The Wars of Religion Are Only Beginning

The postmodern world is fond of congratulating itself that, owing to the withering away of ancient superstitions and the final triumph of science, religious warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries can never be renewed in Western societies. What can we possibly be thinking? Religious warfare has not only reestablished itself: it’s doing so in a vastly expanded and almost infinitely variegated form.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, arguably when European civilization had reached its apogee, the warring parties were limited to the Catholics and Protestants. As the struggle dragged on, the latter, as a result of Protestantism’s inflexible logic and innate natural tendencies, divided further into increasingly numerous sects at war among themselves.

Today, the field is even more diverse. The rival combatants belong to the innumerable religions that have arisen in the vacuum left by the decline of Christianity. Now we must contend with all manner of secularist, individualist, identitarian, and globalist. And, unlike us, they all have a sort of home-field advantage. They’re the natural flora and fauna of a world where various cultures and faiths have been brought into close proximity—and thus, inevitably, into conflict—by rapid, easy, and cheap means of transportation and communications.

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At present, the two principal warring religions are Christianity and Islam. Below that primary level we find Judaism and Islam, Hinduism and Islam, Buddhism and Islam, and a few others fighting each other at a lesser and more restricted level. These, of course, are historic faiths that have striven against each other on frequent occasions over millennia. That’s nothing new.

What is new is the passing of liberalism in its classical form. “Liberalism” has evolved from a political and economic doctrine into something more totalistic. At the same time, it’s disintegrating into what must be at this point hundreds of various and often contradictory sects. (In Great Britain, educators are teaching their charges that as many as one hundred different “gender identities” exist.) Each one of them claims for itself the mantle of true “progressivism”—the chosen self-designation of liberals ever since their rather belated discovery that liberalism has a noisome reputation among the sane and healthy majority.

Yet progressivism (or postmodern liberalism) passes every imaginable test to qualify as a genuine form of religion. It has developed its own peculiar dogma, sacraments, saintly and sulfurous hierarchies, relics, observances, rituals, and so forth. And that’s not so surprising: the religious instinct is present in every human being. When someone becomes disillusioned with the faith of his fathers, he simply chooses another. The trouble is that, very often, he’s willing to go to war on behalf of his new pseudo-religion.

An American expatriate married to a Briton and living now in England wrote in last week’s Spectator that the British political system is broken, while the American one is not. They have a parliament absolutely refusing to execute their democratic mandate to withdraw from the European Union; we have Donald Trump.

It seems to me, rather, that both systems are broken. Both are divided almost evenly by profound differences—differences that are fundamentally religious, or pseudo-religious.

Roughly half of the American public remains Christian, however vaguely. The other half has converted to the liberal faith—or, rather, faiths. Thanks to Henry VIII’s subordinating Church to State, the British are now almost entirely unchurched. Britons have simply ceased to be a Christian, or even a religious, people.  Brexit has revealed the Remain side as members of the pseudo-religious liberal faith, and the Leave side as their secular nationalist opponents whose own fervor touches upon the pseudo-religious. It has shown the large majority of Continental Europeans to be agnostic with regard to the Church of Brussels, albeit restless ones: their agnosticism seems to be in the process of being gradually replaced by nationalism. Nationalism was itself once a very formidable pseudo-religion, and indeed is far from spent.

Religion, real or pseudo-, is like Destouche’s nature: chase it away, and it returns at a gallop. That’s why every age, including our own anti-Christian one, is an age of religious wars.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


  • Chilton Williamson, Jr.

    Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column “Prejudices” appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at

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