Even Dawkins does Christmas

It's the cultural prestige of religion that gives it access to power and buttresses its claim to spe

In his leader column for the New Statesman, Richard Dawkins makes a sharp distinction between religion as a cultural legacy -- as expressed in such cosy familiarities as Christmas carols and the King James Bible -- and religion as a living, and he would say pernicious, social force. The one, he thinks, is both traditional and "freely embraced by individuals". The other exercises "a real domination" over culture and politics.

Government, he maintains, "forces religion on society, in ways whose very familiarity disarms us" -- by which he means such things as bishops in Lords, the Charity Commission's assumption that religion is in the public interest, above all the inexorable spread of faith schools.

I can see where he's coming from. Indeed, I've written here before about the anomaly of a growing "faith school" sector in an increasingly non-believing society. And, like him, I can relate strongly to the cultural aspects of traditional Christianity without believing a word of it. Nevertheless, I think he's missing something significant.

The cultural prestige of religion -- in this country, this means especially Anglican Christianity -- is what gives it the access to power, what buttresses its claim to speak on behalf of morality, what causes politicians to want to embrace it in the first place. The bishops' seats in the House of Lords, which would appear to be safe from proposed reforms to the composition of the upper house, are a legacy of history just as Handel's Messiah or school nativity plays are legacies of history.

The Christian bits of Christmas are no less Christian because they are cosy and familiar. As soon as you wish someone a "Merry Christmas" you are inviting anyone from a doorstepping evangelist to a Thought for the Day contributor to remind you that the "true meaning of Christmas" centres around the birth, allegedly in Bethlehem, from an inviolate virgin of the Saviour of Mankind.

Dawkins wants to have his Christmas pudding and eat it, I'm afraid. He complains about the United States, where the constitution separates church and state, that "rival religions" have long fostered a "tiresome" avoidance of the C word (except, that is, in Bing Crosby's "secular carol" White Christmas, which the good professor rightly abominates).

But the US is also a country in which no presidential candidate could ever admit to being an atheist or even agnostic, where the equation of religious belief with personal morality is accepted almost without question, where (according to a recent study) atheists are considered less trustworthy than rapists.

The US might not have state-funded faith schools or bishops sitting ex officio in Congress, but religion is if anything even more deeply interwoven with culture over there than it is in Britain with its established church.

American politicians no less than British ones "believe in belief" -- nor is there the embarrassment factor that led Alastair Campbell to instruct Tony Blair not to "do God". If there's a difference (and of course there is) it's that while American politicians appear to believe in belief itself -- their own and other people's -- British politicians tend to confine themselves to stressing the social utility of religion.

Dawkins laments the "depressingly large number of intelligent and educated people", themselves perhaps non-believers, who "still vaguely presume without thinking about it that religious faith is somehow good for other people, good for society, good for public order, good for instilling morals, good for the common people."

There's nothing novel about such an assumption, of course. Politicians have been thinking along these lines since the days of the Roman Empire. As Edward Gibbon described the situation then, "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful."

Is the assumption in any way justified?

Dawkins is right to point out that religion makes a poor philosophical foundation for morality. Fear of eternal damnation, as he says, is a "contemptibly immoral motive for being moral". And in fact research suggests little difference between the basic moral intuitions of religious and non-religious people. (This is good news for believers, by the way, as it suggests that their moral behaviour is not, after all, the result of their fear of divine displeasure, but comes rather from the innate ethical sense they share with most normal human beings.)

Nevertheless, and even allowing for the peculiarities of particular creeds, religious teaching has tended to provide a good approximation of proper ethical reasoning -- good enough for the relationship between religion and morality to have become well-established over many centuries. Religion is not morality, but if its teachings had strayed too far from innate human moral sensibilities it's unlikely that it would have survived.

What we're seeing today, in fact, in issues such as gay rights or the role of women, is religion engaged in a game of moral catch-up with secular ethics. Only those that successfully adapt will have a secure long-term future. The process might almost be called Darwinian.

Equally Darwinian, of course, is the way in which religions have managed to inveigle themselves into people's ethnic and social identities in so obstinate a way that even as anti-religious a campaigner as Richard Dawkins, a man who believes fervently in disbelief, feels irrationally impelled to stand up and sing "O come all ye faithful".

Even he, it seems, has been infected by some version of the God meme.

Richard Dawkins guest-edit of New Statesman

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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.