The Change From A Religous To A

Secular Society In Europe Essay, Research Paper

The radical change in European society from an almost completely religious civilization in the early sixteenth century into a basically secular civilization by the end of the eighteenth century was a very long process which did not directly begin in the early sixteenth century. The initial sign of sparks that would ignite the flame first appeared during the thirteenth century. While proven visibly that in the beginning of the thirteenth century the Catholic church played a dominant role in society, as was directly shown in the numerous beautiful Romanesque and Gothic churches that were erected during this time period. However not as visible to the naked eye was that at the same time discontent and desire for change with the church was ravaging through the minds of the Europeans. Europeans withdrew from the practices and teachings of the Catholic church, which in turn promoted the church to responded with inquisitorial instruments to enforce its teachings. The response from the Catholic church did not necessarily work out the way they had wanted to, these inquisitorial instruments only withdrew the Europeans further than they originally were. Resulting in Martin Luther’s first protest against the Papacy and the Catholic church, which resulted in causing the Reformation, although beneficial to the previously persecuted, it would set the stepping stones for social disrupt and constant political feuding between nations and peoples not only from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century but it would continue well beyond that time period influencing even the way the world works today. This despise of the Papacy from the Europeans did no only bring about not only a breakaway from the Catholic Church but ultimately Christianity as a whole resulting in a almost completely secular civilization by the end of the eighteenth century.(Spielvogel xxxii)

One of the first examples of this social disrupt between the Catholics and Protestants was that between the Catholics and the Calvanists in France during the French wars of religion. While the base of the disagreement was from religious differences it was not the sole factor of discontent between these two peoples. There different denominations allowed for a sort of categorizing between two sects of people, Catholics were supporters of the crown while Calvanists was in strong opposition of the crown, this is a trend that will be constantly repeated throughout history. “The devout Catholic king of Spain, Philip II, supported the policies of the ultra-Catholic Guise Family Elizabeth I of England supported the Huguenots [French for Calvanits] for political reasons.”(Spielvogel 500-501) Thus creating one of the first examples of nations either supporting or not supporting other nations for not solely political reasons but also for religious. “The remark of a close friend of the Guises to the Spanish ambassador in 1565 went to the heart of the problem:

‘Nowadays Catholic princes must not proceed as they once did. At one time friends and enemies were distinguished by the frontiers of provinces and kingdoms, and were called Italians, Germans, French, Spaniards, English, and the like; now we must say Catholics and heretics, and a Catholic prince must consider all Catholics of all countries as his friends, just as the heretics consider all heretics as friends and subjects, whether they are their own vassals or not.”(Spielvogel 501)

As previously mentioned King Philip II of Spain (1556-1598) was one of the most influential Catholics of the second half of the sixteenth century. He showed his belief in Catholicism again in a extremely forceful way through the Spanish Inquisition. “The Spanish had little difficulty seeing themselves as a nation of people divinely chosen to save Catholic Christianity from the Protestant heretics.”(Spielvogel 503) This support from the majority of the Spanish people allowed for Philip to have almost total control. However his actions were not solely in light of keeping Catholicism strong. “Philip’s activities on behalf of Catholicism were not done to please the papacy, however. Despite his devotion to Catholicism, Philip allowed the popes little say in the Spanish Catholic church and did not hesitate to disagree with papal religious and political policies.”(Spielvogel 503) As shown here Philip, while very much in support of the Catholic faith, he was more worried about his political position as a strong monarch. While he did so, he also succeded on further increasing societies desire for withdrawl from and dislike of the Catholic church as well as growing concerns to where the entire idea of Christianity has gone.

The sixteenth century has now come to an end, the seventeenth century will prove to be a transitional phase between religious and secular societies. The seventeenth century started out with a bang, The Thirty Years War would define the course of the century. While religious differences were still an important factor in the war, secularism was playing a larger role than it had in the past. As Spielvogel put it:

“Religion, especially the struggle between a militant Catholicism and a militant Cavinsism, certainly played an important role in the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, often called the ‘last of the religious wars.’ As the war progressed, however, it became increasing clear that secular, dynastic-nationalist considerations were far more important.” (Spielvogel 510)

This war was different than wars of the past had mostly been, religious, such as the Crusades and of the French Religious wars. This is the first evidence of a change to a more secular society.

These changes in society were directly evident in that of art, literature and music from this era. In the world of art, the Renaissance style of painting that dominated that of the sixteenth century was coming to an end. The Renaissance style of painting was depicted reflections from an extremely religious society. This is most evident in a painting that one would view from this time period, for example in that of Michangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City in Rome, which depicted numerous scenes from the Bible or in that of Leonardo di Vinci’s painting of The Annunciation. Mannerism, and later Boroque, would be the dominant influences in art for the seventeenth century. These new styles of art that emerged in the seventeenth century did not completely abandon that of religious influences. It actually played an important role in religious paintings, sculpture and architecture in this century. As in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa, and also in his design of Saint Peter’s Basilica. However, while religious art still played an important role in the Boroque style, secular paintings were on the rise. This is best shown in Peter Paul Rubens’, mother of France. The Landing of Marie de’ Medici at Marseilles, which was only one of twenty one paintings which were dedicated to the queen

The religious wars of the late sixteenth and of the seventeenth century that were previously mentioned disgusted the European society. The idea that the those who believed in the ideology to love thy neighbor were conducting brutal acts of warfare raised a great deal of skepticism of Christianity as a whole. “As German writer put it in 1650: ‘Lutheran, popish, and Calvinist, we’ve got all these beliefs here; but there is some doubt where Christianity has got to.’”(Spielvogel 525) This disgust was shown in literature through the famous writings of Michel de Montaigne in his Essays. “Montaigne was secular minded and discussed moral issues without reference to Christian truths.” (Spielvogel 523)

The most influential phase of the seventeenth century was that of the Scientific Revolution. This was the final spark that would finally ignite the blaze that would pave the way of thinking forever. The direct cause of the Scientific Revolution is difficult to single out in any one way. The idea that the teachings of the previous era, which were dominated by the Catholic church, were completely dropped and a completely new ideology of how the world worked is difficult to single up into one case. But some of the most influential thinkers of this time were that of Galileo, Newton, and Kepler. These great thinkers conducted there studies in the glory of God, however the discoveries were almost always in conflict to that of the Catholic church. For example in that of Galileo’s discovery that disproved the previous belief that the Earth was at center of the universe, when in actuality the Sun is at the center of the universe, was not so kindly looked upon by the Catholic church. Therefore Galileo was brought in front of the inquisition in Rome and was forced to withdraw his findings and to adhere to the beliefs of the Catholic face, which he did for fear of his life but was excommunicated none the less. Although Galileo may have formally denounced his findings verbally in front of the inquisition, his writings were still in circulation and were becoming quite popular because people could see for themselves through Galileo’s use of the telescope that he was correct. While this is one of many examples of the great findings of the Scientific Revolution, it is one that shows that even though the Catholic church, which had dominated previous thinking, said that Galileo was wrong society as a whole came to believe for themselves that the church was wrong. This self awareness of society would play a large roll in the next century to come.

The eighteenth century the Age of Enlightenment, was most accurately brought about from the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. Which planted a seed that would blossom as the Age of Enlightenment. The philosophes were probably the most influential of this time period. The philosphes of the eighteenth century were influenced by from the great accomplishments from the great thinkers from the seventeenth century, such as Newton, Galileo and Kepler. As mentioned before these thinkers were in pursuit for discovery in the glory of God. However philosphes were completely against any religious intervention in there thinkings of there world around them. Philosophes were critics of the world in which they lived. They were mostly interested in criticizing politics and religion. They did this in form of literary text such as books, leaflets, and encyclopedias. While there were many philosophes of this time some of the most famous and had the most impact on society were that of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot.

Diderot was one of the most diverse in interests of the philosophes as well as one of the most influential. He was a very radical thinker for his time. He was the editor of the Encyclopedia one of the most influential books of the eighteenth century, which is not an encyclopedia by today’s standards, but was as Diderot put it was to “change the general way of thinking.” (Spielvogel 608) Which was the general principle followed by all philosophes. He was also responsible for viscous attacks against Christianity. He thought that Christianity went against all of human nature therefor it must be wrong. He further exemplified his beliefs in his Supplement to the Voyage of Bouganville, where he depicted that a mans sexual desires are completely human nature and to believe that it is wrong not to fulfill these desires is wrong, therefore going against the Christian belief of a monogamous relationship, and that sexual practices should not be carried out until there is marriage vows between the two persons involved. The philosophes only furthered that of societies questioning of who was correct, bringing more and more disassociation with that of the churches beliefs. The greatest social change would come about in the eighteenth century, that of the French Revolution would completely change thinking from a partially religious society to a completely secular.

The French Revolution was mainly brought about by the economic hardships of the French people. Even though there had been a boost in the French economy in the year prior to the revolution, the wealth was not evenly distributed and the poor became poorer and the rich became richer. Thus after many years of hardship the people revolted in June of 1789 in which the National Assembly was formed against the previously empowered Estates-General, an unfair representational group of the French people, this was first step of the French Revolution. The French people won the revolution. The events to follow would show the complete and absolute separation from a religious to a separate society.

On May 7, 1794 Maximilien Robespierre founded the “new religion”. While it was not so much a praise of any being or object it was simply a way to live there lives. He and many others were so discontent with the previous teachings of the Catholic church, which was the religion of the leaders which he revolted against, that they decided to completely abandon the Christian church. They became more interested in “the god of nature” rather than of the Christian God. They even came so far as to change the names of the months of the year as well as the names of the days of the week as to completely separate themselves from religion. Even though this “religion” did fail, it showed that society by the end of the eighteenth century did in fact become completely secularized. Not caring about the church and how to better themselves in the eyes of the church but to better themselves solely for there own benefit. (The Revolutionary Calendar)

The change of civilization from a religious society in the sixteenth century to a basically secular society in the eighteenth was a very long and extremely complicated process. There were many factors that attributed to the demise of religion while the items here are of the most importance, however there were many others that still had a great effect on the fall of religion.


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