December 17, 2005


Last of the true believers (John Lloyd, December 16 2005, Financial Times)

When the former foreign secretary Robin Cook died, he was given a service in St Giles Cathedral, in his native Edinburgh, one of the historic worshipping places of the Church of Scotland. The former Episcopalian Primate of Scotland and Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, took the service. He smiled broadly as he described it - “Here was I, an agnostic Anglican, taking the service in a Presbyterian church, for a dead atheist politician. And I thought that was just marvellous.” He added: “Of course, he was a Presbyterian atheist, which means he distrusted authority - even that of atheism” (one could add of Cook, as of many Presbyterians, that he distrusted an authority that was not his own).

Holloway had long been seen as a man living and ministering at the very edge of where religion meets benign disbelief. He publishes a slim volume of reflections most years; the latest is an effort at reconciliation of the human with what he calls “the massive indifference of the universe”. He addresses himself to, and puts himself among, those “who are living Out There, in the place where God is absent”. In an earlier, less bleak book he writes that if the “truth” of Christianity (and of other great religions) can never be proven, still its moral challenge should not be renounced - an abandonment of the form to save the core. In another he writes that many thinkers “admire the way religions at their best produce people who are benefactors of humanity, servants of the poor and champions of the weak. While they may no longer practise religion themselves, they like the way it continues to challenge human folly and cruelty.”

Holloway’s vision is what Christianity in Britain tends to become: a repository of presumed goodness and wisdom which has no, or at best a very distant, God, but owes a lot to Him. [...]

This decline is significant for Britain, even if most of its citizens don’t actively care, for two reasons. First, there has never been an organised, non-Christian challenge to the established Churches on their own territory before. Judaism, itself declining in the UK, was never much interested in converts and is determinedly patriotic: no synagogue service is complete without wishes for the health of the monarch and the government. Now, however, the established Churches face in Islam a faith that is militant, self-confident, fundamentalist (even where it is, by its own lights, moderate) and linked to communities of largely recent immigrants that are growing while the older established communities of the UK are shrinking. On one estimate, there will be more Muslims in mosques than Christians in churches by 2013. It is presently the faith of the future: it grows through rising birth rates and through conversion, including among the young urban poor to whom Christianity still ministers and does much to assist, but does not appeal. Yet unlike the other faiths, it has little interest in dialogue or even understanding, has many adherents who are militantly anti-Semitic or anti-Hindu and it links Christianity to the oppression of the Muslim and, above all, the Arab world.

Second, care or not, the thought that the Christian religion will actually dwindle into real insignificance is a sobering one. What then becomes the standard for morality? Politics? But political parties are themselves declining and their ideologies are no longer convincing as moral poles, even to themselves. Civic duty might sustain a working morality; so too might feelings of charity, or pity, or remorse. But these latter emotions have come to us through Christianity, even if we have secularised and bureaucratised them. If what sustained them is, or becomes, too weak to continue the tradition, what happens to them?

The second reason is why the first is promising, not threatening.

MORE (via Ed Driscoll):
O come, all ye faithless (Mark Steyn, 12/17/05, The Spectator)

Peter Watson, the author of a new book called Ideas: a History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, was interviewed by the New York Times the other day, and was asked to name ‘the single worst idea in history’. He replied:

‘Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on Earth determines how we will go into the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.’

And a Merry Christmas to you, too. For a big-ideas guy, Watson is missing the bigger question: something has to be ‘responsible for most of the wars and bigotry’, and if it wasn’t religion, it would surely be something else. In fact, in the 20th century, it was. Europe’s post-Christian pathogens of communism and Nazism unleashed horrors on a scale inconceivable even to the most ambitious Pope. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot: you’d look in vain for any of them in the pews each Sunday. Marx has a lot more blood on his hands than Christ — other people’s blood, I mean — but the hyper-rationalists are noticeably less keen to stick him with the tab for the party. [...]

It’s hard to persuade an atheist to believe in God. But unless he’s the proverbial ‘militant atheist’ — or, more accurately, fundamentalist atheist — the so-called rationalist ought to be capable of a rational assessment of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of different societies. If he is, he’ll find it hard to conclude other than that the most secular societies have the worst prospects. Rationalism is killing poor childless Europe. But instead of rethinking the irrationalism of rationalism, the rationalists are the ones clinging to blind faith, ever more hysterically.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 17, 2005 8:08 PM

'Tis better, then, to be an atheist than an agnostic?

Posted by: ghostcat at December 17, 2005 8:36 PM

In a fundamental sense, there is no 'Christian religion', only Christians (albeit linked generationally over the centuries). And if 'Christians' in Scotland, for example, cease to care and believe, then I guess we'll see what 'secular humanism' is really made of. From the tone of the author's piece, he's not prepared to make that leap, though he may applaud the cleverness of former Bishop Holloway's remarks.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at December 18, 2005 12:49 AM

Second, care or not, the thought that the Christian religion will actually dwindle into real insignificance is a sobering one. What then becomes the standard for morality?


Once you've removed the Cross, the Crescent will still beckon from its Kaaba in the desert.

Posted by: Ken at December 21, 2005 4:28 PM