A hundred years since the death of English religion
Immediately upon finishing reading Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s biography of Robert Graves, I started T.E. Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert.
A friend observed that the focus of my reading seemed to be upon a very specific period of time and I sought to explain to him why it was so.
The First World War seems a turning point in history, the first of what future generations may perceive as the Great Wars of the Twentieth Century. It marked the end of empires, the rise of new ideologies, the death of Nineteenth Century optimism, and perhaps, for many, the end of religious belief
J.L. Carr’s novella A Month in the Country occupies the post-Great War period and captures the mood of the times. In one passage, Mr Keach, the prickly vicar, confronts Tom Birkin, the narrator of the story. It is the summer of 1920 and Birkin’s mind is filled with the hideous images of the Western Front, images that have driven out any last vestiges of traditional religion. But perhaps it was not just the Great War that had destroyed the church in England, perhaps the English with a tradition of rationalism and free thought, had for some time had little time for traditional religion. Keach certainly thinks so:
The English are not a deeply religious people. Even many of those who attend divine service do so from habit. Their acceptance of the sacrament is perfunctory: I have yet to meet the man whose hair rose at the nape of his neck because he was about to taste the blood of his dying Lord. Even when they visit their church in large numbers, at Harvest Thanksgiving or the Christmas Midnight Mass, it is no more than a pagan salute to the passing seasons. They do not need me. I come in useful at baptisms, weddings, funerals. Chiefly funerals – they employ me as a removal contractor to see them safely flitted into their last house.’ He laughed bitterly.
‘But I am embarrassing you, Mr Birkin,’ he said. ‘You too have no need for me. You have come back from a place where you have seen things beyond belief, things which you cannot talk of yet can’t forget, but things which are at the heart of religion. Even so, when I have approached you during your stay here, you have agreed that it is very pleasant weather for this time of year, you have nodded your head and said that your work is progressing well and that you are quite comfortable in the loft. And you have hoped that I shall go away.’
If one wished to understand the world that had unfolded for Tom Birkin and his contemporaries, then the biography of Robert Graves with his irreligion and moral relativism seems an appropriate introduction. Graves is as post-modern and amoral in his attitudes and behaviour as anyone a century later. Tom Birkin would have found Graves an easier companion than Mr Keach.
I tend to focus upon the years before the war. Part of my degree was Russian history and I read all the Russian academic historians that the Hardiman held who moved following the Revolution mostly to the USA. And were writing in the 1920s.
Their outlook was that of Ayn Rand, a form of libertarian liberalism, hardnosed and at core cruel. Now a million miles from the Russia of today, or Ireland, UK and most of the West in the period before the second world war, with Ireland long after.
But to your point. Pre WW1 there was a cohort of thinkers that moved away from formal religion to that of Spiritualism and Mysticism or those like GBS and the Fabians who took from Engels and Marx the view that formal religion was a means of class control. Yeats took a different tack.
The Act of Uniformity had always ensured that English religion was of a nominal sort