Intellectual impact of religious beliefs.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about religious belief at some of my favourite blog-haunts this week. Over at Samizdata.net Brian Micklethwait touched on compulsion in the workplace in so far as it applied to religious beliefs, and there’s also been a lot of discussion at 2blowhards.com. Michael Blowhard pondered the individual’s need to express the religious impulse, and how we deal with it in this secular age, and Friedrich von Blowhard ventured some views on how modern painting had become a secular religion.
It’s all rather deep and thoughtful stuff. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring, etc…


Anyway, as I was getting myself slightly organised this morning, I reached for a book to read on the bus. Feeling in need of a cultural lift, I selected a collection of Dr Samuel Johnson’s writings. I hoped to find something good to sink my teeth into from the 18th century’s pre-eminent English man of letters.
And having read the posts I mentioned above, I was alert to religious allusions, and they abound in Johnson’s letters. It reminded me once again that in his day, it was quite normal for a leading intellectual to have a strong and vibrant religious faith.
And Johnson’s faith, of course, was what we would call ‘fundamentalist’. He took seriously the notion that at the end of his life, he would be held to account by God for his own personal actions. In Europe or Australia, it is very rare for a public figure to express such beliefs these days. In the United States, of course, it is different – the President is comfortable talking about his own faith, and this is not seen as an issue- indeed, I get the impression that a man who is not comfortable with faith is going to have trouble getting elected to high office.
Politics aside, though, few leading intellectuals would admit to holding a fundamentalist view of religion. The socially acceptable alternative is to hold what is known as a ‘modernist’ view (famously explained in the British TV series “Yes Prime Minister”).
What caused this gap between US views on religious beliefs and European ones? I can only guess. My guess is that there has been a combination of things.
The French Revolution, which, while it had a massive impact on the European intellectual classes, also occurred at a time when the nascent US republic seemed determined to emphasise how different it was from “Old Europe” and was not very receptive to external influences. While all of Europe was in ferment with the Reign of Terror and the Revolutionary Wars, the United States was in it’s early stages under the consensual government of President Washington.
Of course there were plenty of European intellectuals who chose exile in America but they came to learn from the new Republic, not to instruct. No doubt there were those that felt instruction was necessary, but Americans were in no mood to listen.
Another reason for the gap was pointed out by Friedrich von Blowhard- the way in which Religion in Europe was seen as part of the Established Order of things, in a way which it wasn’t in the US. So for European intellectuals, who generally pride themselves on being subversive, it would have been perverse for them to cling to a religious belief system that was part of the social order they wished to undermine.
The nature of Establishment religion in Europe also helped to discredit religious institutions with the general populace in a way that never happened in the US. So it became electorally feasible for European statesmen to be agnostic or atheist in a way that it possibly still has not in the US.
Why does this matter? I think it is helpful to be mindful of these things. I am an atheist myself, and it did not really occur to me until I had another look at Dr Johnson that having a belief in an afterlife, and being judged for one’s actions in this life, is going to have a larger impact in one’s intellectual thinking then I previously considered.
Of course, I was aware of this in the context of Islamic inspired suicide bombers, who do their evil deeds under the impression that 72 virgins await them in paradise. But there is a lot more to it then that, and that the Christian context of judgement is still a factor in the US.
I do not know what the precise implications are. At a wild guess, a person mindful of judgement and an afterlife who is given a policymaking role might be more mindful of the long term consequences of a policy, and less prone to falling into ‘the ends justify the means’ thinking.
Although given recent events in Iraq, I’m probably wrong there too.

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