You have to understand religion and the religious mentality to understand history

Robert Henderson

YouGov have just undertaken a poll on behalf of the Oxford University Education Department to judge the attitude  of people in England to the teaching of  Religious Education (RE).  ( The support for such teaching was strong:

In the poll of a random sample of 1,832 adults in England, 64 per cent agreed that children need to learn about Christianity in order to understand English history; 57 per cent agreed it was needed to understand the English culture and way of life; and 44 per cent said they thought that more attention should be given to such teaching. Areas of Christianity that people regarded as particularly important for children to learn about in RE were the history of Christianity (58 per cent), major Christian events and festivals (56 per cent), and how Christianity distinguishes right from wrong (51 per cent).”(

This is  very welcome. In the Go-Between the novelist L P Hartley famously wrote  “The past is a foreign country”. Clichéd  as that now is it contains a serious truth.  When, for example,   an Englishman goes to America  he finds much that is familiar; the trappings of modernity in the cities and towns, the motorways, the cars and so on. It is not difficult for an Englishman to feel comfortable there. But there are also differences: the ways in which  English is spoken, the food , the conduct of the law and politics and much more.  Less obvious but more important are the differences in mentality between one culture and the next, even two such as England and the USA which have much culturally in common.    If an Englishman goes to France he still sees much which is  familiar because France has the trappings of modernity, but the differences between England and France are more pronounced  If an Englishman visits China the differences will be starker still and if he goes to a Third World country such as Rwanda the sense of being in an alien culture will be profound.

Studying the past is akin to visiting foreign countries.  Even when it is the history of the country in which a person has been born and raised, there are always the differences, many  subtle, some  glaring.  That is why having a good understanding  of the surface facts – dates, battles, institutions and so on – as retailed by  historians is not enough for a firm  grasp of the past, although the surface facts, especially the chronological details, are essential.   The differences in how those in the past viewed the world,  especially what was of prime importance to them compared with what we think is important,  must be understood.  For most of the English past nothing has been more important than religion as both a shaper of the individual mentality and the  creator of institutions and social norms.  That is why an understanding of Christianity is essential  for English children) because so much of English  history was shaped by Christianity and much of the general shape of English society today is ultimately the consequence of the actions of those driven by Christian beliefs.  (I write incidentally, not as a believer but an agnostic  – see

Much of what we value in our society is the result of a sense of  Christian religious duty  to aid the unfortunate. The idea of  charity lies at the heart of  Christianity.  Academic education (and even literacy)  survived in the English mediaeval world  because of the Church and until the latter half of the nineteenth century English education was dominated by schools which were religiously inspired. Many of England’s  best known  schools (Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Charterhouse)  and her two premier universities Oxford and Cambridge have their origins in  Christian endowments, as do some of her most famous hospitals   (Barts, the Royal Free,  Guy’s and St Thomas’ ). Trade unions  and  the co-operative movement  – major  sources  of non-state corporate social support for the poor  well into the 1960s –  both had strong religious roots in Christian socialism.  Much of Britain’s most impressive architecture is contained within its  churches and cathedrals.   The English language is gilded with many phrases from the King James’ Bible: A broken heart, A fly in the ointment, A leopard cannot change its spots, A multitude of sins  (  In its many small fields and hedgerows , the  English countryside caries the marks of the enclosure movement  whose first wave was led by the monasteries before the Reformation.

More broadly the development of  parliamentary government (an English invention) can be ascribed in large part to the strains of Protestantism  (the English Nonconformist sects) which treated the relationship between the individual and God  as one which did not need to be mediated by priests but, rather, was something which came to fruition through self-constructed prayers and study by the lay individual of the Bible and the book Common Prayer in English.  This  individualism began in the 14th Century with the first complete translation of the Bible into English (the Wycliffe or Lollard Bible) and came to full flower with the Reformation.  Men and women could for the first time, if they were literate, read the Bible for themselves.  This religious individualism could and did translate itself  into political individualism where the individual was seen not  as a vassal but as  an active political player. This mixture of religious  and political activism  reached its height in the  period 1640-60, the time of Civil War, Commonwealth and Protectorate (see

The spirit of individualism also flowed into economic behaviour and played at least a significant part in the commercial  and then industrial development which led to the first and only bootstrapped  industrial revolution.  Many of the great(and lesser)  entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution  – Josiah Wedgewood and Abraham Darby are good examples –  were Nonconformists.  These were people who saw success in business, as evidence of  God’s favour or at least proof of the  living of a godly life, but   it may also have been a consequence of the fact , as we shall shortly see, that  Nonconformists  were excluded from public life  until the 19th century.

The religious mentality

But there is far more to  understanding Christianity than counting  the outcomes of  Christian belief.  Even more important is to get inside the heads of those living in an intensely religious world. It is immensely difficult for English men and women today, even if they are professing Christians,  to comprehend  what religion has meant in England  in the past. Imagine a world in which a belief, or at least a professed belief,  in Christianity  was not simply a question  of  personal choice but  a matter of life or death.  Nor was it a case of simply believing in a Christian God, it had to be the “right” variety  of Christian belief  That was England until  well into the 17th century  when the death penalty for   heresy,  blasphemy, atheism and suchlike offences remained until the  Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act 1677 was passed removing the ultimate punishment.  But until well into the 19th century  Non-conformists, Catholics , Jews and unbelievers remained under considerable legal disadvantages  such as a bar to holding  many public offices – including being an MP – because  the Corporation Act of 1661 and the  Test Act of 1673 required office holders to at least pretend to be Anglicans. The Acts were not invariably rigorously enforced for Nonconformists,  but they were still a considerable bar to playing a part in public life.

Apart from the legal deterrents to not following the  “right” beliefs, there was immense social pressure to conform.   The philosopher David Hume, almost certainly an agnostic at best and atheist at worst,  remained coy about his exact beliefs until he lay on his deathbed  in the late 18th century because of the fear of being thought an unbeliever.  Remnants of that social pressure can  still be seen in the reluctance of leading present day politicians to publicly declare themselves unbelievers.

But the imposition of a prescribed religion by the state was not simply a matter of social control, although the hierarchical nature of the relationship of  the god in Christianity, Islam and Judaism  and believers  does serve that purpose, it mimicking the relationship between lord and vassal.   Large numbers of people, including those with power and influence, took their religion extremely seriously for  it was the very centre of their lives.   Part of that was the individual’s  fear of Hell and Purgatory opposed to the promised reward for the virtuous of  Heaven.  But there was also a social dimension because people believed that worshipping in the “right” manner was essential to the wellbeing of society, that to do otherwise would bring the wrath of God  in the form of war, pestilence and famine.  To cry heretic when that is sincerely believed is not a contemptible act in the eyes of believers but a matter of social responsibility. (It is entirely different from the politically correct today crying racist,  because the imposition of politically correct ideas arises not from a belief that their absence will result in punishment by an outside agency but from a wish to create the world in the image of the politically correct. )

There was also something which might be described as religious infatuation. Men and most commonly women had an intensely personal relationship with their imagined  God.   Those who took the veil and entered convents  were brides of Christ and some displayed behaviour which suggests a sublimated sexual infatuation with the idea of  Jesus.  Men subscribed to worship of the virgin Mary in similar fashion.  Saints were venerated and their places of burial the sites of pilgrimage.  Relics of  saints and best of all Christ – a thorn supposedly from Christ’s  crown of thorns or even better a splinter from the True Cross stood at the top of the relic pecking order – were treated with immense reverence and accorded what in other circumstances would be accounted occult powers, especially of healing and protection against disaster.

There was a baser side to religion. Human nature being what  it is, the clergy often seemed more intent on growing rich than tending their flocks or worshipping God.  Indulgencies to expunge the wages of sin and reduce time in Purgatory were sold cynically by Pardoners.  Pride was shown both by  priestly display and in the claims of some of the more exhibitionist ascetics to being the most unworthy of men. The Reformation of the 16th Century  was in large part  the child  of many centuries of dissatisfaction with the venal  and unconscientious nature of many of the clergy.  Nor was the great mass of the English population models of Christian restraint  and piety. William Langland’s 14th Century Piers Plowman draws a vivid picture of both the failures of the clergy and the often riotously disrespectful laity.

But these abuses were seen as  the shortcomings of men not of God.  Religious belief was often not merely sincere but intimidatingly sincere. The dire torments which the religious have willingly borne when they could have been avoided  simply by recanting (as was normally the case with the Inquisition and something prescribed in canon law)  or accepting that the emperor was a god  (as with Imperial Rome ) are astonishing.    There are few if any of the dimensions of torture which the religious have not suffered, death by fire, pressing with weights and  being slowly lowered into molten lead are just a few.  Nor were the exalted spared.  Bishops Hugh  Latimer and Nicholas Ridley  and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (collectively the Oxford Martyrs)  were  burnt at the stake in 1555 during the reign of  the Catholic Mary I.

Beneath Christianity lay the ancestral remnants of older religions and superstitions. Most English men and women  still lived in a world full of  the supernatural.  Satan and his manifestations and helpers were aboard in the world in the minds of  even many of the educated. As late as the 17th Century  witches were regularly accused and frequently  executed,  often by burning.  Eclipses of the sun could provoke widespread panic.

To the modern mind raised in a society which is both secular  in spirit and rational in intent  (because of scientific knowledge),  beliefs in the supernatural will often  seem absurd . But place yourself in a world without any scientific understanding and it does not seem ridiculous.  It is not difficult to see how belief in the supernatural would arise in a big-brained animal with a high degree of self-awareness.  It would be natural for hunter-gatherers  to think that the world was  controlled  by gods and spirits as they witnessed volcanic eruptions, floods, thunder and lightning  or saw anything inanimate which moved such as a river to be in some sense alive. What more natural in such circumstances to imagine the sun was dying as winter drew in and the days shortened and the gods needed to be placated by sacrifice to prevent the death?  What more natural if you believe in gods and spirits  to turn to the  shaman to control and placate the gods and spirits with potions and spells or to practice sympathetic magic  by enacting or drawing on cave walls an event such as a successful hunt for game?

Even when societies become considerably larger and more sophisticated than that of the hunter-gatherer tribe the same fears exist. Superstition exists strongly in the most advanced societies as evidenced by the many people who are psychologically dependent on a talisman such as a lucky object (which can be anything) or performing certain actions in a certain order – professional sportsmen are particularly prone to this type of self-comforting. Perhaps there is little difference between this and the belief in Christian relics. Obsessive compulsive disorders  could be seen as extreme examples of  the superstitious trait diverted to other overt purposes.  Human beings wish to be in control and even in a modern advanced state they often do not feel they are and seek comfort blankets where they can.

The broader picture

A knowledge and understanding of  Christianity is of course also a necessary  tool for interpreting European history.  Just as England’s history has been shaped by Christianity, so has Europe’s  and that of the  vast lands which have their origins in European colonialism  and exist today with a population predominantly  drawn from Europe and  cultures  which have their roots in those of Europe:  North America, much of central and Southern America , Australia and New Zealand.

More broadly still, the traits which are evident in Christians are a guide to the religious experience of other non-Christian lands, for the religious impulse if not the theology is the same.

Ideological capture

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly

Man got to sit and  wonder why, why, why?

Tiger got rest, bird got to land,

Man got to tell himself he understand

(Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut)

But the utility of understanding the sociology and psychology of religion goes far beyond  religion. It provides a guide to secular ideologies and their adherents.  By ideology I mean a set of ideas, religious or secular, to which an individual subscribes blindly regardless of the objective and testable truth of  the ideology or of any contradictions which it may contain.

The same qualities which create religious belief  can be placed in the service of  secular all-encompassing ideologies such as Marxism and  Fascism which offer the same psychological anchors and incentives as religions such as Christianity and Islam provide: the idea that there is something  greater than the individual; a universal guide to living a life;   the promise of the jam of a better life if not tomorrow at least sometime; the satisfaction of the tribal urge; the absolution from moral obligation to those who are outside the group and, perhaps above all, the sense of a journey  which lends meaning  to the individual life.

The totalitarian ideology which is political correctness is the best modern example in the West of  how the religious impulse has been shifted from formal religion to a secular belief.  The politically make objectively incorrect claims such as a heterogeneous society is superior and much desirable  to a homogeneous one (objectively incorrect because the heterogeneous society is invariably  more unstable and fractious than the heterogeneous one – let the reader provide an contrary example if they  wish to dispute this), that race is simply a social construct (the general physical differences in populations which we call races would not exist if humans did not treat racial difference as a potent barrier to interbreeding) or there is no  innate  difference between the capabilities and mentality of a man and a woman  (tell that to a woman giving birth), the apparent differences being simply a matter of social conditioning.   These assertions are every bit as absurd, because reality contradicts them, as the belief of Catholics that transubstantiation means that literally the blood of and body of Christ enter the wine and bread during  Holy Communion or the belief of  Muslims that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel.

How do ideologies develop? The evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins’ concept of the meme applies with especial force  to ideologies sacred or profane.   The meme is  the mental equivalent of a gene.  It is, like the gene, a replicator. Here is Dawkins defining it:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.  If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students.  He mentions it in his articles and his lectures.  If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.  As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.(3)  When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.  And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’  (

Memes are  arguably the most important evolutionary insight since Darwin’s formulation  of natural selection.  Dawkins has not received the praise he deserves ,  most probably because the concept does imply a great deal of determinism in human thought , something  which makes most human beings , if they think about the matter at all, decidedly uncomfortable.

Ideologies are a special class of meme because they are not a single discrete entity as many memes are.  They have the ability to not merely mutate, which could be said of any meme just as it could be said of any gene,  but the capacity to build endlessly complicating systems of thought, chains of memes link in a network of belief.  These systems of thought at their most extreme purport to not merely explain how to seek a given end but to provide a model of the entirety of reality.

Homo  Sapiens is very susceptible to the passing  of memes both because many are useful or enjoyable and because being a big-brained animal with language and a high degree of self-awareness  human beings are innately curious and questioning.  Those qualities also make humans acutely aware of possible dangers and opportunities which require reasoning and solutions.  But like genes memes can be beneficial, indifferent  or harmful in their effects.   Ideologies are never entirely benign because they require coercion to maintain their dominance for there will always bee dissenters from the ideology.  That is particularly true of secular ideologies, not least  because unlike religions they can be tested against reality.  Nonetheless,  there is a clear difference between ideologies which require people to behave in a way which acts  against the coherence and stability of their society and those which result in obnoxious consequences for those within the society deemed heretics  but do not strike at the natural unity that a homogeneous society displays.

An example of the former type of ideology  is political correctness,  which has at its centre the principle of  non-discrimination regardless of race, ethnicity,  gender or sexual inclination.  This principle leads to a policy of  large scale immigration of those who cannot or will not  assimilate, into very homogeneous societies such as England and the suppression of dissent  by the native population against the practice. This both neglects the wishes of the native population and invariably results  in a fractured (because immigrant ghettos always form)  and authoritarian society  as those responsible for the resulting multicultural/racial mess  desperately try to prevent the native population shouting treason and traitor and holding those responsible to account.

The latter type of ideology can have very different effects on a society  however damaging they may seem to be when witnessed at a particular point.   For example,  any theocracy will almost certainly have an innate tendency to enhance the natural tribal instincts of whatever society it holds in thrall.  It may damage individuals who are deemed heretics or unbelievers, but by its nature it will not allow vast numbers of  immigrants who do not share whatever is the faith to enter.  Not only that, by espousing a system of belief which is to be shared by all, those who do share the faith to the satisfaction of the theocrats will form a natural barrier against any attempt by those who are different even if they nominally share the faith because there will always be reasons to be found  for saying those not wanted for racial or ethnic reasons other than religion  are doctrinally unsound.  By retaining the integrity of the group, the ideology has, however damaging it may have been in other ways, has preserved the means for the society to survive and in time evolve to a less oppressive state.  The society made heterogeneous by creeds such as political correctness  is damaged fundamentally and may never recover.

How should religion be taught in schools?

I suggest this.  The English school curriculum is overflowing with subjects competing for space so it is pointless proposing a scheme of religious education which would take up much time.   An hour a week is probably what most pupils will get at present.   That might seem too little to encompass the curriculum I suggest,  but a great deal can be taught even in an hour a week over a period of twelve or thirteen years in school.  There is also a strong case for cancelling religious education as a separate subject and incorporating it into history teaching. That could extend the time available for religious teaching by one or two hours, although  sadly history teaching is badly neglected in English state schools at present.  However, there are serious moves afoot to increase its presence in schools  and develop a  decent English/British history curriculum. ( .  The subject could also be worked into lessons dealing with politics to show the dangers of ideology.

The tenets of religion should be taught not as a fact or with the intention of either engendering religious belief  or of reinforcing an existing belief, but as propositions which can be examined  for their truth or falsity, as history  and, most importantly, as psychological and sociological  traits and events.

Obviously not all those things could be taught to all ages. The teaching of primary school children should concentrate on facts (I always give at least  two cheers for Mr Gradgrind) and Bible stories. As the child moves into secondary education they can begin to receive the intellectual, psychological and sociological ramifications of religion.

In England the emphasis should be overwhelmingly  on Christianity for the simple reasons that it is the religion which has been written into the English story  for over  fourteen centuries and  is the religion, in its various forms,  which has  written much of the  stories of the foreign lands  into whose historical clutch  England has longest been, namely, the countries and peoples of Europe.

Knowledge of other religions should be given briefly  to show the things they share both with Christianity and amongst themselves.   Islam  and Judaism should be given more prominence than the others because  the former is the one major no-Christian religion  to war directly with Europe and for a time to occupy European territory while the latter is a religion which has existed in Europe  for longer than Christianity.

The intent of the new religious curriculum is simple: it is not to make children into theologians,  but to give them a glimpse of the way people were in the religious past and how this affected their  lives, the wars they fought , how they thought and  the influence they have on English society today.

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5 Responses to You have to understand religion and the religious mentality to understand history

  1. Pingback: You have to understand religion and the religious mentality to understand history |

  2. grahamwood32 says:

    Robert. I think this is an excellent survey and summary of the influence of Christianity upon England, and greater Britain. Thanks for this well thought out and interesing comment, and I agree that one simply cannot understand our national history in any depth at all without diserning the massive impact that Christianity had on our national life.
    (I have just finished reading ‘”Elizabeth Alison Weir, and she (Eliz. 1st) seems to me to illustrate your point very fully – an excellent piece of biography I think – do you know it?)
    With your clear sympathies towards Christianity, and understanding of the Christian mind-set, I am mildly surprised that you are agnostic as opposed to becoming a Christian (by choice?).

    As a Christian I do not find much of Dawkins thinking very attractive, and I strongly disagree with his theory of ‘memes’ as quoted :

    “He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.”

    Surely this is determinism pure and simple? He appears to believe that the implanting of ideas, perhaps ideologies, is almost identical to the activity of germs and viruses. Surely the difference is that germs and viruses cannot easily be avoided and if attacked by these one is a helpless victim. However the passing of ideas to others is surely different in that it involves the spoken word, voluntary intercommunication, and then the capacity to accept or reject what is offered.
    As a Christian I would posit an approach to such a process is mentally to assess whether the propositions offered are true or not true. If not true, or not of interest then one would simply junk the idea or retain it at such a superficial level as to be of on consequence.
    Slightly off topic, I would think that you would greatly appreciate a read of Douglas Groothuis’s
    ‘Truth Decay – Defending Christianity against the challenge of Postmodernism’ Truly superb!
    Thanks again for the absorbing post.

    • Graham. Glad you found the post useful. As for Dawkins’ determinism, it is only deterministic at the level of the individual. The person has to have a propensity to acceopt a meme. Memes do not operate by “infecting” groups en masse. Each individual has to accept the meme. Once accepted, the person may become in thrall to the meme.

  3. CanSpeccy says:

    Memes have the greatest influence on people who cannot think, and the whole thrust of education and other forms of state-controlled indoctrination appeared aimed at insuring that people think as little as possible. The reason for this is, presumably, that the principles of political correctness can spread only as memes, since to a person capable of using their intelligence, political correctness is not only stupid but evil, being conducive to the destruction of ones own society and people.

    Religion, I suggest is important because, without it, life is essentially incomprehensible. And without meaning in life, people, as Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out, do not believe in nothing, but in anything. And what many in the West today believe is incompatible with an emotionally rewarding existence, which may explain why it is estimated that a large proportion of the population of the US and Europe are more or less mentally ill.

    I suggest, also, that evolution has supplied us with a spiritual sense that makes most people highly susceptible to religious belief. It is the possession of a religious sense, comparable to the aesthetic sense that gives music its powerful emotional appeal despite a lack of logical content, that led A.N. Wilson to recover his religious faith.

    That religion seems so clearly to have a biological function that impacts the well being not only of the individual but also the group to which he or she belongs makes the crass atheism of Richard Dawkins all the more remarkable. The man is supposed to be a biologist, yet he is incapable of examining one of the most distinctive of human traits in the context of biology.

  4. David Brown says:

    Robin another superb article – however I am surprised you are an agnostic. In his recent book -The Magic of Reality- Dawkins explains that all the languages in the world originally came from one. Until people where spread out across the world and became separated from other groups. Over time the language changed, he says just as today’s English is descended from Middle English. Did the Welsh become so separated as to have such a different language?
    An alternative explanation – the story of The Tower Of Babel is not myth. God wipes the hard drive of people of their language program and install new softwear for each group. Out of this nations come into existence. Including of course England.

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