The conflict and influence of religious belief on historical objectivity.
Looking back through history, it is almost overwhelming to consider how many events were as a consequence of, or were fundamentally linked to, religion. A few examples that spring to mind immediately include the Roman persecution of Christians; the Crusades and the Northern Ireland conflict. Considering that religion was such an influential factor in the past and remains a relevant sociological issue, how does it affect the way that we look at the past and study history? Does the historian need to set aside his or her religious principles? Is this possible? Or does religious belief actually add to our examination and comprehension of the past?
There are some people who would say that historical objectivity is an imposibility. We are all too burdened by the influences of our present to be able to view the past without casting our shadows over it. I, however, believe that historical objectivity means acknowledging our biases and influences and learning to understand how they make us view the past, or indeed affect any of our reflections or decisions. Part of the appeal of history is trying to understand human nature, the how and the why of things happening. Understanding our influences can help with perspective.
On the most basic level — more basic even than moral doctrine — religion has allowed for the systematic, organised functioning of the Western World; it has provided a calendar. This calendar is based on the year of Christ's birth, something fairly reliant on religion. No longer is 63 BCE referred to as 'the year in which Cicero was consul'; in fact, the terms BC and AD are also being eclipsed in the global community that is not necessarily hinged on Christ's teachings. But given that dates are divided into before and after his birth, religion is the major player here. If religion controls time, is it controlling how time is studied?
Divine Will and Providence
If religions such as Christianity and Judaism are primarily historical, with past events forming the basis of belief, how does this affect history? It allows for the involvement of a divine being over historical events. It allows for religion to be a factor determining past events. It affects the opinions of those who study history.
Providence, or the divine will of G-d, is seen by many believers as a factor in history: a particular event took place because it was willed to be that way. Yet, even to historians with the strongest sense of faith, this is generally an unacceptable answer to the causes of a particular event, or series of events. (See Butterfield: 1979, 134.) After all, G-d might have willed it to happen, but how did G-d proceed to bring about the causes of the event via man and man's actions? Furthermore, historians who do not have definite religious convictions will find the argument that something has been divinely willed unacceptable. The argument of Providence will not win a historian universal credibility.
Even if Providence does not affect how a historian views the past, then his or her religious beliefs might alter the perspective from which he or she analyses events. To offer a simple example of this, Hopkins refers to the Jewish Revolt of 68 CE as the 'Jewish war of liberation/rebellion.' A Jewish person might be quite determined to refer to this as the 'Jewish War of Liberation.' Anyone else might naturally refer to it as the 'Jewish Rebellion'. (Hopkins: 1999, 47.)
The Roman persecution of the Christians is now regarded as an abhorrent and vindictive act against a small group of unconventional believers. But, we have to remember that the Romans saw the Christians differently: they were a radical religious sub-sect with the potential to create civil unrest. It is hard for us to understand how the Romans might have perceived Christianity as such a threat; it is a common-place phenomenon in our world. Yet more, we find it uncomfortable to think about how a group of people can be persecuted for what they believe. When state religion was so tightly bound to politics as it was in the Roman Empire, religion took on a complexion different to that which it has today.
In order to comprehend the ideology and fervour behind religion in the ancient world, the historian must be able to set aside his or her own religious principles.
Not only can the perspective from which the historian studies the past be distorted by religion, but so too can perceptions of ancient religions themselves. It is all to easy for the modern historian to dismiss the practises of ancient religions as bizarre, barbaric or peculiar. Yet, if an ancient Greek stepped forward three thousand years, how would he or she react to Christians taking communion, with bread and wine representing the body and blood of a saviour who died and rose again two thousand years ago? If a modern historian thinks of ancient sacrifice as barbaric, how do they approach the Jewish custom of kappirot (the slaughter of chickens at Rosh HaShannah) or the Muslim slaughter of lambs at Eid Ul-Adha? In this respect, the barrier to understanding is not history, but is culture. The modern historian must never lose sight of the fact that this is what people believed and practised, just as he or she might take communion, or adhere to kashrut, or follow the Muslim dress-code.
The distortion of facts for religious ends — perhaps to prove a point or owing to religious intolerance — is yet another conflict between objectivity and belief. Discussion concerning the crucifixion of Christ invariably involves debate on who was responsible: the Romans or the Jewish authorities. To what extent is religious conviction going to cloud judgement in this instance? When examining the rise of Protestantism, how are Catholics and Protestants going to perceive the facts and make judgements based on them?
The writings of Plato have passed through the generations initially because of the copies made by monks. Plato's writings conformed with their beliefs and were deemed suitable for preservation. Aristotle, however, was not regarded as an acceptable philosopher. His writings have been preserved because Arab scholars appreciated their value. What other texts, or versions of events, might not have been preserved because they were regarded as religiously unacceptable?
Society and the Subconcious
Societies are often built on the moral principles that are associated with religion. That means it is possible for historians who are not especially religious to be influenced almost surrepticiously by religion. Could the achievements of particular figures from the past have been overlooked because they did not conform to the standards set down in the society of the modern historian? Might events from the past be ignored owing to their lack of acceptability in modern society?
Clearly, religious belief can present a significant barrier to objective historical study. Although this does not necessarily imply that a historian with a strong sense of faith is a bad historian. More that the historian must be aware of the influences and prejudices that this belief carries with it.
History was enacted by somebody, it is written by somebody, for somebody. Those in the past had their prejudices and their barriers to understanding. Those who now study the past have their own obstacles to objectivity. Those for whom the historian is writing will have their understanding of events influenced by their society and their beliefs. Although the loss of objectivity can never be justified by religious belief, both those writing history and those reading history must account for it; it is a part of human existence.
- Butterfield, H: Writings on Christianity and History (1979, Oxford).
- Graham, G: The Shape of the Past (1997, Oxford).
- Hopkins, K: A World Full of Gods (1999, London).
- McIntire, C (ed.): God, History and Historians (1977, Oxford).
- Morley, N: Writing Ancient History (1999, London).