In case you missed it, we are now officially in the lead-up to the 500th anniversary of the modern Western world.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a German theologian, sent an academic paper to the Archbishop of Mainz, possibly by nailing it to church door in Wittenberg, although that’s now doubted. The subject of the paper was the sale of “indulgences” by the Catholic Church, which had preoccupied Luther for some years. The document, and the issue it discussed, is commonly seen as the beginning of the Reformation. Ceremonies in Europe recently commenced to mark the 500th anniversary over the coming 11 months — including with the current Pope.

The immediate concerns of Luther’s 95 theses — and their link to one of Luther’s key doctrinal divergences from the Catholic Church, justification (or salvation) by faith alone — are less important than the core idea that emerged in Protestantism, one that has fundamentally shaped the West ever since: individualism. The most fundamental difference between Protestantism and Catholicism was the focus on the individual’s direct relationship with God, in contrast to Catholic model in which a priest, backed by the institutional church, must mediate the laity’s connection with the divine.

And central to this focus on the individual experience was the Bible. The Word was no longer to be in Latin and chained up, beyond reach, in a church, but to be in every home, in the language of the laity. This was now possible because of the relatively young technology of printing, which didn’t merely enable the mass production of books but encouraged standardisation of texts, now freed from error-prone human reproduction. And it drove a concerted effort to lift literacy rates — literacy doubled and doubled again in Germany in the 16th century, to perhaps a quarter of the population.

And Protestantism was, initially, an urban phenomenon — literacy rates were higher in towns, and professions where literacy was highest tended to be more susceptible to Protestantism (the textiles industry was a legendary vector in England, because weavers were highly literate and worked in small groups that talked and read as they worked). Towns and cities were also less likely to be controlled by the kind of establishment power structures — aristocrats and the church hierarchy — that governed rural communities, where the majority of Europeans lived. Literate and urban-based, Protestantism already had the hallmarks of modernity even in its early forms.

In his analysis of the impact of print on both culture and the human mind, Marshall McLuhan talked about how printing “split the head and the heart of Europe” apart; the Reformation was that split as raw, bleeding wound. And it created a cascade of reactions that further embedded individualism into the very fabric of European life and shaped the modern world.

Individualism contained an inherent instability: once you encouraged ordinary people to examine the Bible and develop their own relationship with God, rather than rely on the teachings of a church, they often demanded new institutional structures or abandoned them altogether. Lutheranism and Calvinism were the two dominant forms of Protestantism that emerged quickly on the Continent, but other forms also erupted as Protestants explored the Bible and their faith. Many were subjected to persecution by Protestant authorities in the same way that Catholics had persecuted earlier generations of heretics.

But the process was like ionisation: in England, the Henrician Church begat Anglicanism, which begat Presbyterianism, which begat Independency (each one successively more local, less hierarchical than the last), which begat ever stranger forms in the turmoil of the English Civil War of the mid-17th century — Shakers, Quakers, Anabaptists, and more.

These doctrinal tensions, of course, quickly erupted into open conflict. The Peasants’ War, which laid waste to much of Germany in the 1520s, taught early Reformers the dangers of mass religious participation. France was racked by wars of religion until the 1570s. The English Civil War was partly driven by religious tensions and fears of a “Romish” monarch (tensions that would not be resolved until that monarch’s younger, Catholic son had been driven from the country by Dutch Protestants in 1688).

And then there was the grand monstrosity: the Thirty Years’ War, in the first half of the 17th century, which consumed most of Germany and killed millions of people — possibly up to 11 million — in a conflict that still ranks with the worst horrors of the industrial era.

Europe had seen mass slaughter and wars of religion before, and embarked on its own against Jews (anti-Semitism was pervasive and draconian; Luther, for example, was a furious anti-Semite) and Muslims. The Reformation had been preceded by the Hussite War in Bohemia — nearly 20 years of fighting and five failed “crusades” by the Catholics against the Hussites, who remained strong in the region until the Reformation 80 years later. But the Thirty Years’ War, in the sheer scale of its carnage, looks far more of a piece with the wars and genocide of the 20th century than the Hussite conflict or the earlier slaughter of the Cathars.

But as with the Hussite War, secular rulers eventually discovered that programs of extermination of “heretics” couldn’t work if the “heretics” could call on powerful allies to arm and fight with them. The Thirty Years’ War ended with an accommodation and recognition that rulers wouldn’t interfere in the territories of other rulers — the beginnings of the modern international relations system. But for people of a different religious faith to their ruler, the solution was different — they had to leave. This sparked intra-European migrations that are still evident today — the Huguenots in England, for example. But the greatest religious migration of all was from England, across the Atlantic: Presbyterians, Independents and other Puritans, finding the Anglican Church too “Romish” for their liking, headed to a new continent, establishing new colonies, which, in the true spirit of Protestantism, soon themselves fragmented on doctrinal grounds.

And inevitably, these colonists began fighting the existing communities of North America, in a 250-year conflict that led to genocide, dispossession and misery on a colossal scale (something to bear in mind whenever someone speaks of the “peaceful invasion” of Europe by Muslim and African migrants). Protestantism, individualism and imperialism were all present at the creation in the United States.

But back in Europe, the challenge of dealing with “heresies” that now had the status of state-protected faiths drove the first calls for toleration. Baruch Spinoza, part-time philosopher and full-time glass grinder, was the first to argue systematically for freedom of conscience and speech on religious matters, in works so controversial, scholars decades later were banned from refuting them, lest that merely spread his ideas. Spinoza’s legacy found strong expression in the work of the radical Enlightenment — such as with Diderot, who wasn’t content with salons, wigs and Voltairean tabletalk, and who moved from anti-clericalism to democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-patriarchal political views at odds with the elite white male focus of most of the Enlightenment, including the conservative Enlightenment of Voltaire.

While individualism and its contradictions were driving recognisable forms of modernity such as literacy, sovereignty and toleration, other aspects of Protestantism also provided the basis for less positive forms. While heavily dependent on print, and reflective of the vast cultural change wrought by printing and identified by McLuhan, Protestantism was also, profoundly, an oral culture: 16th and 17th century English puritans, for example, expected detailed sermons that lasted several hours in their church services.

And while traditional colonial forms of religion in the American colonies were heavily associated with scholarship — Harvard was established only a few years after the arrival of the pilgrims; Yale and Princeton were established initially as seminaries — on the ever-expanding frontier and as religious awakenings burnt through rural America both before and after the revolution, religion became primarily an oral experience, with preachers of renown capable of Herculean feats of addressing tens of thousands of people at a time, unaided. These were no priests acting as your switchboard to connect you to God, they were your personal guides to discovering your inner faith.

Orality is a very different experience to written scholarship; it is communal, even if the effect is intended and felt as personal, and it is emotional, not solitary and rational. Listening to a rousing sermon in the company of one’s neighbours is as far removed from the careful study of Biblical and patristic texts as a Latin mass. One of the great myths of the Reformation is of rational Protestantism contrasting with the superstition of Catholicism, and the spurious nature of that dichotomy was exemplified by the course of American evangelicalism, which by the late nineteenth century had become profoundly anti-intellectual and actively hostile to scholarship and science — especially evolution — becoming a religious tradition that elevated one’s own emotional reaction and conformity over learning. That, too remains with us today, perhaps stronger than ever.

Max Weber famously sought to connect capitalism to Protestantism in the often misunderstood The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which linked capitalism to the desire to display one’s elect status. Being “elect” was Calvin’s doctrine that not merely, as per Luther, was it impossible to secure salvation through good works you might carry out in your lifetime (like buying indulgences), but only through faith alone, further, one’s salvation or otherwise had been determined aeons before you were even born, because God is omniscient. It thus became a question of displaying your elect status as saved, not earning it, because it had been decided before there were any stars and planets.

Even in its understated form, Weber’s argument is flawed and probably unverifiable anyway, but at the heart of the capitalist project, especially in its contemporary neoliberal model, is, yet again, individualism. In this form, the individual doesn’t merely have a direct line to the divine, they have a direct line to the market, unmediated (preferably) by any institution, just as Protestants withdrew further and further from the mediation of a priest or a church, and communitarian concepts were rejected as distractions from personal salvation.

As inhabitants of the 21st century, we struggle to have any meaningful comprehension of the extent to which religion pervaded society, and society pervaded religion, 500 years ago. But the atomic-level combination of capitalism and contemporary Western society provides a fair model for us to compare a similarly dominant worldview. Via Protestantism, individualism came to be at the heart of both the sacred and secular in Western thinking ever since. Modernity started just over 499 years ago, on that autumnal day in Wittenberg.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey