Sunday, February 10, 2008

Adam Smith Knew a Great Deal About the Role of Religion in 18th-century Scotland

I have replied to a comment by a reader of Economist's View on the matter of Adam Smith's expertise on religion and government in 18th century Scotland.

It is appended below:

Adam Smith lived in 18th century Scotland which was notable for the closest with which its established Church, the Church of Scotland, dominated much of society, and since the union of Scotland with England in 1707, the even stronger Church of England, which dominated social, political and moral life, loomed large in the intellectual life of the time and the daily lives of everybody.

Adam Smith was born in 1723 and the last person hanged for blasphemy was John Aitkenhead in 1697 (the last witch was burned in 1727).

Schooling and Scottish Universities were run mainly by ordained Ministers of the Church in both Scotland and England. Smith won a scholarship to Oxford University in 1740 to study to become an ordained member of the Church of England; he left without completing ordination in 1746, somewhat disillusioned with the divines who 'taught' at Oxford (prayers twice a day, and two poor lectures a week).

When he became a professor at Glasgow in 1751 he had to sign the Calvinist Confession of Faith in front of the University body at the Cathedral and teach orthodox religion as part of his Moral Philosophy course from 1752.

To show dissent, or even doubts, about religous interference in private or communal life was to invite severe retribution, as suffered by his friend David Hume.

Therefore he had very good reasons to have considered views on religion as practised in Scotland, with the local zealots (Scotland's Taliban) scrutinising everything any body said or worse, did. His published views on religion in Wealth Of Nations and Moral Sentiments were written carefully to avoid attracting attention and his views on encouraging as many separate churches as possible was his intelligent way of making the point: separate Church and State, and allow freedom of worship.

In this case the moral philosopher, who taught 'Natural Religion' in his classes, and moral conduct too, can be considered an authoritative voice in this subject.


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