I regret that I have no religious faith. As a young man I was an evangelistic atheist, mocking people with religious views and encouraging them away from their gods. Not any more. Life is hard. Death is ever-present. A belief in a higher power and the prospect of divine justice is valuable.
Humans are both blessed and cursed with self-awareness. We are the only beings on this planet who know that we must die. It makes perfect sense for us to develop systems of belief to deal with that painful knowledge. As Voltaire said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”
Until recently, I did not understand how much my life as an atheist in Britain depended on the Christian beliefs of others. Their belief in “turning the other cheek” led them to meet my youthful scorn calmly, tolerantly and even lovingly. Various attempts to win me back to the faith of my fathers failed, but at least I learned from those attempts that I should respect their beliefs. I stopped evangelising against them and came rather to envy their faith. Every death in my circle has hurt me more than it has hurt the believers around me. As my parents advance into their seventies and I face the prospect of losing them, I sincerely wish the rational voice in my brain would just shut up.
Our society was shaped by Christian thought. It was not rationalism that caused us to abolish slavery, well before France or America, it was William Wilberforce’s Christian belief. Public health, education, social welfare and other reforms were driven not by socialist ideas but by the desire of Christians in public life to serve God by serving their fellow men.
Where would the humanity be in Dickens’ novels, if not for that flawed sinner’s Christianity? Would Shakespeare’s amazingly modern vision of his fellow-men have been as perceptive if not informed by Christian thought? His portrayal of Shylock is now sometimes seen by witless moderns as anti-semitic, but could anyone but a Christian have written
"Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."
In an Elizabethan context, this was phenomenally tolerant.
British Christianity was always fairly “soft.” Consider how the Church reacted to the writings of Darwin. They were seen as a huge threat to Christianity and, had the Church been of the same spirit as some modern faiths, he could have been expected to be killed for his heresy. He delayed publication to spare his wife the social discomfort of being married to an heretic. But he never feared for his, or her, life. When he realised that his ideas were about to be published by another, he went ahead without fear of anything more than derision. I don’t think he was subjected to anything like the hostility that someone like Ray Honeyford experienced, for example.
I am not alone in losing my faith. Christianity, certainly of the Anglican variety, has declined steeply during my lifetime. The polite fiction of belief on the part of Prime Ministers has become almost unsustainable. A church-going PM is as out of step with the British people as he could possibly be. Tony Blair has brilliantly side-stepped the issue by exploiting his wife’s religious faith and appearing to be a polite passenger in her heavenly chariot.
I have come to accept that my values and beliefs (apart from the critical belief in God) are very much those of my Christian forefathers. I do believe in doing unto others as I would have them do unto me. I am no good at turning the other cheek, but I do try to understand hostile opinions and not to be dismissive of those who hold them. There several things I do that I do not care to write about that don’t make sense if I were acting merely from self-interest.
Nature abhors a vacuum. I think our nation is missing its faith. The underclass is godless in every sense. Legal restraint is no substitute for moral restraint. Policing by brute force will never be as effective as policing with the consent of a community that shares some key values. Many a young hoodlum will swagger in the face of the law whose grandfather was no better a man, but behaved better to retain the respect of his community. Now that his community knows no law but that of the jungle, he had best be the most vicious animal around. We know what the word “respect” means in such communities. It has the same meaning as in the Mafia phrase “a man of respect.” It means fear, which is not at all the same thing, unless you think that for Jane Austen, a respectable man was a man to be feared.
This vacuum of faith will be filled with something. New Age mumbo-jumbo is noticeably religious in tone. It provides substitutes for the soothing ceremonies of religion, echoing the rituals and even the annointings. Peoples’ hobbles are more intense and obsessive than ever, as they search for meaning in their lives. The ferocity of the beliefs of Greens and animal rights activists often seem to me like misdirected religious fervour. Greenery is really the worship of the goddess Gaia; an effective deifying of the Earth itself. People need to believe something. What it is and how right it is seems to be almost irrelevant. Observe the factionalism of the British Left and you will find many echoes of religious schism.
All of this has been a worry for some time. A worry, but not a clear and present danger. Now however Britain’s vacuum of faith has sucked in a new terror. Ask yourself this question. Would the primitive, bloody, backward and reactionary religion of Islam prosper as it does in our towns and cities if there was a more plausible alternative? When a young man from a working-class Muslim family sees the brutal drunken behaviour of the white chavs who may be his only contact with the native community, is it surprising he draws closer to the faith of his fathers? When a young Muslim woman sees the brutal sexual marketplace of the British underclass; when she sees them sexualise even their pre-pubescent daughters by dressing them like their pathetic “celebrity” god-substitutes, is it surprising that she retreats into safe certainties?
I understand the attraction of religious faith. I understand the human need for a light in life’s darkness, for some certainties in its chaos. In this respect, as in so many others, our immigrants have the capacity to do us good. They are reacting to what they find. If we provide government information in their languages and translators for their children in our schools, then they don’t see any urgent need to learn English. Is that their fault or ours? I say it’s ours. If they see no moral imperatives in our society but tolerance, and if our tolerance leads us, in so many ways, to accept what they find unacceptable, they will inevitably cling to the moral certainties of their faith. Is that their fault, or ours? I say its ours. I doubt if we can now recover our religious faith, but we have to rediscover - somehow - a moral code.
If we open our minds to what is going on around us, we can see that - for all our justified fears about Islamic extremism - many of our current problems are not a question of what is wrong with them, but what is wrong with us.