Staff Spotlight: Felicity Loughlin

Blog written by Dr Felicity Loughlin. Dr Loughlin is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of St Andrews, where she is working on the ‘Learning & Unbelief’ strand of the After the Enlightenment project. Her research and teaching interests lie in the intellectual, cultural and religious history of Scotland and Europe, c.1650–c.1850.

I came to St Andrews as a postdoctoral Research Fellow in September 2018. I’ve spent over two happy years here as part of the After the Enlightenment project team. Before that, I was a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, where I wrote my thesis on the Scottish Enlightenment’s fascination with ‘pagan’ (non-Abrahamic) religious cultures. I’m now working on transforming my thesis into my first book, The Scottish Enlightenment Confronts the Gods: Paganism & the Nature of Religion.

More generally, I’m fascinated by the history of religious belief, which has profoundly shaped how individuals view the world and their place within it. I’m especially interested in how religious thought and ideas about religion have contributed to long-term patterns of intellectual and cultural change. Joining the After Enlightenment project has allowed me to pursue these interests in the context of nineteenth-century Scotland.

The project aims to explore Scottish intellectual life, c.1789–1843, reconstructing the legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment’s debates in three fundamental areas: natural philosophy, political economy, and religion. My contribution belongs to the religion strand and focuses on unbelief. Working with a variety of colourful material (anti-infidel apologetics, freethinking newspapers, court records, catalogues of infidel bookshops, and scientific, literary, theological, and historical writings), my research seeks to answer several interlocking questions. What did unbelief mean in the early nineteenth century? How far did unbelievers continue the religious debates of the Scottish Enlightenment? In what ways did they take unbelief in new directions? And how did infidelism, and the civil and ecclesiastical responses it elicited, transform the Scottish religious landscape?

Pamphlet produced in 1824 by the Edinburgh Freethinkers’ Zetetic Society, found in the National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh. Credit: Felicity Loughlin

Strikingly, unbelievers are at present almost entirely absent from existing historiography on nineteenth-century Scotland. Yet from the 1820s, unbelievers of various stripes – including sceptics, deists, and atheists – acquired unprecedented visibility in Scotland’s urban communities. Freethinking societies were formed in numerous towns and cities, attracting hundreds of members from the middling and lower classes, and infidel bookshops appeared in Glasgow and Edinburgh, prompting the last blasphemy trials in Scottish history. Numerous scientific and literary works were also accused of endorsing or fomenting unbelief, including the writings of the phrenologist George Combe (1788–1858), the writer Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), and the publisher Robert Chambers (1802–71). Christian thinkers engaged actively with the perceived rise of unbelief, responding diversely with abhorrence, qualified respect, or sympathy. Strikingly, shared commitment to issues such as freedom of speech, ultimately led to tentative alliances between certain religious and non-religious groups. Debates on religion were often framed in highly emotive language, and I’ve recently become especially interested in probing the emotional as well as intellectual factors that determined changing belief positions and relations between believers and unbelievers.

Outside of work, I very much enjoy walking along the coastal and forest paths of the beautiful Fife countryside. I’m also an enthusiastic (if rather unskilled) knitter, an activity that became particularly attractive in the cold winter months. A great advantage of living in the vicinity of St Andrews is proximity to its excellent selection of cafés, and I very much look forward to partaking of their tea and cakes once again when they reopen!

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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