Writing about religion. And thinking about it too.

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Over the past decade, we have all been reminded of the importance of religion to culture and of its capacity to guide human action. This point was reiterated by Terry Eagleton in a lecture which I attended a few months back.

At the moment I am in the middle of drafting an article that deals with an aspect of religion in early modern Britain and Ireland. It is, of course, worthwhile for me to reflect on what I am doing and on the factors which might be shaping my interpretation. On the other hand, it may not be worthwhile for you to suffer exposure to my reflections. However, rather than risk losing my focus on the task at hand by writing about something else, I would like to do some thinking out loud, so to speak. Read on if you will.

It is several decades since Sean Connolly called Patrick Corish to task for his statement that ‘the Christian message can normally give to any society only a little more than what that society is prepared to receive’. (Patrick Corish, The Catholic community. Dublin, 1981) What, Connolly asked, was the ‘little more’ to which Corish, a Catholic priest, referred? (Sean Connolly, ‘Religion and society’ Irish Economic and Social History, x, 1983, pp. 66-80) More recently, Alan Ford pointed out that Corish’s statement ‘alerts the reader to the author’s belief that a gracious God is actively involved in the world’. (Alan Ford, “Standing one’s ground’: religion polemic and Irish history since the reformation, in Ford et al., eds., As by law established: the church of Ireland since the reformation. Dublin, 1995, pp. 12-13) Although, as Ford suggested, such a belief can be helpful in exploring religious history, it also inevitably introduces a certain bias. However, this is by no means fatal to efforts at a worthwhile analysis.

I presume that, in their work on religious history, most scholars proceed from the basis that whatever they may believe, it shouldn’t affect their analysis. It will be for others to decide whether or not I succeed in achieving this aim; that is if I ever get my article finished.

Another problem to be faced is the task of understanding and empathising with the religious outlook of historical figures. It is easy to criticise various aspects of early modern government policies on religion. It is more difficult to comprehend the part which the originators of those polices believed that their God played in the world. For example, the success of campaigns of conversion may have been seen as dependent on whether or not they were compatible with the will of God. In this context, how are we to assess the supposed shortcomings of such campaigns? If priests, ministers, and government officials believed that God would ultimately dictate the success or failure of their efforts, to what extent did this affect their decision making and their use of the material resources available to them in their task?

This is just one of the many, many issues worth grappling with in approaching the writing of the history of religion. The task is, I think, nonetheless rewarding.

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2 Responses to “Writing about religion. And thinking about it too.”

  1. highheeledhistorian Says:

    Perhaps writing the history of religion will also become increasingly difficult given our secular society today. Not everyone is religious today, on the contrary, few people are. This is no different for historians, so surely we will find it more difficult to step into the shoes of a someone implementing a religious policy. eg. Mary I.

    Do you agree that our increasingly secular society will hinder our understanding/ability to interpret religious history? Surely it is impossible for what we believe not to affect our analysis of historical events? For example, it is impossible for most people to study Hitler impartially. Aren’t we always going to be influenced by the fact that he killed 6 million Jews, which is morally repugnant and therefore be prejudiced against him?

    Thank you for the interesting blog and I’d be interested in hearing your views on this comment.

    http://highheeledhistorian.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/was-the-catholic-church-still-healthy-in-1500/

    • John Cunningham Says:

      Thanks for your comment. I do agree that the task in question is increasingly difficult, but it remains nonetheless important. Part of the challenge is to take religious belief seriously and to recognise the power it has exercised in the historical context. The Irish historiography which with I am most familiar was traditionally made up of competing Protestant and Catholic narratives and it can be easy enough to spot the inherent biases. However, the few citations I included in my post show that, while we have moved beyond the old modes of confessional history writing, personal belief still shapes interpretation. While this may be unavoidable, it is necessary to ensure that students are aware of it. Another problem we face in historiography of early modern Ireland is that the official government sources upon which historians are heavily dependent usually provide a Protestant perspective on religious issues; one which did not always take Catholic belief seriously. This too, I believe, filters into historical scholarship. On the other hand, the Catholic sources necessary to counterbalance this perspective are often in Latin, a factor which poses another set of problems entirely for many twenty-first century historians. I recognise too that it is difficult adequately to deal with any of these complex points within the contraints of a blog post.

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