A couple of weeks ago when this was the first British site to report David Cameron’s 10 Downing St. Easter Reception speech, I started with these words: ‘David Cameron rarely wins plaudits when he mentions his own Christian faith. Secularists think it would be far better if he kept it to himself…’
Monday’s letter to the Telegraph from the British Humanist Association signed by 55 publicly known atheist/secularists including Professor Jim Al-Khalil, Philip Pullman, Tim Minchin and Sir Terry Pratchett pretty much proved my point. Their dispute centres around whether, as Cameron claimed, we are a Christian country. This along with his use of the word ‘evangelism’ has resulted in an incredible number of articles picking over definitions and semantics. The problem is that both of these terms can mean different things in a religious and political sense and context will affect the way a speaker uses them. David Cameron as a politician talking about the Christian faith, mixed things up in a slightly vague way, leaving us to interpret what he actually meant. Some have been forgiving whilst others, forgetting or ignoring the fact that he is not a theologian, have been unhelpfully critical of his language. The Telegraph letter definitely falls into the latter camp.
Britain is not a Christian country, in that not everyone is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ, which we should remember is what the word literally means. Only the very naïve would think that was what David Cameron was implying though. However if you refer to Britain as a Christian country using it as a shorthand to describe the way our culture and history have been shaped by the Christian faith more than any other religion, or the lack of religion, then you would be absolutely right. Over the centuries our laws, education system, health service, art, architecture, working week and a host of other social structures and cultural norms have been heavily influenced by or have come about as a result of the direct application of the Christian faith. Cameron did not invent this definition, and the majority of us would understand this particular meaning. It certainly is far from new. It could be argued that a strong bond between Christianity and this country has existed since Augustine’s mission in 597 AD from the Pope in Rome to King Aethelbert of Kent set up the future course of Christianity in Britain. Certainly the Venerable Bede writing about the event wanted to portray it in this way. For Bede, a Christian England was part of God’s master plan. It was Providence that meant it was the destiny of the Anglo-Saxons to become Christians.
It is more than a little sad that the 55 signatories would rather say that ‘Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces.’ This is not untrue, but it is far from the whole truth either. The same is the case with their statement that ‘Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.’ The number of people attending church every week may only be around a million, but when it comes to religious identity, 59 per cent of people in England and Wales, 54 per cent in Scotland and 83 per cent in northern Ireland chose to describe themselves as Christian in the 2011 census.
Claiming that Cameron has a warped view of the religious nature of this country and then presenting an even more biased one doesn’t come across as an intelligent approach, which isn’t something you would necessarily expect from a list containing so many eminent names including eleven professors. If anything this goes to show that being at the top of your academic field counts for very little once you stray beyond your specialist area. Perhaps some need to step outside of their bubbles a bit more often and see what’s going on in the real world instead of attempting to rationalise everything through a blinkered secularist mind-set that somehow assumes the world would be a better place if we kept religions out of the way in neat little boxes.
The real tragedy of this is the negativity it displays towards politicians displaying a degree of openness and religious groups despite superficially fighting against ‘alienation and division in our society’ that the writers of the letter believe Cameron’s words bring. This is intolerance and elitism dressed up as respect and concern. As Paul Bickley put it in a Theos think tank blog post yesterday:
‘[I]t’s a bit mealy mouthed to dress your letter in the guise of concern for community cohesion. Looking at the list, what motivates many of you is a personal distaste for religion. Is this the Harry Kroto who campaigned for (and got) Michael Reiss’ resignation from the post of director of education at the Royal Society? Is this the same Polly Toynbee who finds the idea that Christ would take on the sins of humanity “repugnant”? You respect the right of the Prime Minister to his religious beliefs – well, I respect your right to yours. And since there’s so much respect around, why not be honest? Most of you dislike Cameron as a politician and as an individual. You believe Christianity to be irrational, and indeed evil, and any commitment to it just proves what an intellectual failure Prime Minister is. You concede people’s right to pursue whatever stupidity they want to in their ‘private’ lives, but you zealously guard the public square against religion’s encroachment.’
This attempt to chastise David Cameron and belittle his remarks about our Christian heritage has ironically had the opposite effect. In a BBC report, Farooq Murad, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said nobody could deny that the UK remains a largely Christian country with “deep historical and structural links” to Christianity. Anil Bhanot, managing director of the Hindu Council UK, said he was “very comfortable” with the UK being described as a Christian country. Atheist, Julian Baggani has pointed out that even Richard Dawkins has happily accepted that “this is historically a Christian country” and that he is “a cultural Christian” who is “not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history”. Former Labour foreign secretary, Jack Straw has reached out across the political divide in support of David Cameron:
“There has to be a clear understanding that this is the UK and there are a set of values, some of which I would say to the letter writers to the Daily Telegraph are indeed Christian-based, whether they like it or not, which permeate our sense of citizenship.”
This morning the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve has said that, “They [atheists] are deluding themselves,” and Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith has described the letter as “absurd”.
All of this can hardly be described as ‘division’ and if anything is encouraging Christians including, Straw, Grieve and Duncan Smith to be more vocal about their beliefs. It really has ended up as an own goal, exposing the inaccurate and subversive nature of a secularist narrative that the likes of the British Humanist Association continue to peddle. Their dream of a totally neutral secular society where no one group is privileged over any other can only come into being through control or suppression, i.e. it is impossible or highly detrimental. It will always be the case that some groups will be more influential or hold more power, but the job of government is to make sure that this is not abused and that the disadvantaged are protected.
If you take time to consider the relations between faith groups in this country, you will see that they are overwhelmingly cordial. David Cameron has not said anything that will stoke animosity. There was little talk that his words would create division and alienation until it was brought up by the Humanist letter. If anything is going to cause tension in our society, it is insensitive words like these rather than those of of a prime minister speaking candidly about what Christianity means to him at a time when Christians are expected to be celebrating their faith.