Matthew Parris

Beware – I would say to believers – the patronage of unbelievers

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This goes to print on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. So allow me to pitch in to February’s religion-versus-secularism debate from a new direction. As an unbeliever I wish to complain on behalf of serious religious belief. Faith is being defended by the wrong people, in the wrong way.

‘Faith’ means faith. Doubt is not faith. Faith is not seeking but finding. Real Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jewish believers are being patronised by kindly agnostics who privately believe that the convictions of those they patronise are delusions. A lazy mish-mash of covert agnosticism is being advanced in defence of religion as a social institution. But ‘whatever floats your boat’ is not the wellspring of Judaic belief. The God of the Gap is not the God of Islam. Jesus did not come to earth to offer the muzzy comforts of weekly ritual, church weddings and the rhythm of public holidays.

In an astonishing foray into a disgraceful sort of journalism the Sunday Telegraph now claims to have discovered that Professor Dawkins is descended from slave-owners. You make a fool of yourself, not Dawkins, with this kind of rubbish, so his critics must be blinded by anger. How to explain this?

It was a coincidence between two minor pieces of news that seems to have unleashed the media storm. First, a limited judicial decision ruled that Bideford councillors may not include prayers on their official agenda. Then survey data from the National Secular Society publicised by Richard Dawkins suggested that most declared Christians lack both knowledge of their faith and serious conviction. The surprising burst of energy this released has included interventions from the (Muslim) Chairman of the Conservative party, from Daniel Finkelstein, the Archbishop of York, Giles Coren, the Queen and Eric Pickles. All have expressed alarm at the advance of ‘militant’ secularism.

Only a minority, however, have reaffirmed with any muscularity their belief in God.

Many call themselves unbelievers. My Times colleague Daniel Finkelstein, in a moving column well summarised by its headline ‘It’s easy to mock religion — but then what?’, as good as declares himself a Jewish atheist but goes on to assert the importance of faith and religious ritual in holding people together. Affectionately he recalls fiddling as a small child with the fringes of his father’s prayer-shawl. He thinks it good (as do I) that human beings ceaselessly struggle to find meaning and purpose in life; and deplores the illiberal ‘liberalism’ that seeks to sneer at that.

Our colleague Giles Coren, in wonderfully knockabout vein, lays into Professor Dawkins (‘Nerd King, preening master of self-promotion, slippery old silver fox, “disco don” of the Dark Side, God-slayer and pompous champion of the Atheist Delusion’) and describes himself as ‘a practising Christian Jew’ who attends an Anglican church and likes it. For him, as for so many on the attack against sectarians, it’s enough that this is England and England has an established church, part of the social order, ‘a bit like pubs, really … Anyone who wants to can go in for a drink. But nobody has to get drunk.’

This does capture what a lot of us love about the Church of England. The question is, does it capture what Jesus Christ asks — requires, commands — of His followers?

One of the reasons we can be pretty sure Jesus actually existed is that if He had not, the Church would never have invented Him. He stands so passionately, resolutely and inconveniently against everything an established church stands for. Continuity? Tradition? Christ had nothing to do with stability. He came to break up families, to smash routines, to cast aside the human superstructures, to teach abandonment of earthly concerns and a throwing of ourselves upon God’s mercy.

Jesus came to challenge precisely what today’s unbelieving believers in belief so prize in what they presume to be faith: its supposed ability to ‘cement’ the established order of things, and bind one generation to the next. But the problem with using Christ as a kind of social Evo-Stik, or indeed Allah as conciliator or Jehovah as a proxy for cultural continuity, is that it saps the life force with which their faiths were at first suffused. By trying to span and bind, Anglicanism has become bland. Moderate Islam is in theological retreat. And surely it is at the liberal end of Judaism’s spectrum that faith dilutes. ‘Through thousands of years,’ says Daniel Finkelstein, ‘Judaism has sustained the Jewish people.’ I observe only that their culture is unlikely to have weathered what they’ve endured without an unambiguous belief in a supernaturally ordained destiny. If this fades, my betting would be on a diminishing cultural identification among secular Jews.

Beware (I would say to believers) the patronage of unbelievers. They want your religion as a social institution, filleted of true faith. It is the atheists, who think this God business matters, who are on your side.

As an unbeliever my sympathies are with fundamentalists. They seem to me to represent the source, the roots, the essential energy of their faiths. They go back to basics. To those who truly believe, the implicit message beneath ‘never mind if it’s true, religion is good for people’ is insulting. To those who really believe, it is because and only because what they believe is true, that it is good. I find David Cameron’s remark that his faith, ‘like Magic FM in the Chilterns, tends to fade in and out’, baffling. If a faith is true it must have the most profound consequences for a man and for mankind. If I seriously suspected a faith might be true, I would devote the rest of my life to finding out.

As I get older the sharpness of my faculties begins to dull. But what I will not do is sink into a mellow blur of acceptance of the things I railed against in my youth. ‘Familiar’ be damned. ‘Comforting’ be damned. ‘Useful’ be damned. Is it true? — that is the question. It was the question when I was 12 and the question when I was 22. Forty years later it is still the question. It is the only question.

Written byMatthew Parris

Matthew Parris is a columnist for The Spectator and The Times.

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