Monday, 21 April 2014

Is Britain a Christian country?

David Cameron has stirred up trouble from some disaffected atheists by calling Britain a "Christian country", and in turn they have said

"We wish to object to his repeated mischaracterising of our country as a 'Christian country' and the negative consequences for our politics and society that this view engenders."

"Politicians have been speaking of our country as 'a Christian country' with increasing frequency in the last few years. Not only is this inaccurate, I think it's a wrong thing to do in a time when we need to be building a strong shared identity in an increasingly plural and non-religious society."

But in fact David Cameron makes a specific reference in that regard which addresses that very issue:

"Being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgement on those with no faith at all. Many people tell me it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too."

And he went on to say:

"Crucially, the Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none - and we should be confident in standing up to defend them."

Now when we look at those values, it is not clear that they are specifically Christian. I think they emerge as part of Christian influence, but it is an influence on the margins. It has nothing to do with creeds. It comes from the history and culture as much as from the faith of the people.

Tolerance has not, after all, been a specific Christian virtue, and indeed for much of the past two millennia, Christianity has been marked by either intolerance and subjugation to those of other faiths, or by tribal warfare within. But it grew out of Christianity nonetheless. The seeds can be seen in Elizabeth I, who decided that how people behaved was a matter for the State in matters of religion, but how they believed was their own affair - "I have no desire to make windows into men's souls."

But it was the English Civil war, above all else, that brought religious tolerance to the fore. It was a time of political intolerance, and there was still marked antipathy to Catholicism, and even Anglicanism. Notoriously the Puritans abolished Christmas. Yet they had to tolerate within their ranks, a blossoming of many religious flowers - Shakers, Quakers, Levellers, among them.

So while it is assumed that tolerance is a particularly enlightenment value, associated with such luminaries as the philosopher John Locke, I prefer to take a more Tolstoyian view of history. It is the broader sweep of events which sowed the seeds of tolerance, rather than individual figures. While Locke certainly promoted tolerance in some respects, he also invested heavily in the slave trade.

A good deal of actual belief by people is not post-Christian, or non-Christian, it is what I would term "folk Christian". These are the values enumerated by David Cameron, not the values believed in by those who profess creeds, and talk of a living faith in Jesus Christ.

These are the people who sing carols, who enjoy nativity plays, who go to church at Christmas, and know the story of the shepherds and the three wise men, and the stable. It is also presents, Christmas cakes and Father Christmas.

A Christmas Carol by Dickens is this folk-Christian par excellence - full of compassion, generosity, love, blessing - against greed, intolerance, and the purely material. But there is actually very little Christianity in it, apart from Church bells, and singing hymns. The nearest in comes is when Tiny Tim speaks of how it would do people good to see a cripple like him because it would remind them of he who made blind people see, and the lame walk.

They may go to church at Easter, but Easter is associated with chocolate eggs as much, and hot cross buns. Lent is marked by pancakes at its commencement rather than Lenten fasts. Giving up something for lent is like a New Year resolution, it is not specifically religious, but it comes from Christianity nonetheless. September is Harvest festival, harvest supper.

June in Jersey is pilgrimage to Elizabeth Castle for St Helier's day, and like Chaucer's pilgrims, I would imagine that some people go because it is an event, a ritual journey. It is like the many people who came to the beach maze in St Brelade's bay. Then there is Remembrance Day, wearing of poppies, symbols of a desire for a world of peace, and thankfulness for those who gave us our freedoms with their lives.

And newborn babies are christened in Churches. Weddings and funerals take place in Churches. They are places for rites of passage. People don't, as a rule, go to church, but they believe in some kind of afterlife, and some kind of deity.

All of these come from the trunk of Christianity, but they are offshoots. That is where the atheists fail to connect. They cannot appreciate the deep roots of the folk-religion. It appears a very superficial matter, something left over once Christianity has largely gone. But they are wrong. It is in fact something that has always been there in one form or another.

"Pride comes before destruction, and arrogance before a fall" says the proverb in the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. Too wordy, and the folk Christianity pulls it into our culture, and collapses it to "pride comes before a fall". It is in many was symbolic of how folk religion works. It works by taking part of something that is already there, and forgetting the rest, or adding to it.

Stories change over time, but they are told and retold, and survive in different forms. Fairy tales are banished to the nursery, but movie makers are going back to them, because there is a raw power in the mythical. George and his dragon may be less told today, but Arthur is still popular. And he fights for good against the forces of evil.

In a sea of rationalism, there are strong counter currents of romanticism. Hence the popularity of psychics, of Druidry, Wicca, the Celtic past, all of which are seen as New Age revivals, bringing back something old from a semi-mythical past. But this home-grown diversity is, by and large, engendering more tolerance in today's society.

David Cameron was not entirely right when he described Britain as a "Christian country", but he was not entirely wrong either. There is a folk-Christianity, which may not have quite the sharp specifics of a photograph of Christianity, appearing more like an impressionist picture of Christianity, rather fuzzy, but it is still very influential, and permeates our society more than we may realise.

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