Every year provides a psychologically salient anniversary of one or more huge historical events. The year 2018, for example, will be the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, and perhaps it will be a time to reflect on that war’s cultural meaning and its vast, continuing consequences. Nothing much changes in our lives depending on whether the Great War ended 99 or 101 years ago, but the round number 100 is subjectively significant to us, so centennial anniversaries capture media attention.
As this edition of Free Inquiry goes to press, I have occasion to reflect on two sets of highly consequential events. (There are others that I could have chosen for comment—the 1917 overthrow of the Russian Tsar, for one, and the entry of the United States into World War I, for another.)
During the northern summer and autumn of 1517, Martin Luther, a professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, worked on his famous Ninety-Five Theses, in which he attacked the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences (remissions of time spent in Purgatory). It’s often claimed that Luther posted his completed document on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. The truth about this is murky, but it would have been a commonplace action with such a document. He may, indeed, have posted it more widely on churches in Wittenberg, but again this is unclear. We know that he sent the Ninety-Five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz in late 1517, setting in train the events that would split the Catholic Church. Though he did not see himself as announcing any unorthodox doctrine—he sought only reform of abuses—Luther soon found himself denounced for heresy, leading to his excommunication in 1521.
Thus, 1517 is usually taken as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and this year is its five hundredth anniversary. During the sixteenth century, Christianity splintered into rival sects, and its theological disputes manifested in persecutions and wars that raged across Europe through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They included the French Wars of Religion and the horrific Thirty Years War that extended from 1618 to 1648, left millions dead, and desolated much of the continent. The ambitions of secular dynasts contributed to these wars, of course, and not all the blame can be placed on rival church hierarchs or rival interpretations of Christianity. Nonetheless, religious leaders and their organizations were deeply implicated in the ruination and carnage.
Modern secularist thought was a direct reaction to large-scale religious violence. It motivated thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke to rethink the justification and role of the state, and they produced theories that detached government power from the otherworldly rationalizations that had stood almost unchallenged throughout medieval times. To the extent that Christianity has since been tamed, and, hence, no longer penetrates all aspects of social and political life in the manner of the medieval Church, this was a consequence of the Reformation that Luther did not foresee when writing his critique of indulgences. In any event, the rise of secular political philosophy produced intellectual resources—such as Locke’s treatises on government and his Letter Concerning Toleration—that still reward serious study.
A more recent chain of events that greatly altered Western societies was the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Viewed in retrospect, this was clearly underway even in the early sixties, but it is often symbolized by the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967—now fifty years ago. During the sixties, the hegemony of traditional Christian sexual morality was smashed.
Despite the Protestant Reformation and all it entailed, the main doctrines of Christianity on sexuality, family formation, and the respective roles of men and women survived until recently in the mores and laws of Western countries. By the 1960s, however, the Christian ideal of confining sexuality to lifelong heterosexual monogamy had become untenable, thanks to a perfect storm of social and technological changes. These included the invention of the contraceptive pill, but the Pill can’t be given full credit (or blame) for what took place. We should consider, among other things, intensified urbanization, the increasing availability of motor vehicles, and changes to the structure of Western workforces. However exactly we assign the causes, the effect was an open rebellion against traditional sources of authority.
The deep social rifts of the sixties, not least over demands for sexual openness and freedom, continue to play out in disputes over abortion and same-sex marriage. In the United States, the Christian Right has never accepted the increasing availability of abortion that culminated in the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade in 1973. It remains suspicious even of universal access to effective contraception. Since the sixties and seventies, other elements have entered the social equation. Among these was the AIDS crisis that came to public attention in 1981 and had its own unpredictable, sometimes contradictory, ramifications.
Linked to the social revolutions of the sixties, church attendance and profession of Christian belief collapsed across historically Christian countries with one glaring exception: the United States. Somehow—and the possible explanations are controversial among sociologists of religion—the United States managed to press ahead with its own social transformation within an environment that remained largely religious. The impact was quite different in Western Europe, where religious commitment is now relatively rare. In France, conspicuous displays of religious piety are regarded as socially unwelcome, but this reflects France’s peculiar history dating back to the French Revolution and beyond to the oppressive Ancien Régime.
Entire books have been written about such events, their implications, and their ongoing consequences. I’ve offered just the barest sketch of some events that helped to tame Christianity and its rather miserable moral teachings, but momentous anniversaries do provoke thought—about where we came from as a civilization and where we are headed in the twenty-first century.