Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Religion and conversation

Chris Dillow's stimulating post on Weber's Protestant Ethic Thesis reminded me of how difficult it is to have a sensible conversation about religion.

I recall wading through a pile of literature on the subject at uni - which was often a depressing experience because in general the standard is rather low. Part of the reason for this is because it brings together two topics, politics and religion, that sensible people know not to discuss at social occasions, if they have any interest in the conversation remaining cordial.

For those of you with understandably better things to do with your time, let me give you a brief resume:

Protestant writers, be they theologians, historians or whatever, didn't like their religion being associated with capitalism - having clearly decided that capitalism is a Bad Thing.

Catholic writers, having at least the sense to realise that Weber placed his thesis within a more general theory of modernity, disliked their religion being associated with backwardness.

Atheists, on the other hand, didn't like the whole idea that the germ seed of modern individualism could be found within religious movements.

And Marxists were generally pissed off that anyone should place any weight on the role of ideas in economic history.

Consequently, many of them wrote a load of crap about the subject.

So how much more difficult is it now to discuss religion and any political and economic impact it might have today when the stakes are so much higher?

Virtually impossible, I would say, if people persist in the notion that when someone moves from merely thinking or feeling something to believing it, this should confer on them some form of special protection. That is why you can hear the sound of a nail being hit on the head here and here.


Igor Belanov said...

I think the Marxists would put more stress on the basis for the changing ideas, ie being determining consciousness. R.H.Tawney's 'Religion and the Rise of Capitalism' is good for this. The 16th century was a period of notable change after the discovery of the New World and development of new types of warfare and the states and diplomacy to back this up.

ted harvey said...

You are so right about how difficult it is to have a sensible conversation about religion. Mainly because ‘faith always wins out over reason’. When I say this to religious people I watch their quiet smile of approval until I point out that this is a warning, not a tribute. Whenever the faith believer is presented with testifiable, proven evidence that something is contrary to their faith, it allows them to retort “well that my faith and what I believe in and you can’t prove it wrong”. This can and does excuse, no justifies, any wrong or evil so long as it’s faith based. Dawkins points out that it takes religion for good people to do evil things.

james higham said...

In the case of Christianity, when you move from feeling to believing, the protection comes as part of the package. You don't need temporal protection. The other religions don't offer this 'deluxe' feature.

David Duff said...

I agree that discussions on matters of faith are frequently a waste of time which is why I try not to waste too much of mine with both theists and atheists! Even so, for an understanding and a very profound pleasure, I would recommend all agnostics to read George Herbert's poems. Simple, yet complex ("Clasping of Hands"), Renaissance, yet modern ("Easter Wings"), strange, yet beguiling ("Love").

I'm not convinced by his message but I would very much like to have known George Herbert.

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