All posts by elliothanowski

ISHASH member interview: Tina Block

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In the fifth installment in our series of interviews with ISHASH members, Elliot Hanowski interviews Professor Tina Block, who studies the history of unbelief in postwar Canada.

Can you tell us a bit about your academic background and your current position?

I completed my undergraduate degrees (in English and History) at the University of Calgary, and my graduate work (both my Masters and PhD) at the University of Victoria (working under the supervision of Dr. Lynne Marks). I graduated with my PhD in 2006, and was hired on at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, in 2007. I started at TRU in a limited-term position, and after a couple of years embarked on the tenure-track. I just recently received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor. I feel very fortunate to be part of the wonderful, collegial community of TRU.

What was the topic of your dissertation? What led you to choose it?

The topic of my dissertation was irreligion in the Pacific Northwest (British Columbia and Washington State) during the 1950s-1970s. The Pacific Northwest was, by all measures, the least religious region of North America during the postwar era. In my work I explore not only why this was so, but what being non-religious meant to the people who lived in the region. I became interested in the social history of religion as an undergraduate, when I took a course with Dr. David Marshall on religion in Canada. In my Master’s thesis I explored gender and church life in postwar Victoria, BC. It was my graduate supervisor, Dr. Lynne Marks, who turned me on to the question of Northwest secularity. Since completing my dissertation, I have turned it into a book – The Secular Northwest: Religion and Irreligion in Everyday Postwar Life – which is forthcoming from UBC Press in the spring of 2016.

How does your forthcoming book fit into the existing historiography? Is there an existing historiography?

 My work fits within the rich and growing literature on the social history of religion in Canada and beyond. While scholars have done much to reveal popular and lived experiences of religion, we still have much to learn about what it meant to be non-religious in varied contexts and at the level of everyday life. My research is inspired, in part, by the work of British historians such as Callum Brown who have used oral history to explore the experience of those who rejected, avoided, and/or lived without religion.

In your dissertation you drew on Robert Orsi’s ideas about “lived religion.” How did you find the approach worked with when discussing irreligion?

 I found Orsi’s ideas on lived religion useful for thinking about the complicated ways that people not only engaged with, but disengaged from, religion in particular times and places. I was also drawn to his emphasis on practice – on what people do with religion rather than on formal doctrines or denominations. The concept of lived religion is fluid, flexible, and allows for analysis of not only religious but irreligious practice.

Could you explain briefly what being non-religious meant to the Canadians you’ve studied?

 Some of the people I interviewed very actively rejected religion (organized or otherwise), whereas others viewed religion with indifference and disinterest. Despite different ways of ‘being non-religious,’ most of the people with whom I spoke saw the freedom to be religiously uninvolved as a positive, valued aspect of the Pacific Northwest lifestyle. For them, ‘being non-religious’ was described not as an absence or gap but rather as something linked to their own, and to the region’s, perceived qualities of tolerance, independence, and broad-mindedness.

Your former supervisor Lynne Marks has studied the roots of secularity in the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century. What do you think has made this region less religious than the rest of North America, from the perspective of your work on the postwar period?

 This is a good question, and one without a straightforward answer. Lynne Marks suggests that, in some ways, the region was “born secular.” In my work, I contend that the Northwest was (and is) relatively secular, in part, because it has been imagined that way. Over time, secularity has come to be entwined with the regional identity of the Northwest, and taken for granted as part of the region’s quintessential lifestyle. Northwest secularity is grounded in history and has been reproduced and sustained over time in a range of material and discursive ways.  For various reasons, then, the possibilities for being non-religious have been wider in this region than elsewhere.

I understand your current research project also involves irreligion in postwar Canada. Could you tell us about it?

 In my previous work I focused on the intersections between irreligion and regional identity, and examined how religious non-involvement, in particular, was part of Northwest culture. My newer project looks more explicitly at unbelief and atheism in the broader Canadian context. I am currently conducting oral interviews with people across Canada who considered themselves non-believers, or lost their religious belief, in the postwar era. I’m interested in learning about the lives of non-believers, the place of atheism/unbelief in Canadian culture, and the nature, meaning, and trajectory of secularization in the postwar world.

You’ve also written a fascinating article on Marian Noel Sherman, a Canadian missionary who became a secular humanist activist in the 1940s and ’50s, and who faced a lot of opposition to her efforts. Could you speak to the changing social and cultural context that Canadian unbelievers encountered from the 1940s through the 1970s?

Sherman first turned to atheism in 1946, and was an atheist/humanist activist (in Victoria, B.C.) up until her death in 1975. She was vocal about her atheism/humanism in the local and national media, and received letters from people across the country – many of whom were themselves unbelievers. Such letters suggest that atheists/unbelievers continued to feel silenced through this period. Many letter-writers indicated that they felt compelled to keep quiet about their unbelief for fear of offending family members, friends, and employers. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that the cultural pressure to believe – or at least to remain silent about one’s unbelief – lessened over this time period. Sherman encountered less social approbation in the 1970s than she had in the late 1940s, and was, over time, able to disseminate her views more widely. During this era, organized secular humanism grew, institutional Christianity came under increasing attack, and unbelief became (somewhat) more common and acceptable.

Now that you’re moving from focusing on the Pacific Northwest to looking at unbelief across Canada, have you noticed any major regional differences in the postwar era?

I’m just moving beyond the BC/Pacific Northwest-based research, so I can’t say anything with great confidence yet. Figures from the Census of Canada certainly point to wide regional variations, at least in the numbers of people claiming to have “no religion.” In the postwar era, levels of “no religion” were highest in British Columbia and lowest in the Atlantic region. I’m eager to explore (through oral interviews etc.) how or whether place mattered to the lived experience of unbelief in various regions across Canada.

Thanks very much for these insights! I look forward to reading your new book and to learning more from your current research as it progresses.

If you have any further questions, you can contact Dr. Block at tblock[at]tru.ca.

 

ISHASH member interview: Liz Lutgendorff

In the third installment in our series of interviews with ISHASH members, Elliot Hanowski interviews Liz Lutgendorff.

Liz Lutgendorff

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Liz! Please tell us a bit about your current academic situation.

I am currently doing a part-time PhD in history – I’m about half way done and think I have another two to three years to finish. I’m at Oxford Brookes University (Oxford, UK) in the department of History, Philosophy and Religion (which is fun as I mostly study irreligion!) My supervisor is David Nash. In my day job I work for the Government Digital Service as a content designer.

Could you describe the focus and overall argument of your dissertation?

The overall argument of my dissertation is that there was continued secularist agitation post-1880 in the major social and political movements of the time – liberalism, peace and internationalism, and women’s suffrage. Secularists were also adept at using newly created international institutions to further secularist goals of freedom of thought and belief.

To clarify, what’s the geographical focus of your research? And assuming you pick up the story around 1880, how late do you intend to follow it from there?

I’m focusing solely on the UK movement, looking at various UK secularists and what they were interested in and what they campaigned for or wrote about. My main interest was looking post-1880s because that is where the historiography to a certain extent just stops. I’m going up to about the mid-1930s as I think I could only manage one World War’s worth of historiography.

How does your argument challenge the existing historiography of secularism?

I’m hoping that my PhD will directly challenge some of the long held opinions in the historiography of freethought and secularism. Looking beyond Charles Bradlaugh and the Oaths act, there were a great many active secularists involved in a wide range of activities all throughout the early 20th century. The movement didn’t die, but the way secularists campaigned for change involved less Bible-bashing that the previous century. Perhaps this is why it has been missed. It hasn’t been very hard to find them – the hard bit has been justifying that they’re secularists in the first place. There are some bizarre absences when discussing people’s lack of belief, so I have to go on these long digressions in arguing that they’re secularists before I get to the main thrust of my argument!

That’s very interesting! I encountered the same issue in my project, which covers the interwar period. Some people who called themselves communists or socialists were clearly drawing on the secularist or rationalist traditions, sometimes so heavily that activists who didn’t care about religion got frustrated with them. Is it your sense that the secularist movement gradually diffuses itself into other forms of politics as the century progresses? Or does it somehow retain its own unique identity?

I think secularism and secularists were less iconoclastic than their predecessors in the 19th century and so having a plurality of interests and campaigns were inevitable. However, I think there are those that still clearly identify with a secular movement, either by association or organisation. So they still belong to secular groups, write for secular journals etc. I think it’s more subtle an argument to have to make than just pointing to mass rallies and blasphemy trials. However, there are strong connections among individuals or within certain campaigns that had huge secularist support. I think at some point, it probably changes into it just being a thing, becomes more like one of many pressure groups or maybe is even just taken over by the kind of universalism of human rights that comes post-WW2 (but I’m not researching that far!)

Could you expand more on the specific causes that secularists took up? Why do you think they engaged with those particular issues?

So the bits that I’m mostly looking at, as mentioned, are politics, peace and suffrage. For politics, you see secularist links within the liberal and labour movements post-1900. You see a real concern for the continuation of the state being a provider versus the church. One example is the attitude that the state should provide for the poor rather than charities – one reason for this is because you had to be ‘the worthy poor’ to get help and this involved religion in some way or another.

Another area that I’m starting to write now is internationalism and peace. I think secularists were broadly internationalist rather than pacifists so they didn’t become disillusioned post-WW1. They got involved with the League of Nations, for example (this carries on post-WW2 as well with the UN) to help rebuild and prevent future wars. They were more likely to blame militarism and empire as a reason for WW1 and so wanted to strengthen international institutions to prevent it again.

The last area that I’m going to look at is suffrage. I know from previous research that the secularists were more likely than the average person to be in favour of universal suffrage and votes for women. The women secularist suffragettes were also super radical, which I find quite interesting. I haven’t done much on this yet though!

I think they got involved for a variety of reasons. There was still a lot of fighting for social justice that existed in the previous era. I think for the peace and internationalism, it was to make the world a better place. They were quite idealistic. It’s really quite adorable. I love them all to bits.

You mention the connections with liberal and labour politics; what’s your sense of the relationship between early-twentieth century secularists and the socialist movement? In North America during the same time period unbelief often gets tied up in the popular mind with communism and socialism. In the Canadian setting I found that secularists always had to stake out a position in relation with socialism and particularly with militant Marxism. What is that dynamic like in the UK?

My guys are more interested in liberalism than socialism so I haven’t delved into that aspect a whole lot. What I find fascinating is that Bradlaugh was so anti-socialism while he was around and then when he was gone, the historiography just assumes secularism turned into socialism. But those that I do look into (like Henry Snell) have a very strong secular streak even though they are socialists. I think for the banner of politics, it was very useful to identify as socialist (as liberals, radicals, etc., seemed to be on the wane) but many still were radicals in the sense of being anti-religion or secularist. I think because of the longer ties with chartists and radicals, you don’t get that confusion between socialism/communism as easily in the UK. It’s got longer roots and so was harder to conflate with other isms.

Are there any particular personalities that stand out in your study?

My favourite person is J.A. Hobson, he’s just everywhere. He’s a super fascinating guy and I think he’s having a bit of a renaissance (especially in economic history). I can barely read his hand writing though, oh my god. Worst handwriting.

How did you get interested in this project in the first place?

I was going to do my MA dissertation on something in early modern history but I took a course during my MA on the impact of Darwin. We had one class where we discussed the impact on religion of Darwin’s theories. We covered Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc. I asked the seemingly innocent question about what about the impact on atheists. My professor said there were no atheists. So my paper for that course was precisely that. Finding Conway Hall and the Bishopsgate archives were a revelation. As much as I loved the Thirty Years War and early modern military history, here was a chance to actually do some original research.

I ended up doing my MA on Frederick James Gould and from there carried on with more of these post 1880s secularists and their interests and campaigning effort.

You mention Conway Hall. Could you explain what Conway Hall is for readers who may not know? And could you also tell us about your work with it and how it relates to your research?

Conway Hall is a building in Holborn, London owned and run by the Conway Hall Ethical Society. CHES started life as a Unitarian Church and then became the South Place Ethical Society (we changed our name in 2012, as we moved from South Place a long time ago). I guess you could call its position early Humanism. Some of the other ethical societies did end up forming the British Humanist Association.

CHES now is an educational charity with the object of the advancement of study, research and education in humanist ethical principles. I became a trustee and then the chair of the trustees. This mainly came out of my research into my MA; CHES has an amazing archives and library, specifically lots of resources about the history secularism and humanism.

We put on lectures, courses, art exhibitions, dance, music and lots of other thing as well. Lots of this is historical (our concert series is the longest running in the world, I think) but the current trustees are interested in making sure that the society and the hall itself remain a bastion of rational, humanist thought in the centre of London.

It’s a fantastic place and only through my research would I have found it. It’s a lot of work (on top of normal work and my part-time PhD) but I feel knowing the history of the movement, I have a double duty to try and preserve it for everyone else.

Thank you for this fascinating glimpse into that history and the work you do researching and preserving it!

If you have further questions you can contact Liz at elizabeth.lutgendorff-2012[at]brookes.ac.uk.

ISHASH Member Interview: Charles Louis Richter

Welcome to the inaugural entry in ISHASH’s interview series! We will be focusing on young scholars who are working on the history of atheism, secularism, and humanism. Our first interview is with Charles Louis Richter. It was conducted by Elliot Hanowski.

Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your academic situation?

I’m a PhD candidate in American Religious History at the George Washington University, working on finishing my dissertation under Leo Ribuffo. I came to GW from the University of Washington, where I got my MA in Comparative Religion at the Jackson School of International Studies.

How would you describe the content of your current project?

My dissertation frames the American reaction to atheists and the idea of irreligion in the 20th century as a form of nativism. The turn of the century ended the golden age of nineteenth century freethought with two events: the death of Robert Ingersoll in 1899, and the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. The lack of a widely popular voice for irreligion, combined with the murder of the president by an anarchist, led to a backlash against not only anarchism but also atheism. From that point, Americans tended to see irreligion in terms of whatever ostensibly foreign ideology seemed most threatening. So for the rest of the century, we see atheism and atheists associated with anarchism, fascism, socialism, and of course Soviet-style communism. By the late seventies, secular humanism became the buzzword for a whole suite of threats not only to religion, but to Americanism. It’s important to note that this phenomenon is not limited to the political or religious right; liberals also framed irreligion as un-American.

In my own work I’ve found that many Canadians also characterized unbelief as “foreign,” but they often blamed it on irreverent Americans! Aside from Russia, were there any particular countries that were frequently seen as exporters of unbelief?

It’s fascinating that Canadians have seen the US as troublesome in that manner. Besides the Soviet Union and other communist nations, several countries show up as producers of atheism. The legacy of the French Revolution made France suspect in this sense–you have Christian Amendment supporters blaming French revolutionary atheism for the lack of any reference to God in the US Constitution, and the popularity of French existentialists in the states produces concern as well. Germany gets a bad rap due to thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche, of course, but also from the fear that a victorious Hitler would replace all religion with a Nazi church. To a lesser extent, any nation with strong anarchist or fascist movements became objects of concern.

Does your project cover all of the 20th century? Are there any specific periods that you focus on?

This project goes from 1899 and the death of Ingersoll to 2001 and 9/11. It’s an ambitious scope and I considered reducing it, but the story of the nativist impulse against irreligion that emerges from the entire century is strikingly coherent, and I decided that it ought to be addressed as a single narrative. The period between the World Wars is particularly interesting, as it’s a time when the US and the world was struggling with the validity of various ideologies, which produced an opening for a number of atheist activists.

What types of sources are you using?

I rely on a wide array of different sources, but periodicals are especially useful to me because they provide so many voices. Because I’m interested in American reactions to an idea, letters to newspaper editors–particularly in small town newspapers–are a rich vein of popular debate. Speaking of debates, the US has a long tradition of public believer-nonbeliever debates, so those transcripts show up in my work as well. The challenge is winnowing material from archival sources. This thread of thought is both ubiquitous and implicit in American thinking, so practically any manuscript collection will provide examples of it.

Is your work challenging part of the existing historiography, or are you breaking new ground that hasn’t really been considered before?

Several recent works have addressed the assumption of the Christian nature of the United States, such as John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation and Peter Manseau’s One Nation, Under Gods, and of course numerous works about anti-communism, and anti-radicalism like Michelle Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism and Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors, but there has been very little attention paid specifically to how the idea of irreligion shaped American religion and culture. For that matter, there has been surprisingly little work done on the history of American irreligion and atheism at all, although Leigh Eric Schmidt is now working on a history of American irreligion. I see my work as providing another facet to the “Christian nation” discussion, with the innovation of treating the reaction to atheists and the idea of irreligion as a discourse in and of itself.

Have any particular characters (whether atheist or anti-atheist) distinguished themselves in your research, either for the vividness of their personality or the scope of their influence?

On the atheist side, there’s Charles Lee Smith, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, and the last American to be convicted of blasphemy, in 1928. Like Madalyn Murray O’Hair in later decades, he was a gadfly who provoked a response far out of proportion to his actual impact. Unlike O’Hair, he was never successful at achieving actual legal reform with regard to the religious freedoms of the irreligious. Then there’s John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit who helped frame the Catholic Church’s post-Vatican II position toward religious pluralism, and argued that the church had to engage “on a footing of equality” even with atheists. He even taught an “atheism seminar” at Woodstock college in 1966, but found resistance among his students to his liberalizing ideas.

To what extent did nativists invoke a generic American civil religion in battling atheism, as opposed to identifying with particular denominations?

First, while I describe the reaction to atheism and irreligion as a form of nativism, I don’t think of those who respond in this fashion as nativists, per se. To complicate the question further, they weren’t necessarily fighting actual atheism, but often the idea of atheism, so accusations of irreligion could be leveled at anyone who was seen as insufficiently or incorrectly religious. Thus, at times denominational or political differences were important, but an increasingly ubiquitous ecumenism of the sort described by historians such as Kevin Schultz and Kevin Kruse could be used to show that while Americans held different faiths, they at least had faith.

Following on the previous question, how did American Catholics fit into these struggles, given that they were anti-atheist but also frequently targeted by nativists?

Anti-atheism was a useful tool for minority religions to use to justify their place in a broader American religious pluralism. Not only Catholics, but also Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and members of other religious traditions could assert some combination of belief in a god or gods, belief in a transcendent source of morality, adherence to a moral community, etc., to demonstrate that they too participated in religiousness and the American project. The “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” framework is partly a story of finding common ground, but also a story of defining the religious against the irreligious. As religious pluralism became more a point of national pride than a liability, these minority religious groups, to varying degrees of success, found their religions to be assets in proving their American credentials. This process was (and still is) complicated, as shown by Tisa Wenger in her study of the Pueblo Indian dance controversy; because colloquial definitions of “religion” are formed in a Protestant framework, determining what is and isn’t a religion in the eyes of the law is a fraught process. And that’s part of what makes irreligion and atheism such useful bogeymen: it is easy to say that atheists don’t believe in anything. From there, you can project any frightening role on them that you’d like.

If you have more questions, you can get in touch with Charles on Twitter. His handle is @richterscale.