Religion Without God (bien avant Dworkin)

I am in Evanston for a conference and thought to pay a visit to a favorite old usedBookman's Alley bookstore that I had enjoyed several years ago, “Bookman’s Alley.” The store is truly a treasure, full of surprises, and complete with a wonderfully surly owner. I took a shot of the old storefront (which is tucked away down the alley) and here’s a shot of part of a lovely collection of the complete works of Thackeray–some thirty odd volumes of his writing, all in disorder.

To my great regret, I discovered upon entering that Bookman’s is closing down Thackerayafter more than three decades. I see from this story last year that plans for Bookman’s closing have been in the works for some time. But it seemed from the melancholy mood of the store (and from the 70% discount) that the end is nigh.

I wanted to honor the store by buying a few things, even though I never relish the thought of carrying back books on a plane (with difficulty I resisted the Thackeray feast). Instead, I found a few smaller things, including an old edition of Carl Becker’s skeptical classic, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, delivered as the Storrs Lecture in 1931 and still remarkable in several respects (one of which, I think, is the informality and easiness of the writing).

Becker’s short tract is a masterpiece of critical commentary on what we would Beckertoday call the relationship of “secularism” and “civil religion.” Here’s something from the fourth and final lecture, “The Uses of Posterity,” which will perhaps be of interest to those who are now reading Ronald Dworkin’s recently published, posthumous volume, “Religion Without God”:

Nearly a century ago De Tocqueville noted the fact that the French Revolution was a “political revolution which functioned in the manner and which took on in some sense the aspect of a religious revolution.” Like Islamism or the Protestant revolt, it overflowed the frontiers of countries and nations and was extended by “preaching and propaganda.” It functioned,

in relation to this world, in precisely the same manner that religious revolutions function in respect to the other: it considered the citizen in an abstract fashion, apart from particular societies, in the same way that religions consider man in general, independently of time and place. It sought not merely the particular rights of French citizens, but the general political rights and duties of all men. [Accordingly] since it appeared to be more concerned with the regeneration of the human race than with the reformation of France, it generated a passion which, until then, the most violent political revolutions had never exhibited. It inspired proselytism and gave birth to propaganda. It could therefore assume that appearance of a religious revolution which so astonished contemporaries; or rather it became itself a kind of new religion, an imperfect religion it is true, a religion without God, without a form of worship, and without a future life, but one which nevertheless, like Islamism, inundated the earth with soldiers, apostles, and martyrs.

L’ancien régime et la Révolution, Bk I, ch.3 [emphasis mine]. De Tocqueville’s contemporaries were too much preoccupied with political issues and the validity of traditional religious doctrines to grasp the significance of his pregnant observations. Not until our own time have historians been sufficiently detached from religions to understand that the Revolution, in its later stages especially, took on the character of a crusade. But it is now well understood…not only that the Revolution attempted to substitute the eighteenth-century religion of humanity for the traditional faiths, but also that, contrary to the belief of De Tocqueville, the new religion was not without God, forms of worship, or a future life. On the contrary, the new religion had its dogmas, the sacred principles of the Revolution–Liberté et sainte égalité. It had its form of worship, an adaptation of Catholic ceremonial, which was elaborated in connection with its civic fêtes. It had its saints, the heroes and martyrs of liberty. It was sustained by an emotional impulse, a mystical faith in humanity, in the ultimate regeneration of the human race.

“National Prayers: Special Worship since the Reformation: Volume 1: Special Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings in the British Isles, 1533-1688” (Mears, et al., eds.)

Next month, Boydell Press will publish National Prayers: Special Worship since the Reformation: Volume 1: Special Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings in the British Isles, 1533-1688, edited by Natalie Mears, Alasdair Raffe, and Stephen Taylor. The publisher’s description follows.

Since the sixteenth century, the governments and established churches of the British Isles have summoned the nation to special acts of public worship during periods of anxiety and crisis, at times of celebration or for annual commemoration and remembrance. These special prayers, special days of worship and anniversary commemorations were national events, reaching into every parish in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Ireland. They had considerable religious, ecclesiastical, political, ideological, moral and social significance, and they produced important texts: proclamations, council orders, addresses and – in England, Wales and Ireland – prayers or complete liturgies which for specified periods supplemented or replaced the services in the Book of Common Prayer. Many of these acts of special worship and most of the texts have escaped historical notice. National Prayers. Special Worship since the Reformation, in three volumes, provides the edited texts, commentaries and source notes for each of the nearly nine hundred occasions of special worship and for each of the annual commemorations. The first volume, Special Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings in the British Isles 1533-1688, has an extended Introduction to the three volumes and a consolidated list of all the occasions of special worship. It contains texts and commentaries which reveal the origins of special occasions of national worship during the Reformation in both England and Scotland, the development of fast days and wartime prayers later in the sixteenth century, and what we know about the origins of special national worship in Ireland. It also shows how special worship became a recurrent focus and expression of religion and political contention during the seventeenth century.

Meszaros & Zachhuber, “Sacrifice and Modern Thought”

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish Sacrifice and Modern Thought by Julia Meszaros (Catholic University of Leuven) and Johannes Zachhuber (University of Oxford). The publisher’s description follows.

Sacrifice has always been central to the study of religion yet attempts to understand and assess the concept have usually been controversial. The present book, which is the result of several years of interdisciplinary collaboration, suggests that in many ways the fascination with sacrifice has its roots in modernity itself. Theological developments following the Reformation, the rediscovery of Greek tragedies, and the encounter with the practice of human sacrifice in the Americas triggered a complex and passionate debate in the sixteenth century which has never since abated. Contributors to this volume, leading experts from theology, anthropology, and literary and cultural studies, describe and discuss how this modern fascination for the topic of sacrifice has evolved, how it has shaped theological debate, the literary imagination, and anthropological theory. Individual chapters discuss in depth major theological trajectories, theories of sacrifice including those of Marcel Mauss and Rene Girard, and current feminist criticism. They engage with sacrifice in the context of religious and philosophical thought, works of literature and film. They explore different yet overlapping aspects of modernity’s obsession with sacrifice. The book does not intend to impose a single narrative over all these diverse contributions but brings them into a conversation around a common centre.