Secularism and History: Religious History Association Conference Part 2

Group of conference attendees sitting around table

Some of the presenters at the Religious History Association conference: Diane Hall, Pamela Welch, Howard Le Couteur, Susan Mary Withycombe (chairperson of a session) , Hilary Carey and Noel Derbyshire.

“Religious historians have an important role to play in resisting grand narratives of secularism and modernisations”, stated Professor Hilary Carey at the commencement of the Religious History Association Conference last week.  “Instead of a single path to modernity there are many”, she argued while encouraging historians of religion to engage with this insight of post-modernism.  “What interests the postmodern scholar is not the discovery of points of truth…  but rather the relationships between propositions and how they are structured and given legitimacy”.

As I discussed in my first post about the Religious History Association conference, the secularisation thesis argues that religion will die out with advancing modernisation but this foundational theory of many academic disciplines is now being heavily scrutinised.  As can be seen in Carey’s discussion, many are starting to see this theory as too simplified and failing to fit the historical evidence of the last two hundred years.  Historians need to revisit the history of secularism and religion in order to provide the evidence which will develop a better, more sophisticated theory, or maybe debunk it altogether.  Thus the theme of the conference, Secularism and History, has an urgency and relevance that is evident in the life of Australia today.  Carey referred to the recent High Court decision about chaplaincy in schools.  This was an issue because religious belief is still an active agent in our society today – something that the secularisation thesis would suggest should have almost disappeared by now.

The papers that I heard presented at the recent Religious History Association conference in Adelaide reflected the spirit of Carey’s comments well.  They discussed religion in society and the intersection between religion and secularism.  In my first post about this conference I discussed the papers that engaged with the philosophical issues currently being raised in relation to the secularisation thesis.  In this post I will share with you the presentations that focussed on religion and secularism in its historical context.

The papers presented were not simplistic arguments denying the difficulties faced by religious institutions.  They demonstrated how religious belief engaged with the challenges thrown to it by secularism.  A good example was Noel Derbyshire’s examination of the response of the Anglican Church in New Zealand to the decline in Anglicans from forty percent of New Zealanders in 1945 to 14 percent in 2006 and New Zealand’s increased diversity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He discussed how the church responded by revising its constitution to include the three major cultures of its adherents, the Maori, the Pakeha (Europeans) and the Polynesians.

Doris LeRoy reflected on the life of pioneer bioethicist, Joseph Fletcher.  Fletcher grew up in a non-religious household, adopted Marxism, then attended a theological college to become an Episcopalian priest.  While dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in Cincinnati, he permitted the painting of Karl Marx on the walls of a chapel.  He was a keynote speaker at the World Peace Congress in Melbourne in 1950 and Senator Joseph McCarthy derided him as the “Red Churchman”.  Eventually Fletcher left the church and dropped his involvement in socialism.  His life can be seen as a metaphor for the twentieth century. He explored the religious and secular positions that were available for people to adopt and acted out deeply held convictions in a quest to leave the world a better place.  A paragraph is a very inadequate testimony to such a complex life

Religious belief had a part to play in mid twentieth century Australian political discourse argued Sybil Nolan.  She examined World War II speeches by the man who was to become Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies.  While Judith Brett in her book, Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, argued that Menzies’ Presbyterian beliefs could be regarded as cultural and residual, rather than deeply thought through convictions, Nolan said that her analysis of Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’ speeches during World War II demonstrated the influence of the ideas of American evangelists, Fosdick and Sumner as well as the Christian ideas of British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin which Baldwin had gained from T H Green.  Nolan argued that Menzies’ Christian beliefs were more than an inherited ‘residual’ faith – he read widely, absorbed religious ideas and they formed part of his political outlook.

While writing this post I realised that all but one presentation I attended at the Religious History Association conference either focussed on the twentieth century or the cusp of that century.  I would have loved to hear Eva Bischoff discuss ‘Quaker lives and missions in the Anglophone World (c 1830-1870), and Jennifer Hein’s paper about ‘nineteenth Century Salvation Army as an Example of the Interface between Religion and Secular Society’, but I had to make difficult choices about which sessions to attend!

I did hear one paper focussing on the nineteenth century – a well-delivered paper by Dianne Hall on a speaking tour of eastern Australia by Irish-American former nun, Edith O’Gorman.  Sponsored by the Loyal Orange Institute of New South Wales O’Gorman toured eastern Australia during 1886/7 speaking out about what she saw as the evils of convent life.  Sectarian sentiment ran high in Australia at the time.  Her speaking engagement in Lismore provoked a riot there in 1886.  Hall argued that while O’Gorman’s writing about her opinion of convent life drew on a tradition of Gothic novels about convents, her public speaking on the topic transgressed societal norms. Hall said that a factor that heightened sensitivities in Lismore was the presence of a newly built convent there.  The rioters were incensed at the aspersions that O’Gorman was casting at convents like this and the nuns who resided therein.  Religious beliefs mattered a great deal in nineteenth century Australia.

Pamela Welch’s paper about the difficulty that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Anglican Church faced in recruiting priests from a traditional source of holy labour, the sons of English clergymen, highlighted the impact of the burgeoning civil service at the time.  The British civil service had expanded rapidly in order to service the growing empire, in particular the more recent imperial acquisitions in Africa.  There was competition in the labour market for suitable candidates and the civil service was seen as a more exciting and professionally desirable career than that of a parson.  Whereas earlier in the nineteenth century the life as a clergymen was regarded as a good profession, towards the twentieth century clergy were seen to be dealing more with women and children – not a ‘manly’ thing to do!

The growing feminisation of church congregations at the turn of the twentieth century was noticed at the time.  Howard Le Couteur’s paper drew on a wonderful source for historians – the report of the Church of England commission examining the “religious knowledge and habits” of the people of the Brisbane diocese appointed in 1907.  The resulting report showed that in the Brisbane diocese, 75% of those who attended church were women.  Le Couteur discussed the steps that the Anglican Church in Australia took to bring the church to men in the early twentieth century through the Church of England Mens Society.  Le Couteur noted that this work was halted by the outbreak of war in 1914.

What did happen to religious belief during World War I?  While it is clear that the Christian churches were grappling with various challenges to faith before the war religious belief in its various forms still had a substantial presence in Australasia.  We know from the work of John Moses that World War I was regarded by some at the time as a holy war, but how did the faith of ordinary soldiers battling through the horrors of the war fare?

Daniel Reynaud examined the ‘Responses of Christian soldiers to the experience of the Great War’ in his paper.  Drawing on diaries and letters written by soldiers serving in the war, Reynaud noted how patriotism and religion merged in the minds of the soldiers.  It was about God, King and country after all.  For some of these soldiers, the war was a crusade against German Protestantism.

My ears pricked up when Reynaud said that researchers of war history in a number of countries had noticed that soldiers did not write much about their faith during the war.  I asked Reynaud about this afterwards and he referred me to, The cross and the trenches: religious faith and doubt among British and American Great War soldiers (Westport CT & London: Praeger, 2003) by Richard Schweitzer.  The question I am pondering now is; did the absence of comments about religious faith mean that the soldiers lost faith on the battleground, or should we treat the absence of such comment with more caution, in the same way we treat the lack of comment about indigenous people and women in the archives?  Reynaud recognised that many soldiers did lose their faith during the war, but  argued that many others retained their faith.  However, many soldiers refused to attend the church after the war he said, but they still held their Christian beliefs.  Thus Reynaud is suggesting that rather than assuming that religious belief was largely extinguished by the war, we should be open to the possibility that faith remained but there was a substantial change in the form belief took and how it was expressed.

Reynaud’s presentation has intrigued me.  In fact all the presentations have piqued my interest.  At this conference I heard historians of religion examining faith, doubt and the intersection between the secular and religious.  I heard presentations that focussed on a particular denomination as well as those, like Josip Matesic’s which took a ‘whole of religion’ approach rather than focussing on one particular religion in order to contrast it with the secular.  What the papers presented at the conference demonstrated was that traditional, formal religion has faced significant challenge and the number of adherents of this form declined, but belief still remained albeit in altered form.  The papers also clearly showed the importance of secular approaches to life in the last couple of hundred years.  Yet as Hilary Carey noted, the historical sociologist Hugh McLeod has pointed out that Christianity has always recognised a tussle between the ‘world’ and the holy.  Other religions recognise this also.

We are at a fascinating juncture in the history of the west.  Secularism appears to have had an upper hand but as shown through the papers presented at this conference, while religion has been seriously challenged, religion just hasn’t gone away.  I agree with Hilary Carey who said in her presentation that religion cannot be written off.  She noted other points in history where religion has faced seemingly destructive challenge only to rise again in future years.  She pointed to the hostility towards religion in communist countries during the twentieth century and the return of religion in these nations after 1989.  I thought of the destructive challenge to the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the fact that the church still has a presence in France today.  New religions have emerged and old ones have developed different forms of expression, eg the evangelical churches.  Religion has never been completely extinguished; rather the form of faith and its relationship to the state has altered.  The secularisation thesis in the form that was proposed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is too simplistic, too deterministic to be regarded as a rigorous model of the behaviour of belief in modern life.

5 thoughts on “Secularism and History: Religious History Association Conference Part 2

  1. Pingback: Religion, History and Secularization: RHA Conference 2012 | Religious History Association

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