Christian values: what are they?

Genuine question.

A little background: there has been a little storm in a teacup today over a particularly silly article in the Telegraph outing Richard Dawkins as having ancestors who were slave owners in Jamaica. If you’re really interested, you can read Dawkins’s comments about it here.

But what what got my attention was something from a different blog post on the subject:

when abolition of slavery in the colonies was finally put to Parliament in 1833, the bench of Bishops in the House of Lords voted against the bill.

Which struck me as a good fact to bear in mind next time someone argues that Britain is a Christian country built on Christian values.

That in turn had me wondering how the Lords Spiritual voted on other important social issues over the centuries: Catholic emancipation, women’s suffrage, a free press, workers’ rights and so on. Because while it would obviously be unfair to use the upper echelons of the Church of England as a proxy for all Christianity, it would at least be a record of the ‘Christian values’ of the central Christian institution in British public life.

I’m not [just] trying to play Gotcha, I’m genuinely curious. History being what it is, I imagine they’d come out well on some issues and badly on others. But Google has failed me. Annoyingly. I’ll have another go later, but in the meantime, if anyone happens to know a source for detailed voting breakdowns from the House of Lords prior to 1997, let me know.

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Ooh, apparently I’m being militant again

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle in the UK over the past few days, since a court ruled that it was unlawful for Bideford town council to have prayers as a minuted part of its council meetings. The Daily Mail had a big front page headline CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK; for once the Times managed to outdo the Mail for melodramatic language with Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer. Eric Pickles, the Communities minister, came out strongly against the decision, insisting that the UK is ‘a Christian country’, something I’ve complained about before. George Carey, the Ex-Archbishop of Canterbury came out with this wonderfully understated reaction for the Daily Mail:

These legal rulings may also mean Army chaplains could no longer serve, and that the Coronation Oath, in which the King or Queen pledges to maintain the laws of God and the lessons contained in the Gospels, would need to be abolished. This is a truly terrifying prospect.

Truly terrifying.

All of which seems ludicrously out of proportion when you actually look at the legal judgement, which had nothing to do with the separation of church and state: no such principle exists in British law. Moreover, the judge specifically ruled against the idea that this was a human rights issue, saying that just because non-Christian councillors were inconvenienced or made uncomfortable by the prayers, that did not amount to unlawful religious discrimination.

In fact, the ruling was based on a technical question: whether by holding the prayers, the council was going beyond the powers specifically allowed to them by the 1972 Local Government Act. Not only is this a narrow legal point with little relevance for the wider debate about the place of religion in public life; it’s not even relevant any more, because the 1972 Local Government Act has just been superseded by the new Localism Act which grants wider powers to councils. So prayers before council meetings are almost certainly legal again, although the point has yet to be tested in court.

And more importantly, all the other ways in which religion is entwined into our political system are still firmly in place. The Queen is still both head of state and head of the church; we still have 26 bishops sitting in the upper house of our legislature; bishops are appointed by the Prime Minister; Parliament officially opens every day with prayers lead by the Speaker; schools are supposed to hold daily acts of collective worships which are “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.

So why do these occasional conflicts provoke such a hysterical reaction from the religious? Why do those of us who argue that religion and politics are best kept separate get described as ‘militant’ and compared to totalitarian governments?

Well, a clue lies in new survey results released by the Richard Dawkins Foundation (1, 2). Yeah, I know, Richard Dawkins is not an unbiassed source; but the survey was performed by a respectable polling organisation and the questions look fair. The survey was intended to investigate religious attitudes among people who identified themselves as Christian in the 2011 census.

Some of the details are interesting but ultimately irrelevant, like the fact that only 35% could pick the first book of the New Testament out of Matthew, Genesis, Acts and Psalms; I mean, it’s the kind of thing you would expect a practising Christian to know, but it’s not a test of the sincerity or depth of someone’s belief.

And it’s not a surprise that many people tick the Christian box on the Census despite not going to church, or praying, or reading the Bible, or believing that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was resurrected, or even believing in God at all. The survey results are messy and contradictory, but it seems like about half of Census Christians are what you might call conventional Christians, people who go to church occasionally and believe some of the central tenets of the faith.

But the really startling result is the proportion of people identifying as Christian at all. For the 2001 Census, that figure was 72%; the new survey suggests the figure may have dropped to 54% in 2011. If that number holds up when the official census data is released, it represents a remarkable cultural shift in ten years.

I’ve complained before about people who say that the UK is a Christian country. I’ve argued on historical/philosophical grounds, that there’s nothing particularly Christian about our most important values — democracy, the rule of law, free speech, tolerance, humour — and I’ve argued on political grounds, that to call this a Christian country is exclusionary, because it suggests that those of us who are not Christians are therefore less British.

But if only 54% of the population identify as Christian in even the loosest sense, then it’s barely even statistically true that the UK is a Christian country.

And that, I think, is the reason for all the hyperbolic stuff about ‘militant secularism’. It’s not that they believe that Richard Dawkins or the National Secular Society have profound political influence, that all it’s going to take is one strongly worded opinion piece in the Guardian for the whole edifice to come tumbling down.

No, the fear is that this is already a secular country, and that it’s only a matter of time before the politics catches up with reality. The fear is that Dawkins is pushing on an open door.

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Ecclesiastical overreach & gay marriage

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has been arguing against gay marriage. Which, in itself, hardly seems worth commenting about. But what gets my goat is that he supports civil partnerships but opposes gay marriage because, you know, sacred institution between a man and a woman blah blah yawn.

This actually annoys me more than if he just came out and spoke straightforwardly and unapologetically against all forms of homosexual relationship. Because after all, preaching about morality is what religions do, and the idea that homosexuality is a sin has been standard doctrine in nearly all branches of Christianity for most of history. It’s an old-fashioned, socially poisonous doctrine, admittedly; but expounding old-fashioned ideas seems to me to be firmly within the job description of an archbishop.

But when he claims that the state’s definition of marriage should be his definition… well, then he can just fuck off. Marriage is one of the central defining structures our society is built around; the Church of England cannot be allowed to claim ownership of it. Marriage predates Christianity, and is entered into by people of all religions and of no religion. The whole reason that people choose not to get married in church is that they don’t want the church in their marriage.

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Needling camels

I think it’s fascinating the way that, quite accidentally, the Church of England has been drawn into a debate about the state of capitalism. Because the protestors were not targeting the church; it was a pure accident of geography that a protest aimed at the Stock Exchange should end up camped around St Paul’s.

But that was how it turned out, and the church has been forced to take a position, and lots of commentators have been cheerfully picking out their favourite bible verses about camels going through the eye of a needle, and money-changers in the temple, and arguing about whether or not it makes any sense to call Jesus a socialist. And a lot of people who would not normally have any interest in the opinions of the Dean of St Paul’s or the Bishop of London are suddenly watching them very carefully and asking serious questions about the kind of relationship the church should have to wealth and power: always awkward ground for an established church which has the Queen as its head and an archbishop chosen by the Prime Minister.

And unexpectedly, the support for the protest by at least some of the staff of the Cathedral has given the protesters extra credibility. Because, after all, the protestors who turn up to these things are easy to mock, and their specific political aims, insofar as they have been articulated at all, are often a bit dubious; but the ham-fisted and divided way that the church handled the situation helped frame the debate as a moral question about inequalities of wealth and power.

But the next confrontation could be even more interesting. Now that the church has had a change of heart, the legal challenge to the protests comes from that strange entity called the City of London Corporation. At its most mundane level the Corporation is the local government for the ancient City of London, the ‘Square Mile’. But it is also a very weird historical anomaly. The Corporation has been around for a very long time — the oldest recorded charter, in 1067, confirmed rights and privileges that already existed — and over the centuries it has carved out a semi-detached relationship to the rest of the country; mainly because a succession of kings and governments were willing to make concessions in return for the financial support of the City.

And so, in the middle of what is nominally a modern democracy, we have a borough where corporations still have the vote, and the votes of actual human individuals are vastly outnumbered by the votes cast by businesses. That anachronism wouldn’t be particularly sinister if the Corporation confined itself to organising street-sweepers and mending the roads. But it is also a very wealthy organisation explicitly committed to lobbying for the interests of business, and particularly for the financial industry. It even has its own representative inside Parliament, the ‘City Remembrancer‘.

In other words, it is the perfect symbol for the influence of money over politics. Over many centuries, time and again, from autocratic kings to democratic governments, everyone has flinched in the face of the City’s power. The anomalous existence of the City of London is the result of a thousand years of regulatory capture.

That makes them an excellent focus for protests. If the protestors do manage to turn the spotlight on the Corporation, it could be interesting to watch.

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‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum

So I went along to see the BM’s exhibition of medieval reliquaries. Which was a pretty amazing display of medieval craftsmanship: rock crystal, enamel, ivory, glass, and lots and lots of gold.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have, though, because by the time I got there I had a bit of a headache. And it really didn’t help to be peering at lots of spotlit, shiny gold, trying to make out all the exquisitely worked detail. When I came out I had to take shelter in a dark quiet pub and nurse a pint of orange and soda for a bit.

I actually think gold is a slightly unrewarding material for this kind of thing. The overall effect is spectacular; particularly, presumably, in a dark church lit only by candles: bright, shiny, warm, glowing. But the very shininess makes it much harder to pick out the fine details of the craftsmanship; it was more rewarding, I think, looking at the fine work in materials like ivory and alabaster.

Apart from the sheer quality of the exhibits, it was anthropologically interesting. The scale is staggering, apart from anything else; there was apparently one church [I think somewhere in central Europe, from memory] which had 19,000 relics. It must have been a huge industry; not just the relics themselves, but the reliquaries, altars, altarpieces. And that was just the start of it. All that religious paraphernalia — the chalices and patens and thuribles — the ecclesiastical robes, the figures of saints, the murals, the stained glass windows; the whole business must have provided employment for thousands and thousands of workers. Goldsmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, painters, embroiderers, all employed primarily to produce religious objects, either for the church or for private devotion. The Reformation must have been economically catastrophic for them: it was effectively a whole economic sector disappearing.

The other striking thing, and I know it’s not exactly an original observation, is how ludicrous the relics often are. The foreskin and umbilical cords of Christ probably win the prize in that respect, although all the other relics directly associated with Christ also tend to strain credulity: fragments of his manger, bits of True Cross, thorns from the crown, the spear that pierced his side, the sweat band, the magic sponge, all of which were claimed as relics. If you don’t believe in miracles, it’s very difficult to get into the mindset of a society that sees them everywhere; but even so, surely people must have been dubious about this stuff? Perhaps the idea was that the genuineness of the prayer was more important than the genuineness of the relic, although they certainly didn’t act that way.

Going to this exhibition soon after going to the Horniman Museum exhibition Bali: dancing for the gods, I was left thinking how ritually impoverished my own life is as a (somewhat culturally protestant) atheist. Apart from the occasional weddings and funerals, just about the only festival I regularly celebrate is Christmas — and that only consists of gift-giving and turkey. I don’t even usually do anything about Guy Fawkes Night or Halloween, let alone Easter or saints’ days or whatever. I can’t say I feel I’m missing out on an important part of life, but maybe I am. It’s hard to tell how often these events were genuinely spiritual in nature, and how much they were a kind of entertainment in a society without novels, TV, cinema and computer games to keep them amused.

» The images are all from the British Museum collection, because those are conveniently online, although the exhibition has many items borrowed from other institutions.

Top is the St Eustace Head Reliquary, German, ca. 1210.

Then a reliquary cross in cloisonné enamel and gold, Constantinople, early C11th. The Virgin is flanked by busts of St Basil and St Gregory Thaumaturgus.

The little bundle is a relic of St Benedict, one of over 30 relics in a single German portable altar from 1190-1200.

Last is the iron bell of St. Cuileáin in a copper alloy shrine, from Ireland, a C7th-C8th bell in a C12th shrine.

Kate Middleton confirmed into the Church of England

According to sources close to Miss Middleton she chose to be confirmed because of her own personal journey into faith rather than because of the Royal Family’s role in the Church of England.

Yeah, right.

I suppose it’s not actually impossible that she happened to have a religious flowering just in time to marry the future head of the church, but let’s just say the timing invites scepticism. Still, it’s probably harmless enough as religious hypocrisies go.

This, though, seems a little optimistic from the religious correspondent of the Times:

This is good news for the people of Britain. It is thrilling to think of what might come of Miss Middleton’s public commitment to her faith, and of the ways in which, through good works as well as faith, she will go on to use her position to contribute to the common good.

I know there’s a lot of interest in the royal wedding, but I don’t think Kate Middleton is the celebrity endorsement which is going to fill the pews.

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Culturally agnostic

It is census time in the UK, which includes a question about your religion. So I ticked the box for ‘no religion’; but my father ticked the one for ‘Christian’, despite the fact that he is certainly not a member of any church, doesn’t go to church except for weddings, funerals and the occasional carol service, and is not, as far as I can tell, a believer.

But, you know, he went to a Christian school, and he was even confirmed into the Church of England (by the archbishop of Canterbury, as it happens). Which suggests there was a period in his life when he regarded himself as Christian. So I guess it makes sense if he regards himself as culturally Christian — whatever that means.

And I do see the value of religions as cultural identities — I can see why Jewish atheists might still want to affirm their Jewishness and maintain the rituals. Or as I’m told people used to ask in Northern Ireland, ‘but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?’

But as for me… I’m culturally more Christian than I am, say, Hindu — what religious education I had was mainly Christian in its focus, and I certainly know more about the culture and theology of Christianity than other religions. And at Christmas we have a tree, and presents, and a roast turkey. But those are just part of the ambient culture of Britain. Doctor Who plays a bigger part in my Christmas than Jesus. I’ve never thought of myself as Christian, so I don’t think of myself as a lapsed Christian, or a Christian atheist — if anything I’m a lapsed agnostic, since agnosticism seemed to be the fallback position amongst my peer group as a child.

The census can’t deal with such nuances, of course. Which is a pity, because that’s the kind of thing that seems interesting. We know that, because of people like my father, the census always significantly overstates the religiosity of the population:

When asked the census question ‘What is your religion?’, 61% of people in England and Wales ticked a religious box (53.48% Christian and 7.22% other) while 39% ticked ‘No religion’.

But when asked ‘Are you religious?’ only 29% of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65% said ‘No’, meaning over half of those whom the census would count as having a religion said they were not religious.

Even more revealingly, less than half (48%) of those who ticked ‘Christian’ said they believed that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life and was the son of God.

The devoutly religious and the firmly atheist are straightforward enough; I’m curious about the shades of grey, the people who say their religion is Christian but that they are not religious. Are they mainly people who were brought up religious but don’t go to church any more? Are they defining themselves as Christian as a way of emphasising that they’re not Jewish or Muslim or whatever? Is it a generational thing? Do their children identify themselves as Christian? Perhaps ‘non-religious Christian’ can be a self-sustaining identity in its own right, comparable to secular Jewishness.

And the other side of that question is the people who tick ‘no religion’: are they mainly people who believe there is no god, or think there is no god, or can’t decide? Or are they just as likely to be people who have some kind of belief system of their own — something which they don’t think of as a religion but is not really non-belief either?

Anyway. I seem to have wandered off whatever point it was I was originally planning to make. Never mind.

» Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, by John Sell Cotman.

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Gay marriage through the eye of a needle

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Someone is blaming the recent bird deaths on ‘the fact that America is violating God’s prohibition on homosexuality with support for gay marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

This is annoying on so many levels, but the particular one which is bothering me today is this. I’m no biblical scholar, but I do know that Jesus said absolutely nothing about homosexuality. I don’t remember him saying much about sex at all, in fact.

On the other hand he did say quite a lot about money. Most memorably, of course, he said:

And moreover I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

But I don’t remember any of these bible-wielding nutters ever standing up after an earthquake, or a flood, or a load of dead blackbirds, and pointing the finger at Goldman Sachs, or Bank of America, or CitiGroup, or BP, or Exxon Mobil, or for that matter Apple or Google or Wal-Mart. Nope, it’s always the gays, the atheists, the liberals.

Admittedly, it would be equally nutty to blame natural disasters on Wall Street. But at least it would provide a bit of variety.

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A rising tide of whatever

I’ve noticed a tendency recently for religious commentators to refer to ‘secularism’ as a force in British society. There was even someone on the radio who, discussing the Pope’s upcoming visit to Britain, referred to ‘a rising tide of secularism’. But I think that’s completely wrongheaded. We don’t have a rising tide of secularism: we have an ebbing tide of religion.

Certainly there’s not much political momentum behind secularism in the specific sense of the separation of church and state. Thanks to the tangled history of the British constitution, there’s a lot of scope for reform in this area. Off the top of my head, I’d want to get rid of: the monarch’s position as head of the Church of England, the bishops’ seats in the House of Lords, the Prime Minister’s role in appointing bishops, the legal requirement that schools have regular acts of ‘collective worship’ which are ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’, and the government funding of faith schools. Not to mention the ridiculous fact that members of the royal family are specifically barred from marrying catholics. But none of those are exactly hot political topics. The only one likely to get much political traction is faith schools; but it’s schools which are the fiercely contested issue, not religion.

But it’s broader than that: I don’t think secularism in Britain deserves to be called an ‘ism’. It’s not a system of thought or an organised political movement; it’s just a whole lot of people not going to church.*

Mind you, I don’t think it needs to be an organised anti-religious movement; a widespread lack of interest is probably enough. Everything else follows from there. When you have enough people who have simply never had religion as an important part of their lives — people who might, if pressed, claim to believe in some sort of higher power, but have never attended a church service by choice unless it’s a wedding or a funeral — well, the authority is gone. Social authority is like paper money, or fairies: it only works when everyone believes in it. If people have no emotional attachment to the idea of religion, they start judging religious beliefs by the same standard as other beliefs, and religious organisations by the same standards as other organisations.

At its root I don’t think that the hostile reaction to the Pope’s visit is based on anti-religious sentiment, although that is clearly present for some people.† I think it’s more that the absence of religious feeling means people approach him in a different way. I think a few decades ago, many people who were offended by catholic teachings on contraception and homosexuality, and even the child abuse cover-ups, would still have been less direct in their criticisms, because of who he is and what he represents. But now, it’s more like he’s a visiting politician with a bad human rights record… which, among other things, he is.

* Or at least, organised secularism does exist in Britain — you can follow the British Humanist Association on Twitter, ffs — but the BHA has existed under one name or another since 1896, and I’m sure they’d be honest enough to admit that their activities come a long way down the list of reasons for falling church attendance.

† And read this article by Padraig Reidy (formerly an editor at New Humanist magazine), who sees it as part of the long British history of anti-Catholicism.

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The Church of the Long Now

The Clock of the Long Now is a very interesting book about the idea of building

a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

This is not just an interesting engineering project. The idea is that the clock could act as a symbol of the ‘long now’: that is, a way of looking at the world which sees us within the long context of history.

Because ‘now’ means different things is different contexts: ‘I’m hungry now’; ‘tartan skirts are fashionable now’; ‘The United States is now the world’s only superpower’; ‘India is now moving northward into Asia, forming the Himalayas’.

The Long Now Foundation is actually building this clock; it’s not just a thought experiment. The idea is to promote long-term thinking: the kind of long term planning and policy making that might help to prepare for the risk of a hurricane hitting New Orleans, or to mitigate the economic impacts of an ageing population. Or, of course, try to minimise global warming.

These kinds of problems do not lend themselves to the five-year cycles of democratic politics, let alone to the ever-shorter cycles of 24 hour news media.

I remember it as a thought-provoking book, although I think I left my copy in Japan*. I don’t know whether it is really possible to make people take very long term planning seriously, for psychological as well as pragmatic reasons. But it’s an interesting idea.

I’ve been thinking about the Long Now recently because of a particular current news story. If there is any human institution that lends itself to Long Now thinking, it is the Catholic church. Their holy book is 2000 years old, and they still refer back to theologians like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, from 700 and 1600 years ago respectively. I recently went round the V&A’s newly refurbished Medieval and Renaissance galleries, and they are a reminder that the church was a wealthy and powerful organisation before the Norman Conquest. It is nowhere near as wealthy or powerful now, in relative terms, as it was back in the middle ages; but it’s not doing badly.

Perhaps that’s why their PR in response to child abuse stories has seemed so woefully inept: when you operate over a timescale of centuries, a scathing article in the New York Times doesn’t seem like such a big deal. An organisation which has survived the Great Schism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, not to mention the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and a whole load of religious wars, is not going to throw around the word ‘crisis’ lightly.

And strategically speaking, they’re probably right: Benedict XVI is the 265th pope. Does anyone really think there won’t be a 266th? And by the time we get to 269 or 270, these scandals will be very old news indeed.

It’s not necessarily a morally bankrupt attitude; it’s not the same as ignoring the problem and waiting for it to go away. It might be nice to see them reaching out to the victims a little better and show a bit more public remorse, but the most important thing is to ensure that those kind of cover-ups don’t happen in future, and they say they have reformed the system to prevent it happening again.

I find it fascinating, looking at the world in this way. For example, I think it is an important principle of human rights and human dignity that women should be treated as full human beings with all the same rights and responsibilities as men. So if I was pope — an odd thought, admittedly — I would allow women to be priests. But from the long view of the Catholic church, with 20 centuries of institutional and theological tradition to draw on, the women’s rights movement could turn out to be a passing phase. Hell, there aren’t many countries where women have even had the vote for one century.†

And if I was pope, I’d allow gay marriage, contraception, and abortion. But I don’t expect the church to agree with me any time soon. And even though I disagree with everything they believe, from the existence of God downwards, there is something deeply intriguing about that kind of institutional continuity. You can see why some people find it seductive.

The Catholic church may be old-fashioned, but it has been old-fashioned for hundreds of years now; entire empires have risen and fallen while the church trundled on, being old-fashioned. It may be ludicrously archaic that important church documents are still issued in Latin, but the church was communicating in Latin before the English language even existed, and the church is still here. They are hardly going to be stung by the accusation that they’re not keeping up with the times.

* if only I’d had the long-term perspective to realise I would want to write a blog post about it several years later…

† In chronological order: The Pitcairn Islands, The Isle of Man, The Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and Finland. According to Wikipedia.

» From top to bottom, the images are: the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, a C9th-10th crucifix reliquary from the V&A, and Titian’s portrait of Poe Paul III.

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A ‘Christian nation’.

There was the first of a three-part series on TV tonight called Make Me A Christian. A group of volunteers, including a lap-dancer and a Muslim convert, are given a three-week course in Christianity by four ministers of various denominations. I watched about 20 minutes of it before I lost patience; it’s an idea that could make an interesting piece of television but in practice it both bored and irritated me.

But one particular idea requires comment: that the UK is a ‘Christian nation’ built on ‘Christian principles’. I don’t think it’s true that any of the important principles that the country is built on are particularly Christian, as it happens, but that’s not the point I want to make.

It is true that, for over a thousand years, the vast majority of the inhabitants of these islands have been Christians. A comfortable majority of British people still are. So, historically and demographically, there is an obvious sense in which it is true to say that the UK is ‘a Christian country’.

But you could use exactly the same arguments to say this is a white country. And if someone was to start saying that the UK is a White nation, built on White principles, we would all immediately understand that their intention was to exclude and belittle.

I know the analogy is not perfect. And I’m not going to claim that, as an atheist, I feel like I’m the victim of any terrible prejudice (though if I was Hindu, Muslim or Jewish I might feel differently). But when an evangelical preacher like the presenter of Make Me A Christian describes the UK as a ‘Christian country’, I’m pretty sure he’s suggesting that his claim to Britishness is better than mine.

I do not accept that this is true.

» The picture is of a Christian being burnt by Christians because of his Christian beliefs; an example of the Christian principles so important to British history.

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Lies, damn lies and religion

There’s an article in today’s Times about the rapid decline in church attendance in the UK. The particular angle they’ve chosen to take is that within a mere 30 years, the number of people going to mosque every weekend will outnumber those going to church. This is illustrated by a dramatic graph with the Christian line sweeping down at a vertiginous angle and crossing the lines for Muslims and Hindus, which are creeping up a bit slower at the bottom.*

Leaving aside the huge uncertainties involved in extrapolating the trends forward, I can’t help feeling that the graph is missing something important: a line for the vast majority of us who don’t go to any kind of religious service. If they had included us, and changed the scale of the y-axis to accommodate us, all the religious people would be squashed down into a very flat and unimpressive bit at the bottom of the chart.

Of course it’s an interesting and significant demographic shift if the number of churchgoers changes from about 8% to 1% in 45 years, as the graph suggests. But if you say instead that the number of people who don’t go to church/mosque/temple regularly is rising from 90% to 94%, it doesn’t seem quite so dramatic.

As regular readers will know, I’m not about to lose sleep over shrinking congregations; and I certainly don’t believe there’s some kind of essential connection between Britishness and Christianity. But I was mainly annoyed by the use of statistics.

*The graph isn’t available online or I’d link to it. The Times’s consistent habit of having less in the way of pictures and graphics online than in the dead tree edition always seems to be completely missing the point, to me, but hey-ho.


Yay for Blasphemy!

Or, to be more exact, yay for legal blasphemy. We’re not quite there yet, but the House of Lords has voted to abolish the offence of blasphemy in British law.

Virgin and cat

The current situation, with special legal protection for the Church of England, was obviously ludicrous in a modern multicultural society; but then in a country where bishops have seats in parliament and the Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen by the Prime Minister, ludicrous can never be ruled out.

» Paintings by Cranach and Rousseau.

The Bible by Karen Armstrong

The full title is The Bible: The Biography, which at least clears up any possible implication that Karen Armstrong might be claiming authorship for the actual Bible.

I finished this last week sometime, but I’ve been putting off writing about it, mainly because reading a book by someone who knows vastly more about the subject than I do and then arguing with it seems like bad intellectual karma.

It traces the history of the Bible; both the accumulation and arrangement of the contents and the different ways people have read it. For these purposes ‘the Bible’ includes the Jewish version as well as the Christian one.

For me the most interesting part of it was the process by which the Bible was written and arranged; the various early religious traditions in Judah and Israel, the theological impact of the destruction of Temple first by Nebuchadnezzar and then later by the Romans, the religious and social context of the early Christian church and the various movements within early Chistianity. I did find it slightly unnerving, though, that Armstrong never gives any hint about how we come to know any of this stuff about what happened up to three thousand years ago. Obviously to explain every detail thoroughly would make the book much much less approachable, but a few examples of the kinds of sources being drawn on would have been interesting.

I suspect she was focussed on producing a popular account of what I imagine is a pretty dry field, and I can’t say I wanted to wade through too much in the way of textual criticism of obscure Assyrian chronicles, or whatever, but for me she whizzes through almost too quickly. The whole book is only just over 200 pages, which isn’t much for three millennia of history and theology (especially since it’s set in large, generously leaded type; unattractively large for my taste). So it’s a useful introduction to the subject but it’s hard to engage with properly. I suppose if I really wanted to know more I could check out the sources and biblical references listed in the endnotes, but I’d rather have a little more content in the actual text.

Once it gets to the point where the Bible is finalised and the book is concerned with the different ways people have read it, I found it less interesting. Partially that’s because I knew a little more about the subject already; not a huge amount more, but I’ve encountered the medieval exegetical tradition before, and I’ve read a certain amount about the Reformation. And to be honest, I tend to feel that when you’ve encountered a few different ways of finding ‘deeper’ significance in a text—Freudian analysis, various flavours of critical theory, different kinds of exegesis—they all start seeming rather similar.

But what made me uncomfortable was when she got onto modern practice. For most of the book she has presented an apparently detached, descriptive account. But once we get onto the nineteenth and twentieth centuries she starts making an argument, and it becomes apparent that there is an agenda to the whole book. The argument, basically, is that literal readings of scripture are a modern development, that in the past the Bible was always read as figurative, allegorical, and read in an open-ended way in search of spiritual, rather than literal, truth. And she goes so far as to recommend a return to these traditions.

Well, this is where my bad intellectual karma comes in, because despite my basic ignorance on the subject, I find myself deeply sceptical about her presentation of the tradition. Exegetical, allegorical, spiritual readings of scripture have obviously always existed and have always been part of the mainstream. It’s worth pointing out that the deeper spiritual truths found by exegesis can co-exist with a literal reading, but still, it’s clearly true, and a point well worth making, that most serious readings of the Bible throughout the tradition have been aimed at finding other kinds of truth than historical accuracy. Higher truths, deeper truths; pick your own spatial metaphor.

But still, I don’t believe that literal readings are new. It’s too obvious, simple and clear an idea. I just don’t believe that it never occurred to anyone to think “maybe this holy text is true”. My niggling suspicions aren’t quieted by the way Armstrong talks about modern life. Here’s the example which stuck out for me. I’ll quote at some length in an attempt to be fair:

Throughout this biography, we have considered the ways in which Jews and Christians have tried to cultivate a receptive, intuitive approach to scripture. This is difficult for us today. We are a talkative and opinionated society and not always good at listening. The discourse of politics, media and academe is essentially adversarial. While this is undoubtedly important in a democracy, it can mean that people are not really receptive to an opposing viewpoint. It is often apparent during a parliamentary debate or a panel discussion on television that while their opponents are speaking, participants are simply thinking up the next clever thing they are going to say. Biblical discourse is often conducted in the same confrontational spirit, very different from the ‘listening ear’ proposed by the Hasidic leader, Dov Ber. We also expect immediate answers to complex questions. The soundbite is all. In biblical times,some people feared that a written scripture encouraged a slick, superficial ‘knowing’. This is surely an even greater danger in the electronic age, when people are used to finding truth at the click of a mouse.

Now it must be true that, for various reasons, religion has changed in the past few hundred years. The intellectual, social and political context has changed, after all. But whenever people start claiming that modern society is uniquely awful in some way, I get suspicious, and this seems a classic example of why. Armstrong says that because we are a certain kind of society, ‘it can mean that people are not really receptive to an opposing viewpoint.’ With the implication that at some point in the past there was a moment when people were receptive to an opposing viewpoint. And that all theological debates in the past were conducted with a ‘listening ear’, something which would come as a surprise to those people burnt to death for heresy.

Or to give another example, when talking about American Rapture theology—the idea that the end of the world predicted in Revelations is coming soon—she writes

In line with the modern spirit, Darby’s theory was literal and democratic. There was no hidden truth, accessible only to a learned elite. The Bible meant exactly what it said.

Well, of course, the specific details of Rapture theology, like the association of the Antichrist with the United Nations, are modern and contingent. But the idea that the end of the world is nigh is not new. Millenarian heresies (i.e. people who believed that the Millennium, the thousand years of Christ’s rule on Earth, was coming soon) turned up pretty regularly in the medieval period. And this is part of my sense of unease with Armstrong’s presentation of modern theology as uniquely misguided; over the two thousand years of Christianity, the same ideas tended to pop up again and again. The key ideas of Protestantism, for example, were not new at the time of the Reformation; they had turned up periodically around Europe and the Catholic church had managed to crush them as heretical.

Anyway. It’s a pretty interesting book, but the fact that she’s clearly set out to make a particular case just makes it hard for me to take what she says at face value.

40 Days and 40 Nights by Matthew Chapman

Full title: 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin®, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania. In other words, it’s about the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania where the school board tried to put Intelligent Design into the biology classes and were found to be in breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.

evolution mural from Dover High School

I’m not quite sure why I felt the need to read a second book about this; the blurbs promised a more entertaining read, and it’s certainly livelier and bitchier than Monkey Girl, but didn’t tell me anything new. And despite what Hollywood would have you believe, trials are not inherently charged with drama. Especially this trial, which, with eleven plaintiffs and a bucketload of lawyers and expert witnesses, lacked a personal dramatic focus.

Chapman largely concentrates on personality and anecdote and glides past a lot of the technical evidence; understandably, I guess, but I would have liked more to get my teeth into.

» The photo above, which I found rather unexpectedly on Flickr, is of a mural painted by a student at Dover High School which helped kick off the whole controversy when one of the school board took offence at it and took it on himself to take it away one weekend and burn it. It’s used under a by-nc-sa CC licence.

‘Sacred’ at the British Library

I went yesterday to see Sacred at the British Library. I nearly missed it; the exhibition closes at the weekend. I’m glad I didn’t, as it was extraordinary.

Maghribi script

It’s an exhibition of sacred texts from Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and the selection is seriously impressive. For example, the show includes the Lindisfarne Gospels and a bit of a Dead Sea Scroll as just two exhibits among many. They also have one of the two oldest Christian bibles, from the C4th, an C8th Qur’an, the first printed Mishnah, Henry VIII’s psalter, copies of the Qur’an made for various sultans, a Tyndale New Testament and so on. They haven’t even bothered to include a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, presumably because they have one of those on display in their permanent exhibition anyway.

The Holkham Picture Book

Staggeringly, with a very few exceptions like the Dead Sea Scroll, all these books were part of their own collection. It’s odd to think of all these books, culturally interconnected but originally separated by many centuries and thousands of miles, having made their way, by who knows what means, from monasteries and mosques in Syria, Armenia, Ethiopia, India; and all ending up in a basement in North London.


Whatever my disagreements with religion, I do feel a reverential instinct towards ancient artefacts and books, so I had no difficulty feeling a sense of the sacred. And many of them are extraordinary objects in their own right. I have a new-found passion for Syriac script.

Syriac writing

There are zoomable high-resolution images of 67 of the texts available on the website, so those of you who can’t make it London this week can take a look. That’s where all the images illustrating this post came from. I have to say, generally, kudos to the British Library; all the exhibitions I’ve seen there have been excellent (and free).

» Pictures, from the top: 1) An example of Maghribi script from a C13th Spanish Qur’an. 2) One of the people drowned in the Flood in the C14th Holkham Bible Picture Book. 3) Micrographic decoration (i.e. made up of tiny writing) from The Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, c. 1300. 4) The bible in Syriac, dated by the scribe to 463/4 AD.

More on the atheism/science malarkey

At Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers comments on the Jake Young article I linked to earlier. The bit of his post I would pick out is this:

Once again, science is a method. It’s a general set of procedures that rest on skepticism, induction, empiricism, and naturalism. Atheism is a conclusion. We look at the universe using the tools of science, and it does not fit any description of the universe derived from religious perspectives: we therefore reject religious dogma. We also see that the nature of the universe does not reflect any of the orthodox conceptions of what a god-ruled universe would look like. We arrive at the conclusion that there is no god.

Science=method. Atheism=conclusion. They’re different.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument, but with substantial reservations.

I agree with the argument this far: if you assembled a team of neutral observers to take a scientific approach to the question of the existence of God, looking at all the evidence and considering different hypotheses to explain it, I think they would reject the God hypothesis. Absence of evidence is not proof, but it certainly leaves you with a very weak case.

But still… I’m uncomfortable with saying that atheism is the conclusion reached by the scientific method. I guess the reason is this. When someone says ‘Science tells us [something]’, they are claiming a certain kind of authority for that idea. That authority has been painstakingly acquired over a couple of centuries via the slow, methodical, rigorous accumulation of data and the testing of ideas. It comes from millions of man-hours spent observing nature, collecting and classifying specimens, and devising and implementing experiments.

So a statement like ‘humans are descended from apes’ can be backed up carefully and in detail on the basis of the fossil record, comparative physiology and genetics. There are, presumably, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers discussing the idea. One could make similarly scientific statements about the chemical composition of tears, the weight of the electron, and thousands of other subjects.

‘There is no God’ is not, it seems to me, a scientific statement in the same way as ‘humans are descended from apes’. Most scientists may believe it to be true, and may believe that it is the conclusion most consistent with a scientific view of the world, but that doesn’t mean that it is a product of science.

The public authority of science—the willingness of people to accept what scientists say—is already probably less than it was a few decades ago, having been attacked by a peculiar combination of the religious, New Agers, alternative medicine and cultural relativists. But it is still high. What scientists say carries weight. That authority should be valued, and not invoked lightly. When a professional scientist like P.Z. Myers says that atheism is the result of science, it seems to me he is claiming that cultural authority inappropriately, and risks weakening it.

Myers rightly makes fun of the proponents of Intelligent Design for pretending to be doing science when they’re not, and frequently points out their complete lack of published scientific papers. He rightly sees that they are trying to appear to be scientific in part because they are trying to take some of the cultural authority of science for themselves. They know that if they can convince people they are scientific they will be taken more seriously. But it seems to me that he risks doing the same thing: invoking spurious authority.