by David McDonagh
Was there ever a Christian country?
Rowan Williams says that Britain is no longer a Christian country in The Sunday Telegraph 27 April 2014. But was it ever in the past? Was there ever a completely Christian nation? The area of widespread worship is over he says but did it ever exist?
Williams wrote in the wake of David Cameron saying that Britain was Christian so we all should be at home with the creed or even confident to recruit or to do evangelical work to ensure it continues as such. But if we are already Christians why do we need to rope more into the creed by evangelical work? Cameron’s deputy, Nick Clegg, by contrast, declared in 2007 that he was not a believer and this week he called for the Church of England to be disestablished.
Some 50 Politically Correct [PC] fools wrote to the Daily Telegraph saying that we lived in a plural society that was non-religious, for to claim otherwise would foster alienation and division. But PC always does cause alienation and division and its rejection by the masses seems to have alienated many from both parliament and the mass media too.
Williams attempted to explain: “If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian. It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. But post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted.
A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers and we are not that. Equally, we are not a nation of dedicated secularists. It is a matter of defining terms.
A Christian country as a nation of believers? No.
A Christian country in the sense of still being very much saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it? Yes.”
Well, it never was a set of Christian believers but most think that the creed must have some value, even if it is false. Most see Christianity as a source of morals. Most of the 50 fools who protested about Cameron with their own PC cant will think it is roughly right on morals. This is a major reason why Christianity survives. Indeed, the Church of England seems to also value PC above Christianity. If the Church of England is what Cameron means by Christianity then it is not easy to imagine what the 50 fools have to moan about. My own opinion is that PC is worse than Christianity has been at least for the last hundred years or so. It was more fanatical in the 1640s, of course, and it haply did not get properly civilised in England till about 1900. But PC is unmitigated insufferable totalitarian claptrap. Why don’t they just shut up about representation?
Anyway, what vision does Williams feel shapes Britain from Christianity? If we read Chaucer, the supposed pilgrims seem to no more hold to the creed than I do. They seem to show any idea as long as it is not Christian, and all that is back in the supposed heyday of the fourteenth century.
Many say that the Roman Catholic Church had lots in common with the Communist Party and that rings true to me in at least two ways. 1) Despite all the preaching most rank and file Catholics and Communists too seemed to know next to nothing about their supposed creed. 2) What was even more surprising for the novice to mass movements, as I was back in 1968, is that not only did they not know about the creed but they did not want to know either. This explains why they did not know, I suppose, but why call themselves Catholics or Communists then? Indeed, why were the fictional Chaucer pilgrims going on a pilgrimage or why were they pilgrims? I assume they were representative of his day.
Anyway, the Communists were they ever particularly keen to talk about it. I was told in 1969 that if I did not stop talking about socialism in the Communist Social Club then I ought to leave. They wanted to talk about football instead. Both Catholics and Communists seemed to have in common apathy to their nominal creed together with leaving it to others to discuss. Was 1969 so different from Chaucer’s day, or from today? I tend to think not.
The fellow who replaced Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury, those jobs were once for life but today the holders tend to lack the moral fibre to keep at it, is the Reverend Justin Welby, [is his name just
in as he will soon be out? Anyway, he has only just got
in] who this week also expressed his view that David Cameron is right. He feels it is unwelcome to some but true that law, ethics, and culture in the UK were based on Christian teachings and tradition. So Cameron is right that it is a Christian country. He found the criticism from the humanist crowd of atheists protesters, he means the 50 PC fools that I mentioned above, baffling. Cameron had said that people should be more confident that Britain is a Christian country but the 50 protesters felt he should have said that the UK it was plural and non-religious. They said that it was wrong to hold that it was particularly Christian. Well. It may be an exaggeration, replied Welby, but why should it be divisive or make people feel alienated? The 50 fools seem to have no reason.
Welby seems to be right there. But I suppose a Humanist Association has to find something to do. What they mean by plural is maybe unknown to even to themselves; although they have the odd philosopher, A.C. Grayling, amongst them. They nevertheless seem to specialise in not thinking at all if they mean, as so many who use that inept jargon of pluralism say they mean, when asked, moral pluralism, as if we are free to honestly claim that theft or murder is fine. There is a moral law, though fools are free, as indeed they should be, to deny it, and it includes the universal condemnation of theft and murder, to cite but two rules that it upholds. They should not be free to impose on others by stealing or by murder. Free speech, yes, but not any truly immoral behaviour. But the scope of objective ethics seems to be way narrower than most people imagine even today. It does not seem to have much to do with consensual sex, for example.
Welby cited the reaction of the 50 fools to David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith who called the claims of the 50 absurd and Dominic Grieve who said that atheism had not made much progress in the UK. Grieve here seemed to overlook that there was not much progress for atheism to make in England even back in Chaucer’s day.
Welby said that anyone might have thought that the three Tories had called for the return of the Inquisition, compulsory church-going or for universal tithes. It is all baffling, he said, but also encouraging. The usual indifference has been replaced by a bit of hatred and opposition for the Christian faith for a refreshing change, he said.
But if the normal reaction is the indifference that Welby says then his thesis that the UK is a Christian country looks rather unrealistic. But then Welby seems only to be saying that it is an historical fact that the British culture was Christian. However, in what way ever was it?
The chief problem with this thesis is the ever changing versions of Christianity. That was a third thing the Catholics were said to have in common with the Communists; both Rome and Moscow were fickle. And the rank and file were too apathetic to bother to find out what they were supposed to believe.
The pristine version of Christianity seems to be the most problematic for it said, some two thousand years back, that “the end was nigh”. Welby cites Christian ethics but who needs ethics if the end is nigh? Not the pristine Christians, it seems. Let the dead bury the dead.
Anyway, Welby says that the three Tories have not said anything controversial, but then Welby does see the controversy, so perhaps he meant that it should not have been controversial.
Welby continues that in Britain it is Christianity that has influenced what people see as fair, that the poor should be protected, that caused hospitals to flourish, that saw to it that universal schooling was introduced, that sees to it that prisons have chaplains, and it has had an impact on literature, visual art, music, and the general culture that has formed British understandings of beauty and worth since Anglo-Saxon days.
But is all that nominal or real? Had Islam spread to Europe rather than just to Spain, how different would things truly be by now as a result? Religion makes great claims but it is not clear whether any of them are true as an alternative religion or even some secular organisation might have played the same or even a better role. The Christians took over the midwinter festival that they now call Christmas for example but it was going before they took it over. Indeed, the Puritans of the 1640s banned Christmas as un-Christian. Similarly, marriage is way older than Christianity but they took it over and they make many false claims about both as basically Christian.
I ought to say before going any further than Christianity seems harmless enough to me if only it keeps out of political coercion of the general public. If ever it goes into politics, it will be as anti-social as any politics is for the state is always negative sum but is even more likely to be totalitarian or illiberal than normal politics as it has an ideology that it is likely to seek to impose. Ditto any other religion. I see current PC as being more abhorrent than any religion currently is.. But if all the PC laws were repealed then maybe that would not be so bad as it is today. It is the politics rather than the moral errors of crass PC that makes it obnoxious.
Welby said that it was true that the 2011 census only had 59% in the England and Wales saying UK they were Christians but in 2001 it had been 72%. In Scotland it was 54% but it was 65% in 2001 but in 2011 in Northern Ireland it was still 83%.
Welby went on to say: “It is clear that, in the general sense of being founded in Christian faith, this is a Christian country.
It is certainly not in terms of regular church-going, although altogether, across different denominations, some millions attend church services each week. Others of different backgrounds have also positively shaped our common heritage.
But the language of what we are, what we care for and how we act is earthed in Christianity, and would remain so for many years even if the number of believers dropped out of sight (which they won’t, in my opinion)” Welby said.
Seeing that the 50 fools included Philip Pullman, Sir Terry Pratchett, Tim Minchin, Polly Toynbee, A.C. Grayling, Dan Snow, and that the lead signatory was the president of the British Humanist Association, Jim Al-Khalili [not
to be confused with
Al-Qaeda], Welby went on: “The atheist protesters are wrong to argue that expressing confidence in the country’s Christian identity fosters alienation and division in our society.
Indeed, it is significant that non-Christian faith leaders – among them Anil Bhanot of the Hindu Council UK, Farooq Murad of the Muslim Council of Britain and Lord Indarjit Singh of the Network of Sikh Organisations—have spoken out in support of Mr Cameron.
So why all the fuss? ”asked Welby. He went on to conclude that the Prime Minister was right on this issue.
Welby is right that the 50 fools seem to have no case in the terms they state of being extra oppressed by what Cameron said, though the British Humanists perhaps need to indulge in at least some activity from time to time even if it is in foolish terms. Welby is right that what they said was pure cant. They were most likely merely pretending to be upset as they had nothing better to do. But they are haply right that Britain is not a Christian country and Welby himself is most likely no more a man who truly thinks there is a God than is Jim Al-Khalili or indeed I do. I would say that no one acts as if they thought that a concerned God was out there. . We all act as if we are atheists or, at best, Deists who feel that God does not give a hoot what we do. None of us show any awe or fear of God. God would be a perfect deterrent if believed. Why would we need a police force in that case? Why bother with science if we can just ask a caring God the father by prayer? Science has no chance against mere prayer if a caring God is out there. But not even one of us thinks this is realistic. Welby no more believes it than I do; nor does Williams. No one does. No one did in the past either.
Would King Henry VIII act like the crass tyrant that he was if he thought a caring God was out there to check him at any moment; nor would he be the only one who would not dare to sin. No one would sin if they thought that a caring God existed.
Theology is a farce. It has been a farce all along, for about 2000 years or so. Every other study needs to save the phenomena or to explain reality as it seems to be but theology needs to obfuscate the clear enough fact that there is no phenomena, Everything it says has to fit no evidence at all. It needs to apologise for why God hides but why would a caring personal God hide? It is reported that Wittgenstein asked what it would look like if God did not exist. If so, then he typically asked an inept question for the apt question is what things would look like if God existed and the answer is clearly not as things have ever been in the known past. Philosophy could not ever hope to match prayer in such a world. God would render most that we do futile. Anyway, no one believes there is a caring God out there. Chaucer displays that they were all atheists back in the fourteenth century and there never was a time when most, if not all, people were not.
How long could a belief in a caring God last if, by chance, it ever did emerge in some person’s mind? It would surely not be long for this believer to see that at best God was very inactive. Well, if that inactive does God care? The question allows of only the answer no.
So why do so many say they believe in God? Are they all liars? I think that they are rather confused, largely apathetic and indifferent than outright bold fully witting liars. People are not always very good at reporting what they believe. My chief idea is that most people conflate beliefs with values. They clearly think that religion has some value, but they do not seem to think it has much to do with the actual facts, at least today, but they think that maybe Jesus existed even if God never did. My own idea is that Jesus never existed. “Like father, like son”. So the word never was made flesh. The Christian creed always was confined to mere words. But it was valued rather than ever actually believed.
We need some beliefs to make whatever we value viable. Those beliefs about the creed did exist but they never were beliefs in an active caring God. As David Hume saw, but Gottfried Leibniz held before him, as maybe the Stoics well over a thousand years earlier, facts are one thing and values another. But most people confuse the two.
People often say they believe in God but they never seem to fear God. They openly admit to being sinners with no concern at all that God might decide to punish them. This means they do not take a caring God seriously. This also means they do not really think that such a caring God even truly exists. They feel no need to worry about God much.
It seems that if anyone did feel that a vengeful jealous God was out there, one concerned with what he called sin, like, say, sex outside of marriage, then this would affect them so seriously that they would not even be tempted by even the most sexy members of the opposite sex or, if we are to take David Cameron’s outlook into account on homosexual marriage, even the same sex, if that was their inclination.
Certainly, God would deter crime to the extent that the police would be rendered redundant in a society of actual believers but this is nowhere near being the case today,. as we can all see. Nor was Britain ever even remotely like that in the past, either. So Britain, contra Williams and Welby, is not strictly Christian today nor was it ever in the past. It never was a Christian or God believing nation. But was any other nation? I tend to think not.
Most people are very confused on the belief/value distinction. Many academics will have known of the fact/value [is/ought] distinction. Aristotelian philosophers will seek to refute it but they rarely seem to even grasp it. I have found well over 30 lecturers who do not grasp the distinction in actual college classes, often in front of about 10/20 students, but some authors also oppose it in books, always in my experience so far, on bogus grounds that sometimes clearly enough show that they are confused on the distinction and they always fail to show that they have it clear. Two celebrated philosophers who used to be like this, and most likely they both still are, are Hilary Putnam and John Searle. There are many others.
Honesty is not always fully achieved sincerity. To be honest is just to say what you think just now. To be sincere is to get it right at least for a time if not for life. To be serious is to follow up in a series. So many wives or husbands say to their spouse when they are having a row “I hate you!” and they mean it at the time but an hour later they, falsely, say, [again with cheap honesty], that they never really meant it, but they usually did mean it; but had they thought seriously at the time then they would not have even have said it in the first place. They were honest at the time but not quite sincere.
We can, sometimes, think we believe what we do not quite believe but the spouse hate example is not quite right there, as we usually do feel and mean the temporary hatred, even though we would not, had we been more aware of what we were saying. To hate does not involve consideration of the things the temporary hater ignored but belief in God does demand a reaction to things that most Christians just ignore. We feel hatred and that is enough to hate but to think a personal God exists might need more consideration for actual belief to exist for our values is about only our minds but our beliefs are about what we think is the case out in the external world. Hatred just involves feeling but believing in a person or in God involves holding that the person, or God, can do this or that quite outside ourselves. In this way, I doubt if Welby ever believed in God. Ditto Williams. Ditto any Pope.
I think that the dispositional sense of belief as something we are disposed to merely say is utterly unrealistic as belief, but I do not deny that we are disposed to say this or that. I would just never want to say that is belief. We might be disposed to say that the capital of West Germany was Bonn in the 1970s but today most will say the capital of Germany is Berlin.
Gilbert Ryle held that belief can be in disposition. Thus he thinks we can have a belief from one decade to the next but I hold we cannot even do that from one minute to the next. I hold beliefs are as ephemeral as fresh in-takes of air. We have to renew a belief-take to do anything at all. In any activity, we spend a belief-take. That is why we need our five senses to automatically renew our beliefs and if any of them are damage we are thereby no longer as able to cope as well in many things we want to do as we were beforehand. We need to know how things are now, at the current moment, so that we can do almost anything that we may want to do.
We are told that 59% in the UK believe in God but in fact they merely say so. Not one of them ever seem to expect any actual meeting with God and if they were to meet God then it would be shocking and surprising as well as awesome for any of them. Such a meeting is not expected by any nominal Christian today, nor was it believed by the nominal Christians in the past.
In what sense, then, is their common answer back of “yes!”, whenever the opinion polls ask the 59% whether they are Christians or whether they believe in God actually true? I would say in no sense at all. They are merely confused and apathetic. But they are not thereby dishonest in any way. They merely fail to realise that they are not taking the question seriously. Belief is certainly not what we are merely disposed to say. Rather it is what we think is the actual state of affairs out in the world.
Religion of some sort has haply been around about 7000 years, or maybe much longer, but the oldest religion extant today is hardly half that age, and all of them have evolved into many different manifestations in the last thousand years, or so. All extant religions took over from earlier ones and the ones they then replaced were far from the pristine religions in the society when they were the new religion that took over; often by political aid.
I have never thought that religion is in the same game as science or philosophy. Both of those are to do with the facts. Religion is not mainly about facts, or our ignorance, but rather about our values. Religions do make a few factual claims, and they do go on about truth, but the religious are nearly always clearly confused over beliefs and values. Values are not immediately about facts. A wide range of different facts will do to make almost any value viable. Religion is more to do with “us and them” rather than what is the case with the objective world. It is about whose side you are on rather than whether atoms exist or not.
Politics is similar to religion, as that too is about whose side we are on most of all rather than about any truth or facts, so is whether you support the local football team or not. Religion is a value paradigm. It is not about what people believe. It is rather about who or what they are willing to support.
Religion never was as big in any society as most people tend to imagine it was in the past in all societies. Like with nationalism today, all say they are religious but there only ever were a few really keen enthusiasts over religion. Most people always were apathetic. But they all supposed back then, as they all still do today, that religion must have some value. After all, it has stood the test of time.
That it is very good for moral values in society is maybe thought to be the most useful aspect of Christianity. So in this sense, most tend to agree with me that religion is a value paradigm. They think it is most useful in upholding moral values.
It is not so good at explaining the origins of things. God is not really a beginning from nothing, as he is also supposed to have been always there. So many schoolboys can, and do, ask who created God. Kant errs on saying that the idea of a beginning is on par with the idea of no beginning, as there being something here today gives the thesis that there was no absolute beginning a slight edge. Aristotle felt sure there was no beginning. Most people may well tacitly agree with him. In any case, they do not seem to actually think there is a caring God out there. They all behave as if they are atheists and it seems that they always did.