Is Britain a Christian Nation?… Is the Pope a Catholic?
There is a fatuous debate going on in the United Kingdom at the moment over whether we should describe our country as Christian. It was started by Prime Minister David Cameron when he wrote that we should be more “confident about our status as a Christian country”. Since then politicians, bishops, scientists and prominent atheists have merrily pitched in.
Of course we are a Christian country. Christianity and Christian values are ingrained in our culture, social customs, laws and political institutions. Christianity has inspired our music, our literature and our art. Even for Britons of other faiths, Christianity is a backdrop against which they practice their religion, because its physical and behavioural manifestations are everywhere.
I speak as someone who was brought up as a Christian but whose participation in organised religion faded at the age of 15 – the year in which I was confirmed into the Church of England. Given that I have struggled to find a relationship with God, does that make me an atheist or an agnostic? Neither, because I’m not arrogant enough to say that there is no divine entity, nor is the potential existence of an entity with characteristics that the religious would define as divine a preoccupation that prevents me from getting on with my life.
Having said that, Christianity is in my spiritual DNA. I subscribe to Christian values, because I’ve seen nothing in my life and in the examples set by others that have led me to deliberately re-programme my basic conditioning. I prefer humility to arrogance, forgiveness to revenge, and trust to suspicion. I believe in turning the other cheek, in not judging lest I be judged and in respect for life, liberty and property, even though I have consistently failed to live up to all those values throughout my life.
I believe in heaven and hell, but not as the bible would define them. For me they are not places to be aspired to or feared in another life. They are ever-present places in this world. Places that we can all visit, and that most of us have experienced in one way or another.
Whatever my own reservations about the nature of divinity, I could not conceive of my country as anything other than bound together by some dominant form of religion. For the past 1500 years that religion has been Christianity. For the next millennium, who knows? It could be Islam. It could be some new faith as yet unknown.
You could argue, as the philosopher A.C. Grayling essentially did in yesterday’s Times newspaper, that the opposite of the qualities I espouse have been as much facets of Christian thought ever since the first organised churches evolved, and that many of the beliefs we associate with it are in fact rooted in Graeco-Roman philosophy. I would agree with him on both counts. Religions do not exist in a vacuum, and ever since the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine Christianity has been a tool in the hands of the powerful, to be fashioned according to their needs. And at the same time beliefs do not arise out of the blue, so it’s unsurprising that Christianity – like Islam – implicitly or explicitly refers back to the belief systems it replaced.
Yet just as the majority of Muslims do not associate themselves with the attempts of the Salafists to recreate the conditions of original community of believers founded by the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century, most Christians thank goodness no longer endorse the methods of the Inquisition in forcing conversions, or the use of arms in reclaiming former Christian lands.
But whether it is the gentler, kinder beliefs of the Church of England or the harsh creed of the Salafists, there will be always faith, because faith of one sort or another is a sine qua non of humanity. In other words, humans cannot function in coherent societies without it, even if not all members of those societies share the same faith, or if some have no religious beliefs whatsoever.
If I look beyond the UK, I could not conceive of the Middle East, a region in which I have spent many years, as a region of atheists. If Islam did not exist, the people of that region would likely be Christians – as the majority were in the couple of centuries before Islam – Zoroastrians, Hindus or Buddhists. But atheists? Never.
Should we be thankful that religion is a pervasive feature of human life? It’s very fashionable to blame it for many of the ills of the world – for bigotry, intolerance and inhumanity. At the same time religion has produced great art and heroic acts of altruism. It has provided happiness and fulfilment to countless multitudes.
However I’m less concerned about what faith should be – positive or negative. I’m more interested in the part it plays in our lives. For as long as we have been recognisably human we have felt the need to rationalise the inexplicable by faith in the divine. I can’t think of a single society in human history that has not conformed to this compulsion, which leaves me to conclude that humanity and religion are inseparable.
For all the scientific discoveries that have eroded conventional religious narratives by explaining phenomena that we previously ascribed to divine intervention, there is more than enough mystery remaining for us to evolve in our beliefs and continue to accept the divine. And whatever my personal faith might be, I’m convinced that a world full of atheists would be surely be an infinitely duller and more spiritually barren place than the one we are living in today. Even if Richard Dawkins and his followers were able to make an unanswerable case that we are basically sentient biological computers, the vast majority of us would simply refuse to believe it.
When Tom Holland wrote In the Shadow of The Sword, in which he questioned the origins of Islam and argued the lack of contemporary evidence documenting the life of the Prophet Mohammed, not a single fatwa emanated from the Muslim world in response to what could be judged to be a fundamental undermining of the world’s second most popular religion. Why was this, when Salman Rushdie, Danish cartoonists and blasphemers in Pakistan have been pursued to within an inch of their lives? According to Muslim scholars, because Holland’s theories were so manifestly absurd – and would be viewed that way by any Muslim – that they deserved no further consideration.
And for the same reason, Dawkins’ views will forever be those of a minority, because for the majority the world can’t be explained by science and logic. Life is a mystery, and most people need divinity to make sense of it. They will continue to believe in the divine because they would find the alternative intolerable.
As my father once said when talking about his faith, “without God what would be the point of it all?” To which I would reply that if you need to find a fundamental purpose in life, then a divine element would be an obvious conclusion, whereas most people get on with life without questioning its purpose. They do this either because they’re too caught up in the daily struggle to reflect on such matters, or because in their societies and cultures the divine is a given, so life without God would be unthinkable.
Equally unthinkable would be a world in which each individual worshipped a divinity only in the privacy of their homes. Humanity thrives on common belief and shared values, so it’s impossible to conceive of life without organised religion of one sort or another. If not formally organised, then practised through communal events where people come together in an organised fashion and perform shared rituals.
The most successful religions have always been those best suited to the continuance and coherence of human life. Equally those variants that seek to exclude and marginalise non-believers usually end up being marginalised themselves. The more detailed the articles of faith, the more likely that only a minority will be able to subscribe to them other than by lip-service. So this exclusivity ultimately dooms the belief systems that generate it. If it becomes too difficult to practice a religion, and particularly if adherents are told that only a lifetime of diligent observance will result in them being “saved”, then many will decide to take the chance that their God is more forgiving, and behave accordingly.
You could even risk the wrath of the creationists by arguing that the rules of biological evolution equally apply to the spiritual. Only the fittest religions – those that best help us to live with ourselves and others and thereby maintain the species – survive.
This is why I believe that Muslim Salafism will – along with fundamentalist Christianity and Hindu extremism – fail to achieve any permanent level of ascendancy, even though they might continue to spark conflict and disorder when rubbing up against other faiths for some time to come. This is because the human race is fundamentally pragmatic, and ultimately rejects beliefs that threaten its continuance. Social pragmatism will ensure that inclusive Christianity and Islam will not fade away in the foreseeable future, because the majority of adherents value their relationship with their God over the minutiae of practical observance. Jews who eat pork, Catholics who use contraception and Muslims who drink alcohol will continue to regard themselves as people of faith, even if some of their fellow-believers regard them as cast into the outer darkness.
This is not to say that other exclusive belief systems will not take the place of current ones, because another constant human urge is to belong, even if the rules of belonging exclude others. Which is why we have families, tribes and nations – and religious cults.
Returning to the hoo-haa about Britain being a Christian nation, the established Church of England has evolved since its creation in the sixteenth century. The witch-hunting, heretic-burning instrument of state control created by Henry VIII has turned into an inclusive, usually benign and – some would say – ineffective institution. But it’s still there, and it’s still central to the lives of many of us. The very thing that leads observers to question its survival – its self-effacing nature – is probably what will guarantee its survival.
Imagine, for example, weddings and funerals without the option of a religious ceremony. When the Queen dies, would the nation accept a secular ceremony in preference to the grand theatre of a funeral in Westminster Abbey? And at the other extreme, where would we be without church fêtes, and without the army of volunteers whom churches mobilise in time of crisis?
Perhaps the ultimate test of our spiritual DNA might come if the planet was threatened with extinction by a meteorite. At that point I have a fair idea that the churches would be full to bursting as humanity seeks divine intervention to save it from impending doom.
Christianity is as much in the bones of the majority of the living British as it is in those of our ancestors buried in churchyards the length and breadth of the land – just as Islam is in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations.
If the world’s great religions were to disappear, I find it hard to imagine what might replace them, except possibly the heartless totalitarian systems of the 20th century that tried and failed to suppress religious practice, and whose soulless political ideologies caused tens of millions of deaths. I know which world I prefer.