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February 28, 2007

Religious Polemics: Jeremy Black argues that William Rees-Mogg is wrong about religion

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter and the author of the just published The Slave Trade - takes issue with William Rees-Mogg over his recent polemic, Religion isn't the sickness. It's the cure.

Social Darwinism either meant eugenics and the slaughter of babies who were not thought fit to survive, or it meant nothing.
William Rees-Mogg's comment in The Times on 26th February 2007 in the course of his piece Religion isn't the sickness. It's the cure is an instance of poor journalism and worse history. The piece begins by proclaiming the continuity of Christian opposition to slavery, a highly dubious proposition at best, and continues with a whole host of remarks that can best be described as partisan.

Doubtless a partisan writer on the other side could produce similar but opposite remarks, but that is certainly not my objective. Nor do I wish to anatomise this instance of bad writing beyond asking when Lord Rees-Mogg will be advised that his best days are behind him.

My concern, rather, is that discussion about the merits of religion appears to be lost when extreme either-or propositions are made. Clearly, an argument can be made that religions can provide both senses of identity and individual worth, an impression of transcendent meaning, and a cause for reform and social betterment. The ability of other belief-systems to provide the same varies. Where Rees-Mogg is unhelpful is in his arguing by assertion. This faith-based approach to rational argument is both dubious empirically, as any reading of his article will suggest, but also methodologically. Is virtue so much the monopoly of one "side" and, if so, of which religions and sects within it?

Furthermore, how is a religious-based approach to adapt to the variety of competing religions, and to the presence of large numbers who, whether or not they have a spiritual sense, do not feel represented by religious organisations? Commenting on the strength of Catholicism in Britain as Rees-Mogg does, for example, simply draws attention to the decline of other churches. Religious faith is far more ambivalent a social value than Rees-Mogg allows for, and his unwillingness to do so betrays his strident partisanship.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author, amongst much else, of The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).


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"The piece begins by proclaiming the continuity of Christian opposition to slavery, a highly dubious proposition at best, and continues with a whole host of remarks that can best be described as partisan.

Doubtless a partisan writer on the other side could produce similar but opposite remarks"

Hmm ...

I doubt myself that any informed person could gainsay the proposition. We don't see slavery around us, and we assume, therefore, that it is an unusual institution. Frankly, I think it's been the norm for human societies; and, as with many aspects of our own society, we fail to see our own social situation and grasp its quiddity, as a fish fails to observe the water it swims in.

FWIW, I don't believe the Christian account of things, but I think, over time and with not a little difficulty, the assumptions embodied in it have made life in the West rather more pleasant than it might have been.

I doubt that will last in the long term. I think quite unpleasant times are coming.

Moreover, I think it's important to notice that Nietzsche was "on the other side" from Mr. Rees Mogg. But, of course, when Nietzsche described Christianity as "Chandala hypocrisy" his view of the matter was scarcely "opposite" to the Christian one. Now, that's one to think about.

Posted by: Mike at February 28, 2007 06:50 PM
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