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History Is Bunk? Culpable Nonsense!

The ruins of Rievaulx Abby in Yorkshire, torn apart by Thomas Cromwell and his minions as part of the destruction of Catholic England

I don’t think I ever met a Jew when I was a kid. If I did, I didn’t know it. It was not until I went away to (Quaker) boarding school as a teenager, where there were many Jews, that I first became aware of the casual anti-Semitism of the British middle-classes. Often combined, paradoxically, with a fanatical pro-Zionism. After Britain alone faced Hitler, we could empathize with the Jews surrounded by hostile Arabs.

Catholicism was another matter. Although Quakers preach tolerance and love and although my closest childhood friend was a Catholic – we still exchange birthday greetings and bemoan the fate of the Wolverhampton Wanderers – from the first, I just knew there was something not right about it. It was not a theological objection. I had never heard of sola scriptura and when as an adult I did I was profoundly shocked. Justification by faith struck me as simply a reflection of Paul’s guilt at having persecuted Christians. He had done nothing deserving of salvation except belief and so he generalized for the rest of us. Catholics, like Quakers, take seriously Jesus’ admonitions about service to the poor and sick and suffering.

The answer to the prejudice was, the answer still is, that there is just something not British about Catholicism. The Archbishop of Canterbury may be a bit of a loon, but he’s our loon. Back in those days the pope was always Italian and it hasn’t got much better in recent years. How could one belong to a church run by foreigners?

Now, if you think about it, there is something profoundly irrational about this. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus was not English and the Bible was not written in Elizabethan and early Jacobean English. But the view persisted, and it clearly still persists as any 10-minute conversation in a British pub will tell you. It is part and parcel of the hostility felt by so many Brits towards the Continent, despite or perhaps because of the E.U.

Which brings me to the point of what I want to say, which is about philosophy rather than history. My good friend of 40 years, the philosopher Alex Rosenberg at Duke, has just published a book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. I will talk about some of the main points at another time, but here I want to focus on his attack on history.

History is helpless to teach us anything much about the present. The real lesson the history of arms races [something Rosenberg discusses] teaches is that there are no lessons in history. When it comes to understanding the future, history is bunk.

At the risk of threatening our friendship, this is nonsense. It is dangerous, culpable nonsense, and a good philosopher should know better. (But then of course there is Alvin Plantinga on Intelligent Design.) The tragedy is that this kind of stuff just plays into the hands of the philistines in our society who want to eliminate the humanities and go solely for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Go back to the Brits and Catholicism. Of course, there were contributing factors like the tense relationship with Ireland, but the main reason for the anti-Catholicism lies in the past. Most immediately, as Linda Colley shows in her brilliant Britons, it lies in the 18th century, when Britain was faced with threats from the most powerful of continental forces, the very Catholic French. The Act of Union between Scotland and England and Wales, making for a country with the resources to withstand the threats, needed an ideology. Protestantism was it, even though it was more a shared hostility to Catholicism than an identity of belief – Presbyterians and Anglicans are still far apart on that. (Interesting, even 20 years ago, Colley noted that with the decline of outside threat, the Union may be in trouble, as indeed it is.)

But of course to get at the real story one needs to go back two more centuries, to the English Reformation. This was brought home to me very clearly this last weekend because, on a flying visit to New York, Lizzie and I visited the Frick. There on the wall, facing each other, were the brilliant and moving portraits by Holbein of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Henry the Eighth sent them both to the block, the former because he refused to abjure Catholicism when Henry broke with Rome in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. The latter, for all that he was the architect of the dissolution of the monasteries, who likewise upset his master when he produced the very plain looking Anne of Cleves as the fourth wife.

The point is that the founding of British Protestantism wasn’t really theological – Henry didn’t much care for Luther and later in the century the Calvinists were non-stop problems – but more a function of a small country, in need of an ideology, as it defied the forces of Catholic Europe, most particularly back then Spain.

And that is why, if we want to understand the Brits today, and especially the troubled relationship that so many have with the continent, we have to understand the role that religion has played, and why the role has so often been political (for want of a better term) rather than theological. The young Michael Ruse had beliefs and prejudices of which the older Michael Ruse is not very proud. History helps us to understand why I felt that way and why those feelings may no longer be relevant and why I and my fellow Brits need to get over them and live in the present and look to the future.

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