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How God Made the English - Comments

Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 1 by Zeuglodon

Did anyone else see this three part series recently on BBC2, presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch?

I missed it, I'm afraid, but since I'm interested, I'll be mostly working on your post here.

In a nutshell, he asks what makes someone truly 'English', and what follows is a journey through the UK's religious and social history (which was quite interesting). He argues that it's not about being a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant but being part of a community which has always been tolerant of other faiths.

There are a lot of examples from the UK's religious and social history to show that our ancestors weren't so tolerant of other faiths. Compulsory baptism, anti-semitism pre-WWII, prejudice experienced by the pogroms, the religious backlash against the idea of natural selection, the slave trade, and so on. While not strictly speaking UK, English history featured a lot of back-and-forth fighting between Protestants and Catholics during and after Tudor times, and that's before the puritans get into the mix.

He also says that 'we are now so diverse we have lost our true identity and don't know what it means to be English any more'.

I have to admit that I find stuff like this a mite incomprehensible. Who gives tuppence for a single notion of quintessential Englishness? I don't drink tea or go to church, but so what if that makes my identity "English" or not? I live here as a politically recognized citizen of a democratic secular nation, whether I prefer shiraz or rainwater, and whether I go to a synagogue or pray on a rug while facing Mecca. If the UK is having an identity crisis, it's more likely to be because of clashes with intolerant peoples who go against the democratic and secular principles of the country.

I should have seen the conclusion coming, but didn't. It was this: Our tolerance and secularism is not the right answer to the problem of extremism ('No secular society has managed to squash deeply-held faith'). Instead, the answer lies in the Church of England 'an icon of English plurality' so we should all go back to church and participate in multi-faith services. The church is important and necessary because it's the only place people can turn to for 'pastoral care' in times of crisis.

In times of crisis, I'd sooner have efficient hospitals, moral philosophy classes, and conscientious objector criteria that don't give religious people a free pass. You're right: this is another shameless example of 'you have to be religious in order to be good.' It's based on a false premise at best, a non-sequitur at worst.

'No secular society has ever managed to squash deeply-held faith'? Why? In my view, it's because it has never been allowed to teach the facts about what religion is and where it really came from.

Probably for the same reason no rational debate has ever convinced a strong believer.

Mon, 09 Apr 2012 15:39:35 UTC | #933359

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 2 by AtheistEgbert

I don't regard the English as historically tolerant at all. It's only recently in British history that racism, sexism, homophobia and class elitism were frowned upon. Remember the sitcoms and comedy of the 70s? Well I do, and it showed nothing but our ugly side.

I don't know where this fantasy came from, that we are traditionally tolerant.

Mon, 09 Apr 2012 15:52:51 UTC | #933366

paulmcuk's Avatar Comment 3 by paulmcuk

Comment 2 by AtheistEgbert :

I don't know where this fantasy came from, that we are traditionally tolerant.

MacCulloch presented this issue by stressing that tolerance was relative. E.g. there was a time when NOT burning someone at the stake for heresy was the height of tolerance. He didn't shy away from detailing all the intolerance that went before the various baby steps towards tolerance but he did focus a great deal on religious tolerance - first of non-anglican protestants, then other christians - and skimmed over the wider social changes that most of us would consider the mark of true tolerance.

I found the series interesting and well argued for the most part, right up to the point the OP highlights where MacCulloch presents the CofE as some kind of panacea for social ills. Even then, to be fair, the CofE he describes in this role is an almost non-religious (or perhaps pan-religious) one. He seems to suggest that it should be a broad church in the very broadest sense. He failed to examine the logical step of people moving beyond religion but he at least seemed to favour the church adapting to a changing society rather than digging its heels in and reverting to fundementalism.

Mon, 09 Apr 2012 16:56:25 UTC | #933379

Dr. monster's Avatar Comment 4 by Dr. monster

his argument was that our tolerant society stems from our christian heritage and not from 'modern secularism'. but he seemed to confuse secularism with atheism the whole way through.

he didn't define what he meant by 'modern secularism' and then his explanation of how we became a tolerant people seemed to be the very diffinition of secularism.

he also spent most of the show talking about how brutial and evil the christians in britian used to be to each other, that when he finally made his point it was over shadowed by all the nasty stuff.

his idea was that, through necessity, the English rulers had to form alliances with other religions to expand the empire. it was through necessity and fear of defeat, that the english worked together with other religions for a common purpose. the alliances were secured by changes in laws making discrimination against the new ally illegal.

This seemed to me to be the very deffinition of modern secularism. the unavoidable truth is that as soon as a country expands enough that they encounter multiple religions, its easier to work with them than fight them. as soon as other religions are tolerated that is secularism.

Mon, 09 Apr 2012 17:35:33 UTC | #933386

Jonathan Dore's Avatar Comment 5 by Jonathan Dore

Recorded but not yet watched. The only thing I'd say in advance is that, since his job is "Professor of the History of the Church", one can perhaps anticipate what aspects of our national story he's going to find most important in shaping the English character ...

Mon, 09 Apr 2012 19:28:02 UTC | #933415

Mr DArcy's Avatar Comment 6 by Mr DArcy

Ah the lovely old CoE! Gentle Jesus, but without the Jesus bit! More like an organisation, with the spirit of Jesus stalking and creeping around the cloisters, like Hamlet's ghost, waiting to pounce on the unwary. Tea on the lawn and cucumber sandwiches, and doing your bit for charity! Ressurection? What does that mean darling?

Indeed the same lovely old CoE who were complicit in the behading of Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Mary Queen of Scots, and the multiple burning of Catholic heretics! The very same lovely old CoE who objected to the theory of evolution, until they realised the game was up!

My, how times have changed! It seems that tigers can be tamed and trained!

Mon, 09 Apr 2012 19:44:32 UTC | #933418

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 7 by AtheistEgbert

Comment 3 by paulmcuk :

Comment 2 by AtheistEgbert :

I don't know where this fantasy came from, that we are traditionally tolerant.

I found the series interesting and well argued for the most part, right up to the point the OP highlights where MacCulloch presents the CofE as some kind of panacea for social ills. Even then, to be fair, the CofE he describes in this role is an almost non-religious (or perhaps pan-religious) one. He seems to suggest that it should be a broad church in the very broadest sense. He failed to examine the logical step of people moving beyond religion but he at least seemed to favour the church adapting to a changing society rather than digging its heels in and reverting to fundementalism.

MacCulloch is gay, apparently, which makes his conclusion even more silly and bizarre, considering how split the Anglican church is on homosexuality.

I saw one episode and thought it was interesting, because he didn't shy away from the fact that the English suffered from a kind of superiority complex and delusion of us being the chosen people to lead the world as morally right. And so his conclusion seems a bit like embracing this very delusion.

I think the real answer to why we've progressed since the Enlightenment, is...the Enlightenment, where reason trumps over tradition, and the modern world is born. Hence, the reason why Britain is a better place is because of those extraordinary passionate people who fought against a repressive authoritarian society and state. Not the repressive authoritarian society and state itself.

Mon, 09 Apr 2012 21:38:27 UTC | #933444

Byrneo's Avatar Comment 8 by Byrneo

'No secular society has ever managed to squash deeply-held faith'? Secular societies do not try and "squash" deeply-held faith. Secularism is about the separation of church and state. Many religious people are also secularists. But, don't let the facts get in the way of a good opportunity for fear mongering bullshit...

Tue, 10 Apr 2012 00:32:34 UTC | #933491

Graxan's Avatar Comment 9 by Graxan

Slightly off topic but it has started to suddenly bother me, since waking up to the issue of religion, that when I look at place-names and maps of the UK (But not just the UK) that the place is littered with the graffitti of Christian religious symbols and references. While this fact seems blatantly obvious and perhaps a daft one to make, it has never the less started to make me raise an eyebrow in consternation that I have to drive through villages named Christchurch, or St claires and so on. Is it a feeling of cultural contamination from the late Roman era that my celtic anscestors would turn in their Barrows over or is it just me being irrational again?....Perhaps I should try and get my local town renamed to something more modern and scientific. Welcome to the town of Graphene!

Tue, 10 Apr 2012 09:49:40 UTC | #933588

mmurray's Avatar Comment 10 by mmurray

Comment 9 by Graxan :

Slightly off topic but it has started to suddenly bother me, since waking up to the issue of religion, that when I look at place-names and maps of the UK (But not just the UK) that the place is littered with the graffitti of Christian religious symbols and references. While this fact seems blatantly obvious and perhaps a daft one to make, it has never the less started to make me raise an eyebrow in consternation that I have to drive through villages named Christchurch, or St claires and so on. Is it a feeling of cultural contamination from the late Roman era that my celtic anscestors would turn in their Barrows over or is it just me being irrational again?....Perhaps I should try and get my local town renamed to something more modern and scientific. Welcome to the town of Graphene!

Londinium, Lutonium are Roman but all the others seem to have been changed.

Michael

Tue, 10 Apr 2012 10:15:44 UTC | #933590

VrijVlinder's Avatar Comment 11 by VrijVlinder

I was looking for "How god made America" and was told I had to first learn "How god made the English"

Then I wondered "How god made people stupid" then I was told first I needed to learn "How stupid can god be" and after that everything became clear.......

Roman baggage, will it ever end up in the lost and found from being abandoned?

Londina would be nice instead of London , I would hate to live in a place called christchurch for sure

Thu, 12 Apr 2012 05:21:01 UTC | #934071

mjwemdee's Avatar Comment 12 by mjwemdee

My born-again Christian sister was lamenting the emptying of Anglican churches, seeing that as a symptom of all moral decline in England. She even said that during the war, George VI declared national days of prayer, on which everyone left the factories to go to church and this apparently helped the weather to change and so certain battles went in favour of the English. Seems a bit tough on the Germans who made it to church, but then, God is an Englishman, isn't he?

A quote from Frank Field seems appropriate here:

The fact is, the English have always been a pretty brutal race. Then all of a sudden, we changed dramatically. Our natures didn't change. We changed because we decided we should live as a community. That wasn’t due to Christianity; it was more or less a consequence of two World Wars. The effort of winning the war - particularly World War II - the surrender of freedoms, the commitment to the common good was so enormous that, I think afterwards, people wanted a break from the personal cost of that. Living standards also began to rise very substantially, and therefore there were choices, or ‘temptations’, which were there for the first time. The fruit of the tree was to be tasted - and why not? That's what human nature is about. I also think that we became too confident that somehow we’d cracked the way to raise children. It was as if people assumed it was in the air we breathed and hadn't realised just how recent it was that English society moved from being pretty vicious to being a peaceable kingdom. The case I’m trying to make is not that somehow we've always been very civilised; but rather we had an extraordinary interlude.

Mon, 16 Apr 2012 22:40:58 UTC | #935124

DeadManTalking's Avatar Comment 13 by DeadManTalking

The lesson, it would appear, is that tolerance is slowly winning the war. The same war that religion is losing and for the same reason: reason. It's only natural that religion should try to ride the coattails of modernity; that, too, is their role. We can encourage it; it won't last. As someone pointed out, the new religion is almost no religion. Indeed, it is.

The nice thing is that it was always worse in the old days. We now decry behavior that was normal just ten or twenty years ago, and that's been happening my whole life (don't ask). And if history has anything to tell us, it will continue to get better in the future. The world will become multicultural. The world will become more tolerant.

Fri, 20 Apr 2012 02:23:39 UTC | #935909