In my new book The Great and Holy War, I argued that the catastrophe of the First World War transformed the world’s great religions. I continue to think through some of the implications of this story, for what it might tell us about the history of religions more generally. (I have already posted a couple of items about the relationship between war and religious change).
The First World War’s impact on faith and faiths was immense. Reacting to the war’s horrors, thinkers of many shades rebelled against claims for human reason, culture and civilization, and sought new fundamental bases for religious authority – in Catholic terms, this would be a return to original sources, or ressourcement. In Protestant Christianity, we see this reaction in the work of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, both directly inspired by their responses to the war. More broadly, we look at thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Otto. In the same years, the war destroyed one ancient realm of Christianity – in the Middle East – and laid the foundations for a new Christian world, in Africa.
Judaism was transformed by the war, which for the first time made the Zionist dream feasible. At the same time, the widespread sense of national betrayal – of failed participation in the ultimate apocalyptic struggle – powerfully motivated the Anti-Semitism that flourished from the 1920s onwards. Neither of the two greatest events in modern Jewish history – the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel – would have been possible without the First World War, and its religious underpinnings.
Finally, the war’s outcome was critical to the modern history of Islam. The end of the Caliphate left the world’s Muslims in quest of alternatives, of a return to fundamental sources of religious authority. All the various solutions that we know in the Islamic world – from state secularism to radical Islamism – have their roots in the First World War and its immediate aftermath.
So the war sparked huge changes, and we are still living with the consequences. It marked a global religious revolution.
Studying the densely packed events of the Great War, it is often easy to forget just what a shockingly brief span of time they covered: just four years for formal hostilities, with several more years of chaos immediately following—but still less than a decade in all. And yet, as we have seen, the world changed totally in this time. Although Norman Stone was speaking chiefly of military and political trends, we readily echo his observation that “in four years, the world went from 1870 to 1940.” In religious terms, we might prefer to set the dates still wider apart—perhaps from 1850 to 1950.
One catastrophic war fueled very rapid changes in religion, but the story’s implications go far beyond that single historical moment, offering as they do a template for understanding the phenomenon of radical religious change, in both past and present, and perhaps even in the near future.
The most unsettling lesson may be the breathtaking speed with which a world can change, the brief moment during which a seemingly rock-solid order can be swept away. Changes that seem inevitable to us in retrospect were at the time wholly unexpected. In turn, values and behavior that seem natural and proper to us today can in just a few years look like fossils from a distant geological epoch. As John Stuart Mill remarked, “the crotchet [eccentricity] of one generation becomes the truth of the next, and the truism of the one after.” The Great War shows how the religious world we know might indeed be turned upside down within a very short space of time.
In religion, as in politics and culture, we should see the pace of change not as steady, gradual evolution but as what biologists call punctuated equilibrium – long periods of relative stasis and stability interrupted by rare but very fast-moving moments of revolutionary or cataclysmic transformation. These radical innovations then take decades or centuries for the mainstream to absorb fully, until they are in their turn overthrown by a new wave of turmoil.
In describing this process, we might adapt a phrase that scholars of religion use to describe societies living in areas highly prone to volcanoes and earthquakes, and whose ritual life revolves around placating and preventing those mighty forces. Their religious practice is thus “tectonic faith.” Throughout history, we often find changes in faith as sudden shifts akin to those wrenching the earth’s tectonic plates.
Repeatedly over the centuries, great wars and natural catastrophes have ignited influential new movements in religion – fundamental shifts in religious consciousness, fervent revivalism and awakenings, and apocalyptic expectation. Of course, not every this-worldly disaster produces a spiritual effect, and rarely does the social trauma initiate something wholly new. Rather, it takes trends that already exist in a given society in embryonic form and provides a sudden and revolutionary impetus toward rapid expansion.
Wars, economic crises, and famines in the 1730s ignited the intensely studied transatlantic Christian revival that we call the Great Awakening, and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake drove Europe toward Enlightenment. On occasion, especially at times of plague and pestilence, such crises have spawned wholly new denominations, new religious orders or mystical societies. Such revolutions are the keys to religious history.
Inevitably, these eras of crisis and apparent doom produce end- times expectations, dreams or nightmares that the present world order will soon be reaching a fiery consummation. These hopes and fears matter so much because often they induce people to provoke the end times, to accelerate the process of history, and those dreams can lead directly to revolutions and pogroms. Such eras are commonly prolific in conspiracy paranoia and quests to identify the Antichrist, and esoteric movements abound.
Overt violence aside, such sweeping events shape the worldviews of thinkers active at the time, and they cast a shadow decades afterward. We see one such apocalyptic era at the time of the Reformation, around 1520, and another at the height of the French revolutionary expansion throughout Europe, in 1798. The conflict that we so appropriately call the Great War was the latest of this series, and it unfolded on the largest historical canvas.
Might another such realignment occur at some future point, a new moment of tectonic faith, with all that implies for innovation and transformation? For the advanced nations, at least, such a prognosis is very unlikely, because any kind of major war would so utterly devastate all participants. But elsewhere, the picture is rather different. War, famine, and calamity are still possible and even likely for much of the world, particularly those regions of the Global South that are already home to the world’s most numerous populations of religious believers, of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, and where those communities are growing steadily.
When we trace the southward movement of Christianity, we also see faith becoming synonymous with the most volatile and ecologically threatened area of the world. If predictions of climate change have any validity whatever, then the process will have its most acute effects on exactly those regions near the tropics where Christianity and Islam are both growing so rapidly. Could such disasters really come to pass without inspiring new apocalyptic visions, without drawing new battle lines between creeds?
Catastrophe might once more precipitate a worldwide religious transformation.