The process by which memes go viral has not changed much since the 16th century. On October 31st 1517 Martin Luther, a monk at the University of Wittenberg, wrote out a list of 95 theses objecting to the indulgences authorised by the pope to raise money for building St Peter’s Basilica. The story that Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church (as depicted here) may be apocryphal. But, in the equivalent of an ill-judged late-night tweet, he did send a copy to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, who was taking a cut of the indulgences. Soon Luther and Albert’s allies were engaged in a flame-war using the pre-eminent social-media platform of the time: pamphlets. As usual, things escalated. The pope had Luther convicted of heresy. Luther called the pope the Antichrist. German peasants and princes defected to Luther’s side, and Europe was plunged into more than a century of savage war between Catholics and Protestants.
Now, 500 years on, the Reformation has the soft glow of history. Commemorative events are planned across Germany in 2017. Some will celebrate reconciliation: on March 11th Germany’s head Lutheran and Catholic bishops will lead a service dedicated to the “process of healing of memory”. Pope Francis got that process moving in 2016, with a visit to Lutheran Sweden.
Some Catholic clergy still object to such ecumenical gestures. After all, Luther tore apart their church by insisting that the pope had no more say than any other Christian. Yet most practising Protestants and Catholics today feel they are on the same side, largely because they are among the few Europeans interested in Christianity at all. In most of Europe less than a third of the population considers religion an important part of life. Eastern Germany, Luther’s homeland, may be the world’s least religious region, according to one study.
Today few secular Europeans understand the reasons for the split in the church, or the logic of Luther’s doctrine that only faith, not good deeds, leads to salvation. They are far removed from a world where “good deeds” might mean coughing up your savings for a promise that God will release your late relatives from their suffering in the afterlife. For that matter, a few years ago, Europeans thought themselves long past the stage of resorting to violence over religion. That was premature. Intolerance, corruption and religious upheaval are all making a comeback, and not just in the Middle East. Time to bone up on our Luther.