Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cameron's Christianity Codswallop

David Cameron's pronouncements yesterday on Christianity are confused and send out mixed messages. He trumpets that we are a Christian country, when for many practical purposes we are not (see here) - Cameron himself said he was only a vaguely practicing Christian and over half the country said they were non-religious in the latest social attitudes survey! He calls for the revival of traditional Christian values but says he is full of doubts on major theological issues (see here). He's hardly setting a Christian standard is he, so what is he playing at?

His stated idea is that the return of Christian values would help us fight our 'moral collapse'. He's wrong to think that Christianity and the Bible or any other religion and its texts are the basis of our morality. Human beings developed a sense of what is right and wrong long before any formal relgions existed and very likely for evolutionary reasons.

Instead of pronouncing on Christianity his focus should be on effective, practical action to tackle the poor moral standards so evident in politics, policing, banking and financial services, in the media, and in the Christian Church itself. I'm fed up with expenses scandals, police corruption, greedy bankers and business-people, 'mafia-like' newspaper organisations, sexism, homophobia, child abuse scandals...and the advocacy of materialism we've long had from all political colours.

He should be looking at the privileged, influential position of Christianity in the UK and planning to make us a better secular society. He should think through whether the Bible is actually a consistent guide to anything at all. Richard Dawkins says in his book The God Delusion that '...the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unkown to each other, spanning nine centuries...unfortunately it is this same weird volume that religious zealots hold up to us as the inerrant source of our morals and rules for living.'

David Cameron should recognise that actually his doubt is a good thing. Doubt means you are thinking. It means you are asking questions, not accepting the status quo - seeking change for the better. Doubt helps us break away from unjustifiable traditions. With no evidence for the existence of God - quite the contrary in fact - and no convincing arguments either, why believe? If there is a God why is there so much undeserved suffering in the world eg those homeless, cold, hungry, thirsty, lonely, subject to war, terrorism and crime, in hospital...? As Woody Allen said God 'is an underachiever' !

The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible that prompted David Cameron's comments has its significance of course. This book is a major, if not the major work of English literature. Atheist Richard Dawkins sums this up nicely in The God Delusion, '...the main reason the English Bible needs to be part of our education is that it is a major source book for literary culture. The same applies to the legends of the Greek and Roman gods and we learn about them without being asked to believe in them.'.


  1. Lots to respond to here Glenn, in my case as a committed Christian. A few bullet points:

    1. The idea of a "Christian nation" is theologically problematic. Many Christians do not believe that such a concept is meaningful or desireable. Societies are always religiously pluralistic.

    2. Christian faith is not, as the PM suggests, an adherence to a set of values. It is the following of a person, Jesus of Nazareth, belived to be the Son of God.

    3. You're right to acknowledge that there are "common" moral values that underpin most societies, which are not necessarily rooted in any specific religious worldview.

    4. While the PM may have overstated the role of Christianity specifically, you perhaps underplay the distinctive contribution made by Christianity in the shaping of British culture and history. The abolition of slavery, factory reform, early trades unionism, women's rights and a host of other progressive developments in British society were, as a matter of historical record, assisted by those who explicitly linked their social reform to their Christian faith.

    4. My own experience coming from a secular background, of digging into the "weird" book called the Bible has been that it is well worth the effort and that it contains a remarkable internal coherence.


  2. Some interesting comments Al. We agree on some points I see, though inevitably your comments, as my post, raises many questions.

    Does following Jesus not mean adopting a certain set of values?

    Is it not implicit that you place faith above evidence and reason? Or do you think there is good reason and evidence for God?

    Many faiths, not least Christianity, have of course impacted on culture and history - and morality - I admire many aspects of Quakerism and Buddhism for instance. However, my point is that the morality underpinning moral actions are rooted in something much more fundamnetal than religion, which I regard as human-created.

    Aren't religions responsible for much more division, hatred, injustice and unequal treatment than togetherness, love, justice and equality? I think the historical record does not back your argument.

    Does the Bible not contain some extraordinarily cruel and inhuman pronouncements? And obviously contradictory statements? Are we supposed to belive both an eye for an eye and love your enemy as your friend?

  3. Hi Glenn,

    It's true that a person who "follows Jesus" will, as a consequence, live a life characterised by certain distinctive values. Where I disagree with the PM is in reducing Christian faith to a set of abstract moral values, disconected from this living faith relationship. It's a bit like putting the cart before the horse.

    As for the relationship between faith and reason, I've personally not seen them as opposites in the way the discussion is sometimes framed. In fact, my own journey to faith involved looking at the evidence for the claims of Jesus himself, as recorded in the gospels by those who saw and heard him. In that sense, I approach the issue from a historical rather than a scientific perspective and am convinced, historically and intellectually, that his claims were (a) actully made by him, and (b) reasonable. Faith is the additional element that says these claims were also true.

    Having said that, I do agree that it is problematic trying to subject God to the type of scientific investigation that we would do if he were a part of the material universe. So I would distinguish between faith that is reasonable and faith that is empirically provable in the test tube.

    I do agree that there seems to be a body of shared human morality that underpins many societies. It's an interesting question as to why that should be so.

    I agree with you that there have been many attrocites committed in the name of, and sanctioned by, religion. I haven't yet come across a historian who has devised a metric for analysing whether "religion" has contributed positively or negatively to the common good, though I'm sure there's a PhD in there for some brave soul. I note, annecdotally, that bad news tends to sell more newspapers so it may be that the horrors of the Crusades or the Jihadists may get more attention in the popular mind than the less visibly dramatic influences that faith often has on shaping people's lives. Which is not to say that the positive outcomes have not also been dramatic at times.

    I ought to point out, of course, that I'm coming at things as a Christian, not an apologist for "religion" in general. I'll leave that role to Tony Blair (!)

    As for some of apparently harsh pronouncements of the Bible, space doesn't permit a proper exploration of the issues involved. All I would say is that there is such a thing as progressive revelation through the pages of the Bible (which as Dawkins rightly points out was written over several centuries). In other words, the teachings of Christ on loving one's enemies are accorded a greater measure of authority than earlier writings. Jesus in fact self-conciously made this principle explicit when he frequently quoted old testament scripture before saying, "But I say....".

    Which raises questions about what sort of person would make these sort of pronouncements based on his own authority.

    I appreciate the conversation!

  4. But Al how can your faith in Christianity be considered reasonable? There is evidence for a historical figure called Jesus who said and did certain things, some of them remarkable. However, its a huge leap from there to being a Christian, not least because one would have to accept two miracles ie the incarnation and the resurrection. Its simply not reasonable, historically or scientifically or in any other way, to believe that a person can be the embodiment of God and can rise from the dead. There is no evidence worthy of the name to support such miracles and neither is any there rationale.

  5. There is nothing inherently unreasonable, in my view, in assuming that a being who can create the universe can also rise from the dead.

    Which is not to say that faith is the same as reason. But it is not devoid of reason.

  6. Al,you dont think its unreasonable to believe in something for which no reliable, verifiable evidence exists? You think its reasonable to believe in at least two miracles?

    This is where we differ very sharply indeed. Your faith is not the kind of faith that says 'yes I'm happy to go along with that because it seems reasonable'. Its the kind of faith that is, as I've previously said, a huge leap - you are accepting that events can and have happened outside of the laws of nature when ALL the experience we have as humans suggests otherwise.

  7. You're right Glenn, the experiences of many people would lead them to conclude that miracles are impossible and that there is no rationale explanation for the existence of God. However the experiences of many other people leads them to believe otherwise. Clearly the argument cannot be boiled down to 'proof' one way or the other, because if it could be proved then one side would have to concede.

    Faith is just that. It is not a position that is reached purely by examining the facts since that leads to no conclusions one way or the other, simply a head full of knowledge. Faith requires a revelation, some means of seeing beyond what is on paper. The cliche 'seeing the light' comes to mind, or a 'Eureka' moment.

    It is no more possible to argue a non-believer into believing than it is to convince a believer they are wrong, although in the latter case you can make an exception for religions based on unreasonable premises that are clearly disprovable, i.e. the world will send next Tuesday lunchtime.

    But in terms of the evidence you suggest is not there, Christians look to the Gospels that were written by men who witnessed these events first hand or transcribed them from those who had. Some of them died horrible deaths because they would not recant their accounts. Would they have endured that if they knew it was untrue? You say there is evidence of a man called Jesus who did 'remarkable things' so I'm intrigued how you are prepared to accept that but not be able to accept those things that don't fit into your understanding of the universe, a universe infinitely more complex and long-lived than you or I and about which there is much we do not yet understand.

  8. No anonymous I have said ALL human experience not the experience of many. I've also referred to evidence/experience needing to be worthy of the name ie being reliable and verifiable.

    I dont accept that many people have had experiences that should lead them to believe in miracles or in God. There's plenty of claims to miraculous experience around but none are able to establish the reliability of their experiences through an accepted, reasonable process of verification. There are future experiences to come, so maybe we'll get verification at some point...I await this with interest.

    Faith in God is clearly not about facts at all, at least as you and Al's argument is concerned. You both go way beyond what is reasonable. I dont agree about it not being possible to convinve believers/non-believers into changing their mind - show me reliable, verifiable evidence of God and miracles and I will change my mind I assure you because that's what doubt and reason are about. Perhaps that's the difference between us - you belive in certainty in some sense and I dont and am prepared to live with degrees of uncertainty.

    There's no way the 'evidence' in the Gospels can be considered reliable and verifiable. Many people of religious faith have died for their principles - there are many examples of people with no religious faith who have died for their principles too. And lets not forget that unquestioing faith has rsulted in believers in God committing horrible acts of torture and genocide. This shows how powerful beliefs can be but does not show that they are right or wrong. People can convince themselves of all sorts of things - isn't that my point?? Doubt, check, test, verify - ask if experience is real!

    The evidence that there was a historical figure called Jesus is fair. But there is no evidence that his contribution goes beyond interesting philosophy and political activity. You correctly say the universe is complex and ling lived and that there is much to understand - why then if we know so little have you made up your mind that God exists? Is this not simply filling the huge gap in our knowledge with a comfortable but very probably unreal certainty? Why not wait, assess the evidence, learn...?


Genuine, open, reasonable debate is most welcome. Comments that meet this test will always be published.