What future for faith?

What is the future of Christianity in this country?

The received narrative of secularism – which is the dominant form of understanding in our media and academies – argues that Christianity is simply the local example of the general form of irrationality known as ‘religion’, and that as the world progresses into a brighter future, so the levels of attachment to religious forms of belief will diminish, until all that is left is a memory to be investigated by historians.

That myth of secular progress is now only argued for by those who are ignorant of the true state of affairs. The idea that we all are marching – or being dragged – towards a faith-free future is now recognised to be itself a form of faith, in the sense of something for which there is no evidence but which provides great emotional relief to those who accept it!

The trouble with this narrative is that the contradictions of atheism are all around us, and the atheist/secular world-view is being comprehensively disproven with the headlines each and every day. We are faced with so many challenges that cannot be engaged with at a shallow level, but only at a level that takes religious belief seriously on its own terms, and which sees the religious impulse in human beings as worthy of respect.

This is why it is so essential for schools to teach religious studies – and, I would argue, if we are to preserve our historic culture, with all its benefits, we need to ensure that those studies are principally of Christianity. Without this we will not know who we are.

So I do not see the future as one that belongs to the atheist/secularist point of view. It lacks the capacity to fully engage human beings in a project of shared endeavour, and this is most seen by the correlation with the rate of reproduction of more atheistic societies. Put simply, the future belongs to those who turn up for it – and it’s the religious who are having children.

So if atheism is not the future, what about Islam? After all, if the future belongs to those who are having children now, aren’t we destined to be a much more Muslim nation in the coming decades? I suspect not.

The trouble with Islam is that it cannot cope with modernity. The principal root of Islamic terrorism today, which is the Saudi-based Salafi or Wahhabi form of Islam, has its roots in a reaction to the development of modernity in the West, to which it set itself in opposition. That opposition is what has led to the terrorist atrocities of today, as the fanatics seek to accomplish by terror what they could not accomplish by reason or invention.

Sadly, this form of Islam is inherently self-destructive, and will simply ensure that the Middle East descends into a vortex of violence from which Islamic culture will find it ever more difficult to emerge. The West is already moving away from its dependence upon oil, which is what has propped up the prosperity of the Muslim world for so long (such as it is) and it is unclear to me that there are the intellectual and mercantile resources available upon which an alternative economy might be made to stand. No, I think it much more likely that Islam will suffer an existential crisis and begin a long slow death after its homelands have been destroyed.

So the future for faith lies almost certainly with a form of Christianity. I have no doubt that Christianity will become the majority world faith some time in the next thirty or forty years – I regard that as already ‘baked in’ due to demography and the rapid growth of churches in Asia, especially China (where there are more committed Christians already than in Western Europe).
Where I am more unclear is what that Christianity might look like in this country, for we are far more steeped in secularist thinking that almost anywhere else in the world (Scandinavia might be the only place that ‘beats’ us).

When Rome was breaking down and starting to decay as a culture, it was a small and marginal sect on the edges of that Empire that ended up providing the religious belief structure for the next several centuries. Nobody at the centre of Rome would have predicted it, and it may well be that something similar happens in Western society over the coming decades.

My suspicion is that the faith of the future will be the one that is most able to help people navigate a highly technological and urban society in such a way that their deepest human needs are still met. This will undoubtedly still involve meaningful human (face to face) contact for that is how we have been made, and if we do not participate in such things then we will suffer from an unfulfilled longing all our lives.

People will still need guidance on how to live their lives, and helped to navigate the emotional storms of human living in a way that enables proper integrity and fulfilment. It is because the Western church in general, and the Church of England in particular, has lost sight of this part of religious faith that we have been pushed to the margins and reduced to emotionalism and navel-gazing. This too will pass.

Of one thing I am certain. In a hundred years time there will still be people worshipping at St Peter and St Paul’s, sharing bread and wine and telling the greatest story ever told – simply because it’s true. We have, after all, been there doing it for 1500 years or so thus far, despite all that the world has thrown at us.

On a more personal note I have been writing this Rector’s Reckoning almost without interruption since March 2010, and like all good things it needs to come to an end, so this is the last one. My aim has always been to make people think, in which task I hope I have had some success. Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Lessons from Cologne cathedral

Did you hear about the young German louts who got in to the sacred shrine in Mecca in Saudi Arabia and went around pulling off the face veils of Muslim women there? No? Me neither. I did, however, hear about what happened at Cologne cathedral, where large groups of immigrants went round systematically groping and assaulting young German women, in at least two cases going so far as raping them. Why is it that we do not hear about the first, but our front pages are full of the second? For the simple reason that we have lost all confidence in the values of our own society. Consequently, those values will in turn be lost.

Consider this thought experiment. There are four tribes leaving close to each other. These four tribes are peaceable, and they trade various products easily. All is well. Now imagine that one of the tribes changes in such a way that they become warlike; they are no longer interested in trade with the neighbouring tribes, instead they simply decide to take up arms and go in to take what it is that they want. The other three tribes face a dilemma. If they do not resist in a warlike fashion, then their tribes will die and be assimilated. If they do resist in a warlike fashion, however, then their culture will be changed, from a culture of peace to a culture of war. As a result of the one tribe changing, all the other tribes will change, and the ‘culture of war’ has become universal. The culture that chose to become warlike has succeeded in changing the other cultures – even if they do not win militarily.

This is now happening in Western Europe. Muslim countries which are much more restrictive in their attitudes about sexuality and the role of women in society are now succeeding in imposing their own cultural values upon the West. Consider the advice that the Mayor of Cologne has given to the young women there – that they are to ‘stick together in groups, don’t get split up, even if you’re in a party mood’ and so on. Soon, no doubt, well meaning political leaders will start arguing that young women need to dress modestly if they are to go outside, then soon after that they will start saying that ‘it is only prudent’ that young women don’t go out without a trusted male relative to look after them. At that point we will have succeeded in importing muslim cultural standards wholesale into our society. Do we really want this to happen? And if we don’t, how will we make sure that it doesn’t happen?

Do you remember the ‘Arab Spring’? There was such a sense of optimism that various regimes in the Middle East would throw out their dictators and a wonderful rainbow unicorn fairy land would emerge. There was one incident in Tahrir square, however, which was deeply disturbing, and was clearly a harbinger of what was to come. The CBS reporter Lara Logan was caught up in a mass sexual assault by dozens of young men. She was rescued by the security services and flown back to the United States where she spent four days in hospital being treated for her injuries. This form of assault has a particular name in Egypt – it is called taharrush gamea. Young men seek the cover of a large crowd, and then pick on the vulnerable with impunity. The German police have now admitted that this is what happened in Cologne.

According to Gibbon, the Western Roman Empire did not fall because it was beaten militarily by the barbarians, but rather because it had first succumbed to a spiritual and moral defeat. That is, those who exercised power on behalf of the Empire no longer believed in a higher purpose to what they were doing. I believe that we are in a similar position – our spiritual roots have been discarded and we have lost ourselves in a search for material gratification, we have ‘sold our inheritance for a mess of pottage’. Yet I do not believe that the culture and civilisation of Europe is doomed to the same fate as the Western Roman Empire. If we are to avoid such a fate, however, we need to remember and renew our own spirituality, and refresh the well-springs of our own culture.

The reason that we do not hear about young German louts acting offensively in Mecca is because entry to the sacred sites there is restricted to those who are Muslim. The Saudi authorities take their religious obligations seriously, and this is both a source of strength and a symptom of strength. By way of contrast, we have turned our great cathedrals into tourist venues, picturesque museums which show how our ancestors lived. The vibrant vitality of our historic culture has now been absorbed into mindless consumerism, the confessional becoming the selfie.

We are facing a challenge to the very foundations of our civilisation. If we are truly to continue on an enlightened and Enlightened path then we need to start taking steps to ensure that those values that we are most committed to are transmitted forward. This is not a matter simply of words, although words are essential, but also of action. We need to embody our highest values and not simply pay lip service to them. Unless we become a virtuous people once again then our values will pass into history and forgetfulness.

A start to this process would be to reclaim control of our own borders, so that we can make sure that we can decide for ourselves whether we wish to endure the delights of taharrush gamea in England. Just one more reason for voting to leave the EU when the time comes.

What shall we do about the ISIS crisis?

isis barbarity

When we are baffled about what we might do with respect to a particular problem, it can be worthwhile first to consider what not to do. Here are some examples.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has called for compulsory registration of all Muslims in the United States. Here is a perfect example of historical ignorance leading to morally repugnant thinking. Anyone who has any historical sense whatsoever will immediately ask – what next? Shall they be required to wear yellow stars sewn into their clothing? This is how the evils of Nazism began to take root in 1930s Germany. The Holocaust did not happen all at once but rather the human rights of Jewish people were progressively dismantled over time. First the Jews were identified, then they were segregated, then they were shipped in cattle trucks to Auschwitz. We cannot defend an open and tolerant society by disregarding all the human rights that make us who we are. Let us trust that Mr Trump quickly sees the error in his thinking and abandons these evil plans.

Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has called for our country to join in with air strikes in Syria. Please remind me: who we are trying to attack at the moment, Mr Cameron? After all, a few years back you were calling for air strikes against the forces of Assad, and supporting what became ISIS. Now we want to support Assad against ISIS? Is that with the Russians or against them? Is that with the Turkish government (presently profiting hugely from the oil sales that come via ISIS) who are our NATO ally or not? Committing our armed forces to an area of conflict, where our past actions bear a significant burden of responsibility for shaping the present fiasco, must surely be based upon extremely clear and convincing reasons, ideally ones which command wide public assent. Without those things a desire to act militarily is just so much knee-jerk posturing.

Earlier this year the Prince of Wales visited Saudi Arabia to pay his personal condolences to the Royal Family following the death of their King. In amongst other matters there was doubtless discussion about the ongoing major arms sales to the Saudi regime. After all, the UK has been selling arms to the Saudis for many years. Some of those sales were even investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, until political pressure forced them to stop. Let’s remember what Saudi Arabia is – it is a feudal monarchy that retains the death penalty for gays and adulterers and from that country came 19 out of the 20 hijackers on 9/11. The particular strain of Islamist nutjobbery which dominates ISIS has clear roots in the Wahhabi ideology which is dominant in Saudi Arabia. This ideology cannot tolerate any compromise with the West – and it is this ideology which is preached in all the mosques financially backed by the Saudis throughout the world, including many in the UK. Perhaps we need to be clearer as to which sorts of ideology help mutual flourishing in our society, and which do not?

If we are to engage constructively with this present crisis we would surely benefit from some clear and honest thinking and conversation about these issues. We face an ideology that is committed to the destruction of our western ways of life. As a minimum, might I propose that we stop financially and militarily supporting that ideology?

The critique of our society which that ideology offers is not entirely without merit. By which I mean that it makes sense to significant numbers of Muslims – for if it did not make any sense, nobody would support it. According to a BBC survey earlier this year, one in four British Muslims “have some sympathy for the motives behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris”. Clearly our society is doing a very poor job at assimilating those who come to this country with different values. This is where we need to concentrate our energies – not in some vainglorious foreign adventuring, or in short-term political posturing, or simple money-grubbing obsequiousness to murderous dictators.

The philosopher Karl Popper, writing in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ (written during the Second World War), argued that for a tolerant culture to exist, it must tolerate all things except for intolerance. He wrote, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” This is the situation that we are presently living in.

It is undoubtedly true that most Muslims are not suicide bombers. Most Muslims – as with most human beings – simply want to live a peaceful and prosperous life within which they can love their families and pursue the goods that God has given them to seek. Yet it is also undoubtedly true that most suicide bombers are Muslims and that, in the last fifteen to twenty years, whenever there has been a terrorist attack, the chances of one of the perpetrators being named Muhammed is pretty high.

We simply cannot tolerate this, for if we do then we shall cease to exist. By ‘we’ I am not referring to our biological existence; rather, I am referring to all the things which make up British life. I like the fact that we live in a country where sexual orientation is no longer a matter for legal investigation and blackmail. I like the fact that we live in a country where my daughters can receive a full education alongside their brothers and are enabled to pursue their own interests. I like the fact that we – still, just – enjoy a culture of free speech and open debate in which the pursuit of truth is allowed to proceed without government interference. If we tolerate the intolerant then all these good things, and many more, will come to an end. That is what I mean by saying that ‘we’ shall cease to exist.

I do not believe that we can engage properly with ISIS and all the other strands of Islamic terrorism without properly rooting ourselves in our own deepest traditions. We cannot succeed militarily without engaging intellectually – and that means spiritually. Without it, military means are pointless and self-defeating. Yet we also cannot engage spiritually unless we recognise our own spiritual blindness, the way in which we have turned away from spiritual truth in favour of materialist and utilitarian ends. We have to assert our values, and we can only do that when we have rediscovered them for ourselves.

Gibbon’s analysis of the decline of the Western Roman Empire remains of value for us today. He argued that it was the moral corruption of Rome that rendered it vulnerable and impotent in the face of new challenges. We do not have to suffer the same fate.

Protecting the alien and choosing life

refugeeWhat shall we do about all the refugees? I want to make three points about the present situation, to provide some background context for how a Christian might understand what is happening.

Firstly, there is some clear biblical guidance to draw upon, which is unanimous in saying that we are to be generous and merciful to those who are without a permanent home. In Scripture the refugees are often called the ‘alien’ – in other words, those who are unknown and unfamiliar in a particular context – and so we get texts like these: “You are not to wrong or oppress an alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22.21); “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deuteronomy 27.19); and “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23.22). Scripture is insistent that the alien is to be treated with justice, that the alien is not to be abused or exploited, but rather to be fed and clothed and treated with compassion. This, then, must guide our immediate response.

So far, so good. What is not so often referenced when discussing the present plight of refugees is all the other law written out in Scripture, which offers something of a balance for that emphasis upon compassion. For alongside the insistence on compassion comes an even stronger insistence upon the necessity not to worship foreign gods, and for those who are alien to come under the same law as the native. So we have texts like this, from Numbers chapter 15: “The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.” This law for the natives is founded in the ten commandments which begins, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” This stark insistence comes with a promise – from Deuteronomy chapter 30, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.” So the second point that I want to make is that, in Biblical terms, compassion for the refugee is set directly alongside the requirement for the refugees to come under the same spiritual and legal framework as the native.

We need to hold both these things in mind today, and not just with respect to the present surge of refugees fleeing from the Middle East. We need to be very clear about what our own values are. Without that, we cannot ensure that anyone who comes to this country as an alien is treated with compassion and justice but also required to accept those values. Some might find this uncomfortable. Isn’t this a form of imperialism? Who are we to say that our values are better than somebody else’s? I find that when I mention such things in polite society it isn’t received very well. I become marked out as some sort of right-wing proto-fascist. After all, who are we to boast of our society, of our values, of our God? For that is what commitment to one set of values over against another – one God over against another – that is what it means: it is to say, we believe that this is better than that.

Well – who are we not to? Is every culture in the world to be accorded dignity and respect except for our own? I believe it is healthy and good to feel proud of our own values. Moreover I believe that it is impossible to be humanly committed to a particular way of life without it, and that it is a form of self-hatred to try to avoid all forms of national pride and celebration. To see those things in other cultures is wonderful – why can we not enjoy the same sense of wonder and celebration at all that makes our own culture distinctive? To do so, however, would mean recognising and honouring the place of our spiritual and religious beliefs within our national life, and the particular debility which we endure is that our dominant narratives are entirely secular, with no place for such things. Our tragedy is that we have blinded ourselves in the belief that it will enable us to see things more clearly.

Which brings me to my third and concluding point. We cannot avoid sharing in the responsibility for the mess in the Middle East. We are by no means the principal source of the difficulties there – my view is that each country is largely responsible for its own destiny, and the fact that the Middle East is such a blighted region culturally and economically is best explained by reference to indigenous factors, not the impact of outside agents. Yet we have intervened militarily and culturally, and we have done so on the basis of our own blindness. The critique given of Western society by groups like ISIS are not entirely without merit, however barbarous their methods. Until we learn to engage seriously with the underlying theological analysis that they draw upon, and recognise that such analysis is shared very widely throughout the world, we will not be able to begin making amends for what we have done wrong, and enabling a greater peace in the Middle East.

Human beings live within worlds of story and meaning, in the same way that fish swim within water. It is the medium within which we live and move and have our being. When those aspects of our lives are deliberately scorned and belittled, in the name of another story and another God – secular technocratic science in our society – then it is as if we have started to pour toxic waste into our own water supply. We cease to function properly, and we move blindly from one mess to another, each one worse than the last. If we are to navigate through these crises effectively, we need to draw once more from the deep wisdom of our own spiritual tradition. “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Of Greeks, Barbarians and smooth ball bearings

barbarianI write this a few days after the resounding ‘Oxi’ from the Greek people to the demands from the Troika. In previous years the EU has been able to overturn the results of referenda when they didn’t go in the direction wanted (as with Ireland and Denmark); something tells me that this won’t be possible this time.

Which means that there is every chance that the Greeks will leave the common currency very soon; that will be a glorious and happy day. The setting up of the Euro as a common currency was a politically driven project. It was argued for as a step towards a single state, with a common fiscal and monetary policy. The fact that a common currency wouldn’t be able to function without a central authority implementing those common policies was pointed out at the time, along with predictions of disaster if a single currency was put in place without such a central authority. Sadly such predictions were ignored, and those making them were ridiculed and marginalised, and now we are where it was reasonable to expect us to be.

There is something about a common currency which is akin to a common language. Where there is a common language then the difficulties in communicating are (mostly) removed, and it is possible for speech to flow freely between different people. In the same way, a common currency removes barriers that hinder or prevent trade between different people. Those who share in the common currency share in a common pattern of life, a common civilisation.

The word ‘barbarian’ comes from Ancient Greek usage. It originally referred to a ‘tribal’ people, who were outside the ‘polites’, civilisation (think of it as ‘polite society’). So the barbarians were those who didn’t speek the Greek language and ‘babbled’. Over time it developed the additional meaning of someone who was simply uncivilised or uneducated, and it therefore became a term of abuse within Athenian politics. The barbarian was the person who didn’t share civilised values, who behaved like a monster – hence our inherited meaning of the word ‘barbarian’ today.

Yet who are the barbarians now? I notice, for example, that the cost of a full ‘bail-out’ for the Greek government is estimated at being some 320 billion Euros (I don’t want to say too much about the origin and responsibility for that debt, only to point out that it was accrued in order to save French and German banks, amongst others). Now compare that sum of 320 bn to the sums given in recent memory to the banking system, in order to preserve their private status. The UK government in September 2008 announced a total funding package of 500 billion pounds in order to preserve the financial industry. The US government’s total outlay on a financial rescue package, not including guarantees to institutions, is well over 5 trillion dollars. Barclays Bank alone, which boasted of not having to be bailed out, in the end received over £550 billion pounds of subsidy.

In other words, the actual cost of simply writing off all of the Greek debt would be small change compared to the enormous sums of money that have been used in recent years to prop up the world financial system. The decision on whether to help the Greek government out of its financial distress is a purely political decision, not a financial one. The decision is all about whether the Greek people are part of ‘us’ – the civilised world deserving of civilised care – or whether they are part of ‘them’ – barbarians, best left to their own devices, stewing in their own juice.

Clearly the mood in Northern Europe is to chastise the Greeks for borrowing profligately and spending recklessly, leaving those Northern Europeans to warm themselves with their own sense of pride in their fiscal rectitude. Of course, if we were thinking about proper fiscal virtue then banks that made reckless loans would be required to meet the costs of those loans themselves when they failed. A proper banker would exercise prudence and caution and assess whether someone who was borrowing money was in fact able to pay it back over time. This did not happen, for the simple reason that the Northern European economies did very nicely, thank you, out of an exchange rate that was much lower than it would otherwise have been, because it included less developed economies like Greece.

Surely it is now obvious to even the most obtuse observer that the EU is a system set up to further the interests of global financial capitalism? That it has very little to do with civilised values, and much more to do with making the world safe for the free flow of money? Rather than talking about barbarians, I keep thinking about ball bearings – those small, weight bearing spheres that need to be lubricated in order to keep the machinery working smoothly. That is what modern capitalism requires, to remove all the obstacles and friction that get in the way of the efficient workings of the market. Get rid of different languages, different currencies, different customs in order that the marginal cost of production can be reduced by the extra fraction of a percentage that maximises share holder value!

The suffering that this is causing to the people of Greece is starting to become clear. The people of Greece, not the bankers of Greece or the politicians of Greece, but the people of Greece are the ones who are going to be losing their jobs, deprived of medicines, worrying about where their food is going to come from. So where is civilisation? Do we really want to stay in such a system, that has such contempt for civilised values? Who are the barbarians now?

It amazes me when I hear progressive friends apologising for the barbarity that is the necessary consequence of the way that the EU has been structured. I only hope that enough people can see the truth about the beast that we also say a resounding ‘oxi’ when we get the opportunity.

The real political earthquake is still to come

Like most of us I was surprised by the outcome of the last general election. I was expecting the Conservatives to have more seats than other parties but not an overall majority; instead, I rather assumed that we were in for a Labour-SNP coalition government for the next five years. The result has been described as a political earthquake but, whilst it was a stunning development, I believe that the real earthquake is still to come.

Notice, first of all, that once the euphoria of victory has subsided, the Conservatives have an extremely small majority, smaller than John Major’s from 1992-1997. That government was significantly hampered in its objectives by having to cope with backbench rebellions, not least over Europe. Anyone remember Major’s expletive-filled denunciations of them? It is very unusual for incumbent governments to win by-elections, so we can expect that majority to shrink over time.

Furthermore, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party has not diminished in strength over the last twenty years or so, rather the opposite. This gives those backbenchers, who are clearly a well organised group, a very significant amount of leverage. Whereas Cameron was able to manipulate the process with respect to the referendum on electoral reform, thus killing off the prospect of proportional representation for another generation, I doubt whether he will be able to do the same with the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. That might be my own hope speaking – I am strongly in favour of our leaving the EU – but there do seem more grounds for such hope at the moment. I can’t see any political compromise that would be acceptable to both those Eurosceptics and the other member governments of the EU. Consequently, Cameron will either have to try and sell a manifestly ‘weak’ package to the British people, or else he will campaign for an ‘out’ vote.

This will be complicated, alongside many other things, by the situation in Scotland. That was where a true political revolution took place, and it will clearly be some time before all the implications of the SNP’s success work themselves through our system. However, just as with the referendum on electoral reform that has settled a question for a generation, so too has the referendum on Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon was very clear that the general election vote was just that, and that it was not a vote for another referendum. That, of course, may change over time, but there seems little appetite for another referendum unless there is a very clear sense that there will be a decisive victory for the independence cause. That would require a major shift in the political landscape.

Which may well come if the EU referendum votes for an exit. The headlines over the coming months and years are unlikely to be favourable to the EU cause. The situation in Greece will come to a head, where Greece is likely to be forced to leave the Euro with the consequence of extreme financial hardship. This will, quite correctly, be blamed on the central EU institutions, which sought to set up a single currency without the necessary political centralisation that would have enabled it to work. Those institutions will therefore work towards putting that increased centralisation into effect – and how that then ties into the British referendum will be fairly clear.

So what happens if Britain as a whole votes to leave the ‘ever closer union’ of the EU, whilst Scotland votes to stay? That would be the ‘major shift in the political landscape’ that would justify another independence referendum in Scotland. Would it, could it take place before the actual withdrawal happened, and if so, would Scotland be allowed to stay in the EU whilst the rest of the United Kingdom departed? Legal advice would suggest not, that instead an independent Scotland would be required to apply for membership – and it would only be able to do that once it had set up all the apparatus of independence for itself, including its own currency.

We are, as a nation and as a society, arriving at a major crossroads in our national story, and it is not yet apparent in which direction we shall soon be travelling. Will we vote to stay within the EU and finally abandon any sense of independence as a nation? Or will we vote to leave the EU, which might, paradoxically, sound the final death knell for the country of Great Britain? Or will ‘events, dear boy, events’ once more render these questions irrelevant?

Questions, questions, questions – of such things is a speculative opinion column made. Yet my mind keeps returning at the moment to the ‘serenity prayer’, which runs like this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. There are very few ways in which we can make a direct difference to these major historical events. There are things that we have direct control over, things that we can influence – both of which are comparatively small – and then there is the vast world over which nothing that we do has a direct impact.

In the end the real political earthquake is internal; as Jesus once put it, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. The arena where we can most effect significant change is in our own soul. If we can overcome all the darkness and evil that lies within each of us, then we will be in a much better position to eliminate all the darkness and evil that lies without. The fundamental political task is an inherently religious one – which is why the greatest religious teacher that ever lived was executed by the state. We live in interesting times.

The meaning of Islamophobia

Courier article

The word Islamophobic is being cast around quite a lot at the moment, and I thought it would be good to spend some time thinking about what it actually means, to see if we might be able to disentangle any truths from underneath the opprobrium.

The first point that I would like to make is about the ‘phobia’, which literally means fear, but which in current discourse principally means a fear that is unreasoned, irrational or rooted in an unacceptable prejudice. So arachnophobia is a fear of spiders, agraphobia is a fear of open spaces, whilst homophobia is not so much a fear of homosexuals as a dislike rooted in a particular view of the world. It seems that the word ‘Islamophobic’ is being used by critics in that latter sense; that is, the claim being made is that those who offer criticisms of Islam are doing so on the basis of a prejudice.

This prejudice is often rather confusingly called a racist prejudice, which is bizarre as Islam is not a race but an ideology, a religious faith – a way of understanding the world and organising personal and social behaviour in the light of that understanding. Which leads to the further point that it is indeed irrational to be afraid of an ideology – one might as well be afraid of theoretical physics or Tudor history – rather, the fear is about what that ideology might lead people to do.

Which means that we need to examine the evidence, to establish whether there are any grounds for the fear that this particular ideology (or, possibly, particular subsets of this ideology) lead people to behave in ways that would make it rational to fear Islam as a whole. Specifically, the fear tends to be a fear of violence specifically plus, more broadly, a fear that an existing culture will be displaced and then replaced by an Islamic culture.

So what might be the relevant evidence to consider?

If we look at the founder of Islam then we can see a remarkable man who was a capable and successful military commander. We can see that Islam was first established and developed, during Mohammed’s life, by military means. If we then look at what happened in the first few hundred years of Islamic life we can see that pattern repeating itself, as the Islamic armies rapidly and successfully expanded throughout the Middle East, developing a single Islamic culture. That culture rapidly displaced and replaced the existing Christian culture in those lands. Through the following centuries we can see continued military conflict in every direction, from Spain to India, as the Islamic culture expanded into new territory. I think this point is generally accepted.

Today, this association with violent conflict continues, primarily in the context of terrorist acts. Most major European cities have now had experience of this – London, Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and so on. This is a worldwide phenomenon, as a simple glance at the headlines can confirm. Those who perpetrate such violent acts explicitly claim that they are doing so as faithful Muslims, and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) whilst perpetrating atrocity. It would seem undeniable that some of those who claim to follow Islam seek to express their devotion through violent, military means. This, then, is the rational ground for a fear of Islam – that there seem to be a great many followers who would wish to cause violent harm to those who are not such.

The question then becomes – is this a true representation of Islam or not? After all, we are assured by our political leadership (and they are all honourable men) that Islam is a religion of peace. We are also assured by some Islamic leaders in this country that those who carry out such atrocities are not faithful Muslims.

What can be done in such a situation? After all, it is very difficult for an outsider to fully understand the heart of an ideology. An outsider might consider that a division of the world between the ‘house of peace’ (dar al Islam – where Islamic ideology is dominant) and the ‘house of war’ (dar al harb – where Islam is in the minority) to be something that tends against peaceful co-existence, whereas an insider might justifiably respond, ‘this simply refers to the spiritual struggle’.

What is not in dispute is the actual behaviour that gives rise to the fear. We can discuss the precise nuances of technical language in academic terms but there comes a point when such debates are rendered pointless by the actions that are taken. What seems indisputable is that there are members of the international community, both nations and individuals, that claim to be Islamic, and that, as a direct consequence of that claim, are carrying out acts of astonishing barbarism.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Is it possible to respond in such a way as to reduce the risk of violence? After all, there is a little merit in the claim that the present violence has been exacerbated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the question needs to be – can Islamic society so police itself that it is able to restrain the vicious extremists from causing chaos? Or is Islamic society so internally compromised that it doesn’t have the resources required to form itself as a peaceful participant in the world community?

I’m not sure that Western society is in a position to give an answer to those latter questions; I’m sure that, as a Christian, and therefore a definite outsider, I am badly placed to give advice. What I do think is that, if our own society is to defend itself against an aggressively violent and nihilist ideology, it cannot do so by becoming aggressively violent and nihilist in turn. That, in truth, would represent the most thorough abandonment of our own values. We need to model a better way, a way that, whilst still doing all that is prudent to protect ourselves in practical and military terms, makes our main aim one of extending hands of friendship and the fostering of community, at both local and international levels. Which is, I believe, what the overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad also desire.

Jesus once said that his followers were required to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. This, I feel, is the right way in which to understand Islamophobia – that there are rational grounds for some fears, but that those fears need always to be placed within a larger human context, such that all individual Muslims are loved as those that bear the image of God. We need to be wise to the very significant dangers that some Muslims pose, whilst also being innocent enough to see them as God sees them. We cannot establish a Christian society with unChristian methods.

Not all religions are the same

Courier article

I write this on the day after the attack by militant Muslims on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, where journalists, cartoonists and police were murdered in cold blood – all for the ‘crime’ of causing offence to the Prophet Muhammed. There is much lamentation at this turn of events and, worse, lots of cringeworthy hand-wringing from the politically correct and morally bankrupt who try to say that the cartoonists brought it on themselves, that perhaps they should have been more polite to the violent fascists. The contradictions in the modern secular West are bearing down upon us with a vengeance.

I have written before in these pages (September of 2012) about the ‘taking of offence’, and how that is understood as being a sin in Christianity, as it is a form of pride; and I have also pointed out in these pages (last November) that Jesus himself was often exceptionally rude, most often to those in positions of power and authority who were exploiting the poor and vulnerable. I have no doubt whatsoever that if Jesus had been gifted with the art of illustrating rather than the art of speaking then he would have portrayed the Pharisees of his day with images that were just as rude as those that the Charlie Hebdo journalists have produced.

After all, who are the people who are trying to rule by fear and intimidation? Of course we can point out all the ways in which the oppressive West acts with injustice in areas of the world, as we blindly allow the worship of Mammon to destroy all that makes for a joyful humanity. The point is, however, that we are able to say those things. The West has within itself the possibility of transformation. It is the very fact that we have a culture of open criticism that makes the culture of the West worth defending, even whilst admitting to its many and diverse sins.

What this campaign of intimidation against the West is trying to do is to force us to renounce our fundamental values, to put a boundary around what we can or cannot say. This is not something that the West can tolerate, on pain of self-dissolution. To be the West simply is to be the place where there is freedom of speech, where there is protection for the giving of offence. After all, where is the merit in allowing freedom of speech where that only applies to pleasant speech? No, it is precisely the speech that is rude and offensive and vulgar and obscene and blasphemous that is the speech that needs to be protected. It is only when that form of speech is protected that the dynamism at the heart of Western culture can flourish – and it is that dynamism which allows for so many of our blessings across so many different spheres.

This campaign of intimidation is not new. It has been in plain view for all astute observers since at least the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, and the origins run very deep in Islamic thought. This is not a campaign being waged by stupid people. On the contrary, the intellectual roots are profound and subtle, and not without merits from which we can learn. However, what we in the West need to decide is whether to confront the intimidation or to submit to it. In other words, do we actually wish to retain a culture which allows for freedom of speech or do we not? Let us not be in any doubt that this is what is at stake; that this battle has been waged for at least a generation; and – let us be very clear – we are losing.

After all, how many newspapers have published the ‘offensive’ cartoons this morning? Why so few? The answer is obvious – it is because they are afraid. They have already accepted the status of dhimmitude, which is the term given to those who are tolerated by Islam. Those who wish to subordinate the West can see that our cultural and political leaders lack the testicular fortitude required to stand up to intimidation, and so they pursue their course of action, confident of their eventual victory. They believe that the tide of history is with them and there is, as yet, very little evidence to say that their perception is wrong. They do not have to do much more – simply set the agenda of terror, and allow demographics to do the rest.

I have two questions following on from the atrocities in Paris. The first is: will the West ever recognise that not all religions are the same and that, in stark contradiction to the accepted narrative, the fruits of democracy and free speech in the West are the direct consequence of the deep action of Christian theology within our culture? The accepted narrative, after all, with its fetishisation of Galileo and Darwin, casts the Christian authorities as those who are hostile to free speech, to intellectual exploration, to the vulgar dynamism which is at one and the same time the most attractive and most alarming feature of our society. This accepted narrative is a travesty of the truth, but, much worse than that, it forms part of the intellectual blindness of our political and cultural elite which in itself prevents a full and effective engagement with the fascists who are attacking us. Unless our elite can recognise that we need to rest our values on a religious foundation then we will inevitably lose ground to those who can recognise that reality.

My second question is for those who wish to apologise for the Islamic faith. Does Islam have within itself the resources required to police the violent terrorists? Those resources are both doctrinal and practical. After all, the list of terrorist atrocities that have been carried out by Muslims over the last thirty years and more is extensive, and the YouTube beheadings carried out by ISIS are simply the latest example of a well-established trend. Those who carry out such barbaric acts are explicitly and avowedly doing so as Muslims, in the name of Muhammed, and they cry out ‘Allahu Akhbar’. It is not enough for other Muslims to say ‘that is not true Islam’. The links between the terrorists and long-established Islamic teaching are not trivial. The links between extremist behaviour and extremist preaching, such as the Wahhabi strand of Islamic thought financially backed and promulgated by the Saudi government, are not minor.

Yes, the situation has many complexities which I have not been able to engage with in this article, yet I do find myself wearying of those who take refuge in moral complexity and equivocation, when by so doing they give clear succour and encouragement to the enemy. We need to recover an awareness of our own religious roots, of the vitality and dynamism of the Christian faith – yes, even the Church of England! Without it, all that we most value in our society will pass away. The fundamental clash is clear. We either kowtow and appease those who wish to police what we are allowed to say, or else, with Jesus, we revel in our rumbunctious rudeness and tell the enemy where to go.

Atheism and the heart of darkness

The recent pictures of the beheading of James Foley are simply the latest exemplars of the brutality that drives the Islamic State. It would appear that the executioner spoke with a British accent which must surely make us ask ourselves – what is it about our contemporary British society which is so awful that it can generate those who wish to travel to a foreign land thousands of miles away in order to take part in systematic savagery?

Let’s move past the trope that it is religion that causes this. In the contemporary secular understanding of the world, it is, of course, purely down to religion that people can be horrible to each other, but such an approach is less and less credible as time goes on. Recent research published in the three volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars’ shows that of the 1,763 wars listed, covering all of human history, some 93% were waged for non-religious reasons. Of the remainder, more than half were driven by muslim expansion. So all the other religions combined have been responsible for less than 3% of all the wars that have ever been waged. The reflex response to the horror of James Foley’s end in our society is to blame religious ignorance – indeed, to insist that to be religious is to be ignorant – but to stay in that mindset is to abandon any hope of either genuine understanding or progress in resolving conflict.

After all, what we see on the small scale with James Foley’s murder is reproduced in societies around the world. This is the heart of darkness, about which Conrad wrote so compellingly, and which Coppola translated to effectively onto the screen. This is ‘the horror, the horror’, the element of human nature that exults in blood and death. There is a human propensity to violence, which surely has a genetic root. After all, if chimpanzee troops can engage in violent savagery against each other, why should human troops be so different – and so far as I am aware, there is no argument to say that chimpanzee violence is rooted in religious beliefs.

What seems more plausible is the notion that in the struggle for resources and reproductive fitness human biology has inherited all the instincts that lead chimpanzees to slaughter each other. When human beings are placed in a situation where there is an easy way to distinguish between one group and another, and when those groups are placed under severe pressure associated with access to scarce resources, then those human beings are highly likely to end up slaughtering each other and playing football with the decapitated heads of the enemy. Put more succcinctly, proximity + diversity + pressure = darkness.

This darkness is a potential of every human heart. Civilisation is that thin crust covering over the darkness and enabling all the higher expressions of humanity, all the things which liberal society values, such as the possibility of peaceful disagreement, respect for human rights and diversity and so on. My concern is that the taproots of civilisation, most particularly the taproots of our civilisation, have been progressively destroyed over the last few centuries, and that it is this which means that we produce young men who wish to go overseas.

After all, this darkness is a central part of the Christian world view – we call it sin, in extreme forms we call it depravity, and we say that this is an inescapable part of our nature. We all sin, we all fall short of the glory of God. If we say that we have no sin then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We have stories that talk about how sin came into the world, and stories that talk about the immediate consequences of that sin – the original murder that followed the original sin. Much more important, we also have tools that enable us to engage with, overcome and redeem that sin – to turn our hearts of darkness into hearts of light. Such tools, principally our language of forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation – all that makes for peace and builds up our common life – these are what enable creative resolutions to human conflict. Without such tools, we are doomed to repeat the biological processes of our primate cousins, with the notable difference that we are apes armed with far more powerful weapons.

The question that I wish to ask the atheist is simply: is there anything in your worldview which enables the overcoming of the heart of darkness? Clearly the existence of the heart of darkness of itself need not trouble an atheist worldview, although it shatters the complacency embedded at the centre of liberal progressivism with which atheism is often associated. My question is about what can enable the heart of darkness to be changed: what are the resources which an atheist perspective brings to the table to enable our community to engage with and overcome the darkness which explicitly proclaims its desire to destroy our civilisation?

To change a human heart requires rather more engagement than a dispassionate understanding of the world can offer. We need to engage with our emotional health, and we need to discuss questions of pride and humiliation, both in ourselves and in other cultures. We need to have an honest conversation about the bleak brokenness of human nature, what the potential triggers for murder lust might be, and what we might be enabled, as a community and society, to do about them.

Although I greatly respect the insights that evolutionary biology can offer, they cannot get us very far on the journey we need to travel. I rather suspect that pondering the story about the political execution of an innocent man on a cross can tell us more about this than all the tomes of the evolutionists put together. It is because such tales have been relegated to the category of ‘fairy stories’ that we have become culturally bankrupt, lacking the capacity to engage creatively with the crises of our time. We will only be able to make progress when the dominant secular narrative accepts a more humble role, and we once again give stories the place of primary honour in the shaping and moulding of our civilisation.

The United States is channelling Daggett

This is from the screenplay of The Dark Knight Rises

INT. DAGGETT’S PENTHOUSE – DAY

Daggett bursts in, furious. Stryver tries to placate him.

DAGGETT
How the hell did Miranda Tate get the inside track on the Wayne board?! Was she meeting with Wayne? Was she sleeping with Wayne?

STRYVER
Not that we know of –

DAGGETT
Clearly you don’t ‘know of’ anything, do you?! Where’s Bane?!

STRYVER
We told him it was urgent –

DAGGETT
Then where is the masked –

BANE (O.S.)
Speak of the devil…
Daggett turns. Bane is already there.

BANE
…and he shall appear.

DAGGETT
What the hell’s going on?

BANE
The plan is proceeding as expected.

DAGGETT
You see me running Wayne Enterprises?! (Moves towards Bane.)
Your stock exchange hit didn’t work, friend. And now you’ve got my construction crews working all hours around the city? How’s that supposed to help my company absorb Wayne’s?

BANE (TO STRYVER)
Leave us.

DAGGETT
You stay right there! I’m in charge!
Bane places a gentle hand on Daggett’s shoulder.

BANE
Do you feel in charge?
Daggett is taken aback. Stryver leaves.

DAGGETT
I’ve paid you a small fortune –

BANE
And that gives you power over me?
Daggett considers the heavy hand on his shoulder. Nervous.

DAGGETT
What is this?

BANE
Your money and infrastructure have been important. Till now.

DAGGETT
What are you?

BANE
Gotham’s reckoning. Come to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on…
Bane gently takes the terrified Daggett’s head in his hands…

DAGGETT
You are true evil…

BANE
I am necessary evil.
Stryver, on the steps outside the living room, flinches.

I think that the United States (by which I mean: the small group of profoundly naive and ignorant in the State Department guiding US policy, not the US as a people – see this) has lost its way in the world, and has placed its trust in Mammon. Whether it is Russia or China or ISIS that plays the part of ‘Gotham’s reckoning’, that moment of truth is closer every day.