A well known secret in the academic world is students often suggest the most interesting ideas.
In a recent discussion on the integration of religion into society in western Europe prior to the Protestant Reformation, a student commented on individualism. The reading at the core of the discussion described Mass in a large London church in about the year 1500. There were also brief mentions of the integration of worship into the street life of the city. In all this there was a sense presented of a corporate, holistic mentality that, to this student, stood in sharp contrast to the high individualism of the early 21st century.
This got me to thinking about individualism and religion. Of course, human beings are always individuals whether you lived in the socialist nirvana of the Soviet Union, or the modern dictatorship of the Party in today's China, or in that maelstrom of individualism, the United States. But there can be a weighting assigned to individualism and factors that tip these scales one way or the other without removing any sort of balance.
Historians use a term or category called 'modernity' and divide that further into early modern, fully modern and perhaps today, post modern. This all avoids to a degree debate on a usable definition of 'modern'. But part of what 'modern' means (to me anyway), is the gradual tipping of that scale in favour of individualism.
This individualism can be seen in the religious aspect of western Europe as early as the Renaissance. A reading that students are often required to engage with is Francesco Petrarca's account of his ascent of Mount Ventoux in the south of France. Although critically analysed for some time by historians (perhaps an early example of alternate fact?), the idea explains neatly the primary ideal of the Renaissance and a movement called Humanism, or Renaissance Humanism (to distinguish from the modern atheist/agnostic philosophy). Whether literally true, or an alternate fact, the ascent of Mount Ventoux is as good a means as any to describe the earliest beginnings of a cultural turn, from a society that looked to God firstly to a society where humanity was the primary focus. This was only an early beginning and in terms of numbers involved only a tiny minority of people. But it was the beginning of the ultra individualism considered as normal here in the early 21st century.
The impact on religion was to be profound. The Protestant Reformation has too often been taught from a purely theological perspective, with a soupçon of political life thrown in for seasoning. The Protestant Reformation was a tectonic cultural shift, or to borrow from Thomas Kuhn, a paradigm shift. But it was not a change isolated from other ongoing changes in western Europe. Neither before, nor after the Reformation can one realistically separate religion from society or society from religion. Religion, whether considered from the institutional aspect or from the spiritual aspect was as fully a part of daily life and of all aspects of human social life as economics or medicine or sex or anything that goes to make up the individual and society in general. As my first professor of religious history, Michael Gauvreau taught me, religion can be useful to the historian as a lens to understand change over time, quite apart from the study of religion as belief system.
What then appears in this lens in the period from 1500 to 2000? Among many other factors, of the type I listed above, individualism grows and begins to tip those scales. We have some of the earliest documentary evidence of individualism in the 14th century with Petrarca. But technology which is another of these social factors speeded up the process and more importantly, expanded its reach with the adoption of movable type, that is, printing in the 15th century. A greater number and variety of people could now sit sole and alone and quiet and read ideas. It is true this did not happen all at once. We know that often the single local person who could read, would read out loud to others who were illiterate. We know that the status of written words as having a greater authority than spoken words preceded all this but was necessary to give the later printed word its authority. I draw here on a book by M.T. Clanchy from a number years ago called 'From Memory to Written Record'. But technology spread this. Printing technology was another of the multifarious factors that caused this particular snowball to begin rolling down the mountain (probably not Mount Ventoux!), gathering speed and gathering mass as it went.
It is worth noting that individualism was not yet in its glory and would not be so for many centuries after Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to the door of his university church. The new national and Protestant churches enforced uniformity within state borders. Even after this, and in 19th and 20th century countries where multiple expressions of Christianity were dominant in settler colonies of western Europe, there was a social uniformity enforced by social pressures that did not need legislation. Nationalism itself took on religious aspects and enforced a collective discipline on minds.
I won't here get into thinking about why individualism seems so much more extreme, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, ordinary, today. But the process towards this particular point in time where we now live and where I write these thoughts has very deep roots and has disrupted the place and role religion has played for most of western history.