Joseph W.H. Lough
It is common for us to assume that, among more thoughtful survivors, religious wars reinforce unbelief. And for the most part I think this is correct. When combatants credit their Gods for the violence they are inflicting on one another, it makes sense for survivors to challenge the validity not only of the Gods who have inspired such mortality on such a grand scale, but also, more generally, to challenge the validity of any inspiration no matter what its source that might inflict such terrible wounds upon a society. And so it is throughout Bosnia that the outward signs of religious devotion – minarets spread across the horizon, women in burkas (not full, but partial), and an abundance of grave yards and memorials everywhere one looks – are accompanied by an overall distrust and even hostility to all things religious.
And, yet, I am reminded in this regard of Max Weber’s 1915 essay awkwardly titled in English “Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions.” I am reminded of this essay because Weber, who was no slouch when it came to social theory, is credited with having shown why modern social actors may be increasingly inclined to shed traditional religious beliefs and spiritual practices. They do so, according to Weber, not only because scientific, rational explanations convince them that the world is not really governed by magic; not only because scientific explanations enjoy greater rational coherence and logical soundness. They also do so, according to Weber, because the technological, industrial world, along with its legal, administrative, and institutional forms, fits together into a rational, coherent, practical whole whose individual parts would scarcely work together with one another were the world governed by magic instead of law.
And, yet, Weber was neither naive nor blind. Which is where Weber’s awkwardly titled essay comes into play. For it was in this essay, penned in the midst of one of the most horrific wars ever fought, World War I, that Weber began to flesh out what could be called an alternative understanding of contemporary religion – not a religion grounded in magic, but a religion grounded in family and community relationships, allegiance to political and national organizations, and most productively and ominously, a devotion to the war dead and to their surviving families. None of which invites me to believe in magic or tradition or even a dogmatic set of beliefs.
Weber put it this way:
The mutual strangeness of religion and politics, when they are both completely rationalized, is all the more the case because, in contrast to economics, politics may come into direct competition with religious ethics at decisive points. As the consummated threat of violence among modern polities, war creates a pathos and a sentiment of community. War thereby makes for an unconditionally devoted and sacrificial community among the combatants and releases an active mass compassion and love for those who are in need. And, as a mass phenomenon, these feelings break down all the naturally given barriers of association. In general, religions can show comparable achievements only in heroic communities professing an ethic of brotherliness.
Moreover, war does something to the warrior which, in its concrete meaning, is unique: it makes him experience a consecrated meaning of death which is characteristic only of death in war. The community of the army standing in the field today feels itself – as in the times of the war lords ‘following’ – to be a community unto death, and the greatest of its kind. Death on the field of battle differs from death that is only man’s common lot. Since death is a fate that comes to everyone, nobody can ever say why it comes precisely to him and why it comes just when it does. As the values of culture increasingly unfold and are sublimated to immeasurable heights, such ordinary death marks an end where only a beginning seems to make sense. Death on the field of battle differs from this merely unavoidable dying in that in war, and in this massiveness only in war, the individual can believe that he knows he is dying ‘for’ something. The why and the wherefore of his facing death can, as a rule, be So indubitable to him that the problem of the ‘meaning’ of death does not even occur to him. At least there may be no presuppositions for the emergence of the problem in its universal significance, which is the form in which religions of salvation are impelled to be concerned with the meaning of death. Only those who perish ‘in their callings’ are in the same situation as the soldier who faces death on the battlefield.
This location of death within a series of meaningful and consecrated events ultimately lies at the base of all endeavors to support the autonomous dignity of the polity resting on force (From Max Weber Oxford 1958, 335).
This is a significant passage and it deserves serious reflection. It helps to explain, in part, why soldiers count combat to be among their most meaningful and formative experiences. It would therefore have been all the more interesting to read Weber’s interpretation of the post-war climate in Germany, where religious devotion of the sort that he describes here seemed everywhere to be in retreat, but where camaraderie among surviving soldiers and victims of war continued to draw individuals and families together in communities that defied the categories of traditional religion. Atheism was widespread. Even bourgeois Germans avoided all but the most significant religious holidays – and even then only as the expected cultural obligation. After all, what would they believe in? What could they believe in?
To say that Germans felt empty would not only be an understatement. It would also be mistaken. They did feel empty, but they also felt filled – bursting – with the memories of war. War dominated absolutely everything, so that even in their assiduous avoidance of all thoughts of war, Germans were aware that war colored quite simply everything.
Which is why, even eighteen years out, I find the pronounced “atheism” of the Bosnians I meet terribly disturbing. Not because I feel one way or the other about atheism in general, but because I am doubtful that the empty world of instrumental, means-ends rationality and technical, scientific rationality can supply the coping therapies that all genuinely social animals need and eventually find or create. Something extraordinarily powerful encompassed the lives of all Bosnians for three horrific years. And that this encounter should induce widespread disbelief in the traditional Gods is hardly surprising. Many in my parents’ generation have never forgiven the Gods for allowing the Holocaust.
For me, however, a haunting question remains. Why did Germans so lustily embrace a new wholly manufactured religion in 1932 if, in 1918, they were so thoroughly done with the Gods? Here is my suspicion. I think that traditional religion may provide us with precisely the tools we need to resist the new wholly manufactured religions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; not automatically and not without thoughtful appropriation. But I worry that such widespread trauma, subsequently glossed over by such widespread malaise and emptiness, may prevent us from appreciating how and why individuals and groups must and actually do put the pieces of their lives back together, just as Germans did in 1932, after more than a decade of neglecting that trauma.
No I am not suggesting that Bosnians must decide between Tito or God. Rather am I inviting a more thoughtful and perhaps more painful interrogation of the social, psychological, and cultural causes for atheism in Bosnia. Such an interrogation might not only help Bosnians to face more openly the very real trauma they have experienced, but also might help them to more carefully and thoughtfully discriminate between a wholesale rejection of the Gods, which can have no cause other than trauma, and a critical embrace of those features within our traditions that aim to heal and make whole.