I was recently invited to participate in a conference on the origins, lessons and legacies of World War I. I sought a topic of discussion that spoke, in a novel way, to my interest in the intersection between political science (my academic discipline) and religion. While it’s easy to suspect that the devastation of the war would weaken religious faith, few intellectuals seem to argue in the reverse; i.e., that weakened faith helped to make this devastating war possible in the first place.
I found an exception in a thought-provoking article published last May in First Things. Theologian, George Weigel, directs our attention to intellectual currents preceding the war, which fostered a “moral-cultural environment…profoundly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche: by his irrationalism, his proclamation of the death of God, his notion of regeneration through destruction, and, perhaps above all, his celebration of the will to power.” It is in this secularizing context that we see the emergence of “xenophobia and national-racial theories,” which
“Played a large and destructive role in pre-war European high culture and politics. These irrationalities, and the instability and murderousness to which they could lead, were obvious in the Balkan hinterlands, but the great powers were not immune to the racial, eugenic, and ethnic toxins of the age.”
In short, the theory is that secularism helped to make World War I and its unprecedented level of violence a reality. But is there evidence to support this very plausible claim, at least of the sort that would satisfy a social scientist? Although there doesn’t appear to be enough statistical data from this time period to subject the theory to empirical scrutiny, I made a preliminary attempt to establish whether it can be used to account for the recent rise of the European far right. Capitalizing on growing xenophobia and ethnic exclusivism, these parties are often held to be the ideological heirs of the national-socialist and fascist parties of yesteryear. For John Palmer of The Guardian, today’s far right is only cosmetically different from its forebears; these parties “skulked in the shadows for decades after 1945, playing down their sympathies with fascism and Nazism [and] are now re-emerging having given themselves a PR facelift.”
The theory as to why secularism should increase support for the far right is fairly straightforward: if you’re less religious, you’ll be less likely to see others as created equally "in the image and likeness of God," to put it in theological terms. Therefore, you'll have fewer reservations about supporting far right-wing political parties. If, on the other hand, you’re a true believer, you’ll have a much more difficult time reconciling your egalitarian beliefs with support for such parties. To test this theory, I analyzed World Values Survey (WVS) data on Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, seeking to determine whether various measures of religiosity significantly impacted the likelihood that one would vote for a far right-wing party if a national election were held the next day.
Adjusting for sex, education, income, and whether one or both parents were immigrants, I discovered that the probability of support for radical right-wing parties increased significantly with diminished (1) belief in God, (2) belief in hell, (3) prayer, and (4) religious attendance. Each column in the figure below displays the impact of one of four measures of religiosity.
Percent Change in the Probability of Voting for a Radical Right-Wing Party
Source: World Values Survey
In the future, I’d like to look at a much larger database. Thus far, I’ve analyzed no more than three of the only four Western European countries polled in the latest round of the WVS (Spain, which has been argued to have “no mainstream far-right party,” was excluded from my study). I’d also like to control for a greater variety of variables, such as the size and profile of a country’s immigrant population.
These limitations aside, one can reasonably infer from patterns observed today that Weigel might be correct. Although I don’t wish to reduce the origins and destructive nature of World War I to a single cause, I believe that we ought to elevate religion (or the lack thereof) to the list of important explanatory factors – not only to enhance knowledge of our past, but in order to recognize threats to our future.
Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College. He blogs (occasionally) at Amirica.