Religious rump-osculation among anglophones isn’t limited to Americans. For a prime example from the other side of the pond, see the new piece by Michael Gove, a British conservative MP, in The Spectator: “Why I’m proud to be a Christian (and Jeremy Paxman should be ashamed)“. (The subtitle is “Despite a tidal wave of prejudice and negativity, faith remains the foundation of our civilisation.”)
Gove’s article can be seen only as a defense against the waning tide of religion in Britain, or as the defensive snarl of a fatally trapped animal. He begins by excoriating Paxman (an ascerbic BBC newsman and interviewer) for making fun of Christianity:
Was it true, Jeremy inquired [of Tony Blair], that he had prayed together with his fellow Christian George W. Bush?
The question was asked in a tone of Old Malvernian hauteur which implied that spending time in religious contemplation was clearly deviant behaviour of the most disgusting kind. Jeremy seemed to be suggesting that it would probably be less scandalous if we discovered the two men had sought relief from the pressures of high office by smoking crack together.
Praying? What kind of people are you?
Well, the kind of people who built our civilisation, founded our democracies, developed our modern ideas of rights and justice, ended slavery, established universal education and who are, even as I write, in the forefront of the fight against poverty, prejudice and ignorance. In a word, Christians.
But to call yourself a Christian in contemporary Britain is to invite pity, condescension or cool dismissal. In a culture that prizes sophistication, non-judgmentalism, irony and detachment, it is to declare yourself intolerant, naive, superstitious and backward.
And yes, it sort of is. It certainly brands you as someone who is superstitious (albeit not necessarily intolerant: after all, this is the UK!), and somewhat backwards in at least what you believe to be true. And of course Christians built a lot of British civilization because everybody was a Christian for the last millennium and a half. You can’t give Christianity any more credit for that than you can racism, for most of the people who built “our” civilization were racists, classists, and sexists.
Gove then goes on, citing Francis Spufford (see here for my critiques of that man) to defend Christianity, asserting that not all Christians believe in creationism, the afterlife, and “fairly tales.” But a surprising number of them do, at least if you believe Julian Baggini’s two surveys of churchgoers whose results appeared in the Guardian (see here for some data). Yes, Spufford and Gove may both adhere to Sophisticated Theology™, but the data show that they’re not the rule but the exception. By and large, Christians, including British Christians, do believe in fairy tales.
He then goes on, and I’ll finish here, with the old canard that because Christianity supposedly inspires acts of charity, it is a good thing regardless of its truth, an argument that reader Sastra calls “The Little People Argument” and that Dan Dennett calls “Belief in Belief”
The contrast between the Christianity I see our culture belittle nightly, and the Christianity I see our country benefit from daily, could not be greater.
The reality of Christian mission in today’s churches is a story of thousands of quiet kindnesses. In many of our most disadvantaged communities it is the churches that provide warmth, food, friendship and support for individuals who have fallen on the worst of times. The homeless, those in the grip of alcoholism or drug addiction, individuals with undiagnosed mental health problems and those overwhelmed by multiple crises are all helped — in innumerable ways — by Christians.
Churches provide debt counselling, marriage guidance, childcare, English language lessons, after-school clubs, food banks, emergency accommodation and, sometimes most importantly of all, someone to listen. The lives of most clergy and the thoughts of most churchgoers are not occupied with agonising over sexual morality but with helping others in practical ways — in proving their commitment to Christ through service to others.
That may be so, but right over the North Sea, the countries of Scandinavia and northern Europe have all that, and more. Those countries benefit not from Christianity, but from socialism and secular morality. In other words, you can have the good stuff without the fairy tales? To the West, Ireland, still ridden with Catholicism, prohibits most abortions, still has anti-blasphemy laws on the books, and terrifies its children with threats of hell. Oh, and up North the Catholics and Protestants used to kill each other, but of course that’s all in the past.
The question is this: does Gove believe that the truth claims of Christianity—the existence of Jesus as savior and his resurrection—are true? Does he even care? Or does he think it doesn’t matter so long as a faulty foundation supports a useful superstructure? Apparently so:
Relativism is the orthodoxy of our age. Asserting that any one set of beliefs is more deserving of respect than any other is a sin against the Holy Spirit of Non–Judgmentalism. And proclaiming your adherence to the faith which generations of dead white males used to cow and coerce others is particularly problematic. You stand in the tradition of the Inquisition, the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits who made South America safe for colonisation, the missionaries who accompanied the imperial exploiters into Africa, the Christian Brothers who presided over forced adoption and the televangelists who keep America safe for capitalism.
But genuine Christian faith — far from making any individual more invincibly convinced of their own righteousness — makes us realise just how flawed and fallible we all are. I am selfish, lazy, greedy, hypocritical, confused, self-deceiving, impatient and weak. And that’s just on a good day. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…And there is no health in us.’ [JAC: As Hitchens used to say, “Christianity tells us we are born sick and commanded to be well.”]
Christianity helps us recognise and confront those weaknesses with a resolution — albeit imperfect and fragile — to do better. But more importantly, it encourages us to feel a sense of empathy rather than superiority towards others because we recognise that we are as guilty of selfishness and open to temptation as anyone.
Well, first let’s see Gove’s evidence that Christians really do perform more good acts in Britain than do non-Christians or secularists. What he presents in his piece is simply a string of assertions without evidential support. Absent that data, I’m not prepared to accept Gove’s argument. And even if it were true, the other countries of Europe show that one can have societies healthier than that of the UK, all without the superstition.
And of course Gove conspicuously leaves the U.S. out of his argument.