When the christian right (for it is always them) complain that they are a persecuted minority, they should be reminded of the past week when David Cameron, Nigel Farage, Jack Straw and God-knows-who-else have all been falling over themselves to tell us all that Britain is a christian country. If you want to feel like a persecuted minority try being a muslim or jew or sikh – or even more so a pagan or an atheist. Because the assumption that you must follow one of the accepted, mainstream religions is, in my experience, more omnipresent than any hypothesised saviour. Of course, if you are an atheist it is impossible to bring your kid up that way. Especially with all the churches latching on to the academy and free schools programmes like so many leeches.
Personally, I was repelled by the hypocrisy of the church from the moment I was sent to Sunday school. Before I even understood what hypocrisy was, I knew that these people looked down on me for not living the same blameless lives as them. I wasn’t sure what blame I carried – but maybe it was something to do with being the working class son of a postman. That hypocrisy and snobbery, the social ostracization from many of my jewish friends once they hit puberty and being of a generally scientific bent, saw me grow up to be an atheist. I’m sure there are plenty of kind, humble and inclusive religious people out there – but there was no evidence of them when and where I was growing up. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of kind people – but none of them defined themselves by their religion.
Having decided I was an atheist it was more than a little disturbing when I had a series of personal experiences that caused me to recognise a spiritual dimension to my life. I do not claim to understand it and remain keen to better investigate it further. To this end I find the reductionist arguments of Dawkins et al no help at all. Devoid of any understanding of humanity, they seem to convolute a metaphor with reality. A somewhat old-fashioned metaphor at that. The mechanistic and homo-centric view of the universe seems at odds with what we’ve learned about the inter-connected nature of existence. Although it fits nicely with the compartmentalized and quantifiable world of capitalism, where the only value that matters is on the bottom line of a balance sheet. Like priests, scientists know that you only get on if you don’t rock the boat.
But accepting a spiritual element to life does not mean accepting religion. I don’t hold with the idea of bearded blokes hanging around on clouds. While not ruling out the idea that I might find out something from reading thousand-year old books, I find it extremely unlikely that any one book holds all the answers – especially books which are re-tellings of earlier stories lent a specific spin by the preachers of the time – or when the contents of such books have been so scrupulously edited by those in authority – or when the translations have been authorised by those in power.
Of course it is this edited and mediated version of religion that the likes of Cameron refer to when they talk about Britain being a christian country. We are not talking about a country where we might all be seekers after truth (be it spiritual, scientific or both). We are talking about a country of certainties; of hierarchies that place the monarch at the head of both church and state. Despite being one of the centres of The Enlightenment, Britain is not now, and never really was, a country where questions are welcome, be they from scientists, priests or anyone else. This is especially true if the questioner has the audacity to challenge the hierarchies and inequalities that are presented as the natural order. Of course, if it is the natural order then it was created by God. Effectively the extent to which Britain is a christian country is the extent to which the wealthy can get away with presenting themselves as ordained by God. It certainly isn’t in its treatment of the poor or the sick. In this “christian country” the likes of Cameron, IDS and Esther McVey can present their viciousness as tough love in the best traditions of the work-houses. They claim to be doing God’s work as people suffer and die – much as the al qaeda terrorist or the serial killer does. Meanwhile they try to claim the compassion, that they so clearly lack, for their own. They try to colonise basic human decency with the flag and the cross just as they did in the good old days of empire. And with a flourish of christian exceptionalism they try to paint themselves as more decent and more deserving than the heathen hordes.
The census shows the extent to which the population of Britain consider themselves to be christian. The falling congregations gathering in crumbling churches show how many actively consider themselves to be christian. Meanwhile, the extent to which our leaders, and those who elect them, adhere to christian values can be judged by their reluctance to judge others and their attitude to the poor, the sick and those in need. As ever with David Cameron, you could comfortably navigate a herd of camels through the gap between rhetoric and reality.