Saturday, December 23, 2006


Religion in Deep Decline but Ideal of Christian Behaviour still highly Relevant

As so often I find I agree with Timothy Garton Ash, this time on the not untopical subject of religion. He argues in favour of the 'intellectually significant minority of Europeans who are, so to speak, devout aetheists... believers in the truths uncovered by science.' Today's survey in the The Guardian, suggests the numbers involved might be more than a 'minority' with 63% claiming not to be 'religious' though with 64% claiming to be 'Christian'. At the moment we experience a religious festival from which virtually all such significance has been squeezed by the assault of market driven materialism.

I would tend to identify with those latter groups. Fairly typically, I was confirmed into the Church of England as a 13 year old and sang as a true believer in my village's church choir. But as my education progressed I grew to doubt a system of belief based solely upon faith rather than evidence. My attendances at church slowly declined until it was only weddings, christenings and funerals which drew me in. I became almost completely secularized and more or less remain so though I would prefer to see myself as 'agnostic' rather than a dogmatic atheist.

Interestingly, 49% of those from 'non Christian' backgrounds see themselves as religious. So we seem to be a largely secular nation with a residual one third still clinging to their faiths but within that a vigorous minority of Jews, Muslims and others to whom religion is possibly more important. And while 57% think religion is a 'force for good' 82% think it 'causes division between people'. I'm not sure which side towards which I tend on that question(though suspect it's the latter) but on another I also agree with Garton Ash when he writes:

I can't get anywhere with Christ as God, but as a human being Jesus Christ seems to me a constant and wonderful inspiration - perhaps even, as (Jacob) Burckhardt put it, "the most beautiful figure in world history".

That just about sums up the position of a group which must extend way, way beyond myself. Christianity, with all those miracles and the extended flummeries of the church, is not credible intellectually but the example of Christ as a person provides a model to which it still seems well worthwhile to aspire. Amen to that at least.
P. S. For a wonderful 90 second visual summary of the world history of religion see this(Hat-tip Roy at Mantex).

Saw Garton Ash at the launch of Oxford's Reuters Institute; he was very impressive.

One point though: is it really possible to celebrate the teachings of Christ when so many conflicting claims about his life exist?
Not surprised TGA was impressive. My point was not so much his teachings but the idea of an altruistic life in which one thinks of others more than oneself. I'm not saying many people achieve this but it is a good goal to aim at.
A favourite poem of mine that sums up my attitude to the whole Jesus as a man v's a God thing.. from Canadian poet Walt Whitman:

To Him that was Crucified

MY spirit to yours, dear brother;
Do not mind because many, sounding your name, do not understand you;
I do not sound your name, but I understand you, (there are others also;)
I specify you with joy, O my comrade, to salute you, and to salute those who are with you, before and since—and those to come also,
That we all labor together, transmitting the same charge and succession;
We few, equals, indifferent of lands, indifferent of times;
We, enclosers of all continents, all castes—allowers of all theologies,
Compassionaters, perceivers, rapport of men,
We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the disputers, nor any thing that is asserted;
We hear the bawling and din—we are reach’d at by divisions, jealousies, recriminations on every side,
They close peremptorily upon us, to surround us, my comrade,
Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over, journeying up and down, till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and the diverse eras,
Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races, ages to come, may prove brethren and lovers, as we are.

"I'm trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a grear moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God." That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on a par with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He had not left that option open to us. He did not intend to."

- C.S.Lewis, "Mere Christianity."
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The "63% claiming not to be 'religious' though with 64% claiming to be 'Christian'" conundrum reminds me of my favourite quip about the Church of England - its greatest strength is that it allows its followers to believe almost anything although, of course, hardly any of them do...

Happy Christmas
great poem, thanks.
Super quote but I don't follow Lewis's reasoning as it doesn't contain enough reason. I don't think Christ has to be insane to say the things he said and choose to accept him as the very thing Lewis says I shouldn't: a great moral teacher.
After my long experience of aettnding a C of E primary school, singing in the choir, attending confirmation classes and listening to endless boring sermons, I agree wholeheartedly with you.
The example of Christ as a person does not inspire me. There are three reasons for this:
1: He enunciated the doctrine that "There is no other way but through me" (By comparison, pagans were much more tolerant. Indeed, if it is true that the only way to God is via belief in Jesus, this would justify forced conversion in order to save souls, precisely the lesson drawn by Christians fanatics through the centuries. I'm afraid the rather mild Anglicanism we all find so congenial is a very recent heresy).
2: He believed in the doctrine of (eternal punishment) in hell; a place where, according to Jesus, there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" and where, according to Matthew, the "fire never goes out". This does not strike me as a very humane or admirable doctrine. (Remember: this is a punishment for disbelief).
3: He adopted a stance of passive submission towards earthly powers. Jesus was definitely "other-worldly": he believed the "kingdom of God" was "at hand" and so you needn't worry about the injustices and cruelties of this world, because (so long as you believe in Jesus) you will get pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Personally, I prefer Spartacus.
I know there are other things in the New Testament, many of them admirable ("let he who is without sin cast the first stone" and so on), but taken as a whole the man was not especially admirable, and some of his beliefs were simply wicked.
I sympathize with your objections but they all relate to the religious belief side of the man, rather than the more humanist helping the needy etc side.
You have a point Skipper, but, after all, the New Testament Jesus is not a kind of peripatetic social worker; he is precisely a religious "prophet". And, further, the doctrines I refer to had - for centuries - secular consequences of an adverse kind. On a separate point I am not convinced by TGA's argument either. He says, as an historian: "It seems to me self-evident that we would not have the European civilisation we have today without the heritage of Christianity, Judaism and (in a smaller measure, mainly in the middle ages) Islam, which legacy also paved the way, albeit unwittingly and unwillingly, for the Enlightenment". It is always a bit worrying when historians find things "self-evident". That we wouldn't have the civilisation we have today without (an "unwitting and unwilling") Christianity, given our Christian heritage, is simply tautological. But we would perhaps have had another civilisation; maybe a better one. How do we know that without Christianity (and the other things he mentions) there would have been no Enlightenment? How can even a hugely clever chap like TGA actually know what an alternative history would have looked like without Christianity? Maybe Enlightenment would have come sooner? Or later? Or not at all? Who can say? Christianity "influenced" the Enlightenment (but might it also have delayed it? how do we know Paganism would not have produced an earlier, better, Enlightenment? It isn't as if the ancient Greeks had no interest in science). None of us really know the answers to these questions. TGA's argument is smug, complacent, conventional, and thoughtless.

By the way, do either of us have nothing better to do on XMas day? I'm off to the pub.
Don't agree re TGA. I think the world before the birth of Christianity was not exactly a socialist paradise and there was a degree of civilizing achieved thanks to Christ's teachings as well as more than a little bloodshed in consequence of the wars caused. I'm off to have my dinner now! Happy Whatsits...
Come on Skipper, play fair: no one is saying the world was a socialist paradise before the birth of Christianity (although, following Gibbon, I think that there was probably more religious tolerance). The question is whether absent of Christianity, at least an equivilant "degree of civilising" could have been achieved over a similar period (of many centuries). TGA - and it seems, yourself - are saying "No"; and I am arguing that none of us really knows. It's intriguing that TGA refers to the role of Islam in preparing the way for the Enlightenment. I'm no expert on this but wasn't one of the great contributions of Islamic scholars the rediscovery of the, ahem, Pagan authors of antiquity?
I thought you were in the pub! I've just come back from A and E after a scary allergic reaction so will reply tomorrow.
Excellent points Politaholic; I agree wholeheartedly.
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