The Strange Death of Europe

Excerpts from Douglas Murray’s great book, The Strange Death of Europe.

[p 209] With the help of such thinkers it is easier to recognise that what was already affecting Germany in the late nineteenth century was… an exhaustion caused by a loss of meaning, an awareness that the civilisation was ‘no longer accumulating’ but living off a dwindling cultural capital. …

For centuries in Europe one of the great – if not the greatest – sources of such energy came from the spirit of the continent’s religion. It drove people to war and stirred them to defence. It also drove Europe to the greatest heights of human creativity. It drove Europeans to build St Peter’s in Rome, the Cathedral at Chartres, the Duomo of Florence and the Basilica of St Mark in Venice. It inspired the works of Bach, Beethoven and Messiaen, Grünewald’s altarpiece at Isenheim and Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks.

Yet in the nineteenth century that source received two seismic blows from which it never recovered, leaving a gap that has never been filled. The effects of the wave of biblical criticism that swept through German universities in the early nineteenth century is still being felt two centuries later. When Johnan Gottfried Eichhorn at Göttingen began to treat the texts of the Old Testament with the same scrutiny as would be applied to any other historical text, it had an effect that is still rarely acknowledged. Europe had knowledge of the great myths, yet the Christian story was the continent’s foundation myth and as such had been inviolable.

In 1825 when a young Edward Pusey was sent from Oxford University to find out what these German critics were doing, the Englishman realised the import of the work at once. Late in his life he recalled to his biographer the impact that his discoveries in Germany had on him. ‘I can remember the room in Göttingen in which I was sitting when the real condition of religious thought in Germany flashed upon me. I said to myself, “This will all come upon us in England; and how utterly unprepared for it we are!” Pusey was struck by Eichhorn’s ‘total insensibility’ to what Pusey saw as ‘the real religious import of the narrative’. In time that wave of insensibility, or sensibility, extended to the New Testament as well, not least through David Friedrich Strauss and his The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835). It finally did reach England just as it reached everywhere else. As surely as the Islamic clerics today fight to keep any element of criticism away from the foundations of their faith, in the knowledge of what it will do to the whole, so the Christian clergy across Europe tried to keep the results of such criticism away from their flock. But they could not – just as surely as the clerics today cannot wholly stem the tide of criticism coming towards them. It washed across the continent as surely as Pusey saw it would. …

Of course, textual scholarship did not do this job single-handed. It was joined in 1859 by the other part of the double-whammy to the Christian faith, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. And perhaps even more important than the contents of the book itself was the process that Darwin sped up. Where once divine design had explained all that was awe-inspiring, Darwin put forward an entirely new proposal: that, as Richard Dawkins has summed up, ‘Given sufficient time, the non-random survival of hereditary entities (which occasionally miscopy) will generate complexity, diversity, beauty, and an illusion of design so persuasive that it is almost impossible to distinguish from deliberate intelligent design.’ Darwin’s discovery was fiercely debated at the time, as it is now. But the backlash was doomed to failure. The condition of the argument for the divine scheme after Darwin was not good. This was not about a single discovery – it wasn’t even about the filling in of one particularly large gap in man’s knowledge. It was simply the first wholesale explanation of the world we inhabit that had no need for God. And though the origin of life remained a mystery, the idea that the entire mystery was solved by the claims of religion seemed less and less plausible. It was still possible to find wisdom and meaning in the Scriptures, but the Bible had at best become like the work of Ovid or Homer: containing great truth, but not itself true.

Although almost every body in Europe now knows some version of these facts, we have still not found a way to live with them. The facts of the loss of belief and faith across a continent are frequently commented upon and indeed taken for granted. But the effects of this are less often considered. Rarely if ever is it recognised that the process described above meant one thing above all: Europe had lost its foundational story. And the loss of religion to Europe did not just leave a hole in the moral or ethical outlooks of a continent, it even left a hole in its geography. Unlike, say, the United Sates, the geography of Europe is a collection of towns and villages. Leave a village and you will eventually stumble upon another. And in any low-built area the first thing you see is the church, placed at the heart of the community. Toay, where these hearts of the communities are not wholly dead and converted into housing they are dying, and the people who still congregate in them sense that they are in a dying movement.

Where faith still exists it is either wholly uninformed – as in the evangelical communities – or it is wounded and weak. In very few places does it retain the confidence it had in former times, and none of the trends favours these outposts. The tide has flowed in only one direction.