There is no faster way to get yourself classed as dim than by admitting that you hold religious belief, especially Christian belief. Anti-Catholicism used to be the anti-Semitism of intellectuals; now Catholics get no special attention. All believing Christians are regarded as stupid, eccentric or malevolent.
Some conservatives will make the case for the social usefulness of Christian values. The conservative asks: if society prospered with these traditions and customs, is it really wise to throw them away without a moment’s hesitation?
That is just what the West is doing, especially the Anglophone West. Britain, Australia and even the God-fearing United States are becoming atheist societies. Britain is more atheist than Australia, which is more atheist than the US, but the trend of radically declining belief is undeniable in all three.
This is historically new. As Nicky Gumbel from Holy Trinity Brompton pointed out to me recently, there have been periods of very low religious practice in Britain — the middle of the 18th century, for example — and other western societies, but never before of wholesale atheist belief (atheism is a faith like any other, only less reasonable).
It is a very eccentric position for the West to adopt. The vast majority of human beings who have ever lived, and the vast majority alive today, believe in God. Christianity is on fire in Asia — it’s the only social force the Chinese Communist party cannot control — and Africa and many parts of the world. It is also the most persecuted religion. From Pakistan to the Middle East, Christians believe so seriously that they accept death rather than disavowal.
The European Union famously declined to make any mention of Europe’s Christian inheritance when it produced a quasi-constitution. Modern liberal opinion is not only hostile to Christianity, it is positively embarrassed about any connection with it. If the EU holds the good parts of European history in contempt, it’s not surprising people are losing faith in the EU.
Two explanations for how we got here predominate — the long story and the short. The long traces an evolution over centuries of disillusionment with faith, from the renewed emphasis on humanity in the Renaissance through philosophical challenges to gospel miracles, the discrediting wars of religion, the disassociation of faith and reason in the Enlightenment and on to our own times of mass affluence and church child abuse scandals.
The other explanation is more straightforward. The West was still widely religious, and religiously observant, until the end of the 1950s. The sexual revolution, the extreme disorientation brought about by the rapid spread of information technology, everything from television to ubiquitous pornography, through to the new conventions of simultaneous abuse and narcissism on social media, mean Christian belief has collapsed in a couple of generations.
The prestige of the West has declined as its belief in Christianity has declined. The world is full of vigorous societies and movements — Chinese and Russian nationalism, Islamism in all its forms, east Asian economic dynamism — which no longer think the West has anything much to say.
I have come to a disconcerting conclusion. The West cannot really survive as the West without a re-energised belief in Christianity. The idea that we can live off Christianity’s moral capital, its ethics and traditions, without believing in it, appeals naturally to conservatives of a certain age. But you cannot inspire the young with a vision which you happily admit arises from beliefs that are fictional and nothing more than long-standing superstition. Christianity is either true, or it’s not much use at all.
That is why I finally decided to write about the truth of Christianity and why, now that I’ve ‘come out’, so to speak, I would encourage other shy Christians to do the same. Owning up to Christian belief is intimidating not only because the culture is so unsympathetic but because you realise how ridiculous it would be to have Christianity judged by your own life. That modesty, however, can also be an excuse for cowardice. And if we leave the defence of Christianity only to the morally qualified, it will be a small platoon.
Dawkins et al assume that faith is irrational. Most British people seem to take it on faith (ironically) that to have faith is stupid. But the way I see it, faith is not the enemy of reason but the basis of reason. First, to be reasonable, I have to have faith in my ability to distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary. Then, for almost everything I know, I need faith in other human beings. I believe I am the son of my late parents. I can’t prove it. It’s a rational belief but not proven. Much of the atheist assault on belief deliberately confuses what it is rational to believe with the much narrower category of what is rationally proven.
Religious belief, of course, is not just the absence of atheism. That belief in God conforms to our intuition, and to the overwhelming history of human experience, is the most powerful evidence for its being true. God is a God of experience. The long human experience of God, and the vast testimony of this, is persuasive.
The culture in the Anglophone West, and much of western Europe, declares this human evidence inadmissible, even as Christianity is partly replaced by every crazy cult you can imagine, from witchcraft to Gaia, with really wacky beliefs mostly given some measure of respect. I saw advertised on the BBC recently a documentary in all seriousness on contemporary witchcraft — exploring the dark side of feminist power, or some such drooling nonsense.
Incidentally, living in London these past few months I found it a bit more anti-God and generally PC even than Australia. At seminars people often approached to tell me they couldn’t say the things I said any longer. That is little consolation to me, however. Australia is generally just a few years behind London in these trends.
Most of the things alleged against Christian belief turn out, on closer inspection, not to be true. For example, religion is not oppressive but liberating. The most radical statement in favour of human dignity in the ancient world comes in the Book of Genesis — human beings are created in the likeness and image of God. When Christianity came along it provided the best deal for women history had offered so far. Each woman, like each man, possessed an immortal soul (though the doctrine of the soul took a little time to develop) and was involved in a personal relationship with the living God.
One of the main reasons Christianity spread so quickly in the years after Christ’s death was its treatment of women and girls. Christian families didn’t kill baby girls, so they had a lot more daughters. As a result they were happier. Christian daughters then converted the pagan men they married.
The Disneyland version of Christian history has it that Jesus was a kindly social worker or at best a political activist — a sort of Jewish Mahatma Gandhi — and the first disciples tried to follow his vague teachings. But then in the 4th century along came Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the state religion and there was nothing but darkness and rule by wicked priests and bishops for a thousand years.
In reality everything we like about western liberalism grew directly and organically from Christianity. Tertullian in 3rd–century Carthage declared: ‘Everyone should be free to worship according to their own convictions.’ Benedict in the 6th century established the first democratic, egalitarian communities — the Benedictine monasteries — which combined hard work, social welfare, profound scholarship and a life of prayer. The church wrestled the concept of sin away from that of crime. Both St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas argued that prostitution should not be illegal, because while morally wrong it was inevitable, and the law should not try to enforce every moral teaching.
Across 2,000 years lots of Christians have done lots of bad things. Formal adherence to Christianity does not absolve anyone of the human condition with all its frailties. But Christianity always calls its followers back to the gospels’ first principles. You can read the gospels, or St Augustine in the 4th century, or Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, or John Wesley or William Wilberforce in the 18th, or Nicky Gumbel today, and recognise that you and they all inhabit the same moral universe, the same culture. That is astonishing.
Liberalism today, in rejecting its Christian roots, is cut off from all limits, all common sense, from a living tradition. It is careening down ever more febrile paths of identity politics, rejecting the Christian universalism from which it sprang. It is harming people in the process. Sociologists have established beyond reasonable doubt that religious belief and practice lead to the greatest human happiness.
There is, however, only one reason that counts for believing in Christianity: it’s true. Come on in, the water’s fine.
Greg Sheridan is the foreign editor of The Australian and author of God Is Good for You. He has been a visiting fellow at King’s College London this year.