Intellectual history, philosophy, and science’s own self-understanding undermine the claim that science entails or need even tend toward atheism. By definition a radically transcendent creator-God is inaccessible to empirical investigation. Denials of the possibility or actual occurrence of miracles depend not on science itself, but on naturalist assumptions that derive originally from a univocal metaphysics with its historical roots in medieval nominalism, which in turn have deeply influenced philosophy and science since the seventeenth century. The metaphysical postulate of naturalism and (...) its correlative empiricist epistemology constitute methodological self-limitations of science -- only an unjustified move from postulate to assertion permits ideological scientism and atheism. It is entirely possible that religious claims consistent with the empirical findings of the natural and social sciences might be true. Therefore, historians of religion not only need not assume that atheism i. (shrink)
The rejection of confessional commitments in the study of religion in favor of social-scientific or humanistic theories of religion has produced not unbiased accounts, but reductionist explanations of religious belief and practice with embedded secular biases that preclude the understanding of religious believer-practitioners. These biases derive from assumptions of undemonstrable, dogmatic, metaphysical naturalism or its functional equivalent, an epistemological skepticism about all truth claims of revealed religions. Because such assumptions are so widespread among scholars today, they are not often explicitly (...) articulated. They were overtly asserted by Emile Durkheim in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life , however, and are implicit in the claims of two other thinkers influential in the study of early modern Christianity in recent years, namely Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault. The use of such theories in the history of religion yields secular confessional history, parallel to traditional religious confessional history only with different embedded metaphysical beliefs. If scholars want to understand religious persons such that the latter would recognize themselves in what is said about them, rather than impose their own metaphysical convictions on them, then they should reject metaphysically biased reductionist theories of religion no less than confessional religious assumptions in the practice of their scholarship. Instead, a study of religion guided not by theories but by the question, “What did it mean to them?” and which is particularized in metaphysically neutral ways offers a third alternative that avoids confessional history, whether religious or secular. When carried out consistently for multiple traditions, such an approach can reconstruct disagreements that point beyond description to historical explanation of change over time. (shrink)
John Henry Newman was a discerning critic of the dominant social values and cultural features of England in the Victorian era that revolved around the sovereign self. Insofar as many of these features—individuals as their own masters, wealth and celebrity, the arbitrariness of answers about faith and meaning, and the character of higher education in the absence of theology—also characterize American society and culture in the early twenty-first century, Newman’s critique of his own time and society also applies to ours. (...) This essay was first delivered as the 2014 Newman Legacy Lecture, sponsored by the National Institute for Newman Studies, at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 3, 2014. (shrink)
Secularization in the Western world is not a contrived combination of disconnected phenomena. It is a complex, long-term, multi-faceted process in which the central place of Christianity has greatly diminished in all areas of life since the sixteenth century, and which derives from the enduring doctrinal disagreements and recurrent religio-political conflicts of the Reformation era. Because late medieval Christianity was embedded in and intended to influence all areas of human life, including buying and selling, the exercise of power, and higher (...) education, all areas of human life were powerfully affected by the Reformation’s rejection of Roman Catholicism. By problematizing religion, the disagreements and conflicts inspired new ideas and institutional means to address them, and thus inadvertently contributed to secularization. The two principal accounts of long-term Western secularization – Enlightenment-liberationist and Catholic-disembedding – diverge not in their descriptions of what happened, but rather in their overall assessments of the process as respectively positive or not. (shrink)
Books reviewed in this article: The History of Everyday Life. Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life Edited by Alf Lüdtke, translated by William Templer Jeux d'Échelles. La micro‐analyse àl'expérience Edited by Jacques Revel.