Religion is the key to history, Lord Acton wrote. In today’s intellectual circles, however, it’s more like the skunk at the garden party. To many intellectuals, religion is a private matter at best, and most appropriately considered in terms of its functions rather than the significance of its beliefs, let alone its truth claims. At worst, it’s the main source of the world’s conflicts and violence—what Gore Vidal, in his Lowell Lecture at Harvard University in 1992, called “the great unmentionable evil” at the heart of our culture.Good questions all. I think most historians realize that we shouldn't summarily dismiss something because it doesn't jibe with our world view. We would do well to accept and acknowledge the sincerity in which historical subjects held their religion, political ideology or other ideas. Just because they may have been mis- less- or under-informed doesn't mitigate the genuineness of their belief. Their beliefs were held and reinforced for some reason, and it couldn't have all been due to negative reinforcement or playing to human vices, could it?
Such grim assessments are certainly debatable. It’s a simple fact, for example, that, contrary to the current scapegoating of religion, more people were slaughtered during the 20th century under secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals, and in the name of secularist ideologies, than in all the religious persecutions in Western history. But there is little point in bandying about charges and countercharges. If we hope to transcend the seemingly endless culture-warring over religion, we need detailed, objective data about the state of religion in today’s world, and wise, dispassionate discussion of what this evidence means for our common life.
Is religion central or peripheral? Is it disappearing, as Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and other proponents of the strong secularization thesis have claimed? Or is religion actually resurgent, as more recent observers such as Peter Berger, David Martin, Rodney Stark, and Philip Jenkins have claimed? Is it a positive force, as some have argued from the evidence of the “South African miracle,” the peaceful transition from apartheid to equality? Or is it pathological, as much of the post-9/11 commentary has assumed without argument?
Monday, June 06, 2005
Lord Acton wrote that "Religion is the key to history" and Os Guinness, writing for Wilson Quarterly (a book review of of Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart) repeats Acton's statement and notes that contemporary historians are simply not doing their due diligence with regard to religion.