Being a Christian doesn’t make me stupid

Not so long ago being in a position of public leadership and also a professing Christian was seen as a virtue and nothing to be ashamed of.  Margaret Thatcher may not have been everyone’s favourite politician (to put it mildly), but you can’t deny the convictions of her Christian faith.  In her 2002 book Statecraft, she writes:

‘I believe in what are often referred to as “Judaeo-Christian” values: indeed my whole political philosophy is based on them’

A more enlightening understanding of her Christian beliefs can be gauged from a speech she gave to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988.  This is an extract from it:

‘What then are the distinctive marks of Christianity?

‘They stem not from the social but from the spiritual side of our lives, and personally, I would identify three beliefs in particular:

‘First, that from the beginning man has been endowed by God with the fundamental right to choose between good and evil. And second, that we were made in God’s own image and, therefore, we are expected to use all our own power of thought and judgement in exercising that choice; and further, that if we open our hearts to God, He has promised to work within us. And third, that Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when faced with His terrible choice and lonely vigil chose to lay down His life that our sins may be forgiven…

‘I think back to many discussions in my early life when we all agreed that if you try to take the fruits of Christianity without its roots, the fruits will wither. And they will not come again unless you nurture the roots.

‘But we must not profess the Christian faith and go to Church simply because we want social reforms and benefits or a better standard of behaviour;but because we accept the sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ expressed so well in the hymn:

‘”When I survey the wondrous Cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.”‘

Compare this to the famous “We don’t do God” intervention by Alistair Campbell only fifteen years later when Tony Blair was asked a question about his faith in an interview.  Even now though David Cameron professes to be a Christian and that God is allowed to be mentioned again in government now his party is running the country with the Lib Dems, Cameron likens his faith to the patchy reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns that fades in and out.  Not exactly the driving force of his political motivations.

At the weekend I read with interest an article in the Spectator by Melanie McDonagh entitled ‘Can you trust a Christian?’.  In it she discussed the current state of Christianity amongst our political leaders.  This is some of what she said:

‘For some time we have known about the tension between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith over welfare reform. The Chancellor wanted more welfare cuts, and the Work and Pensions Secretary resisted: real reform, he said, would cost money. So far, so understandable. But a new biography of the Chancellor by Janan Ganesh reveals another element behind the struggle. Ganesh writes that Osborne ‘questioned the analytical rigour of the Christian Conservatives who hovered behind the project’. A Treasury source is quoted making it clearer still: ‘He thinks the people pushing this are such total advocates and evangelicals that they blind themselves to any downsides.’

‘To put it another way, the Christianity of Mr Duncan Smith and his associates makes them suspect. As ‘evangelicals’, they don’t function intellectually the way that others do. That’s new. Until very recently, politicians and pundits regarded Christianity as a system of beliefs and values. Grown-ups might have doctrinal differences, but Christianity was a respectable and rational foundation for a world view. When Lady T rowed with bishops, she dealt with them on their own scriptural terms, saying that the Good Samaritan had to make money to give it away in the first place. Religion was part of public debate, not an impediment to it.

‘It would be unfair to suggest that Mr Osborne’s reservations about religion in public life are anything but typical.

‘When Evan Harris headed the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, he felt that expert witnesses should declare their religious affiliation before giving their opinions. In 2009 the World Association of Medical Editors took this into an academic context, and said that editors of medical journals should require contributors to declare any interests that might affect their views. Yes, but which views? Patricia Casey, a professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin, wrote a commentary in 2008 on a paper about the effects of abortion on mental health for the British Journal of Psychiatry. She was promptly taken to task for not declaring her Catholicism — yet some of her critics had themselves undeclared interests as abortion providers. The authors of a recent paper on abortion and mental health, funded by the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, didn’t feel obliged to say that the foundation was also biased: it was ideologically pro-choice. But crucially, it’s religious belief that appears to undermine the validity of your research and your academic integrity. Secular prejudice doesn’t count.

‘It’s an extraordinarily offensive assumption that people convinced of a political persuasion can be seen as rational, as long as they don’t go to church, mosque or synagogue. And if they are religious, it is to be assumed that their options are dictated to them by a priest, rabbi or imam.’

Coincidentally, two other articles have appeared in the last few days broaching this subject.  One is by Andrew Lilico at Conservative Home asking why it is that when anyone argues against abortion or for any reduction in abortion time-limits it is assumed that they must have religious beliefs that are corrupting their judgement.

The second was by Matthew Parris in the Times.  In it he argued that we have a right to know when those in public life are basing their opinions on faith-based views rather than science or something else more measurable.  He talks of an occasion when he heard an MP argue persuasively for a review of the 24-week abortion limit.  He says that he respected the MP’s arguments until he discovered that he was Catholic at which point Parris ‘reappraised the value of his testimony’ believing it was purely based on the MP’s Christian beliefs and therefore of no value.

I find this approach to judging someone for these reasons disturbing as does Peter Saunders at Christian Medical Comment who says:

‘It is an example of a growing trend in media debates on public policy whereby those advocating a particular position try to advance their case, not by countering their opponents’ arguments, but rather by undermining their personal credibility. This is essentially avoiding the argument by launching an ad hominem attack. To say that someone only takes a certain position because they are a Christian or a Jew or a Sikh or a ‘bigot’ is just an excuse for not engaging in serious debate about the issue in hand. It is disingenuous, cowardly and disrespectful.’

The problem with Parris’ approach is that if  such declarations were required, potentially there would be no end to the list.  Judgement according to faith is not as simple as ‘the Bible says this’ or ‘the Bible says that’.  Our values, thoughts, words and actions are all affected by what we believe and that includes every single person irrespective of whether they believe in God, something else or nothing.  If you are an atheist, you still have to get your values from somewhere.

I find it so frustrating and counter-intuitive when those who do not believe in a god think that their values and beliefs are worth more than those whose religious perspectives have been tried and tested over the centuries and have come through intact.  Christianity in particular has not collapsed despite argument after argument being thrown at it.  Instead, time and again its moral framework has proven to hold great truth and virtue when others fall apart.  Arrogance of superiority has a habit of blinding us to our own moral faults and intellectual failings.

Those who consider that religion and rational thinking are incompatible have a lot to learn.  My Christian beliefs and convictions do not stop me from learning from science and evaluating evidence that is presented to me.  I hold them together, sometimes admittedly in tension, but the two help me to understand the world I live in.  I don’t need science to justify my beliefs, but often it will compliment them and I’m not afraid to hold the two together simultaneously.  Being a Christian doesn’t mean that I’ve unplugged my brain and instead expect the Bible to tell me the answer to every specific question I have.  If anything, it makes me think harder than my peers with no faith because my own causes me to ask the big questions about existence and life that they often ignore or approach in a superficial way.

When Isaac Newton took his ideas on gravity and the laws of motion to the Royal Society they didn’t have a problem with the fact that he believed God was essential to the nature and absoluteness of space or that he would write, “The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

I wonder if he was doing the same thing now how many would dismiss him because in their opinion someone with his religous beliefs couldn’t be accepted as a serious and respectable scientist?

Categories: Atheism, Faith in society, Morals & ethics

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19 replies

  1. I think that if you can separate religion from your scientific outlook, then you cannot be called stupid. You did mention that there is a tension there, however. If you are worried about being considered less intelligent, I think you should be careful here. Let science be science and religion be religion.

    • It’s also knowing the limits of scientific understanding and religious belief. We can’t use science to answer every philosophical question and we can’t use faith to explain the laws of our universe.

      i don’t feel that I have anything to prove. It’s more a case of highlighting ignorant thinking.

      • Hey Gillan,
        I actually wonder if there is such limits on science. I can’t claim to know the future, so I wouldn’t rule out science discovering many if not all of our deepest philosophical questions. For example, we now have a better understanding of the question of “Do we have free will?” with recent fMRI studies (The answer seems to be “no”).

  2. Dear Gilian: Excellent post. Amazingly, but sadly, right on target. I wish it were not so true!

    Also so good to hear further confirmation about the Christian driving force of IDS … also Steve Webb … and senior team. It is interesting to see how much the working poor want to see reform of the benefits system!

    So glad to have found your site (now a favourite) throuh a post by Matt Lake, Chair of the LDCF – Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. God bless!

  3. Firstly, as someone who studied Theology and attended church for many years, Christianity can be incredibly complex, intelligent and revolutionary and I don’t see every Christian I meet as stupid. I believe that all politicians bring their values and beliefs, whatever they may be and that these inform their work. I wouldn’t expect someone to casually check their Christianity in at the door and try to make all decisions without it. My ward includes a number of Muslim MP’s and I have never worried that their faith may be an issue.

    What I struggle with is when my freedoms and what is best for me as a person is limited not by science or by what seems to work in practice in society, but by someone whose religious belief supercedes my own rights. If people want to believe that conception involves a spiritual dimension (which as a pagan, I do too) fine. If however those people are making laws about abortion on that factor *alone*, when I may have a very real medical and emotional need to choose an abortion (that would not endanger me or cause undue suffering to what would be a fetus with no sensation of pain) then we have a problem. I respect someone’s right to hold a position on their lives, but not their right to impose it on mine on a religious basis alone.

    My paganism works well for me, it informs my roles in guiding organizations I am involved in and the ethics of how I live my life. However it becomes something else when it is to driving factor in imposing my way on someone else. A great deal of the abortion debate I have looked into involves some very shaky and ill put together reasoning which when examined, boils down to a Christian conviction. I am afraid that I don’t feel Jesus would impose his law upon my uterus, were he to return. Jesus speaks to me of the choices we make, whether in love or in fear and his gift to me has been to choose myself. Not for Him to choose for me.

    I have met Christians who are very practical, brave, compassionate and thoughtful. I have seen hungry people fed, outcasts brought back in and social change come from the gospel. Even when that is challenging and unpopular, it is great to see. However much of what I see in the church today is prejudice, fear, suspicion of change, blaming (why won’t young people attend? Why don’t people see how much they need us? Why should we work with the next parish when they support things we disagree with?) and the exploitation of vulnerable people, who are pressured to join the church in return for the ministry the church has so generously provided. If the church had something good to offer the people of Britain, why does it come with such an agenda? Why is dialogue about social decay and godlessness when the church is incapable of reassessing it’s own failings and hypocrisy?

    As a bisexual woman, I’m never going to feel comfortable with politicians who go to churches where the presence of women and gay people causes fear. If that is the shape Christianity wants to take in it’s own private sphere, fine, may it eat itself alive as it will do while society moves on and accepts minorities. But it can butt out of the legislation of how I live my life.

    • Thank you Heather. I think you highlight well many of the problems and perceptions people have on these issues. Most of the failures of churches you mention are often due to them getting caught up with structures and insecurity. It’s not to do with any failure of the genuine heart of Christianity. Look at Jesus and you’ll see he was scathing of the religious leaders of his time.

      If you look at biblical moral frameworks you’ll see that they have truth and wisdom behind them. It’s not a case of God saying, “Do this because I say so…” Those who have a religious faith shouldn’t expect others to follow their beliefs unless they can see good reason why it would be better for them to do so. If I say that it’s better not to get pregnant outside of a stable relationship, well that’s because my faith tells me that children are much more likely to have a better quality of upbringing if they are part of a stable family. That’s the case for everyone irrespective of what they believe. In this case the science also backs up my religious conviction.

      I can’t and shouldn’t try to force my beliefs on others, but I’ll do my best to make others understand the values and reasoning behind my views. It’s then up to them to respond as they choose.

  4. Very good post Gillan!

    I wouldn’t agree with Thatcher’s remarks about the mark of a Christian stemming solely from a ‘spiritual’ side. To me any gospel which ignores the social aspect of loving our neighbours, which treats the concepts of love, humility, mercy, justice and compassion in the Beatitudes as a sidenote is no gospel at all.

    • I agree., but what I think she’s getting at is that our concern for these matters comes from the effect our relationship with Jesus has. We care about others because GOd loved us first and He gives us His compassion for those in need. If you read the full text of the speech, she covers these social aspects too and it comes across more balanced. It’s quite a long speech, so I didn’t want to include all of it.

  5. “Scoffers” have been a well recognised group for over 3,000 years. The recent resurgence Reflects a trend in wider society to label and patronise those who think differently rather than contest the validity of rational argument.

    It could be due to faith, it could be labelling a “phobic” but it amounts to the same thing: Eluding the rigor of real debate: The 21st century version of Winston Churchill’s famous speech note along the lines “argument weak here. Shout!”

    To all the scoffers our stance must respectfully be “come and have a go if you think you are (intellectually) hard enough”

  6. This is a telling piece by Gillan. There are many worthwhile points raised. (And I never knew about Margaret Thatcher’s Christianity, although her principles and convictions certainly stood out.)

    The science versus Christianity debate arguably took wing with Darwin, but has since spread into many areas. The upstream suspicion of Christian-guided decision is surely that real faith believes in the unseen, which fails to satisfy the secular majority. Christians might therefore be bracketed with those who believe in UFOs! Nevertheless, truly applied Christian principles do work on the ground, as has been said, whether or not the person is a Christian per se.

    But there is another factor beneath all of this. Christianity has a clearly defined written code of morality in the Bible, which is there for all to read, as a yardstick by which professing Christians stand to be judged. There should be no hidden agendas. The same cannot be said among its many detractors.

    • ‘Christianity has a clearly defined written code of morality in the Bible, which is there for all to read, as a yardstick by which professing Christians stand to be judged… The same cannot be said among its many detractors.’

      Excuse me!?! The Bible does not have a monopoly on morals, and never has had. Are you saying that those who do not subscribe to your book can have no moral code?

      • I am not saying that those who do not subscribe to the Bible have no moral codes. Different religions have their own moral codes, and each person has the prerogative to choose his or her own way through life, following the moral code of conscience. The big question is, which happens to be right?

      • You are excused, Lee Turnpenny. The Bible doesn’t have a monopoly on morals, as you say. The Bible is the word of God for us to hear him speak (which doesn’t mean we always listen). He has other ways of communicating too. The moral code of those people of whom you speak was written onto their hearts by him when he made them. Just one of many ways he makes himself known.

      • 100% CORRECT! The makeup of modern day christianity is confused and bewildered. Religions that judge morality off of thought and not action are a tad suspect to me. The world is in disarray, and change is coming. Don’t know if it will look quite like revelations though.

      • Richard is right in that if you do not base your morals on a set of principles grounded in a faith or religion, then how does anyone understand what you believe and whether your views are valid? Morals have to be tested against something, otherwise they are entirely subjective and individualised. Without a common consensus based on some sort of framework who decides what is right or wrong except the individual?

  7. I wonder if [Newton] was doing the same thing now how many would dismiss him because in their opinion someone with his religous beliefs couldn’t be accepted as a serious and respectable scientist?

    There are many ‘serious and respectable scientists’ who are religious. But this device of invoking Newton’s 17th century theology (not unusually invoked by the apologist variety; you can find a few here) has no relevance whatsoever. It is dismissible because it is (scientifically) misleading.

    • The point is that any argument or hypothesis is has to stand on its own two feet. It shouldn’t matter what the person presenting it believes and yet some people will dismiss or question others because they believe in something unseen irrespective of what they are saying.

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