a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Melvyn Bragg makes an arse of himself on Australian TV

with 5 comments

What do I know of Melvyn Bragg? That he’s a writer who writes popular tomes about history and historical novels and such. I’ve not read any of them myself, but I did catch one or two episodes of a doco series he presented, on the history of the English language methinks. So he struck me as a probably good sort, all for booklearnin and history and all that good guff. The fact that he was a lord hardly met with my approval, but maybe he just couldn’t help it.

So I wasn’t prepared to be peeved or put out when he cropped up on ABC-TV’s ‘Lateline’ the other night. As a taster for an interview to appear later on in the show, we were treated up front to Lord Bragg [I think I’ll designate him thus, as a nice distancing device] lecturing us about the historical wrongitude of modern atheists’ treatment of Christianity. It was rather infuriatingly discombobulating, and I really wondered whether I would have the stomach for the whole meal to be served later.

Now I’ll keep strictly to Lord Bragg’s actual words here, off the cuff though they may have been, because I don’t want to be accused of fibbing, twisting, stretching or otherwise dissembling or dissimulating. Here’s a taster of the taster – he’s talking about the 400th anniversary of the King James bible, which has prompted him to write a history of it:

What has happened since its publication? Well, the secularisation of society, getting less and less religious, and then the atheists getting the megaphone – if people want to be atheists, that’s fine, it’s a perfectly respectable position, but this business of hammering religions, particularly Christianity, was not only not fair, it was wrong, it was profoundly wrong, and if you get your history wrong you’re in terrible trouble. As all countries know, when they conceal their history, when they get it wrong, it catches up with them’.

My lord, thought I, what are you talking about? A proliferation of atheists hammering religious people with megaphones due to having grabbed the wrong end of the historical stick? I couldn’t quite grasp it myself. Here was me thinking that the recent upsurge in critique of religion from a growing and thriving atheist population, notable for its diversity, its intelligence, its hard-won confidence and assertiveness, was based on annoyance with present-day religious practice in certain parts of the world. The patriarchal attitudes of some sects and denominations, the negative attitude to the findings of science, evolution in particular, the oppression of women, homosexuals, heretics, infidels and scientists, the exploitation and indoctrination of children, the dogmatic certitude and intolerance that comes with some religious beliefs, these have seemed legitimate targets for atheists and sceptics whose main aim and hope is to liberate minds and encourage more critical thinking. All this has very little to do with history, and why Lord Bragg suddenly brings this subject up is a mystery, which might be explained if we listen to the full interview. It might also help us to find out who, exactly, is getting things wrong, if anyone.

Lord Bragg, in his interview, rejects belief in a personal god, in the resurrection and the trinity and so forth, but professes to a ‘tribal loyalty’ to Christianity. This tribal loyalty leads him, I think, to a confused and tendentious defence of the King James Bible, a book which few atheists are concerned to attack, and certainly not on literary grounds. Bragg has written a book about the book, and I can only hope it’s better, and far more nuanced, than his defence of the KJB here. He makes three points about the book’s great value, and here’s the first one:

… the KJ Bible gave, to the English speaking world, the basis of its language… Helen Garner,  authors all over the place, the basis of its language, all the idioms, more than Shakespeare, and so on, the turns of phrase, the stories and so on.

Now, while there is no doubt that the KJB contributed greatly to the English language, it most definitely didn’t form the basis of it. Like many languages, English grew and developed over centuries, and we can map that growth through the writings of Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare and others. The great flowering of Elizabethan literature had passed its zenith when the KJB was published, and in any case the terms and phrases of the KJB translators didn’t spring from nowhere, they came from the diachronically and synchronically rich spoken language community they inhabited. What we have here from Lord Bragg is a near-absolutist claim which is historically inept and more than a bit silly, all presumably for the purpose of rescuing the book from those who are trying to ‘erase its power’.  The trouble is, the erasure of the book’s power can’t be blamed on ‘new atheists’, it’s a product of the gradual diminution of religious power in the west, as well as, from a literary perspective, the endless renovation of language since the KJB’s publication.

But this is far from being the worst of Lord Bragg’s exaggerations and errors. His next point is, to me, a travesty of history:

More important than that, it was the instrument by which the greatest abomination of mankind, ever since we’ve known anything about civilisation, was abolished, and that’s slavery. Every civilization we know about has slavery, every one. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, through the Bible, slavery was abolished; through the Wilberforce faction in Britain, through similar factions in America, using the example of Britain, and through African slaves themselves who were converted to Christianity, who used the KJ Bible as a liberation ideology, that God had said to Moses to go to Pharoah, ‘let my people go’, and he did, and he took them out of slavery, you remember. Moses was the apotheosis of the liberator, right up to Martin Luther King jr, and that led to the abol.. now you read now , it’s all to do with the Enlightenment, it’s all to do with… no it isn’t [Lord Bragg’s emphasis]. It wouldn’t have happened if people had not used that book and the power still in that book, the influence that book still had among most people in the English speaking world in the eighteenth century.

This argument isn’t new to me, but I’m happy to revisit it. What is missing here, and what seems to be missing in all of Lord Bragg’s ‘analyses’ is any really deep or rich context. Why did talk of the abolition of slavery first appear in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Christianity had been around, and practiced by the whole of the western world, for a millenium and a half before that? Nothing to do with the Enlightenment, according to Lord Bragg. Nothing to do with liberté, egalité, fraternité. What utter tosh. It was all to do with a catch-phrase from the archetypal liberator, Moses, and other minings from the Bible.

Of course, Lord Bragg fails to point out that, only a couple of centuries before the Bible was used as ‘liberation theology’ by African Americans and their supporters, the same book’s ‘promised land’ narrative was used by Spanish Catholic apologists to vindicate and to actively promote the wholesale slaughter of Aztecs, Incas and other native American inhabitants in the most complete and successful genocide in the history of humanity. Those who didn’t die in battle or through disease were enslaved and worked to death, in their millions. The same rhetoric was used by English puritans in the 17th and 18th centuries to decimate the Iroquois, the Shawnee and other inferior peoples who didn’t cultivate the land the way God intended, or otherwise share their beliefs and practices [it should be remembered that the archetypal liberator in the Bible finally led his people to the promised land where they proceeded to slaughter every man woman and child in the region, with the benign approval and occasional enthusiastic participation of their god]. So what happened between the promised land ideas of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the new abolitionist ideas of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? The Enlightenment? Surely not.

Our Lord seems to be making the elementary mistake of thinking that because Wilberforce, and well before him Granville Sharp, were committed Christians who peppered their abolitionist speeches with Biblical quotations, this means that somehow the influence of the good book brought about the abolition of slavery. Using the same argument you would have to accept that the same good book’s influence brought about the wholesale destruction of the native American civilizations, the Irish massacres of the seventeenth century, the horribly bloody Thirty Year War in Europe, and the English Civil War of the same period – all of which were accompanied by shovelfuls of Biblical rhetoric.

But our Lord goes further than this by claiming that abolition ‘wouldn’t have happened’ if not for the impact of the KJB. That is, presumably slavery would still be mainstream practice today had that version of the Bible not been published. I won’t comment further than to say that it’s quite a claim for a historian to make, and I very much doubt that any other historian of the English-speaking peoples would be prepared to make it. Few of them would even find it coherent.

But let’s continue with the Lord’s interview:

The other great development over the last four hundred years is modern democracy – I’m not talking about Athenian democracy, I’m talking about modern democracy. That you could argue, and I would argue, was forged in the middle of the seventeenth century, the British civil wars, the bloodiest wars we’ve ever had including the first world war, in an attempt to get rid of a divinely appointed king; everybody thought this man was divinely appointed, King Charles 1, it was thought, we have to imagine what was then, just like most kings, Augustus of Rome thought he was divinely appointed, the Aztec king, they all thought they were divinely appointed, Stalin thought … no that’s different… anyway, they like to think they’re divinely appointed. And they used the bible to get rid of him, in arguments in the great hall where they tried him. He had a jury – never happened before to any great king, a jury, tried, and by common law, found guilty, executed, that sent ripples around the world, the Putney debates a few years later, the American diaspora which were literate British, Scots, Presbyterians, they were people of the book, they saw it as an opportunity, democracy began from there, spurred and then developed from the Bible.

What we have here of course is the same problem. The Bible responsible for modern democracy? It’s completely absurd.  There are no templates  for democratic processes, modern, Athenian or anything in between, in the Bible. To understand the gradual emergence of democratic systems, however partial, in Britain, Europe and ‘the New World’ you have to look thoroughly and in detail at the myriad social pressures that led to the rejection of hereditary rule and the enfranchisement of a growing sector of the social mass. The Bible was a book written over a period of 1000 years, by scores of authors of varying quality and varying perspectives, but none of them had a democratic perspective because democracy wouldn’t have been a coherent concept to any of them. However, the Bible was a monumentally important book in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, just as it was in the fifteenth and sixteenth, because throughout this whole period everyone was a Christian. Look at the primary sources from the period of the British civil war and you’ll find every activist, from the most committed parliamentarian to the most committed absolute monarchist, quoting the Bible ad nauseum, and invoking its god for their cause. The same goes for the abolitionists and the slave traders. After all, before the American Civil War, the most prominent and determined slave-owners and slave-traders came from the Bible-belting South, a region which is still more Christian, and more racist, than the rest of the US. The Bible has something for everyone, from the most extreme left to the most extreme right, all that’s required is good cherry-picking, massaging and ‘interpretive’ skills.

Let’s continue, though, with this travesty:

These two things at least, and the language, three things, made me think that, well, I think this needs to be re-examined, it needs to be put back in history, it needs to be reconsidered apart from the fact that it was the greatest empowerer of women in the nineteenth century, apart from its influence on science, apart from its influence, bad and good on sex and so on, so that’s what I wanted to write about.

The King James Bible has not, of course, been taken out of history, but the secularisation of western society over the past hundred years or so [leaving aside parts of the USA], has certainly reduced its influence, and its claim to be the Good Book. The Bible has had virtually no positive influence on science. The fact that such great scientific pioneers as Kepler, Galileo and Newton were Christians is unsurprising. So were all the intellectuals of their time. But I’ll discuss Christianity and science later, and turn instead to our Lord’s claim that the Bible was the greatest empowerer of women in the nineteenth century.

Throughout the nineteenth century, in mainstream and intellectual society in the west, the Bible was still regarded as ‘The Good Book’, in a somewhat taken-for-granted moral sense. As such, the early feminists, determined to be considered ‘good’ themselves, would have been keen to use this fundamental text as a tool to promote their cause. Not that this would’ve been particularly conscious. Many of these feminists, but certainly not all, would’ve been Christians themselves, and in any case, few would’ve questioned the moral value of the book in the way that intellectuals routinely do today. Now the fact is that there are slim pickings in the Bible for feminists. That whole 1000-year period which produced the Bible was profoundly patriarchal, and most of its authors exhibited misogyny to varying degrees. What the feminists were able to do was transform a character like Eve, the traditional temptress and cause of man’s downfall, into an independent, irrepressible knowledge-seeker, because post-Enlightenment society placed a greater value on independence of thought and the pursuit of knowledge than had previously been the case. So the Bible didn’t empower nineteenth century women at all; instead, the prevailing zeitgeist empowered women to challenge traditional treatments of women by reinterpreting traditional texts, of which the Bible was, unsurprisingly, first and foremost.

Next, the discussion turns to the modern atheist movement. Lateline’s Emma Alberici is the interviewer:

You’ve complained about the animus and ignorance of the atheist arguments.


But the argument’s clear isn’t it, they just don’t believe.

Oh but you’ve got it wrong… okay let me say that again, I don’t want to say that…

Oh no that’s all right…

Oh no I’ve complained about the animus and ignorance of arguments particularly of Richard dawkins. They don’t believe, that’s neither here nor there. My book is for people who don’t believe, for people who are anti-religion, for all religions or none, I’m talking about history.

Well what’s the ignorance you’re talking about?

I just want to get something clear, atheists, atheists, I share a lot of the views of atheists, though I think they put too much reliance on reason, I don’t think reason is as important as they think it is, they ought to read David Hume about sensations, which grow to form reason, but put that to one side, my argument against atheists is 2 things; first of all, christianity, and hinduism and buddhism and… these are bodies of knowledge. First and foremost they are bodies of knowledge. Now people believed them, or they didn’t believe them, these bodies of knowledge are to be respected, because they were the best that people could manage in times before ours, they didn’t have the technologies we… but inside those bodies of knowledge they made worlds, like the aborigines did with their dream songs, they answered the basic questions that mankind’s been trying to answer since we started to have mankind, where do we come from, where do we go, why does the sun rise, why does it go down, why are people born dead, and so on and so forth. They were trying to do the same thing, these bodies of knowledge, and inside the christian body of knowledge, inside the King James Bible, there were all sorts of parables, proverbs,wisdoms, atrocities, histories, eroticism, which made it a powerful book as a body of knowledge, so [to] attack and to wipe off an entire body of knowledge seems to me to be completely irresponsible.

Unfortunately, none of this really addresses the ignorance, nor the animus, that our Lord perceives Richard Dawkins to possess. In fact he immediately swerves away from Dawkins to atheists in general, as in ‘they ought to read David Hume about sensations’. I would agree that some atheists place too much emphasis on reason. However, some don’t. Some have read Hume and written books about him, other atheists have never heard of him. I would say that most of the best ‘new atheists’ are well aware of Humean philosophy, or have gone well beyond him [think of Damasio’s work on the emotions, for example].

As to the Lord’s assertion that the major religions are first and foremost bodies of knowledge, he would have an argument on his hands there with most modern epistemologists. A central tenet of much epistemological thinking since the Enlightenment has been some form of evidentialism: roughly, that beliefs are justified insofar as they are proportionate to evidence. Now, we can argue endlessly, and humans already have, about whether this is the best way of understanding knowledge, and about what constitutes evidence, but there’s no doubt that the sort of knowledge that Lucretius was groping towards over 2000 years ago in On the Nature of the Universe [a work I’ve just finished reading], with its mixture of ingenious theorising, astute observation, and reworking of the ideas of such earlier thinkers as Epicurus, Democritus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Aristotle, is very different from the beliefs of those he repudiated – those who saw everywhere supernatural interference in the natural world. Lucretius and others were trying to answer the same sorts of big questions that science is nowadays dedicated to. His answers have of course been superseded – or, in respect of his [or Democritus’] atomic theory, taken many steps further – but his methods of observation, speculation and analytical imagination are still central to modern science, and are largely absent from religious belief. In any case modern atheists – and again they’re too diverse a bunch to coherently generalize about, but I’ll try – are not interested in trashing religion’s place in history, they’re much more interested in present concerns, such as the threat to our best understanding of the world that comes from creationists, god-hates-faggists, African witch-hunters, condom-condemners and so forth. Entire bodies of knowledge have been wiped off, not by atheists but by human scientific progress. The Bible, whichever version you choose, with all its parables and proverbs and wisdom  and atrocities and bizzareries, will stand or fall by virtue of its relevance to a changing world, and peoples’ particular positions and stances within that world. Good luck to it.

Lord Bragg goes on, and this is the last, long passage I’ll look at:

Secondly, to actually say that this religion caused terrible things to happen is a calumny, it’s not true, men caused terrible things to happen, men lusting for power caused terrible things to happen..

But often in the name of religion

In the name of anything. I agree with you. In the name of religion. In the name of anything they can get their hands on, in the name of ideology, in the name of magic, anything, or just in the name of killing people because they wanna k…. there’s nothing religious about Genghis Khan, twenty million people were killed in the Middle Ages, that was a lot of people in the Middle Ages. In eighth century China it’s estimated that one sixth of their population was wiped out by wars going on there, there’s nothing religious about that. Pol Pot I don’t think was particularly religious, I don’t think Mao was either, so it isn’t just religion, leaders always want extra reasons to do what they’re doing, what they basically want to have is power, and the way they’ll get power is by killing other people or controlling other people. If they can have around them the auriole of really ‘I am sent by God, and this is God..’, then so much the better, but I don’t think that says anything about religion, religion remains a neutral body of knowledge to be abused and used, and the mistake the atheists make is to think that religion is the cause, it isn’t, it’s something that’s brought in. Ignorance and animus is… well I’ve talked to you a bit about slavery, Dawkins says at once stage, well, look how it can be used to console, the Christian religion, the bosses on the plantation said, look, you be Christians and you’ll have eternal life so keep on working and that’ll be ok…, calmed them down and kept them going, and so on. It didn’t. You see, what happened to slaves is that they took hold of it and turned it into liberation theology… He was just completely ignorant, he didn’t do his research, and the animus is hard to understand. Why he wants to attack this – a man who’s heir to a great body of scientific knowledge, why he wants to attack this other body of knowledge which nurtured the greatest scientists of all time. Galileo was a serious Christian, so was Kepler, so was Isaac Newton, people who dwarf Dawkins, why he wants to do that, it’s his own little agenda, which is a shame.

Much of the foregoing is, I think, about misrepresentation and straw men. Lumping all atheists, or even all ‘new atheists’, together [‘the mistake the atheists make is x’], is inevitably simplistic, and will inevitably fail. Most modern historians are in fact atheists, as are most of the best modern scientists and philosophers, and they generally don’t have such a shallow perspective as to blame historical atrocities, etc, on religion. The paraphrasing of Dawkins on slavery and the consolations of religion are ripped from whatever context they come from, but there should be no disagreement that religion has often been used, and will in the future be used, to console people for the plight they find themselves in. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be used at the same time as a tool for fighting or challenging oppressors. It isn’t a matter of not doing research. As to the hoary old claim that the sixteenth and seventeenth century pioneers of modern science were largely Christian and that they therefore owed their scientific breakthroughs to Christianity, the doubtfulness of this claim can surely be raised on historical grounds. Compare the philosophico-scientific enquiries of, say, Aristotle, in the 4th century BCE, in the context of a ‘pagan’ religion far less inimical to such enquiries, with the philosophical enquiries of Augustine of Hippo several centuries later, in the context of a very different religion, one whose central mythos frowned on the pursuit of knowledge. Augustine’s enquiries are constantly interrupted by claims of ‘unworthiness’ and undue arrogance before an Almighty Being before whom one should regularly prostrate oneself, rather than presume to question and thus possibly undermine. It’s a mode of thinking largely foreign to the Graeco-Roman world, and it helps explain a thousand years of limited and stifled scientific progress. The great scientific rebirth of the seventeenth century owes little indeed to Christianity, and was achieved in religion’s spite, regardless of the mixed views of the individuals responsible.

In conclusion, I can only repeat Lord Bragg’s words – if you get your history wrong, you’re in terrible trouble. Unless our Lord actually provides in his works a history more nuanced and more carefully researched than what he provides in this interview, he’s in deep doo-doo, methinks. But history, which has many many other practitioners more able than him, based on this performance, has nothing to worry about.

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2012 at 9:11 am

5 Responses

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  1. “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” – John Ball, Lollard priest, 1381

    Michael Robertson

    June 12, 2012 at 9:57 am

    • Hmmm. Indeed. At least John Ball was hung drawn and quartered for his temerity, which is at lot more fun than being completely ignored.


      June 13, 2012 at 2:53 am

    • The point is, religion often serves as an “arena of discourse” in which political ideas are expressed. You don’t have to believe in the story of Adam and Eve in order to get John Ball’s argument that social inequality is not god-given, and so the people (the peasants) have every right to demand more egalitarian social arrangements. Of course, many of us these days are not very fluent in religious discourse, and couch our political arguments in more “atheistic” discourses such as (some variant of) utilitarianism. But that doesn’t mean we should try to eliminate religious discourses. If a reactionary Christian or Muslim puts forward political arguments that we wish to oppose but can’t because we are outsiders to their particular religious discourses, that’s no reason to condemn the discourses (as Richard Dawkins seems to be doing). We should get out of the way and let politically progressive Christians and Muslims argue on our behalf. (Politically progressive Christians and Muslims? Are there such people? Apparently.)

      Michael Robertson

      June 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm

      • Well, the point of my post was to criticize Bragg for making unwarranted claims about the KJB and its historical influence, and for downplaying the role of the Enlightenment and other societal developments in bringing about such changes as more democratic processes, increase in the status of women, etc. Along the way he took a predictable swipe at Dawkins which I also thought unwarranted.
        I don’t agree with your concept of discourses. John Ball presented his argument in religious terms because that just was the discourse of his time. Everyone [in Europe] discoursed about politics in religious terms in the fourteenth century, and for two or three centuries afterwards. Nowadays we don’t talk about politics in religious terms, but it’s not because ‘we’re not very fluent’ in them, it’s because they’re irrelevant to us [ie our lack of interest has led to our lack of fluency, not vice versa]. And for good reason – our understanding of the world and how it works has transcended the limits of religious discourse. I’m not sure that Dawkins is condemning religious discourse, but he would certainly argue for its inadequacy to account for our understanding of our world, not just in biological-evolutionary terms but in moral terms. And those two terms are far from unrelated.
        As for us ‘getting out of the way’ of certain discourses – what is this, the discourse police? These have never been just discourses between reactionary and progressive factions of particular religions – they’ve involved everyone, they’ve targeted everyone and anyone, and everyone and anyone has a right to respond and to defend their particular position.


        June 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm

  2. […] time, have a degree of neutrality to them, has some truth, and in fact it served as the basis for my critique of Melvyn Bragg’s absurd claims that Christianity and the KJV Bible were largely responsible […]

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