I was asked today why Europe was so secular and why America was not. I don’t really know, but my immediate speculation, and that is all that it is, is that America never experienced what you see in the picture to the left. This is Nuremberg in Germany, a city that is thousands of years old, and it was just one of many cities that looked like that in every country in Europe.
America never saw their cities razed to the ground, and so to Americans the concept of God never failed. In Europe, it was evident everywhere, that the concept of God was a cruel joke. For some the victory, or the loss, in that was evident of a divine plan. The charade continued because of habit and tradition, but you see in the culture that followed this war that things had started to shift. Actually, the shift had already started after the first world war, but by now it was accelerated.
The veterans that came home were never allowed to heal and forget, and they wrote poems and novels and accounts for the wider public who too could go outside and see. This is where the post-modernism displaced modernism in literature and the arts, and I think one of the key reasons for this displacement is this war. The cultures started to examine what had happened and ask questions, and the questions could not be adequately answered by religion.
This is when you started to have books like William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” that questioned the core of humanity itself, and the answers were never comfortable. They were final death knell to the idea that our civilisation was progressive and superior. If our civilisation was not superior, then that must be because God was not the rock that humanity could rest on. If there was a divine plan, the view outside the window of Dresden or London or Coventry immediately after the war was a refutation about the goodness of that deity.
America, of course, never had its cities treated like this. Apart from Hawaii, the American mainland never saw any danger. The dangers were out there, in the periphery, and could be hidden away from the public mind. It could be treated much the same as we treat starving children in Africa – with pity and sympathy, but also with a detached aloofness that prevent any visceral empathy.
American literature were impacted, eventually, by the emergence of writers like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and so on, but it seems like the momentum was spent by middle of the seventies with the reaction to the 1960s culture that came with Reagan. I think that in Europe, since our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents, was never allowed to “forget”. We still had the reminders everywhere, and if we didn’t understand something there was someone nearby to smack us over the head and tell us what’s what.
Prior to WW 2 Europe indulged in a jingoistic militarism where the white man had a god given burden to civilise the savages. In an ironic, and cruel, twist the main expunging of this belief took place in our own cities and our own towns where these religion based ideas were most cruelly inflicted on the white man of Europe.
Prior to 9/11 there had never been the type of mass casualties on American soil that had been endemic in the World Wars in Europe. This lead to the panic and mass hysteria of anti-terrorism. Europe, wisely, never really bought into this because our older generations could always take out yellowed pictures of London, Berlin, or Nuremberg and Paris and show us. The historical resilience and historical impact of the war is still with us. Of course, the 9/11 was just two buildings. Here, the casualties were entire cities and towns.
The religious charade would go on, of course, because something that distinguishes a European from an American is the deep roots any of us has; to a place, to a continuum, to people. But I think that the World War II gutted the concept of the benevolent god out of our culture, and what remained was easily displaced by secularism. I mean, there was nothing there but for the forms and the motions, was there? Even in the quite intensely religious 1950s and 1960s.
Our punishment for our evils was not only to see our continent utterly destroyed, but also to see the succour of our identity as the carriers of progress and civilisation destroyed. Our European Exceptionalism had brought us to this point. That, I think, is the main reason for the difference in secularism between Europe and the USA. We have no illusions left about ourselves and our burdens toward the rest of the world. The USA seems to be in a grip of illusions about theirs, and have not learned their lesson yet, and they still have a bedrock of religion until they learn the lesson we learned half a century ago. If we start to forget our lesson, then there are still older generations who grew up in the shadow of this war that can knock us in the back of the head. Even generations that weren’t born during the war is marked by it, and by its lessons. The culture has built a certain resilience to our innate hubris – but of course as the older generations die off, there is always the danger that our hubris come back, particularly if they’re carried by a strong cultural force from the Americas that never learned the grave lessons in the first place.