Note: This post is part of a series of exposés by ISHS members on what attracts them to heresy, blasphemy, or unbelief as a subject of study. We encourage everyone to respond to the exposés in the comments section. If you are an ISHS member and would like to write an exposé, please contact us.
Doctoral Candidate, Lehigh University (Bethlehem, PA)
In 1592 an English Jesuit priest by the name of Robert Persons wrote of a secret “School of Atheism.” Various writers, statesman, and scholars were identified with this heresy that was more often feared than visible. Supposedly centered around the courtier, poet, and explorer Walter Raleigh, the “school” included the astronomer and New World colonist Thomas Harriot, the playwright George Chapman, and Christopher Marlowe who was already largely associated with his ominous “Dr. Faustus.” In a society that was permeated with religious faith atheism seemed impossible and in many ways may have actually been impossible. Despite this, the threat of non-belief, of heresy, and of blasphemy were very real to a man like Persons who was himself exiled from England for deviating from his society’s current orthodoxy. While most modern scholars think that such a school’s existence was apocryphal, an academic a century ago renamed the supposed society with a line from Shakespeare: “Black is the badge of hell/The hue of dungeons and the school of night.” Whether it existed or not, the idea of a “School of Night” exerts a profound power, one that should not be dismissed simply because it may not be a historical reality.
In many ways what first attracted me to my field of scholarly interest – sixteenth and seventeenth century British and American religious literature – was how modern it seemed. This may seem counter-intuitive. What could be more distant to our contemporary moment than the obscure religious debates of Calvinists and Arminians, political arguments between Puritans and Royalists, violence between iconoclasts and Laudians? Yet since the turn of our century it has become increasingly clear that how we comprehend our own modernity and secularity needs to be revised. Religion returned to the world of global politics in the past generation with the rise of radical Islam, the disturbing engagement of fundamentalist Christianity in civil politics and even seemingly secular movements that at their core used theological language. All of this indicated that religion had never really left; it had just been sleeping, generating dreams and nightmares all the while. As the philosopher John Gray wrote, “Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion.” It is clear that political theology is not just an aspect of the sixteenth and seventeenth century but of the twenty-first as well.
For half a generation academics have been having a discussion about a “turn towards religion.” One sees more panels on religion and literature at conferences, there are more monographs and dissertations produced on religious issues, and there is an increasing dialogue between critical theory and religion. More frequently “religion” as a category is not simply reducible to dogma or faith; it is increasingly understood alongside the other members of the Cultural Studies “Holy Trinity” of race, class, and gender. This is an unequivocally good development. And yet much more could be done to better integrate discussions of religion into the academic sphere. Though of course excellent work is done at them, many academic organizations that are solely devoted to the study of religion often still have a doctrinal or creedal origin and in more secular-minded organizations the presentation of studies of religion are still sometimes viewed suspiciously. While the “turn to religion” has been positive in that religious identity is no longer subsumed in a larger theoretical category, there can still be a tendency to not acknowledge the complete variety and significance of religion, there can be a knee-jerk reaction that tends to always see it as having to do with something else. And while there is a benefit to the increased attention paid to religion in the popular press, both adherents to religious traditionalism and the so-called “New Atheists” do little to give the subject its full due. And let’s be clear that religion isn’t just about “faith,” or being “religious.” Heresy, blasphemy and atheism are not the opposites of orthodoxy, indifference is.
We must expand our definition of what constitutes religion beyond faith, dogma, and ritual. It must be acknowledged that if theism and orthodoxy are religious subjects then so are atheism and heresy. Indeed it could be said only partially tongue in check that blessed are the heretics, blessed are the blasphemers, and blessed are the atheists. What’s needed is a new School of Night. Like the old School of Night (whether it existed or not….) it would be a place for those who do not define the work they do in terms of any of the conventional categories, but also a place for anyone who wants to take part in the conversation. It would be an institution that takes faith, and the lack of it, on its own terms. I think that the International Society for Heresy Studies could be a new School of Night, and I’m proud to be contributing to its founding.