Good without God. An Interview with Matthew Engelke.

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?

Fibonacci, homo-ex-machina

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.

Fibonacci, homo-ex-machina


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.

Fibonacci, homo-ex-machina


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.


Matthew Engelke is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on the connections between religion and culture, primarily in Africa and Britain. Engelke is the author of two books. His writing has also appeared in numerous academic journals and edited collections, as well as on-line for the Guardian, the Times and Tate Modern, Public Books, and the Immanent Frame.

Johannes Lenhard is currently a post doctoral researcher at the Max Cam Center for the Study of Ethics, the Economy and Social Change at the University of Cambridge and a College Research Associate at King’s College, Cambridge. His work is focused on the intersection of alternative economics, social theory and the ethnographic study of homelessness and mental health. His new project is discovering the ethics of venture capital investing and is the current editor-in-chief of KR.

Jonas L. Tinius (PhD Cantab) is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), co-funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and based at the Department of European Ethnology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. He studied British and American Studies as well as social and cultural anthropology at the Universities of Münster (Germany) and Cambridge (UK). He completed his PhD on German theatre and political self-cultivation under the supervision of Prof James Laidlaw at the Division of Social Anthropology, King’s College, University of Cambridge (2012-2016). His current post-doctoral research explores how Berlin-based curators, contemporary artists, and art institutions engage with notions of alterity and otherness through critical curatorial strategies to reflect on German and European heritage and identities. He is editor of Anthropology, Theatre, and Development: The Transformative Potential of Performance (Palgrave, 2015, with Dr Alex Flynn, Durham) and convener of the Anthropology and the Arts Network within the European Association of Social Anthropologists (with Prof Roger Sansi, Barcelona). More information: www.jonastinius.com

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