Christianity and secular democracy

I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that there are two Christianities.

Cue sharp intake of breath from hardline evangelical readers who think I’m about to reinterpret God in a heretical, post-modern way; and sigh of boredom from hardline atheist readers who’d rather move on and browse something else.

But read on, please, hardline evangelical readers and hardline atheist readers alike – what I am about to say is about and for both of you.

I picked up recently via Twitter on this article by Johann Hari – “The slow, whiny death of British Christianity” it’s called.  It talks about how new statistics say that Britain is now “the most irreligious country on earth”.  This, Hari surmises, is cause for celebration because it will help undermine the case for the privileged position Christianity and other faiths have within our society.

The problem is, however, that Hari’s ire is stoked by a narrow, potentially even lazy, view of Christianity – one which holds or seeks a privileged position in law, education and politics, which holds prejudiced views about certain minorities, and will regard any criticism of it as an assault on freedom as a whole.

Of course, the thought occurs: should we blame Hari or any other committed atheist for judging Christianity on what they see?  Maybe the only Christianity they see in political and social discourse, in the pages and screens of the media or with their own eyes is the Christianity that abuses children and covers it up; that wishes to deny homosexuals – and, sometimes, women – equal rights; that seeks to determine what healthcare or education people including non-believers receive; that greedily protects its ex-officio parliamentary seats; that thinks it has the right to stop people watching whatever films or theatre they want; that confuses the right to evangelise with the right to impose the consequences of belief upon those that do not share that belief; that maintains it has the right not to be insulted or intellectually confronted; and so on.

Maybe such hardline atheists do not see a different Christianity: one which practices charity, selflessness, humility and modesty, which fights against poverty, injustice and war, which offers unjudging, caring comfort to the weak, the dying, the sick, the lonely, the depressed, the despairing, the angry and the hopeless… all often quietly, and under the radar of the media.

Maybe such atheists just don’t see these things, and if so, you can’t blame them for only judging Christianity on the aspects they see and hear about.

But frankly it doesn’t take too much searching to find evidence of a Christianity that is like that – and remember that atheists rightly pride themselves on their commitment to rationality, logic and evidence in their considerations.  So to tar all of Christianity with the same brush as you tar a number of nasty, warped manifestations of it, is lazy and unhelpful in resolving the issue of how faith, society and politics interact.  And even if – perhaps with some justification – critics might say that the line is blurred between those two Christianities, that doesn’t excuse the inability to distinguish between the two extremes.

Let’s consider a couple of parallels.  For instance, were the British Humanist Association to be found to be engaging in corrupt financial practices, to be operating illegally, or for some of its staff to be found committing crimes using BHA premises or resources, should I assume that atheism is consequently an evil of society?  Of course not – I should just assume that this one organisation is rotten or negligent.

A second parallel can be found in a real and famous example: should the declaration a few years ago that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist” validate the view that the police should be abolished?  Of course not – the problem is the institution, not the cause.

So why can’t arguments like those in Hari’s article not make the same distinction between those institutions, structures and individuals who are arguably (or demonstrably) contrary to equality and justice, and those that aren’t?  Why do criticisms like those in Hari’s article lead to the scattergun conclusion not that the perpetuators of bigotry, privilege, abuse and so on should be opposed, but that the entire faith should be opposed?

To tangle up a movement or cause with the rot within an institution that embodies it, is perhaps easy to do but careless, and the consequences are counter-productive to the atheist movement, because it loses a huge number of potentially very influential allies: those moderate Christians who agree with them.

And this is where I start to get to my point.

There are Christians out there who believe that those responsible for child abuse in the church should be investigated and where guilty prosecuted: no matter how high up the chain of command they are or how infallible they believe themselves to be.

There are Christians who believe that our children must learn in school about religion and faith as influences on human history and society, but who do not believe that school is an appropriate environment for prosletysing or religious instruction.

There are Christians who believe that to reserve parliamentary seats to senior officers of one organisation (the Church of England) within one tradition (Anglicanism) of one denomination (Protestantism) of one religion (Christianity) is an affront to democracy; who believe that the head of state being the head of that same organisation is a disgustingly theocratic anachronism.

There are Christians who believe that to hold prejudice against or deny full equality to homsexuals, women or indeed any person either within or beyond the church is both immoral and Biblically baseless.

There are Christians who believe that churches should not receive public funds to spread their message.

There are Christians who do not believe that in a fair, inclusive democracy religion should be exempt from the law.

There are Christians who believe that their faith is strong enough to face scrutiny, criticism and even insult, and in fact know that the strength of their belief depends on this happening (see this post from a while ago for more on this topic, including a link to a fascinating article by Frank Skinner).

And there are Christians who believe that a secular democracy doesn’t mean one where Christianity is oppressed, but where it is simply disestablished from the machinery of government and public administration.

And they’re not a fluffy, liberal, fringe minority.  They’re normal, mainstream Christians, evangelical in zeal if certainly not in doctrine and dogma.

When the Christian viewpoint heard in the media is frequently that from bigoted and conservative organisations like Christian Voice or CARE, or privileged, antiquated church leadership like that of the Church of England, it frustrates me that there is no pan-denominational organisation out there that is recognised as a mainstream Christian voice and quoted as simultaneously upholding both the Christian message and a belief in secular democracy: an entirely uncontradictory stance.

If such an organisation exists, I’ve not heard about it, and I’d probably throw myself into it.

And yet atheists who call for the secularisation of our democracy rarely seem to acknowledge the existence of such mainstream Christians, let alone seek to form coalition with them.  In Hari’s article, he shouts down a call from the Church of England for certain exemptions from laws concerning gay equality by quoting the criticisms of “Lord Chief Justice Laws, who is a Christian himself”.

Aha, so Hari’s ire isn’t about Christianity, it’s about the actions of some within it…?

…Sadly, no.  He appears not to think for a second that there might be many Christians out there who do not hold the views of the bigoted end of Christian leadership, and he ignores the capacity or potential that such a voice might represent.  It seems that for many (though I am sure not all) atheists such a moderate Christian view simply doesn’t exist (and if my perception is wrong there, I’d love to hear otherwise).

Again – such a voice should organise.

But just imagine.  How much more powerful would the debate be if it wasn’t simply perceived rightly or wrongly as an atheist assault on Christian belief, but instead seen as a popular, diverse movement for free and inclusive democracy versus an out of date and confused establishment?

When it’s only atheists calling for these things, it becomes a war about faith, which misses the point the atheists are trying to make; when atheists and Christians call for them together, it would become about the kind of liberal democracy we want to live in.  And that’s a much more powerful, relevant and productive conversation.

Of course, as something of an aside, there are also Christians out there who believe that these changes would be good not just for society, democracy and government, but would be good for the church and the advancement of the Gospel too.

Hari writes:

As their dusty Churches crumble because nobody wants to go there, the few remaining Christians in Britain will only become more angry and uncomprehending. Let them. We can’t stop this hysterical toy-tossing stop us from turning our country into a secular democracy where everyone has the same rights, and nobody is granted special rights just because they claim their ideas come from an invisible supernatural being.

But far from dying a “slow, whiny death” as Hari puts it in the title of his article, these other Christians that he ignores will not become more angry and uncomprehending – for they, and this includes me, believe that a church that is free of the baggage of establishment and that is unencumbered by the weight of privilege would not crumble.

Instead, it would be a liberated, light-footed and socially radical church focussed purely on the spirit and message of Jesus.

It would be a church in the mould of the early Christian movement as described in the Book of Acts: a church that would focus on the gifts of the spirit because it has no other gifts to rely on.

It would be a church that, like in many parts of the world where Christianity is banned, discouraged or warped, would flourish like unstoppable wildfire.

Which is maybe what some atheists fear and why they refuse to see common ground with such mainstream Christians in the advancement of secular democracy.

Which leaves this question for hardline atheists like Johann Hari and others: which do you most fear – a church like today, seemingly drunk with privilege; or a disestablished Christian movement consistent with the ethos of a secular democracy?

If the answer is the latter or both equally, then that would demonstrate a theophobia unbecoming a good, rational atheist.

If the answer is the former, then let’s talk.

8 thoughts on “Christianity and secular democracy

  1. Indeed. I have to say that as an atheist/pantheist I would agree with much of the above. I think that in this case the opposing sides try to position themselves so far apart that they forget about the moderates (ie most of us). Extreme behaviour of the type Hari mentions is certainly not exclusive to Christians, but the way that its reported in the press you could be forgiven for forgetting that. Their job in everything, though, is to sell papers. And I don’t imagine the headline “christians generally nice people” selling much copy although I think that is the closest I can get to a generalization of Christians. I disagree with organised religion, and indeed even just large organisations, I disagree with many of the creation myths of Christianity but agree strongly with many of the teachings of Jesus, and feel that the actions of those condemned by Hari are contrary to those teachings in a way that forces me to question their genuine beliefs.

  2. I think the argument in reply is that while yes, there are lots of Christians and Christian organisations doing good things, they are doing good things because they are good people, not because they are Christians.

    It’s a reply I sort of almost agree with. I’m sure the people who organise themselves to do good things do so in particular groups because of how they know the other people in the group – through shared faith. But I think they’re probably the sorts of people who would have done something anyway, and joined some other group through some other shared interest. The shared faith is still important though because that’s their focus and that particular group wouldn’t have formed without it.

    What worries me most about the religion at the moment is the growth of faith schools. I don’t think the faith of parents is any basis on which to segregate children.

    Oh, and from my point of view, I’m getting increasingly annoyed at people I meet who seem to think that atheists (a) hate all religion and (b) believe their is definitely no god. My atheism is simply an absence of faith, being unconvinced by any argument presented for the existence of a Greater Power. Scientific explanations, while not yet complete, present me with a more coherent understanding of life and creation. I don’t think that’s adequately covered by the term “agnostic”, as I lean very heavily in one direction.

  3. I know my parents feel very strongly about their faith, and therefore as Catholics want to change the institution, as they understand it is flawed.

    Catholicism specifically did change for the better in their lifetimes with Vatican 2, which more than sounding like a very dull movie, did a lot of work to deal with some very real problems in the church.

    Sadly though the conservatives within the Catholic church have worked very hard to ensure that never happens again. And now seem to be undoing Vatican 2.

    I am still torn when it comes to my faith. It is undeniably there, but my concerns about the institutions make it hard for me to find a way to practice anything I can feel is faith based rather than cultural. I hardly understand it myself so would find it difficult to explain.

    But then I can’t stand to hear arguments that criticise the Christianity in terms of the institutions. So I like your clear break down of why it does not work. And when it comes to just doing good because they are good people, I know plenty of people who actively seek out doing good because they feel they have been called to do so, or who have opportunities through the institutions to do so.

    Anyway my basic thought it – this is really well written. I always like to read your thoughts on this matter.

  4. Thanks for your comments, all.

    Rob I think you’re right, it’s the moderates doing unremarkable (or at least, uncontroversial) things who get ignored – in politics, religion, business, and so on. As you say, it is an uninteresting story for the press.

    But as Phil suggests, the misinterpretation goes both ways, which is why the moderates need to talk and engage about impoving society in a way that limits the extremism and prejudice on both sides.

    Vatican 2, which Sioban refers to, is a classic example of (relative) moderates trying to reclaim the Gospel. I’d love to hear Johann Hari acknowledge the moderates and dissect things a little less bluntly.

  5. “If such an organisation exists, I’ve not heard about it, and I’d probably throw myself into it.”
    It sounds like you have identified another project….

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