A healthy, open democracy

Learning from the past

Religious belief is one of the issues where a perspective from the humanities is indispensable for policy-makers since the declining numbers of British people attending traditional public worship regularly may lead them to underestimate the importance of religious belief and practice in most societies of the modern world.

Far from fading away and becoming a picturesque irrelevance, as many quite sensible and well-informed Western academics believed half a century ago, religion is a growing force in human society, for both good and ill, and we need to realise just what it means to live in a modern multi-cultural nation. Virtually all our cultures, particularly those most recently arrived, live their lives amid religious rhythms, and shape their identities through them. Research can provide valuable insights into the complexities of meaning and help us understand some of the modern-day tensions that arise. For an example see Dr Sadek Hamid discussing how his BA Postdoctoral Fellowship has enabled him to research the concept of jihad. And by explaining how narratives of the past created present differences, historians of religion and theologians can help us celebrate diversity and not merely tolerate the different.

The historian’s vocation also involves questioning the record and its interpretation. Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA is Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, well known for his classic work on the Reformation and his televised Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. D. MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s house divided, Penguin, 2003; Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Penguin, 2011 He explains:

‘History’s main purpose is to stop us telling mistaken stories on which we then act. History is full of examples of very bad history leading to very bad actions. The obvious one, which is no less true for being obvious, is the Third Reich, which was built on an entirely false view of history. In an evil, totalitarian dictatorship like that, all history is poisoned. But the same is true for any democracy. Particularly in a democracy, telling the story right is really very important, because so many people are involved in making decisions, even if it is just a vote at an election.’

A contemporary example MacCulloch cites to show the importance of understanding the past in relation to the present is the Parliamentary debate on equal marriage in 2012. ‘One of my proudest achievements was to complicate the debate in the House of Lords’, he says. ‘That related to a lot of the work I had done on the history of the Church. What I was hearing from the traditionalists in the debate was that there was a thing called “traditional marriage” which was under threat. One of my television producers, a voting member of the Lords, used the script we had created on Christian history to show how complicated the history of marriage actually is.’

Historians, says MacCulloch, ‘are always revising the previous story. It is a very destructive profession – very often we have to dismantle cherished myths and destroy the previous stories from the previous generation. It is rather difficult because historians are paid by the government and by the public, and very often they don’t want their stories disrupted.’

Last year he tackled the confident stereotypes of Englishness in a three-part television series How God Made the English (BBC 2, 2012) – and in particular the common belief that ‘Englishness is tolerance’. ‘No’, MacCulloch concluded, ‘the English have been one of the most intolerant people in history. That is a very important lesson for us to learn. As a nation, we must not be complacent about our past. We must see how difficult it has been to become a tolerant nation, and it’s only historians who can show us that. It seems to me that it is actually a service to the nation to be a bit annoying, but that is what the profession is about.’