Good without god. An interview with Matthew Engelke

Johannes Lenhard & Jonas L. Tinius
August 5, 2015
"collage square I a" by lexly87 aka Duc N. Ly is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Prelude: The Good Life. A Series of Conversations.

The King’s Review is initiating a series of articles on The Good Life edited  by Jonas Tinius and Johannes Lenhard. This strand of conversations and  interviews with leading figures from different fields will provide a  cross-cultural and interdisciplinary perspective on what constitutes a  good life. It responds to what anthropologist Joel Robbins has  identified in his article ‘Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good’  (2013) as recently (re)emerging subjects of anthropological and social  science scholarship: well-being, imagination, empathy, care, hope, and  change. Moving beyond religious contexts of the good, and studies of the  techniques used to achieve a good life, social scientific research has  turned to non-religious aspects of the good life. What is different and  new about a secular conception of the good in contrast to a religious  one? What does the good life mean for Humanists, for example, and how do  their conceptions of it differ from evangelical Christians in Britain?  What is happiness for different peoples at different times – and how do  they imagine and enact its pursuit? This focus will open up both foreign  and familiar ideas of the good, wellbeing, and happiness and invite  readers both to explore unknown contexts of the good and reflect on  their own. As Max Weber reminds us in his classic essay on objectivity  (1949), even scientific observation is never separable from value  judgments, complicating analyses of the ‘good’ life. We might ask to  what degree it is therefore at all possible to analyse other peoples’  conceptions of the good without recognizing or questioning our own?

Good without God. An Interview with Matthew Engelke.

The focus of our first interview is the avowed rejection of Christian  conceptions of the good and the good life as articulated by British  Humanists. Yet it also addresses the relations between reason and faith,  happiness, and personal salvation. Matthew Engelke,  Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and  coordinator of the school’s Programme for the Study of Religion and  Non-Religion, has been conducting research with British Humanists for  several years, and in particular those in the British Humanist  Association—the most prominent ‘non-religious’ organization in the UK,  which has over 30,000 members and supporters. His perspective on their  conception and practice of the good life has benefited from two decades  of research on the connections between religion and culture, primarily  in Africa and Britain. He has done fieldwork on an African Church in  Zimbabwe and evangelical Christians in England. Throughout his work, he  has examined such issues as the importance of textual authority within  religious communities, the dynamics of conversion and belief, religion  and media, the role of religion in public life, and conceptions of the  secular. One of his early essays, The Problem of Belief  (2002), throws into relief some of the complications of observing  belief critically: does one need share a belief in the supernatural in  order to understand religious faith? Engelke’s work on Humanism in  Britain raises these questions in a starkly contrasting context, one  where the opposite dogma prevails. How do we understand a good life  without god?

1. You began your academic career writing about Christianity,  in part by discussing the questions of whether an anthropologist needs  to be religious to understand religion. How and why did you shift from  questions on religious belief to that of Humanism?

I was intrigued as a student by some of the arguments made by the  British social anthropologists E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner  about this issue—about whether, as Evans-Pritchard put it, being a  “believer” oneself allows for the appreciation of “another dimension” of  religion “as a factor in social life.” In one of his earliest (and  best) essays (Chihamba the White Spirit),  Turner is almost bolshie on this point, and takes quite a swipe at  Durkheim in this respect. For Turner, Durkheim’s reduction of religion  to the social was anathema. It was these particular interventions that  caught my attention.

I’m intrigued by these arguments (not least that they come from  converts to Catholicism such as E-P and Turner), but not convinced by  them in any way. I don’t doubt that being religious, or having beliefs  in the supernatural or numinous or what have you, affords certain  perspectives. But not privileged perspectives, or better perspectives.  At the same time, I wouldn’t say that being religious—being “other”  oneself, in relation to the secular norms of social science—means you  can’t study religion.

I could try to dress up the shift in my work from a focus on religion  to a focus on secular humanism with some grand claim about a  theoretical or conceptual arc that emerged out of my late-night  ruminations. But in fact, as with most fieldwork projects, I’d venture,  it was really down to circumstances and events. My PhD research was in  Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe fell apart. Meanwhile I had kids. (As a discipline,  anthropology faces many challenges: one of them is how to allow early  career researchers to be researchers and to be other things, such as  parents, at the same time.) A very good funding opportunity opened up at  LSE, where I teach. So I cooked up—I mean, carefully thought through—a  project on an important Christian charity based in the UK but with  long-standing connections to Africa, about which I first learned in  Zimbabwe. I got the funding. I did go to Africa twice for the project,  but couldn’t do long-term work there (cue the kids, and wanting to be  more than an anthropologist). In any case, the work of the charity here  in England was fascinating. Basically it had to do with public religion  and the dynamics of secularization. And that led on to the secular  humanists—quite naturally, because the Christians I was studying sparred  with humanists and “New Atheists” in various ways. That’s the real  story.

But there are conceptual threads in there, even some nice golden  ones. One of the big questions I want to address (over, say, the next  four decades) concerns the relationships between the religious and the  secular—their mutually constitutive relations, as many social scientists  would put it these days. I’m very interested at the moment in  people—like the humanists—who see themselves as children of the  (radical) Enlightenment, who want to live in, and make, a secular world  based on reason (with a capital R, actually) and the triumph of science  over and against religion. And in the long term, I want to tie my  fieldwork in a Western context to my fieldwork in an African context,  and tease out the ways in which the legacies and aftereffects (even  aftershocks) of the Enlightenment, modernity, and the colonial encounter  can tell us something, both conceptually and empirically, about  “religion” and “secularity.”

2. What have you learned about the idea of a ‘good life’ from  the study of Christianity? How can we define ‘good’ in this context?

I suppose the key thing is that the good life isn’t entirely about this  life. For the Christians I’ve studied, whether in Zimbabwe or England,  this world is not the end. I’m not really breaking ground in scholarship  by noting this point. But what is interesting is how that very distinct  temporal framing of “life” plays out in particular ways, how a triadic  relation—with God, with the world, with oneself—affects things. How it  shapes the character of “the good”.

In Zimbabwe, for example, and indeed more widely throughout Africa,  certain Pentecostal and related forms of Christianity articulate a  version of the good life that puts serious strains on kinship relations;  I’ve written about this  at length (as have many others). Being “good” might have to involve  missing your uncle’s funeral, because it’s conducted in a “traditional”  (read: demonic) way. And so your aunt—and cousins, and perhaps even your  mother—get angry and resentful. Such demands of goodness can be  negotiated and nuanced, of course—and often are. But the point is that  in Christianity, in many traditions of Christianity, being good doesn’t  necessarily have to involve being happy; happiness is not an end in  itself and it is not a virtue.

A corollary of this, of course, is that you can’t be good without  God. This isn’t exactly the same as saying that if you’re an atheist,  you’re going to be a horrible person. (Although in many instances, such  things have been said.) Rather, what it means is that, whether it gets  recognized or not, good comes from God, the good cannot exist, without God.

3. How does a good Christian life differ from a good secular life in Britain today?

Precisely in relation to the temporal framing of that life. The whole point of the humanist movement is that this is it: there is no afterlife, no triadic relation with a god or anything beyond. The motto of the British Humanist Association (BHA) is “for the one life we have.”

This gets us back to the point I made earlier about secular humanists  seeing themselves as children of the Enlightenment. What they  understand this to mean is that, after the Enlightenment—after the early  modern advances in reason, and science, and “daring to know” (Sapere Aude!,  writes Kant)—pleasure and satisfaction and meaning and well-being were  recognized for what they are: rights. And rights that can only be  realized through human efforts.

In essence, happiness became a virtue. Happiness became something we  should expect and want—not only something good or that “feels good” but  part of the good. Happiness became what I call a sign of the  secular. And the living out of this conclusion, by actual humanists here  in Britain, can be traced, genealogically and conceptually, through the  works of our historians. When you read any number of historians on the  Enlightenment—I’m thinking here in particular of Roy Porter, Darrin McMahon, Jonathan Israel—what  emerges as central to the constitution of modernity is what Porter  calls “the validation of pleasure.” No single thinker can serve as the  humanist’s poster child on this—there are elements of Bentham, of Mill,  of Voltaire, of Mettrie, and others (including, importantly, some  ancients, Epicurus and Aristotle, for example) but out of it all we get  to Bertrand Russell’s basic position, which is that “the happy life is  to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life.”

It’s not that the good life became synonymous with pleasure in the  narrow sense. Sometimes, being good is a tough slog. For the humanists I  got to know through my research, the hedonic is always subject to the  eudemonic. That is to say, chocolate comes second to justice. But the  hedonic can be rightfully embraced and celebrated—indeed, the hedonic  has positive ethical valences.

For the secular humanist movement, the slogan “good without god” has  long been important. And it follows on directly from what I’ve set out.  The kind of autonomy enlightenment brings—autonomy, of course, being  another key word in the Age of Reason—demands a human realization of the  good. Interestingly here, while Kant is very important, both directly  and indirectly, to modern secular humanists, these people are not, in  the main, moral absolutists. Their ethics is a virtue ethics, attentive  to the particularities of a situation and the relations involved. If I  can grossly simplify here, in their approach to ethics, it’s not (only)  what you conclude, but how you go about reaching your conclusions that  matters.

In terms of the temporal horizon, one important point to make is that  while the humanists do what they do “for the one life we have,” that is  not to say they don’t think of future generations. Members of the BHA,  at least, do not want to fire up more coal plants so we can crank up the  sound system and turn up the air conditioning at the party; they have a  strong sense of stewardship of the planet and with respect to their  children and grandchildren.

4. Is a good life an individual project, and what if it comes  into conflict with more collective notions of the good life, e.g. in  instances of martyrdom? How are such conflicts negotiated?

I don’t see how a good life can ever be thought of as “an individual  project.” It’s certainly never an individual project for any of the  people I’ve studied. It’s funny, this, because we often hear about how  both Christians and secular moderns are individuals, or that these  traditions have produced what we know today as individualism. And of  course there are ways in which the individual, or individuality, matters  greatly: personal salvation—the salvation of individuals—drives many  Christians; to be a secular humanist is to “think for yourself.” But I  don’t think this makes the good life an individual project: it depends  on others, on social relations, and on the realization of oneself  through and in others.

One way humanists narrate the good life is in the funerals they  provide. To be sure, these funerals are heralded by humanists because  they focus “on the person;” they focus on the details of a person’s life  and include lots of quirky details, right down to the choice of music.  The humanist celebrants who conduct these funerals say that their work  is different, that people come to them because they don’t want to have  the Anglican version, based on a liturgy in which a loved one’s name is  filled in the blank. (Most Christian funerals are not so depersonalizing  these days, but it’s certainly true that historically, the function of a  Christian funeral, and indeed ritual more generally, has been to  minimize the importance of specific persons and emphasize a  transcendental, timeless, extra-human order. Here too we also see how  Christianity’s relationship with “individualism” is not  straightforward.)

But at the same time, a humanist funeral, and its telling of a life,  is always about relations, and even often about how Nigel or Clare will  “live on,” quite literally, in some ways, through their children (genes  and all that), as well as people’s memories, and in those memories ought  to inspire everyone to do better, to live better. We may have lots of  Frank Sinatra playing in crematoria chapels these days, about doing it  “My Way.” And yet it’s not so simple as all that.

5. Where does inspiration for a good life come from if it  doesn’t emanate from Christian virtues? In other words, what are some  key non-religious virtues for the good life and where do they arise?  Where do people find them? And do you think they are, in the end, still  essentially Christian values dressed and named differently (fraternity,  equality, reciprocity)?

Well, as I mentioned briefly, I think happiness is a virtue for the  humanists I’ve studied: I think they see it as something that’s not only  about feeling good, but being good, and being a sign of the good, of  what a commitment to secularity can help bring about (that religion  cannot): Enlightenment. I’d say independence, or autonomy, is also a  virtue (but with the caveat from earlier about social relations and  connections), as is courage, in the Kantian-derived sense of daring to  know. Sincerity is a very strong secular humanist virtue: that’s why  they can’t just go along with the flow and have mild-mannered Anglican  vicars conduct their funerals. They take the words said at a funeral  very seriously (which again, is not something the anthropological record  necessarily always suggests is the norm).

This is difficult ground, though, because while we could limn some  specificities to, say, Christian renderings of virtues—be it justice, or  courage, or what have you—and while we could say that the modern  traditions of humanism emerge partly out of these, I don’t think that  means they’re “essentially Christian.” Of course there are historical  genealogies: so could we then say that Christian virtues are  “essentially” Jewish or “essentially” Hellenic? I don’t like gotcha  arguments: the kind of thing we sometimes see academics doing: oh, you think you’re so secular, but your commitment to sincerity is straight out of the Protestant reformation! I don’t think these arguments get us very far.

In terms of where people (and I assume you mean secular humanists  here) find them, they find them within themselves, through harnessing  the powers of reason, as they see it, given not by god, but by the  accidents and contingencies of evolution by natural selection. And they  find them through debate, and argument, and contemplation: humanists  love to talk, to argue, to have a good night at the pub trying to sort  something out. And in books, and in lectures, and in going on long walks  through the countryside.

6. What makes a secular good life in England different from  one in other parts of the world? How do you compare different ways of  being good without God around the world?

The short answer is, we don’t really know. We don’t really know in  part because it’s not always clear what makes a life “secular” in the  first place, even in as small a patch of the earth as England. And what  we do know comes largely from Western contexts (such as Colin B. Campbell’s 1971 classic study; Phil Zuckerman’s 2008 book, Societies without God and Lois Lee’s Recognising the Nonreligious; see also the Nonreligion and secularity Research Network’s website). This  gets back to the point, for me, about bringing my work in Africa and my  work in the West together. Can we talk about the secular in Africa, or a  secular life? I’ve explored this question in a preliminary way in a  recent article. And it’s one I want to get back to in more depth in the coming years.

This area needs a lot more social scientific attention. It’s getting  some: there’s been some really great work on rationalists and atheists  and other self-defined secular moderns in India, as explored by Johannes  Quack and Jacob Copeman  for example. Part of what stands out in this work, though, is how  influential certain traditions of Enlightenment rhetoric have been. I’ve  seen glimpses of this myself: at the 2014 World Humanist Congress in  Oxford, I heard a presentation from an Indian rationalist that sounded  exactly like what I’d heard at times in my research in London among  white, middle-class English humanists. And I was once privy to an  encounter between a very high profile, very famous New Atheist, and a  student from India, passing through London, who approached the New  Atheist the way a teenager might have approached the Beatles in 1965.  Does that mean there’s no difference between the constitution of a  secular life in England and in India? I doubt it. But in certain  respects, the rhetoric of secularity today plays down cultural and  historical differences in favour of a universal understanding of reason  and rationality.

But we need a longer answer and a better answer to your last  questions here. Happily, though, the work to address your questions is  picking up speed. So stayed tuned.


All by
Johannes Lenhard & Jonas L. Tinius