Monday, October 01, 2012

History, nonsense and atheists (interesting and boring)

Not least because I'm someone whose new historical project focuses on an aspect of religious history, there were several parts of this interview with historian Quentin Skinner where I found myself nodding.

Art of Theory: Under the influence of your methodology, a number of scholars including some of your former students have sought to put religion back in the picture as a crucial part of the intellectual context in which texts must be understood. You yourself have emphasized the importance of theology in the Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Yet you’ve been criticized in your later work for downplaying the importance of religious considerations. What do you make of these criticisms?

Skinner: Yes, a very interesting point to me because I think I’ve been insensitive to it. One of the most extraordinary things to anyone of my age is the re-sacrilizing of the world. If you were brought up on Weberian—to say nothing of Marxist—social philosophy, then the secularization image of modernity was absolutely central to our self-image. And that has gone into reverse in a way that completely mystifies me.

It’s true that in the Foundations of Modern Political Thought book there’s a great deal of theology and a great deal of discussion of religious principles in relation to political change. There are chapters which are entirely about Lutheran, Calvinist, and Scholastic theology, and I try to tell a story in which they are intimately meshed with politics. I can remember, when I was writing that book that my wife, Sue [James], said she began to worry that I was going to become a convert! So I certainly don’t feel that I underplayed the role of religion in that text, although so important has religion become to people’s sensibilities again in our time that that is something that is widely said about it.

As to my more recent work, I am conscious and even self-conscious about the fact that I do try to focus my historical attention on issues in respect of which my feelings about religion and theology don’t have to obtrude.

I am not a religious person. Of course, that doesn’t mean I am not a spiritual person. I really resent the assumption that you are not a spiritual person unless you are a religious person. But I have no religious beliefs and much worse than that, I’m a kind of boring atheist.

I think there are two kinds of interesting atheists. There are those who think like Feuerbach, that religion is the deformation of very deep human feelings and aspirations. Or else, there are those who think that although religion may be false, it may be very useful as a binding force in society, in the way that someone like Hobbes thinks. I just think that, as far as I can see, there is no good reason to espouse any of the tenets of the religious hypothesis in any of the forms that I know of it. For me, it’s nothing but nonsense.

That’s what I mean by being a boring atheist, and in consequence I’m not very interested in the history of religion. It’s difficult to be interested in the history of something that you think is nonsense.


Marcellina said...

I have just begun reading "The Evolution of God", which is, I guess, more of an Ev-psych view of the history of religion. I cannot yet say whether the book is interesting or boring.

John Carter Wood said...

I'd be interested in hearing what your verdict is. There seem to be a number of different studies of evolution and religion emerging recently. I'm quite sure that there's _some_ connection, though exactly how the evolutionary process has led to beings so prone to religion seems to be a still open question.