Re-readings: Secularisation and Moral Change (MacIntyre)

First in a new series of re-readings is Secularization and Moral Change, by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, first published in 1967. They were in fact the Riddell Memorial Lectures, given in the young University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1964; the 36th such set of lectures in a series that had included (amongst others) C.S. Lewis, W.R. Inge (the ‘gloomy Dean’ of St Paul’s) and the historian Herbert Butterfield. Macintyre was at the time a professor of social philosophy working within a sociology department (at the University of Essex, an even younger institution that had only weeks before welcomed its first students). It is this meeting of sociology, philosophy and religious history that gives the lectures their particular interest.

‘Sociology’ was enjoying something of a vogue in and around the Church of England; ‘sociology’ in inverted commas since the word carried rather different meanings. Much talk of ‘Christian sociology’ referred in fact to the doing of theology informed by a concern for politics, economics and the ordering of society, rather than an endeavour that began with an empirical examination of social fact. When the Church needed insight into the recruitment, training and deployment of the clergy in the early Sixties, it did not turn to one of the university departments of sociology, but to one of its own, an Anglican writer and theologian, Leslie Paul. His work of ‘lay sociology’ turned out to be gravely mistaken in its assumptions, whilst being ‘too sociological’ for others (that is, that it based its conclusions too much on social reality and ignored the spiritual). The level of engagement between church and academic sociology was in fact rather limited.

As Sam Brewitt-Taylor has shown, the notion of secularization had rather suddenly appeared in the thinking of the English churches in the early Sixties, and so MacIntyre’s intervention came at a key moment. V.A. Demant, Anglican priest and leading figure in the kind of Christian sociology I have already described, thought it of the utmost importance: ‘it throws light on certain questions which have never, in my estimate, been convincingly raised or answered in common Christian apologetic or in common anti-Christian zealotry.’ (1)

The debate about the secularisation of nineteenth century England has of course moved far since 1964, and little of MacIntyre’s little book will surprise the modern reader in matters of fact. Striking also is the confidence with which MacIntyre was able to talk about social class in Marxist terms; the quaint note it now strikes is an indication how complete has been the disintegration of Marxism as an intellectual framework in recent years. But its central insight would have been startling, particularly to churchmen given to reflection on the society around them.

It was commonly supposed that Englishmen and women ceased to believe in God as a result of the assaults of ‘modern scholarship’, and so ceased to behave in accordance with Christian morality. MacIntyre inverted the causal relationship entirely. Far from the established church being a social glue as a national church as Anglicans liked to suppose, English religious history was a misnomer: in fact, each of the major social classes, upper, middle and working class had their own religious histories, which were interconnected rather less than might be supposed. The Church of England had not lost the urban working classes to ‘secularism’; it had never had them in the first place. Industrialisation and the migration of the population to the cities, had meant that it was no longer plausible to suppose that the kind of social norms that had pertained in stable rural societies were in fact of cosmic significance, given by God. Any attempt for one class to posit its own moral norms as universal was too obviously a reflection of the economic interest of that class for the attempt to be successful. So, Christian moral standards declined because they became impossible to reconcile with social reality, rather than because people doubted the existence of God or the truthfulness of the Bible.

Such was the stuff of classic secularisation theory as in the works of Max Weber and others, although it was yet relatively unusual to see it from an English writer. What also strikes one re-reading MacIntyre is the sensitivity to language, that has become a key tool of analysis more recently thanks in particular to the work of Callum Brown. MacIntyre was in fact trying to ask a rather different question: why had England, and in particular the working class, not been more secularised? Seemingly paradoxically, the same conditions that made it impossible for universalising moral norms to persist also made the development of a thoroughgoing secularism difficult, if not impossible; the same terms of art were necessary for the moral reasoning required in each case. As each class was unable to answer the questions of personhood and ultimate purpose in a way that commanded wider attention, Englishness came to be composed in part of what MacIntyre called ‘secondary virtues’: fairness, tolerance, co-operation. It became impossible to discuss the purposes of life and the right ends to which one might direct oneself; one could only agree on the ways in which one might act.

What of the present (that is, the Sixties?) MacIntyre’s second chapter established the point that English people had lost the sense of the existence of objective moral authority, such that those like the bishops of the Church of England, still given to making pronouncements on moral issues, were now simply speaking in terms that were no longer comprehensible; whether or not the hearer might agree with a moral proposition, they could no longer see why they should accept it to be right because of who it was that said it. If bishops continued to make such statements, it was in part because they were of a generation and class that was still accustomed to make them (pp.54-6). In the context of the Church of the Sixties, this would be have been chewy stuff indeed; a fundamental challenge to the whole basis on which many thought they were to act within society as a whole. If few churchmen seized on MacIntyre’s little book as Demant did, this may have been the reason. But some efforts were being made to ‘do something’ by theologians such as John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, in books like Honest to God (1963), for which MacIntyre also had some choice words

MacIntyre had form in relation to Honest to God having reviewed the book the previous year for Encounter. (‘What is striking about Dr Robinson’s book’ he wrote ‘is first and foremost that he is an atheist.'(2) Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on whose work Robinson drew, had attempted to recast Christian morality in terms that (it was hoped) Promethean ‘Modern Man’, come of age and confident, could accept. The attempt was a recognition that ‘traditional Christian ethics is no longer applicable in an entirely changed social and institutional situation’. But the attempt was now to build a morality of intention based on a generalised idea of love for the other, and ‘moralities of intention divorced from the prescription of particular types of action are notoriously difficult to formulate in a way that gives them any content.’ (p.71) Not only was there a crisis for the churches, but the horse they seemed to be backing was bound to fall.

Was there any hope? MacIntyre was at this point in what Rowan Williams has called a ‘post-Christian’ point in his intellectual journey, but his answer, alluded to only briefly, anticipates his later reception into the Roman Catholic church. The conservative turn of the English disciples of Barth and Kierkegaard, and the parallel revival in Catholic orthodoxy together seemed to be having the better of the argument (p.68). To insist on revelation and the persistence of traditional moral norms might, in MacIntyre’s view, be simply a wilful ignoring of social reality: ‘such a version of orthodoxy will be immune to any suggestion of refutation by or modification as a result of sociology or social history.'(p.67) However, it at least maintained the inner coherence and distinctiveness of the system from which those norms were derived, where Tillich rendered them indistinguishable from the world they were supposed to be transforming. Read again at a distance of fifty years, that passing remark anticipates the swing towards conservative theologies in the years that were to follow, and trends in the relation of theology and the academy to boot.

(1) Demant reviewed the book in the Journal of Theological Studies, 19:1 (1968), 423-5.
(2) ‘God and the theologians’, reprinted in Robinson and David L. Edwards (eds), The Honest to God Debate (London:SCM), pp.215-28.
See also Rowan Williams’ discussion of Honest to God and MacIntyre in his Anglican Identities (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2004), pp.103-6.

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What is religious history?

[I wrote this little article in 2008, for an Institute of Historical Research project called Making History, on the development of the discipline in the twentieth century. Re-reading it now, it seems to stand up well enough, and so I republish it here unaltered, although there are nuances I might now add. The plea in the final paragraph for a reconnection of the churches with their own past foreshadows in a pleasing way some of the concerns of this more recent thread of posts.]

Perhaps even more so than in other areas, the social and religious changes of the British 20th century had profound effects on the very scope and purpose of religious history. Three major questions regarding the nature of the history of religion were posed, and answered in several different ways: the first of these was over what religion itself was.

What is ‘religion’?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the basic subject materials of religious history were clear. Ecclesiastical history was concerned with monarchs and their bishops, religious law, councils, liturgies, and the high politics of international religious conflict and diplomacy. This history, the ‘company history’ of the institution of the church, dominated the field.

Since then, the field of vision of what constitutes ‘religion’ has widened very markedly. To take the English Reformation and Civil War period as an example, work such as that of Christopher Hill, particularly in his Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England,(1) shifted the focus away from the centre toward the locality, to examine the nature of religious activity in local communities. This renewed attention to the local was carried on in the work of scholars such as J. J. Scarisbrick and more recently Eamon Duffy; the religious experience of the individual Christian and the local church has become at least as legitimate a field of enquiry as diplomatic relations between Canterbury and Rome.

In addition to the recovery by social historians of the view ‘from below’ has come the effect of the growing use of anthropological concepts in analysing human behaviour, and with it an ever wider definition of ‘religious’ behaviour. The work of Keith Thomas, in his Religion and the Decline of Magic,(2) put the multifarious array of Christian and pre-Christian rites and practices by which early modern English people sought to make sense of and control their lives at the centre of his inquiry; practices that traditional ecclesiastical history had portrayed as mere pagan superstition. Across all periods, the growing bodies of research on matters as diverse as the use of amulets to ward off the bubonic plague in the 17th century or the public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, all witness to the widest possible definition of what constitutes the religious.

Which religion?
Another question, to which the answer is much less clear in 2008 than it was in 1908, is ‘which religion’? The answer at the beginning of the century was clear for historians of England: the Christian religion, and supremely the Church of England. The political and social importance of the established church meant that the Nonconformist churches received relatively little historical attention, and that given to English Roman Catholics was often unjustly unfavourable. Since then, work on early modern England has recovered the stories of those groups who either existed uneasily within or were detached entirely from the institutional church; the work of Christopher Hill is once again seminal in this regard, and in particular his The World Turned Upside Down.(3) In the modern period, work by scholars such as David Bebbington has restored a sense of the social and political importance of British Dissent, and as the temperature of popular anti-Catholicism has cooled, a more balanced picture of the development of the English Catholic community has begun to emerge.

The very late 20th century has also seen the beginnings of an effort to make historical sense of the fact of increasing contact between the world religions, and growing religious diversity within Europe and America. The work of Bernard Lewis and others has opened up the field of the military, economic and cultural interaction of Christianity and Islam in southern Europe in the medieval and early modern periods. Work on this area has been drawn upon in the continuing contemporary debate over the Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations’. Closer to home, the work of understanding immigration, race relations and their religious implications in Britain and other European countries since the 1950s is only in the last few years beginning to be done.

Finally, religious historians have in the very recent past begun to address the issues raised by globalisation, and the shift in gravity in world Christianity from its cradle in Europe to the southern hemisphere. Not for nothing is the 20th-century volume in the recent Cambridge History of Christianity entitled ‘World Christianities’:(4) religious historians are continuing to grapple with the mutations of originally colonial churches in newly independent nations, and the simple fact of the numerical dominance of the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America over their mother churches in Europe.

By whom, and for whom?
At the beginning of the 20th century, religious history was by and large written by scholars sympathetic to Christianity. Some were clergy: Mandell Creighton combined historical scholarship with being successively Bishop of Peterborough and London, and J. R. Green wrote his Short History of the English People (5) while librarian of Lambeth Palace. Even those of more limited commitment to the church tended to function, in Winston Churchill’s image, as flying buttresses; supportive but external.

In the 20th century, the business of writing the churches’ contemporary history also remained for many years a clerical pursuit. Archbishop Randall Davidson’s biographer was his chaplain George Bell, later to be Bishop of Chichester. Part of the controversy surrounding Humphrey Carpenter’s 1996 biography of Robert Runcie (6) centred on the author’s apparent lack of sympathy with the subject; the book disturbed long-established conventions regarding the manner of writing episcopal biography.

Since the early part of the century, the historical profession, along with the rest of the population, has been steadily secularised, such that it is now probable that the majority of religious historians approach their task from no particular faith position. The gradual migration of the bulk of historical scholarship away from the rectory and indeed the theological college to the university, coupled with the well-documented general methodological professionalisation of the discipline, has hastened the process.

It is now the case that the historian who is also a committed believer will scrupulously eschew any analysis not fully justified by the sources. Indeed, as Euan Cameron has recently observed, most ‘conceal their belief stances so thoroughly in their writing that readers find it difficult to discern what the author believes, if anything’. This change has almost certainly produced more objective and balanced scholarship, and has certainly avoided the worst excesses of partisan historical writing of previous centuries. At the same time, it could be argued that the contact between current scholarship in religious history and the churches (those whose ‘family history’ it is that is being written) is at a low ebb. It is perhaps time for meaningful dialogue between the churches, theology and church history to begin again.

1. Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (London, 1964).
2. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London, 1971).
3. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (London, 1972).
4. World Christianities c.1914 – c.2000, ed. Hugh Mcleod (Cambridge, 2006).
5. J.R. Green, A Short History of the English People (London, 1892–4).
6. Humphrey Carpenter, Robert Runcie: the Reluctant Archbishop (London, 1996).

Religion, politics and law in contemporary Britain: a web archive

[This is an expanded version of a post first published in the UK Web Archive blog.]

It has been over two years in the making, but I am delighted to be able to say that my own special collection in the UK Web Archive is now online.

UKWA (for which I am engagement and liaison lead, based at the British Library) collects and preserves websites of scholarly and cultural importance for the UK web domain. Already UKWA collect some 11,000 sites, and has more than 50,000 instances in total, with series of snapshots of some sites going back the best part of a decade. That’s a lot of data, and so one of the ways into the archive is by means of the special collection, of sites on a particular theme.religion politics law thumbnail

A couple of years ago, long before coming to the BL, I joined a project at the Library which brought together a group of scholars to guest-curate special collections on our research interests. I had become interested in the sharpening of the terms of debate about the place of religion in British public life, particularly since 9/11 and the London bombings in 2005. I’ve long been interested in public debate about church and state; but until relatively recently this happened by means of the print press, public oratory, ephemeral publication and the broadcast media. It struck me that a good deal of this debate had already moved online, and so new ways of capturing and preserving it were going to be needed. And so, the ‘politics of religion collection’ (as it was then known) was born. (See these posts on my progress.)

I fairly soon realised why I’m not an archivist, since all sorts of unfamiliar questions hove into view. When archiving the web, what is the base unit ? A whole domain, such as www.bbc.co.uk ? Or a single URL ? Several sites, like that of the National Secular Society or the Christian Institute were central to my concerns, and so could be included whole. But what does one do with a single post on a PR blog about the handling of the sharia law row by Rowan Williams and his staff ? In fact, the collection is a mixture of whole domains and individual directories or pages from larger sites; an uneasy compromise, but a necessary one.

Also (and I may as well come straight out with it), the collection is selective, and thus in a real sense subjective. As a watcher of contemporary religious politics, against the backdrop of recent history, my impression is that the place of religious ideas, symbols and organisations in public life is at its most contested for decades. Historians are traditionally wary of assessing the significance of present trends, since it leaves hostages to fortune and later events. Yet, all archival choices from a pool of material not defined in advance by provenance involve some judgements as to significance; and historians are as well suited as any to make those judgements. And so I have put the collection together now to enable future historians to begin to answer the questions which I anticipate will be significant. (See an older post on why I think historians should engage with this way of working.)

There were other issues. Were I the archivist for a particular organisation, I’d have no problem with getting permission to add material to my archive: everything produced in-house would be in view. The problem for web archiving is that we’re dealing with other people’s copyright work, and so an individual permission is needed for each site. I have a long list of sites which I would dearly love to add to the collection, but for which (for various reasons) we’ve had no response. So, if you are the owner of Protest the Pope, or Holy Redundant, or Christians in Politics, please get in touch. For now, even if the collection cannot be anything like comprehensive, I do hope that it is at least coherent.

There are particular strengths, and some gaps. It includes many campaigning organisations, both secularist and religious, and is heavy on the conservative Christian groups about which I myself know most. It is very light on non-Christian faiths, since I know the field much less well.  It is still very much open, however, and so suggestions of sites that ought to be included are very welcome, via this blog or at the UKWA Nominate a Site page.

What can you do with it ?  For now, there is a simple browse function; and the collection can be searched on its own.  And over time, all sorts of uses will present themselves, which we can’t currently imagine. But the data is there: a growing longitudinal series of timed instances of websites, identified as thematically related; that is to say, an archive.