Sholto Byrnes

Moral authority

Baroness Warnock, atheist pillar of the liberal establishment, on the need for Christianity in schools and the folly of human rights

Moral authority
Text settings

Baroness Warnock, atheist pillar of the liberal establishment, on the need for Christianity in schools and the folly of human rights

Baroness Warnock has had many battles with religion over the course of her long and distinguished career. In 1984, when the Warnock Report recommended allowing in vitro fertilisation and research on embryos, she was attacked by the chief rabbi, Immanuel Jacobowitz. The Times headline, she recalls when we meet at the Royal Society of Arts, was ‘Warnock destroys morality’. ‘I rather treasured that.’ The next year, Enoch Powell, who expressed ‘revulsion and repugnance’ at the report, introduced the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill into parliament to counteract it. I tell Mary Warnock that I remember Roman Catholic priests urging their congregations to write to their MPs in support of the bill. She nods enthusiastically — 86 and still up for a fight.

The title of her new book is Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics, so you might reasonably expect something ‘pugnacious’ (a word she wishes was not on the dust-jacket blurb). But though she does criticise the Pope — ‘It’s terrifying to have any state, even one as small as the Vatican, governed by religion’ — those who see Warnock as a champion of atheism may be surprised to discover how pro-Christian she is.

‘I don’t think we ought to forget that the official religion of this country is Christianity,’ she says. ‘It’s going against a cohesive tradition if all religious festivals, whether they’re Hindu or Muslim or whatever they are, are given equal precedence in primary schools. This is really a matter of tradition and culture, and there’s no doubt that ours is fundamentally Christian.

‘So I think Christianity ought to have precedence, actually. Obviously the other faiths are more than entitled to conduct funerals and so on according to their own traditions. But if there’s a public statement, like a school holiday or something, it ought to be based on Christianity, not even on Judaism.’

It sounds as though she takes a dim view of some aspects of multiculturalism. ‘One’s attention is often drawn to the timorousness that schools have in talking about Christmas, which is totally absurd,’ she says. ‘Even in schools where the majority of children are Muslim, I still think that because they’re British schools and the Church of England is the established church, the tradition of church seasons ought to be observed.’

It’s rare for anyone — let alone so well-known a pillar of the liberal academic establishment (she has been a headmistress and head of a Cambridge college) — to venture such unequivocally anti-multifaith statements, I say. ‘Yes, exactly. This is the trouble when you try to raise the question of what the function of religion actually is in a country where a large number of people don’t have any understanding of it at all.’

For Mary Warnock, religion is derived from morality, not the other way round. Hence her fear of religious figures declaring they have any special authority on the law — they may be experts on their faiths, but not on morals, she says. Hence also her dismissal of Rowan Williams’s gentle suggestion about finding a place for sharia in the British legal system. As soon as I begin to mention it she shakes her head vehemently, and continues to do so for some time. ‘The law is that which has been passed by parliament and is properly administered by the courts. To suggest there could be a subsidiary law is just silly.’ But the connection she sees between religion and morality also justifies for her a respect and fondness for Anglicanism and Judaism. It’s a respect that what she calls ‘avowed atheists’ (‘once quite a rare, bearded and sandal-wearing breed’, she says) could never countenance. ‘I wouldn’t say there’s no truth in religion,’ she says. ‘I believe very strongly in the possible truths of narrative. As many religions are based on narratives, or stories, they convey and have always conveyed truths.’

If she’s more tolerant of religion than her fans might expect, she’s far less keen than they might imagine on human rights. ‘The word right properly belongs to the law. You can look up whether you have a right or not and find out. That’s why I was terribly hostile to this country signing up to the Charter of Children’s Rights. One of them was that children are supposed to have the right to play. Well, I think there are a lot of small Indian children who do play, but they are equally expected to work and help around the house. It’s a picture of Western middle-class life that just doesn’t apply to everyone.’

But that doesn’t make her a moral relativist. Warnock believes that, at times, we can all agree some things are morally better than others. ‘Any culture, whether it’s St Paul talking or a Muslim husband, anyone who completely overlooks the equality and desirable freedom of women, is, I think we can say, morally more primitive. I know there are lots of Muslim women who say this is not so, but I really truly believe it is an advance to have moved away from the subjection of women.’

Warnock argues that ‘the beginning of morality’ is in commonality. ‘It’s this sense that other people are as important as oneself, that we’re all equally human.’ This surely can’t provide the certainty that religion does, though? ‘Probably not,’ she admits. ‘One could live one’s life thinking that being good is a sucker’s game, like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic.’ But she is very persuaded by the idea David Hume set out in his Treatise of Human Nature — that of sympathy, the ‘feeling or sentiment, as denominates it morally good or evil’. ‘It’s a matter of imagination, which is why it’s so important that children should be brought up to imagine what it’s like to be somebody else.’

Not the least of Baroness Warnock’s battles has been on euthanasia, a cause she championed after the death of her husband, Geoffrey, a former vice chancellor of Oxford, was hastened by morphine. As I get ready to leave, she has the final word on the finality of death. ‘We recognise that in animals, when they’re suffering it’s best to put them out of their misery. It’s only in human beings that we switch.’ And with that, Mary Warnock is off, with more than enough vigour to suggest she’s got at least one more committee or royal commission in her — if anyone wants to ask.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.