Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Sep/09

29

Rule by Good Men

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Since Heather’s post on Karen Armstrong I’ve heard her a lot on the radio hawking her new book, The Case for God. From what I can gather her arguments are mostly relevant to religious people; those of us who are irreligious tend not to be particularly invested in the ideological details of religions so much as its material consequences (I am, to be honest, a bit more curious about ideological issues mostly because the religious people I meet tend to be intelligent). Armstrong’s strenuous objection to the vulgar nature of the fundamentalist ascension in the modern age, and rise of scientism, is fine as it goes, but it is ultimately a matter of academic interest. The populations of developed nations can read the Bible, and so will. Additionally, democratic populism is such that the moral authority of credentialed priestly castes have been sharply limited. If religion qua religion was defined by the goings-on at Princeton Theological Seminary then the world would be a different place indeed. But it isn’t. Religion in the contemporary world is far more often a vehicle for what during the Enlightenment was termed “enthusiasm.”

4 comments

  • Ben Abbott · September 29, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    I’d like to encourage you to expand upon …

    > Religion in the contemporary world is far more often a vehicle
    > for what during the Enlightenment was termed “enthusiasm”.

    It is a common assertion that our Nation’s founders were religious, or even evangelical. However, I’m skeptical that their view of religion and ours are as close as we might expect.

    In any event, you comment sounds interesting to me, I hope you’ll offer some more detail.

  • Author comment by David Hume · September 29, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    It is a common assertion that our Nation’s founders were religious, or even evangelical. However, I’m skeptical that their view of religion and ours are as close as we might expect.

    they were a diversity of views. you are right that modern perceptions don’t map well onto to present ones; almost all believed themselves to be christians. even though many, such as jefferson and adams, rejected core concepts of trinitarian christianity. i doubt that most (though some, such as patrick henry would) could be called evangelical at all.

    in any case, re: ‘enthusiasm,’ i’m talking about the foment which occurred during the radical reformation, wars of religion, and finally in apocalyptic populist cults which were on the scene in the 16th and 17th century. here’s wikipedia on the anglo-protestant context:

    Several Protestant sects of the 16th and 17th centuries were called enthusiastic. During the years that immediately followed the Glorious Revolution, “enthusiasm” was a British pejorative term for advocacy of any political or religious cause in public. Such “enthusiasm” was seen in the time around 1700 as the cause of the previous century’s English Civil War and its attendant atrocities, and thus it was an absolute social sin to remind others of the war by engaging in enthusiasm. The Royal Society bylaws stipulated that any person discussing religion or politics at a Society meeting was to be summarily ejected for being an “enthusiast.”…During the 18th century, popular Methodists such as John Wesley or George Whitefield were accused of blind enthusiasm (i.e. fanaticism).

    to a great extent the 19th century was a collapse of the 18th century consensus. radical secularism and evangelical low church movements have torn the elite religious monopoly in half from both ends.

  • Mark in Spokane · September 29, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    As far as the Founders go, the “top-tier” Founders (Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison) were probably all Deists — although what a Deist was in the 18th century is not the same as a Deist today. All of them believed (or at least said they believed) in a God who intervened in history via Providence. Jefferson is considered to be the least orthodox of the Founders, but even he believed in a God who answered prayer, for example.

    The “second-tier” Founders are more mixed. Some of them were 18th century Deists. Others, like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, were solid evangelical Protestants. The Carrolls of Maryland were Catholic (one signed the Constitution, one signed the Declaration of Indep.).

    Alexander Hamilton appears to have been a Deist earlier in his life, although at the end of his life he was an orthodox Episcopalian.

    There are a good number of posts on the topic of the Founders’ religion over at the American Creation blog — there is link to that blog over in the blogroll…

  • Mark in Spokane · September 30, 2009 at 5:27 am

    One more thing — don’t underestimate the influence of mysticism on the founders, not via orthodox Christianity but via Freemasonry. Most of the “top-tier” founders were involved in masonic societies – Washington and Franklin were long-standing masons. Freemasonry was predicated on the kind of Deism which many of the “top-tier” founders embraced, but it surrounded that kind of rationalist faith with a host of rituals, symbolic concepts and weird mythology. If one finds the legends and stories of the New Testament difficult to tolerate, one will not find a rationalist haven in the legends about Hyrum Abiff.

    So, if the idea is that the American founders were somehow immune from “enthusiasm” I think is oversold. Throw Freemasonry in the mix, and the strange rituals and mythological beliefs start to multiply…

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