First World Religion

H. P. Lovecraft’s contemporary, and sometimes inspiration, Algernon Blackwood has recently come to my attention. Like Lovecraft, Blackwood was an early twentieth-century writer of supernatural tales. Raised with a father of “appallingly narrow religious ideas” Blackwood came to write stories involving strange religious characters and occult themes. I recently read his famous story, “The Willows,” for the first time. The entire premise is built around a sacrifice required by strange gods on an isolated island in the Danube River. Much of Lovecraft’s literature, as is readily apparent, builds on the Old Gods. Lovecraft was an unflinching atheist, but he knew that the divine had the ability to frighten in a way that the purely material often does not.

The early twentieth century exerted an enormous influence on the religious landscape of the modern world. Although my historical specialization is much earlier, it is clear that the events of the First World War forever changed the way that religion was viewed. Historically, those not involved in the fighting of wars had often been insulated from them. With the advent of technology that allowed military devastations to be photographed and swiftly disseminated, people around the world realized what an atrocity war actually is. Not glorious. Not triumphant. And despite the abundance of piety in foxholes, no deities evident anywhere. It is well known that horror of war at least partly led William Jennings Bryan to advocate a more fundamental brand of Christianity to counterbalance the “evils” of evolution that led to such nasty ideas as eugenics and social Darwinism. It is no accident that the Fundamentalist movement began to take hold with the revelations of the First World War.


Ironically, today many use creationism as the excuse to challenge all religion as a misguided set of antiquated principles that have no place in an enlightened world. The sad truth is that those who immediately dismiss religion out of hand don’t realize that the creationist concern arose precisely for the same reason: the horrors that science was unleashing upon regular, simple religious believers. The two viewpoints, however, can live together. Although many of the writers of the early twentieth century had no room for faith in their accounting of reality, they did believe in its effectiveness in creating fiction that had to be taken seriously. Atheists, perhaps, but not angry ones. Perhaps the angry ought to spend some time amid the willows to evaluate more fairly the ambiguous role that religion play has played and continues to play in an uncertain world.

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