Themes in This Course
Three themes will weave their way through the course work.
2. Church and State
3. The ‗Other‘
Dis-integration refers to an important theme in modern western
society, more usually labelled secularisation (or sometimes ‗de-
christianisation‘, especially in the French-speaking world).
Church and State refers to the ongoing dance between
organised religion and the structures of the state (government,
bureaucracy, schools, etc.), and involving a comparison between
the different nations presented in the course.
The Other refers to how religion interacts with those who are
culturally, religiously, ethnically different than a dominant
religion. This is found most obviously when Europeans come into
contact with indigenous cultures in North America, but also is
seen in the interactions between ethnic groups - in Europe and in North America after European
settlement. If one function of religion is to bind together, how does this operate where different religions
and ethnicities exist within the same country, or place?
There will be some units where these themes are explicitly discussed, but all will be there, at least
implicitly in every unit. Introduction to the Course
The true and adequate end of intellectual training is not learning or acquirement, but rather is thought
or reason exercised upon knowledge...
(John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1959 (originally
1852), p. 160)
Welcome to HIST2260DE, Religion and Society in the Modern World. I need to present a few basic
concepts about this course before we plunge into its waters.
Firstly, this is an historical look at the often complex — but sometimes simple (never underestimate the
presence of simplicity!) — relationship between religion and society. The word ‗modern‘ in the course
title might ‗throw‘ you. It does not mean ‗modern‘ as commonly understood, but is used as academic
historians utilise this idea. For historians, the modern world began approximately in the 15th century —
that is, in the mid to late 1400s. The modern world is often dated to the introduction of printing
technology to western Europe in the 1450s. This degree of specificity merely illustrates an overall
cultural change which had even older and deeper roots that are beyond the reasonable limits of this
course. All you need to know here is that modernity begins in this period, and thus this course does also.
Modernity as a concept has supplied much fun for philosophers in debate, but for our purposes refers
only to this historical era, 1450–present, and to changes in Western religion in this period.
Two other concepts need to be clarified also, which might seem obvious: ‗religion‘ and ‗society‘. The root
of the word ‗religion‘ is uncertain, but seems to be the Latin verb ‗religare‘, which means ‗to tie or fasten
together‘. The fact that our English word ‗religion‘ comes from a verb is indicative of the essence of religion, which is an activity: something one does. Religion for much of human history referred to the
public practice of communal rituals which tied society together, usually around a belief in some
supernatural force or essence. I say ‗usually‘ because there are some religions which do not subscribe
to supernatural beliefs. In Western terms, however, religion means and has always meant specific
systems of belief, regularised in institutions, with rules for membership, ritual practices, and leadership
structures, but also encompassing spirituality at its core. As this course focuses on the religion of
ordinary believers, as well as these institutional structures, this understanding of religion will be used.
You might say we will look at two aspects: religio and spiritus — the first referring to the formal,
organised, institutional face of religion, and the second referring to the individual experience of
spirituality which occurs within these religions.
The term ‗society‘ as in the course title may seem even more obvious, but has its nuances also. This
course borrows from anthropology and sociology in defining this term. That is, society is understood in
cultural terms as the practices and beliefs of humanity living in community. Religion is one of these
elements of culture, so this course is a twelve-week consideration of the role of this one cultural element,
religion, within society more broadly considered. Specifically, this means we will look at the relationship
between religion and government, religion and ethnicity, religion and class or social orders, religion and
contact with other cultures, religion and war, religion and a sense of local community — and any other
aspects which might arise in discussion.
Finally a few words about the geographical scope of the course: This is a study of religion and society in
the Western, and more specifically the Atlantic, world. The focus is on the British Isles (England, Wales,
Scotland, Ireland) and North America (Mexico, the United States, Canada). We leave out, only because
of time constraints, regions such as the smaller islands off the coasts of Britain and Ireland (Isle of Man,
the Shetlands, etc.) and off the coasts of North America (the Caribbean, most notably). We also look
briefly at continental Europe (the German-speaking lands, and France, Spain) in order to provide a
background for the alterations in religion which begin formally in the year 1517 (though with much deeper roots), and in order to understand the cultures exported to North America. The most important
result of this geographical limitation is to limit the religious scope of the course primarily to Christianity,
and to Western Christianity. We will look briefly at Eastern Christianity where it affects North America,
and at Judaism, and pre-contact North American religion. In the final section of the course, there will be
some discussion of what are labelled ‗New Religious Movements‘, or NRMs, which are reactions to
A brief note on dates
Today, out of a feeble attempt to provide a dating system with no western cultural baggage, you will
most often see the suffixes BCE, or CE added to dates - this year for example, being 2013 CE. These
stand for Before the Common Era, and the Common Era. I say ‗feeble‘, because this system is still the
old B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini - in the year of Our Lord) system devised by Christianity
and based on the traditional (though inaccurate) guess at the year of Christ‘s birth, which was called the
year 1. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. A properly neutral date-system
would require starting over again, with a neutral reference as Year 1. For the Chinese, Muslims, Jews
and many others this is not the year 2013, no matter what letters you put after the date. So you can use
either system, but I will be obstinately outmoded and use the B.C./A.D. system in the course.
Setting the Stage: Traditional Religion, a Brief History
As many of you have no background in history, or in religious history, here is a very brief history of
religion in Europe to give you the foundations for this course.
Refer to this map to make better sense of this history.
http://www.ucalgary.ca/~vandersp/Courses/maps/basicmap.html An ancient empire based on the city of Rome had expanded to include all the lands bordering on the
Mediterranean Sea, as well as northwestern Europe by the Year 1. This is also approximately the date
Jesus Christ was born. His preaching and teaching occurred entirely within the modern area of Israel
and Palestine, then controlled by Rome. He gathered a small group of followers, entirely Jewish at first,
who carried on his teaching, usually to different synagogues situated throughout the Roman world
(though there is some evidence this movement also spread to Jewish communities outside the Roman
Empire, as far as India).
The Christian movement grew gradually, and was persecuted occasionally because Christians often
refused to take part in public religious rituals that the Romans considered essential. It spread first among
the poor, various outsiders, and women. But it began to spread also to the military, and to the civil
service of Rome. By 313, Christianity was embraced by the emperors and officially tolerated. It soon
became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and was closely intertwined with the Roman imperial
administration. Rome, by the late 300s, began to decline, particularly in its western provinces (Italy,
western North Africa, Spain, France, Britain). Christian bishops began to take on more and more
administrative authority in these regions as secular administration fell apart. There are many reasons for
and many debates among historians about why this happened. One notable fact was the gradual
migration of Germanic tribes into the territory of the western Roman Empire. Sometimes they invaded
violently, other times they settled as immigrants. The impact, however, was the gradual dissolution of
central authority from the city of Rome. The eastern provinces came to be ruled from the city of
Constantinople (now Istanbul), with their own ‗Roman‘ emperor (Constantinople‘s official name was New
Rome). Christianity in the east remained a part of the empire until that part fell in 1453.
In the West, the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) was the only remaining central power. This power was not
‗power‘ in a military sense, however, but in terms of moral persuasion and because of a memory of
authority coming from the city of Rome. The reality was a small central Italian state governed by the
Popes, but usually knocked about by more powerful military states surrounding it. The Popes, realising this, aligned themselves with whatever power was strongest in each era. Thus, in the 600s, the eastern
Empire re-conquered large parts of Italy, so the Popes looked to the emperors at Constantinople for a
while. Then, different tribes controlled Italy for a while, until the rise of Charlemagne in Germany by 800.
He then protected Rome and the Popes. When he died, the Popes allied themselves with another rising
power, the Franks (a German-speaking tribe) who controlled most of modern-day France. This was the
beginning of Catholic France. By 1500, Eastern Europe was dominated by Islam, as was North Africa.
Christians there existed in a degree of peace and security, although as second-class citizens in Muslim
lands. The West was divided into regions dominated by monarchies — not yet places with a sense of
nationality as today, though this was beginning. There existed the beginnings of England, France, Spain,
but Germany was divided into literally hundreds of independent states. All the residents of these areas
thought of themselves as part of something called Christendom — a spiritual and psychological
construct with no, or very little, political reality.
The World of 1500 — or at least, Western Europe
Usually in religion courses you memorise lists of dogmas and doctrines which define that particular faith
or religion — in this course I want you to get a sense of the experience of religion for believers and
practitioners (NOT NECESSARILY THE SAME!)
By 1500, western Europe was recognisable to us, except that Germany and Italy were not united nation-
states but rather were collections of smaller countries speaking the same language (although often with
different dialects) — but they did fall into broad cultural areas. Virtually all the people of western and
northern Europe were Roman Catholic. There were small, often persecuted communities of Jews within
this area, and other varieties of Christians elsewhere in the world: in Russia, and in what is now Greece
and Turkey and the Middle East, there were Eastern Orthodox Christians; and farther east in what is
now Iraq, Iran, India and to the south in Africa there were yet other varieties of Christian. But these were all isolated through political and cultural change from each other — and from Western Catholic
Christians. There was a strong awareness of the existence of Islam — in fact, Christians were at this
point an embattled people, surrounded by enemies and of little consequence militarily or politically to the
world at large. Only much later, with European control of the Americas, do we begin to see eastern and
western Christians mingling in North America especially and — much, much later — Indian and African
Christians coming to the Americas. And only with this expansion do we begin to see a triumphalist
Christianity spread around the world.
This was an organic, unitary society. Ordinary people not only spoke a multitude of languages, they had
a multitude of local folk customs, connected to religion. Travel was, for most, rare — except when going
on pilgrimage. Pilgrims travelled routes to local shrines of saints, or to major shrines of important saints,
and sometimes to Rome or even to Jerusalem.
Click here for a modern revival of one of the most popular mediaeval pilgrim routes.
Well-educated people (academics) who were almost always priests or monks (and very rarely nuns)
spoke a common language — Latin. The language of liturgy in the Church was Latin also. This did not
present a problem for ordinary people.
This was a society which was largely oral, rather than literate, and one which was sensual, that is,
focused on the feel and sense of experience and material objects. The Mass, the chief liturgy o