by Emily Simpson*
On Thursday November 21, Oregon State’s School of History, Philosophy, and Religion was privileged to welcome esteemed scholar of American religious history Jon Butler as part of the Horning Lecture Series. His presentation God in Gotham is an interesting re-interpretation of the relationship between religious and secular aspects of life in New York City between the 1880s and 1960s. He provides a variety of evidence to upturn the common idea of New York City’s standing as the capital of American secularism–from the culture of various religious communities, changes in immigration patterns, to the prominence of well-known religious architecture within the city.
New York City is a critical example of a fundamental problem that Dr. Butler sees in interpreting the history of religion. How do we draw strict lines between what is a secular age and what is a religious age? To argue against the notion that the world of religion has fallen to secular society, Dr. Butler first re-evaluates the state of harmony that we often see when Western religious influence was at its peak-the medieval period. According to Dr. Butler, there has never been a point in history where religion was not a disputed issue. The total unity of ideas within medieval society is a myth.
Similarly, there was no point at which Western religion fell apart. It was always a disjointed, highly contested, evolving, and changing entity. It still is. Dr. Butler asks, “Is 1960 New York City the same as twelfth century Italy?” He immediately answers, “ No of course not.” Religions change. However, according to Dr. Butler, the prominence and role of religion does not necessarily change as drastically as it may seem to those who make clear distinctions between secular and religious perspectives. With this in mind, is it possible that instead of representing the pinnacle of secularism New York City is actually a religious, even a sacred city? How do you locate the religious pulse of a community? How do you define a city’s religious culture?
According to Dr. Butler, religion has not cleared out of American cities to make way for the modern secular world of progress and skyscrapers. Modern religion is not more or less important in daily life than it was in previous eras. It just looks different. According to Dr. Butler…
“Life changes, religion changes.”
God in Gotham gives valuable insight in rethinking common distinctions in history that often seek to define something as either falling into the religious or the secular category. Perhaps faith and reason are not as diametrically opposed as it sometimes seems. In addition to an interesting set of ideas and analysis, the opportunity to learn about the writing process from a veteran historian and educator is an invaluable experience. From a student’s perspective, Jon Butler is a wealth of valuable advice- from the positive outcomes of collaboration with friends, the perils of leaving a project unfinished for too long, and the potential repercussions involving the overuse of colons in paper titles (Sorry Dr. Butler).
*Emily Simpson is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Oregon State University