A Christian Nation?

Written by AC Grayling on 14 April 2014.

I am sure that David Cameron’s remarks about our being a ‘Christian nation’ were well-intentioned; he wished to draw upon those magnanimous and liberal characteristics that for a time were connoted by the term ‘Christian’, as when people talked of ‘the Christian thing to do’ to mean being tolerant, forgiving and kind. The ‘Christian gentleman’ was an oxymoron, in twice over using epithets that denoted someone courteous and considerate, modest, helpful and generous.

No doubt Mr Cameron also meant to refer to the historical fact that from the early seventh century of the common era, following Augustine’s mission to these shores commencing in the year 597, Christianity was the dominant religious outlook of England, and eventually of the whole British Isles. That hegemony over thought and belief lasted until the eighteenth century, during which a more ambiguous attitude to religious dogma increased among educated minds. England, at least, has remained officially Christian since, having an established church.

But it is of the first importance in a pluralistic society like our own that we should not think that these thoughts are the end of the matter. First, Christianity not only does not have a monopoly on tolerance, kindness, and generosity – these are attitudes of individual human beings of any religion and none – but it has in a bloody and tumultuous past often exhibited the opposite of these characteristics.

Second, ‘being Christian’ was enforced on the residents of the British Isles for many centuries, on pain of punishment up to and including death. Church attendance, the payment of tithes, and adherence to the doctrines of the church, were legal requirements. It is an open question whether enforced belief and practice qualifies as making us a Christian nation. Until the repeal of the Test Act in 1824 only those who were prepared to subscribe the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England were allowed to go to university or hold public office. The Dissenting communities of Britain – in fact comprising the most vigorous, innovative and entrepreneurial of all Britons – were excluded from these fiefdoms of privilege.

A related point is this. In the Christian Church’s early centuries as an accepted and very quickly dominant force in the Roman Empire – that is, from the fourth century CE – much of the effort of the Church Fathers such as Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine was devoted to ‘apologetics,’ which means the explanation and justification of Christian teachings in an attempt to persuade a sceptical world of their truth. By the period of the church’s greatest temporal power and influence, the late middle ages, apologetics was an outdated genre, for by then it was no longer necessary to try persuading people about Christianity: it had become a capital crime not to believe it.

Thirdly, for most of the time since the seventeenth century, Britain and its growing empire were run by graduates of the ancient universities. The main studies at those universities were the classics. That means that the British governing class was brought up on the literature, philosophy and history of classical civilisation – ancient Greece and Rome. This was a fine education – in government, military strategy, ethics, political theory, examples of good and bad rule, management of an empire, social conditions, how to mitigate popular unrest, educational theory, institutions of law, and much besides. Aristotle and Cicero, Homer. Aeschylus and Vergil, the ancient myths and legends, the examples of Horatio and Mucius Scaevola, had as much if not indeed more influence on the minds of the British ruling class than the etiolated beliefs of Christianity, which provide very little in the way of instruction or guidance - beyond a few generalisations about being nice to people – for dealing with the complexities of life.

And it is not surprising that this should be so. Only consider: if you go the New Testament for instruction on how to live, you are told to give away all your possessions, make no plans for the future, reject your family if they disagree with you, and stay celibate if you can (see respectively Matthew 19.21, Matthew 6.25, Matthew 12.48, and 1 Corinthians 7). This is the outlook of people who sincerely believed that the Messiah was going to return next week or next month, anyway very soon. It is an unlivable ethic, and when after several centuries the Second Coming had still not materialised and hope of it had been deferred sine die, more was needed in the way of ethics. Where did it come from? From Greek philosophy – not least from the Stoics – and from the Roman Republican virtues of probity, honour, duty, restraint, respect, friendship and generosity that Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Horace, and countless others wrote about and enjoined ceaselessly. ‘Christian values’ are largely Greek and Roman secular values. So Christianity is not even Christianity.

An associated point reinforces this. The early Christians, like St Paul, were Jews. They believed that when you die, your body sleeps in the grave until the Last Trump, at which points the graves open and all the dead rise to be judged. St Paul said that the faithful will ‘see no corruption’ – that is, their bodies will not rot in the grave. But anyway at the Last Trump when all rise, the faithful will be clothed in ‘new bodies,’ resplendent and fine.

But when Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire (which it very quickly did; it was legalised by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, and made the empire’s official religion by Theodosius IX in 381; within the next few decades all other religions were proscribed) and churches were being built apace, all requiring relics of the martyrs and saints, these latter were found to have rotted (‘seen corruption’) in their graves. This embarrassing problem was quickly got over by importing another useful idea from Greek philosophy: Plato’s doctrine of the immortal soul, which entered Chritianity via the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus and his followers. That is why, starting from several centuries after the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe in such a thing. Once again, Christianity is not Christianity but borrowed Greek philosophy.

Mr Cameron would in fact have been more right to say that ‘we are Greeks and Romans’ and meant that we are defined by the following words – and therefore concepts – of classical Greek and Latin origin: democracy, liberalism, values, history, morality, comedy, tragedy, literature, music, academy, alphabet, memory, politics, ethics, populace, geography, energy, exploration, hegemony, theory, mathematics, science, theatre, medicine, gymnasium, climate, clone, bureaucracy, dialect, analogy, psychology, method, nostalgia, organ, encyclopaedia, education, paradox, empiricism, polemic, rhetoric, dinosaur, telescope, system, school, trophy, type, fantasy, photography…take almost any word denoting political and social institutions, ideas, learning, science and technology, medicine, and culture, and it derives from the language – and therefore the ideas and the history – of ancient Greece and Rome.

Christianity attempted to suppress all this heritage, and for a time succeeded. The Emperor Justinian closed the schools of Athens – the institutions founded by Plato, Aristotle and others – in 529, because they taught ‘pagan’ philosophy (‘philosophy’ then meant everything – science, history and the rest included). There was little learning worth the name in the first seven centuries of Christianity’s dominance, because it had supressed it, leaving only the thin pickings of scripture; later it persecuted those who advanced scientific ideas in conflict with scripture: Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, and Galileo nearly so, for not accepting that the sun goes round the earth as Psalm 104 and Joshua 10.12-13 says it does. If the list of words just given provides us with the terminology that we use to describe ourselves today, then the mighty endeavour of Christianity to obliterate all those words and what they mean makes us anything but a Christian nation.

We who had protest against the description of us as a ‘Christian nation’ had in mind the fact that we are a highly pluralistic nation, with many faiths and none, and that the ‘nones’ are net contributors to our society and culture in major ways that does not deserve having the fact of their principled rejection of religious belief overlooked.

But the remarks above should be further evidence that the description of us as a ‘Christian nation’ is deeply misleading if taken to imply that we are a nation of believers in Christian doctrines and legends. I hope and trust that Mr Cameron intended to mean something different and far better: that we are an open-minded, tolerant, generous, kindly nation. And I hope and trust he is right.