the Vatican. Clerical offices would now become elected positions which required swearing an oath of loyalty to the constitution. 6 The sweeping constitutional reform of the Catholic Church was a devastating political blow to the power structure of the church.

The Pope and the Vatican abhorred the proposed changes, and threatened priests with excommunication for swearing allegiance to the new constitution. In an even bigger financial blow to the church, the state called for the confiscation of church lands, and subsequently sold the property at reduced value in order to pay the state’s enormous debt. Of all the changes which took place during the revolutionary period, the degraded relationship between the state and the Catholic Church caused the greatest resentment among the French people.

7 When the new French government assumed control of the clergy and the administration of confiscated church lands, significant power was taken away from the church and placed into the hands of the government. 8 Stripping the power of the church was indeed a coup for liberals who sought to eliminate the vestiges of the old power structure and create a new secular state. In Britain, the 1800’s witnessed a significant reduction of membership in the Anglican Church, and an increase of membership in churches extolling a “Humanist” message. The departure of many English from the Protestant Church, and the appeal of “Antinomianism,”

“Millenarianism,” and “Calvinism,” (secularized theologies) were evidence of the growing popularity of secularized religion. Even though the majority of the English continued to participate in traditional religion, the dissident congregations which promoted increasingly secular views were actively growing. Female public speakers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, urged congregations to use their communities as a forum for political discussion,9 while Joanna Southcott, a female Millenarian, suggested that women, men and children should attend Sunday school as a collective form of self help.

10 Another prophetess, Sarah Flaxmer, promoted a culture of sexual equality, and suggested new ways to define manhood. At the time, the ideas expressed by the Humanist prophetesses were very progressive. The idea of bringing politics to the congregation, equality among the sexes, collective self-help, and using community to care for family, were very secular concepts – surprisingly ahead of their time. 11 The new emerging political ideologies of the 1820’s and 1830’s were heavily influenced by secular philosophy.

European ideologies, such as “liberalism,” “socialism” and “communism” were quickly evolving as a response to industrialization. 12 Voluntary associations, such as social clubs, scientific and cultural societies, and charitable societies brought increased opportunities for the working-class to discuss political movements and share ideology. Liberalism supported the principle of universal equality under the law, and placed supreme value on the rights and dignity of the human being, with an emphasis on the authority of reason over tradition.

13 Utopian socialism denounced the inequities and injustices of competition, and proposed a system of social organization based on cooperation and mutual respect. Meanwhile, communism defined the plight of workers as a “class struggle,” and proposed the unification of all workers in a violent revolt against the bourgeoisie. Only the overthrow of the capitalist system would free workers, enabling them to achieve true consciousness. By 1850, most of the new, emerging political ideologies excluded any reference to theology, church or religion.

For some political theorists, religion was no longer relevant to politics and did not exist in their vision for a new society. The rapid rise of industrialization in Britain and France drew thousands of workers from rural areas into overcrowded cities. For most workers, life revolved around the factory and the home. Families often required the support of both parents’ income, and most children worked as well. The transition from rural to city life often limited workers’ ability to participate in church life. Whereas the church had once been the institution of moral authority, church attendance was diminishing in the new industrial society.

Secular activities such as drinking and going to the pub were commonplace among the British working class. “Church and chapel attendance was particularly low in London and Lanchenshire in the beginning of the 19th century. ”14 However, in an effort to unite the British working class, a new organization, “The Charter Society,” was formed to create a positive class identity for working people. “Chartists,” named for their charter which called for universal male suffrage, worked together by uniting diverse elements of community with the use of political organization and rhetoric.

Chartists attempted to define working class interests; they believed that citizenship was the universal political right of every human being. Chartism evolved into a mass movement where working men and women drew upon their plebian heritage of community mobilization to “petition parliament, and riot for their rights. ”15 Because the established churches in Britain did not provide workers with the necessary social and familial support, industrial workers began to look for a more secular approach to meet their family and community needs.

The end of the eighteenth century brought major political revolution throughout Europe. The French had warmly embraced the Enlightenment ideals of reason and inquiry, and at the same time, they used those ideals as a rationale to publicly reject the theory of divine right, putting an end to the absolute monarchy in France. The Enlightenment brought the ideas of democracy and civic participation into being through the creation of the French Constitution of 1791, while it divested the Catholic Church of the power it had held for centuries.

The diminishing power of the Catholic and Protestant Churches deterred people from participating in the religious institutions which had supported society for so long; instead, people turned toward more political, non-religious organizations. The growing appeal of humanism, and other forms of secular religion, is evidence of workers’ willingness to make connections between rational ideas through an increased understanding of the human condition. From 1850-1900, the emergence of progressive social groups and diverse political organizations became extremely popular in large cities, indicating the growing link between the social and political

spheres. The birth of “Chartism” to unite Britain’s industrial workers was an effective group approach to improve social and living conditions in the 19th century. Numerous changes in the way people worked and lived gave rise to a diverse and increasingly secularized society. Bibliography Breunig, Charles, and Matthew Levinger. The Revolutionary Era 1789-1850. 3rd Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2002. Clark, Anna. The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Gross, Michael B.

The War Against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005. McPhee, Peter. Living the French Revolution 1789-99. New York: Palgrave MacMillan Publishing, 2009. Wilson, Jeffrey K. “Absolutist Monarchy” (Class Lecture, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, California, January 31, 2013). —- “The French Revolution” (Class Lecture, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, California, February, 5, 2013). —- “New Politics Emerging” (Class Lecture, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, California, March 12, 2013).

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