Ever since Alastair Campbell issued his famous ‘We don’t do God’ decree in 2003, politicians have regarded religion as extremely bad for their image. They do do atheism, of course. Everyone knows that Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg are atheists, yet they’re riding high on the backs of the secular and gay votes. But we don’t do God.
Until last week, when, at a meeting to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, David Cameron defied the decree, professed Christian beliefs, said we should be proud of being a Christian country, and asked us to stand up for Christian values.
And instantly, this was news: a modern version of the adage that ‘Dog bites man’ is no headline, but ‘Man bites dog’ is. Report, ‘Prime Minister is an atheist’ and the press snore. Report, ‘Prime Minister does God’, and suddenly we have ‘some news just coming in.’
Worse, we have to contact Richard Dawkins to give him a chance to protest, which he does, secure in the confidence that because he knows a little about genes he has answers to all the questions which have perplexed theologians, philosophers and poets ever since the first human burnt her fingers and asked, Why? This clever Dick has all the answers.
The reason for the headlines is clear enough. Atheism is now the default position in British public life, mainly because our collective intellectual capacity has sunk to such a level that we think of atheism as a form of religious neutrality. In reality, when we deny God the right to enter the House of Commons or the Liberal Party conference, what we are in fact saying is that he doesn’t exist. If you thought he did, or even might, you’d sure let him in. This is not neutrality. It’s a definite stonewall; and if God (to our surprise) whimpers, ‘Why?’ we announce in tones most authoritative, ‘Because in this country, Parliament decides where God can go.’
The idea of a Christian country, as suggested by Mr. Cameron, is an elusive one. There never was a time when everyone in Britain was a saint, nor even a time when every church-member was a saint. But there was a time when virtually everyone accepted core Christian beliefs such as creation, life after death, and final judgement. Only after Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) did this ‘common view’ slowly begin to unravel; and only in the last forty years has the secular juggernaut begun to roll, demanding the instant demolition of all that’s lain at the foundations of British society for 2000 years.
Yet for all its dominance of parliament and the media, the juggernaut has still not triumphed. Christianity is still the most widely practised religion in Britain, and
our constitution and institutions still rest on explicitly Christian foundations. There is nothing unusual in this. All civilisations take their shape from their religion: even Revolutionary France based itself on the goddess, Reason, though that’s not much use now that Postmodernism has discovered that no two people have the same Reason.
There’s nothing odd, then, in Britain having a constitution moulded by religion. Separate Acts of both the English and Scottish parliaments commit the Queen-in-Parliament to maintain the Christian faith, and anyone who sets out to unravel such a constitution faces a gargantuan task. He must either kill it slowly with the death of a thousand cuts, or pass a multi-volumed Act Rescissory, repealing at a stroke all the constitutional legislation of the past thousand years. That should be fun; and if Prince Charles aids and abets it, he will merely launch us on the road to republicanism. Shorn of its Christian support-base, the monarchy will face extinction; and then we shall have the Mitterands and the Nixons (not to mention yet another set of elections).
But Mr. Cameron also called us back to Christian values. This always makes me uneasy. Most Christian values are not distinctive. The Ten Commandments, for example, are common not only to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, but to the whole human race, including atheists, because God has written them on our hearts. The pressing question is why Mr. Clegg, for example, has ‘this curious idea’, as C. S. Lewis called it, that he ought to behave in a certain way. He feels the sense of moral obligation as keenly as I do, yet for him there is no God saying, ‘Thou shalt!’ or, ‘Thou shalt not!’ Why then is he so good (sorry, Mr. Cameron, but on the whole he is)?
Probably because his heart is sounder than his head, and leaves him quite happy to behave illogically. His head knows that when a voice inside him says ‘ought’, it’s just those silly little atoms at it again. But he just can’t convince himself that Dostoevsky was right when he said, ‘If there is no God, everything is permitted’; or that the ferocious Nietzsche was right when he said that now that God is dead (slain by Nietzsche’s own fair hand) there must be a revolution in ethics (presumably, every man doing what is right in his own eyes).
There are, of course, some uniquely Christian values, like turning the other cheek and sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. I’m not sure it was these Mr. Cameron was recommending to Joe Blogs. But the real test of his courage would be whether he is prepared to summon us back not simply to values, but to Christian facts: for example, that Christ has risen and is now Lord of even the House of Commons.
The very thought of his saying any such thing makes the Tory party blanch. But why should we live the Sermon on the Mount if the one who preached it was no more than a slightly above-average theologian, and the angels who proclaimed him as the divine Saviour only an early UN delegation suing for peace?
Tolerance is what matters, of course, and its sure foundation (we are told) is indifference. We must never tell a man he is wrong, because it’s no concern of mine. I am not his keeper.
But has secularism bred a more tolerant society? All we’ve done is move the intolerance along. Yes, we are tolerant of gays and of militantly atheist politicians; and we’re anti-discrimination, big-time.
Except when it comes to religion. This is why the Blairs and the Camerons dare not admit to suffering from it. It could seriously damage their electoral health. But the discrimination doesn’t stop there. Think of the child from a religious home going to a typical modern Scottish school. How is that child made to feel? We’ve banished discrimination based on gender and colour. But marginalisation on the basis of religion still flourishes. Think of the little Muslim girl with her burqa; or of the boy whose parents are creationists, or the one who won’t play football on Sunday, or the Free Church one who has to listen to stories of Iain Crichton Smith’s oppressive Lewis upbringing.
Thou shalt not make a child feel marginalised: unless, of course, it’s for her religion.
This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on 23 December 2011.