There is a widely held belief that it’s religion that put the ‘wo’ in world, the ‘cult’ in culture and the ‘soc-it-tosomeone- else’ in society, that the planet would be a better, more peaceful place without gods and their devotees. Look at Northern Ireland, consider the Arab-Israeli conflict, reflect on Rwanda, ponder 9/11 and you will conclude that strongly held ideas – whether those ideas are held by fanatics from Al Qaeda or fundamentalists from Texas – are bad for all of us.
It matters not a jot that it was atheist beliefs that killed 100 million people in Europe in the 20th century, that it was atheist beliefs that led to the killing fields of Cambodia, to Saddam Hussein’s biological warfare against the Kurds, that it was atheism that led to the revolutionary massacres of Maoist China and sub-Saharan Africa. What matters is the perception that religion is bad for societies, that religion causes things not to work.
This overall negative perception of religion deeply affects many people’s attitudes to Christianity. In a world where people believe that religion kills (and often does), why should anyone believe that any good can come out of Christianity? Or Islam or Hinduism?
And it is the belief that religion is oppressive and dangerous that is one of the most potent threats to religious liberty in Europe. If religions are bad for humankind, and destabilising for advanced economies, why on earth should civilised societies seek to preserve religious liberty? People who believe passionately that they are right are dangerous. After all, doesn’t everybody know that there is no such thing as absolute truth? How could you possibly claim such a thing?
Of course, it is only because the liberal establishment pretends that their faith is not a faith that their position is credible. Atheism is as much a faith as Hinduism, the statement “I do not believe in God” as much a creed as the Nicene Creed. Relativism, with its absolutist claim that there is no truth, is as absolutist as any religion claiming that there is. Nor is it the case that secular materialism actually provides the most happiness for the most people.
The reality is that most of the West is actually unhappier than it was when it was more religious.
At root, the secularists hate the idea of absolute truth – it inhibits their freedom. No wonder the major non- Christian faith leaders in Britain feel that their liberties are much more threatened by the ‘protective’ energies of the secular legislators than by Christian evangelistic initiatives. The liberal rhetoric pretends that they are protecting the interests and liberties of minority faiths, the reality is that they are really protecting their own secular liberal interests.
If we are to defend religious freedom for all, we must defend the possibility of absolute truth, defend the possibility that there might actually be one way, one truth that would deliver a better society.
Still, we need to ask how we have got to the point where the very possibility of absolute truth is so inimical to the Western mind. After all, the idea of absolute truth is logically coherent. It may be difficult to decide which way is the truth but it surely makes sense that, in the end, there is one – that, for example, the universe came into being in one way not six, that God either exists or he doesn’t, that if he exists he has a particular character and expects particular things from those he has created.
So how has the idea that there is no absolute truth succeeded in dominating not only the halls of academe but the popular imagination?
The road to atheism since the 17th century can be traced in five major, logical stages:
- God rules
- Reason rules
- I rule
- No rules
- Cool rules
Back in the 17th century, God ruled. Faced by a dilemma, most Europeans would look to God’s Word, or the guardians of God’s Word, for the answer.
Subsequently, enlightenment thinkers concluded that the distinctive aspect of human beings was their ability to think. Descartes concluded, “Cogito ergo sum.” I think therefore I am. Faced by a dilemma, human beings should look to reason to solve it. If you read a story about a man walking on water or raising the dead, you use your capacity to reason. Your reason concludes that this cannot be, that it was myth, fabrication or mere misunderstanding. Instead of human beings submitting their thinking to God’s revelation, divine revelation is submitted to human reason. Reason rules. But if reason rules, how then do we judge whose reason to follow?
Suppose today we conclude that the most reasonable person in the world is, say, Gordon Brown. So we follow the ‘Brown’ road. But then we read Oliver Letwin and realise how much common sense he talks. But then we meet Simon Hughes and realise how wise and reasonable he is – until we meet someone else whose capacity to reason seems more reasonable to our limited capacity to reason… If humans are the ultimate judge of right and wrong, then who is to say which human is right or wrong? They may all be wrong. I can’t tell. How then shall I live?
This was the dilemma that the existentialists wrestled with. If no one can know that they’re right, how do you choose? Sartre concluded that the answer was simply to choose – something. It didn’t matter what – Christianity, Leninism, Jainism – just choose:
‘By choosing we affirm the value, we can never choose evil, we will always choose the good.’
What matters is that I should have the freedom to pursue my way of life with enormous enthusiasm. And that you should have that freedom too. Just do it.
But what if my worldview limits your freedom? What if my worldview suggests that you cannot work for me as a pastor because I run a Christian organisation and you are a Muslim? Then, my worldview is limiting your freedom and therefore my worldview must be curbed, suppressed. The Great God Choice crushes personal integrity.
The Great God Choice won the philosophical battle 70 years ago, but the Great God Choice had to wait until the 1980s for the market economy to develop to the point where any product, any service could be justified by the consumer’s right to choose – it’s what 10 year olds want, it’s what sells. Let the consumer choose. The customer is always right. The market is always right. Philosophical logic resonates with market logic. I choose therefore I am.
Today, consumer choosing also serves to fill the need for identity and belonging. Bereft of a compelling and satisfying cause, people fill their need for identity and belonging through the display of logos: “Ashamed of your mobile?” goes the slogan. Ashamed of that perfectly functional machine that allows you to communicate with a billion people at the touch of a few buttons? Such an absurd phrase ought to be greeted with hoots of derision by any sane person but it isn’t. Because shame is exactly what this idol can cause. Cool rules.
This is the dominant faith of our times. Nevertheless, people know deep down that the objective difference between a Nokia and a Motorola is quite small. They know their identity hangs by a thread – sometimes quite literally – that they may have to change these gods… Storm today, FCUK tomorrow. And this also undermines the idea that there is any stable truth to rely on. Logos are mortal: true today, logoing, going, gone tomorrow.
Nevertheless, this is the ideology of our time. Choice is all. In the academy and in the marketplace.
Are there any signs of hope that we can combat these trends, that we can convince anyone that radical, full-on Christianity is not bad for society?
Well, we can of course begin by analysing the situation through the Biblical lens. In Romans chapter 1 Paul argues that the truth is there for all to see but people choose to suppress it. This suppression of truth leads inexorably to debauchery. The conscience is seared, heterosexual promiscuity is followed by homosexual promiscuity is followed by bestiality. Look around.
But the suppression of truth also affects the market. As we saw with Enron, business cannot exist without trust. And trust only thrives when truth matters. Indeed, big businesses need investors to trust the numbers because if they don’t they won’t invest. And that would be bad, very bad for the bottom line. Honesty turns out to be most profitable policy. Never mind the ideology, results rule.
A while back Leon Brittan said: “Britain is the only country in Europe where it is a positive disadvantage to show the least glimmer of intelligence.”
He has a point. We may be able to win the argument for freedom of religion, we may be able to demonstrate the coherence of Christianity but winning the argument cuts less ice with the average Brit than showing it works. The British are and ever have been pragmatists. Our great advantage is that Christianity is not only intellectually coherent, not only satisfies, but it works. And when it is shown to work, competitive ideology that seems to have grown up like Jonah’s vine, withers as fast.
Take, for example, the extraordinary tale of Emmanuel College in Gateshead. Emmanuel College is, you may recall, the non-selective secondary school, which found fame because it taught creationism as one theory of the earth’s origins, alongside other theories. The dogmatists and the media railed at Emmanuel and attempted to discredit the school. Muslim parents didn’t care. 65% of the kids are from deprived or very deprived areas but 98% of Emmanuel’s pupils achieve A* to C grades in their GCSEs! This compares with a national average for non-selective schools of 52%.
The school has an evangelical Christian foundation behind it and was partially funded by Sir Peter Vardy’s trust. But Brits are pragmatic and this pragmatism emerged not only on the lips of parents but in the columns of The Times leading in one article with the headline:
‘Since when was it a sin to be the best school in town?’
Stephen Pollard went on to conclude: ‘By the way I’m not a Christian and I think creationism is nonsense. But what in heaven’s name has that got to do with it?’
You see a similar pragmatism too in the press’ response to Blair’s faith. So Michael Gove, writing in The Times, responded to Blair’s comment on his decision to go to war in Iraq: ‘I’m ready to meet my maker’ in highly pragmatic terms:
‘The belief that one is answerable for one’s actions before a higher authority … inclines a man to humility rather than arrogance. An additional constraint is placed on our actions, beyond a judgment of what the public or the Labour Party will support.’
Ah good, Christian faith builds in another level of accountability, makes a leader less likely to put personal or party gain before the national interest, or the divine agenda.
This pragmatism applies in all kinds of areas. Radical, full-on Christianity is demonstrating its efficacy in innovative transformational community projects, in small businesses, in thousands of local church initiatives. Recently, one leader of a national youth organisation told me that they had been asked by a local authority to provide two detached youthworkers for a difficult estate. Why us? Because, the local authority replied, the people we’ve been sending in have the same values as the people they are trying to change. Aha, so Christianity works. Jesus is not just the truth, he’s the way, he’s life.
Of course, this is not to suggest that we reduce the Gospel to a social prosperity message – it is obviously more, much more than a good way to run a school or a business – it is the only way to escape the consequences of our ghastly sin. Similarly, following Jesus does not necessarily deliver economic prosperity and better run schools to all his followers – in many parts of the world the people of God are oppressed, murdered, deprived of education, cut off from economic advancement. Nevertheless, our message in our own country, to those who lead our institutions and companies is this: it works.
Certainly, it is clear we have legal and constitutional and intellectual battles to fight but on the ground, in our evangelism, in our apologetics, in our desire to help people with life skills – marriage, parenting, personal finance, people may believe, to paraphrase Philip in John 1, that ‘nothing good can come out of’ Christianity, but our response might echo Andrew’s: ‘Come and see.’