It’s odd how Cameron’s remark on Britain as a Christian country attracted the attention of our diehard atheists. He probably expected it, they’re waiting for whatever they see as any provocation. They accuse Cameron of being divisive and they are plain wrong on that. 59% defined themselves as Christian in the 2011 census. That’s a key finding. (How many defined themselves as of other faiths, a sizeable percentage – how many atheists?) Much more importantly – any claim we’re not Christian is simply unhistorical.
It’s argued the golden rule – treat others as you wish they treat you – predates Christianity. Christianity is of course part of a continuum, born out of Judaism, its gospels written down in Greek, and our Western understanding of Christianity heavily influenced by ancient Greek ideas. It’s also shares an ethical understanding with all the world’s great religions. But it’s our Christian tradition that’s woven it into our society.
Likewise the sense we have of the worth of each individual – we are all equal before God – that’s a powerful idea, central to Christian belief, and at the core of our society and democracy. (Less so arguably in right-wing politics where the idea of human worth tends to be localised down to a community or social group, whereas human worth is a universal concept if it’s anything.) Enlightenment ideas built on that belief. Christianity as with every institution produces its own elites, but there’s a sense of human worth woven into our history, promoted by reformers, suppressed by elites, but always there. That’s the core Christian message, not, for example, 16th and 17th century persecutions. There would be no enlightenment without that Christian tradition, ironically no humanists either.
What also of ideas of compassion, responsibility, service, all woven into our society. And free will. And indeed Calvinist rejection of free will – back to Max Weber and links between religion and the rise of capitalism – rest easy if you’re member of the elect, because it’s predestined you should be.
Why do humanists waste their time on all this bile, why so short-fused? They are passionate about many social issues. AC Grayling is spot on in this month’s Prospect about intolerance. We should all of us who share liberal ideas and ideals – and we all come from that same background of Christian idealism – we should all be working together, and taking on bigotry – and practising love – wherever and whenever we can. We share a profound sense of human worth and we should be taking up that cause together, not squabbling.