Some comments on an article by Andrew Marr (Sunday Times, Published: 27 December 2015)
My comments are in blue bold italics. The original article is in plain text.
We are at war in Syria. And one of the terrible things about wars is that they shrivel the imagination: warring peoples must caricature and exaggerate the idiocy and misdeeds of their enemies, while pumping their own virtues. Cool analysis chokes in the sand. This is not a bad moment, then, to ask what the West can learn from its Islamist enemies.
Cue bulging HM Bateman eyes; fanning of hot cheeks; flutterings of empurpled outrage. Learn from the fanatics? Learn from the fascist “death cult”? Jeepers, there must be something in this bloody paper about Charles Dickens and snow . . .
Well, to be clear, there are plenty of things we don’t need to learn from the self-described Islamic State. We don’t need to learn about roasting captives alive, or beheading the innocent, or the oppression of women, or the fanatical pursuit of religious orthodoxy, or the public murder of homosexuals, or obedient grovelling to demented old men.
We don’t need to learn because we did it all ourselves just a few centuries ago. Yes, and an important point, often ignored by Christians on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, whose model of Christianity is one of benign modernity: goodwill to all men, righteous and high moral standards, and tolerance; a hugely civilizing influence on our world, without which “we’d be savages”.
Do you know why women in Tudor times were burnt at the stake? Because the alternative punishment — disembowelling and hacking apart while still alive — required the victim to be naked and this, not the disembowelling, was ruled unseemly for women. It sounds just the kind of mad thing they’d be debating in the coffee houses of Raqqa.
In medieval France, the punishment for homosexuals was, for the first offence, castration, which clearly didn’t work since it was to be followed for later offences by dismemberment and then burning to death. I’d hope this is a far cry from the attitudes which prevail amongst Christians in the 21st century western developed world, but you don’t have to travel too far, even in 2015, to find Christians who support the death penalty for homosexuality.
We did it all — not just the British, but across Europe. Everything from public murder on the basis of small textual differences to sectarian warfare, the slaughter of “the wrong” civilians and state terror justified in the name of love and peace belongs first to the Christian wars of the early modern period. (an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless)
Like the Muslim version now, those wars provoked vast, history-changing migrations of desperate refugees. These transformed Britain for the better, because we got the Huguenots with their technical and mercantile skills; and on a rather larger scale, it provoked the first great European migration to North America, leading eventually to Donald Trump. (I suspect Andrew’s implication here is that this perhaps wasn’t universally a good thing).
It sometimes seems to me that Britons of the 21st century are being attacked not by something “out there” but by our earlier selves, the angriest Scots and English of the 17th century — as if, ghostlike, our own persecuting, fanatical forebears had returned to modern streets. We went through the Enlightenment, of course, but in key ways this is less a war between parts of the Middle East and parts of the West than a war between 2015 and, say, 1536 (the year William Tyndale went to the stake).
Which is where the learning might come in handy. What is the possible appeal of a return to the values of what most of us would consider the moral Dark Ages? Why do relatively well-educated, often articulate people brought up in the West today fall under the spell of clerics who resemble Luther at his most furious, or John Knox having a spectacularly bad afternoon?
When I was endeavouring to tell the story of the British through our poetry, again and again it struck me that the biggest gap between the British today and the previous thousand years or so was religious belief. For those of us who are atheist, agnostic or merely watery believers, it’s impossible to cross the boundary to understand literal belief. Shakespeare, Donne, Dunbar, Herbert and Milton all took for granted that there was heaven and hell, and that our brief spell on this damp, seasonal, difficult but delightful territory was only one episode in a much larger and more meaningful story.
Surely, that’s why people killed each other and burnt each other to death over what seemed to us to be the vanity of small differences. If you really believe it’s between everlasting damnation and eternal bliss, the pain of a knife can come to seem almost trivial. If the devil’s children are going to burn forever, the difference between cutting their heads off in their forties and allowing them to die of dementia four decades later isn’t existential. (Yes! This paragraph, and the preceding one, bear re-reading, and taking in the implications).
Go back to the poets, however, and you see again what enchanted, brightly coloured, highly dramatic, imaginative lives they led. For a medieval Christian, everything had meaning — plants and trees had symbolic meanings; the lives of animals told exemplary stories; saints haunted the wildwood; and the turning year was itself a daily parable of death and resurrection.
Our culture is often glibly described as essentially Christian. It really isn’t, not in any serious sense. I’m with you here, Andrew, though there is a sense in which our UK culture is Christian, and that’s in the long, tortuous, and often painful path we had to tread to reach this “comfort zone” of largely secular democracy. We have our sanitized and cherry-picked aspects of “nice” Christianity scattered about us, giving us a reference point to a past which was never really as we’d like to imagine it was. We have our cathedrals, the vicarage by the village green, the local stone church spire, the Christian pomp and pageantry of royal occasions, bishops in the House of Lords, Christmas carols, and Easter eggs. We have church marriages, funerals and Christenings and Godparents, often involving people who never see the inside of a church on any other occasion. We have “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4. We have a monarch who heads an established church, and FD (for Fidei Defensor) on our coins (though, interestingly enough, no religious reference on our banknotes, in contrast to “In God We Trust” on the banknotes of the constitutionally secular USA. Indeed, a portrait of Charles Darwin adorns our £10 note, which would probably be an unacceptable affront were it to appear on a dollar bill, in the land of anti-science and Young Earth Creationism). We have been freed from that enchanted world and scattered out into an almost wholly material civilisation, a city centre in which the only thing left standing is the market. Individually, we aren’t going anywhere except the “care homes” that are anything but homes. Well, OK, Andrew, but that’s a rather bleak analysis, drawing a false dichotomy between empty consumerism and materialism – essentially life without purpose – on the one hand, and religious faith on the other. I’ll come back to this key point at the end.
It’s too thin gruel. Material satisfaction matters. A lot. If you are lucky enough to be close to the top of the tree, then ever-better skiing holidays, larger second homes, whatever takes your fancy . . . well, life’s pretty good. But as Niall Ferguson pointed out on these pages, even white, male, middle-class Americans are going through a period of angry disillusion. And for the vast numbers of people for whom material improvement is small-scale, slow in coming and never as lavish as advertised, then the gruel is cruel.
Islamism can seem to offer a bigger, more dramatic, more meaningful narrative. We simply see the blood and screaming. They see the world throwing up brighter colours and harsher, desert shadows. This excitement is what, to many, the Reformation, and indeed the Counter-Reformation, must have brought. But this is coming at us just as we in the West are scrabbling around for new stories that make more sense than frantic consumption — and mostly, failing. Mostly? There’s the rub.
Some will say, particularly at Christmas, that an obvious answer is to return to our own Christian heritage. Yet for millions of us, putting the faith genie back in the bottle seems impossible: you can’t unwrite Darwin, you can’t unthink Einstein or forget Galileo. Whoa, Andrew. Millions of us? Maybe, but your implication is that the Theory of Evolution (ToE), or the physics of relativity, or a non-earth-centric solar system are insights which have chipped away at a religious faith which would have otherwise remained robust. While it is true that they, in particular the ToE, are in direct conflict with the Christian fundamentalist belief in the literal truth of the Genesis creation story, this has led to a perverse flourishing of anti-science apologetics, particularly in the USA, and a growth in Young Earth Creationism. About 40% of the adult population of the USA reject the ToE, and adhere instead to a Christian fundamentalism.
In fact, it is arguable that advances in scientific knowledge and understanding, though influential, are not the main factor leading to erosion of religious faith in the UK. There are devout Christians who manage to reconcile their faith with modern scientific knowledge: our Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is one such example. And for the Roman Catholic Church, the Theory of Evolution has been “accepted” since 1950, with the work of Pope Pius XII. I would argue that the decline in Christian faith observed in the UK is more to do with a cultural shift towards openness and questioning and the valuing of evidence, a widening appreciation of world religions and their essential incompatibility, and a legitimisation of a non-religious worldview, as prominent authors, scientists, and broadcasters have been free to present their views, and have not been shy in doing so. The Christian establishment has been left without much recourse, in a culture where scientific endeavour and rational assessment of evidence are valued above traditional views and religious faith, which, by definition, is “belief without evidence”.
Whatever analysis is most accurate, though, doesn’t affect your premise: return to a predominance of Christian faith is not a possibility in the UK. The tide is flowing inexorably in the other direction, as evidenced by pretty much every piece of opinion research, trends in church attendances, and by the data in our national census.
Meanwhile, our wonderful science races ahead in blinkers. It doesn’t stop to look around, explain itself or cheer us up. There are rare examples, such as Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow and The Magic of Reality, but he’s a relatively lonely voice. Thankfully not so rare: Lawrence Krauss, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking all work (or worked) to bring science to the “man on the Clapham omnibus”. So too do Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, and that personal hero of mine, David Attenborough, in the world of popular TV documentary. So millions turn to daft fantasy — turning the Star Wars films into a digitally enhanced Manichaean belief system. Or we cast around for conspiracy theories and extreme politics to explain the world. Yes, some indeed do, but the nutters are relatively few in number.
Eventually, Chewbacca and Chomsky join hands; Darth Vader and the neoliberal Zionist Illuminati clunk around in the shadows.
It’s funny — except that we really are at war. With all its revolting brutality, fascist Islamism knows the blind spots and weaknesses in western culture. There is a sleazy, materialistic shallowness about it that we don’t much enjoy, either. Those bastards really are medieval — that’s the point — but they have found us out. A sleazy, materialistic shallowness? If that were all we had, then yes, we’d have been “found out”, rather as you say. But it’s not all we have – far from it.
An atheist doesn’t base his decisions on some promise of deferred benefit in an afterlife, or some threat of damnation, or on a set of rules written down a couple of thousand years ago, when scientific knowledge was scant by today’s standards. Since the atheist sees such notions as illusory, religion cannot provide “purpose”; rather, it encourages people not to question, but to accept religious dogma instead of striving to better understand the world.
But, and this is the key point, atheism is not synonymous with materialism. For some, it’s true, the pursuit of material wealth and “success” has become an end in itself, but for atheists of a humanistic approach, the universe is full of awe and wonder. The pursuit of knowledge, whether for its own sake, or for the advancement of the human condition, is an inherent good which provides joy, purpose, and pleasure. We also derive joy, purpose and pleasure from helping our fellow human beings, and from our relationships with those we love. This is not to try to claim any special merit or moral high ground – it is more a description of the human condition. A cliché perhaps, but the best things in life cannot be bought, or measured in financial terms. In the end, that is the common ground between the devout and the atheist.