What is richardwebster.net?
IT HAS OFTEN SEEMED to me that anthropology, like charity, ought to begin at home a great deal more frequently than it does. For although anthropologists have produced hundreds of books about exotic or non-western cultures, and the meaning of their customs and cosmologies, the world-view of our own culture remains in many respects mysterious.
There is a saying which might be applied to this predicament. ‘We do not know much about who discovered the ocean’, it runs, ‘but we can be pretty sure it wasn’t a fish’. These words remind us that any habitual environment tends to escape both attention and analysis. What familiarity ultimately breeds is not so much contempt as invisibility.
The saying is, I believe, a profound one. Nowhere more so than when it is applied to the perspective we have on our own history. For one of the most interesting features of the western rationalist culture which we now inhabit is that very few of those who are given to celebrating reason and science most unreservedly would be able to give a reasoned account of the origins of modern secular rationalism We believe in reason, it sometimes seems, with a fervour which is itself profoundly irrational.
This website is an attempt to explore such fervour and to inquire into what the basis of our faith in reason, science and modern secular liberalism, actually is. It is also, as can be seen from the list on the left, an anthology of some of my own reviews, essays and articles. Since, with very few exceptions, these deal with aspects of the same problem, they are not in fact the disparate assortment they might appear to be.
For at the heart of almost everything I have written over the last twenty years or so is the view that, in our modern, proudly rationalist attempts to break the links which tie us to our superstitious, essentially religious past, we have become profoundly muddled about our own cultural history.
In one respect our modern cultural predicament has been most succinctly and poignantly expressed by the novelist John Updike: ‘Alas we have become, in our Protestantism, more virtuous than the myths which taught us virtue; we judge them barbaric.’ Updike wrote these words in his introduction to a book about Satan and the role played by the Devil in the Christian imagination.
A preoccupation with the works of the devil and the manner in which he has supposedly infiltrated the ordinary institutions of our world remained a staple part of the orthodox Christian imagination for most of the last two thousand years. In all its most significant manifestations up to the time of the Reformation, the Christian church never ceased to imagine the culmination of history as an apocalyptic battle in which Satan and the powers of darkness were finally defeated and the pure reign of God was established for all eternity.
In northern Europe at least such fantasies no longer play a significant part in most forms of Christian piety even though they still flourish in some denominations and in many other parts of the world. To the extent that the devil has disappeared from our contemporary world-view we tend to explain this disappearance by invoking the triumph of rationalism — something we treat as being cognate with the decline of religion. Yet this represents a fundamental misunderstanding both of our cultural history and of our cultural psychology. The main objection to it is that it fails to take account of the fact that the Judaeo-Christian tradition is itself one of the principal sources of modern rationalism. The dream according to which human irrationality is finally defeated and replaced by the reign of reason has always been at the heart of Christian apocalyptic fantasies. It was Christianity which fostered the view that human irrationality and human viciousness, though part of our ‘fallen’ nature, were not part of our essential spiritual and rational identity. In the eternity of God’s kingdom which was to be established at the end of history, they would be banished for ever. It is religion, in other words, which has encouraged us to believe in an unrealistic version of human nature according to which all human unreason (traditionally personified as ‘the Beast’, the ‘Whore of Babylon’, or ‘Satan’) can be bound for a thousand years (the ‘millennium’) or somehow permanently excised from human nature. ‘Rationalism’ is, in this sense, the greatest of all the irrational delusions which has been promoted by our religious tradition.
The muddle we have managed to get ourselves into by our failure to recognise this does not only have intellectual consequences, it is also potentially (and, indeed, actually) dangerous.
The essays and reviews which are collected here are an attempt to examine some of those intellectual consequences and to point to some of the dangers.
Those who wish to explore further the point of view which I have briefly outlined here may do so either by reading the introduction, The legacy of Freud, or the longish essay about the religious origins of modern secularism which I have called The body politic and the politics of the body. Alternatively they may browse through the trailers or read any one of the essays, reviews and extracts which are indexed on the left-hand side of this page.
It might well be thought that the section of the index which is headed ‘false allegations’ and which lists a number of articles dealing with a contemporary witch-hunt, stands outside the view of cultural history I have advanced in other sections. In fact, however, this is not the case.
The most fervent modern advocates of reason and of science have often suggested or implied that we are no longer generally susceptible to dangerous delusions such as gripped the minds of learned men in the great European witch-hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is, I believe, but another example of the dangers of rationalism. For if we accept and allow ourselves to be guided by a view of cultural history which denies the very possibility of a witch-hunt taking place in our midst, we have created the ideal conditions for one to take place in front of our eyes without our even noticing what is happening.
My own investigation into police ‘trawling operations’, which occupied me for a number of years, was not, in one sense at least, a diversion from the theory of cultural history which is worked out in other parts of this website. It was an attempt to apply that theory in practice.
On a general note I should point out that, although most of the pieces which are collected here have been published previously, a significant number, including some of the more substantial essays, appear for the first time. In a number of cases, book reviews and articles appear here in a fuller version than when they were first published, as I have taken the opportunity to restore passages which were excised for reasons of space.
Some of these reviews and articles first appeared in the Guardian, the Observer, the Times Literary Supplement or the New Statesman. Other reviews were originally published in The Tablet. Since The Tablet is a Catholic periodical, some readers may conclude, as the authors of a biography of Darwin which I reviewed critically there once did, that I am a Catholic. The correct conclusion would be that The Tablet is a broad-minded publication which does not concern itself unduly with its contributors’ religious faith – or, in my case, the lack of it.
Oxford, June 2002; last revised 2010