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.
Written by Richard Godbehere. Published for The Skeptic online on 13th July 2011.
On the weekend of Friday 17th June, the great and the good of the British Humanist Association gathered in Manchester for the first annual conference in a decade. Boasting talks from some of the most prominent humanist thinkers, the weekend promised to be a carnival of rational thinking and Godless morality focusing on the search for the meaning of life, with talks from such luminaries as likes of A.C.Grayling, Peter Atkins, Chris French, Philip Pullman, Natalie Haynes and Stephen Law. It was a weekend I couldn’t possibly miss but, being an impoverished student at Goldsmiths College, not one I could afford. Thankfully, through a little eyelash fluttering and help from one of the speakers, namely Professor Chris French, I managed to blag my way in as volunteer. Here are my thoughts of the weekend.
Written by Adam Buick. Published for The Skeptic online on 22nd September 2010.
When the Pope visits Britain this year he will “beatify” Cardinal Newman who died in 1890. Beatification, which requires one miracle, is a step towards “canonisation” (becoming a “saint”) which requires two.
John Henry Newman was born in 1801 and became an Anglican clergyman in 1825, but in 1845 he converted to Roman Catholicism and eventually rose to become a Cardinal. He wrote two essays on miracles, one in 1826 (when he was still a Protestant), the other in 1843 (when he was well on the way to becoming a Roman Catholic). The full text of both can be found at http://www.newmanreader.org/works/miracles/index.html#contents.
The first essay expressed the orthodox Anglican/Protestant view on miracles: that the only true miracles are those described in the Bible (and that they are to be accepted as really having happened only because the Bible is the revealed word of God). This position implies that all miracles claimed outside the Bible and any since the first century of the Christian era - as by pagans, the Catholic Church and the Koran - are not miracles and that natural, non-miraculous explanations for them can be found.