Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Seven shades of Gray

Sorry about the title. Couldn’t resist it.
Actually the shades in John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism are pretty dark. He will upset quite a few people, and is not very sorry about it. The reader might be forgiven for imagining that this is an anti-religious polemic, but far from it. Gray is certainly an atheist – so much so that he does not regard religious positions as particularly intellectually serious or worth engaging with. His brief, by-numbers section debunking Christianity is one of the few disappointing bits of the book: I have a hunch his publishers might have told him he’d better put it in. He means it – for sure! – but it's not what's stoking his fires. His real targets are inadequate or flawed atheisms, and he has plenty to choose from.
The result is an engagingly malicious travelling circus of atheism which puts a plague on every house it visits. Virtually no-one escapes. He has a handful of admirable figures, most of whom surface in the final two chapters. ‘There is something refreshing in Schopenhauer’s nastiness’ (for Gray, that counts as a compliment). Spinoza comes out of this pretty well too, along with Santayana and Joseph Conrad.
The real enemy here is not religion, but ‘contemporary atheism’, which he sees in its various forms as ‘a continuation of monotheism by other means’. ‘Secular thought,’ he insists – with ample evidence – ‘is mostly composed of repressed religion.’ Above all, atheism has repeatedly claimed to transcend Christianity’s ethical framework before proceeding to ‘simply regurgitate some secular version of Christian morality’. Even those who have tried hardest to break out of that framework have failed. Nietzsche gets an hon mensh for efforts in this regard, but Gray sees him in the end as ‘an incurably Christian thinker’.
Gray’s own preference is for the kind of Epicurean withdrawal he finds in Lucretius:
Watching calmly as others drowned in misery, the Epicureans were content in the tranquil retreat of their secluded gardens. “Humanity” could do what it pleased. It was no concern of theirs.
Now Gray is a philosopher and that’s the sort of thing philosophers do, so, fine. But from a historian’s or a social-scientist’s point of view, this is not a view which is going anywhere. Withdrawing to the margins is, by definition, a marginal position. We can all enjoy watching Gray taking an intellectual scythe to contemporary fallacies, but that neither explains them nor uproots them.
If contemporary atheism’s greatest failure is its failure to transcend theistic morality, surely that tells us something: namely, that contemporary atheism is largely a moral critique of theism mounted in theism’s own terms. (As Dominic Erdozain has argued.) Of course it can’t transcend theistic morals: those morals are its whole basis. It is in the end an ethical revolt, which is with immense moral seriousness sawing off the branch it sits on. It is telling that one of the handful of modern thinkers to emerge from this book virtually unscathed is C. S. Lewis – not for his fiction or his apologetics, but for his ‘prescient’ exposé of transhumanism’s self-cannibalism in The Abolition of Man.
Gray leaves you with two options. He recommends his own brutally honest, Lucretian withdrawal, which abandons morality as we conventionally understand it, along with any notion of ‘humanity’ (a particular bugbear of his). Alternatively, ‘anyone who wants their morality secured by something beyond the fickle human world had better join an old-fashioned religion’. Well, if you insist.

Friday, 20 July 2018

JEH 69/3: World Christianities Prize revisited

My usual practice with a new issue of JEH is arbitrarily to single out one article, but this is a special occasion. Since I took up the co-editorship in 2014, one of our concerns has been to balance out our coverage of the global history of Christianity. We are very strong on European and especially British history, which is wonderful, but there is more to the subject than just that and we’re hoping to encourage historians with a different geographical focus to think of us for placing their best articles. So amongst various other things, we decided to launch a prize, running parallel to the longer-standing Eusebius Prize for early church history. The World Christianities Essay Prize of £500 (partly sponsored by the estimable Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide) is awarded to the best essay on any subject relating to the history of Christianity outside Europe and North America since the year 700. Naturally we expect that the majority of submissions will concentrate on the last couple of centuries, but we are very open to early items too.

Anyway, we ran the competition in 2017 for the first time, had a very pleasing 14 entries, and the five-member panel agreed to award the inaugural prize to Pedro Feitoza for his essay on the Imprensa evangelica, a Protestant newspaper in Brazil which ran from 1864-92. It’s a lovely piece on how Brazil’s tiny Protestant minority managed to insert itself into the public sphere and present a particular, modern image of itself during crucial decades in Brazilian history (covering, amongst other things, the abolition of slavery, a subject on which the Imprensa evangelica remained deliberately silent until the debate was almost over). That first prize essay is now in print in the July number of the Journal.

Just as pleasing is the fact that it was a close-run thing. Two other outstanding essays were serious contenders for the first prize, both of them due to appear in forthcoming numbers – Laura Rademaker’s study of the Catholic mission to the Tiwi islanders off Australia’s north coast (or, as she would have it, of the islanders’ mission to their Catholic priests), and Jason Bruner’s article on hearing voices in the East African Revival. Either of them could have won.

And while I’m enjoying myself, I think I also notice an uptick in general submissions with a global outlook – I’ve not seen the stats for the current year yet so I may be imagining things, but it looks that way to me.

BUT ... one thing is inescapable: the submission rate for the 2018 prize (the result will be announced soon) was quite sharply down. So please, anyone who is interested in getting a prize on their CV and £500 in their pockets, and also with helping the Journal achieve our noble purpose, get writing. The deadline for the 2019 prize is 31 March.

Monday, 23 April 2018

JEH 69/2: Nuns, but not as we know them

I would like to emphasise to anyone who ever has or who ever might submit an article to JEH that we apply the most rigorous and even-handed methods of blind peer review and level-headed assessment of papers on their academic merits. Any rumours to the effect that we use a form of sensationalism bingo to choose the papers that we publish are entirely and categorically untrue.

It is therefore wholly coincidental that the April number contains an article which includes Jewish converts, the Ukrainian Hetmanate, nuns who insist they need ‘meat and men’ and who hold ‘noisy drinking parties’ in their cells, the phrase ‘several bucketfuls of wine’, and a punch-up in which (depending on which account you believe) either a drunken convent servant broke into a nun’s cell, beat her up and dragged her half-clothed across the yard, or he politely reprimanded her for her violation of discipline only to be attacked by several unruly stick-wielding nuns. Liudmyla Sharipova’s article 'Of Meat, Men and Property: The Troubled Career of a Convert Nun in Eighteenth-Century Kiev' went through exactly the same process of careful review and revision as any other piece.

There is no denying, though, that she has a weird, grotesque and riveting tale to tell, and I will avoid any spoilers as to how these various elements fit together. What I will say is that the conflict that erupted around the nun and convert from Judaism named Sr Asklipiodata in Kiev in 1776 is more than just a compelling story. It is a window on a world of fluid religious identities and of monastic practices that are still scarcely known in the West, and it forces us to re-evaluate what we think we know about monasticism.

One reason her story matters is that Ukraine in the late 18th century was one of the last outposts of an old style of religious life: non-communal, or ideorrhythmic, monasticism. In this system, monks and nuns bought their own cells, which could be openly luxurious, and which could be sold on or even inherited; traded on their own account; and were entitled to a share of the community’s produce. They continued to observe a common liturgy and share a burial ground, but this was not monasticism as we think we know it.

You might think, indeed, that it was simply a form of corruption and that these communities had become in effect secular economic entities. But the pleasure of Sharipova’s article is that she lays bare the conflicts which ideorrhythmic living could produce while still having a lively, humane awareness of the genuine but of course tangled and compromised spiritual life that was led within this structure.

My apologies for sensationalising this piece. Sharipova herself resists that temptation (although to be fair, the material doesn’t need much help); and the lasting impressing the article leaves is less of a dramatic story than of an extraordinary, combative, assertive, vulnerable and unexpectedly pious woman, who had spent six tumultuous decades ploughing her own furrow and was not about to submit meekly to a newly arrived mother superior. She deserved a memorial. I am pleased that, in a small way, she now has one.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Burn before reading

One of the most obvious of the many problems with the lazy science vs. religion stereotype is how many eminent scientists have also been exceptionally earnest in their faith. I knew Robert Boyle, perhaps the key founder of modern chemistry, was one of these, but until recently I didn't know the extent of this. He was decisive in the republication of the Irish-language New Testament in 1681-2, and of the first Irish-language edition of the Old Testament in 1685: the driving force behind the twin projects, and also their indispensable financial sponsor, sinking well over £300 and perhaps as much as £700 of his own money into them, not least because of his insistence that the books should be given away to those who would benefit the most.

Still, I was reading through his letters on this with a faint sense of disappointment, because none of his Irish correspondents seem to have the slightest awareness that this is a scientific giant they are dealing with. And then I find the following delightful letter from Boyle to Narcissus Marsh, the provost of Trinity College, Dublin, dated 1 August 1682:
I am troubled, and almost ashamed, that I must begin this letter with the acknowledgement of a disaster, that befel yours before it came to my hands: for it being brought yesterday from the post, not directly to me, but to a servant, that was then busied about the fire, to make a chemical experiment, I had ordered him to attend in my absence, he having laid it by for a while, a kindled coal unluckily lighted on the letter, and burned it quite thorough in that part, that contained (as I conjectured) some of the most important passages of it. ... I shall venture to answer what I guess to have been the main contents of it.*
In the genre of epistolary excuses, that one is hard to beat. And he will have smoothed over any disappointment, since he guessed - correctly - that the letter was asking him for more money, and so he sent it anyway.

*Robert Boyle, The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (ESTC T004460. London: for A. Millar, 1744), vol. V p. 611.

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.

Friday, 2 February 2018

JEH 69/1: Begging to differ

In the riches of the January number of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, some readers may miss Martin Elbel’s wonderful article, because it has ‘Bohemian’ in the title and they will think, that’s not my patch. But even if, like Shakespeare, you think Bohemia has a sea coast, you should read this one.

One of my regular gripes about a lot of academic history is that we skate over awkward practical issues: the straightforward physical realities of life in the past. We are so used, for example, to dealing with money as an accounting fiction which can be transferred electronically that we find it difficult to recall the sheer complexity of handling financial transactions when it all had to be done using actual coin. Elbel tackles one of these issues head on.

It’s well-known that Franciscans and other friars were ‘mendicant’ orders, that is, they were supposed to sustain themselves by begging for alms. But it is not nearly so well known what that actually meant in practice. Using a particularly fine set of records relating to the convent of Olomouc in Bohemia, as it was restored after the Thirty Years’ War, Elbel spells it out. Mendicancy was not a matter of a friar wandering round the marketplace seeing what he could get: it was highly organised. The region was divided into begging districts, and there was an annual cycle of tours, friars covering hundreds of miles on foot to beg in pre-arranged areas. Butter in June and July; poultry in August and September; oil in January; hay in June; and wine from south Moravia in October. They would go in pairs, accompanied by a lay volunteer who helped carry the stuff – and friars regularly tried to wriggle out of the obligation. In 1773, the convent’s total takings included 150 geese, over a ton of butter and a whopping 18,000 eggs. Which sounds like a lot, but for a community of fifty people that is not quite one egg each per day. When all this was converted into monetary value for the community’s records, they come out as genuinely poor. When Joseph II dissolved the convent in 1785, the annual stipend he gave the ex-friars was a significant increase on their former ‘income’. Henry VIII would have been turning in his grave.

Of course, there is much more to this article than counting eggs: the real point is to think about how the huge web of relationships implied by all that regularised begging worked, the sacral services which the friars offered in return (they were mocked for having mastered the ‘art of transmuting little images, square bits of paper, amulets and other similar trifles, into wine and meat’), and the connections it gave them to the structures of secular power, who helped them to deal with monetary gifts while preserving the formal rule that they weren’t allowed to handle cash. It’s a fascinating article with some important conceptual consequences. But like an ill-shod friar lugging home a basket of eggs, it always keeps its feet on the ground.