Losing our religion

Who knows about classics and the Bible these days?

Jeremy Paxman observes that during his 16 years as host of University Challenge, he has found that contestants "know less and less about classics and the Bible, and more and more about science and computing".

Who can doubt it? But this modern lack of awareness of two fields that were regarded as essential to a good education for so long is little noted -- even though it must count as one of the greatest transformations in our culture in the past half-century.

When Enoch Powell made his infamous "rivers of blood" speech in 1968, he could have assumed that the wider audience would know that the quotation was from Virgil's Aeneid (Mary Beard analyses the reference brilliantly here).

Similarly, Tony Benn could still be certain that a sizeable number of his potential readers would understand why he titled his 2004 memoir Dare to be a Daniel; that they would be aware of the Old Testament prophet of that name, if not necessarily the Salvation Army hymn.

But that would have been the older proportion. For younger browsers, the first Daniel to come to mind would probably be the Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. Benn acknowledges as much in his book: "I often forget that few people now have a biblical background or knowledge of the different Christian traditions. Biblical and religious references that slip into my speeches and articles are not necessarily always understood."

To lament the passing of these corpuses of knowledge out of the realms of popular discourse and their retreat into the citadels of scholars is not to make any comment about levels of religious belief: after all, a classical education was never intended to encourage consultations with oracles or sacrifices to Zeus. It is, instead, to mourn the breaking of a connection with millennia of history, references to which were the common currency of art, literature, music and even conversation.

Is speech the poorer for our no longer being able to assume familiarity with the works of Homer and the precise gradations of office in the Roman senate? Yes, I think so. More serious, though, is that a proper understanding of much of the fine art produced in Europe over the past 2,000 years is simply not possible without knowledge of the Bible. This not just about the subject matter, but about the positioning of people, objects, shadows -- all allusions lost on those unversed in Christianity.

Likewise, the joys of Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem are severely impaired if one does not know why, as the countertenor aria has it, "He was despised, despised and rejected", or what the sounding of the trumpets in the "Dies Irae" -- the Day of Judgement -- are heralding. Questions of rights, philosophy, the existence of evil -- all these matters are frequently approached afresh, which may be a good thing in itself. What is less commendable is the latter-day ignorance about the Christian and classical thinkers who spent long decades pondering and writing about them. There just might be something to be learned there.

I am not suggesting that all need attain the easy expertise in the classics of a Boris Johnson or the ability to cite Old Testament chapter and verse possessed by my late grandfather, a Methodist who frequently spent a good couple of hours debating scripture on the doorstep when Jehovah's Witnesses came to call. But for these vast libraries to slip from the mind within a generation or two, and for no one to call "Stop!" and urge us to consider what we are losing, feels like carelessness of monumental proportions.

Does it really not matter that we no longer know what, until very recently, our ancestors took for granted?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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