jQuery Slider

You are here

Future generations will hear far more about God and politics

Future generations will hear far more about God and politics

By Michael Burleigh
Daily Telegraph UK

The commercial success of Richard Dawkins's God Delusion may perhaps be owing to readers in Utah keen to burn it. However, it surely also signifies the mobilisation of local secular opinion around his double helix-emblazoned standard.

Because Britain has suffered less from anti-clericalism than continental Europe, much of the argument about faith in this country is of the God-bothering variety. However, there are worrying signs that this quaint Victorian-style debate between dons in tweed and men of the cloth is having a wider impact.

A poll published today by the new think tank Theos reveals public confusion. If 42 per cent of a thousand adults agree with Dawkins that religion is like "the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate", 53 per cent claim that "religion is a force for good in society", with a slightly higher percentage agreeing that Christianity had an important role to play in public affairs.

Perhaps some strange dialectic between rabid Islam and the militant secularists is partly responsible for these mixed messages? The more secularists hear from those like Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali, the "Aussie imam" of Sydney, who thinks that underclad women are like displays of meat for predatory men, the more they feel entitled to lash out at religion in general.

However, daily Islamist provocations, a wider fatigue with consumerism and a popular culture in which a scion of the Victorian dynasty that built London's sewers brings us Big Brother could equally be fuelling a recrudescence of cultural Christianity, in which many people see personal or social benefit in the old faith of our Continent.

Encouragingly, Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, has forthrightly attacked the notion that Britain is a "multi-faith society", saying: "Almost everything you touch in British culture, whether it's art, literature or the language itself has been shaped by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, by the Bible, by the Churches, worship and belief."

Today's inauguration of Theos is an encouraging sign that intellectual Christians in Britain are not going to flee the battle that militant secularists have long declared, as can be seen from Owen Chadwick's Secularisation of the European Mind, which deals with their campaigns in the 19th century.

There is something encouragingly American about Theos, provided one associates US Christians with its many distinguished public intellectuals, like Richard John Neuhaus or George Weigel, rather than the literalists of dread imaginings.

And how revealing that it is a new think tank, rather than the limp-wristed universities with their cadres of Islamist militants, that has ventured into these contentious areas.

Supported by the Anglican and Roman Catholic primates, Theos will not confine itself to locking horns with academe's celebrity atheists, nor will it simply react to provocations (overwhelmingly involving radical Islamists) that appear to discredit all faith.

Rather, in a brilliant exposition of Theos's remit, entitled Doing God, Nick Spencer indicates that the very notion of a separate public sphere, or what we call civil society, is an indirect offspring of Christian rejection of imperial theocracy, and that Christians have much still to contribute to their own legacy.

Indeed, whether for demographic reasons, which over the long term favour religious believers, or, because of the creeping withdrawal of the state from social provision, future generations will hear a lot more about God and politics.

Spencer makes short work of many arguments routinely used to excise religion from the public sphere, a goal that is utterly ahistorical in a country where the Sovereign is head of the Established Church and daily prayers are said in Parliament.

By dealing in moral absolutes or through focus on the transcendental, religious people allegedly tend to be intolerant, indifferent to the merely temporal, or drag societies into sectarianism.

All of these arguments could be applied to secular ideological fanaticisms - notably liberalism, fascism and communism - and neglect the work done by Churches to bring about peace and reconciliation in even the most vicious conflicts.

These range from Britain's strife-ridden "multi-cultural" cities to secret Italian Catholic mediation between the military regime and Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria. Being smart, Spencer suggests that religious believers should adjust their language to a pluralistic audience.

On the positive side, Spencer makes a powerfully "secular" case for deeper Christian involvement in politics, beyond the overblown irrelevance of whether Ruth Kelly belongs to Opus Dei or whether George W.

Bush and Tony Blair pray together. "Secular" changes are things we scarcely perceive and can do little to alter, like the ineluctable march of the one- or two-child family, liquor stills and satellite porn among Iran's middle-class Shia.

In Britain, Spencer argues that the withdrawal of the state from welfare provision will reveal a "long-hidden shore of civil society, in which religious groups in general, and the Churches in particular, have and are playing a significant role".

There are some 22,000 religious charities in this country, not to speak of parish or chapel-based voluntary work.

Whereas bureaucratised welfare is invariably decoupled from altruism, and manages to demoralise and infantilise its "clients", by their nature, religious charities encourage self-reflection and responsibility, provided the mission is not neutered in return for local or government funding.

In passages that will annoy those credulous toward material progress - measured by possessions - Spencer draws on economist Richard Layard's work on how wealth does not guarantee happiness to make the case that firm religious faith and marriage are two of the major indicators of individual and social health and happiness.

He is surely not alone in sensing a palpable fatigue with the nightly degradations inflicted on us by television commissioning editors, the deification of things in the cathedrals of shopping and the trillions of pounds racked up on credit cards heedlessly issued by a cynical banking sector.

What he describes as a new, diffuse concern with "wellbeing" will inevitably make religion more important to politics, in that politicians will have to address an essentially religious agenda, based on values and ultimate meanings, of the sort with which Senator McCain electrified the Conservatives when he addressed their party conference.

It is also probable that infantile Islamic enragement, and the sillier provocations of "diversity" officers in local government, will sooner rather than later trigger a much broader revival of cultural Christianity, as people balk at the insensitive disregard of this country's two-millennia-old religious traditions, which are far from defunct in the moral imaginations of many.

Ersatz cults have come and gone since the 1960s; perhaps Theos will remind people that beyond them lies something infinitely more valuable, without which our political life would be the poorer.

---Michael Burleigh is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and author of Sacred Causes: Politics and Religion from the European Dictators to al-Qa'eda (HarperCollins)

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Prayer Book Alliance

Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee

Drink Coffee

Do Good

Sustainable Ministry

Coffee, Community, Social Justice


Go To Top