One of the hallmark of modern societies is the disappearance of the sacred. As contemporary individuals no longer conceive their existence in a sacred world, they become conscious of their existence as areligious beings, that is, beings detached from any metaphysical order. As such, they seek to realize themselves in History and its subsequent progress.
The current article proposes a brief review of the development of societies in Europe as it relates to religious thinking, and attempts to understand from a contemporary perspective shifts in the structure of belief for modern individuals.
From the 17th century and onward, modern societies have been favoring scientific empiricism and modern rationalism, which, in turn, gradually relegated religious inclinations to the periphery. And with beliefs being slowly privatized, their expression remains distinct from the public participation in society. However, as I explained here, this does not indicate that religious beliefs have fully disappeared from the public sphere. Indeed, celebrations and festivities of religious nature and religious moralities abound, and still shape some aspects of modern ideologies. But such inclinations are no longer central themes for secular societies, as it was still the case until the end of the 19th century in Europe.
The separation between religion and state is a frank split between religious institutions and societal institutions, which, paradoxically, do not claim to be completely atheistic by nature. Rather, societal institutions are an attempt to delineate political and social affairs from the religious thinking. From the 17th century, the progressive criticism of religion by many intellectuals sowed doubt in the mind of thinkers, who initiated a slow detachment from religion. Religious institutions faced a rising criticism in Europe, which led to a progressive “modernization” of society. Appearing as obsolete and superfluous, its inexorable decline in the face of the development of science and reason questioned its utility for humanity. The mentalities evolved progressively, even more so during the Enlightenment Era, a pivotal period for the history of Europe. At that time, philosophers and thinkers denounced superstitions and religious behavior as immature and incongruent with current affairs. The following reforms of mentalities led a meager portion of society to remain faithful to their beliefs. Political, social and, above all, scientific functions attempted to free themselves from a superimposed religious structure. As a consequence, the Sacred, intangible and immutable phenomena no longer enjoyed its supremacy.
It would be a wrong assumption to think that we did not witness attempts to revive an interest for religion. Indeed, from the end of the 17th century, movements such as Romanticism in England and Germany, or the revival of the liturgical movement, pursued such a prospect; however, it appears to us that the interest was mostly sociological and psychological. Time-tested organizations, such as Freemasonry, are of considerable importance in the Age of Enlightenment. At that time, the few rituals that remained present in the public space were seen as empty survivals of the past, partially because the individual conscience, which was once religious, became moral. As far as political consciousness which emerged, it was structurally different from the archaic mentality. During the Enlightenment Era, the moral and anti-clerical consciences claimed knowledge above any divine enlightenment. Therefore, the Enlightenment Era shaped news definitions on how modernity ought to be coupled with science, which, in turn, led to a new understanding of the world.
From the 18th century onwards, the Renaissance birthed a gradual industrial revolution, which eradicated the spiritual needs of individuals, offering an ersatz in consumerism. The romantic ethic of the 17th century stimulated the rise of consumerism in Europe and America, which then constituted by itself and for itself a social ethos that was accepted by large. Consumerism is a normative model, which is atheistic in appearance, yet religious in structure. After all, there is worship and devotion for simple daily objects, and devotion extends to the product and its associated symbolism. Relics of ancient times, objects as symbols reveal much on the ontology of the collective myth.1 If the experience of the sacred was mainly the prerogative of modern religions in Europe, contemporary practices cannot be a real substitute for the qualia of the religious experiences found in most archaic religions. Indeed, the major changes that religious thinking has known since the 17th century made possible the conception of human history in its totality. Human beings are no longer subjects to a divine power, on the contrary, they are free in the face of every theological undertaking. Detached from Nature, modern individuals base their existence on rationalism, a doctrine that posits discursive reason as the sole source of all “real” knowledge. Rationalism rejects all fideism2, as it is driven by the search for truths determined by reason.
Such way of thinking determines that certain effects result from certain causes on the basis of logical principles. It thus evacuates by its methodologies the recourse to the transhistoric. One could find the foundations of the modern though in the Ancient Greece, with thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. The Aristotelian philosophy was based on a concrete observation of nature, thus laying the foundations of formal logic, metaphysics3, and ethics. However, the movement did not take until the 17th and early 18th, with a systematic approach to rationalism, first with the Galileo trial, then with the writings of Descartes, notably with his Discourse on Method in 1637, or his Metaphysical Meditations. Descartes affirmed that only reason could be used as a discursive tool to demonstrate the existence of God, for example, by using the ontological argument. Ergo, the search for truth could and should only be accessed via pure reasoning and not faith. Later on, thinkers such Nietzsche profoundly reformed the human understanding. Nietzsche not only criticized religion, he also commented on his decline, as spoken by the madman who claimed that “God is dead!” 4:
Should not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who bury God? Do we still feel nothing of the divine decomposition? … the gods also decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we killed him! How can we console ourselves, murderers between the murderers! What the world has possessed of the most sacred and most powerful to this day has bled under our knife; … who will cleanse us of this blood? What water could we wash? What expiations, what sacred game will we be forced to invent?
Nietzsche denounced the belief in God, which lost all of its credibility, undermined by the Christian morality itself. Later, Max Weber reinforced such observation when he described the “disenchantment of the world”5. Weber pointed to the process of retreating religious beliefs, or that of magical beliefs as a central mode of operating in societies, and the decline of religious beliefs as structuring society. From this point of view, should any religious beliefs persist, they would solely exist in the sphere of the private, relegated to the periphery of the ideologies that structure and legitimize social institutions. In the 19th century, Emile Durkheim proposed the idea that social institutions and religious institutions ought to be considered as distinct fundaments6; Hegel emphasized the historicity of reason and understanding of the world, which in turns, lead to a consciousness that supports a contemporary rationalism. Hegel converts a static conception of history to a dynamic conception that bounds history to time.
The critical rationalism of the 19th seemed to be a rationalism free of the metaphysical prejudices that defined the religious institutions. And with the raise of science, this free rationalism, built up in history, imposed itself as a valid mode of inquiry. We can say that with the development of modern rationalism, existence detached itself from any divine order, only to leave a doubt in the mind of the contemporary individual. This modern rationalism profoundly changed the consciousness, by which transcendent models gave place to a moral consciousness in which God could not exist. And if such a liberation allows individuals to realize themselves in their history, as historical agents, a detachment from Nature as sacred emerges all the more. There is no doubt that the end of the Middle Ages announced that liberation, however, late Abrahamic religions initiated in a way a first exit “from the world”, that is, a rupture between Nature and the Cosmos.
I examined how the archaic mentality abolishes death, as something that is never fully destroyed, and which justifies the enactment of cosmogonies every year. This anamnesis allows a temporary victory that inscribes the archaic mentality in a timeless mode of being. Further in History, the descent of the Christ to save the fallen world is a single event. This return is a final regeneration towards the future, thereby opposing the archaic mode of thought with the late Judeo-Christian ontology. This is a transition from a cyclical time to a linear time, then a historical time, which gradually allows modern religions to be realized and justified in history. As for the creation of the world, it became by the same token a phenomenon detached from the individual. The latter is a being endowed with speech, who is able to revoke the immanence that once existed between him and Nature. This delineates Nature as the eternal reservoir for hierophanies and the temporary life of beings, waiting a redeemer figure.
Therein lies the religious dilemna: God is conceived on the one hand as the incarnation of absolute freedom, whereas individuals, on the other hand, cannot save themselves as they depend on the grace of God. This God is anthropomorphic and impersonal by nature, whose actions are unpredictable, and individuals incarnate autonomous principles. Thus, modern religions cannot describe individuals and their relations to the sacred and as a holistic weltanschauung. A stone, a river, the wind, or an animal… are all members of Nature that resides on a different magnitude of order than the one for archaic religions. Christianity does not depict the sacred as a carrying agent for the being into total and absolute experience, as the only remaining theophany is the incarnation of Christ himself, which is nothing more than a soteriological undertaking aimed at saving the world from suffering and death. Although certain initiatory motifs still exist in Judaism or in Christianity, such as Baptism or the Eucharist, they cannot be fully deemed as initiation, we can only speak instead of sacraments that one accomplishes once in their life, yet seldom possess the mystery that surrounds initiatory rites in archaic cultures7. Rites in modern religions, such as the Birkat ha-Ilanot in Judaism, or the Hajj (pilgrimage) in Islam, seem to be only reinforcing religious adherence, but they do not give access to a true mystical experience. In any case, they fulfil a positive function, since they allow the believer to find a spiritual meaning in a radically desacralized world. We can say that the rite itself does not matter more than the role religion plays in one’s psyche.
The progressive evolution is then a three-steps model: 1- the desacralization of the word, 2- the detachment with Nature, and 3 – the degradation of initiations. This invariably establishes an abyss between the Creator and his creature, real solution of continuity. Henceforth, transcendence from Nature and detachment from the sacred led individuals to be strangers to the “Wholly-Other” (Ganz Andere). To wit the mystical experience in modern times, that is as opaque as difficult to access, and is mostly understood as a distant and peripheral experience. The experience of faith is, one might say, what allows the individual to gain access to his wellbeing and a limited liberation. The object of devotion mostly relates to the sum of pious actions, or a fear of punishment. As for the salvific figure, Jesus, he embodies a new dimension in the face of miracles, as a messenger of God, he allows the experience of miracles to be grasped as intelligible phenomena. This is antithetical to the archaic mystical experience, approached and integrated through initiation. Mystery thus gives way to a realism and proximity.
The sacred in modern religions does not have the same properties nor the same weight as it did in the archaic mentality, and the closeness with a possible salvation thus appears as an antimystic conception of the miracle. In Christianity, such antimystic conception allows the experience of the religious to be manifested through the person of Christ, an historical being resembling all men8. The Judeo-Christian proposition allows the anointment to be predicated on good deeds, acts of faith, charity, and a pious life. This mechanism enables the reenactment of the way of being of a messenger, Christ, whose life was rich in teachings and lessons. The monotheistic religions thereby succeeded in embodying in a central character a way of living based on good actions, ethics and morals, above all else.
The rupture between the Creature and the Creator is noticeable in Judaism, where the pious being refers to the holy writings more than he relies on God:9
“Slave” or “servant” of Yahweh; man must live in the fear of his God. Obedience is the perfect religious act. On the other hand, sin is disobedience, infringing the commandments … But the relationship between God and man does not go beyond this stage; the unio mystica of the soul with its Creator is unthinkable for the theology of the Old Testament. By recognizing him as Creator and absolute Sovereign, man comes to know at least certain predicates of God. Since the Law (Torah) proclaims with precision the divine will, the essential thing is to follow the Commandments, that is to behave according to the law or justice (sedhek). The religious ideal of man is to be “righteous”, to know and to respect the Law, the divine order.
We cannot help but noting how, at the time, criticism of the cult of Nature by the prophets evolved, or how the many syncretic religions emerged in Europe, mostly from Asian and Middle East influences. At that time, pagan religiosity mostly touched agricultural societies, that possessed the belief that the divine is incarnated in Nature or in cosmic rhythms. These beliefs were seen as true idolatries, and with the advent of monotheistic religions, the prophets succeeded in dissolving the Nature from the divine. Such vehemence towards the sacred character of Nature marked the decision of the liberation of the individual by a return to Yahweh. It was not until the Middle Ages that Judaism was partially reconciled with Nature:10
Whole areas of the natural world – “high places”, stones, springs, trees, certain crops, certain flowers – will be denounced as unclean, since they were soiled by the cult of the Canaanite divinities of fertility. The “pure” and holy region par excellence is only desire, for it is there that Israel will remain faithful to its God. The sacred dimension of vegetation and, in general, of the exuberant epiphanies of Nature, will be rediscovered rather late in medieval Judaism.
The distance between God and Man makes human freedom a possibility, and nature, detached from existence, can henceforth be exploited. Individuals became historical subjects, who can doubt the metaphysical conceptions which previously were conceived as absolute and all-encompassing. Therefore, we can say that long before the end of the Middle Ages, it was the Abrahamic religions that made possible a real atheism, in the sense that God was evacuated from the world itself, whereas modern individuals, religious or not, no longer needed to resort to transhistoric models to realize themselves.
If the modern and rational individual conceives himself as detached from religion, what is the nature of the experience of the sacred, which is relegated to the sphere of personal beliefs? Can modern secular societies be regarded as fully religious, and does the absence of theos, God, means the absence of religion in the psychology of the modern individual? Jung himself was persuaded that modern societies extend and mimic the behavior of religious societies in certain respects. These behaviors, by fulfilling some essential functions in the economy of the psyche, allow modern individuals to preserve the memory of a sacred existence in some structural elements of consciousness, and to surpass their moments of existential crisis. These behaviors are deciphered, for example, in creations of an artistic nature. By reading works of art, we can better understand how the development of modern atheism has not been able to fully eliminate mystical and religious inclinations towards a spiritual achievement. After all, the absence of a theos, does not mean the absence of religion: if contemporary societies consider themselves free from religious influences, this does not mean that such societies have succeeded in achieving this ideal fully.
The need for a religious experience or the need to become initiated attest, it seems to us, of something that cannot be detached from individual’s deep psychology. This may explain why modern societies have not abolished the need for symbolization. Initiations, more than relics of the past, allow to structure society through collective actions, and to generate shared emotions. This make possible the revival of collective actions during moments of doubts and anxieties. C.G. Jung and Jacques Ellul demonstrated that the experience of the sacred remains a topical phenomenon in modern societies, however its true significance lies buried in the deepest layers of the unconscious. This perspective makes possible the discernment of two notions: the presence of the sacred within a religious complex, and the sacred as a phenomenon, which one might qualify as psychological, which emerges from an areligious experience. Initiations and rites found in modern societies seem to illustrate the irreducible need for initiation, and the mysteries at all levels of culture, even more so when a crisis is going through the individual.
I spoke of a detachment more than a total disappearance in our secular societies, because cultural idiosyncrasies, as well as modern artistic creations, are all phenomena which, among others, attest to the presence of the sacred and its need in our contemporary societies. Whether it be hidden in initiatory themes or camouflaged messages, we are convinced that it touches beings deep within their psyche in the face of metaphysical affairs that progress and reason alone have not completely eliminated.
- More information in the work of Colin Campbell, including The Romantic Ethics and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987.
- Doctrine describing the certainty of essential truths about revelation and faith.
- Especially the lógos, a spoken of written speech.
- F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, § 125.
- Le Savant et le politique (The Scientist and the politician), lectures given in 1917 and 1919 in Munich.
- The Division of Labor in Society, Emile Durkheim. Free Press, 2014.
- Some religious movements, such as The Religious Society of Friends, do not recognize nor practice such sacraments.
- In 451 CE, the Council of Chalcedon proclaimed the person of Christ as being both of a human and divine nature (Nicaea).
- M. Eliade, History of Religious Ideas. University of Chicago Press, 1981. Vol 1, p. 352.
- Ibid. p. 368.