Peter Harrison

Some Disjointed Thoughts on Democracy, Plato, and the Christian Roots of Liberalism

Yesterday I was inspired by someone dear to me to write out these thoughts. In a rather uncomfortable disagreement, this person, after I had complained about the direction society was moving (a common aghast of the postgraduate), they simply retorted, “that’s democracy.” My first impulse was to aggressively and disdainfully disagree. But I knew this person had a healthy, I think, ambiguity about their beliefs, in regards to society, politics, and even religion.  So I held my tongue. But the more I thought about this brief, impromptu, and somewhat trite conversation, the more I felt obliged to give it greater scrutiny.

Do we, in fact, live in a democracy? A related question, and perhaps more important, is whether democracy happens to be the best form of government? My interlocutor had made, at least in my mind, some uncomfortable assumptions.

This is the stuff of Philosophy 101. My immediate thoughts, upon reflection (and during a sleepless night), turned to Plato and his Republic. Plato, most of us fondly remember, had proposed that there were at least five forms of government: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Now, it seems clear to me that we most certainly do not live in a democracy. Rather, our system of government, and what seems to me what most nations aspire to, wittingly or unwittingly, is a “multarchy”—a term coined by University of Notre Dame professor of philosophy Gary Gutting. And as Gutting himself put it in an article he published for the New York Times in 2011, America is a “complex interweaving of many forms of government.” That seems to me to be right. Emphatically, then, we do not and never have lived in a pure democracy. In fact, not only does this seem impossible, it also seems undesirable.

According Gutting, our bureaucracy corresponds to Plato’s aristocracy, our military to timocracy, the oligarchy to the super wealthy, and so on. In other words, America’s form of government, in some very particular and peculiar ways, corresponds to all five forms of Plato’s list. What Gutting leaves out in his analysis, however, is that Plato listed these five forms of government in his dialogue in descending order. Thus democracy is just shy of tyranny, and is ultimately a mob-like beast. According to Plato, it is only in an aristocracy, led by the unwilling philosopher-king (a constant theme, I was reminded the other day, in C.L. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, which recently aired on Australian television) that comprises the best form of government. Do we really need any reminders that so-called “democracy” has led to all kinds of atrocities?

But of course other systems of government have as well. But here I am reminded particularly by one of the Founding Fathers of American independence. In a long letter to John Taylor (1753-1824), John Adams (1735-1826) wrote:

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.

But suppose for a moment we do indeed live in a democracy, and that such a form of government is just—then it seems to me that we have to assume that people in general are good, and, in turn, that they make good decisions. That seems to me to be utterly false. We are a broken people. Angry, greedy and self-centered, ugly and spiteful, our politicians and polity alike constantly make poor decisions. Thus it seems that any idea of a successful democracy was built on the dream of a morally upright society, or, at least, on the idea of a morally upright governing body.

This has finally led me, curiously enough, to Samuel Moyn’s recent articles on Christianity and liberalism on the Immanent Frame. I have mentioned Moyn in another context, in his biting critique of Jonathan Israel’s radical Enlightenment project. But here, and in several other recent works, Moyn has taken up the task of tracing the origins of modern day conceptions of “human rights.” In an earlier post, Moyn argued that

…the original context of the European embrace of human rights—in which they were linked to the conservative defense of human dignity and attached to the figure of the human person—was in Christianity’s last golden age on the Continent…The ‘death of Christian Europe,’ as one might call it, forced…a complete reinvention of the meaning of the human rights embedded in European identity both formally and really since the war. The only serious thread of persistence was, ironically, in Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland, not coincidentally the main exception of Christian collapse…[in time, however,] Human rights had become a secular doctrine of the left; how that happened is another story.

More recently, Moyn argues that such notions as “human dignity” and “human rights” can be traced to Pope Pius XII in his Christmas Message of 1942. Pius XII’s “Five Points for Ordering Society” begins thus:

1. Dignity of the Human Person. He who would have the Star of Peace shine out and stand over society should cooperate, for his part, in giving back to the human person the dignity given to it by God from the very beginning; should oppose the excessive herding of men, as if they were a mass without a soul; their economic, social, political, intellectual and moral inconsistency; their dearth of solid principles and strong convictions, their surfeit of instinctive sensible excitement and their fickleness.

He should favor, by every lawful means, in every sphere of life, social institutions in which a full personal responsibility is assured and guaranteed both in the early and the eternal order of things. He should uphold respect for and the practical realization of the following fundamental personal rights; the right to maintain and develop one’s corporal, intellectual and moral life and especially the right to religious formation and education; the right to worship God in private and public and to carry on religious works of charity; the right to marry and to achieve the aim of married life; the right to conjugal and domestic society; the right to work, as the indispensable means towards the maintenance of family life; the right to free choice of state of life, and hence, too, of the priesthood or religious life; the right to the use of material goods; in keeping with his duties and social limitations.

According to Moyn, this formulation (or, perhaps, reformulation) of human rights and dignity was novel for the time. And although he does admit that others have claimed the fundamental Christian origins of human rights (here, e.g., he cites John Witte, Jr. and Nicholas Wolsterstorff), his concern is the “novel communion between Christianity and human rights, on the 1940s and shortly before.”

That’s all well and good. Moyn is certainly entitled to his delimitation. But what struck me most this morning, upon reading Moyn’s piece, was his supposedly radical claim that “without Christianity, our commitment to the moral equality of human beings is unlikely to have come about…”

To be sure, Moyn’s outlook, as far as I can tell, is entirely secular, in the sense that he is not offering some Christian apologia. Rather, he is simply trying to get the history right. Here his mention of John Witte, Jr.’s The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (2008) is particularly interesting. Witte argues that “Calvin and his followers developed a distinct theology and jurisprudence of human rights and gradually cast these rights teachings into enduring institutional and constitutional forms in early modern Europe and America.” This is essentially a counterargument against those who still claim that “human rights” was an offspring of Enlightenment thought (à la mode de Jonathan Israel). This argument is not entirely new. W. Stanford Reid back in 1986 published a short article in Christian History arguing that the Genevan reformer “not only set forth ideas which exercised a powerful influence for democracy in his own day, but also that his ideas had a broad influence on subsequent political thinking in the western world. Although the theological connection which he made between politics and Christianity has largely disappeared, he can still be regarded as one of the fathers of modern democracy.”

This emphasis on modern politics in continuity with traditional Christian ideas, and Calvinism in particular, is also seen in other areas of scholarship. Some have argued, for example, that Reformation theology played a particularly important role in the development of modern science. R. Hooykaas’ Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (1972), of course, is an oft-cited example. More recent work by Susan Schreiner in The Theater of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (1991), Peter Harrison in The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), Kenneth J. Howell in God’s Two Books: Copernican and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (2002), L.S. Koetsier in Natural Law and Calvinist Political Theory (2003), and most recently Jason Foster in his essay, “The Ecology of John Calvin,” published in Reformed Perspectives Magazine (2005), also attest to this trend. Even a completely “secular” (or, at least, thought to be completely secular) and obscure concept like “transhumanism” turns out to have roots in the Apostle Paul (!), as Peter Harrison and Joseph Wolyniak have recently pointed out in the latest issue of Notes and Queries.

So where does that leave me? The idea of a pure democracy is, of course, an illusion. It is rooted, like most of our modern concepts, on particularly theological ideas. Plato had rejected democracy because he saw the masses as credulous and uninformed, subject to their emotions and generally blind to critical thought. In short, the masses cannot govern themselves. John Adams seems to have had a little more hope, but not much more. Democracy always ends up committing suicide. His hope, however, if Moyn, Witte, Reid, and others are correct, was rooted in a Christian theology (Calvinist or Thomist, depending on who you ask) of human dignity and rights.

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The English Deists

In addition to reading Cunningham, I have spent the last several days reading works on the Cambridge Platonists and seventeenth-century latitudinarian theologians: Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), Peter Sterry (1613-72), George Rust (d.1670), John Wilkins (1614-72), Henry More (1614-87), Ralph Cudworth (1617-88), John Smith (1618-52), John Worthington (1618-71), Nathaniel Culverwel (1619-51), Simon Patrick (1626-1707), John Tilloston (1630-94), Edward Stillingfleet (1635-99), Joseph Glanvill (1636-80), John Norris (1657-1711), and Richard Cumberland (1631-1718). Peter Harrison has provided extensive comments on these figures in his Religion and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (1990),  The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), and The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The Cambridge Platonists attempted to “establish some final court of appeal on matters of religious doctrine” against the rising religious pluralism in the aftermath of the English Reformation. They did this by grounding religious belief not in institutional authority but in the “certitude of the mind itself.” Their religion was a “rational religion.” Although each held a strong view of “reason,” the Cambridge Platonists continued to take the doctrine of the Fall quite seriously.

In addition to Harrison, I have found Jackson I. Cope’s Joseph Glanvill: Anglican Apologist (1956), C.A. Patrides’ The Cambridge Platonists (1969), Richard S. Westfall’s Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (1970), and Jon Parkin’s Science, Religion and Politics in Restoration England (1999) helpful in contextualizing the lives and thought of these men.

Hudson - The English DeistsStudying the Cambridge Plantonists has quite naturally led me to the so-called English deists: Charles Blount (1654-93), Matthew Tindal (1656-1733), Thomas Woolston (1669-1733), John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Collins (1679-1729), Thomas Morgan (d.1743), Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), and Peter Annet (1693-1769). This is how I came across Wayne Hudson‘s insightful two volume work, The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment (2009) and Enlightenment and Modernity: The English Deists and Reform (2009).

Hudson points out that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians looked back on this group of thinkers as attempting to “undermine belief in revealed religion, while claiming to believe in natural religion.” We see this, for example, in John Leland’s A View of the Principal Deistical Writers (1754-6) and Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth century (1876). This pattern of interpretation, a paradigm of belief and unbelief, has now become common parlance. Hudson, however, seeks to challenge this interpretation.

According to Hudson, “the writers known as English deists were not atheists or deists in an exclusive or final sense, but controversialists working with various publics for a range of purposes in a period in which ‘the public’ was being constructed.” There were “multiple deisms” and multiple social roles in which each figure was active. Most of the so-called English deists in fact denied that sobriquet. As Hudson writes: “Blount used the term ‘deist,’ but not of himself. Toland denied all his life that he was a deist. Collins used it only once in print, and then of others. Tindal never claimed in print to be a deist, although he outlined the stance of a ‘Christian deist,’ a position also adopted by Morgan. Chubb admitted that he was trying to promote deism, but refused to call himself a deist in a sense exclusive of Christianity, while Woolston and Middleton claimed to be trying to defend Christianity against ‘the deists.'” This is consistent with the fact that most of the English deists were “constrained by livelihood or social role to be Christians, and some of them were obliged to maintain a level of involvement with the established Church.”

The claim that the English deists were religious rationalists is also challenged. Religious rationalism begins with Richard Hooker’s (1554-1600) Of Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie (1593), in which he insisted that reason could know the law of God without revelation. The Cambridge Platonists supported another form of religious rationalism, one informed by patristic and scholastic sources, as well as Renaissance Platonism. But like Hooker, they were all supernaturalists who found salvation only in revelation. And finally the latitudinarians articulated a “reasonable version of Christianity in plain language,” yet continued to hold a high Christology.

Although these writers certainly impacted the English deists, and many of them quoted the Cambridge Platonists consistently in their own writings, it is “misleading,” writes Hudson, to suggest that the deists “simply took the latitudinarians’ principles one step further.” Indeed, the English deists “almost all rejected Athanasian Christianity, in so far as it treated God as a person to whom human beings had obligations.”

Although the English deists are often associated with the Enlightenment, Hudson claims this association also needs revision. There are three forms of Enlightenment that must be distinguished: the Protestant Enlightenment, Radical Enlightenment, and Early Enlightenment. As Hudson argues, “if these writers had really been the outright enemies of Christianity they were accused of being, they would have lost their jobs and ended in prison.” Moreover, “they were not free citizens of an international secular republic of letters, but writers dependent on Christian acceptance and toleration, without which it was difficult for them to pay their bills and buy books.”

In his first chapter, Hudson provides the “genealogies of deism,” concluding that “whereas in Catholic countries deism was more clandestine and sometimes aggressively anti-Christian, in Protestant countries thinkers might interest themselves in various deisms without abandoning Christianity or their social and political identities as Protestants.”

In the following chapter on Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), often referred to as the “father of English deism,” Hudson argues that Herbert was a “Renaissance eclectic influenced by Platonism, Stoicism and Hermeticism.” He was likely influenced by the theistic naturalism of Jean Bodin (c.1529-96), and many of his contemplates viewed his work on religion as ecumenical, particularly his De Veritate (1624), De Religione Gentilium (1663), and De Religione Laici (1645). Indeed, his work was sympathetically read by Rust, Whichcote, More, Culverwell, and Cudworth. But Herbert’s work was undoubtedly more radical than the Cambridge Platonists, for his “natural theology was more extensive and more certain than the modest conclusions of Christian natural theology.” And as Hudson explains, Herbert also “rejected any idea of original sin and believed in a compassionate God and in the goodness of human beings.”

Hebert was also apparently interested in magic, medicine, and occult philosophy. Hudson bases these claims on two untranslated Latin poems Herbert supposedly composed, A Philosophical Disquisition on Human Life and On the Heavenly Life. Hudson includes these poems in an Appendix.

The remaining chapters of The English Deists discuss the standard list of English deists, but with much qualification. Blount, for example, is said to have combined classicism, multiple deisms, and borrowed heavily from free-thought and Protestantism alike. Toland promoted enlightenment attitudes and practices but retained some version of classical theistic naturalism. Collins, who called for toleration of a great diversity of views, included rational Christianity in his new social epistemology. Tindal, a lawyer and civil philosopher, promoted the theology of Protestant liberal thought, and did not challenge orthodoxy directly until the end of his life. As Hudson remarks in his conclusion, “until at least the 1720s, the main task [of the deists] was to attack ‘priestcraft’ and the High Church party and to argue for the liberty of belief and opinion.” The English deists were constrained in thought and activity by the Early Enlightenment, and therefore must be read in the context of the Protestant Enlightenment in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England.

What’s in a name? Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica

Newton PrincipiaThemes from Andrew Cunningham’s 1988 essay were further developed in his “How the Principia Got its Name: Or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” published in 1991. Cunningham wants to concentrate on Isaac Newton’s famous Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), particularly the phrase “natural philosophy” in the title.

What is the “natural philosophy” in Newton’s book? Like many others in his day, Newton was a philosopher of nature rather than a scientist. According to Cunningham, Newton derived his natural philosophy from German physician and natural philosopher Johann Magirus (c.1560-96), particularly his Physiologia peripatetica of 1597. What was unique about Newton’s natural philosophy was his introduction of new mathematical principles. Other than that, he continued the traditional role of the natural philosopher. And this is what Cunningham wants to draw our attention to: “that over and above any other defining feature which marks natural philosophy off from modern science…natural philosophy was about God and about God’s universe.”

Cunningham admits that he is doing nothing new by emphasizing Newton’s theology. By the early 1990s, many scholars had already pointed out Newton’s unique and voluminous theological musings. But many historians of science continue to characterize natural philosophers as religious men in a religious age doing “science.” But this is a mistake. The point Cunningham wants to make in this essay is that, by contrast, the projects of natural philosophers were always “about God and His creation, because that is what the point of natural philosophy as a discipline and subject was.” Indeed, “each and every variety of natural philosophy that was put forward was an argument for particular and specific views of God.” Reiterating his point from the previous essay, Cunningham claims that “modern science does not deal with God or with the universe as God’s creation.”

Newton, therefore, cannot be turned into a “scientist.” He was motivated, for example, to create a natural philosophy against the perceived atheism of Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) natural philosophy. Indeed, Newton had clearly informed Richard Bentley (1662-1742) in 1692 that “When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work wth considering men for the beleife of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose.” And, in responding to to Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) condemnation that his own work was atheistical or materialist, Newton published his General Scholium in the second edition of the Principia, where he explicitly claimed that discourse about God “certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.”

Thus, according to Cunningham, Newton’s wasn’t a religious thinker in a religious age doing “science”; rather, “religious attitudes went into constituting each and every variety of natural philosophy, because natural philosophy was itself about God and His universe.”

When natural philosophy and natural philosophers of the seventeenth centuries are taken seriously, certain important consequences follow. First, according to Cunningham, figures such as Newton distinguished between natural philosophy, which deals with God and His universe (the book of nature), and religion, which deals with revelation (the book of scripture). Secondly, natural theology cannot be the same as natural philosophy; rather, natural theology derived its arguments from the findings of natural philosophy. Thirdly, the question now arises: “when and why people stopped looking for God in nature”? Cunningham does not provide an answer. He simply poses the question for future studies. And finally, we need a better understanding of the meaning of scientia, or “science” in the seventeenth century. Since Cunningham’s essay, many scholars have done just this. Most recently, Peter Harrison has traced the history of the concepts of both “science” and “religion” in his The Territories of Science and Religion (2015).

Sixteenth and seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not merely concerned with God and His creation. “The ‘scientific’ work of particular natural philosophers,” Cunningham writes, was not merely “theologically or religious concerned or informed.” Rather, natural philosophy as such was “a discipline and subject-area whose role and point was the study of God’s creation and God’s attributes.” Anyone who took up the practice of natural philosophy had “God in mind.”

Philosophical Myths of the Fall

Mulhal - Philosophical Myths of the FallI came across a fascinating book today. I originally found it in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The book in question is Stephen Mulhall’s Philosophical Myths of the Fall  (2005). He begins with a long quote from Genesis 3, the story of mankind’s willful rebellion and fall from grace. Mulhal then introduces his book with a discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre noted that Enlightenment thought rejected teleological forms of understanding the natural world. It also rejected any “religious idea of the human telos as involving a relation to God, and of those who fail to fulfil that telos as existing in a state of original sin.” The Christian doctrine of original sin has been interpreted and reformulated in various ways. What Mulhall has in mind is the understanding that “human beings are not only naturally capable of acting—even perhaps disposed to act—sinfully, but are always already turned against themselves, against the true and against the good, by virtue of their very condition as human.” Such a doctrine, he says, “patently violates a variety of interrelated and central Enlightenment precepts.” He quotes Wittgenstein to make a distinction:

People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfect as sick. Anyone who is halfway decent will think himself utterly imperfect, but the religious person thinks himself wretched.

What Mulhall wants to do in this book is examine the work of three unlikely philosophers who “preserve a recognizable descendent of the Christian conception of human nature.” That is, he wants to show how the myth of the Fall continued to exert a significant influence upon modern philosophy, but with the caveat that “these philosophers want to keep a conception of human beings as in need of redemption and as capable of it, but [who] locate the source of that redemption within the world of human experience.” In short, this was the human desire to become like God. These three philosophers are Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. According to Mulhall, all three philosophers regard humanity as “structurally perverse,” that we are “essentially enigmatic to ourselves,” that we “stand incomprehensibly in need of redemption,” but, at the same time, we are able to achieve such redemption “through a certain kind of intellectual practice that is also a spiritual practice.”

A similar argument has been put forward in the case of historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) by Thomas Albert Howard in his Religion and the Rise of Historicism (2000), which argues for the “theological origins of nineteenth-century historical consciousness.” Mulhall concludes his study that, in the final analysis, “it will be far more challenging than many seem to think to construct a conception of the human condition that genuinely transcends the Christian theological horizon within which Western culture has developed.” Harrison himself supports such a thesis in his book when he places the foundations of modern science in theological developments of the doctrine of original sin.

The Study of Nature as Devotional Practice

In the Winter issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Peter Harrison considers the “Sentiments of Devotion and Experimental Philosophy in Seventeenth-Century England” (2014). In particular, he focuses on the sentiments of chemist, physicist, and natural philosopher, Robert Boyle (1627-1691). In his Disquisition concerning the Final Causes of Natural Things (1688), Boyle argued that studying nature will excite “true Sentiments both of Devotion and of particular Vertues.” That is, the study of nature is a religious activity. As Harrison puts it, natural philosophy not only provides arguments for the existence of the Deity, it also induces “moral and religious sentiments in the investigator.”

Recent trends in history of philosophy demonstrate that “philosophy” was always more than mere theoretical argumentation and logical abstractions; it was, according to the late French philosopher Pierra Hadot, “a way of life.” In short, philosophy was a spiritual exercise. This “spiritual” element was present in early studies on nature. We see this not only in Plato, Claudius Ptolemy, and Simplicius, but also in the works of early Christian writers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and even medieval authors.

Harrison quickly moves on to the early modern period, particularly in the work of Francis Bacon. In a number of his treatises, Harrison observes, “Bacon framed his justification for the pursuit of natural philosophy in terms of the biblical narrative of the Creation and Fall.” The aim of natural philosophy was to regain control over nature, which was lost after Adam’s fall. Natural philosophy, in other words, was a restoration project. Experimentation was the labor required after the Adamic Fall. According to Harrison, the Protestant idea of a “universal priesthood” and personal piety were essential components to Bacon’s program.

Harrison then turns to Bacon’s successors, the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660. Harrison focuses on Thomas Sprat’s work on the History of the Royal Society (1667). According to Sprat, experimental philosophy undoubtedly reveals useful knowledge, but it also has moral ends. Natural philosophy, in short, purges moral deficiencies from the experimenter. But it also does more than this. Its also “promotes a properly informed worship of God.” Clergyman Joseph Glanvill and others would follow this Baconian program. In his “The Usefulness of Real Philosophy to Religion,” Glanvill affirms that “the Free, experimental Philosophy will do to purpose, by giving the mind another tincture, and introducing a sounder habit, which by degrees will last absolutely repel all the little malignancies, and setle in it a strong and manly temperment, that will master, and cast out idle dotages, and effeminate Fears.”

Returning to Boyle, Harrison observes that he “was also concerned to make an explicit case for the personal piety of the experimentalist.” For Boyle, natural philosophy not only revealed the power and wisdom of God, it also “promoted piety and particular virtues.”

Experimental activity, in other words, was a decidedly religious activity.

 

“Religion” as a Modern Invention

Upon returning from my trip to England, I was delighted to find Amazon’s trademark smiling boxes waiting for me. I had ordered a number books before my trip, and among them was Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013). I first came across Nongbri’s book in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s forthcoming The Territories of Science and Religion (2014). Nongbri’s Before Religion follows a recent trend among historians of religion who have come to question the concept and even usefulness of the term “religion.” According to Nongbri, the “isolation of something called ‘religion’ as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics, and science is not a universal feature of human history.”

Brent Nongbri - Before ReligionNongbri is not the first scholar to draw our attention to the problematic nature of the term “religion.” This he readily admits. He is influenced first and foremost by the remarkable scholar of comparative religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who in his The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), traced the development of the term “religion” (religio) in the west, showing how the it has changed meaning over time and how it was inextricably connected with polemics and apologetics. These claims are not without merit. Several studies beside Smith have traced the genesis of the term and have reached similar conclusions.

But Nongbri wants to move beyond Smith’s “reification” thesis. Here is follows Talal Asad’s view that “religion” and “secularization” are two sides of the same coin. That is, religion, according to Asad, is “a modern concept not because it is reified but because it has been linked to its Siamese twin ‘secularism.'” Thus Nongbri wants to address “how we have come to talk about ‘secular’ versus ‘religious.'” Indeed, how—and when—did we first divide the world between the “religious” and the “secular”? In short, Nongbri ventures an origins story. Or, as he puts it, “a diachronic narrative” of selected “representative episodes from a two-thousand-year period.”

Nongbri is also influenced by the work of deconstructionists Tomoko Masuzawa, Russell T. McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and in particular Jonathan Z. Smith and Peter Harrison. Pointing to post-Reformation hostilities, Nongbri maintains that these events “not only brought much bloodshed but also disrupted trade and commerce,” inspiring prominent public figures such as John Locke to argue “that stability in the commonwealth could be achieved not by settling arguments about which kind of Christianity was ‘true,’ but by isolating beliefs about god in a private sphere and elevating loyalty to the legal codes of developing nation-states over loyalties to god.” J.Z. Smith, in his incisive Drudgery Divine (1990), described the “Protestant, apologetic, historiographical project” of the reformers as “Pagano-papism,” which was, in a nutshell, Protestant anti-Catholic apologetics. Harrison’s ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (1990) also shows how “religion” was constructed “along essentially rationalistic lines.” Harrison too recognizes that “in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘paganopapism’ played a major role in the rhetoric of sectarian disputes.” Thus such early attempts to understand “religion” were often marred by polemics; they were attempts to show either the “superiority” of Protestantism over and against Catholicism and other Christian sects, or to promote a deistic, “natural” or “rational” religion. Nongbri returns to themes near the end of the book.

For now, Nongbri begins Chapter One, “What do We Mean by ‘Religion,'” with a discussion on the many different definitions of religion. In 1912, professor of psychology James J. Leuba offered more than fifty different definitions of religion. In 1966, anthropologist Clifford Geertz offered a more careful definition of religion as a system of symbols established on conceptions of reality, designed to move and motivate mankind. More recently, historian of religion Bruce Lincoln offered yet another definition of religion in his Holy Terrors (2003) as a “discourse” and “set of practices” within a “community” of believers guided and directed by an “institution.” Nongbri offers his own provocative definition, following the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (as interpreted, however, by Richard Rorty): “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity. Such a definition [he says] might be seen as crass, simplistic, ethnocentric, Christianocentric, and even a bit flippant; it is all these things, but it is also highly accurate in reflecting the uses of the term in modern languages.” What Nongbri intends by this definition is made clearer by the end of the book.

Nongbri goes on to add three more points. First, religion is understood, in this modern sense, as essentially private or spiritual, and thus immune from the constraints of language and history. Second, this way of understanding religion sees religion as a “genus that contains a variety of species” (as, e.g., in the “World Religions”). According to Nongbri, “The picture of the world as divided among major ‘religions’ offering alternative means to ‘salvation’ or ‘enlightenment’ is thoroughly entrenched in the modern imagination.”And third, in the academic context, religion is either used descriptively or redescriptively. That is, religion is either described from an observer’s point of view, using the classificatory “systems of a group of people being studied,” or it is redescribed, using a classificatory system completely foreign to the group being observed.

The imposition of modern categories of “religious” and “secular” on ancient writings, for example, is the subject of Chapter Two, “Lost in Translation: Inserting ‘Religion’ into Ancient Texts.” Here Nongbri scrutinizes the Latin religio, the Greek thrēskei, and the Arabic dīn, milla, and umma. These terms are often rendered “religion” in modern English translation; however, according to Nongbri, each term had a range of meanings—and none like our modern understanding of religion. “Those aspects of life covered by these terms (social order, law, etc.) fall outside the idealized, private, interior realm associated with the modern concept of religion.” Thus using “religion” to describe the worldview of ancient peoples serves only to mar our understanding of them. In looking at ancient texts from Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamian peoples, for instance, Nongbri finds much incongruity with  modern notions of religion. “We are not naming something any ancient person would recognize,” he writes.

In Chapter Three Nongbri traces “Some (Premature) Births of Religion in Antiquity.” Scholars typically find the events of the Maccabean revolt, the writings of Cicero (esp. his On Divination and On the Nature of the Gods) and Eusebius (esp. his Demonstratio evangelica and Praeparatio evangelica), and finally the rise of Islam, as marking the beginning of the concept of “religion.” But Nongbri contends each case. “In each of these cases,” he writes, “the episode that modern authors have identified as ancient ‘religion’ have turned out to involve discourses that ancient authors themselves seem to have understood primarily in ethnic or civic terms.”

Chapter Four examines “Christians and ‘Others’ in the Premodern Era,” that is, examples of Christian interaction with “other religions.” Nongbri first looks at Mani and the Manichaeans, who in fact viewed themselves as “Christians,” and who saw “orthodox” Christianity as “inferior, and even  “hereticial.” Many scholars have seen Mani as “founding a religion,” but according to Nongbri “Mani’s self-understanding” operated entirely “within the sphere of Christian activity.” Indeed, Jesus remained a key figure to Mani and his later followers. Thus neither the orthodox nor Mani and his followers saw Manichaeaism as the foundations of a new “religion.” And in fact neither did orthodox Christians. Mani and the Manichaeans were viewed, from the beginning, as heretics.

Nongbri then turns to John of Damascus and his remarks on Islam. In a tract entitled Peri hairesōn (not unlike Epiphanius of Salamis’ Panarion), John lists a number of heresies, including what he called the “Ishmaelites.” According to John, Islam was not a new “religion,” but rather a Christian heresy. As Nongbri points out, John in fact was not alone in claiming that Muslims were a erroneous Christian sect.

Finally, Nongbri examines the tale of the Christian saints Barlaam and Ioasaph. This story of Barlaam and Ioasaph was an incredibly popular narrative in the late Middle Ages. According to this legend, Abenner, the father of Ioasaph, wanted to protect his son from the reality of death, disease, old age, and poverty, and therefore built palace in a secluded location. But Ioasaph grew to become a curiously young man, eventually convincing his father to permit him to venture beyond his sheltered palace, only to be shocked to find the ravages of reality. He immediately fell into a great depression. But the devout Christian monk, Barlaam visited Ioasaph at his palace and shared with him the Christian message of the Gospel. The message freed from this depression, and Ioasaph was thus baptized. He would eventually Christianize his portion of the kingdom. The tale of Barlaam and Ioasaph has many close similarities to the legendary biography of Siddhārtha Gautama. Indeed, according to Nongbri, it was a “reworked version of the life of the Buddha,” who was, in a sense, canonized as a Christian saint. “The story of the Buddha,” he writes, “was not seen as part of a story of a separate religion; rather, a late medieval Christian, and an earlier Manichaean Christian or a Muslim, simply absorbed the story of the Buddha  and made it their own.”

From Buddhism to Islam, in short, these traditions were not seen as new “religions,” but, in some sense, as “flawed” Christianity.

In Chapters Five and Six, Nongbri finally provides an account of the development of the modern notion of “religion.” In “Renaissance, Reformation, and Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” he traces the development and consequences of the fragmentation of Christendom as a result of the reform movements. But first Nongbri wants to examine the idea of the vera religio, or “true religion,” among Italian Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance and seventeenth-century English deists. True religion or worship has always existed. Christianity was simply the best example of this vera religio. It follows that “non-Christian thought, even if vastly deficient, might be expected to show at least some qualities of this vera religio.” This was the position of Augustine, Eusebius, Lactantius, and Photius, among others. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with the influx of “pagan” wisdom from translations of Greek and Arabic texts, the prisca theologia (“ancient theology”) became the guiding principle of Renaissance thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino and, later, Giordano Bruno. The prisca theologia was the practice of finding harmony between Christianity and pagan philosophy, particularly the Platonic, but also the Hermetic, which emerged from the recent translation of the Corpus Hermeticum.

In the wake of the reformation, Nongbri claims (citing Harrison), “the fragmentation of Christendom led to a change from an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding.” Once a quest for harmony, Protestant thinkers now saw parallels between pagan and Catholic practices as a corruption of the true, pristine faith of the Scriptures. This polemic of “pagano-papism” was not only used against Catholics but also “appeared in disputes among different groups of Protestants.” According to Nongbri, “this kind of polemic itself contributed to the formation of distinct religions.”

These disputes led to much bloodshed and warfare among vying Protestant sects. English “deists” such as Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury and John Toland renewed the search for an “original religion.” Herbert, for example, found it in his “Common Notions.” But as Nongbri puts it, “by shearing away all the practices of ancient people in his discussions of what was essential and original” in all religions, “Herbert contributed to the growing sense that religion was a matter of beliefs apart from ‘various Rites, Ceremonies, and Sacred Mysteries.'” Religion was thus increasingly seen a “set of beliefs that could be either true or false.”

Before turning to the next chapter, Nongbri wants to further contextualize these ideas by setting them within the political philosophies of Jean Bodin and John Locke. Bodin maintained that state stability depended on the toleration of distinct groups. In his Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime, Bodin concluded that “we are unable to command religion because no one can be forced to believe against his will.” Likewise, Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, maintained that “religion ought to be purely a matter of the salvation of the individual.” Any gathering of religious individuals therefore ought to be tolerated by the government, no matter the creed (except the atheists, which Locke excluded, for they interfered with the proper operation of the state). In the end, however, the “isolation of religion as a distinct sphere of life ideally separated from other areas of life allowed for a new kind of mental mapping of Europe and the world.”

In the following chapter, “New Worlds, New Religions, World Religions,” Nongbri seeks to outline the European struggle and reaction to “increasing amounts of information, primarily from the ‘New World,'” which called into question the biblical worldview of reality. He writes, “At the same time that the genus of religion was coming to be thought of as ideally an internal, private, depoliticized entity, interactions with previously unknown peoples were beginning to create new species of individual religions.” In this section Nongbri closely follows J.Z. Smith’s insightful essay “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998), where he suggests that a “world religion is simply a religion like ours, and that it is, above all, a tradition that has achieved sufficient power and numbers to enter our history to form it, interact with it, or thwart it” (my emphasis). In particular, Nongbri traces the origins, construction, and classification of “religion” in India, Africa, and Japan. Here we begin to see emerging the “four grand Religions of the world,” that is, the Pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Mohamedan, which eventually morphed into the modern framework of the modern “World Religions,” first promoted by Cornelis P. Tiele in the nineteenth century. Thus, according to Nongbri, there is “nothing natural or neutral about either the concept of religion or the framework of World Religions.”

Despite all this, Nongbri, in his Conclusion, maintains we should not altogether abandon the category of religion. He says, “I think there is still a place for ‘the study of religion’ in the modern world, provided that those doing the study adopt a self-conscious and critical attitude that has often been lacking.” In other words, something may be a historically construed term, but it does not follow therefore that it is useless. Or, as Paul Hedges recently argues in his article, “Discourse on the Invention of Discourse: Why We Need the Terminology of ‘Religion’ and ‘Religions'” (2014),  “if conventional knowledge is wrong because it is based upon socially constructed terminology, it is unclear why we should prefer another set of ideological socially constructed terminology which seeks to overcome it.” The critique of “religion” by Fitzgerald, McCutcheon, Masuzawa, and others, for instance, simply reintroduces “religion” by other names, whether it be “faith,” “sacred,” or “tradition.” Throughout his own book, moreover, Nongbri uses “religion” without the quotation marks. This suggests that “religion,” with the necessary qualifications, is here to stay. As Nongbri concludes, “if we are going to use religion as a second-order, redescriptive concept, we must always be explicit that we are doing so and avoid giving the impression that religion really was ‘out there,’ ’embedded in’ or ‘diffused in’ the ancient evidence.”

Nongbri’s book is a fine text that synthesizes a great deal of scholarship. It may serve as a useful, quickl reference guide for undergraduates and laypersons alike. However, a point unduly neglected, it seems to me, if one focuses solely on the modern construction of “religion,” is the contribution of Romanticism to the rise of the scientific study of religion (Religionswissenschaft). This was a point emphasized by H.G. Kippenberg in his essay, “Einleitung. Religionswissenschaft und Kulturkritik” (1991). Kippenberg, in brief, argued that the rise of a critical approach—which takes into account historical and cultural differences, but which emphasizes a non-sectarian, non-confessional, and non-reductive attitude—to the study of religion was given impetus by the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. This, it seems to me, was a necessary condition. Ahistorical explanations of religion, as “priest-craft” or infantile “wish-fulfillment” or “neuroses” are not conducive to the particularities of religion, of its long and complex history, or of its doubtless interconnectedness with different social and political contexts.

If Kippenberg’s argument is correct (and I think it is), the question then becomes: what were the origins of the Romantic worldview, and how did it become so crucial for understanding the study of religion?

Science and Religion Around the World

Brooke and Numbers - Science and Religion Around the WorldAs we have seen, one of the most prominent, persistent, and popular myths about science and religion emerged in the nineteenth century. John William Draper (1811-1882), author of History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), followed by Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), author of The Warfare of Science (1876) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) held that science and religion were inherently opposed and necessarily in conflict, thus ushering what was to become the widely current views of today.

John Hedley Brooke and Ron L. Numbers in Science and Religion Around the World (2011) assemble essays aimed at challenging this “warfare” narrative with interactions between science and early Judaism (Noah Efron), modern Judaism (Geoffrey Cantor), early Christianity (Peter Harrison and David C. Lindberg), modern Christianity (John Hedley Brooke), early Islam (Ahmad S. Dallal), modern Islam (Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu), early Chinese religions (Mark Csikszentmihalyi), Indic religions (B.V. Subbarayappa), Buddhism (Donald S. Lopez Jr.), African religions (Steven Feierman and John M. Janzen), including a chapter on “unbelief” (Bernard Lightman), and an comprehensive conclusion, bringing together previous chapters and distilling a “geography of science-religion relations” (David N. Livingstone).

The book opens with the Abrahamic traditions. Noah Efron claims that “there has been no single, enduring Jewish attitude toward nature and its study. In each age and locale, a mix of theological, social, and practical concerns determined how large a role natural knowledge would take in Jewish intellectual life and how creative and original the contributions of Jews would be.” Efron traces this ambivalence in early Judaism’s attitude toward the natural world in the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and writings in the Middle Ages.  Although the “Hebrew Bible records little about the nature of the cosmos,” the earth was a different matter. “Ancient Israelites,” Efron writes, “sought to divine the pattern behind the animals and plants they came across.” This is evident, he says, in the rule of kashrut—of what is prescribed to eat and what is proscribed.

Other prohibitions, against medicine, astrology, and magic, were not always followed. Astrology in particular found “purchase in ancient Hebrew culture.” Some scholars were impressed with the distinct elements of Hebrew tradition, such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who observed that the Israelite religion altered the very nature of nature itself: “Nature [in the Old Testament] is now degraded to the condition of something powerless…it is made a means.” More recent commentators have also argued that the Bible desacralized nature, stripping it of the inherent and independent forces that pagan cultures had attributed to it.

Composed over hundreds of years and across thousands of miles, the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmud reveal interesting tidbits of the cultures that produced them. Mathematics and astronomy, for example, served many practical ends because of its relevance in determining religious feasts and Sabbaths. There are also incidental references to illness and cure, disease and medicine. But as Efron notes, “the Talmud, like the Bible before it, served as a source for all of these attitudes toward nature and none of them.” The Talmud prohibits magic and sorcery, and physicians and surgeons were often treated with suspicion within its pages.

In the Middle Ages, we find intermittent Jewish cooperation in science and philosophy with Christians and Muslims. Particularly, Jews “found a place in Arabic mathematics, natural philosophy, and medicine. Isaac ben Solomon Israeli (ca. 855-955),  Sa‘adya  ben  Yosef
al-Fayyūmī (882-942), Abraham Bar Hiyya (d. ca. 1145), Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) were known by contemporaries as enthusiasts for natural philosophy. They were not without critics, however.  Both Judah Halevi (ca. 1075-1141) and Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204) rejected astrology, the former warning: “Let not Greek wisdom tempt you, for it bears flowers only and no fruit.” The latter, known more commonly through his Latin name, Maimonides, “propounded a limited sort of natural theology, in which nature—God’s handiwork—bears testimony to God’s power. At the same time, he insisted that humans were incapable of achieving positive knowledge of God’s essence,” thus restricting man’s ability to know with certainty anything about the natural world. “Maimondies,” writes Efron, “would be an inspiration and a prooftext for Jewish scholars writing about natural philosophy for generations to follow.”

In the early modern period, Jews like David Gans (1541-1613), Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591-1655), Tobias Cohen (1652-1729), Jacob ben Isaac Zahalon (1630-93), David Nieto (1654-1728), Jacob Hamiz (d. ca. 1676) embraced natural philosophy, in part because they saw it as a sort of ecumenical wisdom, and, in part, because they recognized in nature traces of God’s handiwork.

Transitioning to the modern period of Jewish-science relations, “Jews continued to find science intertwined in complex patterns with their own identities.” In the first part of his essay, Geoffrey Cantor focuses on Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews following the scientific revolution, relaying Jewish anxieties about natural philosophy possibly supplanting attention to Torah study. While the “Jewish enlightenment,” or the Haskalah, its proponents being maskilim (“those who possess understanding”) emerged in the late eighteenth century, its most eminent exponents being the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Zevi (1626-76), Aaron Gumpertz (1723-70), Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber (1741-97), it peaked during the final two decades of the century, when many rabbis condemned it for fear that it would “erode traditional Jewish observance and that they would lose influences over their congregations.”

Cantor also surveys a spectrum of Jewish responses to Darwin, emphasizing the diversity of views in the Jewish tradition. English naturalist of Sephardi descent Raphael Meldola (1849-1915) “fell into the ranks of Darwinism.” Torah and Talmud scholar Naphtali Levy (d. 1894) wrote a book which argued that “Jewish thought and Darwin’s theory of evolution were in harmony with one another.” Enthusiasm for Darwin’s theory is also found among a small number of nineteenth-century rabbis, including Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Others, however, took the opposite view, such as Abraham Geiger, a leading reform rabbi in Germany, who rejected evolution in the 1860s because of “the gap he envisaged between humans and animals,” or Menachem Schneerson (1902-1994), who once told a “wavering student not to overrate the claims of science because it possesses a very limited factual base.”

Cantor closes his essay with a synopsis of “Jews in the Modern Scientific Community,” from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Abraham Michelson (1852-1931), Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), another Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg (b. 1933), Jewish biologists Robert Pollack (b. 1940), Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), and Richard Lewontin (b. 1929), to Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). One wonders, however, in selecting these “Jewish” actors, if family descent is a sufficient reason for their classification as “Jews.” Furthermore, in saying that there have never been an “antievolutionist movement among Jews comparable with the very hostile creationist opposition by some Christians and Muslims,” Cantor seems to have forgotten the recent theatrical release of Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed (2008), written, narrated, and hosted by Jewish actor and former Nixon/Ford presidential speechwriter, Ben Stein, which leans heavily on Jewish intelligent design theorists and/or creationists.

Turning to Christianity, Peter Harrison, David Lindberg, and John Brooke record “both opposition and encouragement between Christianity and science.” Beginning with the “advent of Christianity as an organized religion,” to the Patristic period, Middle Ages, and Reformation, Harrison and Lindberg demonstrate that there is abundant “encouragement” between Christianity and science. However Christianity’s cultured dispersers have obscured the evidence, “scientific activity flourished during a Middle Ages that was dominated by ecclesiastical institutions and an intellectual culture that was oriented primarily toward theology.” Later, the idea that science was a “handmaiden” to theology was the guiding principle of figures such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. Beyond this, Francis Bacon  suggested that natural philosophy was itself a form of religious activity. Indeed, Johannes Kepler once wrote, “I wished to be a theologian; for a long time I was troubled, but now see how God is also praised through my work in astronomy.” Harrison and Lindberg conclude  that relations between science and Christianity from the Patristic period and through the Middle Ages were, for the most part, “peaceful” and that “Western Christendom actually provided the institutional and intellectual setting that made possible the emergence of modern science.”

Brooke begins his chapter on “Modern Christianity” by reminding the reader that there is no single “Christian tradition.” The Latin West, the Eastern Orthodox, the Protestant Reformation, and the ensuing multifarious traditions and denominations stemming from it,  reveal numerous forms of Christian life, worship, and church governance. Thus in evaluating the relevance of scientific culture to the Christian faith it is often necessary to distinguish opinions from particular traditions, and beyond this to particular individual thinkers, as in the case of the famous controversy between Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) in the early eighteenth century. Most often, scientific activity had been “defended on the ground that it furnished evidence for the power and wisdom of God.” In this sense seventeenth-century science was sanctioned by Christian theology. During the eighteenth century “many attacks on the Christian faith were launched”; not by science, however, but by biblical criticism and certain radical philosophies.

But perhaps the biggest intellectual threat to Christianity came during the nineteenth century—”not only from the historical sciences of geology and evolutionary biology but also from the practice of history itself.” David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus (1835), for example, argued that the miracles of Christ were a fabrication of the early church, who used Jewish ideas about what the Messiah would be like in order to express the conviction that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Bishop John Colenso of Natal published a controversial collection of Essays and Reviews (1860) in which several Anglican clergy argued that “the Bible must be read like any other book—a product of its time and therefore fallible in its cosmology.”

During the second half of the nineteenth century, both geologists and evangelicals, devised elaborate attempts to harmonize the new science with Scripture. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), William Buckland (1784-1856), Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), and Hugh Miller (1802-56) were some of the most well known. But by the end of the century, “it would be rare to find theological references in technical scientific treatises.” This transformation was not caused by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection—but it certainly served as a catalyst. Figures such as Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) and John Tyndall (1820-93) used it as a foil in their aggressive attacks against the clergy and the pretensions of theology. It was in this way that Darwin’s naturalistic account became a divisive force within Christendom. Perhaps weary from such aggressive polemics in the previous century, during the twentieth century “there were serious deterrents to combining Christian theology with scientific discourse.” Karl Barth (1886-1968) rejected natural theology as misguided and presumptuous. But Christian apologists were tempted by new scientific discoveries, particularly the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics, Big Bang cosmology, and the fine tuning underlying the laws of physics. The spread of intelligent design theory, Brooke concludes, “is indicative of a widespread popular disenchantment with liberal values associated with Darwinism and especially with the materialism superimposed on it.”

The chapters on “Early Islam” and “Modern Islam” offer a spirited perspective on the complex relation of Islam and the natural sciences. Ahmad Dallal argues that “Arabic science did more than simply preserve the Greek scientific legacy and pass it to its European heirs.” Because the legacy came in a package, including science and philosophy, astrology and astronomy, medicine and alchemy, “Muslims, for several centuries, tried to sort out the part that contradicted their faith.” This process came to be known as the “Islamization of science.” Key contributions of Arabo-Islamic science came through astronomy, mathematics, optics, and medicine. Dallal challenges the assertion that “the lack of institutional support in Muslim societies for the rational sciences is responsible for their marginalization and eventual demise.” He also challenges traditional accounts of al-Ghazali, who is “often considered an enemy of science and one of the main causes of its decline” in Islamic culture. Dallal examines Qur’anic references to nature, concluding that “religious knowledge and scientific knowledge are each assigned to their own compartments,” thus justifying “the pursuit of science, and even a limited use of scientific discourse in commenting on the Qu’ran.” Dallal ends his chapter with some brief comments on the intersection of science and religion in Islamic speculative theology, or kalam. “One of the consequences of the Islamization of science in medieval Muslim practice,” he writes, “was the epistemological separation of science and philosophy and thereby the separation of religion and science.”

Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu extends this discussion into the relations between Islam and science to the modern period, describing the “selective transfer of ‘European’ science” to the Ottoman Empire, when Ottomans pursued geography, cartography, astronomy, technology, and even alchemy. His account is infused with the works of little-known figures, such as Piri Reis (1465-1553), Seydi Ali Reis (d. 1562), Matrakçı Nasuh (1480-1564), Abu Bakr al-Dimashqi (d. 1691), Ibrahim Müteferrika (d. 1745), Ibrahim Hakki of Erzurum (d. 1780), and many others. But in this montage of names, one wonders about the inclusion of some, such as Müteferrika, who “had once been a priest” and became “a Hungarian convert to Islam.” His voluntary affiliation with Islam may make him something other than a representative Muslim. This is the same problem with Efron’s inclusion of avowed atheists as “Jewish” actors in modern Jewish-science relations.

İhsanoğlu’s most interesting discussion in this chapter is the impact of Darwin’s evolutionary theory on Ottoman intellectuals. First, he says, the theory reached Ottoman intellectuals by way of the French, which often favored Lamarck over Darwin. Evolutionary theory was viewed, moreover, through Ludwig Büchner’s materialistic ideas in Kraft und Stoff (1855). Unlike Europe, Istanbul began with evolutionary and social Darwinist thought rather than biological Darwinism. Then there is Ahmet Midhat’s (1844-1912) translation of John William Draper’s Conflict between Religion and Science, in four volumes, 1895, 1897, and 1900. Midhat wanted to assure young Muslims that Draper’s arguments concerning Catholicism did not hold true for Islam, so he included long supplements in each volume. In the twentieth century, discord appeared between science and Islam. But, according to İhsanoğlu, the discord was “between Islam and modern philosophical currents like positivism, naturalism, and social Darwinism, which challenged religion and the belief in God.” There is, however, only scant reference to the rise of Islamic anti-evolutionary sentiment in the late twentieth century, the focus being only on Iranian University professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who has publicly dismissed evolution “as an ideology and not as a scientific theory which has been proven.”

The following chapters explore the relation of science and religion in Chinese, Indic, and African religions. Particularly interesting is Mark Csikszentmihalyi’s claim that Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, and their wider religious-cultural matrix, influenced the development of natural sciences in different ways. B.V. Subbarayappa classifies Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism as “Indic religions,” casting traditional Indian astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and biological ideas as developing within or because of these religions. Indian astronomy, for example, “was essential for determining the timing of rituals and sacrifices…the construction of several forms of sacrificial altars…determination of celestial events such as solstices, when sacrifices had to be performed.” It is often said that a particular feature of Indian culture is a peaceful co-existence between science and its religious traditions. But this is, of course, not the whole story. Intriguing is Subbarayappa mention of Jawaharlal Nehru’s (1889-1964) convocation address at Allahabad University in 1946, where he expressed the conviction that “Science and Science alone could solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people,” thus indicating a functional approach to science and technology as a guide to greater material prosperity. Despite the many claims that “Buddhism is most compatible with modern science” than any other religion, writes Donald Lopez Jr., Buddhism has existed in many forms and manifestations, and during the nineteenth century, attempts by Western scholars to reconstruct the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and his teachings, led to portrayals that would have been unrecognizable to Asian adherents. During the “colonial encounter,” where Europeans began investigating Buddhism in its original languages, Buddha was “exported back to Asia and sold to Asian Buddhists, who sent him into battle against the Christians.” Lopez cites Buddhists who see Buddhism as a science of the mind, “not only…compatible with modern science but superior to it.” “Once declared to be a science,” he writes, “Buddhism—condemned as a primitive superstition both by European missionaries and by Asian modernists—jumped from the bottom of the evolutionary scale to the top, bypassing the troublesome category of religion altogether.” He concludes that in “each of its periods of conjunction with science, a different form of Buddhism has been called upon to play its part.” Finally, Steven Feierman and John M. Janzen show that colonial African societies integrated science and spirits, “the idea of technical actions that have a powerful symbolic valence.” The efficacy of such technical processes as the smelting of iron, for example, “depended on the moral context in which they were performed.” A similar emphasis on moral and symbolic ways of constituting technical acts are also found in agricultural practices and the treatment of diseases through a combination of ancestral, holistic cosmologies and biomedical knowledge. Feierman and Janzen clearly demonstrate that examining science-religion relations in societies other than our own can be even more challenging.

Perhaps the most fascinating, and important, chapters—at least from this reader’s perspective— are the last two. Bernard Lightman covers some of the same material as Harrison, Lindberg, and Brooke, but focuses on a history of “unbelief.” Richard Dawkins, that enfant terrible of the so-called “New Atheism,” argues that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is “the ultimate scientific consciousness-raiser” for it “shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well.” It was Darwin, he wrote in The Blind Watchmaker (1996), that “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In short, “atheism lies at the heart of modern science.”

But according to Lightman, such an account of unbelief is far too simplistic. Not only were there a multiplicity of national contexts in which unbelief developed, its takes “more than just a new scientific theory to make unbelief acceptable to members of the intellectual elite and the public.” The social respectability of unbelief is crucial here. Lightman begins his account with Newton’s consent to Richard Bentley (1662-1742) and Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) to use his science for social purposes, “to shore up the newly reconstituted monarchy and the established church as the bulwarks of order and stability.” Newtonianism was therefore used as a “defense of the status quo.”

This alliance between Newtonian science and religious belief is nowhere more evident than in the career of Voltaire (1694-1778). Committed to a strongly providential deism, Voltaire “drew extensively on Newtonian science to undermine forms of unbelief based on Cartesian science and Spinozism.” In his Letter Concerning the English Nation (1733) and Elements of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (1738) he aimed to demonstrate that Newtonianism curbed materialism and Spinozism far more effectively than Cartesianism, and to defend Newton against accusations of atheism. Making Newton’s natural philosophy intelligible to a wider public, Voltaire made Newtonian science a “bulwark of Christianity against atheism not only in England but…throughout much of Europe.”

Others would take Newtonianism in the completely opposite direction. Radical enlightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot (1713-84), Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-71), Baron d’Holbach (1723-89), and others used Newtonianism as a foil in their cause for republicanism, personal liberty, equality, and freedom of thought and expression. Soon these thinkers would reject the British political system, along with the Newtonianism closely associated with it. Lightman credits Diderot and d’Holbach in particular as key players in the history of unbelief. Diderot, collaborating with Jean d’Alembert (1717-83), began producing the Encyclopédie (1751-72) as an “antidote to English cultural and intellectual hegemony.” D’Holbach’s System of Nature or Laws of the Moral and Physical World (1768) wanted to distinguish between Newton the natural philosopher and Newton the religious thinker. The “God of Newton,” he declared, “is a despot.” Newton, “whose extensive genius has unraveled nature and its laws has bewildered himself as soon as he lost sight of them.” According to d’Holbach, when Newton “left physics and demonstration, to lose himself in the imaginary regions of theology,” he was “no more than an infant.”

The French atheists were quickly criticized and condemned by British thinkers. The attitudes and reactions of Joseph Priestly (1733-1804), David Hume (1711-1776), and Edward Gibbon (1737-94) are nicely summed up in Horace Walpole’s (1717-87) pronouncement: “the philosophes—are insupportable, superficial, overbearing, and fanatic: they preach incessantly, and their avowed doctrine is atheism; you would not believe how openly—Don’t wonder, therefore, if I should return a Jesuit.” The attempt to link unbelief with Newtonian science was not widely received.

It was “only after the troubled social and political unrest of the 1830s and 1840s had passed in Britain and prosperity returned,” writes Lightman, that agnosticism was born. Ironically, the rapid growth of evangelicalism at the start of the nineteenth century gave way to a gradual drop in the rate of church attendance by mid-century. There were many concerns, about the absence of the working classes from church, a middle class that ceased to attend regularly, and a rejection of the social and moral authority of the church. More than anything else, the Victorian crisis of faith was a “moral rather than an intellectual matter.”

At the intellectual front, although Darwin did not attempt to construct a link between evolution and unbelief, others definitely—and defiantly—tried. These “architects of evolutionary agnosticism,” as Lightman calls them, consisted of Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Tyndall, William Kingdon Clifford (1845-79), Francis Galton (1822-1911), and others. It is important to note that unlike contemporary unbelievers, these evolutionary agnostics rejected atheism and offered a less militant version of unbelief. Huxley’s efforts, more than any of the others, “led to the public acceptance of agnosticism as a form of unbelief.” He advocated that science and religion were separate spheres and had to be kept apart from each other; in short, a declaration of the independence for scientists operating in a space dominated by the established Anglican Church. He even coined catchy names for this new vision: “scientific naturalism” and “agnosticism.” And by distinguishing agnosticism from atheism or materialism, he presented unbelief as both intellectually viable and eminently respectable.

Although Huxley averred that the respectable agnostic was not to be confused with the atheist, when evolutionary theory was applied to other disciplines, particularly anthropology, it proved to be corrosive to religious faith. The anthropological writings of Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) and James George Frazer (1854-1941), for example, shows how the social sciences, when influenced by evolutionary theory, were used to understand religion in a way that was inimical to religion itself. Evolutionary theory was also applied in Spencer’s reconstruction of a new system of nature. After deducing that law of evolution was a unifying truth, Spencer “offered empirical proof drawn from astronomy, geology, biology, psychology, and sociology that ‘the Cosmos, in general and in detail, conforms to this law.'” In other words, all phenomena were subject to the evolutionary process.

In his conclusion Lightman states that it was a “post-9/11 environment” that “spawned the ‘New Atheists,’ an aggressive and militant group far more vocal” than their agnostic and unbelieving predecessors.

David N. Livingstone’s concluding essay brings together the previous chapters and articulates a series of imperatives: “pluralize, localize, hybridize, politicize.” The essays in this volume “disturb the presumption of a singular relationship between science and religion”; they “advertise complexity in science-religion discourses at different points in time and in different locations.” In pluralizing the discussion, these chapters reveal multiple “religions” and “sciences,” neither “tidily segregated” nor identical, but “delightfully” complicated. “The singularity that ordinarily attends public discussion of the subject needs to replaced by a recognition that it is more helpful to think in terms of the encounter between sciences and religious traditions.” In localizing the encounters between religions and sciences, social geography has been absolutely necessary. In hybridizing science, unbelief, and varied religious traditions, they have integrated, intertwined, and amalgamated in “cross-cultural syntheses.” This “impurity” writes Livingstone, alerts us to the ways “science” and “religion” have been mobilized in the interests of cultural politics. “All this serves to remind us that ‘science and religion’ are always embedded in wider socio-political networks and their relationship is conditioned by the prevailing cultural arrangements.”

In addressing the “relationship between science and religion,” the authors in this volume “pluralizes the entire enterprise,” identify “cross-cutting themes,” highlight “the role of cultural politics,” and attend to “difference and divergence from time to time and place to place.”

Unintended Consequences: Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Peter Harrison argues in his The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998) that it was only after people began reading the Bible in a different way that they began reading “God’s other book,” that is, the “Book of Nature,” in a different way, and in consequence scientific knowledge began to increase as an indirect result of this new way of reading the Bible. The new way of reading the Bible was promoted, of course, by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers. The Protestant emphasis upon rejecting intermediary authorities between oneself and God, and insisting upon a “priesthood of all believers,” meant that they encouraged the faithful to read the Bible for themselves.

The unforeseen consequence of this, Harrison argues, was that the literalist mentality of the Protestant readers led them to avoid, or even reject, assigning extra levels of meaning not only to the words of Scripture, but also to objects in the Book of Nature. Where previously flora and fauna were seen in allegorical terms and assumed to be invested with moral and spiritual meanings for the benefit of mankind, Protestant observers of nature began to look at the world for its own sake, developing in turn a more naturalistic way of seeing the world. Consequently, the new literalist approach to reading Scripture developed by Protestants played a central role in the emergence of natural science in the early modern period, and accounts for the increasing dominance of Protestants in the development of the sciences throughout the seventeenth century.

Brad Gregory - The Unintended ReformationThe historian of science, therefore, cannot avoid discussing the Reformation in accounting for the rise of modern science. “The Reformation,” Harrison argues elsewhere, “was a major factor in creating the kind of world in which a particular kind of natural philosophy could take root and flourish,” one which would eventually lead to the emergence of scientific culture in western civilization. Thus when a book like Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (2012) appears, the historian of science must engage it. Gregory’s Unintended Reformation is not limited to students of history of science, however. It will also interest those students of the history of Christianity, Reformation studies, philosophy and philosophical ethics, the social sciences, or anyone interested in the rise of modern western civilization. Breaking out of conventional molds, The Unintended Reformation is a hybrid work of history, philosophy, and contemporary moral and political commentary. According to Carlos Eire, Gregory brazenly challenges the guiding principles of current historiographical orthodoxy. “It was written,” says Eire, “to incite debate, and also to sway minds and hearts, but the author’s erudition and his impeccable scholarship also make it an unavoidable must-read in every early modernist’s reading list.”

Indeed, there has already been a massive response to this book, ranging from highly appreciative to rather dismissive and, as another reviewer put it, sometimes even “venomous reviews.” The journal Historically Speaking devoted a forum to it in June 2012. More recently The Immanent Frame has published several responses to the book on their website. There have been a wide range of reactions—many of them with conflicted impulses. Alexandra Walsham, for instance, praises Gregory’s book as “a persuasive and subtle analysis of many aspects of his subject,” and that his “adoption of a ‘genealogical’ method…yields many suggestive ideas and fruitful insights,” but then goes on to say that he has made “rather large logical leaps,” and that the book is “curiously reminiscent of the grand analyses produced by early members of the Annales School.” Walsham concludes that The Unintended Reformation is a “sermon, a manifesto, and a tract for our times…a piece of Christian apologetic that pits absolute truth against relativizing secular reason.”

Bruce Gordon, although he commends Gregory on writing a powerful and persuasive book,  ultimately concludes that “the manner in which he treats religion is, however, unsatisfying,” arguing that the diverse forms of Catholicism and Protestantism “deserve to be heard more loudly.”

Euan Cameron calls The Unintended Reformation “extraordinary and fascinating,” a work that is “phenomenally learned, intricately and ingeniously argued…with astonishing intellectual virtuosity as well as erudition,” a work that impresses its readers with “intricate chains of logic…stacked one upon another, such that the argument appears to sweep one along with the irresistible force of a mountain torrent.” However, according to Cameron, it is also “deliberately provocative and sometimes exasperating.” Cameron, a professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary, claims he does “not recognize [Gregory’s] portrait of the Reformation.” He argues that “Gregory’s underlying assumption throughout the book appears to be that medieval Western Catholicism constituted a ‘correct’ understanding of Christianity, and that all other belief systems are therefore profoundly erroneous.” In this sense, Cameron seems to imply that The Unintended Reformation is a “Catholic historiography blaming the reformers for breaking up the medieval synthesis.” It is, in the end, a “long threnody for a lost age of grace, specifically, the lost age of medieval Western European Catholicism, or even more specifically that of Thomist philosophy and medieval monastic/sacramental piety.”

And according to Eire, although it challenges current historiographical orthodoxy, his take on The Unintended Reformation is “overwhelming positive,” mainly because he appreciates Gregory’s “eagerness to challenge prevailing assumptions, especially those that have governed Reformation studies.”

The essays published on The Immanent Frame are less conflicted, however. James Chappel, for instance, argues that The Unintended Reformation is a “deeply anti-democratic work.” “It is not,” writes Chappel, “a serious work of history.” It is a work written in an “imperious intellectual style,” and refuses “to engage in dialogue.” Perhaps most harshly, Chappel compares Gregory’s “persistent closed-mindedness” to Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Both scholars are “convinced that the die of modernity were cast somewhere around 1650…both are inordinately long…both are obsessed with Spinoza…and both authors adopt the pose of a Cassandra, howling obvious truths into a world too blinkered by its iPhones to understand.”

If Chappel’s verdict can be deemed as “much too harsh,” Ian Hunter‘s review is downright acerbic.  He maintains that Gregory’s “narrative of the modern world is precommitted to the historical centrality of the Catholic and Protestant churches,” and his “portrayal and solution to the problem of modern cultural pluralism is thus wholly internal to his own confessional-intellectual position.” The Unintended Reformation, as Hunter’s entitled essay clearly states, is a “return to sacred history”; it is ahistorical and absolute, an example of a “particular faith commitment jostling for space alongside a plurality of others.”

The reviews of Peter E. Gordon, Victoria Kahn, Adrian Pabst, Paul Silas Peterson, Guido Vanheeswijkck, and Thomas Pfau are less severe, more measured, and even congenial. In the Historically Speaking forum, Gregory offers a defense—if not blistering correction—against his critics (he has not responded to his critics in The Immanent Frame).

The Unintended Reformation aims “to answer a basic but very big question: How did contemporary ideological and institutional realities in North America and Europe come to be as they are?” In answering this “very big question,” Gregory traces the complex historical legacies of the religious revolution inaugurated by Protestant reformers in sixteenth-century Europe. He centers on the paradox that a movement that was designed to renew and purify religious truth and to intensify spirituality had the unforeseen consequence of creating the increasingly secular societies in which we live today, and which, according to Gregory, reveals the absence of any substantive common good

Gregory wants to discredit what he calls “supersessionist” models of historical change: narratives predicated upon teleology and upon the assumption that the steady displacement of “medieval” (read: primitive) by “modern” (read: progressive) ideas, practices, and structures is a wholly positive development. These modern, sophisticated, or enlightened ideas, Gregory notes, always seem to bear a striking similarity to those of the historian and his or her like-minded colleagues in the faculty lounge. The problem with supercessionist histories is that the overwhelming majority of westerners, unlike most historians, are not disenchanted, secularist intellectuals, and any serious interpretations of history claiming to explain how we got to the present day must also describe the present as it actually is—not as the historian thinks it should be or soon will be.

The Unintended Reformation is, therefore, a “damning critique and a salutary admonition that narratives of progress…have failed to give an adequate account of the contemporary world.” Following in the footsteps of Herbert Butterfield and others, Gregory recognizes the roots of this whiggish historical vision in the very eras under his examination and regards its tenacious success as a reflection of “ideological imperialism.” “Prevailing periodization and parceling of the past,” Gregory argues, “reflect institutionalized assumptions about change over time, which are in turn related to other intellectual discipline with their own aims and presuppositions, all of which are also part of what needs to be explained because they, too, are historical products.” “It seeks to show,” he goes on, “that intellectual, political, social, and economic history cannot be neatly separated from one another, because human beings embedded within social and political relationships enact desires in relationship to the natural world influenced by beliefs and ideas.” And finally, pivotal to his narrative is “the Reformation era because its unresolved doctrinal disagreements and concrete religio-political disruptions are the key to answering the book’s central question. The ongoing consequences of these controversies and conflicts,” he says, “continue to influence all Western women and men today regardless of anyone’s particular commitments.”

In this way The Unintended Reformation uses historical analysis to highlight and speak to contemporary concerns. “I hope the book will convince colleagues,” Gregory pleads, “that the exclusion of intellectually sophisticated religious perspectives from research universities is inconsistent with the open-mindedness that should characterize the academy’s ostensible commitments to academic freedom and intellectual inquiry without ideological restrictions.”

Chapter one traces how a metaphysical system in which God was regarded as a transcendent being separate from his creation and outside the normal order of causation was displaced by a “univocal” one in which He is seen as an integral part of it and conceived of in spatial terms. It is intended, Gregory writes, to explain “why so many highly educated people today think that the truth claims of revealed religion per se are rendered less plausible in proportion to the explanatory power of the natural sciences.” It is this chapter that should interest historians of science the most, for Gregory “challenges an all-too-complacent textbook narrative about the relationship between religion and science.” Chapter one argues that this assumption is a function not of scientific findings, but rather derives from a metaphysical view with its origins in the later Middle Ages.

The roots of this mindset reach back centuries, Gregory says, to the late-medieval theologian John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), who argued that God and man both exist in the same essence of things and that therefore man may speak of God with univocal as opposed to analogical language. In Scotus’ thinking, the word “wise,” for example, might apply to God in the same sense in which it applies to man. This had the effect, says Gregory, of defining God as if He were bound by the material world rather than transcendent over it. And when this view combined with William of Occam’s (1285-1349) “razor”—the principle that the best argument is the one with the fewest unnecessary parts—philosophers eventually felt emboldened to exclude God from any explanation of natural phenomena: and, in time, from any argument at all.

Chapter two explores the relativization of religious truth in the wake of the Reformation and the origins of what Gregory calls “Western hyperpluralism.” Gregory expands on a familiar contention of Catholic intellectuals: that the Protestant reformers, by placing more emphasis on Scripture than on ecclesiastical authority, paved the way for modern moral relativism. The reformers, who clashed over scriptural interpretation even as they championed it as the sole authority in matters of faith, in effect tempted later generations of philosophers and intellectuals to replace Scripture with reason. When reason later failed, it was replaced in the guise of “tolerance.” “The anti-Roman appeal to scripture alone yielded an open-ended range of rival interpretations of God’s truth.” The point is not whether or not Protestants could agree on anything, but “the historical impact of the disagreements that were in fact doctrinally, socially, and politically divisive regardless of whatever else was still held in common.”

Gregory’s third chapter explores the evolving relationship between church and state since the late Middle Ages. His argument in this chapter is that “what had been a jurisdictional rather than a doctrinal contestation in the late Middle Ages, one in which secular authorities were indeed increasingly exercising temporal control over ecclesiastical institutions, was actually intensified and transformed as a result of the doctrinal disagreements that accompanied the Reformation.”

Chapter four and five analyzes the “subjectivizing of morality” and, closely related,  “manufacturing the goods life.” He traces the long-term transition from virtue ethics (moral behavior as an outgrowth of personal character) to an ethics centered on individual rights. The multiplication of mutually exclusive moral communities sowed the seeds of the idea that morality is contingent and constructed. This was assisted by Protestantism’s distinctive soteriology: its insistence that human behavior and will play no part at all in salvation, which is entirely dependent upon the gift of divine grace. When the reformers propounded their belief that salvation could be achieved by faith alone, they prepared the way for moral individualism and consumerism. The result being our “modern Western moral philosophy and political thought.” In turn, all this has created the conditions for rampant consumerism, for “the cycle of acquire, discard, repeat,” which is “the default fabric of Western life.”

In chapter six Gregory argues that knowledge itself has become secularized. The Reformation’s central tenet of sola scriptura meant that the parameters of intellectual life were essentially defined by the content of the Bible. By problematizing the relationship between theology and human understanding, Protestantism laid “the first paving stones of the twisting path that led to the secularization of knowledge.” Instilling “a carefully calibrated skepticism” in students became the chief aim of higher education. Indeed, as he argues in his defense, Gregory sees that “specialized academic research tends to discourage critical inquiry about the character and presumptive neutrality of intellectual assumptions that are routinely taken for granted. One cannot be aware of problems one does not see, and one cannot see what is occluded by the very disciplinary boundaries and research agendas we are supposed to accept.”

Gregory’s descriptions at times are partial and exaggerated, but there is a great deal of truth in them, too. The trouble sets in when he tries to trace the “genealogy” of our lamentable state back to the Reformation. That is, Gregory attempts to show a direct and causal link between two moments in history, dissected by centuries of complexity, of intermingling, interfering, and intervening events. Gregory’s argument is quite plausible, but his analysis is too truncated by his selection of figures and events.