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Richard Firth-Godbehere contemplates the historical provenance and value of religious texts.
Published for The Skeptic online on 17th April 2013.
Photograph: Kevin Peters
There are a great many historians who practice religions of all flavours. Some historians jump headlong into the history of their particular faith, blending it with apologetics and philosophy. Others simply ignore their religious predilections and concentrate on other areas of history, sealing their faith in a mental box with a sign huge on the lid reading ‘do not enter while studying’. I am sure this arrangement or something similar to it is found throughout all walks of academic life, but I find it particularly puzzling when I find it amongst historians. I know of many good historians who take their collection of fables as absolutely true; it is one of the most fascinating and puzzling examples of cognitive dissonance I know of.
After all, a historian is, by definition, someone who is deeply sceptical about old texts and artefacts. It is a historian’s job to dust off manuscripts, wade through archives, dig things out of dark corners and not believe a word of it (unless there is some good supporting evidence, of course). Even when a historian does believe a word of it, he tempers this with a deep analysis of the text or object at hand, stripping it down in order to work out what the narrative really is, as opposed to what the text or object claims it is. In short, we historians are deeply sceptical pedants: each and every one of us. So why does pedantry, suspicion and obsessive checking, cross-checking, double checking and rechecking disappear so often in the face of a religious text? Here, I’ll take a lightly meandering journey through the peripheries of the philosophy of history in order to find out if there is any validity in accepting a religious text as good source of history.
At the end of July 2012, I’ll be pitching a tent at Soul Survivor, the leading evangelical festival in the UK aimed at young people. For seven days, I’ll be blogging my experiences on this site.
Why am I doing this? You’d be very entitled to ask, given I’m a flag-waving heathen who divorced God acrimoniously in his teens. The answer is, lots of other people – most of them believers – will be too.
Soul Survivor is, like, big. Tens of thousands attend each year. Along with other festivals like Newday and Ignite, projects like the Alpha Course and the Newfrontiers church network, it forms the backbone of a popular, missionary Christian movement that gained prominence in the 1990s.
Churchgoers, particularly Anglicans, are a thinning herd, but these groups have gained traction. Their attendees may will be the Christian mainstream of 2042, and as such it seems important to get informed.
‘Have you seen Jesus Camp?’ an acquaintance asked, who’d been before. ‘It’s like that, but worse.’ I know current evangelicals, specifically Newfrontiers, forbid women from preaching – my relatives, closely involved, have this book on their shelf – and I’ve heard tell of homophobia at these festivals too. How many campers are celibate teens? How many creationists?
If Soul Survivor fits the descriptions I’ve heard, its popularity is worrying. But I want to be fair – I’m a skeptic, and don’t want to rest on anecdote. When I planned the trip, readers of my blog donated the price of my ticket; they wanted someone to report, factually and non-confrontationally, what really goes on at this event.
So that’s my plan. Later this week, I’m going soul-o.
Follow the #GoingSoulo hashtag on Twitter for Alex's updates
Written by Gerard Phillips. Published by The Skeptic online on 25th October 2011.
Gerard is Vice President of the National Secular Society.
What do the following have in common: Joseph Lister, Robert Adam, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Hutton, Charles Darwin...well you’ve probably got the answer already - Edinburgh. (Hutton by the way is credited as the founder of modern geology.) James Buchan lauded the city’s contribution to Enlightenment thought: “In just 50 years Edinburgh had more impact on our ideas than any town of its size since the Athens of Socrates.” (Capital of the Mind, 2004.) More surprising then, given this heritage, that “Skeptics on the Fringe” has only been put on at the Edinburgh Festival since 2010.