David Cameron’s recent claim, in an article in the Church Times, that Britain is a Christian country has caused quite a stir. He has provoked the umbrage of 55 public figures who on Sunday had a brief letter of protest at his remarks published in The Telegraph. In this letter two distinct claims are made, a descriptive one and a normative one. Their descriptive claim is that Britain is not a Christian country, and their normative claim is that it is undesirable for a politician to appeal to religious sentiment or exceptionalise the social contribution of one religion over another. I think there are good reasons for saying that their factual claim is wrong and that their normative claim is correct but not for the reason they suppose.
Most indigenous British people are irreligious, and recent immigration means that many Britons are adherents of religions other than Christianity. However, Britain is a Christian country in more than the ‘narrow constitutional sense’, as the letter claims.
Irreligion, agnosticism, atheism, and even anti-theism, amongst most indigenous Britons do not detract from the notion that Britain is a Christian country. This is because being a ‘Christian’ can be a cultural identity as much as- or rather than- literally believing a set of metaphysical propositions. Even Richard Dawkins, the panjandrum of popular atheism whose signature was notably absent from the letter, described himself in an interview in The Spectator as a ‘cultural Anglican’ who enjoys evensong and believes children should be taught the King James Bible for cultural and literary reasons. Many basically irreligious people share this view: they are cultural Christians in the sense that they would like their children to know bible stories, for them to take part in nativity plays, and learn an important part of their heritage.
Many are apathetic – known by the neat portmanteau ‘apatheism’ - but those who actively object to such cultural markers are a small minority of the irreligious. Moreover, even such anti-theists are in a sense defined by what they reject. The fact that they tend to rail against Christianity, the religion of their childhood or their cultural background, shows its deep influence on their worldview: anti-theism is ranged as a negation in relation to Christianity, rather than a simple absence of it. As the old joke goes, a visitor to Northern Ireland was asked ‘Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?’ and when they said they were an atheist, the question came ‘Yes, but a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?’ As absurd as the second question appears if we consider religion as a set of intellectual propositions, most of us could readily identify whether we are in a cultural sense a ‘Christian atheist’, ‘Jewish atheist’, or ‘Hindu atheist’.
In addition, it might be remarked that in a historical sense, secularism and atheism were born from the Enlightenment, which in turn was born from the rich ferment of Protestant Christianity. It was only this particular tradition that created the conditions in which Nietzsche could proclaim ‘God is dead’. There is no Islamic or Sikh analogue of Nietzsche. There is a ‘Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’, but not a mandir or pagoda of it. It is only in Western, Christian countries – communist dictatorships aside – that secularism and atheism are widespread. In this historical sense, secularists and atheists are indebted to Christianity.
In relation to non-Christian faiths in Britain, it is right – as Cameron did – to acknowledge the contributions they have made. But it is simply unrealistic to suppose that they have had an equal or even remotely equivalent influence on Britain’s culture. Britain is a pluralistic society but within that society Christianity has been, and remains, the mainstay. This recognition does not of itself imply a derogatory attitude towards other religions. Analogously, India is a pluralistic society comprised of many religions, all of which have made contributions to its national culture. But to suppose that any religion has a role in Indian society and culture remotely as important as Hinduism would be churlish.
On the normative question, I agree with the letter’s signatories that politicians should avoid appeals to religion. In Britain’s particular case, I think politicians should avoid it simply on the grounds that they cannot speak of their religious sentiments without appearing – and I suspect, actually being – insincere and nauseatingly self-ingratiating, thereby damaging whatever good name earnest religion might have.
Instead, the letter’s signatories claimed that Cameron’s Church Times article is to be condemned because it ‘fosters alienation and division in our society’. In principle I share their concern since sectarian hatred is rife in many societies, not least in parts of our own United Kingdom such as Northern Ireland and Glasgow. However, simply by looking at the list of the letters’ signatories, and the rest of the public reaction to Cameron’s article, one can see that it has had no such effect. There are no signatures on this letter from outraged imams or rabbis who feel intimidated or excluded by Cameron’s remarks. The Jewish Chronicle has made no complaints about Cameron’s remarks, and the Muslim Council of Britain has openly endorsed them, with its secretary general stating on Monday: ‘No one can deny that Britain remains largely a Christian country with deep historical and structural links with the established Church. The 2011 Census indicates that more than 60% of the English self-identify as Christian. We respect that.’
The signatories of the letter are instead secular academics, journalists and various progressive comedians. They are entitled to object to Cameron’s article on many grounds, but to invoke the spectre of sectarianism - to pre-emptively conjure up offence on other people’s behalf - is both alarmist and patronising.
By Marcus Hunt