It seems that David Cameron can’t say or do anything right when it comes to faith. Either he’s not Christian enough, or too Christian, or gets faith involved in politics, or doesn’t get faith involved in politics – he seems to receive criticism from all quarters. Most recently, he’s been criticised in a letter to the Telegraph for calling the UK a ‘Christian Country’. According to the letter:
Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a “Christian country”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.
Frankly I think this is an exaggeration when, in the last UK Census – which is surely by definition the most comprehensive survey of them all – 59.3% of the population voluntarily put ‘Christian’ on the form. Not only that, but the established Church is not simply ‘bolted on‘ to a secular state: it has legal recognition (the relation of canons of the Church of England and the Law, for example), Bishops sit in the House of Lords – whether you like it or not, the Church has a role in the fabric of the country at the highest levels. That role may be diminishing, but it is still there. It is not merely a ‘narrow constitutional sense’.
However, aside from that, there is another historical angle on this – which would be true even if the Church of England were to completely disappear, and Christianity became a minority religion.
Let me quote from a couple of articles I’ve read online recently which help to answer that question.
Firstly, author and historian Tom Holland (who wrote In the Shadow of the Sword) wrote an article a few years ago about about the Christian roots of secularism. It’s an interesting read:
“Most people,” Richard Dawkins assures us in The God Delusion, “pay lip-service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles.” Perhaps so – and yet the “liberal consensus” as it exists in today’s Europe is no less contingent, no less the product of specific historical influences, than was the enthusiasm of the Spartans for state-sponsored infanticide or the Romans’ taste for watching criminals being torn to death. A secularism that is content to trace its origins back to the classical world, but not to the Christian Church, is a secularism in profound denial [my emphasis]. To acknowledge as much is hardly to open the back door to the Inquisition, nor even, necessarily, to imply a belief in God. Rather, it is to recognise that cultural presumptions, no less than species, are shaped by a continuous process of evolution; and that, even as they change and adapt, so also do they continue to bear witness to their origins.
Is modern Britain a Christian country? If you mean “a country in which most people are Christians” then clearly at some point it may cease to be a Christian country (according to the census at least). However, it is a Christian country in the sense that, the way we do things and the way we think about things (i.e. secularism itself) have been obtained largely from Christian roots. Tom Holland argues that it’s nonsensical to simply assume a liberal consensus without actually explaining the reasons why you have come to that position. Whatever you think about Britain as a ‘Christian country’ today, you have to acknowledge the substantial role that Christianity has had in shaping the country (and it is substantial – see Freedom and Order by Nick Spencer, for example. If you’d like to read more about the Christian roots of secularism, see this post on secular law).
As well as the secular state, we also have to acknowledge that most of what we consider to be right and wrong in Britain has historically been drawn from Christian principles. Although these days it has (as Francis Spufford puts it) “faded indistinguishably into the background of our common sense”, it was not always the case: the things we consider right and wrong today have often been the hard fought battles of yesterday. This is essentially the point made by Theo Hobson in The return of God: Atheism’s crisis of faith. He argues that morality in the Western world, rather than being rooted in evolution (as someone like Dawkins would argue), is rooted in Christianity. Why is morality not rooted in evolution?
Here’s his [Dawkins] muddle. On one hand he believes that morality, being natural, is a constant thing, stable throughout history. On the other hand, he believes in moral progress. To square the circle he plunges out of his depth, explaining that different ages have different ideas of morality, and that in recent times there has happily been a major advance in our moral conventions: above all, the principle of equality has triumphed. Such changes ‘certainly have not come from religion’, he snaps. He instead points to better education about our ‘common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex — both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution’. But biological science, especially evolution, can be used to authorise eugenics and racism. The real issue is the triumph of an ideology of equality, of humanism. Instead of asking what this tradition is, and where it comes from, he treats it as axiomatic. This is just the natural human morality, he wants us to think, and in our times we are fortunate to see a particularly full expression of it.
The Dawkins muddle has further dimensions. He argues that morality just comes naturally to all of us, yet it’s distorted by religion. But given that almost all human cultures have been religious, where does that leave us? Are we to believe that morality comes naturally, but only when atheism liberates it to come naturally? It’s comically flimsy.
As I have argued here pretty much ad nauseam [e.g. here, here, and especially here], there is no such thing as a purely ‘secular’ morality, as if one could derive the correct morality using reason alone. There are moral traditions – of which, as I have argued above, Christianity is the primary tradition behind secularism. To deny that is, in my opinion, a denial of the facts and no help to anyone. In fact, it could even be detrimental to our society – a point made by Ed West in “Is moral change speeding up?” He concludes, “Even atheists have only known societies dominated by Christian ideas; they would be foolish to assume those ideas will long outlive the faith that carried them.”
Once you deny the dogma which gives rise to an idea – such as the sanctity of life – you open the door to changing the behaviour which sprang from that dogma. Two examples: aborted babies being used to heat hospitals and post-birth abortion.
So, where does that leave the idea of Britain being a “Christian Country”? I think we face a choice: either we acknowledge that Christianity has played a big role in shaping this country and making it what it is today, and draw on that as we make future plans – or we deny (or at best minimise) any influence Christianity might have had and go our own way – which may and probably will end up leading us somewhere we don’t want to go.