Monday, 19 February 2018

On Callum Brown's 'Becoming Atheist'

The most stimulating and enjoyable works of history, I find, are the ones that are importantly, generously, humanely, provocatively and insightfully wrong. It’s a height that not many can rise to, and is far better than the tediously, predictably correct. So it is a pleasure to discover a new one in Callum Brown’s Becoming Atheist (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Brown is best-known for his thesis, in The Death of Christian Britain (2001) that British secularisation was not a centuries-long gentle slope of inexorable decline, but a cliff that the country’s longstanding Christian culture fell off in the 1960s. There’s plenty of scope for arguing about the starkness of that argument, and especially about the clear linkage he makes between that cliff-edge and the shifting place of women in British society, but I and plenty of others who know much more about it have been compelled to accept the basic argument.

Here he complements it with a detailed ethnographic study of 85 men and women in several countries, people now aged from 40 to 90, who have come to identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, humanist or as having no religion. Brown has interviewed these people sensitively and at length, and weaves their stories together into a compelling portrait of a post-religious culture.

I appreciate two things this book does particularly. One is the merciless way he deconstructs the cheering stories and improving myths that are often told around secularisation by believers and social conservatives. Western secularisation is not a blip, or a result of a failure of nerve or strategy by particular churches or politicians, or an evolution of religion into a different form. It is an epochal, generational change, affecting multiple national and religious cultures. Those who profess no religion are still a minority, of course, and the fact that they are a rapidly expanding one does not mean that they will eventually become dominant or normative: but for the time being, that is certainly the direction of travel, and as Brown points out, none of the various countervailing forces that have been identified actually amount to very much. In a subject with a lot of soft soap, this book is a splash of cold water, shocking or refreshing according to taste.

The other is his unashamed personal engagement with his subject. Whether or not either of them would appreciate the comparison, this book is a kind of humanist mirror to Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars (1992): in both cases, the authors use their own inhabiting of a particular religious (or, as here, non-religious) tradition in order to give them a lively insight into their subjects. It is not and does not pretend to be impartial history, but any losses in objectivity are generally more than made up in humanity. The empathetic warmth with which the book is written is one of its delights. Naturally I am in sympathy with this as an approach. It is not unlike what I tried to do in my Being Protestant (2013), pleasing some readers and outraging others.

But as my outraged readers pointed out: it is an approach not without costs. Even the most fair-minded historians are susceptible to blind spots where their own sympathies are concerned. And so we come to the final chapter of Brown’s book, on the moral framework of his interviewees.

His core finding is a striking and important one: these people, for all their disparate backgrounds, share a remarkably consistent set of ethical assumptions. He calls this ‘humanism’, and while many of his interviewees did not spontaneously choose that term for themselves, all of them, he tells us, were happy to embrace it when offered the chance. That, in fact, is what is noteworthy about this. As he puts it:
Humanism is a moral position that emerges from people without widespread intellectualizing or exposure to a humanist movement. 
His interviewees claimed
without exception, that they were “humanists” before they discovered the term. Humanism was neither a philosophy nor an ideology that they had learned or read about and then adopted. There was no act of conversion, no training or induction. ... A humanist condition precedes being a self-conscious humanist. ... Humanism is a condition that many in Western society have held but few may have realised.
He then describes in some detail what this ‘humanism’ consists of. To summarise: first, the ‘golden rule’ of do-as-you-would-be-done-by (a principle which he is careful to point out predates Christianity), and then a linked set of principles to do with human equality and with bodily and sexual autonomy, including the right to die. These principles were not a formal manifesto imposed on his interviewees by any external authority or adopted by them wholesale. Indeed, his interviewees generally recalled embracing these ethics before they withdrew from their various religious communities, quietly and apparently spontaneously.

So far I have nothing to argue with here. But this obviously raises a big question: where did this apparently widely diffused ethic come from? As Brown says,
When and how the humanist condition, in all its moral constituents, was formed will take a different type of history project to study. But the individuals’ claims to pre-forming humanism require explanation.
He is a good enough historian to leave that question open. But he is also a bold enough writer to suggest an answer. His interviewees testified, in what sounds like an almost mystical way, that ‘the source of these values ... lay in the individual himself or herself’. And so he suggests – admitting that ‘this is clearly a speculative case’ – that
The humanist condition may well have had an existence across the religious periods of human history. It has a persistence grounded in a moral outlook that has existed outside or beside religious faith, fostered by doubt and humans’ relentless leanings towards rationalism, materialism and also justice. ... Further research may come to discern more of the detail of the humanist condition – ideas of goodness, fulfilment or tolerance coming from within human experience, not from authority, supernaturalism or prefigured cultural discourses. ... Reason alone may construct humanism.
This is in fact clearly not a ‘speculative case’. It is a testimony of faith, or, if you prefer, of his own moral intuition. And like many such testimonies, it goes beyond the available evidence. He points out, quite correctly, that scepticism towards the claims of various religions is a pervasive feature of human history. But this is not at all the same as his humanist condition. Its ethical markers – gender and racial equality, sexual freedom, a strong doctrine of human rights which draws a sharp boundary around the human realm – are, in a long historical perspective, very unusual indeed. And as various ethicists have pointed out, although they may seem intuitively obvious in our culture, the philosophical basis for them is, um, wobbly. ‘Reason alone may construct humanism’: well, perhaps, but it has never constructed humanism like this in any previous era, and the reasoned basis even of our modern humanism does not seem entirely sound and stable.

The importance of Brown’s argument, I think, is the case he makes that this humanist ethic is the key suspect in the case of the death of the Christian West. On his account, earnestly or nominally religious people came to adopt an ethic which was in a degree of tension with their religious culture, and which certainly did not depend on it: so they either drifted away from or consciously rejected that culture. The key question, then, is why, across a whole range of mid- and late twentieth century Western societies, this peculiar and historically unprecedented humanist ethic came to seem self-evidently true to so many people. The fact that it also seems self-evidently true to Brown, and indeed to me, is not an answer.

What is the answer? Well, I’m not a modern historian, so what do I know? But I think there’s a hint in Brown’s book, one which is compatible with his previous discernment of a cultural sea-change from the late 1950s onwards. ‘Since 1945,’ he says, ‘humanist values have come to dominate Western moral culture’, and more specifically he argues that ‘the legal framework [for humanism] was the notion of human rights which emerged from the Second World War’. It seems to me that the Second World War is the defining moral event of our age, the myth by which we now discern good from evil, and which exposed the religious ethical frameworks of western civilisation as inadequate. Our cultural conviction that God is good turned out to be less deeply felt than our conviction that Hitler was evil, and so we formed our ethics around that. In that context, Christianity’s ethical framework became redundant. It didn’t need to be torn down, in a Jacobin-style campaign of deChristianisation. It simply withered.

Maybe, maybe not. But this much I think is clear from Brown’s work, despite his speculative conclusion. Modern western secularisation is the result of a historically specific set of cultural changes, which have driven western societies fast and hard in a novel direction within the span of a single lifetime. Opponents of secularisation should not delude themselves that that change will somehow be reversed. Fans of secularisation should not delude themselves that the new reality will prove any more stable than the old one.

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