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Are we less religious now than in times gone by?

February 5, 2013

The common belief is that all people were religious in times gone by, and that we as a culture, nation, or community have lost our religion. What I want to discuss is not that we have lost our faith, but that the faith was never there for many people historically, I will focus on the Middle Ages, simply because I know them the best. I’m sure this has been discussed many times, by scholars, historians and by people simply interested in religious history, but, were people more or less religious than people are now?

In the Middle Ages, pretty much everyone followed a religion, in England it was Christianity, and at that point in history, it was Catholicism, there was also some Judaism, but they were persecuted. Europe also saw Muslims as well as Jews and Christians. It was the norm to be religious, to attend mass, to pray and even, for the knights, to prove their faith by going on pilgrimages and crusades. Religion dominated medieval life, monasteries often ruled land and towns and much of the literature coming from that era is religious. But, just because they went to church and went on crusades, does that mean that deep down they actually had a belief in God? I’m not so sure, not that I have any hard evidence to back this up. Religion in the Middle Ages was most definitely based on a love of God, however, there was also the fear of punishment, which drove people to church. This punishment could come in a few forms, there was excommunication from the church, which was considered to be pretty bad in the Middle Ages, in fact, some thought it worse than actually going to prison, or being hung for a crime. Then we have the fear of being punished by God for doing something wrong, for example, many people thought that God was punishing them with the Black Death. Lastly, there was the fear of hell, hell was considered a worse fate than death, and to avoid it, one had to go to church and be a good Christian. People in a way were forced to be religious, and to go to church, but this does not necessarily mean they had a deep and meaningful faith.

Fast forward 700 years and we are in today, a time where religion is becoming less and less important in society. Fewer people go to church and fewer people claim they believe in God. But, some people are still spiritual people, not necessarily believing in God but believing in something, there are also people who don’t go to church yet are still Christian and believe in God, but they haven’t found a church that conforms with their beliefs, they are still religious though. Most importantly, people have a choice and there is no longer a stigma attached to those who don’t go to church.

I think that yes, people were more religious in the Middle Ages, but, did they have a deep and meaningful faith? I’m sure many did, but I’m also sure many people didn’t. So, it is an impossible question to say that we have less faith in modern times than there was back then, but I think that we probably do, not least because of the rise in population and varying views of everyone. I do think though that there were people who were more religious, but many did not have faith in the medieval period, just as there were those with a very deep faith. I think it would be a naive assumption to make that all those living in the Middle Ages had religion and a deep faith in God.

  1. This is a very interesting post and I think you should really have another think or two and post a bit more about it. 🙂
    The problem with this kind of ‘dicussion’ is how you define things. What is your definition of ‘belief’, ‘faith’ and, most importantly ‘ a deep and meaningful faith’? These are all very subjective terms and without a definition it’s very difficult to agree or disagree with you.

    You make a valid point when you write about the fear (church, God or hell). However, I hope you realise that even today many people are religious because of the very same fear. I wonder how much has really changed apart from the diversity we have now that was practically forbidden in the middle ages.

    Your point that religion is less important in society today is also an interesting one. I have to say you clearly base that on what you see around you (very likely a ‘western’ view?). There are still countries where religion is very imporant and dictates (almost) everything. Don’t forget that in many (if not most) countries the way the state has been set up is based on religion. And in many countries state and church have not been separated – even in the ones that claim they have been (that’s only on paper).

    I agree that we’ll never know for certain and it’s is, in fact, an impossible question. But it is an interesting one and I’m glad you’ve asked it.

  2. rautakyy permalink

    Very good post!

    The medieval culture of the nobility was surprizingly uniform throughout Europe because of the influence of the international Catholic church, but also because of the military elite’s position as the leading social class and their cultural similarity was based more on the military culture than on the Christianity. However, the Christianity of those days was very much affected by the military culture, because the bishops were the sons of knights and lords (or bishops). The crusades propably were in many ways as much a result of the glory seeking military culture and the poor possibilities for the younger sons of the chivalry to inherit land property, as it was of religious demagoguery.

    People were certainly not open about their lack of belief, because of the threat of capital punishment. Just believing in Christianity the wrong way would cause a death sentence, let alone that someone would have dared to be vocal about disbelief, or even doubts. But it is hard to set people into one mould, and throughout the medieval times many dissident sects slowly diverted from the “mother church”. Usually it was not intentional, at first, but when they were seen as different, they were segragated and then a crusade (or several) were launched on them. Like the Albigensi and Hussite crusades for example. One of the reasons what we call the middle ages ended, is because so many different and so powerful dissident sects broke out from the church and got the support of the rulers by promising them money and power. That led to the religious wars during wich Christians slaughtered fellow Christians in rowes in the name of the Redeemer. Look at for example the massacre of Magdeburg. All parties involved were just as blood thirsty. But in a way this was a good thing, because the wars had to end and in order to achieve this they had to come up with the idea of freedom of religion.

    Anyway, before the Christianity had had such a profound hold of all of Europe, there were interresting and different relationships towards religiosity and any god(s). Ansgarius “the apostole of the north” a German bishop, who was one of the most prominent men turning the Scandinavians to Christianity said that the most horrific all pagans are the “men of their own power”. He describes these men as vikings who have travelled far and wide and seen many different forms of religion, and as men who are in their prime, so that their response to any gods and rituals is simply not to attend them, because they have never had anything to ask from any god. And then there are the much later sources of the Fenno-Ugric people (like my own nation the Finns). Who used to bargain with their gods, by making offerings, but if the gods failed to deliver, they had the habit of punishing their gods, by for example beating up their wooden images.

    Religion is often important to people who are in desperate need of help, like for example alcoholics, very poor people in third world countries and even soldiers facing death threatening situations. When things seem to be beyond the ability of individuals to help themselves, is the most likely situation when people seek help from the supernatural. Especially if that is their cultural heritage, or should I say baggage. However, in the western culture many people have good enough education, that they understand that the nature, cosmology, or morality does not need a supernatural explanation. After that realization god(s) often become obsolete. The religion no longer serves any purpose in the grand scheme of things, other than ritual cultural heritage. I think for most people it has never played any other role, because most people do not ponder, nor ever did, on the origin of life, cosmology, or the origin of morality. As the information increases, less and less people can be deluded by such “big” words, or concepts.

    Of course, there will be a backlash. Because god(s) are such great money and power producing tools. People who have enjoyed getting paid for being the ritual experts, who convey the matters between god(s) and us mundane people do not particularly enjoy the idea that this machinery they have built around these fantasy characters would be stripped away in time, or even critisized. And then there are those millions of deluded fools who feel unsecure without their god(s) because that is how they have been raised to be, will also be personally offended by anyone doubting the truth of their faith. That is why when they could, like in them medieval times, such people were only too happy to burn any heretics alive and call it moral.

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