Books blog: Is Remembrance Day the last gasp of our national religious instinct?

The Duke of Cambridge at the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday (CNS)

Fr Lucie-Smith’s blog last Friday, “The popularity of Remembrance Sunday is a sign that Christianity has more or less died out in English mainstream culture”, was very thought-provoking. He went on to observe that the annual traditions at the Cenotaph are more a “ceremony” than a Christian “service”. I agree with him. But when he writes that “it may be very British and it is pretty secular in all but name”, I want to make a qualification: although we may have lost the idea of a truly Christian Remembrance Sunday (ie. when almost all those taking part would have been Christian believers), it does not mean that the ceremony lacks all religious significance.

These thoughts have come to mind because an Australian writer and journalist, Karl Schmude, who help to found the Catholic liberal arts college, Campion College Australia, in Sydney in 2006, recently sent me his booklet, Christopher Dawson, a biographical introduction. Dawson, 1889-1970, was a historian of ideas and social culture – culture being understood in the anthropological sense, ie. as a way of life. Deeply read in the history of the world’s great civilizations and the author of over twenty books, ranging from The Age of the Gods (1928) to The Formation of Christendom (1967), Dawson’s studies had led him to the conclusion that every society, however primitive, was animated by a religion. He wrote, “The great civilisations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilisations rest. A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its soul.”

Not having encountered Dawson before, I have begun to read The Age of the Gods. Starting from what we know of the Neanderthals, he writes: “The beginnings of religion are as old as the human consciousness, and we can no more go behind the religious stage in human history than we can go behind the origins of language or of social life itself.” Indeed, Dawson points out that the Neanderthals, who became extinct 30,000 years ago (according to Andrew Marr’s 2012 TV series, History of the World, which I happened to watch on DVD the other day) cared for their dead and that there is evidence that “the disposal of the dead was accompanied with practices which point to the belief in some existence in or beyond the tomb.” He describes this as the first evidence “of practices and beliefs that can be called religious”.

Interestingly, at the start of Marr’s series he steers clear of ascribing religious practices to the Neanderthals and the same goes for his quick survey of Homo sapiens who comprehensively overtook them and who became our own ancestors. He notes the usual progress from hunter-gatherers to settled communities, the development of agriculture and the invention of the needle but gives no sense of what might be called the inner life of our earliest forbears, almost as if he assumes they did not have one.

Dawson’s ideas, admirably condensed in Karl Schmude’s booklet, provide a contrary account. That is why I want to qualify Fr Lucie-Smith’s observations. When, for instance, The National Secular Society asks to be represented at the Cenotaph ceremonies, I would respond, “Of course they should be there. To remember and to honour our dead is a religious act. It is as old as human history and suggests that, however secular we may think we are, we still cling to a kinship and connection with our loved ones beyond the grave in a way that reflects the human longing (if not formal belief) for an after-life.”

I asked Karl Schmude why he thinks Dawson is still relevant to our times. He told me, “It is because of his central insight into the religious nature of human culture – that every historical culture has had a religious basis, which has supplied the source of its life, and the fact that Western culture has now become not only secularised in character but secularist in ideology is a remarkable anomaly.” He quotes Dawson: “A society’s attempt to conduct its life without relevance to any higher laws or powers seems as irrational as for a community to cultivate the earth without paying any attention to the course of the seasons.”

When I asked Schmude if he thought Dawson was prophetic of the modern age he compared him to Cardinal Newman. It seems Dawson saw Newman as “the first Christian thinker in the English-speaking world who fully realised the nature of modern secularism…”

Thinking about what one might call “the Andrew Marr school of history”, I then asked Schmude how Dawson enriches our historical understanding today. He responded that the key advantage of reading him “is that of understanding institutions and movements in history rather than simply historical events and characters.” Dawson, he said, “was among the first to recognise the importance of the social sciences – and to incorporate these perspectives into his writings.”

So when we watch the solemn spectacle enacted every year at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, perhaps we would be correct to see it as the last gasp of the religious instinct in our national life.


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