The Place of Religion in the Culturist Vision

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John Campbell Shairp

John Campbell Shairp

John Campbell Shairp’s 1872 book, “Culture and Religion in Some of their Relations” launches the word “culturist.”  As such it has importance for the National Culturists.  But, even if Shairp’s book didn’t use this word, it touches upon a very important topic for all peoples of the West: the comparative place of religion and high culture in cementing our civilization – in our culturist practices.

In short, Shairp (1819 – 1885) argues that religion should predominate over culture as a national glue for England.  Therefore, he is fighting against “culturists,” or those who think we should prioritize culture over religion in elevating ourselves socially.

Shairp first targets Thomas Huxley’s (1825 – 1895) call to use science as the cement of our national culture.  Shairp dismisses the idea that religion and science clash; to search for the structure of the universe is to come to understand God.  So, he argues, scientists should not dismiss religion and religious people should study science.  And by making religion and science friends, religion can remain our dominant source of culturism.

 This theist ultimately dismissed Huxley’s culturist vision wherein science becomes our predominant cultural glue because science provides no moral guidance.  I think this critique fair. And, I fear that many in the West believe, paradoxically, that the universal vision of science should be the western source of unity.  But, Shairp quickly dismissed the idea that the ethically neutral vision of science could unite Britain.

Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888) is the ‘culturist’ that Shairp really had in mind when writing his book.   Taking on Arnold needs more attention because serious people really consider culture a potential glue for British culture.  And, Shairp sees merit in the culturist argument.  He agrees that the industrial revolution is killing Britain’s soul.  And, Shairp concedes that culture should help unite and guide us. Shairp only disagrees with putting culture ahead of religion.

The refined, lovely, spiritual, sentiments he and Arnold seek, Shairp argues, are better realized via religion.  The love of literature often spoils people’s ability to have real religious feeling.  Furthermore, the attainment of refinement via culture takes more time than the average worker has – religion is faster.  Moreover, studying culture, without a religious base, is apt to make people vain and anti-social rather than spiritual.

Thus, Shairp concedes that religious leaders should study high culture.  But clergy, rather than men of letters should guide public discourse because they can better provide society social and moral guidance via spiritual feeling. We need a theist, rather than a culturist emphasis.

Arnold did not directly respond to Shairp’s book.  But, he obsessed over the place of religion and culture in guiding society.   Arnold quite consciously saw himself as ministering in an era of religious decline. Famously, he said he walked between two worlds, “One dead, the other powerless to be born.”  Like Plato before him, he wondered how we might guide society while religion waned.

As such, would have asserted that the scientists’ attacks on religion are more important than Shairp realized.  He knew working men to be dismissive and resentful of the Church.  I think that true for us now.  Few of the people I know are devout.  So whatever its merits, social union through religion is no longer tenable.  This is the very reason that a culturist vision was needed.

As for culture making people anti-social, Arnold saw his self-cultivation as a part of a national project with historical roots.  In other words, we had a duty to each other, to our past, and our posterity to cultivate ourselves.  Arnold often repeated that we could not have social or individual perfection, while others languish.  Cultivation via high culture was a social, rather than a selfish act.

In fact, Arnold wished compulsory education laws passed and strengthened, so that all British people, of every class, might have culture and thereby glorify and uplift the British nation.

In fact, religious denominationalism was a major reason that all British people could not receive education.  Nonconformists did not want money from the State because that would mean accepting that the same funding would go to the Church of England.  And the fear was mutual.  As such, Arnold noted that doctrinal religion divided as often as it united Britain.  This made religion a harder sell as a source of national unity.

Arnold promoted a version of Christianity that understood it as literature.  This distanced people like Shairp, who thought it atheistic.  But, Arnold recognized that the emphasis on doctrinal metaphysics divided Christians from Christians.  It also turned off scientists and the working class.  Morals and beauty are the real essence of Christianity.  And, we can all unite behind these values.

Yet, whereas Arnold wished us to unite behind a modern version of the Bible, he did not think that was sufficient.   The Puritans, in particular, closing themselves off to all non-Biblical sources of culture, ignoring Shakespeare and Newton, left them bitter and diminished.  Theirs was a guide to the past, we needed all our national mental tools to flourish, personally and collectively, in the modern world.

The Bible, Arnold recognized, was a necessary cultural bond.  It taught morals in a way that poetry and culture could not.  Ultimately, however, the rise of secularism meant that the Bible would have to stand as a core literary masterpiece in a broader cultural canon if people were to take it seriously – if it was to be a source of unity.  Only this culturist formula, wherein both culture and religion were included – in a mode accessible to all – would allow us to bond via our past as we reached out to our future.

  • Paul Austin Murphy

    I am a culturalist. However, I’m an Englishman who’s not a Christian. I’m an agnostic. However, you can be a non-religious person and still accept the massive and vital impact Christianity has had on British and European life and culture. In addition, Christianity, unlike Islam, has allowed non-religious persons like me to flourish – at least at certain – but not all! – times. Above that, British and Western culture also owes much to non-Christians traditions; such as ancient Greek and Roman thought and culture. Christianity should not be the be-all-and-end-all of culturalism; as Islam is in Muslim countries/states and traditions.

  • John Press


    I agree with your statement. Matthew Arnold used to say western culture is grounded in “Athens and Jerusalem.” Besides the religious element, we have the Athens / Roman / Enlightenment angle.

    Protestantism, specifically, has been very important to the secular West. It was the reliance on individual conscience, as opposed to Catholic hierarchy and authority, that led to the Enlightenment and democracy.

    We must realize respecting individual thought is a very specific and hard -earned value, We can lose it. It is not, if you study history, the default vision of humanity. It is what the Athenians fought the Persians for. Had they lost that battle . . .

    Thank you, John

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