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The Voyage into Unbelief: Leaving the Catholic Church in France 1870-1940

  • Author(s): Conrad, Nickolas Garth
  • Advisor(s): Beecher, Jonathan
  • et al.

Today France is effectively a post-Christian nation. The majority of French no longer identify

themselves as Christian. Prior to the modern period, belief in God was largely taken for granted

in French society; the majority of French men and women participated in some form of Christian

worship. But these practices have drastically changed over the last two centuries. How might we

understand the processes through which unbelief took root in modern France even as traditional

forms of worship slowly eroded? In order to understand French religious decline, this

dissertation contextualizes the crisis at the end of the nineteenth century by making a

comparative study of former Catholics who became unbelievers during the Third Republic

(1870-1940). The work focuses on intellectuals not known outside of specialists in Third

Republic France who left testimonies, such as Hyacinthe Loyson, Albert Houtin, Alfred Loisy,

André Lorulot, and Clemence Royer. This microhistorical approach studies how unbelief

become a part of French intellectual and political culture through the testimonies of reforming

Catholics and militant atheists. The decline of religion is related largely to moral and social

shifts that caused the people’s loyalty to Catholicism to evaporate. The decline of religion in

France was contingent and not a determined process of modernity. Science was important but

mostly as a justification after the fact.

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