Lecture One: Religion since Cicero

Professor Jeffrey Stout covered a lot of ground in his first lecture. This initial post consists of a longer summary than will appear in future posts. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion my colleague Nathaniel Gray Sutanto will be adding his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s first Gifford Lecture. Gray is currently a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Earlier this evening Professor Jeffrey Stout gave his opening lecture to a packed audience. At the turn of the twentieth century William James gave his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (published as Varieties of Religious Experience) and Stout related the theme of his own lectures to one of James’ lectures on the sick soul where James emphasizes cries of help as being at the core of the “religious problem.” Stout’s lectures aim to concentrate “on cries for help in the face of tyranny and oppression,” which have been, and continue to be, closely tied to various understandings of religion and embodied in various religious individuals and communities. More explicitly than many previous Gifford Lectures, Stout tied the content of his lectures to the abolitionist commitments of Lord Gifford himself.

Stout went on to further relate his lectures to the hope of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lord Gifford. They both recognized the inseparable and inevitable relation between religion and political action. The effects of religion in society can be good or bad depending on whether religion instills virtue or vice. As Stout stated, “Religion is good when it embodies the highest ideals we know. It goes bad when infected by injustice.” For example, the complicity of modern Christians in the slave-trade ought to be a cause for shame. Involvement in such injustices “bind religion to vice.” The hoped-for remedy of Emerson and Gifford “is not to secularize politics but to rectify religious attitudes and practices.” As Stout went on to say, “when religion abides by justice and liberty, rather than bowing to arbitrary power, it lifts each of us and promotes the common good.” He listed numerous examples of religiously motivated political activists who shared this hope:

William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Abraham Lincoln; David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglass; Margaret Fuller, José Martí, and John Muir; Mary Wollstonecraft, Lucretia Mott, and Jane Addams; Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X; Abraham Joshua Heschel, Thomas Merton, and William R. Johnson.

A common narrative posits a “Great Separation” between religion and politics in modern society. There have been various disputes regarding the nature and value of this separation. Stout, however, questions the adequacy of this narrative. As he said, “The disputes assume that a Great Separation in fact took place, that we know what it was, and that it set the terms in which politics was conducted where and while it lasted.” He then introduced the main question of his lectures, “How would our understanding of religion and politics have to change if the religious voices in egalitarian freedom movements were given their due?”

Stout stated that in these lectures he would provide a “historical, philosophical, and somewhat personal” answer. His interest in the relationship between religion and politics began as a teenager, through his participation “in the civil rights and anti-war movements.” The writers that he initially gravitated toward were Baldwin, King, Gandhi, and Emerson and they, all modern opponents of tyranny and oppression, had much to say about the distinction between “ethical, virtuous, or true religion” and “unethical, vicious, or false religion.” He struggled to reconcile the Great Separation narrative prevalent in much modern discourse in philosophy, political theory, and religious studies with the integration of religion and political action that these figures presented.

This is where the title of the first lecture, “Religion since Cicero,” begins to come into the picture. Modern understandings of the nature of religion and its relation to politics can be best illuminated by attending to the history of discourse on religion stemming back to ancient Rome.

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Religion has been understood in many ways and its value has been affirmed and denied. Stout mentioned that “Religion-talk can be as confusing as it is contentious. It requires philosophical clarification.” In these lectures Stout sets out to facilitate this clarification.

The first step in doing so is to recognize that “there is no such thing as the modern conception of religion to analyze, endorse, or vilify.” As he said, “Locke, Hume, Wollstonecraft, Marx, Emerson, Nietzsche, Pope Leo XIII, and Gandhi did not all have the same thing in mind when they spoke of religion.” Instead of talking about the modern notion of religion Stout proposes to “speak instead of the modern discourse of religion, meaning by this the many modern uses of a single vocabulary rooted in ancient Rome.”

Stout then moved on to talk about religion as a “dual character concept” and about the history of pre-modern discourse stemming from ancient Rome. Religion as a dual character concept refers to the neutral and value-laden descriptions of religion. On the one hand, “the Latin term religio is used” in a neutral manner “to discuss a wide range of topics” having to do with various religious practices, dispositions, and beliefs as they relate to political life. On the other hand, the term religio is used in a value-laden manner when religion (a moral virtue) is contrasted with superstition (a moral vice). These are two different ways of referring to the same phenomenon, where the value-laden manner makes a further distinction concerning how religion is being embodied and enacted. One could be a “true” practitioner of religion in the neutral sense but fail to be a “true” practitioner of religion in the value-laden sense if one is engaging in superstition; such a practitioner is thought to lack a certain exhibition of excellence in his or her religious practice. In his lecture Stout uses the English term “scientist” to illustrate this dual character. As Stout mentioned, “Many Roman writers alternate between neutral and value-laden ways of referring to acts, attitudes, dispositions, practices, obligations, roles, and institutions that are related in some way to divine worship and devotion.”

Cicero, according to Stout, conceived of religion “as an excellence conducive to the common good” and he closely “associated religion with the moral virtues justice and piety.” Cicero distinguishes religion as favorable to liberty from superstition as conducive to tyranny and oppression. Livy also closely associated the decline of virtuous religion with the rise of political vice. Although Seneca did not think that true religion could be tied to public worship, contrary to Cicero and Livy, he too still held to a positive notion of “true religion.” As Stout is sure to note, however, “not all evaluative uses of religio in ancient Rome were positive.” One of the most famous accounts of an inherently negative understanding of religion is found in Lucretius’ poem, On the Nature of Things, where religion is taken to be essentially oppressive and, therefore, ought to be overcome or left behind rather than properly cultivated.

Christians after Constantine did adopt these positive understandings of religion. Augustine, for example, speaks of the Christian religion as a moral virtue contrasted with various forms of Greek and Roman paganism, which were seen to be superstitious vice. Stout makes the significant claim that “the European Middle Ages were never as Christian, however, as Christian monarchs and prelates wished.” There were always dissidents and practitioners of other religions present who “resisted assimilation into what Christendom called true religion.” The medieval Church’s role in classifying such people as superstitious helped maintain religious unity, which was thought to be integral to the common good of society and necessary “to maintain and extend its hegemony.” According to Stout, “erasure of pre-modern difference is a disturbingly common plot device in books on religion and modern politics” and he went on to state that his “reason for not telling a story about the modern loss of an earlier religious harmony is that there was no such harmony to be lost.”

Stout then moved on to take a good portion of time discussing Thomas Aquinas’ positive conception of the virtue of religion. He does not introduce Aquinas’ thought to undermine previous statements about the prevalence of pre-modern difference in the European Middle Ages, nor to present Aquinas “as the hegemonic medieval view, but rather to use it as a baseline of comparison when discussing modern writers in this and later lectures.” Aquinas, according to Stout, uses the term religion in a dual character sense. Positive references to religion “have formative and expressive functions in a life of Christian virtue,” which furthermore provide “the soul fitting interior and outward means of expressing honor, veneration, reverence, and devotion to God.” Stout draws attention to the fact that Aquinas is indebted to “Cicero’s schema of cardinal moral virtues” (courage, temperance, practical wisdom, and justice), where religion and piety are taken to be “potential parts of justice.” Justice is most directly concerned with various forms of right relationships, where each “receives his or her due.” Many relationships concerning justice are reciprocal affairs (he uses an example of borrowing an axe from a neighbor to illustrate a symmetrical relationship, relationships among equals) but not all relationships are ones of “simple reciprocity.” Religion and piety are instances of justice in asymmetrical relationships of dependence (such as child’s relationship to parents or a creature’s relationship to the Creator). As Stout Further explains, “these virtues are concerned with what we owe to the sources of our existence and progress through life.” This positive sense of religion for Aquinas is both inherently good and inherently embedded in political life. Aquinas, like those before him, also differentiated the virtue of religion from the vice of superstition, where superstition is a “semblance” of the virtue of true religion. Superstition as the false semblance of religion can occur either through worshiping “what is unworthy” or by worshipping “God in an undue manner.” In other words superstition can occur within the neutral description of religion either by relating to the wrong object or in relating to the right object in the wrong way. In Aquinas’ account, however, true religion necessarily involves both a virtuous object and a virtuous mode of relating to the object, so true religion and superstition are incompatible by definition. As Stout mentioned, superstition “has the same relation to true religion that counterfeit money has to legal tender, or that climate change denial has to true science.”

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Having addressed Aquinas’ account Stout then moved on to talk about modern uses of religion-talk. He stated that a diverse group of modern (non-Thomist) writers all took true religion to be virtuous. Piety and justice were again united and distinguished from superstition. As he stated, “Most of them explicitly described it as a virtue of properly acknowledged dependence and remarked on the ethical and political significance of its formative and expressive functions.” Like the ancient context, however, Stout acknowledges that not all modern conceptions of religion are positive. As he noted,

Baron d’Holbach, Robert Owen, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Freud, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Gloria Steinem, and Bill Maher have largely used the term pejoratively, in accordance with the Lucretian precedent

Many moderns do hold to the belief that religion is essentially oppressive.

Machiavelli, despite earlier interests in Lucretius, ends up landing closer to Livy. One reason being that “he wanted to use the contrast between true religion and its semblances in explanations of good and bad outcomes.” For Machiavelli, according to Stout, religion cultivates and maintains “good men,” and its religious practices ought to remain free of corruption (such as illegitimate appeals to oracles or scriptures in order to enhance one’s power in political affairs) lest the republic become corrupt as well. As Stout states, according to Machiavelli “moral corruption, often in the form of avarice, is a greater threat to the commonwealth than false belief.”

Stout goes on to discuss various “republican admirers” of Machiavelli such as Baruch Spinoza, James Harrington, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other modern republicans who likewise emphasize the political importance of true religion. Stout contends that “republicanism is largely missing from most overviews of religion and modern thought,” one effect of this absence being the “false impression, now widespread among academics, that there is something worth calling the modern conception of religion, according to which religion is essentially or ideally a private matter to be screened out of public life to the extent possible.”

Stout then moved on to engage David Hume. Hume granted that true religion is inherently good, but was skeptical of its widespread existence and of established religion’s ability to instill this virtue; the reception of true religion is, for Hume, only available to true philosophers. Hume adds another dimension to the corrupt forms of religion when he speaks of enthusiasm alongside superstition, which he also “viewed Parisian atheism” to be beholden to.  At this point Stout referenced the work of Thomas Ahnert to draw our attention to the largely religious dimensions embedded within and around the Scottish Enlightenment. In doing so he draws out two concerns of the movement. First, it was centrally interested in “setting right the morally formative function of religion.” Second, it was largely suspicious “of speculation’s tendency to distract a thinker from the demands of living well.” Stout ends this section of his lecture asking, “If the Enlightenment era didn’t achieve a Great Separation of religion from politics, what account should we be giving?”

Stout begins to end this first lecture by looking to the ideal of ethical religion. He returns to Emerson and Gifford and speaks of their refusal to view enthusiasm to be inherently vicious, as Hume did. In contrast, Emerson and Gifford hold that enthusiasm has been a central component in virtually every conceivable beneficial movement in human history. The Gifford Lectures may be devoted to natural theology “in the widest sense of that term,” and the lecturers might be encouraged “to treat their subject as a strictly natural science,” but Stout concludes that based on Lord Gifford’s committed abolitionist stance he could not have intended this to “mean value-free inquiry.”

He closes out his first lecture with reference to Harriet Martineau, who encouraged Emerson to join the abolitionist movement, who in turn influenced Lord Gifford. For Martineau, religion is inherently moral and it is an inevitable part of human existence. The task is “to distinguish its corrupt from its true forms” and the only way to go about doing that is to “assess its fruits” by taking the time to discern what the current moment demands of us.

4 thoughts on “Lecture One: Religion since Cicero

  1. In Stout’s 2004 book, Democracy and Tradition, he called for the preservation of democracy precisely as a tradition that encouraged the public exchange of claims and reasons. Religious voices should feel free to expound on their theological reasons as deeply as they could while nonreligious voices, too, should engage in a philosophically honest manner. Real dialogue requires exactly this, and insofar as a silencing of those reasons take place, a genuine understanding cannot arise. The call for neutrality advocated by Rawls and Rorty, on the one hand, and the traditionalism of Millbank, Macintyre, and Hauerwas, on the other, both ironically assume the ever-widening gap between religion and public reason. By way of immanent criticism, Stout argued that Rawls and Rorty fail to account for the explicitly theological motivations of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., while the traditionalists, likewise, can’t account for the very modern and democratic conditions that allowed the inclusion of their voices in today’s public discourse. By acknowledging the mutual dependence of each other and the influence of both voices in a pluralistic society, Stout called for a fruitful exchange of accountability so that a greater understanding can emerge. This lecture series, it seems, falls straight in line with this broader project.

    The secularization theory has fallen on hard times in recent years. The thesis that somewhere between the Enlightenment and contemporary times religion began receding, held captive within private spheres, while secularized vocabularies overtook public discourse has been challenged. This narrative fueled a popular conception that implies that religious motivations should be left out of the public exchange of reasons as part of an archaic and distant past. Likewise, those traditionalist voices that sought to recover a religious form of discourse from the current secularist canopy, too, have been nurtured by the impulse that a recovery was necessary in the first place. In other words, the narrative fueled both secularists and traditionalists alike by reporting that a separation between religion and the public sphere really did take place. Traditionalists harken a jeremiad that call for a return to public faithfulness; secularists seek to secure the gap between public reason and private religion. Both of these calls presupposed the occurrence of the gap. Stout challenges that a gap ever emerged in the first place.

    Stout’s lecture began with the observation that Lord Gifford made himself: religion had always been an influence on public life and is in fact essential to its very nature. The impact on public life depended on whether the religion was positive or negative, and each religion should be assessed precisely on those terms: its moral effects. Surveying the literature from ancient Rome to the present day, Stout demonstrates the religion had always been a force for public and social change. The debate to be had, then, is not whether religion should be kept out of the public sphere, but in how it might. The Enlightenment, too, though it introduced and popularized negative uses of the word religion, never eliminated the predominantly positive and explicit uses of religion in philosophical and literary discourse. By attending to the voices omitted in the predominant narrative of the gap, in the likes of Gandhi, King, Wilberforce, or Malcolm X, Stout showed that religion is here to stay and in fact can – and has been – a vehicle for social change.

    This is an important narrative that provides resources that should allow for a genuine dialogue that is often clouded by the current tropes of opposition and heated rhetoric. Contrary to popular opinion, religion is not necessarily a pejorative that symbolized the hindering of progress or of ideological isolation, and voices for public reason are not necessarily motivated by anti-theological deviancy. Edinburgh’s Mona Siddiqui, a professor in Muslim-Christian relations, argued that one of the salient purposes for the discipline is to foster the emergence of better forms of disagreements that avoid a mere ‘dialogue on the surface’ between the two major world religions. In other words, for a fruitful conversation to occur, the facts of plural voices and real disagreements have to be faced in all of their particularities while exploring ‘mutually shared experiences’. Stout’s emphasis should help erode the potentially paralyzing rhetoric of traditionalists and secularists alike, allowing both sides to expose explicit claims and norms that can actually assess each other with full accountability – the moral effects of religion. Rather than pretending as if religion is no longer present, both sides can begin to dialogue in a manner that acknowledges the rightful places of both on the basis of real public grounds that does not flatten out the difference. There are still questions to be had, of course: surely the Enlightenment did shift the terms of debate concerning religion in significant ways, and surely the present conditions hampered appeals to divine revelation in a way that it might not have in the past. But this trajectory, it seems, is a generative way to go in the present climate.

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  2. Professor Stout gave a most engaging first lecture but I was disappointed that he gave it mainly from a European/ Western perspective implicitly equating religion as some form of Christianity. It was from an historical platform focused on Roman antiquity and enlightenment philosophy and I look forward to his marrying this up with contemporary religion and politics. The separation of these entities may not have applied to Tutu, King and Gandhi but modern politicians like May, Farron and Blair who declare themselves Christians do not perceive that being involved in politics means explicitly expressing their faith. Religion “defined” thus, the same could not be said of politics. Are “religionists” only to be involved in clear cut single moral issues like slavery or more grey areas like taxation? He said we should be motivated by “love” as distinct from being “nice”. Appearances can be deceptive as modern day perceptions of Machiavellian spin in politics as appearing to be good rather than being good as in photo calls in schools/ hospitals by politicians. Nothing is clear cut, not even climate change as the issue is not that it is happening but whether and to what degree it is man made and to what extent we can make real changes to alleviate the consequences.

    This was a most enlightening lecture on the history of the interaction between religion and politics and I look forward to the development of this theme.

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    • Thanks to Andrew Johnson for running this blog and for his detailed summary of my first lecture.

      Nathaniel Gray Sutanto is right to discern a connection between the present lecture series and my 2004 book ‘Democracy and Tradition’. He is also right to point out that ‘the Enlightenment did shift the terms of debate concerning religion in significant ways.’ The real question is how. I intend to sketch an answer to that question in Lecture Three on Thursday afternoon, 4 May.

      Jamie Knight confesses some disappointment that I am speaking “mainly from a European/ Western perspective implicitly equating religion as some form of Christianity.” I’m a little disappointed by the disappointment. Given that I am tracing politically inflected religion-talk as it has actually developed, I have to focus on cultural contexts where this particular vocabulary arose (ancient Rome) and spread (first in Western Christendom and then, during the early modern period, elsewhere). The concept of religion is the product of a particular cultural tradition. When Christians have used the concept, they have done so on the basis of their own theological, ethical, and political assumptions. By the time modern Jews, such as Spinoza and Durkheim, adopted the concept for their own purposes, they had to take account of Roman and Christian precedents for applying the term. It is impossible to do contextually sensitive conceptual history without focusing primarily on people who actually used the relevant terminology. So there is no real reason to be disappointed. Religion-talk has Latin roots. It is a product of Western European culture. It was not a vocabulary that had exact analogues elsewhere — until Western Europeans carried it elsewhere by imperial and evangelical means.

      I myself do not equate true religion with Christianity, and neither did Spinoza, Durkheim, Emerson, or Gandhi. But Thomas Aquinas did. And so did Las Casas, Savonarola, Milton, and Wilberforce. I am not adopting the perspective of the Christians I am talking about. But I am trying to explain what that perspective was and why the spread of religion-talk during the era of modern imperialism had the massive effects it had.

      Are all of the political issues addressed by the proponents of ‘ethical religion’ clearcut? I wouldn’t say so. Taxation is not clearcut. But it is connected in various ways to concerns about domination. Domination occurs whenever one person or group is in a position to exercise power arbitrarily over another. It is the result of a power imbalance so severe that weaker persons or groups are left at the mercy of powerful persons or groups. Disparities of wealth or income contribute the existing power imbalances in contemporary societies, all the more so in countries where regressive taxation policies and deregulation have made possible a massive transfer of wealth to the top one percent of the top one percent. What should be done about this is not a simple question. But it is a pressing moral question–perhaps as weighty for our era as chattel slavery was a couple of centuries ago. And coalitions of religious and secular citizens are currently forming to address it.

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      • First of all thank you for replying to my concerns/disappointment. I take your point that in your research (my searching) we have to start somewhere in place and time for the origin of politics and religion. We are all prisoners, though, of our cultural upbringing inclusive of class, ethnicity,economics as well as religion. As to politics, and particularly democracy, Europe/Greece may be said to be its birthplace and through its evangelisation the globalisation of today, but again political systems take many forms. As for “true” religion it has as many forms too as there are faithful people. Ethical religion I equate with Eudaimonia or human flourishing for all people. I am with Socrates/Plato that no one does wrong knowingly. Apologies for my simplistic comments/viewpoints but I get little opportunity to interact with academia and important issues of the day. Thank you again for taking the time to reply and I look forward to the rest of your lectures.


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