Reflecting on My work, Big Data and the History Manifesto

My great grandfather wrote this postcard from the western front to my  grandfather who was seven years old. Two weeks after he wrote this my great grandfather became yet another soldier killed in World War I.

My great grandfather wrote this postcard from the front to my grandfather who was seven years old. Two weeks after he wrote this my great grandfather was killed.

Everything about World War I was massive. It was industrial-scale warfare fought along frontlines that stretched for hundreds of kilometres, manned and supplied by millions of people. This too was a war which produced an unprecedented stream of words. It was not just the politicians and officers who sat down to pen their thoughts. Ordinary soldiers near the front and their families from around the world, recorded their experiences and comforted each other through diaries and letters.

In just one month in 1916, the Australian army post headquarters in London successfully sorted nearly three million letters but there were another four hundred thousand letters which could not be delivered as they were inadequately addressed (‘The Soldiers’ Mails’, The Age, 10/2/1917, p. 4). Australia’s five million people were prodigious writers during the war.

Any historian who seeks to understand World War I needs to come to grips with the enormity of it. I am studying just a tiny fraction of the archives produced by that war, yet I am grappling the problems and possibilities of dealing with a huge number of words. The other day I worked out that the collection of soldier diaries I’m working with contains over seven million words. To put it in more comprehensible terms, my corpus is currently the equivalent of over thirteen volumes of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This collection will grow as I add more diaries to my research corpus. I also have to read other primary sources such as court martials and Australian Imperial Force (AIF) unit diaries. Continue reading

Captains of the Soul in Sceptical Times

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

The interaction between religious and non-religious beliefs in Australian society is complicated. It is often obscured by a public debate which in recent times has been punctuated by simple slogans, such as “Australia is a Christian country” or “separation between church and state”. Passion about these issues has periodically run high through Australia’s post European-settlement history. To gain a better understanding of secularism and religion in Australia we need to dig under the gushing of rhetoric to examine the actions of Australians.

Education is an important arm of the state in Australia. As I’ve noted in my review of the recently published book about religion in schools by Marion Maddox, Australian children  learned about God in their public school classrooms even in the times of allegedly “free, compulsory and secular education” in the late nineteenth-century.  We continue to have religious education in our public schools and now we have significant funding of religious schools as well as religious chaplains in our public schools.

Michael Gladwin’s new book, Captains of the Soul, brings attention to how religion is embedded in another important arm of the Australian state. Chaplains have been part of the defence forces during every major overseas war in which Australians have been officially involved. Gladwin tells of how the New South Wales government “bowed to significant public pressure” and allowed two chaplains to accompany the troops to Sudan in 1885, one from the Roman Catholic Church and the other from the Church of England. Eighteen chaplains accompanied colonial forces to the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century. Continue reading

India at the Australian Historical Association Conference

Hockey stick

A hockey stick used by my mother at school in country Victoria during the mid 1950s with signatures of the 1928 Indian Olympic hockey team (the blue and yellow grip was added in the late 1970s).

Chinese-Australian history was well covered at the Australian Historical Association Conference but when I reviewed my conference notes I realised that a number of the sessions I attended were about the relationship between India and Australia.  I have only dabbled in this history during a seminar in my honours year, but increasingly I feel drawn to learn more.  Indians have lived in Australian since colonial times and the two countries have a strong historical association due to being fellow members of the British Empire.   Aside from these specific associations, my interest in secularism draws me to Indian history.  Leading researchers in this area recommend attention be given to the manner in which India has dealt with religion and state.

It was fitting that the keynote presentation was delivered by an authority in Indian colonial era history, Professor Sir Christopher Bayly of the University of Cambridge.  He gave a comparative overview of the two countries, titled ‘India and Australia: Distant Connections’.  He noted that the original peoples of both countries were subjugated and land appropriated by the colonial conquerors and that both countries experienced violence – between settlers and Aboriginal people in Australia and in India, the Rebellion of 1857.   The English legal system used in both countries had difficulty accommodating the native peoples because evidence under oath was traditionally only accepted from Christian witnesses.

Bayly commented that Australian self-government became an ‘icon’ for Indians agitating for independence.  However, Australia was a flawed icon in Indian eyes as they read about Australia’s treatment of Aborigines.  In questions afterwards, Bayly noted that the colonial era Calcutta newspapers had a significant amount of news about Australia, more so than another significant member of the empire – Canada.  Why was this?  There were significant shipping connections between Australia and India.  Continue reading

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. Continue reading

What is Religion? What is Secularism? Religious History Association Conference Part 1

State of Confucius in garden

Confucianism: religion or a philosophy? Statue of Confucius in the grounds of the University of Adelaide

All week I am attending the Australian Historical Association Conference in Adelaide.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post this conference is really four conferences in one.  I have been mostly attending the Religious History Association conference which concluded today.  This post gives a brief introduction to some profound philosophical debates about religion and secularism and how these debates were addressed in the papers presented at this conference.

The secularisation thesis has underpinned the work of much of the humanities and social sciences since the nineteenth century. This theory proposes that religion will die out with the increasing modernisation of society (for further explanation see the introduction to Sacred and Secular by Inglehart and Norris).  This theory is under intense scrutiny because it would be reasonable to expect that if the secularisation thesis holds then in many western societies religion would have virtually disappeared by now.  As religion is still a force in the west the question is whether the theory is incorrect or whether it needs to be reframed in a more nuanced manner.

To discuss the secularisation thesis we need to be able to understand the nature of both secularisation and it’s binary opposite, religion.  I have touched on the meaning of secular in an earlier post, but what is religion?  This has proven to be very difficult, and I would argue, virtually impossible to define.

While these debates are relevant and discussed by other disciplines, the historical record is crucial to understanding what is occurring.  The theme of this week’s Religious History Association conference is very topical. Continue reading