In a reply several weeks ago to my discussion of the hijacking of humanism by new atheist commandos, the Center for Inquiry’s John Shook—who is normally a responsible philosopher—says something very irresponsible. So irresponsible that I wondered for a minute whether this was the John Shook I knew and worked with for a couple of years at the Center.
Or is it John Shook acting the part of point-man for the movement I have accused of gutting humanism of its core meaning and facilitating its co-option by hardcore sci-philes like P Z Myers and Jerry Coyne, abetted increasingly by formerly responsible voices like Ophelia Benson and the Richard Dawkins idol klatch.
Shook writes that “Religion is the opposite of humanism.” That opinion, even if it is not entirely private, is epically silly and as my teachers used to say, historically indemonstrable.
It is true, of course, that in strictly rhetorical terms belief in God is the opposite of atheism (non-belief in God) and if humanism now means disbelief in God and religion is defined exclusively as belief in God, then we have a clear case of opposition. But before we permit that sleight of mind we need to state the obvious: (1) Not only were classical and renaissance humanism the product of religion, but even secular humanism arose from liberal religion in the early twentieth century; (2) Humanism did not arise from atheism and cannot be equated with atheism, except by bludgeoning it into conformity with atheist ideas and agendas—the current project of movement humanism and new atheists; and (3) So-called “secular” humanism was a naïve but deliberate attempt to de-theologize humanism by delimiting religion to “superstition, dogma and belief in the supernatural.” In fact, the first serious efforts to confront the “irrational” aspects of religion came not from skeptics and unbelievers but from religious humanists influenced both by classical discussions and by the discoveries of their time.
After exactly forty years since the publication of Humanist Manifesto II, and a little over a decade since the publication of the widely ignored Humanist Manifesto 2000 (originally “A Secular Humanist Manifesto”) it is time to pronounce secular humanism a colossal failure, a road without a definition, and a humpty-dumpty jumble of ideas, causes, and projects that, once the line is drawn under them, don’t add up to any particular sum.
This sketch is from a chapter of my new book, Why I am Not an Atheist. It is turning into a very long book because God is a very large topic, and it seems a shame not to use a piece of it that is relevant to John Shook’s blog:
MacDonald Humanism and Naytheism
The kind of manufactured and partially sycophantic “humanism” that organizations like the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry find it increasingly necessary to push is not the old-style, latitudinarian denial of God that, once upon a time, might have got you booted out of a church or a Catholic high school. It’s the boots-on kind where you kick believers in the shins and call them names, or say nasty things about Jesus or Mohammed, preferably both. Like recent al Qaeda planners, movement humanists and atheists prefer soft targets: they rely on the belief that a well-trained Christian won’t kick you back–and that Jesus is not coming again on clouds of fire. They don’t say what they say through a megaphone in Tehran or paint slogans on buses in Peshawar.
The “humanism” that movement humanism hawks is a duck blind for the so-called new atheism. It isn’t (as a CFI operative recently alleged) that religion is the opposite of humanism, any more than your grandpa is the opposite of you. But in its premises, approach, and substance, secular humanism is now the opposite of humanism.
To use an older category, it is a heresy, a split from the mainstream of humanist thought so profoundly out of touch with its patrimony that it can only be regarded as a weird disjointed sect. It is less (much less) a philosophical position or world view than a vantage point for a shouting match. It is to the real world of humanist thought what the Tea Party is to serious government and MacDonald’s is to fine dining..
In fact many atheists have tried to persuade their commando friends that the new atheist critique of God and religion is amateurish, indeed embarrassing: intellectuals and academics with no religious sentiment at all have been stunned by its lack of sophistication and ignorance of the voluminous literature—both academic and popular, historical and philosophical on the God problem. The reason critics like Richard Dawkins have done comparatively well selling books on subjects they know nothing about is the transferability thesis: the idea that the prestige you earn writing books on genes and grasshoppers can easily be transferred to topics as hazy as “religion,” at least if you accept (as Dawkins does) that the study of religion and theology is nothing at all.
Add celebrity atheism to secular humanism and you get the word cash, which is what these organizations need to stay afloat. And as churches have known forever, to get cash you need converts. To get converts, at least in the USA, you need big names. Big names lend luster, star power, even credibility to any campaign, and movement humanism is just that: the campaign for disbelief.
But “celebrity atheism” like celebrity anything else, actually cheapens the serious study of religion, which has dealt with the problem of God for a few hundred years, and longer if we include the history of theology stretching back to Anselm and the pre-Christian classical writers, perhaps especially Epicurus and Lucretius. In fact, I would argue that celebrity atheism weakens the atheist position in the same way that Hollywood manages to ruin every good book, glitz without guts.
How does it cheapen it? By associating ideas that should be arrived at by careful thought with other (even if famous) people’s conclusions: Bill Maher is an atheist; so is Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Sarah Silverman, Bill Nye. Are you smarter than they are? Case closed. Fallacy-wise it’s called argumentum ad auctoritatem. But we can forgive this trespass, because religious people do it every time they appeal to the Bible. At any rate, the “25,000,000 smart people can’t be wrong” approach to intellectual (or political) rectitude doesn’t always get you where you want to go, and American atheists and humanists can only dream about a number like that. What once was proudly called free-thought is fast becoming the slavish repetition of slogans and one-liners. Did you hear the one about the talking snake? If God is so smart, why did he put the prostate next to a man’s urinary tract?
At its clubfooted worst, the sloganeering and commercialization of atheism hinders the use of science and reason by encouraging logical shortcuts and self-satisfaction. You can put that dull piece by J L Mackie on one side, lad; you’ve got the T shirt that says “No God, No Problem.”
As it’s been defined by its pushers, “secular” humanism is fully naturalistic (i.e., anti-supernaturalist), non-theistic and robustly pro-science. Even though it has never really been pushed around, except verbally, it is tired of being pushed around. Even though it is not a persecuted class or sect, it behaves like one. Even though it has done nothing to improve education, health care, the rights of minorities, underprivileged classes, or women, it blames the oppression of the masses on the religious institutions that have been progressive in all of these areas. Naytheism does this in the simplest of ways, by delimiting “religion” to the worst examples of its complex parts and hoping an unsuspecting newcomer won’t notice. It claims that conscience can only operate freely without dogma, ignoring the extent to which much of dogma is the cultural residue of social conscience: no conscience, no law, neither humane ones nor cruel ones. It scans the Bible for examples of sixth century BC horrors and ignores the Sermon on the Mount and the prophets’ call for social justice. It pans for dirt, puts the gold to one side, and calls the result “religion.” It is not selective or “eclectic”; it is manipulative and deceitful.
Whatever secular humanism might have been, or might have become under serious management, it is now a menagerie of players who try to score through ridicule points they can’t make by reasoned conversation—proof unbounded that the “reason” they (claim to) peddle they can’t sell for a copper penny. What they can sell are slogans emblazoned on coffee mugs, t-shirts and bumper stickers and membership in the (self-styled) Bright Makes Right community. The toleration that permitted Jews, Quakers, Baptists and Catholics to live a relatively peaceful life protected by a Constitutional “free exercise” provision, the atheists undermine by saying that the time to tolerate religion and be nice to believers has passed: rude rules. They can also sell the palpable falsehood that, like gays, blacks, and women, atheists need the confidence to fight for who and what they are—oppressed victims trodden underfoot by the jackboot of American religiousness. In short, that being an atheist is not merely a free thought and a free speech issue, but a civil rights issue, a human rights issue.
What Went Wrong?
Whatever secular humanism has to do now to stay in the game its beginnings are reputable enough. History explains.
In the early twentieth century, a clutch of philosophers–especially at Columbia University– began to draw on earlier American ideas of philosophy being essentially a commonsensical and “pragmatic” enterprise. While they weren’t unaware of developments in European thought, they were seeking a distinctive voice made from scraps of thought ranging from the essays of Thomas Paine to the romantic transcendentalism of thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau and the musings of Henry Adams, America’s first great intellectual historian.
Because of when they lived—an era of rapid innovation and invention– they were also fascinated by science. Science had been the sworn enemy of religion since the mid-19th century in Europe. The first president of Cornell, Andrew Dickson White wrote the definitive study of the “war” as a kind of charter for the University’s way of doing business. Science and philosophy could do business, needed to do business. Science and religion could not. Philosophy did not want to be too closely identified with the past—with metaphysics and puzzles. In America it wanted to be identified with progress, modernity, and democracy—solutions rather than big questions.
There were reasons for this disposition, which many European intellectuals regarded as new world naiveté: Americans liked to conceit themselves as pragmatists whose minds had been disciplined by the need to civilize a barbarous continent and establish new modes of justice, trade, and practical learning in the wilderness. We were independent, self-reliant, and above all resourceful. It was not all bogus, of course, and to the extent national myths (like religious myths, which often begin as national myths) can inspire people to do important things, it was a useful piece of mythology. Ancient Greece and Rome, imperial England, Tsarist Russia, Nazi Germany and Nuclear America believed they were exceptional; so does modern China. If the success of a national mythology can be decided by sheer numbers, China will win hands down. No empire that has come before began with a base of 1.3 billion people.
Science and technology were our friends. The cafe intellectualism of Europe was not the American way: literature and the arts could be tolerated, but had to be subdued in the interest of fulfilling the great task of completing American democracy. We would transform a continent with universal education. We would translate civilization into its scientific elements.
The whole project smelled like a Congregational chapel—for good reason—because many of its early enthusiasts were hard headed New Englanders who associated religious excess—especially Roman Catholicism–with superstition and dogma. The Calvinist spirit (without the rough bits) was all about hard work, progress, and the brighter future. By comparison, Catholicism seemed dour, otherworldly, and focused on the miseries of this life.
Most (the un-churchable Santayana being the exception) were liberal Protestants or post-credalists, and they were joined early on by reform- and secular Jews (“Jewnitarians”) who frequently styled themselves secular, ethical or “cultural Jews” rather than anti-theists. God was the focus of this project only to the degree that some ways of doing him service involved structures and habits of thought that seemed undemocratic and regressive to the theorists.
There was scarcely an anti-God faction at Harvard or Columbia in 1911; but there was certainly a strong sense that medievalism (closely identified with Catholic ritual and belief, and especially with the Irish and Italian “problem”) was the culprit in retarding scientific progress and thus not really suited for the work of the Redeemer Nation. Harvard’s premier historian Henry Adams was so fiercely anti-Semitic that it was said if he “saw Vesuvius reddening… [he] searched for a Jew stoking the fire.” In a strange alliance, both the men of the prairie and the men of the ivory tower were anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. The America of farmers, inventors, money makers and engineers was a land of common sense and practical virtue. One such practical virtue in the age of innovation was a suspicion of “foreigners” and people with dark skin.
If America ever had an ivory tower, it was pretty close to the ground. Swelling numbers of observant Jews, Poles, Irish, Germans and Irish were an obvious focus for metropolitan professors in New York, Chicago and Boston. German monks in tea-total Midwestern counties were making wine. Milwaukee and Saint Louis became Bavarian beer towns at a time when there were restrictions against alcohol in most major cities. even in Boston. Yet when Catholics weren’t boozing they were founding colleges and schools: Notre Dame in 1842, Georgetown in 1817; the coup de grace for the Irish in New England, Boston College in 1864. Reform-minded Jews formed Hebrew Union College in 1875.
What was not as conspicuous or threatening as the influx of European Catholics and Jews was the rural phenomenon of the radio evangelists operating on weak AM frequencies throughout the south and southwest whose religious groanings, healings and exhortations were confined to a (then) fairly thin Bible belt, a term coined by H L Mencken in the 1920’s to describe the growth of conservative Protestantism.
A few intellectuals—Mencken is the best known—paid attention to their potential influence; but Mencken was a Catholic, if a critical one, and a German one, who hated the Irish almost as much as did the denizens of Beacon Hill. Long before the Red State, Blue State divide, which in evolutionary terms is its offspring, these Americas hardly had anything to do with one another: distance, communication, and blissful isolation made it possible for iron age religion and atomic age intellectualism to go about their business well into the 1950’s, without really getting in each other’s way, aware of each other only as one might be aware of a distant kingdom. The intersections are few and far between, with the Scopes trial being the one that everybody knows a little about. In those days, the liberal east, the hominy south, the untamed west (save California), and the politely dull Middle West—and Texas—were not myths but social realities, rich and poor, smart and dumb fiefdoms of post-Civil War America.
The push to counter the effects of regressive, conservative religion on education, political life and culture was really an effect of the communications revolution. Evangelicals discovered TV and saw its potential as a vehicle for missionizing millions of previously unreachable people. And millions of folks (as we were now called) discovered evangelical Christianity as a result. It’s hard to overstate the impact that a Billy Graham, an Oral Roberts, and later on a Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and a Pat Robertson, had on the American psyche.
The response from the ivory tower was, unsurprisingly, negligible. For most Americans—myself included—it was a sideshow, something that junked up the airwaves on Sunday morning before real programming started with “Meet the Press”. But for anyone who grew up in the 1960’s and later, this junk, not counting a quick television Mass for shut-ins, was the face of American religion. It was religion.
The reason that religion sold and reason didn’t was fairly simple. Religion has been marketing itself since the first apostle drew a crowd, probably since the first priest slaughtered a goat. Science and reason had about as much market value as sand, and for most “folks” (who had no idea what went into the increasingly complex technologies they used) it was no part of their life. In the space age, while half of America gloated that we had been first on the moon, the other half waited confidently to be transported to heaven without rocket boosters. Nowhere else on earth did this partitioning of thought exist as radically as it did in America. –It still does in the anti-science wars that some politicians fight for the folks back home in Oklahoma.
But atheists and “secularists” (the word was uncommon in America, more familiar in Britain) to the extent they existed in a common cause were not the first on the frontlines against the rise of the evangelicals. It was liberal Christians and Jews, who had kept alive the humanistic foundations of their theology and ethics. Many were the sons and grandsons of European intellectuals, but few were born in Europe, and what they produced was a far more distinctively American voice than philosophy was able to do. The proof, by the 1950’s, is that almost everyone in Europe had heard of Reinhold Niebuhr, whereas very few academic philosophers (Bertrand Russell being an exception) were reading John Dewey. Partly this was a matter of style: The theologians spoke about real social problems, unfair labour practices, child welfare, slums and sanitation, unbridled capitalism—issues they thought found a response in the Gospel. Though it’s widely forgotten, the Temperance movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, though edged with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feeling, was primarily a campaign by women protesting the abuse of women and squandering of rent money by drunken husbands. It was tinged with puritanical feeling, but many members of the WCTU were progressive social thinkers who, if they had lived in the 1970’s, would have been feminists. Jane Addams, perhaps the leading female voice of the progressive era, found her vocation after reading Tolstoy’s confessional biography, My Religion, and with several women contemporaries saw it as her mission to bring Christianity back to its social roots—the compassion of Jesus. Addams increasingly leaned towards Unitarianism and served as a part-time leader of the Ethical Society of Chicago, then one of two great centers for religious humanism and interfaith discussion in America. The philosophers, while they were sometimes profound and even (like Santayana) eloquent, spoke like philosophers.
The Religious Response to American Religion
The roundest opposition to the early growth of religious yahooism came from the prestigious seminaries and divinity schools, especially from Harvard, Chicago and Union Theological Seminary: Reinhold Niebuhr, James Luther Adams, William Foxwell Albright, and dozens of others made not just national but international contributions to the scientific study of religion and the field of applied ethics.
If their work was not noticed by the yahoos it was scarcely noticed by the philosophers either. The uptick in religious fundamentalism convinced many in the post-Dewey generation at Columbia that religion in general was a bad thing, despite the fact serious work in the field was being done just across Riverside Drive. Europe itself after the War had become post-religious but not anti-religion, a tendency reflected in the work of Martin Buber, Rudolph Otto, the distinguished Romanian phenomenologist (who spent his most productive years at Chicago), Mercea Eliade and Germany’s gift to both Union and Harvard, Paul Tillich and France’s to Chicago, Paul Ricoeur. The field of philosophy of religion was even more distinguished with the emigration to Cambridge, Massachusetts, of Alfred North Whitehead in 1924, who (inadvertently) spawned a whole generation of philosophers of religion and process theologians, including Charles Hartshorne. Upon reading Religion in the Making (1926) H. Richard Niebuhr, the Yale theologian, said simply, “This is the gospel.”
Although these men differed widely in their approach to the study of religion, they understood that the proper study of religion is the study of religion in its human and cultural complexity, through the study of languages, the social sciences (especially psychology and anthropology), history and archaeology, human behavior, mythography and literature. Religion was both man on his own (“in his solitariness,” Whitehead said) and man in community. It involved belief, but it was also, perhaps primarily, behavioural and cultural. It needed to be studied, to be understood—not just from the top (God) down, but from the bottom up. Religion could not be reified apart from culture and context; it was not good or bad. It was an expression of the dichotomous realities of human existence.
As a result of the new way of looking at religion as “an object of human study” Harvard paved the way in 1939 with the granting of the first American PhD in the study of religion—what the Germans called Religionswissenschaft—the empirical or scientific study of religion. The course of study was famously rigorous, outclassing in depth and sophistication anything then on offer in England and all but a very few German universities—though the paradigm and form of study was a German one. As late as my time at Harvard Divinity School, three of five chairs in biblical studies were held by Germans, one by a Swede, and the other by a prominent Jesuit copticist trained at Cambridge. If Jimmy Swaggart revivals was “religion” to millions of Americans, something far more interesting was religion to a few.
Incredibly, the new atheists entirely missed this historic revolution in the new way of thinking about religion. Religion for them was simply the excrescent of what deluded people did with their free time (witness, the title of Dawkins’s book). It was “default answer” to every puzzling question the world can pose to us—about origins, evolution, nature, the cosmos, ethics and the meaning of life.
As far as I am aware, no single work of serious scientific interpretation of religion or ethical theory is even alluded to in any of the canonical new atheist books—a fact that makes the intellectual hubris of their critique all the more stunning.
No major thread of theological thought, from Schleiermacher to Tillich and Hartshorne is mentioned. The impact of French Existential thought, which seriously attempted to explain the existential basis of humanism is not mentioned. The influence of German phenomenology is not mentioned. The humanistic religious ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson and Jacques Maritain—all of whom talked about the continuing evolution of human creativity–are not mentioned, even though the last was the key theorist behind the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, and the Catholic philosopher Charles Malik (who studied with Whitehead) was one of its drafters.
The humanistic undergirding of the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) of John XXIII which spawned the Peace Movement of the late-sixties is not mentioned. No significant discovery in biblical studies (there were thousands), textual or archaeological, is mentioned. And most glaringly, no reference is made to “religion’s” seminal influence on the liberation and progressive movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian minister who like many black theologians saw the Book of Exodus and the compassion of God as tropes for his struggle. Phyllis Trible, Dorothy Soelle, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary Daly, Tikkva Frymer Kensky did more to expand the world’s consciousness of patriarchy and the institutions it supported than any “secular” or atheist writer of the era: all would have defined themselves as humanists. The eco-theology of Thomas Berry is not mentioned. The famous defense of the medieval Church’s role in preserving humanistic learning and values by Christopher Dawson, perhaps the leading cultural historian of the twentieth century, is not mentioned. Not even the seminal contributions of Jesuit F C Copleston—whom A J Ayer called the most “capable and comprehensive mind of his generation”—is mentioned. The atheist movement generated by Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion is the only example of academic creation ex nihilo in human history.
The period from 1868 to 2000 was a period of almost unbridled progress in the empirical study of religion and creative theology and ethics: but for the new atheists, it is a black hole–a pile of discredited medieval superstition delivered wholesale by dutiful monks and hayseed pioneers into the modern era. Wearing a blindfold provided by intellectual cluelessness and ignorance of any information beyond their outdated agenda, “religion” remained for the new atheists the dead horse of discarded beliefs, a beast that would not lie down.
Secular Humanism: The Light that Failed
Beginning in the 1930’s a few concerned observers of American religion tried to counter the influence of religion in America by proposing an alternative “faith.”
The term “humanism” was eventually commandeered to describe a collection of ideas, attitudes, values and virtues that came not from religion but from science, or more broadly, “modern” thought. The step had already been taken in England with the founding of the British Humanist Association (founded in the 19th century and incorporated in 1928) with attempts to separate out the teaching of ethics from the “religious education” classes that formed part of the compulsory subjects in all British schools.
Probably correctly, some American observers of the British scene saw trouble ahead for American education—not just (or even primarily) in the protestant South, but in the Catholic Northeast and in the religious sprawl of the big cities where large numbers of immigrants had settled. The relic of the anti-Catholic prejudice of this era is reflected in one of the most enduring symbols of resistance to public education: the Catholic school system.
Although the Catholic school system was a regular target for hostility from nativists and a growing number of democratic secularists, the immigrant Church of Irish, German, Italian and early on French nuns and priests considered American public education inferior to the rich tradition of learning they could provide the children of the burgeoning Catholic population. Church-based education was not the place one went to hide from teaching about evolution or science and the arts; it was the place you were sure to be taught better science, solid mathematics, and proper English, at least one foreign language (Latin)—with catechism as a bonus. The proof of its success until very recently was the significantly higher scores Catholic high school students received on standard achievement tests like the SATs.
Outside the cities the public school system was not secular but protestant, and the deeper into rural areas one went, Bible-thumping evangelically protestant. The Bible was read each day; prayers were said; devotions were held; hymns were sung. No one objected, except a few itinerant Catholics, Jews, and the miscreant children of freethinking parents.
Ironically, the influence of religion in American schools, which notionally benefited from the First Amendment’s protection against religious “establishment,” was far more invidious than in England, where the study of religion was a benign “doily subject” –virtue education—and not immersed in anti-scientific thinking. Nothing privileged religion more directly than having a Constitutional amendment designed to keep it out of the public square.
But religion had always been a problem in America—even from before the Revolution—and by the 1920’s the First Amendment was under severe stress.
In 1933, a Michigan philosopher, Roy Wood Sellars, and a Unitarian minister, Raymond Bragg, drafted the first “Humanist Manifesto,” essentially a liberal religious document that spoke of a new, non-dogmatic faith that would replace the sectarian rivalries of traditional religion, eschew “supernaturalism” and embrace progress and the future. There was nothing especially exciting about the document; it struck a balance somewhere between Unitarianism (”Deed, not creed”) and the heavily Jewish ethical culture movement, itself a spin on the ethical societies that had begun as reformed Unitarian chapels in London and Manchester.
The Manifesto was mildly “communistic” in its call for an end to “the acquisitive profit motivated society”, language which later haunted the American Humanist Association –until 1973 when a new Manifesto was drafted by philosopher Paul Kurtz and Unitarian minister Edwin Wilson.
I have written fairly extensively about this document and there is no need to repeat it here. Basically, Kurtz and Wilson—but especially Kurtz –were far tougher on religion than the first manifesto: Indeed, it was largely a political document frosted with the constructive angst and progressive ideologies of the era: Pro-abortion, anti-war, anti-poverty, pro-technology, and pro- science. It’s most famous statement, “No God can save us, we must save ourselves,” was banal enough that it could have been attributed to any one of a thousand morbid existentialists of the period.
The “secular humanism” that emerged from the Manifesto was sufficiently indistinguishable from a political platform that it ceased to be anything resembling humanism. When Kurtz founded his own organization (originally the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism) in 1981, he coined the term secular humanism to distinguish his position from the religious humanism of the earlier manifestos and considered them superseded by a booklet he wrote called “What is Secular Humanism.” (1980) and a document signed by a large number of academics concerned about the growing influence of religion on American politics, A Secular Humanist Declaration.
In it he tried to sequester religion as a system of thought that sprang from preliterate and prescientific agrarian societies that have no purchase on the modern view of the world: “Secular humanists contend that issues concerning ethics, appropriate social and legal conduct, and the methodologies of science are philosophical and are not part of the domain of religion, which deals with the supernatural, mystical and transcendent.”
Strictly speaking, this assertion was not borne out by the role religion played even in American society, where the vast majority of religious concerns were unrelated to the supernatural and the “transcendent,” and had everything to do with ethics and society. The attempt to wrest the term humanism from its religious foundations was, in both practical and intellectual terms, a colossal failure.
In a little-read final paper (Humanist Manifesto 2000) Kurtz struck a more positive tone which reflected his growing dissatisfaction with the purely negative or “denialist” ideas that followers of his movement had come to express The document repeated the main error of the earlier one: “Most world views accepted today are spiritual, mystical, or theological in character….” and “have their origins in ancient pre-urban, nomadic, and agricultural societies of the past, not in the modern industrial or postindustrial global information culture that is emerging.” (I once chided him that if he was referring to the Bible, nomads don’t write books and are pastoral rather than agricultural, and that the most outlandish mystical language I hear today is from politicians invoking the favour of a mythical being called The American people.) But as an attempt to rescue his project from an insurgent atheist takeover of the store, the document made some of the right noises about human rights and the global future—the “human prospect.”
Several years before he died, Kurtz confessed his belief that the term “secular humanism” had been the wrong phrase, a conviction he enshrined in the name of the organization he founded a few years before his death, the Institute for Science and Human Values.
He lived to see the takeover of his organization by the atheist hordes—the subversion of the phrase to mean exactly what Humpty Dumpty wants it to mean. Its range of projects and topics looked more and more like a Jackson Pollock canvas; whatever colour you threw at it could be called secular humanism. Sartre in What is Existentialism? despaired that the term had become so general that “it has ceased to mean anything at all.” Kurtz witnessed a similar devaluation of the phrase he tried to popularize from as early as the 1970’s.
Paul Kurtz entered the battle when the term humanism was still used inclusively to mean both those “non-theists” who rejected, with various intensity, belief in God, and those others who rejected religion to the extent it was a dodge from the scientific naturalism he saw as the basis for all meaningful knowledge of the world. He was cautious about, but never dismissive of religious humanism and had dozens of friends in the Ethical movements of the United States and Britain. In the many conferences I planned with him and for him as the chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, the majority of participants came from the leading departments of religion and divinity schools of the United States and Europe—very few could have been styled atheists. On hundreds of occasions, he implored the hardcore atheists in his organization to “rise above” their negativity and look for positive alternatives to the absence of religion, which would be the condition of the global future.
Yet Kurtz believed strongly that the term “humanism,” unqualified, always smacked of “religion,” and so always insisted that the adjective “secular” be appended to it. He frequently repeated his belief that the term was needed to highlight the nontheistic character of a particular form of humanistic idealism, one that regarded science rather than revelation as the basis of understanding the world.
In so doing he quietly acknowledged its lineage. And in so doing he could never have said that “humanism is the opposite of religion.”Advertisements
It is a — most — provoking — thing,’ Humpty said at last, `when a person doesn’t know a cravat from a belt!’ `I know it’s very ignorant of me,’ Alice said, in so humble a tone that Humpty Dumpty relented.
Preliminary: Of Words in General
Writing in defense of the language he loved and hated, H.L. Mencken wrote in The Smart Set for 1921 that “When two-thirds of the people who use a certain language decide to call it a freight train instead of a goods train, they are ‘right’; then the first is correct usage and the second a dialect.”
He was speaking of one of the minor irritants of usage that separate American and British speakers, “divided by a common language,” into those who love English because it isn’t French and those who value it primarily because it isn’t Spanish. –The perennial war between Britspeak and Amerispeak shows illiteracy on both sides of the water, however. About a third of our English words are French derivatives (about 28% Latin), and neither the linguistically recusant hillbillies in Tennessee nor bankers in Fleet Street could give an Anglo-Saxon farmer of the year 1065 the time of day in a language he could understand. Lingua Anglorum non mortuus est, but boy has it changed. Shift happens, linguistically speaking.
Modern linguistics was not really influenced by Mencken as such, but the “usage factor” has become a standard measure of what defines a language in practical terms. Living languages “obey” the habits of living speakers, described not prescribed. If, to turn it around, two-thirds of people no longer know what a goods train is, then maybe it’s time to call it a freight train.
Besides, rightness and wrongness surely don’t hang on idiomatic differences–whether the British cringe when they hear an American saying “gotten” for “got” or “normalcy” for “normality” or “dude” for “bloke.” Whether I’m pissed, pissed off or told to piss off, I know it’s time to go home. (It’s the syme the ‘ole world ovah. Now, Nigel: say fævah, favour, father). We have made so much of these issues for so long now (so bloody long now) that we all know what the other means, more or less. And the discussion–which might have been infinitely fascinating cocktail chit in the 1920’s, when there really was a smart set, and when we began to encounter each other as hateful cousins in great numbers after a century and a half of virtual separation–is frankly a little boring.
I do agree with Tolkien, though: American women all talk like they have a clothes peg (sorry, pin) over their nose.
Language is made up of words, and words are the primary agents of change. Once upon a timenice meant foolish; now it means nice. Egregious meant great, as in wonderful. Awful meant what we now mean by awesome and a guy was always a bad guy—like Guy Fawkes, and now has become the most gender-neutral pronoun in the language–as in, Really, you guys. A knavewas just a boy (is it anything now?) and a silly girl wasn’t a giggly maid but a virgin. Tointerfere meant to have sex with, now it means interrupting someone in medias res, so to speak. Kill used to mean torture (as in “That joke just kills me”), but now is always used to mean to do away with/someone in. I’m hot can mean a couple of things. I’m cool, likewise. I’m gay probably means only one thing today—because when the winds of change have done their work, old meanings can be swept away entirely. And all that jazz.
Although not the only mechanism we possess to convey meaning, words are the most efficient because with them we can create nuance and abstraction, write poetry, form concepts, discuss the origins of the universe, fractals, Leibnitz, and our neighbour’s mysterious parties. And while many meaning-changes or semantic shifts can be explained in terms of processes which diachronic (historical) linguistics can classify (narrowing, elevation, metaphor, antiphrasis metonymy, etc.) other words with a specific history and semantic lode are less susceptible to shift—especially when they are concept-driven or definitional.
For example. To define capitalism as a process of collectivizing wealth and redistributing it to people on the basis of need would not get us very far in understanding the economic preferences of the Western democracies. To define prostitution as the practice of absolute chastity before and during marriage would be at least a little confusing. Classicism does not describe the political system of ancient Greece but its emphasis on balance, order and harmony in architecture and ideas, even though these ideals are (sort of) reflected in the political structures in Greek antiquity. Democratic, until fairly recently, did not describe an architectural style, though “Stalinist” can refer to an aesthetic or a system. True, some words (but not definitional ones), through a process called “auto-antonymy,” become their complementary opposite (That dress is so bad! = so good, or so hot), but native speakers will know how to flip the meaning from usage and context, with a minimum of intellectual exertion.
Of a Particular Word: Humanism
The unique message of humanism on the current world scene is its commitment to scientific naturalism. Most world views accepted today are spiritual, mystical, or theological in character. They have their origins in ancient pre-urban, nomadic, and agricultural societies of the past, not in the modern industrial or postindustrial global information culture that is emerging. Scientific naturalism enables human beings to construct a coherent world view disentangled from metaphysics or theology and based on the sciences. Humanist Manifesto 2000 (Paul Kurtz)
Over at New Oxonian, I have written several pieces about the difference between movement,meaning organization-based humanism (secular, new, religious, ethical, neo, and trans-) andwholecloth humanism, on the analogy that these snippets have been selectively cut from the much broader historical phenomenon known simply as humanism.
The snipping is primarily a British and American pastime, just as the founding of organizations to promote a certain understanding of “humanism” (secular, political, and anti-theistic) has primarily unfurled as an Anglo-American project. Any standard dictionary will attest to the success of this project: normally the first definition given is a movement-humanism definition, with the laudable exception of Webster’s. –Leave it to the Americans to get something right in the long run, as Churchill once famously remarked.
My contention is that this snipping away has resulted in a technical reductio ad absurdum—a lessening and deadening of the whole concept originally conveyed by the term humanism. Linguists (Ullmann  being the most famous) have called the process semantic pejoration or weakening–much like defining democracy as “one man one vote” or puritans as early American fundamentalist Christians, 10% true but 90% misleading and thus 100% wrong. The tendency to turn the phenomenon called humanism into one of its multifarious effects or “tendencies” has not only turned humanism into a parody of itself, but the whole process has been done in such an artless way that the term has lost both integrity and valence: Humanism (recall Sartre’s famous quip about “existentialism”) now means so many different things that it has ceased to mean anything at all.
Hardly better is the Humpty-Dumpty insistence by some humanist organizations that humanism is non-theistic, secular, grounded in Enlightenment endorsements of “science” and “reason,” inherently and unarguably aligned with progressive politics and social movements, and committed to global ethics and values, in a circuitous way that embraces the principles of documents like the International Declaration of Human Rights but seems grotesquely ignorant of basic facts about its genesis–for example, that the famous Catholic-Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain was one of its principal authors.
This ignorance extends systematically to the role of religion in every progressive social and political movement since the time of the Revolution (including the Revolution), Abolition, women’s rights, civil rights, poverty alleviation, and economic and environmental activism. In fact, in its anti-theistic fervor, it is difficult to imagine a cause or movement so embarrassingly mistaken about the factors of cultural change as so-called ‘secular’ humanism. It is equally difficult to locate a movement more craven in its lack of serious accomplishments in any of the areas it professes to care about: Baptists and Quakers did more for free speech. Unitarians more for secularism and education (think, Harvard) and Catholics more for the poor and for building schools and hospitals. Add the Jews, the African American Church and a few other liberal denominations that the secular humanists never mention and you have roughly a capsule of America. Humanism was never irrelevant before ”secular humanism” made it irrelevant in marginalizing it from the great social and political ideas of the time in favor of a crabbed and jaundiced view of religion in general. In a word, “secular humanism” has been disastrous on almost every front, but primarily in robbing humanism of its pedigree as a light in the darkness.
Basically the history of humanism is a story of cultic emanations from original purposes. The term itself had some currency in the Renaissance and perhaps its finest early articulation is Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. Anyone who has read the turgid twentieth century humanist “manifestos” and has not read Pico should be deeply ashamed. But, simply, the denotative meaning of the term came to be “learning.”
Critics and reformers like Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and even an intellectually pretentious monarch like the second Henry Tudor could lay claim to the name as easily as Galileo, Boccaccio, Macchiaveli, Miguel Servetus, Marsilio Ficino, Petrarch, Montaigne, a significant number of popes (Pius II, Sixtus II and Leo X) and members of the Roman curia. This humanism was decisively not secular, not atheistic, and not very democratic and progressive. Its models were largely situated in antiquity and the new “science” of philology. Its first great victory was Lorenzo Valla’s discovery that the “Donation of Constantine,” thought to confer unlimited powers of government on the bishop of Rome, was a medieval forgery.
But it was rationalistic: The Cambridge History of Philosophy peals, “Here, one felt no weight of the supernatural pressing on the human mind, demanding homage and allegiance. Humanity—with all its distinct capabilities, talents, worries, problems, possibilities—was the center of interest. It has been said that medieval thinkers philosophized on their knees, but, bolstered by the new studies, they dared to stand up and to rise to full stature.” I am far from agreeing with the characterisation; but it isn’t all wrong.
It is difficult in our century, on the other side of this linguistic narrowing, to imagine the time when humanism was confident enough to incorporate the religious imagination in its understanding of man, nature and society rather than seeking to exclude it from the picture as a long history of unreason and error to which the human animal was prone prior to the Enlightenment, that magical period when (it’s unhistorically alleged) the human race woke from its long superstitious religious slumber.
The Enlightenment Myth: Humanism and Humeanism
Of course we never really woke up because we were never sound asleep. The idea that we were comes from epoch-making historiographers (like the flatulent but always amusing Gibbon) of the 18th century who saw the Renaissance as too garish, the middle ages too dark, and everything prior to that except a few classical philosophers as too superstitious.
This jaded Humean perspective (no one had ever been more wrong, more convincing, nor more influential about the origins of monotheism) is what, in dilute form, defined the idea of progress and the various scientific materialisms that climaxed in Darwin and his explanatory template—one that fed social theory, psychology and the sciences for the next century and a half, in various ways, and one that substituted know-how for belief-in.
A 2009 article in the Economist suggests,
There has long been a tension between seeking perfection in life or in the afterlife. Optimists in the Enlightenment and the 19th century came to believe that the mass of humanity could one day lead happy and worthy lives here on Earth. Like Madach’s Adam, they were bursting with ideas for how the world might become a better place…. Some thought God would bring about the New Jerusalem, others looked to history or evolution. Some thought people would improve if left to themselves, others thought they should be forced to be free; some believed in the nation, others in the end of nations; some wanted a perfect language, others universal education; some put their hope in science, others in commerce; some had faith in wise legislation, others in anarchy. Intellectual life was teeming with grand ideas. For most people, the question was not whether progress would happen, but how….The idea of progress forms the backdrop to a society. In the extreme, without the possibility of progress of any sort, your gain is someone else’s loss. If human behaviour is unreformable, social policy can only ever be about trying to cage the ape within. Society must in principle be able to move towards its ideals, such as equality and freedom, or they are no more than cant and self-delusion. So it matters if people lose their faith in progress. And it is worth thinking about how to restore it.”[i]
Humanism, however, was not inherently “progressive.” The scientistic form of the idea of progress inherited from the 18th century was inherently uncritical–and still, as scientific naturalism, largely is.
While the reasons for its distrust of “progress” are complex, they extend to the Church’s claim of “continuing revelation” and doctrinal development as part of an organic evolution in Christianity. The history of their era had created in the early humanists a deep distrust of so-called development: “progress” and evolutionary processes were things to be examined, inquired into, deconstructed, not respected. In fact its earliest achievements were conservative, or at least restorative, and focused on ideas, forms, texts and institutions—especially the Church–that had aged badly and were considered, in various degrees, corrupt.
Only through a generous application of the term generous has humanism been understood as a partisan movement for championing whatever sacred cows happen to be grazing in the trendy pastures of interest groups. As a “spirit”– long before the term Zeitgeist came to inhabit the intellectual world after Hegel–humanism was a touchstone that could invalidate as easily as it could inspire progressive ideologies—part of the reason for both the late-Marxist and early Heideggeran discomfort with the word and attempts to reform it. In colloquial terms, humanism was nobody’s baby.
In fact, the essential impulses of humanism were somewhat puritanical, as in the original sense, purifying–which is why, in its methods, the humanist approach suited the reformers who saw religion as an inheritance of aggregated errors in text and teaching. They did not form a unified front, however: Humanism was a modality, not a party or a cause. That distinction went to the terms “protestant” and Catholic.” Its insistence on criticism and the authority of the human intellect was not abstract but concrete: Neither Calvin nor Montaigne in their different spheres believed in the unaided, untaught or unformed “reason” of the common man–and except for a few romantics like Rousseau (who never met an English Baptist or a North Carolina Methodist), no one in the Enlightenment did either.
Ironically, this skepticism about the “availability” of reason fit perfectly with the Church’s traditional teaching about the fall of man being essentially proved by his mulish stupidity. It was one of the reasons the Church’s relatively well-educated hierarchy insisted on the authority of a magisterium, a teaching authority over the common man. And who, who has witnessed the American electoral process at work, would say that the Church was wrong?
A Very Little History
Much of “secular” humanism’s complaint about ninnyhammer fundamentalists is simply a remnant of the belief that not everyone enjoys the same capacity to reason—an idea that extends from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell and Avitall Ronnell . Humanism has always depended on an élite because since the beginning it has placed human intelligence at the center of its vision of the world. It is at its worst in the definition wars: a “democratic” movement, an “ethical” worldview, a “progressive” life-stance, a global vision. Whatever contribution the humanist modality has made to these areas of life and interest, they do not add up to whole cloth humanism. And the various “humanist manifestos” have been little short of thievery in eviscerating the term of its modal power and turning a spirit into slogans, banal aphorisms, and more recently billboards: You can be good without God. You don’t need God to be loved. No God, no problem. I suppose it would be irrelevant to the proponents of this insipidity that humanism could not have done what it managed to do if it had begun with these proposals.
In fact, the attempts of movement-humanists to flip the meaning of the term has been degenerative, conceptually sloppy, and subversive. Like many linguistic changes however, the mutually contradictory attempts to redefine and reclaim the term have been based on a wrong understanding of what a limited and informed understanding of humanism might entail.
Although “humanism” is considered nascent in the classical period, it was only descriptively used in an antiquarian sense when Georg Voigt employed it in 1856 to describe the classical learning of the Renaissance.
Much more significant was its use by the “father” of cultural historians, Jacob Burckhardt as a moment (Augenblick) when …
“both sides of human consciousness – the side turned to the world and that turned inward – lay, as it were, beneath a common veil, dreaming or half awake. The veil was woven of faith, childlike prejudices, and illusion; seen through it, world and history appeared in strange hues; man recognized himself only as a member of a race, a nation, a party, a corporation, a family, or in some other general category. It was in Italy that this veil first melted into thin air, and awakened an objective perception and treatment of the state and all things of this world in general; but by its side, and with full power, there also arose the subjective; man becomes a self-aware individual and recognises himself as such.”
That is, humanism was that moment when “humanity” became self-aware—and why, incidentally, the story of Adam becomes vitally important to thinkers like Pico and Madach: as the expulsion from Eden is not seen as a fall of man but as the rise of human responsibility. It paved the way for enormous changes in the university schools of the 17th and 18th century leading finally to Bacon’s Novum Organum and the rejection of tradition (and traditional teachers like Aristotle) as the font of all wisdom.
Without these changes, the Enlightenment would have been a flick in the dark. But the key point is that humanism did not as such align itself with causes. It remained, strictly speaking, the property of the philosophers, “literary” men and women (literae humaniores–humane letters—another name for classics), and, as the word became popular, men of science.
Humanism was not the sum of the socially progressive movements that learning made possible; it was the learning and impulse that created cultural balance and platonic “justice” in a systematic and speciesized form. The early humanists would have declared that learning is the counterweight to all claims of authority and all forms of activism used in favor of (or against) such authority: the Catholic church of their day would have been interchangeable with the “progressive” social and economic regimes of the twentieth century. Even Sartre grasps this conjunction–the irrepressibly subjective and non-dogmatic nature of humanism–in his famouslecture on exstentialism as “a humanism”:
There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.
As a word, humanism has been associated with everything from anarchy (Prudhomme) to the cult of feeling (Renan) to opposition to organized religion (young Marx and the left Hegelians). The fabriquet “secular humanism” to mean a humanism stripped of religious affections and committed to the propagation of “democratic values” and ethical ideals is perhaps the most crippled attempt to sell shreds as cloth or own the baby.
It is especially noxious, however as a usurpation of the term that advocates humanism being closely identified with “secularism” and “non-theism.” Its narrow focus on the practice of science and the use of “reason”–whatever that term is thought to mean–has achieved such hyperbolic and absurd levels that one could be forgiven for wondering why the term humanism (as opposed to atheosecularism, for example) is used at all.
As an historical linguist, I think I know the answer: it’s the desire for prestige-value fueled by what’s known as morphological plasticity—as when Congressmen appeal to the eight lone friends still listening to them as “the American People.”
The effect of the subversion of the idea of humanism by the atheosecularists has been to create a three-headed dog, defined primarily by (a) an American context, specifically identified with native religious yahooism; (b) the endorsement of the “universal” relevance of certain slogans associated with American political culture—especially “democracy,” “free speech” and “secularism”; and (c) under the banner of “reason,” the imposition of a naturalistic or atheist framework and a superstitious (and unproblematised view) of the Enlightenment, Darwin and his successors, and scientific progress. If one wanted to use the periphrasis “real lady” for prostitute, this is the linguists’ ideal example.
From this beast, the most avid secular humanists profess to have derived an ethics–applicable, naturally, to the whole world (not in His hands) but unsurprisingly a little sketchy in particulars.
Secular humanist ethics obliges the human-valuer only to believe in the first three principles and act accordingly. Erasmus, says Dutch cheese.
Linguistically, I am not an “originalist.” But I do believe that words, like movements, can be subverted–not only by scoundrels in search of respectability but even even by well-intentioned users.
There is no apostolic succession of meaning to the word humanism. Yet there is a recent history of abuse, misappropriation, and a concept that has been subverted by contempt or ignorance of historical meaning. Humanism is not a freight train by any other name. It cannot mean what Humpty wants it to mean and nothing else (“With a name like yours” [he said to Alice] “you might be any shape, almost.”) Humanism is not an Alice. It is more like an egg.
Some words–noble words,–should enjoy a peaceful life. They should be left alone to mean what they mean rather than what word-starved men and women want them to mean in the service of private causes. The use of the term humanism by secular humanists is its use by scoundrels in search of a non-emotive word for unbelief. But humanism has never been about unbelief, let alone about the sort of unbelief that contemporary secular humanism espouses. It has always been about belief in a human spirit that rises above even discredited ideas of God and government.
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced) – JRR Tolkien
[i] THE best modern parable of progress was, aptly, ahead of its time. In 1861 Imre Madach published “The Tragedy of Man”, a “Paradise Lost” for the industrial age. The verse drama, still a cornerstone of Hungarian literature, describes how Adam is cast out of the Garden with Eve, renounces God and determines to recreate Eden through his own efforts. “My God is me,” he boasts, “whatever I regain is mine by right. This is the source of all my strength and pride.”
Adam gets the chance to see how much of Eden he will “regain”. He starts in Ancient Egypt and travels in time through 11 tableaux, ending in the icebound twilight of humanity. It is a cautionary tale. Adam glories in the Egyptian pyramids, but he discovers that they are built on the misery of slaves. So he rejects slavery and instead advances to Greek democracy. But when the Athenians condemn a hero, much as they condemned Socrates, Adam forsakes democracy and moves on to harmless, worldly pleasure. Sated and miserable in hedonistic Rome, he looks to the chivalry of the knights crusader. Yet each new reforming principle crumbles before him. Adam replaces 17th-century Prague’s courtly hypocrisy with the rights of man. When equality curdles into Terror under Robespierre, he embraces individual liberty—which is in turn corrupted on the money-grabbing streets of Georgian London. In the future a scientific Utopia has Michelangelo making chair-legs and Plato herding cows, because art and philosophy have no utility. At the end of time, having encountered the savage man who has no guiding principle except violence, Adam is downcast—and understandably so. Suicidal, he pleads with Lucifer: “Let me see no more of my harsh fate: this useless struggle.”
I have to admit that Pope Francis was not my situla of holy water when he came on the scene back in March. To the extent I care about popes, I like ones who dress up, know how to sing, think like theologians and make the Church an easy target for critics like me. I miss you, Benedict. Papa Francesco can’t do any of those things, and now he has also made the church a more difficult target. He thinks the Church should stop talking about abortion and gays and bedroom issues and step out into the sunshine.
Maybe it’s because he comes from a sunny country and has a fairly sunny disposition. Anyway, it’s hard to argue that the church should get out of the bedroom when some of its own priests seem to prefer public toilets and darkened sacristies. Anyone who has paid attention to the history of Catholic dogma in the last forty years knows what is going on. Hard to swallow dogmas (doctrines that have been officially proclaimed by Rome) like the real presence, an ancient one, and the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary into heaven, (newer ones) are being quietly laid away in the attic along with the gold-threaded chasubles and ruby studded chalices. They were beautiful examples of human ingenuity, theology gone wild.
But no one really understands them anymore. A recent survey revealed that nearly half of Catholics didn’t know that they were supposed to believe that in the Mass ordinary bread and wine is actually (but in a mysterious way) transformed into the “body blood soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.” Wars were fought over this doctrine. The map of Europe was transformed because of it. Television comedians used to be censored for going near it in their routines. Who could have predicted a day when Jimmy Fagin’s grandson Trevonne would get asked about it by a pollster and answer “Really? We believe that shit?” But that’s where we are and that is where the Church’s failed attempt at modernization—Vatican II—has brought Mother Church. Attempts to renew devotion to Mary—May processions as of yore and praying the rosary—have not quite convinced people that she is bodily in heaven (the Assumption, 1950) because she was born without sin (Immaculate Conception, 1854) and thus cannot have died. –Death being a punishment for original sin, the effects of which, being the mother of God, she was spared. Everyone likes Mary of course, so no one says much out loud. But almost everybody hated the rosary so don’t look for a groundswell there.
What took the place of what was no longer understood or believed were things that were too easily understood because they had nothing to do with theology. No one has experienced an immaculate conception, but most women knew what pregnancy, birth control, and abortion were. The Gynecological Church was born. The world had moved on, but the Church began to obsess about issues it could not have foreseen in 1969, the year Pope Paul VI issued his absurd salvo against effective birth control. Prior to that all Catholics knew they shouldn’t use condoms, but they did anyway, and it was the man’s responsibility to supply them. With the advent of the birth control pill and related methods of contraception, the church began to worry that it might lose moral control. Only three years later, with the Roe v Wade decision, abortion was decriminalized in the United States. And then, beginning in the 1990’s the possibility of same sex marriage was openly discussed, and in the first decades of the new millennium, became a reality . In an embarrassing way, the extent to which the church was (always had been) immersed in gynecological issues was revealed, and revealed because it was being progressively excluded from any role in making pronouncements about human conception and life.
To make it worse, the prophetic voices the church offered were those of celibate but not necessarily chaste priests who considered marriage an inferior lifestyle option (even if they didn’t say so) and considered birth control and abortion direct assaults on the church’s standard means of replenishment; the large family, or failing that, ample numbers of orphans and adoptees. Undoubtedly many theologians had a high view of what they thought they were doing: Pope John Paul II’s manifestos on “the culture of life” tried to sanctify the question of human existence “from conception to death” arguing that the church has a rightful interest in protecting “human dignity at every step along the way.” To be fair, it isn’t a bad argument, despite the fact that it launches from a series of arguable propositions the failure of any one of which is rather like taking a wing off a jet plane.
But if you think God created you, and established the process whereby you are made, and wished for you to be alive no matter what from the moment the process began until the moment your number is up, then attacking or interrupting the process at any level—murder, capital punishment, war, and of course, abortion—were to be considered violations of the natural law established by God for the propagation of his world. It was a tantalizingly simple calculus designed to sequester what was given to you by God—life—from any power, secular or medical, that wants to take it from you. Catholic pro-life crazies screamed the 7th commandment at abortion doctors as they arrived at family planning clinics. But the Church academicians had a much more sophisticated argument, one the crazies never quite grasped. Even contraception, while nowhere near as bad as abortion, messed with the process, and thus also had to be considered sinful. The church threw war and capital punishment into the mix as flotsam; after all it had had centuries of experience propagating both. But for the sake of consistency and to win hearts and minds in Europe, the spectrum of protectable life was made to include all cases of life being “interrupted” by the decision of an individual or the fiat of the state. And is abortion not an interruption of those natural processes which God ordained for the good of the world at the beginning of time? Of course it is. But whatever the theologians were doing by remaking Thomistic analogies, the ordinary Catholic was seduced into thinking that the modern Catholic Church was really only about vaginas.
Worshipers of the virgin—now the very symbol of obedient motherhood and the unwanted but submissive pregnancy–could do her best service not by crowning her with gardenias in May but maybe by bombing an abortion clinic, interrupting a surgical procedure—even harassing and doing violence to a medical practitioner. When she won the Nobel prize in 1979 Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the most insidious woman ever to be awarded a prize for peace described easy access to birth control alongside infanticide as coequal atrocities. The church’s reaction to gay marriage was somewhat hampered by the pedophile priest scandal of the last twelve years,which sent the interesting message that perhaps getting jiggered under the cassock was okay but it is not okay to kiss or have sexual relations with another man or consider that same-sex tendencies might be as natural as heterosexual ones. We will never know the extent to which priests unhappily tied to vows of sexual celibacy were driven into the corners of the Church rather than openly acknowledge their sexual preferences. What everyone knows is the consequences of denial. Unable to express themselves freely to their fellow priests for fear of censure or being ratted out, they were forced to live their sexual lives in secret, prey on the innocent, ruin lives.
Yet still the church preached against homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered’ and “contrary to God’s will.” It is now 2013 and we have had more than a generation of the Gynecological Church, a church without a clear theological message and a hundred discarded dogmas, that has tried to keep abortion and more recently an improved message about gay marriage front and centre. It has done this for the worst of reasons: to get people to believe in something identifiably Catholic when they have forgotten everything else. To his credit, this pope has recognized, or more likely has been made to recognize, that this obsession with abortion, gays and birth control threatens to replace Catholicism as a church and turn it into a campaign. He seems to understand that if the Church becomes a franchise for a “right to life” movement, a church where, in my limited experience over the last twenty years, every sermon preached by every priest manages to allude to abortion and murder, then it will last as long as the movements that spawned prohibition and temperance, women’s rights, and civil rights—linked inexorably to the conditions that brought them into existence and not fated to outlast them. We do not struggle against earthly powers, Paul the apostle once said, but against principalities and powers.
Translated, that means, big ideas, not social and sexual conventions and trends that the Church has no hope of controlling. I do not expect the church to make abortion a sacrament, though confessing that contraception might be something a just, merciful and compassionate God would want wouldn’t be bad thing to acknowledge. I do not expect the Church to become an advocate of gay marriage—not least because I personally believe that the framing of the gay marriage debate has been preposterous; that what we are really talking about is the human right for people who love each other to live and be intimate with each other and live happily or unhappily ever after, same as other people. My liberal friends implore me to give up my idea of marriage as being out of step with everything else I think. Or else not to talk about it.
But I have always thought—for historical and cultural reasons—that the church holds the imprimatur on the definition of marriage. Marriage only makes sense to me in a religious and cultural context, like penis gourds and hula skirts. But the Church does not hold a patent on human relationships, sexuality, and happiness. I may be alone, but I stubbornly persist in having an Aristotelian idea that marriage is that connection, accidentally (read the Metaphysics before you write to me) between two persons of opposite sexes which results in progeny—its telos and end. You can call the legal union of two people of the same sex a marriage if you want to, you can even add children to the mix. But the union will always lack that defining element that society and culture have assigned to it. No I was not brainwashed by Dominicans to believe that; it simply makes good sense. So let the Church have its Aristotle and its view; but let it also say that the union of man and man and woman and woman is not sexually disordered, is not sin, is not unnatural, is not something the Church needs to condemn. Let a Church that claims to represent the author of Life—nay claims to be able to make him supernaturally present on earth to this day–acknowledge that God made all kinds of people, and that, as in the platonic myth, each of us is wired a little differently. Basically, it’s unlikely that the church can modify its sacramental theology to incorporate same sex love.
That doesn’t mean a hundred theologians from adjacent traditions especially Anglican traditions, won’t try and aren’t trying. But it can modify its teaching about sin. I don’t know whether Pope Francis will prove to be one of the “outstanding” popes of the modern era or a leftover of some of the feel-goodism of post Vatican II liberal theology. It can go either way. Let’s say simply that i am skeptical. It seems to me that all popes, finally, will share in the destiny of their church, which is to be less and less relevant in the ordinary lives of ordinary Catholics. This is not a messaging problem. It is a reality problem. I was lucky enough to grow up in a Church of immense liturgical beauty, that knew who and what it was; the mystical bride of Christ enraptured in a perpetual wedding banquet called the Eucharist. But I Lived to see a church that stumbled arthritically through a failed renewal, tried to be young when it was old, lost its singing voice (maybe Francis is a metaphor) and its self-respect. I am not quite sure however what Francis is saying: Perhaps he really is trying to get the Church out of the bedroom and into the world again.
That’s why he talks so much about the poor, about justice and peace. Things we all like to hear about, now and again. But, as every newspaperman knows, the question isn’t whether peace and justice and the alleviation of poverty are good things. It’s about whether those things sell newspapers—or a Church. Or is Francis saying something different: the Church shouldn’t talk so much about gays and abortion and birth control. There are other things to talk about. If he is saying that, he is admitting defeat—as perhaps he should. But a church that is consigned to silence on such issues has already consigned itself to irrelevance. Is that what he has done?
“Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. … Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it.” Friedrich Schleiermacher (Addresses on Religion, 1799)
TWO THINGS caught my attention last week. One was the total lunar eclipse, which was magnificent to see. The other, not so nice, is a post by someone whose work I have often enjoyed, Julian Baggini, in an unfortunate piece in The Guardian that probably wouldn’t survive a fact-check in an American newspaper.
It concerns what even he says is an unscientific survey of “beliefs” held by British churchgoers in Bristol, UK, using the following procedure:
“The online version [of my survey] was taken by a self-selecting sample of 767 churchgoers, the majority of whom read Comment is Free [his Guardian blog] at least occasionally and who are mostly aged 18-35. This is not a representative sample of typical practising Christians. The paper version was completed by 141 churchgoers in Bristol, again not randomly sampled.”
And with this vote of self-confidence in the result:
“These apparent limitations in some ways make the results even more interesting, because you’d expect the sample group in both instances to be more educated and liberal than the average. We can then be fairly confident that the surveys would not overstate the extent to which people held conventional, some might say more simplistic, versions of Christian doctrine.”
Leaving aside the improbability of anyone taking (or bothering to take) an “I go to church”- survey in England being unrepresentative of an “I go to church”-sample, but more “liberal than the average,” the study is very strange at a number of levels, which already disqualifies it for global significance. It absolutely disqualifies it in America, where religious knowledge is at an all time low, but (predictably) constantly mapped and charted in more empirical ways.
But it also is, as Jonathan Chaplin says, a non-starter in England, a country of smart but lazy people who generally like Christmas but don’t generally like sermons. Chaplin notes the procedural and methodological shortcomings of Baggini’s survey, but focuses most of his attention on the “Four Articles” which the author proposes as a way forward in creating atheist-religious dialogue. Unfortunately, Julian seems intent on wanting religious people to come to the bargaining table naked, presuppositionally speaking. While I applaud his effort to get atheists talking to religious people who are open to a sane view of the world, I’m not at all sure that this survey helps the conversation along.
THE following ORB (1999) Poll tells the story of religion’s decline in the UK, and all subsequent polls show similar southward drift for all religions except, of course, Islam. (The Empire bites back).
About Jesus Christ:
14% do not know who he is.
Less than 50% “believe in Christ”. This probably means that they do not believe that he is the son of God; the exact meaning of the question was not defined.
22% believe that he is “just a story.”
49% identify themselves as affiliated with a religious group.
27% belong to the Church of England (Episcopalian, Anglican). This is a drop from 40% in 1990.
(The latest YouGov poll cited by the British Humanist Association notes that by 2015, the level of church attendance in the UK is predicted to fall to 3,081,500 people, or 5% of the population.)
9% are Roman Catholics, unchanged since 1990.
3% of the population goes to church only at Easter and Christmas.
46% say that they have never gone to church at all.
Baggini’s upshot, if that is the word, is that he thinks that given the choice between Christianity being all about practice or belief, belief wins. He is writing as a philosopher of popular culture whose interest in the subject is correspondingly tentative:
So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.
Remember the silly game everyone played five years ago ending every sentence with the non-sequitur ”in bed,” and how much you wanted it to be funny but it almost never was? We need to finish that paragraph with, “In Bristol.” Actually, its parochialism doesn’t begin to suggest the problem with the survey: its problem is inherent to the very questions that the surveyor posed. But more on this later….
BAGGINI’S survey may play well with atheists who are looking for any reason, any at all, that church-going is eo ipso irrational, but it is embarrassing for those of us who pore over serious literature and surveys of the morphology of belief. Not that everyone needs to have read everything on the topic, but it beggars imagination that he does not bother to know any of the recent literature on faith and practice in its wider context: Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy (2008) and his American Jesus (2003) for starters, but even (the work of someone with whom I rarely agree) Rodney Stark’s What Americans Really Believe (2008) is statistically important, and University of Chicago sociologist of religion Alan Wolfe’s superb book The Transformation of American Religion (2005). If on the other hand he intended his survey to be limited to Bristol, why call the survey, grandly, ”The Myth that religion is more about practice than belief”? Them’s fightin’ words.
While the professional God-haters try to persuade us that religion is the same old bugaboo that it always was (All the better to melt your brain my dears) serious researchers like Wolfe have come up with a very different picture: American culture, he says, has come to dominate American religion to such a point that “We are all mainstream now.” The stereotype of religion as a fire-and-brimstone affair is obsolete. Gone is the language of sin and damnation, and forgotten are the clear delineations between denominations. They have been replaced with a multi-dimensional God and a trend towards sampling new creeds and doctrines. “American religion is less radical, less contentious, and less dangerous than it is generally perceived to be.”
I am not entirely convinced that every part of Wolfe’s assessment of the transformation of religion in America is dead-on accurate, especially in political terms, but the trends he discusses are real enough and the transformation of evangelical Protestantism shows that it has been as much affected by being “mainstreamed” as it was effective in influencing the mainstream. A part of this transformation has been doctrinal accommodation, the process first described by Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy and much revised in his 2008 study, Religious America. Berger was surprised that the process of secularization was not irreversible (i.e., does not lead to the eradication of religious belief) but transformative: religion learns to live within and to transform a culture. The prophetic version of the same idea was put forward in 1951 in H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.
The larger question is implied by Baggini’s verdict that religious practice is a discrete matter, separate from faith or at least from certain metaphysical propositions. As a philosopher he is undoubtedly thinking of the Kantian tradition where this bifurcation is normative. Practice is the realm of the senses, and usually means à la Schleiermacher and his successors, doing good or doing what duty (Pflicht) requires. If it can be shown that religion relies heavily on irrational propositions offered as “claims,” however, then the do-good part of religion might be rendered comparatively minor, which, of course, is where a certain kind of atheist might struggle to keep it–in the chambers of some discredited rule-ethics hell. But this approach, even in Bristol, would require us to turn the clock back on the understanding of faith and practice three hundred years, dig up Bishop Ussher (or Michael Wigglesworth if you prefer), parade him through the streets and say, “Scary, isn’t he?”
Most Christians experience faith and practice as two prongs of the same fork. More important perhaps, the terms “faith” and “practice” are theological conventions going back to the fifth century writer Prosper of Aquitaine, not scientific ones. Anthropology since the late nineteenth century has operated on the assumption that doctrine and to a lesser extent dogma are rationalizations of religious behaviour: practice precedes doctrine (belief in a systematic and codified form) and liturgy (codified behaviour) and also modifies it. The ritual (practice)-myth (story) relationship has been a topic since E. B Tylor first studied indigenous cultures in the late nineteenth century, though he thought ritual came second in the order of religious culture. The myth/belief- first and the ritual/praxis-first debate has been lively and inconclusive, but it is increasingly rare, as Melentinsky surveys the relationship over a number of decades, to think of belief and practice as separate domains. Proclaiming “faith” the winner over “practice” on the basis of what 700-plus Bristol Christians think about Jesus is fatally vulnerable to scientific critique and edges near to being a false dichotomy. The late archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie recounted a sermon he once gave at a Yorkshire parish on the divinity of Jesus. It was, he said, like the belief, a bit obscure. Following the service, an earnest old parishioner shook his hand vigorously and said to him, “You’ve convinced me sir, but then I never had a doubt, that Jesus were a very nice man.”
In previous work Baggini has at least acknowledged that religion can be relatively benign. If Jews and Christians acted out their faith in ways that a troubling number of Muslims still do, Christianity would be a monstrosity. But (to parse Bultmann on why he didn’t believe in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus) it’s not in the newspaper. The Christian-right moral agenda is a monstrosity. American Christians meddling in politics and attempting to leverage political outcomes is a monstrosity. The attitudes and personalities and self-righteousness of extreme-right Christian organizations, not towards just unbelievers but towards other believers is a monstrosity. But, marvelous to note, these things, collectively, seldom add up to catastrophic outcomes. The stories of Waco and randy Mormon elders with fourteen year-old child-brides are only newsworthy because they are exceptional–and (I have to say it) not the kind of thing that happens in Bristol.
IT’S POSSIBLE, of course, to reduce Christian belief to the presumed “absurdities” that historical Christianity has embraced over the centuries–everything (one can argue) from the trinity to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy (which is not the same East to West) to the doctrine of the Real Presence for Catholics, which is not literally maintained outside the Roman tradition. It is also possible to embrace a more radical solution to the matter: since all of these beliefs have the same source, they differ only in degree of irrationality and can be dismissed tamquam idem.
But to equate the most absurd things Christian extremists in the Bible Belt [see postscript below] believe with what the vast majority of Christians believe is simply statistically false. Most Christians in Bristol (though fewer of them) are a lot like most Christians in Milwaukee. They go to church to worship God, it is true; but that their going to church expresses a robust commitment to the irrational isn’t true. They may well go to church, as William James would have calculated, because they regard churchgoing as a “live choice”– an action with an internal and subjective appeal, not a rational or forced appeal. Or as Schleiermacher wrote in 1799, out of intuition and feeling.
Most troubling of all is Baggini’s notion that asking questions about the divinity of Jesus is of the same order as asking about the weather–ripping a first century nomen out of context and asking a naive parishioner whether he “believes” it. Countless surveys in America show that religious knowledge is at an all time low. And assuming that there is some correlation between what I know (i.e., what I can define) and what I believe, “at face value,” to quote the Baggini criterion, it would appear that the real story is that many Christians act without direct reference to anything in the doctrinal treasure chest. Ubi ignorantia ibi nihil, as a Benedictine teacher of mine used to smile when I didn’t do my homework. All I can assume is that Julian’s teachers weren’t Benedictine, but I know they were Catholic.
DON’T KNOW how you can take anything at face value if you don’t know the face value: Catholics in America don’t know by 50% that their church teaches that the bread, in the Eucharist, is transformed into “the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ,” the central doctrine of the Real Presence. The corollary of that is that they don’t know much about the sacrament of ordination, which confers this mysterious power on a priest. This might imply similar gaps in their knowledge about even more esoteric things, like theImmaculate Conception, which their grandmother probably didn’t quite get. No wonder they don’t know whether to genuflect, pop gum or bow politely on entering the pew. When they did know, they bent their knees.
More startlingly, a number of studies have shown the reverse of Baggini’s conclusion: that believers throughout the Catholic world do not know or do not accept their Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception–the effect of years of disinformation and irrelevance, ignorance and indifference as to papal infallibility, and skepticism about the authority of the church in general in ethical matters. The Pew Forum Poll showed that only about half of those questioned could name the four gospels, and only 16% knew that Protestants, rather than Catholics, teach that salvation comes through faith alone. It is difficult to imagine, given this intellectual lassitude, that anyone in America can be trusted to define the larger doctrinal issues and warrants: trinity, the divinity of Jesus, salvation and atonement, and justification even at a depreciated value. Other polls have described the enormous elasticity not only of specific beliefs, but also the core beliefs of the Christian faith, including those associated with God and the divinity of Jesus. Belief in God is not a constant even among worshipers who have a strong belief in god, and definitions and ideas of God differ dramatically from denomination to denomination and region to region. Yet, many continue to “practice” their faith, perform works of kindness and mercy, and act charitably towards each other as Jesus commended.
MODEST PROPOSAL: Reactive and Non-reactive Beliefs
It is pretty clear to anyone who studies the nature of belief and doctrine historically that Christian teaching can be divided into two categories: Reactive belief and Nonreactive-belief. Think of reactive belief as radioactive: it has the potential to do harm because it invites defensive and aggressive behaviour from its proponents.
Nonreactive belief is the essentially harmless and deradiated form of beliefs that are harmful and toxic: it is the tribute money Christian faithful pay to the tradition, without being adamantly committed to any of them or especially knowledgeable about any of them to any significant degree. It is not that they are entirely negotiable, but they are subject to the form of negotiation called interpretation. Many Christians are not especially curious about them, though some are. Most reactive belief is dogmatic. Most nonreactive belief is intuitive, though sometimes it is expressed in doctrine.
In the Reactive category, I would put the following:
- The plenary inspiration or uniqueness of a sacred text, whether the Bible or Qur’an
- Any ethical or moral system derived from that doctrine
- Doctrines and theories of war or social practice based on the theory of inspiration
- A political system or theory of the state, church or mosque that took its guiding principles from a scriptural perspepctive, or understood that perspective as normative
- Any claims that scriptural teaching possesses historical, humanistic or scientific authority over scientific inquiry, experiment, and investigation
- Eschatology (a “lively” belief in the end of the world, punishment, reward); especially the doctrine of satisfaction, or the physical pleasures of the elect, as in Islam and some minor sects of Christianity
It would be interesting to see a survey in which only questions about these beliefs were asked. Anyone who holds such beliefs could not be expected to have a serious conversation with a non-believer; nor would he be likely to have a very long conversation with most Christian believers.
In the Nonreactive category, I would place all intra- and supra-biblical doctrines that (even if they claim scriptural warrant) have no practical implications and no clear relevance to ordinary life. These beliefs have largely been rendered harmless through millennia of development and, especially, interpretation. They are the core beliefs of Christianity in an “honorary” or traditional sense, and are therefore irrelevant to any discussion between atheists and Christian believers.
- Belief in God and interpretations of that belief
- The “divinity” of Jesus, including the story of his resurrection
- Much of the non-apocalyptic teaching of Jesus (e.g., love of neighbour)
- The doctrine of merit earned through human achievement
- Belief in the special status of the human person
- The mortal existence of the human soul as an expression of humanity
- The worship of God as a communal expression of faith
- Many parochial and specific doctrines of a largely devotional nature, e.g, the eucharist
I cannot help but notice that Julian Baggini’s survey largely focuses on questions about the non-reactive and “honorary” beliefs of the faith. (Respondents could hardly have been counted on to endorse the most reactive ones.) There are connections between the two lists, of course, and anyone not wont to make distinctions or explore the process of theological development can be forgiven for putting a pox on both lists. I understand categorical rejection of religious beliefs; I just do not support it.
But categorical rejection isn’t as easy as it looks. It is not as simple as saying, for example, “The divinity of Jesus is based on the doctrine of plenary inspiration” and is thus reactive. In fact that is not true. The divinity of Jesus is an interpretation that cannot rely on the “clear and obvious sense” of the Bible. It isn’t the case that the belief in revelation entails plenary inspiration, or that salvation entails doctrines of heaven and hell–not even in their biblical form. The resurrection of Jesus, like the account of the creation of the world in Genesis, are stories rather than beliefs or doctrines. Neither appears to be ‘reactive’ to me, though at a literal level they are false..
The disjunct between reactive and nonreactive doctrines is also clear from the practice of most Christians: the Christianity most critics of fundamentalism deplore consists of attempts to export and impose reactive beliefs. The essentially irrelevant Christianity that bothers almost no one and seems to interest fewer and fewer people, except hardshell atheists, is essentially nonreactive.
POSCTSCRIPT: The Bible Belt
NATURALLY when it comes to religion, context matters. I once heard a “British evangelical” described as someone who still believes church services are held on Sunday. Pollsters have operated for decades now on the knowledge that Christianity is really “Christianities,” to remember Oxford religionist Peggy Morgan‘s famous caution about “religious ethics.” Christianity is stratified by doctrine, first of all, but then geographically as well. ”Geographically” moreover does not mean just London, Paris and New York, but sectorally across the United States. H. L. Mencken was the first person to use the term Bible Belt as a description, but he was simply being attentive to what later sociologists would graph as “audience” for religious radio (later TV), and core traditional-conservative protestant values and beliefs. BB-Christianity tended to be poor, white, southern or southwestern uneducated and defensive–almost isolationist–rather than aggressive. Core beliefs included the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation by faith-experience (born againism), and of course the source of all of it: the inerrant authority of the Bible. Two early, and still readable, basic studies were George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (1980) and S.W. Tweedie’s seminal article “Viewing the Bible Belt” in the Journal of Popular Culture (11; 865-76). The worst study of the subject, alas, because he was a first-class biblical scholar in other ways, was Oxford’s James Barr’s crack at understanding it in his 1978 book Fundamentalism.
Since those studies, conservative Christianity has grown wildly, and the Bible Belt like the rest of America has become fat. In the map following, the areas usually associated with the Belt are shown in red, but by all accounts, even Tweedie’s study, it has both a northerly and westerly direction. Some studies identify it closely with the beliefs of about 24 conservative protestant groups; others see it more strongly and organizationally tied to the Southern Baptist Convention, which recently went on record as wanting to change its name because of “bad press” and misunderstanding of its goals.
To complicate things, there are export Bible belts as well as indigenous ones in Australia, Canada, and even the U.K. (for some reason, in Surrey, southwest of London). Moreover, the term is often applied outside the United States to areas which simply show a statisticaly higher than average degree of church- attendance, and which blend familiar anti-science rhetoric with socialist politics. The Free Churches in the United Kingdom, for example (for historical reasons) are associated with Unitarianism and have a very low doctrinal profile, but their belief would be completely out of line with the agenda of the Unitarian community in North America.