Thursday, February 06, 2020

Modernity: The Forces of Secularity

IN THE MID-1870's 35,387,703 of the 36,000,000 people in France were listed in the official census as Catholics. The rest declared themselves Protestants (something under 600,000), Jews (5,000), or freethinkers (80,000). The secular clergy of the Catholic church alone included 55,169 priests, one for every 639 inhabitants. Roman Catholicism remained, as it had been in 1801, "the religion of the majority of Frenchmen."

One of the things which completely blindsided the Catholic Church was the collapse of the faith among ordinary people following Vatican Two. This in turn has clouded many of the "interpretations" of the Council, with many of the Traditionalists blaming it for the Church's problems.  Yet astute minds had recognised long before the Council that serious problems were fermenting. In 1944, two french priests involved with the care of the working class published a survey of the state of the faith in that demographic. France, Pays de Mission?, shocked the clerical establishment in its estimate that eight million of France's working class were essentially pagan. What had happened in the period since 1870?  Remember this was 1944, well before Vatican Two.

Most analyses of secularisation tend to take a intellectual approach to the problem of the loss of faith but in my opinion this tends to focus on that small element of society that actually thinks and ignores the mass of men who experience their faith rather than intellectualise about it. This in turn leads to "intellectual" approaches towards re-Christianisation which have largely failed.  Weber, in my opinion, sees the practice of religion as being a consequence of an interplay with a wide variety of social and personal forces and in my opinion gives a far more convincing analysis as to why religion collapsed  in the face of modernity.

As mentioned before Weber paints a picture of a pre-modernity equilibrium between social circumstances and religious faith, weak or strong, which favored religion. But astute observers noted that much of the relgious zeal of the past was intermixed with intermixed with a great deal of worldliness. In a strongly "local" world the church had both a religious and sociological function, with each underpinning the other, and what modernity did is totally undercut the sociological dimension.
"Sunday, the peasants go to church," wrote Madame Romieu at the end of the Second Empire, "some moved by religious feeling, most by habit or by fear of what people say." One went to church because it was the thing to do on Sunday, because it was one of the few social occasions of the week, because it was an opportunity for talking business or meeting friends, acquaintances, relatives. It was--especially for the women, once men had grasped at the opportunities that fairs held out-the sole occasion to escape the isolation in which many lived, the major recreation or diversion in a restricted life. Observance business, and pleasure were combined. One went to mass wearing one's Sunday best, and given the muddy cart tracks, this often meant special paths, mass roads, chemins de messe. Public announcements were made by the village crier as the  congregation left the service, public sales were often timed to fall after it, one could slip off later to call on the notary or the doctor, or drop in to the tavern, circle, or cafe. Even if a majority did not attend the service but went about their work as on any other day, "a multitude of peasants gathered in front of the church, discussed politics, made deals, filled the taverns."
In a world where entertainment was scarce, church provided a certain festive diversion. Those attending might well "love the high mass, the rich ornaments, seeing a great many statues of saints in their churches." Writing about his grandmother, Charles Peguy presented church attendance as a treat for the lonely child raised in a woodcutter's hut in Bourbonnais in the early 1800's : "When she was good, she was allowed to go on Sunday to mass in the village she wore her sabots because one doesn't go to church barefoot, and she was happy because that's where everybody met, where they exchanged news, where one heard about deaths, marriages, births, where gossip flowed about what was going on, where servants were hired."
Technological limits placed practical restriction on the ability of people to leave their local circumstances and the only show in town was the Church. What modernity did is give people alternatives.
We see that in the churches, as in the schools, non-attendance is a way of measuring ineffectiveness. The growing numbers of migrant workers going to the cities added to this trend. Urban workers worked Sundays and holidays, or did so very often. The more earnest the man, the more he worked. The less responsible were the more likely to get drunk during their free time. The Church did not see them either way. Like the Revolution, acquaintance with the city did not destroy religious sentiment. It simply made nonconformity possible or created another kind of conformity. Men who attended church at home because their peers did ceased to attend church where such attendance was  exceptional. The city merely provided an opportunity for the collapse of practices "shallowly rooted in the personality." Returning migrants may well have lost whatever impulse to religious conformity they had left with. They did not necessarily bandy this about so long as the priest retained his influence in the community. But they were ready to welcome emancipation when it came.
At any rate, all observers seem to have sensed the shallowness of faith behind the slackness of observance. In Beauce respectable farmers, "preoccupied by the care to augment their fortune, work to this end even on Sunday during the services, so that the churches are deserted." Not that they lacked respect for religion, "but they consider that the time they would spend in church would be lost for their work and their fortune."  Not challenge, but indifference and hardheadedness. One farmer declared that he would rather go to hell, since heaven was too high and far away. He was not interested in salvation ("it's not in my way of thinking; ... it's not done"). The paradise he sought was here on earth. "The absence of religious sentiment [in the countryside, especially] is such that there are communes where scarcely one marriage in six is blessed in church" (Yonne, 1862) .
What Weber argues is that modernity gave the people the real world option of not practicing religion in a way that was not possible prior to modernity. It's true that there were modernist elements that actually tried to stifle religion but the real solvent were the new opportunities afforded by modernity. City life, particularly, was different and provided for more anonymity--and opportunities for alternatives-- than life in the village. Life in small local communities is difficult to live anonymously and peer pressure tends to encourage conformity, not that there was much else to do. What all observers seem to note is that religious rot did not really set in till the last two decades of the 19th Century, just as French modernisation was gaining steam and well after the French Revolution with all of its Enlightenment Ideas.
In 1874 the bishop of Limoges bewailed "this grievous inertia of the masses." Alain Corbin, who has found no evidence of a great increase in religious indifference in the Limousin before 1870, notes a "brutal fall of religious practice" just about that time~not yet the godlessness the bishop of Limoges described in 1875, "but indifference, an incurable apathy, the total abandonment of religious duties, [and] universal disaffection." In the Limousin the Church's identification with the Moral Order brought anticlericalism. But even there, as almost everywhere, the most detached or hostile
maintained their loyalty to rites of passage and local festivals. More generally, as in Puy-de-Dome, "the religious question leaves our countrymen indifferent." though they "continue to go to church on Sunday out of habit."
From the Church's point of view, every innovation only made things worse. The bicycle was blamed for enabling young people to avoid mass. Tourists, visitors, and returning emigrants felt increasingly free to speak of their indifference to religious practice or even their scorn of it. Military service side-by-side with "pagan" urban workers made some peasants ashamed of a show of piety as a mark of their bumpkin backwardness. Finally, with war in 1914 there came a culmination of the pressures toward detachment. Yet, how far and fast would all these factors have worked if religion had been solidly anchored in personality?
Weber hits the nail on the head here by recognising that a "personal" faith "anchored in personality" is a different thing than an apparent faith of custom, habit and convenience. What modernity exposed is that the "personal faith" was strongly lacking and that a lot of religious practice was a habit contingent upon circumstances. Modernity changed the circumstances and exposed the shallowness in religious belief.  What Weber is hinting at--in a roundabout way-- is the notion that a strong faith is not opposed to modernity its just that weak faith is corroded by it.  And pre-Modern Europe had a lot of weak faith. What Weber is getting at is that  Modernity is not a solvent of religion, it is a solvent of weak and superficial religion, it separates the wheat from the chaff.

The other element at play here was not so much the philosophy of scientific materialism but the practical consequences of it. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, in a world where life was precarious and the means for mastering nature extremely limited, prayer and religion were of some utility to the peasant:
Living was marginal, disaster inexplicable and uncontrollable. This added to the countryman's Winnie-thePooh syndrome of seeing the trace of fantastic monsters in tracks that he had made himself. Where harm and ill-fortune were swiftly come by, nothing was easier than to claim that they were punishments of heaven. Long centuries of trying to mollify and coax the powerful conjured up a religion where fear almost excluded love, a faith bent to flatter and do honor to the heavenly lords in order to obtain their protection or avoid their ire. Power and irascibility were what impressed. The peasants would not work their cattle on the feasts of the nastiest saints, the ones most likely to resent and revenge any irreverence; they sought to discover what "thrashing saint" lay behind their illness. Kindly saints could be invoked when they were needed; in grimmer mood, they evoked well-conditioned submission. 
God was far away. The saints were near. Both were anthropomorphic. Saints were intercessors. One did not address God directly, but prayed to saints to request his favors, rewarded them if the crop was good or the weather fair, ....
Practical science gave men some form of control over the environment and was therefore more useful than religion. Whatever its philosophical underpinnings--something the average man doesn't even consider---the insights and power bought about by science had practical consequences. Why pray to God when chemical fertilizers will do the trick?
A peasant quoted by Gaston Mery in 1907 explained: "We compare what the teacher gives us with what the priest can give. Well, he gives us more. It's the teacher that has taught us how to read, and that is useful in life. He has taught us how to reckon and that is even more useful ... and then that is not all. If we need advice for our taxes, for our business, we just go to see him. He's got books and papers about farming, about fertilizer." The things one could see, the things one could touch, were taking over; and the school rode forward on their tide. The peasant's need had shifted from consolation to advice on concrete matters; and on this level, at this time at least, the presbytery could not keep up with the school.
Yet phosphates, chemical fertilizers, and schooling had spelled the beginning of the end. In 1893, a drought year in Bourbonnais when many men were having masses said for their emaciated cattle (which died anyway), the priest reproached Henry Norre, a self-taught man who farmed not far from Cerilly, for not attending church. "I haven't got the time," he answered. "And really, I haven't got much confidence in your remedies for the beasts. My remedies are better; you can check." Daniel Halevy quotes another story about Norre. This time the farmer returned from the railway station with a cartful of fertilizer and met the priest. "What are you carting there?" "Chemicals." "But that is very bad; they burn the soil" "Monsieur le cure," said Norre, "I've tried everything. I've had masses said and got no profit from them. I've bought chemicals and they worked. I'll stick to the better merchandise." It was the requiem of nineteenth-century religion.