On a certain variety of atheism (edited)

I am not a believer of any organized religion, nor am I one of those generically “spiritual” types. I have a few vaguely hippy-dippy pseudo-pagan-animistic impulses (particularly attributing spirits to, and seeking to placate, inanimate objects like my car and my computer), and an unexamined faith in the precept that what one does to others ultimately rebounds upon oneself, though the latter is more a philosophy than any belief in the divine. And unsurprisingly, as a politically liberal, highly-educated (note: educated, not smart!) modern woman, I have a lot of problems with the doctrines of certain denominations and the behavior of many in the name of religion.

Yet I cannot embrace atheism, and ultimately, it’s because atheism as a rejection, even hatred, of religion comes into conflict with my principles/beliefs as a historian.

Before grad school, I was pretty anti-religion, and considered almost any expression of religion as an imposition on my right to be religion-free. I’m not sure why I was so hostile, except that I had very little exposure to it. My parents both grew up devout (Anglican on the one side and Roman Catholic on the other), but it was a devotion rooted in time and place, and by the time I came along both my mother and father had left behind the communities and class in which their faith had been fostered. My mother made an effort to teach my sister and me about Jesus’ life, but without the parish framework with which she’d grown up, or something to replace it, in her own words, “It just sounded…silly.” She told my father she had no objection to our being raised Catholic, but he would have to be responsible for it – the man who never again took communion after his divorce from his first wife. Besides, in my parents’ marriage, the immediate, day-to-day tasks of raising the children fell to my mom. So it was nothing, pretty much.

We also heard a LOT about the Holocaust in my elementary/junior high school days, which I think taught me a disdain for religion as much as anything else. Not because the Nazis were portrayed as Christians or representing Christianity – which is good, because I don’t think that would be very accurate – but because it was the fact that they cared so much about someone else’s religious beliefs that started the whole mess in the first place. (It was okay to be religious – the Jews were cool – but not okay to care about other people’s religion.)

What changed in grad school? First, I met some deeply religious people, which opened my eyes to the role that religion could play in someone’s life. I remember confessing to a devoutly Lutheran friend of mine that religion just looked like a whole bunch of rules about what you couldn’t do, and she just laughed – wasn’t shocked, wasn’t upset, just thought that was one of the funniest things she’d ever heard.

But more importantly, I began to study the Middle Ages in depth, and ran right up against the fact that whether you think religion is good or bad or neither, it was central to medieval people’s lives. And I don’t mean that in the simplistic, “they had to think the way the Church wanted them to” caricature that many people hold in their heads in the section labeled “Middle Ages.” Rather, Christianity provided a framework for medieval people’s understanding of the world around them, a lens through which they saw the universe. This shaped how medieval people thought – in the same way that the modern understanding of gravity shapes how we think today – without telling them what to think. While I’ve never succumbed to what I’ve heard people call the professional hazard of medievalism – converting to Catholicism – studying the Middle Ages made me view religion in a more balanced manner.

Because the thing is, if you believe that people of religious belief are, essentially, stupid and irrational, then you have to believe that medieval people were stupid and irrational. But spend even a small amount of time studying medieval people – seriously studying them – and you soon realize this is completely untrue, and in fact, I consider it part of a historian’s creed that if you think the people you study were stupid and irrational, you’re not a very good historian. That does not mean historians should be cheerleaders for their subjects, or accept or approve of all that they do (hello, I teach about the Crusades!). Nor am I saying that it’s invalid to dislike or consider stupid specific historical individuals (my sense is that some biographers come to loathe their subjects by the time they finish their projects; myself, I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of quality time with Abelard). But to dismiss an entire culture or society because you don’t agree with some of their beliefs is simply not being a good historian.

That’s all very well and good, a modern atheist might say, but medieval people didn’t know any better. Today we do. I don’t blame medieval people for being stupid enough to believe in religion, but I do blame modern people. 

But this violates another part of my historian credo – one that is perhaps more important to medievalists and other pre-modernists, but which I would hold to be necessary for all historians. And that is that progress is bunk. People are people are people, wherever and whenever you go. People in the twenty-first century are not smarter or more advanced or more evolved than people in the fourteenth century, just by virtue of the century in which they live. We, like medieval people, interpret the world around us in light of cultural frameworks that shape our beliefs just as strongly as the medieval church shaped the beliefs of medieval people. They just happen to be different frameworks.

This is not to say that those differences aren’t important, or that I don’t prefer living in the modern world to living in the Middle Ages (from what I can determine about the latter). But for me, the issue of living today vs. then is one of standards of living – we have better hygiene, greater comfort, better medical care (I’d still have a gall bladder if I lived in the fourteenth century). We live lives of what medieval people would view as unimaginable luxury. I’d like some evidence, though, that our modern cultural frameworks have actually reduced human suffering and conflict compared to medieval cultural frameworks.

So, throw out progress, and what you get is not the idea that modern people should be more rational and intelligent than medieval people, but the recognition that humans are humans are humans, and that religion is simply part of human society. All human societies. I don’t know of any society that genuinely lacks some form of religious belief (and don’t give me the Soviet Union; sending religion underground isn’t the same as actually abolishing it). Religion may be “irrational,” but that’s because humans are irrational. I don’t think we can change that, and in many instances, I don’t think we need to. I have no problem with objections to specific, oppressive religious practices – no one has the right to hurt other people in the name of their religion. But I see no point in railing about the existence of religion itself. The very existence of irrationality isn’t a threat to humankind – it’s a condition. Let’s study its expressions, let’s understand what it provides people.

ETA: From some comments about the meaning of atheism, I need to clarify something: Dr. Virago’s comment is correct, and this post is inspired by recent conversations at Pharyngula, especially those about PZ’s request for consecrated wafers. I like and generally respect PZ, and, to be frank, didn’t want to attract the response of some of his diehard commenters (many of whom I also like and respect, just differ with on this one issue), so I chickened out and spoke in overly general terms without linking. But the atheism I’m referring to here is atheism that is actively hostile to religion, that considers it the height of ignorance and irrationality, and considers the eradication of religion as a n
oble goal. My apologies to those of you who consider yourself atheists but don’t fall into this category – I should have been more clear. (I also probably have more to say about progress but that can go in the comments.)

Quick medievalist PSA

Since the great big zoo in Kalamazoo draws near, this is just a quick reminder that the details for the blogger meetup are over here, at ADM‘s blog – she’s point woman this year. (I am so anti-social that I am never point woman for such things, but I’ll be there, if everyone will forgive the shyness exacerbated by early morning grumpiness.) Now if I could just finish my paper…

The prospect of my last Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo, the gargantuan medievalist conference at Western Michigan University, is fast approaching. I think I’m in denial about how quickly, because the conference is at the beginning of May, and I’m used to that being at the end of my semester. This term, however, I teach through to June, and I have to keep reminding myself that although the end of the term is still far off, this year that DOESN’T mean that Kalamazoo is.

Attending this year is going to be fun (I will get to see lots of wonderful people I usually only visit via my computer screen!*), but also sort of sad, because going to Kalamazoo is one of the most fun parts of being a medievalist, and something I will miss quite a lot in my future career (and I should say that I mean the conference rather than the town itself, as Kalamazoo, MI is perhaps not the world’s most exciting location, though it’s definitely been on an upswing since I started attending). I hear a lot of academics say that they hate conferences, and I’ll be the first to admit that I suck at the schmoozing and networking that one is supposed to do at such events. But I never quite understand why people really HATE conferences, and that’s probably because my idea of conferences is shaped irrevocably by Kalamazoo, and Kalamazoo is really an entity unto itself (and can I add that by this point in the post I have no idea how to spell Kalamazoo anymore, as it looks really funny no matter how I spell it?).

Kalamazoo is huge, it has an infamous dance (which I don’t even usually attend, so it’s not like that’s what draws me to it), it has the occasional crazy SCA contingent, it’s got some truly horrible presentation rooms, and its dorms are ugly and uncomfortable. But it’s also a place where you can play name-the-order looking at the different-colored habits of the monks and nuns roaming the sessions, it’s got a book exhibit to end all book exhibits (including a great booth with amber jewelry), there are no nasty interviews to depress the atmosphere, and for most people it’s right near the end of the semester, so while they may be stressed to the max with finals to grade, the end is in sight, the spring flowers are blooming, and summer is coming. There’s a pond inhabited by swans and frightening numbers of carp. The world’s most preeminent scholar of Old Norse runes rubs shoulders with the second-year grad student Chaucerian. Some incredible scholars give terrible papers, some unknown scholars give amazing ones, and vice versa. There are a gazillion grad students presenting, and while I’ve seen one person get shirty with a perhaps-less-than-impressive student paper, it’s only been one – otherwise, eminent scholars have been universally kind and helpful to the newbies, and the not-so-newbies.

No conference is perfect. I’ve been in some excruciatingly boring sessions (who hasn’t?), I’ve witnessed someone present their paper as a dramatic monologue, and I’ve heard some surreal comments in Q & A (example: an associate professor in a literature department asking, "Who is this Judith Butler person?"; I mean, I won’t claim I’ve read any Butler, but I’m a historian, and even I know who she is!). But I continually find that the conversations at Kalamazoo are amazingly supportive, interesting, and free of the most egregious status-snobbery that I see at other gatherings (cough*MAA*cough). I’m sure Kalamazoo has seen its share of pissing contests – it seems inevitable, doesn’t it? – but I’ve been lucky enough to avoid them. It’s such a huge conference that regardless of how narrow your interest, you’ll find an audience of people interested and informed enough to give you valuable feedback. Okay, maybe not every time. But you have a pretty good chance.

The first time I went to Kalamazoo, I drove with friends from grad school. It was about a 10-hour drive, so I’m sure I was a little punchy by the time we got there, but I remember driving up to the registration building and seeing what felt like all two thousand or so medievalists who attend at once. Seeing that many medievalists in one place for the first time is a little bit scary. But it’s also its own brand of awesome, and each year I’ve enjoyed it more. I will miss it. 

*and if I’ve left anyone out, it’s not personal – it’s simply because I couldn’t remember if you were attending this year; if you are, and you want to hang out, let me know!

Actually, men and women are both from earth

Today’s Chronicle Review has an interesting brief piece on a new book about language differences between men and women (I think it’s pay-only, so my apologies if you’re not a subscriber). Pace Deborah Tannen, in The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? (Oxford University Press, 2007), Deborah Cameron, a professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford argues that in fact, the idea that men and women speak different languages is "one of the great myths of our time." Instead, she demonstrates that differences in language patterns result much more from social position and what one does in society – which is often gendered – than directly from gender itself.

For instance, it is more likely to be the case that women will be in
the frontline customer-service jobs and men will be in high-level
decision-making jobs. There are numerical tendencies in who does what
in the workplace, and those will have some kind of effect on how people
talk. It’s not gender directly having an effect; it’s what people are
doing in what level of the hierarchy. So if women and men are doing the
same things, you don’t find there’s a men’s style and a women’s style.
You find that there are perhaps distinguishable styles, more direct and
no-nonsense versus more collaborative, but men and women both span the
whole spectrum.

I must confess that I read this and went, Thank GOD someone’s finally researched this! Because this argument makes much more sense to me than the idea that we’re completely hard-wired for difference. (Not that I don’t think that there isn’t hard-wiring involved in differences between men and women. But we can never actually get at that hard-wiring outside the gendered expectations of our own society anyway.)

I was also very relieved to read:

Perhaps the most enduring [myth] is that women talk more than men, which
is repeated endlessly and sometimes with actual numbers. There’s never
been any evidence to support this, and now there is quite full evidence
to show that it isn’t so. There’s a lot of evidence that in more formal
situations where status is a factor, it tends to be men who talk more
than women — not because they’re men, but almost certainly because the
real correlation is the status.

Now, as a medievalist, I find this fascinating, because one of the most persistent (and misogynistic) assumptions about women in the Middle Ages is that they talk too much. They chatter, they gossip (did you know that "gossip" comes from the Middle English godsib, meaning godparent / god-related?), they run on at the mouth, they can’t keep secrets – in short, they can’t be controlled. They might not be stronger or more physically powerful than men, but by God, can they talk.

(This also makes me think about modern research about who gets called on more in the classroom, boys or girls; I read once that when one teacher decided to keep very careful track of who she called on, and made sure that she called on boys and girls in equal numbers, after a few days the boys in her classroom erupted in protest at how unfair it was that she was calling on the girls all the time!! This article included a great line to the effect that to the boys, equality was perceived as a loss. So I have to think that in a society in which women aren’t actually supposed to speak, at least authoritatively, to men – medieval Christians knew their 1 Timothy 2:12 – any instance of women’s speech is going to seem excessive.)

Along these lines, it was also really interesting to see this part of the Q & A (the Chronicle‘s question is in bold):

I love the anecdote in the book about the women in Papua New
Guinea: When they get annoyed with their husbands, they deliver long,
angry monologues for their neighbors to hear. Could that work for the
rest of us?

Women can be obscene and abusive in all cultures, but I think the
difference is, we tend to think of those women as taking on masculine
attributes. Whereas people in Gapun [a village in Papua New Guinea]
believe that screaming abuse for 45 solid minutes is exactly what women
do. So it’s a different set of beliefs about what’s appropriate for men
and women.

Because the thing is, that screaming abuse for 45 solid minutes (hypothetically speaking) also seems to have been what women did in medieval Europe. At least, given contemporary prosecutions for scolding, which was a crime for which people – that is, women – were prosecuted, especially in the later Middle Ages. (This and this are good studies of the phenomenon.) Scolding seems to have been something that women did, to men and to other women, and far from being seen as masculine, it was just another nail in the coffin of women’s inferiority – because again, it was a flaw inherent to women that they talked, and that they talked irrationally, uselessly – like scolding. It sounds like Cameron’s suggesting that women in Papua New Guinea employ their monologues to good effect, to shame their husbands into acting according to their wishes, and that there isn’t a social stigma attached to so doing. In the Middle Ages, there was a social stigma, at least given that communities were willing to prosecute women for being scolds. I wonder, though, if communities only prosecuted women as scolds with whom they disagreed. If a woman berated her husband for being useless, and the rest of the community agreed with her, was she a scold?

In fact, I’m not so sure that screaming abuse for 45 minutes is actually seen today as masculine. What about the stereotype of the fishwife? Where else does the adjective "shrill" come into play? I suppose if you’re talking about Donald Trump dressing-down a subordinate, it’s masculine. Maybe that’s what the women of Papua New Guinea are doing. But in a western context, in which we still suffer the legacy of medieval misogyny, isn’t screaming at your husband one of the few things that a woman has enough power to do?

The glory of progress

Something I run into relatively regularly is the idea that people in the past were stupider than modern people. (Granted, it’s not usually stated as bluntly as it was today, when a student explained something we were talking about by saying literally that medieval people were stupider than modern people, but the idea frequently underlies other comments.) I’m curious about how students define "the past" and "modern" in thinking about this – I suspect that they actually draw (entirely unconsciously) on an old school, secular humanist Enlightenment vision of history that disses the Middle Ages, and that they don’t actually believe that the ancient Greeks and Romans were less intelligent than people today – but I’m sure that this idea pops up in many fields of history. Apart from the Enlightenment vision, I think much of it derives from an idea of progress – that past history is a linear progression to the present and that progress entails improvement: hence, people today must be smarter than those in the past.

This is one of those fallacies that I, and many instructors I know, have railed against many times. But I feel a little unfair in doing so, because I can actually pinpoint the moment when, viscerally, I came to understand what I now tell my students. I’m sure that before that time I didn’t blurt out in class that people in the past were stupider than those today. But somewhere I absorbed the idea that because medieval sources didn’t try to tell us modern people what we wanted to know, they were deficient. They didn’t write "real" history.

Well, duh – of course they didn’t write "real" history. They didn’t know what it was. Not because they were stupid, but because the concept didn’t exist. They didn’t write for the same reasons we do; they had their own reasons. History meant something else entirely.

My realization came, embarrassingly late, in grad school, when I read Walter Goffart’s The Narrators of Barbarian History. I think this was really the first time that I saw a scholar say, explicitly, bluntly, that because we find particular medieval authors hard to understand and that because they don’t write what we would write, this does NOT mean that the texts are corrupt or deficient or inferior. It was one of those great DUH! moments. Clearly, if Goffart needed to say this so clearly, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way (and I suspect that those studying the early Middle Ages have to combat such assumptions even more than I do, given how many of their texts only survive in later copies, sometimes copies of copies of copies, and that it’s easy to explain difficulty away by saying that the text is corrupt). Nonetheless, his book illuminated for me some of the assumptions lurking in unexamined corners of my brain.

In my defense, I’ll point out that when writing my senior thesis in college, I read an AWFUL lot of nineteenth-century editions of medieval sources, editions produced by erudite and eccentric independently wealthy gentlemen who wanted little more than to be the knights and nobility whose words they inscribed. (In one of my favorite editions, the editor deplored the need to have issued a revised edition, but there had been so many errors in the first edition that it had really had to be done. It was too bad, too, he went on, because the organization sponsoring the edition had provided a really bright undergraduate [this would have been an Oxbridge student, mid-to-late nineteenth century] to aid with the editing. When they asked the original editor why there were so many errors, he said that he had been so impressed by the undergraduate’s work on the first two pages that he didn’t bother to check the rest.) Whatever their reverence for the social structures and material records of the past, these gentlemen had no qualms about decrying the inadequacies of the authors of those records. (Another favorite? The cataloger from the British Library who described one of my treasured texts as, essentially, so much papist claptrap. I don’t remember the exact words, but "papist" was definitely one of them.)

This brings me to one of my cherished theories about studying the Middle Ages: that we’re not even figuring out what happened then, as much as we are trying to dismantle assumptions about the Middle Ages that the Victorians constructed and then bequeathed to us. (This has been especially true, I think, for medieval women’s history.)

In any case. I’m not going to stop challenging my students when they tell me that medieval people were dumb. But I’m also going to remember that it’s really hard to escape the mental structures that support your world so strongly that you don’t even realize they’re there. And as a society, we Americans sure do love the narrative of self-improvement and the idea of progress.

Actual scholarly question

Hmmmm. I guess that freewriting really is an excellent activity (though I didn’t really doubt this), because in six minutes of noodling around trying to describe an as-yet-incomplete-and-therefore-somewhat-hypothetical book chapter, I think I realized something fundamentally important about an argument I’m trying to make about medieval masculine identity (part of what I’m working on). Seriously, trying to sum up chapters that don’t yet fully exist is turning out to be a truly valuable and revealing enterprise, because I keep having to distill everything to its essence and in so doing, I articulate arguments that I didn’t quite realize I was making. It’s pretty awesome.

Anyway, this really important revelation (with which I’m totally thrilled) has led to a related question about terminology, and I decided I would throw it open to the interwebs – to anyone and everyone, as I’m honestly interested in all opinions here, not just medievalists’ or academics’, because it’s a question of terminology and I want to know how this terminology reads to everyone (I mean, I’ll be lucky if this book is of interest to anyone other than the six people working in this field, but I can pretend it will be of broader interest):

How do you define "bourgeois"? Edited for clarity: Thank you for the responses so far! I’m really interested in it both as an adjective and a noun.

(I know all about dictionaries and all that, but I really want to see leaps to people’s minds when they see the term before I use it. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve carefully avoided it to this point, but I want to make sure that’s been an appropriate choice.)

Back from a drugstore run

Something that often – okay, sometimes – comes up in my medieval classes is the "how could people live that way" question, usually related to things like modern medicine. Students quickly figure out that people in the Middle Ages doubtless had to have a very different standard of ordinary comfort than we do today. I don’t mean to suggest that medieval Europeans were complete medical idiots (despite this account by a twelfth-century Syrian – scroll down to the 7th paragraph); I think they were especially good with herbs and other kinds of natural remedies. But it’s also true that they couldn’t pop an asprin every time they had a headache (or could they? certainly they knew about analgesics), or take some Ny-Quil to get some sleep when they had a cold. (Of course, it’s primarily the booze in Ny-Quil that knocks you out, and medieval people had plenty of access to that. But I digress.) Students tend to be horrified when they think about the material comfort available to most medieval people, and it’s true that I like my modern world, with things like antibiotics (at least, until all the bacteria out there become resistant), not to mention air-conditioning and central heating.

But another way to think about it is to remember that it is possible to live without all the comforts of the modern world. And it’s funny, because I was thinking about this tonight on my way to the local drugstore. I have asthma, triggered by my zillions of allergies, which wasn’t diagnosed until I was about 22 and which wasn’t seriously controlled until I was 30, when I finally had the benefits to visit a proper allergist (as opposed to the kind you get to see at student medical centers). When I went to the decent allergist, and he figured out exactly how many things I was allergic to and what my current medication wasn’t doing, he said, "I think you’ve become used to a very high level of discomfort." I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, because I had been uncomfortable, which was why I’d originally had the asthma diagnosed, but I felt perfectly fine with my minimal medications (I had gone to see the new doctor only because I’d moved).

Of course, once I had proper medications, I realized how much better I felt than when I hadn’t. I went home over the holidays and after I’d been home for 4 or 5 hours my mother said, with wonder, "You haven’t blown your nose once yet!"

So, this all very well and good. But occasionally I’ll run out of one of my medications and not have the time to pick it up right away. And I don’t think much of it – I lived for years without these medications and I was fine, right? But then I’m always driven to get the prescription refilled because I feel like complete crap. When I moved to Rural Utopia, I couldn’t get an appointment with the allergist for weeks, and my prescriptions ran out, and I was MISERABLE – I’d wake up in the morning with my eyes half-swollen shut from allergies. Most of the time, I forget I have asthma because I have virtually no symptoms – when I take my meds. But when I run out of Singulair, after about three days I have problems breathing again.

What does this have to do with medieval living? Well, I think I handled my allergies/asthma much better without medication than I do now, if I have to go without medication. Now that I know what it’s like to be able to breathe easily and not itch/sneeze/run with snot all the time, when I do have those symptoms, I suffer from them much, much more than I used to before I got on these drugs. Back when I was used to them. Medieval people,who didn’t have access to modern drugs, never knew what it’s like to have those symptoms relieved. And they just lived with them.

(Unless, of course, their symptoms were life-threatening. Then they, you know, died, which would admittedly suck.)

I’m not arguing for getting rid of modern advancements, mind you. I have no objection to modern "improvements." It’s just that I think sometimes it’s important to remember that just because a life didn’t have all the wonders and niceties of a modern American middle-class life, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth living.