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Is Britain a Christian country?

The UK has an established religion alright — the worship of the self

Artillery Row

You’re a middle-aged man who sports an embarrassing attempt at “designer stubble”. You enjoy telling everyone how much you enjoy the music of Radiohead slightly more than you actually enjoy listening to the music of Radiohead. You have recently purchased a Zoe diet kit and are now boring everyone senseless about your gut bacteria. Among your many other deadeningly predictable opinions is this: that religion is a relic of the past that should be confined to oblivion and certainly should have no role in public life. As one Twitter user put it, “The fairy tales of supernatural religions, and their morals made by men in the medieval Middle East have absolutely no place in the governance of anything.”

Protesting that “this is a Christian country’ in the context of the ever-accelerating decline of almost all Christian denominations seems to me to be wishful thinking

No doubt, then, despite your misgivings about anyone associated with the Daily Mail, you gave a hearty like and retweet to columnist Sarah Vine this week when she opined “Religion is a personal choice which I respect, but it has no place in politics. Britain is a secular liberal democracy, and the vast majority of people want it to stay that way”. Get off our personal autonomy™, you theocratic monsters!

As many people immediately pointed out, the simple fact is that the United Kingdom is, in fact, not formally a“secular liberal democracy”. We have an established Church, some of whose bishops sit by right in the upper house of our legislature. Our head of state, the King, is the “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. His coronation was a religious rite (some might say the eighth, or perhaps the third, sacrament), in which he was anointed as God’s chosen ruler.

If we’re honest, however, this objection rings a bit hollow. It’s technically true, but Sarah Vine was closer to the spirit of the truth, if one defines religion narrowly to mean one of the established faiths that is widely considered to be a “religion”. On that basis, the majority of the population probably agree with her. Protesting that “this is a Christian country” in the context of the ever-accelerating decline of almost all Christian denominations seems to me to be wishful thinking. Let’s face it: most of England is a vast dessert of almost unrelieved spiritual indifference and ignorance. The cultural and institutional residuum of about 1400 years of hegemonic Christianity is also clearly in rapid decline, although it still retains more of a foothold than actual conscious Christian belief. We’re not a “secular liberal democracy”, but in most important respects we might as well be.

The real problem with Vine’s glib statement goes much deeper. You might escape religion in the sense that she means, but you’ll never escape religion, although you might deny the fact to yourself. 

The way every single one of us lives our life, and, more pertinently, every decision made by public authority — every policy statement, every Act of Parliament, every dull dictate of officialdom – is shaped, ultimately if often unconsciously, by some view of the nature of human beings that rests, in the final analysis, on an act of faith. There is no metaphysically or spiritually neutral space in our private, moral and public lives. To have any position at all, to do anything beyond perhaps breathing, will require, at some level, acceptance, however passive, of a basic underpinning worldview; and no worldview is neutral; and none is without its moral and spiritual significance.

To illustrate this, let’s take the standard worldview of someone like your Radiohead loving centrist dad. He would probably describe himself as a secular humanist, who believes that “this is the only life we have”, that there is no God and no supernatural sphere, and that we should live our lives ethically on the basis of some vague principles such as “reason” or “concern for humanity”. His chief framework for thinking about ethics and politics is probably “human rights”: rights that all humans possess universally by virtue of their “inherent dignity”, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it. Certainly within the decision-making strata of the state, NGOs and indeed corporations, you would find almost no-one who would not claim to support human rights in more or less this form.

On what basis do we have “inherent dignity” by virtue of simply being human? The Christians who developed natural rights theory, the intellectual forebear of human rights, had a very clear answer: every human being is made in the image of God and is therefore invested by God with an inherent and inalienable value and dignity. Rights are, simply put, God-given, part of the transcendental and objective moral reality that is part of His creation.

Most in the West who would now trumpet “human rights” as their “core value” no longer believe in God. Drill it down, and the idea that humans have an inherent worth and dignity that underpins their status as bearers of rights is, for them, a leap of faith, and one without a visible means of propulsion. It is a moral intuition that originated in Christianity and which people instinctively do not want to let go of even once belief in the Christian faith and its dogmas has largely disappeared. But they have no compelling basis for doing so: secular human rights talk is an edifice of arbitrary sentimentalism without any metaphysical foundations or scaffolding. The West climbed a Christian ladder to reach the heights of 1948, and then kicked it away. Intellectually, it’s been barely clinging on with its fingertips ever since.

Religion is already an inherent and important foundation of your national legal and political system

No-one would recognise belief in human rights as a “religion” in the sense that Christianity or Islam are, although it has its own bishops (UN rapporteurs), its own priests (human rights lawyers), and even its own sacred texts (the UDHR, the European Convention on Human Rights). It is, however, undoubtedly a faith-based position. I would argue that it’s a position that, because it’s based upon a largely unexamined faith, is much less rational than one based on belief in God. But whether you agree with that or not, it’s clear that such a “faith-based” worldview is practically and intellectually indistinguishable in most important essential respects from a religious one.

So I’m afraid that if you live in a society in which human rights are fundamentally enshrined into your constitution — which we do, as we recognise the UNHR and fully incorporated the ECHR into our law via the 1998 Human Rights Act — then religion is already an inherent and important foundation of your national legal and political system.

In practice, the other ethical worldview that tends to sit — often rather uncomfortably — alongside human rights as the governing ethical framework of our public and political life in the West is a form of utilitarianism, whereby the job of governments is to create a policy-framework that will manipulate citizens into actions that will produce the overall greatest preference-satisfaction. It often comes with an anti-paternalistic proviso derived from J.S. Mill to the effect that individual liberty can only be interfered with if one’s actions are harming others (whatever that means), but the basic idea is simple: the role of government is (whether by intervention or by getting out of the way) to help people fulfil their desires.

This view is predicated on another view of human beings: that we are pleasure-seeking, or at least preference-satisfaction seeking, beings with no higher purpose or inherent “dignity”. It takes one fact about human beings — that we tend to prefer fulfilling our desires and satisfying our preferences to not doing so — and declares it to constitute our ethical nature. Some claim that this is a classic example of the “is-ought” fallacy: that is, the idea that one cannot simply derive a moral principle simply from a statement of how things happen to be. This sort of argument actually doesn’t floor utilitarianism in the way that some think: as Bentham said, in response to the question of whether the ethical principle of utility is “susceptible of any direct proof”: “that which is used to prove every thing else, cannot itself be proved: a chain of proofs must have their commencement somewhere”. In other words, you have to just pick some foundational principle without being able to “prove it” absolutely: you must, if you like, make a “leap of faith”. I don’t disagree, although my leap would be in a very different direction.

Ultimately, any worldview requires such a “leap of faith” — and all our decisions and ideas will be shaped by that worldview, whether we call it a religion or not. All of these faith-based worldviews assume some sort of spiritual premises. In the case of secularists, this usually amounts to something along the lines of: there is no God or God-given objective, transcendental morality and therefore human beings have no essence orientated to the ultimate divine Good, but rather their own self-defined nature should be the measure of all things. That is, whatever else it is, a determinate position that constitutes a view of the spiritual nature of the universe, albeit one that puts man rather than God at the centre. 

But when it comes to religion, there is, my complacent secularist friend, no exit

Indeed, even the nihilistic atheist who sees human beings simply as animals and the universe as a meaningless collection of matter, and who entertains no delusions about human rights or utility, also intuits a view of the spiritual nature of the universe, from which he draws out a set of conclusions about what is permissible in politics (anything, basically). He may be more consistent and less delusional, but there is no way that even he can avoid taking a position on these things. In short, one can no more take religion (properly understood) out of politics than one can take the quality of being round out of the definition of a circle.

What one can do, however, is to pretend that one doesn’t have such a religion. Secular liberals of whatever ethical framework continually labour under the delusion that “their” view is truly neutral and rational and not based on anything as nasty or backwards as faith. It’s one of those irregular verbs: I have a neutral view of the good, you are religious, he is a crazy medieval theocrat. In fact, claims such as Vine’s are usually used as a means to try to ensure that only certain religions are allowed to dominate the public sphere: ones that usually result in either a crippling and stunted elevation – and ultimately worship – of the self and its desires over everything else, or a whimsical and sentimental conception of “rights” based on a thinly secularised, albeit distorted, version of Christianity. Others — such as full-fat Christianity — have “no place” in our politics, apparently. It isn’t a reasoned position: it’s a superficially plausible but ultimately cynical power grab.

I, like many, am a Christian. This shapes my moral worldview as surely — and in as faith-based a way — as being a utilitarian or a secular human rights-believing liberal. To suggest that I can or should just jettison all of my most important spiritual and ethical ideas when it comes to politics is as absurd as it is impossible. A purely ‘personal’ faith is no faith at all. How can someone form any political ideas at all if forbidden from consulting their deepest views about the nature of human beings and how we should live? How can I leave this all at the door of the polling station? Why should I be expected to?

Ultimately, midwit secularism on the Sarah Vine model is an adolescent fantasy epitomised by the sort of glib platitudes about “supernatural fairy tales” and “medieval theocrats” beloved by FPBE-loving smug dads on Twitter. But when it comes to religion, there is, my complacent secularist friend, no exit. You just might not have realised it yet.

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